Personal and Otherwise — August 21, 2013, 8:00 am

America by the Yard

From Baghdad to the Menard County Fair

For half a decade, I’ve been away from the United States, following my wife, a foreign correspondent, across the Middle East. In Baghdad, in Beirut, we saw some of the worst things people can do to one another. But as Americans, it was impossible not to be preoccupied with the various ways our own country seemed from abroad to be in decline: obesity in the schools, gun violence in Chicago, financial trouble in Detroit, soldiers returning to homelessness and suicide. We knew that eventually these problems would be ours, too.

Then it was summer, and I was living temporarily with my daughter in the small town of Petersburg, Illinois, where my mother had moved after my dad died, where my wife’s parents had lived for twenty years, and where with no lack of anxiety I waited for my wife to quit the war so we could start a new life back in the States. In all likelihood, her next assignment would find us in a big city on the coast, but until a decision was upon us, anything seemed possible.

One day, killing time, I was sitting in my mom’s cluttered living room, staring out the window and wondering, when I turned to spot a newsprint booklet. I picked it up and saw inside a suggestion, perhaps, that all in America wasn’t coming apart or getting worse. It was a guide to the competitions of the 158th Menard County Fair. On display would be champion Christmas pillows, meat goats, oats, ponytails (braided), ponytails (unbraided), and shelled corn. No drone strikes, no wiretapping, no meth.

“Mom, would you accompany me to the county fair?” I asked.

Slowly lowering her magazine, she looked at me with surprise. It’s not like the fair has done much to recommend itself. My in-laws, who have lived in Illinois forever, don’t enjoy going anymore. And in my own life, there was David Foster Wallace’s 1994 dispatch from the state fair, which told of fattening food, belching masses, head-crushing carnival rides, leering carnies, and squealing animals cooped up in pens. Yet paging through the County Fair guide, I saw a different kind of event, and an America I maybe wanted to be a part of again.

“Of course I’ll go,” she said. “Let’s do this.”

More than a hundred of these fairs take place across Illinois each summer, their competitions leading up to the grand prizes awarded at the Illinois State Fair, which takes place in August, in Springfield. Historically, the smaller fairs were a place for locals to gather for entertainment and education, and to compete in talent and livestock competitions. These days they’re as likely to be about beer and bands. At this year’s Illinois State Fair, you could rock out to Journey, REO Speedwagon, or Styx, or pay relatively big bucks to see John Mayer, Toby Keith, or Ke$ha.

Driving past the corn and trees that Saturday morning, we pulled into a wide-open field, and parked on the Menard County Fairgrounds. We stood on either side of her sensible sedan, applying sunscreen and regarding the very brief midway. After a week of near-hundred-degree days, the ground was cracked and two of the six or so rides revolved slowly in the heat, men with big beards and oiled hands making final adjustments and recalibrating the machines after what I suppose was a busy Friday night. The whole affair — a dirt track, the rides, a half-dozen exhibition halls, and five livestock barns — could probably have fit into a typical Toby Keith VIP section. 

“Hurry it up, ma,” I said, psyched.

We’d decided to begin our day watching livestock be judged. En route, we passed a barren hall where Menard County Republicans stood in booths, preparing to shake hands. Having married into this part of the world, I’d come to know some of the candidates for local office, including a county-board nominee who’d played guitar at my wedding reception. Among the closest friends of the family was the state representative, a giant man in his mid-sixties. He hadn’t yet arrived, but his RV was parked beside the hall. At one family barbecue, following a year without beer or camaraderie in Riyadh — and a few weeks after I’d waited forever at a Saudi immigration office to secure my newborn daughter’s exit visa, watching as Afghan guest workers with expired papers marched in leg chains across a dusty yard — I’d tried to hug the big man. To his credit, he didn’t hit me.

Perhaps he knew or at least guessed these factors: that it’s hard to live abroad; that when you’re over there you’re an outsider, a witness, both vulnerable and somehow exempt. That your conception of yourself becomes skewed, and you alternately idealize and avoid the memory of what you’ve left behind, often unable to imagine the version to which you’ll eventually return. When I’d come home for short visits, I’d find myself toggling uncomfortably from alien to local. In Illinois, especially, I was either hyperjudgmental or puppy-dog excited, hugging any man who’d hand me a beer, or plotzing when I encountered a barn labeled BEEF.

