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Listening for the first time to our national anthem

It was 10:30 Saturday morning.

The day was already blisteringly hot, and heat mirages were rising off the blacktop where the maintenance crew had spent the night washing off the evidence of the 50,000 people who’d been there the day before.

The air smelled of doughnut grease, manure, bus fumes and cotton candy. It was a surprisingly pleasant smell.

We’d handed our tickets to a young woman at Gate 10.

She tore our tickets at the perforation, and as she handed the stubs back to us she said, "Welcome to the Iowa State Fair. Have a great day!"


Her enthusiasm seemed to be offsetting the effects of the heat. I wondered if she would still be that enthusiastic in eight hours, and decided she probably would.

We stopped at a National Guard display, and a soldier who might have been 14 years old explained some of the subtleties of operating a Hum-Vee.

I thanked him for his service to the country, and he seemed genuinely pleased. He called me "sir".

I don’t get called "sir" very often.

We crossed to the Natural Resources building against a growing backdrop of sound: a green tractor chugged down the street pulling three open wagons filled with fairgoers. Calliope music came from a food stand while a very large man in Bermuda shorts squirted bright yellow mustard onto an overpriced corn dog. A disk jockey who overestimated his own wit spoke too loudly from a radio station’s broadcast booth. A cow mooed.

But at the same time, something else began to overspread the fairgrounds. It started with the kind of crackle that comes from a well-worn LP record, followed by the tinny sound of an industrial-sized public address system.

"Oh, say can you see …"

The song began without fanfare, and the first couple of words were nearly drowned out by the bustle of activity.


"What so proudly we hailed …"

One by one, other sounds began to fade. The cow and the DJ both stopped talking, and the green tractor stopped in the middle of the street.

"Whose broad stripes and bright stars …"

A young man in an Iowa DNR uniform paused in the middle of a talk about restoring wetlands, and the 20 people in his audience stood. A dozen of them removed seed corn hats out of respect.

"Were so gallantly streaming …"

A very large man in Bermuda shorts had half a corn dog in his hand. He was holding the hand over his heart.

His lips were moving, and I was fairly certain he wasn’t chewing.

" … that our flag was still there


A flutter of movement caught my eye; through a gap in the tree branches an American flag waved in the breeze from its perch high on the corner of the grandstand.

"O’er the land of the free … "

I couldn’t hear the recording on the PA system any more because everyone around me was singing.

" … and the home of the brave"

The song ended without fanfare. No one applauded, and a day at the fair resumed — the seed corn hats went back on, a cow mooed and a green tractor chugged back to life. And I realized that even though I’ve heard that two-minute song thousands of times before, this might have been the first time I actually listened to it.

I’m not sure I’ll ever hear it quite the same way again.

We watched the ducks and geese preen themselves in a DNR wetland display, then we went in search of something to eat; our only ground-rule for eating at the fair is that you can’t eat anything that figures prominently on the food pyramid.

And as we walked, I thought of the soldier who looked like he was 14.


I should have called him "sir".

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