Jerry Nelson reflects on his life and the summer arts festival


Summer arts festivals have been the bane of my existence for over four decades.

Do not mistake yourself. I love art as much as the next guy, especially if the next guy’s definition of “art” includes the masterpiece that is often associated with the words “Kilroy was here”.

I didn’t have much use for art when I grew up on our little dairy farm in South Dakota. Mom and my teachers tried to get me interested in the fine art world, but I had poor hand-eye coordination and could never color inside the lines.

Three-dimensional artistic expression was more my speed, but even then I was a miserable failure. No one will ever remember or fully appreciate the artistry behind the way I sculpted a majestic peak every time I filled a five gallon bucket with silage. Silage which was then given to our insipidly ungrateful Holsteins.

The art world, I decided, was not for me. This decision lasted until I had a girlfriend in the summer when I was nineteen.

The girlfriend loved all the arts, including plays, sculptures and paintings. But she also had redeeming qualities, so I stuck with her.

The girlfriend lived on a farm with her mother, irascible stepfather, and a convoluted menagerie of half-brothers, half-brothers and half-brothers. His stepfather, a former Air Force colonel, didn’t seem to like me.

For example, one day he was working on his tractor while I was hanging out and watching. Annoyed by my furious sight, he barked commandingly: “The fan blades on this tractor are dirty!” Go to the Storage Shed and get me a box of Accessory Cleaner! “

Eager to impress the father-in-law, I immediately trotted to the shed. I performed an exhaustive search, but could not locate any containers labeled “prop wash”.

When I reported this to the stepfather, he growled, “Whatever! What I need is a left-handed adjustable wrench. Think you can handle this?

I returned from a subsequent search of his store with more sad news.

“I couldn’t find a left-handed adjustable wrench,” I reported. “All you’ve got is this right-hander.”

“This will have to do!” growled the father-in-law. “Rejected! “

I saw the slightest hint of a smile as he turned the key over and put it in his left hand.

That evening, while I was having dinner with the girlfriend and her large family, her stepfather said to me, “This genius here spent half an hour looking for washing accessories!” The room burst into laughter. It occurred to me that I had been had by a professional leg pull artist.

The girlfriend mentioned that she would like to attend a local art festival the next day. I was about to say, “Count me in! And share my bad opinion on art when the stepdad looked at me in a way that said, “If you don’t do this for my stepdaughter, I’ll tell everyone about the adjustable wrench.” !

I obediently agreed to take the girlfriend to the arts festival.

The Brookings Summer Arts Festival is always held at Pioneer Park on the second weekend in July. The second weekend in July always has the kind of summer heat that can turn your heinie crack into a miniature swamp.

The girlfriend and I entered Pioneer Park. There were maybe twenty stalls set up in a small part of the park. Without a stop at the lemonade stand, I could have seen the entire arts festival in minutes. I was seriously disappointed.

But the girlfriend found some friends to chat with, so I reread the festival. I watched, delighted, a blacksmith hammering trinkets on his anvil. I finally bought a ring that he had forged from a horseshoe nail. Later that day, I gave the ring to the girlfriend. The ring may have represented the circle of our relationship, but it was actually the cheapest thing I could find.

Flash forward a decade. The girlfriend and her intimidating stepfather have long since disappeared from the scene. I am married and my wife and I have two young sons.

The second weekend in July my wife mentions that we should attend the arts festival. I agree, thinking it sucks.

I was wrong. The arts festival had grown to be an event about the size of Woodstock. I enjoyed the live music, the food and the strawberry smoothies. There was also a bunch of artistic stuff.

Now that the pandemic is fading in the rearview mirror, I’m ready to attend the Summer Arts Festival again. This despite the very real risk that my heinie crack will be officially listed as a waterway.

Jerry Nelson’s book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and in bookstores nationwide.


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