God, Country & cotton candy

(At the Tri-State Rodeo, Fort Madison, Iowa.)

You cannot miss the young boys selling luminous pink cotton candy in plastic bags attached to tall sticks. They walk the stands hopeful of making a sale. They are the first to ply the benches and very nearly the last to leave with the end of the show.  Less noticeable are the boys selling corn dogs, though they are more vocal.

The stands constructed from wood and steel scaffolding in a field of yellow grass and beaten earth are much as you would expect if this were the site for a concert. Instead of a stage, the central area is an arena with gates at left and right through which, as the rodeo starts, riders trot with state and corporate sponsors’ flags in practiced discipline, then followed in chaotic disarray by seemingly anybody in the county with a horse. For a moment, a carnival atmosphere overwhelms, to the thump and thud of rock and roll, before order returns to a country and western sound over loud speakers.  

       Before the national anthem a cowboy regales with a microphone those who would deny Americans the right to pray anywhere they choose to the god of their choice, and hints darkly at the perfidy of big government reaching from distance cities to poison the heartland. The anthem well rendered is followed by another commercial break, with women on horses carrying corporate sponsors’ flags followed by performances of bucking broncos, bull riding, lassoing steers and racing round barrels and all the rest that makes a rodeo, including clowns.

      In between the broncos and the bulls, besides the jokes and the quips, our cowboy master of ceremonies salutes the military and its heroes, and excoriates liberals for demanding better protection for horses and bulls bred to buck.  For all the pleasure of watching men and animals the political messages over the microphone are clear. The American way is under threat, its heart epitomised by the image of the rugged, lone cowboy. This evening the cowboy carries a microphone and banters with a clown circling the fringes of the arena.

At the foot of the scaffolding by the latrines, behind the towers lighting the stand, a man introduces himself to me as a Christian and an American, asks my religion and whether I believe that Jesus is the way. I say I cannot second-guess God. “You calling Jesus a liar?” he asks. No, of course I am not, but I don’t want to mix God and horses. He quotes Jesus and continues to press on whether I am a believer or not. He asks where I am from, and I say Egypt. Now that interests him. He asks me for “inside information.” He leans his head to one side as thought to slyly watch my reactions as he says that as I come for “The Region” I may be able to help him. He asks me if “Obama is a Muslim.” I respond that I don’t know anybody in Egypt who thinks he is. He asks me the question again, this time by inquiring if President Obama could be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood as “he seems thick with them.” Unfortunately, for him I have no way of verifying that, but then as he notes I have no evidence to refute it either. I excuse myself to return to the stands to watch men with lariats chase steers. Before the end, once more, we have a round of riders raising flags emblazoned with corporate logos.   

As we make our way to the car for the drive back to Iowa City from Fort Madison, I am asked, “Would you come another year to see the rodeo?” Yes, of course I would. And next time, I might even try the corn dogs and cotton candy and maybe get another chance to savour that year’s version of mid-West paranoia.



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