Continued from here.
Where was I?
Oh yes. Des Moines, Iowa.
Have you ever been to an interesting city? Live in a city? Love a certain city? Think of that city now. Close your eyes and fix it in your mind. Let the power of that city wash over you. Now, let everything unique fall away from the city. No more famous landmarks. No more smells of wonderful food. No more culture. No more interesting people living interesting lives. Turn it, in your mind, into a city devoid of anything that would distinguish it from any other city. A bland, dull, colorless place of buildings and highways and nothing else.
You are now thinking of Des Moines, Iowa.
We arrived at the cookoff site to find that we weren't properly registered, or some similar debacle which landed us on the ass-end of the campground. As we met up with the others, and began to put up our tent and grill, a sort of ill-tempered cloud hung over the group. Like a little rain-cloud following a bunch of Eeyores. Nothing was going our way, and the people at the cookoff seemed to have all of the friendliness of earthworms. That is definitely one thing about Texas. People are FRIENDLY. Our state motto is "friendship", and it's something we don't dick around with. Anyone who isn't friendly is definitely a yankee of some sort, who has lived their life far from cornbread, hugs, and southern goodness.
But, these people just glared at us like we might decide to shoot up the place.
Which might have made the place more interesting for a few minutes, but certainly would have been a waste of bullets.
Somewhere, while we were unpacking, someone discovered that WE HAD NO MEAT. That's right. Someone had forgotten to put the cooler with the meat into the trailer. Back in Texas, on someone's porch, was a giant beer cooler full of beef, surely quickly rotting in the summer sun. Maggots were probably deeply involved by now.
It was a catastrophe. The quality of your meat is half the battle of the whole cookoff competition. Might as well just pack up and go home.
But no. We weren't quitters. We weren't going to let Iowa defeat us so easily. This was America! Meat could be had at your local supermarket. Sure, it wouldn't be the quality we were used to, but it would certainly be edible.
I remember wandering the supermarket with Mom, and Joe, and some of the other team members. Meat. There was meat. But, there was no...beef. Not even when someone cried out, "WHERE'S THE BEEF?" Sure, there were voluminous packages of pork. But, cow? Had they even HEARD of cows in Iowa? Apparently not, because we were barely able to get enough low-grade (very questionable looking) beef to feed our own camp, much less the judges.
Back at camp, I found myself getting bored. As usual, I asked my mother if I could go out to wander around. Look at things. Amuse myself. I quickly discovered that this was not a bright idea. There was NOTHING to see. Just two perfectly parallel lines of camps, with sober-looking people cooking on completely normal grills. I walked it again, not quite ready to go back to camp, climb in the air conditioned trailer, and curl up with a good book.
That's when I found it. The sole interesting thing in the whole campsite. It looked like a room-sized dome made out of sticks and logs. On closer inspection, I found a little plaque which identified it as a replica of the houses once built in this area by the local Native Americans. Looking around, and seeing nobody particularly paying attention, I ducked inside to get a better view.
There wasn't much inside. Just a place for a fire and a few seats made out of logs. I took a seat, enjoying the cool shade, and let my imagination run wild. Oh yes, I have quite the imagination now, but back then... My imagination knew no limits at all. I let myself be transported to a different time and place. Before the ugly-bland city of Des Moines. Before the endless rows of corn. When Iowa was grassland and (according to my adolescent mind) buffalo. From my perch within my imagination, I watched a village of Native Americans go about their lives. Beautiful women with stark black braided hair cooking food, tending children, sewing and washing. Men crouching, stalking through the high grasses towards some grazing prey. For a moment, I felt as if I was there with them, living in that time, far far away from the colorless Iowa I had experienced.
And then, within seconds, I was back in the campground. I emerged from the stick-and-log dome house, greeted by a too-powerful sun and an overweight housewife with her hands on her hips, seeming furious at my exploration.
"This is not a playground!" she shrieked.
"Oh...sorry." I didn't realize it was the sort of thing you weren't supposed to touch. I blinked at the brightness of the afternoon and tried to seem more innocent than I might actually have been. "I was just...exploring."
"Where are your parents? You shouldn't be here."
