Virginia Beach Dethaw

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Few things in life are as annoying as having to brush snow off your car before work. It’s morning. I’m already groggy and angry. Why must you torment me? (Original photo by Mark Burr.)

It’s official. I’ll be spending my 26th winter in a row in the Midwest.

To make matters worse, I’m only 26 years old.

Midwest winters are perhaps the most authentic in the United States, a cold, blustery, and snowy event. It’s everything they tell you about winter, and then some. There are sometimes weeks – possibly months in the worst states – where hitting 32 degrees is a major accomplishment.

When you think about what the pioneer settlers in the Midwest had to endure every year, you realize that land in the old country must’ve been in ridiculously short supply. You had to be especially desperate to press on through the winter in states like Wisconsin. You lived in a makeshift house with poor insulation; food was scarce, dependent on the fall’s harvest; Indians with tomahawks eyed you whenever you went out to take a leak.

It was horrible then and only tolerable today.

When Molly went to work as a traveling occupational therapist, taking 3-4 month contracts in locations across the country, part of the allure was that we could finally escape winter. Come November, we’d conveniently wave goodbye to the dreary Midwest and depart for sunnier climes. I pictured myself laughing on the phone as friends and relatives told me stories of the terrible snowstorm they’d just survived, how a snowdrift had buried their car and it’d taken an hour to get out of the driveway.

“I think I was wearing shorts that day,” I’d tell them. “Though it’s not all fun and games down here. I do think my tan has lightened up a bit. But y’know how it is – solstice and all.”

That dream came quickly crashing down when Molly accepted an extension to her contract in Iowa. Sure, we’ll still make it to Texas and Georgia eventually – we’ll just have to freeze here for a few months to earn it. Not that I’m mad. It was a smart move for Molly. For us.

Thank God I packed that old gray pea coat my uncle donated to me. Turns out we share similar builds, and it’ll serve me well in a few months.

To console myself at the prospect of another brutal winter, I thought I’d reflect on my time in Virginia Beach.

I keep telling myself that only two short months ago I was basking in the sun on the soft sand, the Atlantic Ocean at my feet. The throngs of people, a colorful blur of humanity, filled the soft afternoon breeze with laughter, a steady soundtrack punctuated by the waves and the occasional burst of music from a car on Atlantic Avenue.

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Modern architecture: any beauty is a concession. (Original photo by Virginia Hall.)

Ah yes, Atlantic Avenue. Sometimes, you need a street like Atlantic Avenue to feel like you’re truly on vacation. The side of the street closest to the ocean is dominated by high-rise apartments, rows of rectangles and squares painted in cheery summer tones. The shops and clubs are on the other side, with the aggressive salespeople in bright polo shirts urging you to sign up for ill-advised credit cards and travel packages. The best plan, I’d say, is to get a drink and watch the action from a patio. There’s a happy buzz on the streets, and it says, simply:

Relax, you’re on vacation. Kiss her (or him). Tell her you love her. Hold her close. Life is for moments like this.

You can’t possibly understand the strength of the ocean until you see it during a storm. Growing up in Michigan, people often compared the Great Lakes to the ocean. Certainly, both impart a sense of limitless. But even the most ferocious waves on a lake look like the work of a toddler in a kiddie pool when stacked up against the full brunt of Neptune on the open sea. From the shore, it looks the ocean is being sucked up by the sun, only to be hurtled back to the beach when the weight of the wave grows too heavy.

My first experience with real waves at Virginia Beach was brought on by an admittedly modest storm, a drizzly affair without much in the way of lightning or wind. A storm tame enough that the life guards didn’t mind us swimming. Just not too far out. We were daredevils, sure, but within reason.

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(Original photo by lina smith.)

As wave after wave knocked me to and fro, a strange sense of oneness with the ocean was pounded into me. It was invigorating, life-affirming. I could taste the salt on my lips. I could the feel the energy. Molly watched from the shore, a towel around her shoulders. She tends to take it easier. I do the stupid stuff – like wear my glasses in the ocean.

A particularly strong wave slammed me to the ground, and off went my aviators. I searched frantically in the vanishing spray of the wave, but it was too little, too late. My backup glasses now belonged to Davy Jones. My main pair, square plastic hipster glasses, was in a drawer back home… broken.

Of course.

But hey, I could still think of about ten worse winter stories.

National Cattle Congress

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“Now as a marsupial, they do reproduce. Quite rapidly. In fact, they’re only pregnant for about 35 days. And what they give birth to, is only about this big!”

