It’s time for another Off-Topic Tuesday post. In 1995 and 1996, I wrote a column for the Daily Iowan, the student newspaper at the University of Iowa, which I attended from 1995 to 1997. I have an electronic version of this but I can’t lay hands on a clipping, so I am not sure whether it actually ran, or if it was just a draft. If it ran, it appeared 20 years ago this month. I’ve edited it a little.
Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of everybody who’s been here for a while, let me welcome you to the University of Iowa. During your orientation, you paid close and careful attention to everything you were told. You may have convinced yourself that you know exactly what to do, where to go, and how to cope. But what you have done so far to prepare for college life is not unlike preparing to ride a bicycle by reading about how to do it. Now, you’re actually getting on the damn thing and trying to keep your balance, and you may find that the instruction manual skipped a few useful items. But that’s why I’m here.
If I ever wanted to be a farmer like my father, I don’t remember it. I got off the farm just as soon as I could. I got a job in town when I was 17 and I never looked back.
Like many farm kids, I joined 4H as soon as I was old enough—nine, I think. I don’t recall any discussion about it; my parents had been active in 4H when they were kids. In fact, I have found from reading old newspapers that both of them were 4H superstars, highly decorated with prestigious awards. So we kids had no choice in the matter, not that we wanted one.
For a 4H kid, the highlight of the year was the county fair, at which you would exhibit the projects you had presumably spent the whole year working on. Presumably. For some 4H kids, their projects were their passions. I liked 4H well enough, but I didn’t burn with interest in the projects I had chosen. For me, they were just things I had to do. As a result, the fair would sneak up on me, and the projects I entered were often slapdash or worse.
The worst of it was taking a calf into the show ring. The idea was that you’d care for the animal practically from birth, tame it, train it to be led calmly with a halter, groom it, and then show it at the fair. The reality was me putting off the whole process until a month before the fair, picking out a calf from the selection in Dad’s herd, and hurriedly, half-assedly training it. Then I’d drag it into the show ring for several terrifying minutes before the skittish animal and I were put out of our misery with a pink fourth-place ribbon, which was the worst we could do.
Once that was over, however, the fun of fair week began, hanging out in the barns with our friends and dodging our parents, who had other things they wanted us to do, because there’s always work on a farm in the summertime.
The real rock stars at the fair were not 4H kids; they were the family farmers who competed in the open class show. They’d bring several animals from their herds to be judged each year. These families had enough children involved so that the labor of training, showing, and caring for the animals was divided. And they were fiercely competitive. The same families would duke it out for the blue ribbons and the grand champions year after year. For all I know, some of them still do.
Because the animals represented a significant investment and could be worth thousands of dollars each, the families who owned them were not always content to leave them alone at night, watched only by the handful of cops who prowled the fairgrounds after closing time. One or more herdsmen—family members or others—were therefore deputized to sleep in the barns. And despite my general disinterest in farm stuff, that seemed like a grand adventure. And so, 41 years ago this month, I spent the night at the fair, with a friend whose family showed open-class every year.
It was not quite like I had imagined. We did not have the run of the fairgrounds after closing, free to roam a fantasyland denied to mere mortals; we were quite literally put to bed by the cops handling security, who made sure we were in our sleeping bags at midnight and that we stayed there. We were, however, permitted to keep the radio on all night, which was only fitting because we also kept the radio on all day, blasting WLS or WCFL. You could walk from barn to barn and hear them. In the last week of July in 1975 it was “Listen to What the Man Said” and “The Hustle” and “One of These Nights” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends” and “I’m Not in Love” and “Jive Talkin'” and all the others, over and over again.
The 2016 Green County Fair opens this week. Times change, but the fair doesn’t, not much. If you go, you still hear the occasional radio in the barns, or see 4H kids with earbuds in. Because times change, but the music never ends.
Forty years ago today, July 5, 1976, was a Monday, the legal holiday celebrating Independence Day and America’s Bicentennial. But on July 5, the Bicentennial was a balloon with a slow leak. Although CBS continued to broadcast its primetime Bicentennial Minutes through the end of the year, the observance, which had begun two years before, started to seem threadbare and seedy. Within weeks, Bicentennial merchandise (such as the commemorative plate pictured here, which hangs on the wall in my office) was on clearance.
It’s easy to imagine an alternate Bicentennial celebration that began on July 4, 1976. Some of the most storied and significant events of the American Revolution were still in the future on July 4, 1776, including Washington’s crossing of the Delaware and his defeat of the British at Trenton, the American victory at Saratoga, the winter at Valley Forge, and the alliance with France. It was those events that sealed the destiny of the new nation, far more than the signing of the Declaration of Independence at Philadelphia. We might easily have commemorated them as their bicentennials occurred over the next two years.
We didn’t do that, of course. A government commission began planning Bicentennial celebrations in 1973 and quickly gave the event an official logo. The Bicentennial Minutes began on July 4, 1974; the U.S. Mint issued Bicentennial quarters, half-dollars, and dollar coins beginning in the summer of 1975, and some states issued Bicentennial license plates. Marketing and merchandising hype, which is the primary way Americans celebrate every holiday, was at full boil in 1975, resulting in an astonishing variety of Bicentennial-themed products, and criticism of the commercialism of the event.
But the Bicentennial wasn’t all cheesy, despite the way we remember it. The celebration prompted many communities around the country to spruce up, especially their sites with historic value. There was a boom in local history, a subject sadly neglected (then and now) by social studies classes, as people thirsted to learn how their community fit into the larger national drama. Some communities buried time capsules as a way to speak to the future about what mattered to 1976, just as they imagined the patriots of 1776 might speak to them 200 years later.
Cynicism isn’t a 21st century phenomenon, and lots of 1976 Americans believed the whole thing was a bad hype. In their defense, it could be hard to see past the horrid state of the nation in that summer—racked by recession, lacking confidence in elected officials, and in an uncomfortable transition to an unknown future. (Never mind the Bicentennial beer cans and toilet paper.) But the vast majority of Americans took the Bicentennial for what it appeared to be: the opportunity to be proud of what their country had accomplished in 200 years. And what it had accomplished was pretty remarkable: it had become the world’s economic engine, first at the turn of the 20th century and later after World War II; it had exported its form of democracy (successfully or not) around the world; it had mobilized its military against despotism and won; it had become the world’s cultural hub. All of which would have seemed pretty unlikely on July 4, 1776.
But by July 4, 1976, we’d been living with the Bicentennial for nearly two years. When the day was past, we were ready to put the celebration out at the curb like a dried-out Christmas tree. Like the Bicentennial itself, that, too, is distinctly American. Although we claim to venerate our history, we are descended from people who were perpetually making new starts (Davy Crockett: “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas”) and reinventing themselves—a trait that persists in the way our political classes insist on rewriting history to serve their present purposes, and the way we mis-remember and distort the events of our own lives. We are much better at moving forward and imagining new futures than we are at looking back and learning from where we have been.
So it’s no wonder we tossed the Bicentennial away quickly. It’s what we always did, and what we continue to do today, 40 years later.
(If you’re interested in how the world looked on the day after the Bicentennial, the ABC Evening News from July 5, 1976, is at YouTube. Part 1 is here.)
Several years ago, one of my clients asked me to write a bunch of historical fiction pieces. I do not consider myself a good writer of fiction, but I am good at cashing checks, so I wrote ’em.
Technically, my client owns the story I am about to post. But since I don’t make any money from this site and the readership is vanishingly small, I’m going to put it up anyhow and they can cease-and-desist me if they want. Although it’s about music and musicians, it’s on Off-Topic Tuesday because it’s fiction. Part 1 of the story is on the flip.