I explained to her that I was with the Texans For Texas cookoff team, and she sent me packing back in that direction with a look of disdain bordering on disgust. I didn't see what the big deal was. I hadn't broken anything in the Native American house replica, and had tried my best to be respectful and reflective. As I continued to walk, I found myself getting angry about it. Who was she, in her brightly-colored Made-In-China t-shirt, drinking Pepsi from her plastic cup, to tell ME about disrespecting a place?
That's when I saw it...
While I had been reflecting inside the Native American house, the officials and workers of the cookoff had been hard at work, setting up a line of fifty barbecue pits. Fifty sets of charcoal, and fifty fires...all in a line. And what for, you may ask?
To roast fifty whole pigs. Fifty. Whole. Pigs.
I'd smelled many a volume of meat cooking before. But, there was just something...wrong...about the smell of this. Overpowering and sickening. So much meat lined up, such a sacrifice, just to get in some record book somewhere. Fifty pigs, occasionally being rotated by rusty hand-cranks. The cooking flesh stretched out as far as the eye could see, from snouts to piggie-feet.
It was...a spectacle.
Just a spectacle. There weren't near enough people at the cookoff to eat that much pig PLUS all of the entries people were submitting to the judges. Even if it only took 6 people to eat one pig, that would mean 300 people, and I hadn't seen near that many in the entire day.
I realized then...they were just cooking those pigs because they COULD. Because they wanted some title. Not because they needed the food. Not like the tribes who had once inhabited this land.
In my mind, I came to believe that Iowa was cursed, likely by the Native Americans who once lived there. "Sure. You can take our beautiful, fertile land, but it will never do anything for you but grow swine and the corn to feed those swine. Otherwise, it will be a pit-hole of emptiness and despair."
I still think I might be right about the curse.
In the end, we won nothing at the cookoff, and went home dejected and spent. The entire thing had managed to make itself the antithesis of fun, and we were worn out travellers rushing back to our friendly (and possibly quirky) Texas towns.
A few miles from the Iowa border, we stopped at a convenience store, glad to be rid of Des Moines. Inside, some asswipe was being a fucknut to the cashier. Yelling and causing a ruckus. Making a general nuissance of himself. When we climbed back into the truck (through the back window), and got settled, Joe wordlessly started the truck...
I'm not sure, really, if he hit that fucknut's Ferarri because he saw the key in the guy's hand inside the store... Or if it was really an accident after all. Either way...
We decided it would be best not to wait around and tell the guy about the accident. Better to just to book it out of Iowa.
There's a little more to this story. Like how, as we made it back to Texas, my mother was driving Joe's wife's car, and managed to drive us PAST our home town (College Station) and travel almost all the way to Austin. It was night and she thought she was following Joe's truck lights, when in fact, she'd just been following some random truck. (I should digress here and mention how my mother, though she's lived here for thirty years, still gets lost driving to the mall. Never let her navigate. NEVER.) Eventually, when Mom discovered her error, we turned around and came home. (Only to find that Joe had gotten back many hours earlier, and stayed up the whole night fretting about what had become of us.)
We had such adventures with that barbecue cookoff team. I wish my memory was more perfect, and that somehow I could rewind and play a crystal clear mental-film of these times from my youth. But, I'm sure that I'm mixing things up, even in the retelling of this story. Mom pointed out that the hat I bent over to pick up (when I was almost run over) was my own hat, and not Joe's. She maintains that I really was almost killed, whereas I still think it wasn't that close of a call.
But, I guess that's how memories are. As time goes by, they get tangled and obscured, covered in cobwebs and rust. In the future, people will have digital recorders in their eyes...and they'll never have to struggle to remember, nor will they be able to forget. How different it will be for future generations, who will keep their memories forever in some digital form...
The haze of yesteryear ebbs and flows like the tide, I suppose. Sometimes things long forgotten wash over us with a suddenness that makes us go, "Oh...I had totally forgotten about that... But, how could I? It was such an interesting time. It involved such...interesting people."
Just yesterday, after I had decided to abandon this silly re-telling of a long-ago trip, my mother emailed me to tell me she'd seen an obituary... Joe, the owner of the Texans for Texas cookoff team of which we were a part, passed away this week. He was only sixty five. It's sad, even though I haven't seen the man for a good twenty years, I have fond memories of him. Odd that his death should coincide with writing this. Just odd.
if this is true, then Joe, I hope the bbq-sauce is good in the afterlife. And I hope that you're staying away from the capital city of Hell -- Des Moines, Iowa.