The insistent chatter of cicadas is a signal of summer's end.
As much as the shortening of days and turning of leaves, the music of nature lets us know that the seasons are changing. Crickets chirp urgently in the grass and geese call as they wing to their wintering sites. And at the county fair, the tinkle of the midway, the bleats of shorn sheep, the lowing of clean cattle and the roar of the grandstand are sounds that presage autumn.
People started assembling a good hour before service began for the Ruritan chicken barbecue on the fairgrounds. At the instant a worker took his place at the cash box, a line was formed and snaked through the building and out the door. It never got any shorter until the food was all gone.
Volunteers started serving at 5 p.m., but started cooking at noon, when 600 chicken halves went on the grill to be basted with a sauce for which the ingredients remain a secret. The same baste went over roasts of beef, which was also served along with secretly sauced cole slaw, baked beans cooked with bacon, sweet corn, applesauce, pickles and a soft white roll. You could take your pick of lemonade or sweet tea to wash it down. A child's portion set you back only $6 and was more than enough.
A battalion of women tied aprons around their waists and set steaming pans under tinfoil tents to await the crowd. In the kitchen, 86-year-old Grace Edmonds sat on a stool, her work completed. It's her recipe that sauces the slaw, and she also knows the secret to the chicken baste. But she won't tell.
All six burners on the Vulcan stove were engaged, as were its griddle top and two large ovens.
"We use all of it," said Denise Garrett, a 30-year veteran of county-fair chicken dinners, and Edmonds' niece. "Right now, we're packed to the gills."
Every seat in the dining hall was taken. As one was vacated, it was instantly reoccupied. In truly democratic fashion, there weren't any "good" tables or reservations. A chicken dinner is strictly first-come, first-served, with every stripe of the economic rainbow seated cheek-by-jowl.
"How's everyone out at the home-place," asked one good ol' boy of another as they took seats and dug into their meals. They discussed rain and the length of ears on this year's corn crop.
Meanwhile, wearing her crown, the fair's queen accepted a plate as behind her in madras shorts, the local bank president waited his turn.
From dinner, we went to the grandstand to hear Sunshine and the Rainmakers, a sweetly harmonious trio of women, backed by an acoustic guitar and bass. As they got ready, a second set of bleachers at the perimeter of the fairground filled with folks eager for the evening's main event, the truck and tractor pull. Parked around a dirt lot were muscular vehicles with names like the Iron Mule and Virginia Redneck, as well as enormous farm vehicles with engines too brawny to simply to power a plow.
The revving of the engines was an overwhelming counterpoint to the women's singing. And then the Rainmakers' music was punctuated by snippets of someone singing the National Anthem into a microphone.
One by one, the trucks and tractors growled their way to the starting line, to pull ridiculously heavy loads in competition. Then they'd gun it. More and more, the Rainmakers' fought to hear each other, and there was nothing for their audience to do but shake their heads and laugh. Finally the Rainmakers gave up.
But the truck and tractor pull is a rite of late summer, and its engine noise is another annual melody. Once the machines are put away for the season, summer is really over, and winter is surely on its way.