“I don’t know if you know,” said our new young friend from Albuquerque, “but Des Moines is pretty much the meth capital of America.”
I didn’t mention that we have been under the impression that among minor-league towns that title belongs to Bakersfield or perhaps Lancaster, California. Des Moines seemed pretty congenial to us, but that might just have been the lingering effects of our pregame sojourn at El Bait Shop, which prides itself on having more than 100 craft beers on tap—though the first six or so that I ordered were all mysteriously unavailable.
“We printed the beer lists at the beginning of June,” said our diffident bartender as I floundered from one allegedly available oddity to the next. On reflection, though, this was the one moment of the day where we were living, however tenuously, in the future—or at least in uncharted territory. The rest of the day was pleasant proof of the truism that the Midwest is somewhat behind the times.
We started the day in Tampico, birthplace of Love Is on the Air costar Ronald Reagan. The apartment in which he first joined this world for 93 short years is extant, and it has been restored, in a way, with period furnishings. (The building dates to about 1895; Reagan was born in 1911, making this year his centenary.) Reagan seems to have cared less for Tampico than he did for Dixon, where we went next—then again, he was about nine when he departed. Reagan claimed Dixon as the crucible of his values and identity (to the extent that he had one), and Dixon is to this day happy to return the affection.
Oddly, Herbert Hoover said much the same about Iowa. I don’t think I would trust a man who finds this part of the world to be a wellspring of wonders to sit in the White House or hold a nuclear suitcase, but apparently many people though Al Smith was worse. Go figure.
|Al Smith, from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection, via Wikimedia Commons|
Back to Reagan: I think there’s a significant tension between Reagan the small-town jock and Reagan the Hollywood figment—one exudes sentiment, while the other mugs with monkeys and Lew Wasserman. You wouldn’t much know from both Tampico and Dixon that most of Reagan’s life was spent producing ephemera—and you wouldn’t know much about his presidency, either, except that with the power of his voice alone he brought down the Berlin Wall and, in the words of one of his political progeny, “let freedom reign” [sic]. Dixon has even gone so far as to erect a fake Berlin Wall, which is impassioned and sincere but thick in more ways than one. Strangely, there is no similar monument to, say, the shattered air-traffic-controllers union, nor did we see any cakes shaped like keys.
Our journey through the past continued in Grinnell, Iowa, with a stop at one of Louis Sullivan’s “jewel box” banks. There are eight of these around the Midwest and this one, like the one in Owatonna, Minnesota, is well preserved, though no longer functioning in its original capacity.
Continuing west, we made it to Trainland USA, which is a massive model train set that fills the basement level of the undistinguished home at the top of this post. The creator lives upstairs, but thankfully he doesn’t give the tours himself. While this model didn’t have a manic weirdness of Tinkertown or Abita Springs, it is nevertheless a well maintained monument to single-mindedness. There was plenty of push-button interaction but nothing that would have been considered exotic technology in, say, 1922.
What, you want baseball, too? Well, we saw an epic 15-inning battle between the Iowa Cubs and Albuquerque Isotopes—and this was the rare occasion that we were cheering for the visitors. I did this because I was wearing a ’Topes cap. Rob did it out of what I assume is loyalty to my poor choice in habiliment.
There were some familiar faces there—Marlon Byrd was making his first appearance about five weeks about getting hit in the face in a Cubs game in Boston, and rookie-of-the-year candidate Darwin Barney was on injury rehab there as well. Also present but not playing was September superstar (i.e, career minor leaguer) Bobby Scales, who at 33 isn’t hanging it up the way the Gipper did when Alzheimer’s formally overcame him, but he is going to fade away by taking what remains of his career to Japan. I don’t know exactly what Fighting Ham entails, but I bet Scales will see way less pulled pork than he’s been accustomed to in Iowa.
The I-Cubs Jay Jackson and Albuquerque’s Joe Ely each went six inning, with similar results. ’Topes catcher J. D. Closser clubbed a Jackson pitch over the right-field wall in the second but looked intensely pissed off at himself the rest of the game, going 0-for-6 thereafter, with three strikeouts. To our disappointment and even surprise, slugger Trayvon Robinson went a whopping 0-for-7 including a golden sombrero.
A solo home run from Albuquerque's Jamie Hoffman tied the game at 5 in the top of the eighth, and that’s where it stayed through the tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, and top of the fifteenth—making this now the longest game we’ve ever been to together, though thankfully not nearly so chilly and wet as the previous recordholder. (Rob was at the 19-inning Phillies/Reds marathon earlier this year but left in the 11th, and he was also at the Robin Ventura “grand-slam single” game in the 1999 NLCS between the Mets and Braves, which also went 15.)
By the twelfth or thirteenth, the stadium had emptied out to the point where you could hear every cheer and comment, so we soon learned that there was another Albuquerque fan sitting not too far from us. (We were right behind the visitors’ dugout on the first-base line.) She and her heavily tattooed baseball-virgin date joined us, and soon we were discussing the awesomeness of the ’Topes, the etymology of the Sandia Mountains (“sandia” is Spanish for “watermelon,” I’m told), and, as mentioned, the local meth situation. Painfully, she also asked if we were retired gentlemen; she generously assured me that I wasn’t necessarily too old to go to Lollapalooza, which I think she thinks was invented in 2007. I realized that Rob and I seemed about as remote to these fresh-faced dope fiends as Herbert Hoover did to us.
Anyway, we all screamed increasingly blue commentary at the field, until our friends departed about an inning too soon. The game wrapped up at 11:59 with a pinch-hit RBI single from Iowa's Chris "Who?" Robinson. In other news, Albuquerque’s parent club declared bankruptcy, raising yet again the cry, “And not the Mets??”
I do need to mention that we had hoped to start the day in Kewanee, Illinois, delighting in the antics of otters cavorting inside a savings-and-loan. We learned to our dismay, however, that one of the otters
passed away peaceably last fall, perhaps in belated imitation of the other, who did the same about two years earlier. The otter environment is still there, but apparently it’s just a water feature now—another Midwestern relic of something that used to be great.