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

February 2020

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Trumpism After Trump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.

I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.

Article
The Cancer Chair·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

Article
“My Gang Is Jesus”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Demétrio Martins was ready to preach, he pushed a joystick that angled the seat of his wheelchair forward, slowly lifting him to a standing position. Restraints held his body upright. His atrophied right arm lay on an armrest, and with his left hand, he put a microphone to his lips. “Proverbs, chapter fourteen, verse twelve,” he said. “ ‘There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is . . .’ ”

The congregation finished: “ ‘Death.’ ”

The Assembly of God True Grapevine was little more than a fluorescent-lit room wedged between a bar and an empty lot in Jacaré, a poor neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro’s north side. A few dozen people sat in the rows of plastic lawn chairs that served as pews, while shuddering wall fans circulated hot air. The congregation was largely female; of the few men in attendance, most wore collared shirts and old leather shoes. Now and then, Martins veered from Portuguese into celestial tongues. People rose from their seats, thrust their hands into the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

Article
The Birds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 7, 2016, a drone departed from an Amazon warehouse in the United Kingdom, ascended to an altitude of four hundred feet, and flew to a nearby farm. There it glided down to the front lawn and released from its clutches a small box containing an Amazon streaming device and a bag of popcorn. This was the first successful flight of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery program. If instituted as a regular service, it would slash the costs of “last-mile delivery,” the shortest and most expensive leg of a package’s journey from warehouse to doorstep. Drones don’t get into fender benders, don’t hit rush-hour traffic, and don’t need humans to accompany them, all of which, Amazon says, could enable it to offer thirty-minute delivery for up to 90 percent of domestic shipments while also reducing carbon emissions. After years of testing, Amazon wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration last summer to ask for permission to conduct limited commercial deliveries with its drones, attaching this diagram to show how the system would work. (Amazon insisted that we note that the diagram is not to scale.) Amazon is not the only company working toward such an automated future—­UPS, FedEx, Uber, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have similar programs—­but its plans offer the most detailed vision of what seems to be an impending reality, one in which parce­l-toting drones are a constant presence in the sky, doing much more than just delivering popcorn.

Article
The Skinning Tree·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Every year in Lusk, Wyoming, during the second week of July, locals gather to reenact a day in 1849 when members of a nearby band of Sioux are said to have skinned a white man alive. None of the actors are Native American. The white participants dress up like Indians and redden their skin with body paint made from iron ore.

The town prepares all year, and the performance, The Legend of Rawhide, has a cast and crew of hundreds, almost all local volunteers, including elementary school children. There are six generations of Rawhide actors in one family; three or four generations seems to be the average. The show is performed twice, on Friday and Saturday night.

The plot is based on an event that, as local legend has it, occurred fifteen miles south of Lusk, in Rawhide Buttes. It goes like this: Clyde Pickett is traveling with a wagon train to California. He tells the other Pioneers: “The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.” Clyde loves Kate Farley, and to impress her, he shoots the first Indian he sees, who happens to be an Indian Princess. The Indians approach the Pioneers and ask that the murderer give himself up. Clyde won’t admit he did it. The Indians attack the wagon train and, eventually, Clyde surrenders. The Indians tie Clyde to the Skinning Tree and flay him alive. Later, Kate retrieves her dead lover’s body and the wagon train continues west.

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.

In response to a major volcanic eruption, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines vowed he would “eat that ashfall. I’m even going to pee on Taal, that goddamned volcano.”

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today