Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Join Us At The Picnic

But what the heck, you're welcome,
Join us at the picnic.
You can eat your fill
Of all the food you bring yourself.
You really ought to give Iowa a try.
Provided you are contrary...

--Meredith Willson

Snaking our way through Indianola
(By this time, we had parked and were walking)
Taken 9/16/07 in Indianola Iowa

Each year, the Des Moines Register sponsors a bike ride across Iowa designed to prove that the state is not flat. Having driven a little more than half way across the state myself, north to south on US 169, I can vouch for the fact that there are definitely hills in this state. Sitting on the front porch of the Raccoon River Ranch, the horizon is quite close due to the tree covered hills across the river. Because of my work with BikeCentennial years ago, I was familiar with RAGBRAI (the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa). In fact, RAGBRAI and all the trouble in River City was all I knew about Iowa before crossing the state line. Well, that and the importance this state has in the early stages of presidential election campaigns.

Iowa is the smallest state west of the Mississippi. With just shy of three million Iowa residents, there are twenty-nine states that have a larger population. Yet every four years, Iowa becomes the most important state in the country for those wanting to be President. As it turns out, I’m not the only person visiting the state this week. Sunday I had the chance to rub elbows with six different presidential wannabees.

For the past thirty years, Senator Tom Harkin (D, Iowa) has hosted a fund-raiser called “The Steak Fry.” In 2006, Barak Obama attended the Steak Fry and had such a positive response that he decided to run for President. The 2007 Steak Fry was held on Sunday, September 16th, and I attended it. It was the first major political gathering I’ve attended since the 1964 Republican Convention in San Francisco. Yes, I’m that old.

Six presidential candidates attended the Steak Fry this year: Obama was back, with a reported 3,000 supporters attending with him; New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson; former North Carolina Senator and Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards; and Senators Joe Biden (Delaware), Chris Dodd (Connecticut), and Hillary Clinton (New York). A reported fifteen thousand tickets were sold to the event at $30.00 each, and the crowd was estimated at over twelve thousand. I couldn’t say, I didn’t count either the people or the money.

A few (very few) of the political signs we saw
Taken 9/16/07 in Indianola Iowa

My host at the Raccoon River Resort, Harold Wells, is heavily involved in local Democratic Party politics and is a part of STAR*Pac dedicated to stopping the arms race. Because Harold was expecting to staff the STAR*Pac table, we left the river early in the morning, stopping briefly in Des Moines.

The event is held on a field set aside for hot air balloons just east of the town of Indianola, Iowa. Indianola has fourteen thousand residents and is located sixteen miles southeast of Des Moines. The Steak Fry was scheduled to begin at 1:30, and we hit the city limits of Indianola at 11:45, which should have given us plenty of time to get to the balloon field, set up the STAR*Pac table, and get our bearings. Instead, we hit a solid wall of traffic. Two hours later we were still crawling along Main Street, not even having reached the cross road we needed to take to reach the Steak Fry. It became a game watching the people in the cars in front and behind us, and wondering what they were doing to pass the time. We were in the left hand lane, knowing that eventually we were going to have to turn left, and we watched many, many drivers pass us in the right lane, only to sneak into the left as a light changed. “Cheaters,” we yelled out. “That’s not ethical!”

Over two hours after driving into Indianola, we turned onto Iowa highway 92 and headed east toward the balloon field. Traffic was still crawling, and we began to see cars making U-turns and heading back toward town. We also began seeing people walking up the hill. Some we saw park their cars in front of businesses closed for Sunday. We wondered if we shouldn’t do the same.

By the time we reached Indianola High School, we were tired of moving one car length at a time, and decided that it couldn’t be that much further. We parked the car in the school’s parking lot and began to walk ourselves. As we encountered people, we’d ask how much further. The answer was always “one mile.” No matter how far we walked, we always had “one mile” ahead of us.

This donkey apparently supports John Edwards
Taken 9/16/07 in Indianola Iowa

We also met people walking back downhill. “Aren’t you going the wrong way?” we’d ask. “We ran out of time,” one group answered. “We’ve already been there,” said another. One group, wearing Obama stickers, told us they’d been to the rally and didn’t feel the need to stay for the bigger event. We trod on.

Three hours after we first entered Indianola, we handed our tickets to the gate keeper and entered the balloon field. I noticed a few of the cars we had seen around us in the parking lot, but they were in the section most recently filled. In other words, we could have stayed in the car and arrived about the same time as we did walking—but we would have burnt a lot more gasoline.

Once on the grounds, we saw tables full of volunteers for all of the presidential candidates, several local candidates, and various progressive groups. People were wearing stickers for Hillary, for John Edwards, for Obama, and some were wearing stickers for all three. On the way through town we drove through a gauntlet of political curb signs. Hillary won that battle hands down, but John Edwards had the most (and the cutest) volunteers leading cheers on various street corners. Obama had few curb signs, but his large signs promising “HOPE” were visible throughout town.

After our hike (not to mention the two and a half hours we were captive in traffic), we were ready for food and drink. That meant getting in a new line, but we found the shortest line and in little time we had baked beans, potato salad, a roll and either steak or chicken. The drinks table had water, lemonade and, my favorite, Iced Tea. Another booth was giving out free beer, but solicited donations. They ran out of beer fairly quickly. Yet another booth was selling soft drinks. There was no reason for anyone to go away hungry or thirsty.

With that crowd, however, you could forget about getting very close to the candidates, although I did read later that at one point the candidates were flipping steaks on the grills. Apparently one of the servers told Hillary that while the beef was all from Iowa, the chicken came from Arkansas.

Listening to Hillary
(Double click to see this full screen. Hillary is talking
and the other candidates are seated on the platform in front of the flag.)
Taken 9/16/07 in Indianola Iowa

Having eaten, we felt the crush of time. Harold was supposed to introduce Obama to a crowd gathered at a church in Des Moines, and we still had to get back to our car and then back to Des Moines. Fearing that we may be caught in another traffic jam, we spoke with a few folk while heading back toward the parking lot.

Along the way, we were able to hear Hillary speak about how she was not going to wait for the inauguration (should she be elected), but would put together a group of ambassadors immediately after the election. These people she would send around the world to let it be known that “the era of cowboy diplomacy is over.” The crowd roared their appreciation.

Chris Dodd stated that as a father of two small children, he is the only candidate who gets solicitations from both AARP and diaper services. As we headed out the gate, John Edwards began his speech, but I wasn’t able to hear any of it.

(The shirt says "Best Ass on Campus)
Taken 9/16/07 in Indianola Iowa

We were not looking forward to the hike back to the High School and the car, but Harold wasn’t at all concerned. He knew we’d be able to hitch-hike back, and sure enough. The second couple he spoke with was not only willing to help us out, but were headed to the same meeting Harold was trying to get to. We had a good conversation with our Samaritan helpers, and were back to our car in nothing flat. Good thing too as my knees were beginning to let me know that I’m out of shape.

As we drove back into town I realized that as good an opportunity as I was offered—the chance to meet Barak Obama and shake his hand—I would probably fall asleep during the meeting. Keeping that in mind, we dropped Harold at the church and Fred took me on a driving tour of Des Moines.

All in all it was a day I wouldn’t have missed. Reading Monday’s Washington Post on-line, I saw an article about the Steak Fry and was able to crow “We’re in the Washington Post!” Well, we were at an event that made national news. That’s close enough.

An evening in the hot tub followed by bed made for an almost perfect day. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time.

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