Carolyn Lantz used her hand to illustrate the size of a newborn Joey, comparable – evidently – to a big paper clip. Dark sunglasses framed her strong, lean face, weathered in the manner of Steve Irwin or Alby Mangels. She takes her kangaroos to fairs across the country, wowing metropolitan areas of all sizes with her exotic hopping things from Down Under.

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This weekend, it was the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo.

“I’m sure a lot of you ladies are extremely jealous. We did get the raw end of that deal.”

Her delivery was straight-faced, the tone of her high-pitched voice failing to change in the slightest.  No one laughed. Tough crowd. Birthing all those stout Midwestern farmers can’t be easy.

“One day after giving birth, she can actually fall pregnant again. But she can only have one joey in the pouch at a time. So you do the math, it really doesn’t add up.”

Turns out kangaroos can delay pregnancy if necessary. I wonder how the “religious right” might react if humans developed such a capacity.

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Behind Lantz, a male albino kangaroo chased around a mother kangaroo in a giant cage, pausing only when an opportunity to catch a good whiff of her soft hide arose. Yes, it was another family-friendly weekend at the Cattle Congress. 2014 marked the illustrious fair’s 104th anniversary.

True to its name, the National Cattle Congress was – first and foremost – organized as an opportunity for the Midwest to show off its best dairy cows. As dull as that sounds to a city slicker, over 5,000 cow fanatics showed up to that initial 1910 fair. The Waterloo business community aggressively backed it, promised the Iowa State Dairy Association thousands of dollars in prize money. It’s only gotten bigger since.

Over the years, other attractions popped up to draw even greater crowds, positioning itself as a regional alternative to the mighty Iowa State Fair. A “hippodrome” (now McElroy Euditorium) and ballroom were constructed, along with brick livestock barns, a hall, and a pavilion.

The ill-timed Waterloo Hawks, an NBA team for all of one season, even played in the McElroy Auditorium. It seats almost 7,000 people, its unassuming brown exterior hiding a colorful history. The Beach Boys and Buddy Holly have played here – Destiny’s Child and Rob Zombie, too. Rough and tumble events, like roller derby matches and rodeo derbies, just look right under the low lights of the auditorium, the hard wooden benches the providing the perfect vantage of the action.

“Is anyone on this side not from Iowa?” Brian Potter asks. He was the weekend’s rodeo clown.

Like a clown you’d invite to your kid’s birthday party, he had big, baggy clothes and face paint on. His ensemble was topped off with a bright orange “ten-gallon” hat, impossible to miss, although in this case it was more like a “fifty-gallon” hat.

He wasn’t dressed that way just for our amusement. Rodeo clowns distract the bulls to protect the cowboys when the cowboys hit the ground. Potter had protective gear on under his clothes. It takes guts to be a rodeo clown. That orange hat was the equivalent of a matador’s cape.

“Where y’all from? Where? Sacrament-ah, California! Whoo, Lord! Glad, glad to have… welcome to a state that pays their taxes, sir.”

The crowd laughed for Potter. Looks like poking fun at liberals beats pregnancy jokes in Waterloo.

The PRCA (that’s the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association to you, bucko) Rodeo was probably the highlight of the National Cattle Congress. They put “ticklers” on horses and hung on to the saddle for dear life, threw lassos around the necks of bulls with almost perfect accuracy, and raced around barrels on horseback. All, of course, in shiny cowboy boots, jeans, long-sleeve button-ups, and cowboy hats.

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It was a ritualized celebration of a frontier lifestyle immortalized by no less than Marlboro and Clint Eastwood, a rugged, can-do sport that flirts with debilitating injury for a few cheers and a pint of honor. The spirit of the prairie lived on for a few days at McElroy Auditorum.

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Outside, moms pushed their strollers past weary cows tied to the walls. “Look at the cows, honey! Can you go moo?”

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I bought Molly a wool “Native American” pullover hoodie with a llama pattern on the chest. I’d learned in one of the livestock halls that guard llamas can protect livestock from coyotes and foxes.  They’ll kick, paw, scream – do what it takes.

I figured if Molly was to have her own spirit animal, she could do worse than a llama. The hoodie was a start.

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Howdy from Iowa.

Waterloo

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Waterloo, Iowa is weird. Cities like Austin and Portland need slogans to remind people to stay weird. Not Waterloo. It’s just weird, and it doesn’t have a say in the matter.

