DES MOINES, Iowa — Just across the state line into Iowa we drove under a thunderstorm, the kind they only have in Tornado Alley, the corridor that runs up the ribbon of states west of the Mississippi River from Texas to the Dakotas.
It was mid-morning, but the sky was black as a starless night and you needed the headlights on to see the road just in front of you.
The rain sounded like stones striking the hood of the car. Big drops splattered against the windshield like overripe grapes. Off in the distance was the burn of amber at the edges of the storm. A lone poplar stood silhouetted against the brightening sky. A white house, red barn and gray silo waited out the rain.
Out there, somewhere, a tornado lurked. It skipped us. Then a rainbow burst from the clouds in the west and ice crystals, five miles in the air, lit the eastern sky.
When the sun returned in full force, a mist rose from the cornfields. Strung out in the right lane on the highway before us was a line of classic cars: a Packard sedan, a Cadillac touring car, a chrome-piped Cord.
Two of the cars in the lead had no tops and the drivers were soaked. One towed a small trailer that held only a large beer keg. The driver was a big man with a thick red beard. His car was bright red and highly polished.
Corn Never Ends
But in an instant the elements all went their separate ways. Except for the corn. In Iowa, the corn never ends. Iowa contains the highest percentage of top-grade, tillable soil in the United States and the corn is the staple feed crop for the hogs and cattle that are the state's identity.
The state fair, which runs for 11 days during the latter part of August each year, is a celebration of life in Iowa, a thank-you note to the land.
It began as a forum, an idea exchange for farmers trying to improve their stock breeds, and you can still see the best of the best in livestock here. But the fair also contains a sampling of fun and reminders of what's happening in the rest of the world today.
To Shorty Anderson, the fair is still a matter of hogs. Shorty has been raising spotted hogs for more than 40 years and his family has been at it for generations. The family farm is more than a thousand acres and home to more than 3,000 head of championship hogs. If hogs can be considered beautiful, Shorty's spots definitely would be finalists in a beauty contest.
Shorty's wife, Alice, talks about the fairs she's been to. Alice is a feisty woman with short blonde hair and blue eyes. Her family emigrated to the United States before the War for Independence.
"When Shorty and I used to come to the fair as teen-agers," she reminisced, "we'd slip into the burlesque tent." She has that gleam in her eye of a little girl who has just gotten away with something. She talks about seeing Sally Rand when the burlesque queen was in her 60s.
"She did that fan dance she made famous in the '30s," Alice continued. "She had these two fans that were as big as she was. The best part about those shows was what they left to the imagination. They don't have that tent anymore. Today, nothing is left to the imagination."
We walked to the perimeter fence where there is a large gray tent with a sign above the flap that reads: "Heinold Downs." Heinold is the largest purchaser of hogs in the world. "When you eat a pork chop," a man at the microphone was saying, "chances are 1 in 10 you're eating a Heinold hog."
But the hogs at Heinold Downs are racing hogs. We'd come for the 13th running of the Belly Buster Stakes. A pink hog named Pork-a-Hontas beat Weener's Circle by a snout and Alice's daughter, Jill, won a key chain for having the winner.
In the Agricultural Building are copious examples from the bountiful vegetable gardens of Iowa: cabbages the size of beach balls, tomatoes the size of cantaloupes, bell peppers that look like the rear molars of a green giant. There is a life-size cow sculptured of bright yellow butter and the fairy-tale characters, Hansel and Gretel, also in butter.
Outside on the permanent avenues of the fairgrounds are rows and files of stands selling foot-long frankfurters, chili dogs, hot dogs on a stick, burgers, pizzas, egg rolls, enchiladas, funnel cakes, fried chicken, tenderloin, German beer, Brazilian coffee.
Melting Pot on Midway
The midway has the traditional Ferris wheel and all the "games of skill." And the people run the gamut from business suits to bib overalls, preppy polo shirts to punk hairdos.
At night the lights go on at the grandstand and the shows begin. They include a wide assortment of traditional stars, hot country groups, soft rock and heavy metal.
Along the Avenue of Breeds in the huge cattle barn you see Hampshire hogs and Berkshire sheep, Hereford cattle, giant white Charolais, Simmental, Black Angus, brown Brangus, even beefalo, the result of a cattle-bison cross.