Inside the barn, the sweet stink of dung prevailed. Boys and girls skittered about, preparing animals for the Junior Black Angus cattle competition. Family members sat in folding chairs, coolers at the ready, or stood around fawning over potential champions as though they were human babies. In one corner, a father and son with matching mullets took turns blow-drying the silky black coat of a fluffy heifer. I envied their hard work and good form. Elsewhere, a pretty young girl led her massive charge to a stanchion. I couldn’t believe how wide the animal was, and how magnificent its black coat. Watching the girl scratch the cow’s tail and pat its flank with such confidence and contentment, I thought of my well-traveled daughter, who’d been born in Saudi Arabia, took her first steps in Turkey while her mother was in Iraq, and rode her first bike in Beirut. She hadn’t seemed stressed by all of this movement; perhaps she’d be equally happy with some time petting a cow?

A Perfect Cow (October 1878)

My mom and I found seats in a rickety wooden grandstand under the barn, taking our spot among rows filled with parents and grandparents. I felt uneasy, knowing we didn’t actually belong, but then an ancient married couple sitting in a customized golf cart nearby smiled warmly at us, pointing at a man walking into the judging ring. He wore a University of Illinois T-shirt — some of the judges were from the local agricultural college — and he circled the participants and their animals, pausing occasionally to push his shaggy brown hair out of his eyes. While he inspected hooves, haunches, and hair, boys and girls stood next to their animals, sweating through their starched shirts and feigning an adult bearing, bending now and then to move a massive thigh or yank at a moist nose.

“This is a heifer I appreciate for her structural soundness,” the announcer said finally, indicating the winner. “She’s a female that has a lot of femininity — what I like about her is she just looks like a cow.”

So engrossed were we, we missed the fishing and Little Miss Farmer contests and the diaper-design hour. But there were plenty of smaller prizes left to be awarded — dozens of contested moments yet to come, everyone on good behavior, never a doubt they’d agree to recognize who or what was best. Feeling a little drunk on the poetry of cattle calling, we headed back to the midway.

After years in a corner of the world where contests are being adjudicated with blood, I walked down the dusty road in Illinois, filled with admiration for all this civility and wholesomeness. Outside the culinary exhibition, housed in a hangar-sized structure with peeling white paint and a cockeyed roof, three generations of women arrived to unlock the doors for us. “We’re gonna open it up,” said a silver-haired lady in a flowered blouse. “Don’t you worry.” With calm and pride, she gestured at two long glass cases, filled with plate after plate of cookies, breads, jellies, and jams. Some of the plates were labeled with small tags that read “Men only.” Their muffins didn’t look bad at all.

Recommended: Edward Hoagland’s “Americana by the Acre” (October 1970), about the Orleans County Fair in Vermont.

We spent a few more hours browsing the best oats, top corn, and superlative wheat. I figured that I would probably never live in Petersburg, but that if I did, nothing would stop me from entering my own giant cucumber in the fair. I checked my watch and realized that in another hour we could see the tractor pull. But my daughter was home with my wife’s parents, and there was dinner to prepare. We heard a loud clank. Peeping around a corner, I found two old men in suspenders making ice cream. They were icing down a wooden churn, which was being powered by a motor up on blocks. “It’s only one and a half horse,” one of the men told me, patting the engine. “Sometimes all you need is just a little.”

“You find what you needed?” my mom asked, watching me.

I squinted in the sun, unsure.

“Let’s have some ice cream,” I said.

The sun pounded down on a fair in the middle of America, and we took a seat on a bench in the shade. We passed the melting sweet thing back and forth, and finished just in time.

Share
Single Page
has contributed essays, fiction, and criticism to the New York Times, GQ, The New Republic, and The Paris Review. His first book will be published by Dzanc in May 2014.

More from Nathan Deuel:

Perspective September 3, 2014, 8:00 am

On Maleness and Deep Springs College

An alumnus reflects on the possibility of female students at Deep Springs

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2019

The Wood Chipper

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Common Ground

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love and Acid

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Black Axe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Common Ground·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.

Post
.TV·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A documentary about climate change, domain names, and capital

Article
The Black Axe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

Article
Who Is She?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

Article
Murder Italian Style·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A federal judge in South Carolina ruled in favor of personal-injury lawyer George Sink Sr., who had sued his son, George Sink Jr., for using his own name at his competing law firm.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today