That Waterloo even exists on the scale it does, with around 70,000 people, is somewhat of a fluke. Economic prosperity, that grand salve, could’ve – maybe should’ve – hit neighboring Cedar Falls first.

Cedar Falls was, after all, picked to be the county seat of Black Hawk. But then Waterloo took it, manipulating the legislature into putting the location up for a vote. Illinois Central, the vaunted “main line of Mid-America”, had decided to make Cedar Falls a pivotal stop. But then the big mills in Cedar Falls charged Illinois Central $300 a day when the railroad company turned off the millrace so it could construct a bridge. Pissed off railroad officials decided to move the bulk of the company’s investment in the region to Waterloo.

Fuck you, Cedar Falls.

In 1870, Waterloo was only home to about 1,000 more people than Cedar Falls. By 1950, Waterloo boasted a population over four times as large as Cedar Falls. Fortune had been kind. Waterloo’s industrial waterfront manufactured the machines and implements farmers depended on and processed Iowa’s agricultural output for the mass market. It was a perfect symbiosis. The city’s business district, a mass of brick, steel, and stone, flexed over the Cedar River, a symbol of the factory city’s might.

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But then the city built a ring of uninspiring suburbs. A new mall gobbled up the retail downtown. Economic stagnation in the ’80s hollowed out old neighborhoods. Downtown stopped. It’s pockmarked batwings no longer inspire awe, but pitty.

The city even turned to a suburban casino to breathe new life into it. Yeesh.

The biggest impediment to Waterloo’s revitalization isn’t America’s beleaguered industrial sector. Waterloo’s unemployment rate of 5.5% beats the national average.

No, it’s biggest problem is that it’s 15.5% black in a country where de facto segregation remains the norm. Though 15.5% sounds like a small segment of the population, Waterloo’s black population has set whites to flying for decades.

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(Original photo by Steve Moses.)

You see, blacks used to live on the east side, whites on the west side, where all the big box stores went. Then blacks crossed the river Cedar to the historic west side. Whites are still evacuating to various suburbs. Hispanics and Asians fill in the gaps in struggling neighborhoods, eager to start a new life in America.

Cedar Falls, with one of Iowa’s three public universities and a quaint Main Street, is benefiting from the turn of events and may just have the last laugh, with a population of 40,000 and growing.

Not that Waterloo hasn’t tried to address its problems. In 1967, the “Waterloo Commission on Human Rights” put out a report titled Waterloo’s Unfinished Business. It predictably identified the city’s “Negro” slums as its biggest stumbling block. What the city needed, they decided, was quality low income housing.

The commission’s solution? 1. Scatter blacks throughout the city – majority black neighborhoods intimidated whites and encouraged white flight. 2. Rigorously inspect homes to discourage slumlords. 3. Figure out a way to integrate schools.

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(Original photo by David Weldon.)

It was a bold set of recommendations – probably too bold – and not without flaws. Waterloo’s continued to stagnate, as we see with most Midwest cities that have avoided integration. Whites built new neighborhoods to get away from blacks migrating from the South in a massive transfer of wealth that, in the end, was ill-advised and unaffordable. Sprawling, disinvested communities remain as ugly reminders of our shortsightedness.

Think about the children.

It’s easy to write off Waterloo as dead. But then there’s that wonderful weirdness I mentioned earlier. You can’t help but feel something in when you glimpse Waterloo’s old high-rises, stately homes, 1920s apartment complexes, and brick factories – – a tinge of nostalgia, remorse perhaps, or even inspiration. All here on the Iowa prairie.

The food and drink establishment live up to the unique setting. The walls and ceilings of downtown’s Galleria de Paco, for example, are completely covered with spray-painted reproductions of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. Marrionettes dangle above diners at Rudy’s Tacos at Falls Mall, one of Iowa’s beloved miniature malls. You can try the latest draft from local nanobrewery Guerrilla Brewing Company at the kitschy Beer Hall next door.

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(Original photo by David Weldon.)

Guerrilla Brewing, a true renegade of beer, is liable to throw anything into its beers. Bacon? Why the fuck not?

Waterloo also has a surprising amount of authentic Mexican restaurants (you know the drill – you have to serve corn tortillas with meat, cilantro, and onions) and even a pupuseria, the holy grail of Salvadoran cuisine.

You know this isn’t the last time you’re going to read about Waterloo. C’mon, face it – no one gives it you as straight about America as I do. Bookmark this already; click that follow button. Exit 1A is good for you, like vitamins. Just swallow the pill, buddy, swallow the pill.