On Friday, I took a minivan full of granola bars and campaign literature from Des Moines to Fort Dodge, with Karl-Thomas as my passenger. Like many of the Stormers, Karl was under 21 and was therefore unable to drive the rental vans, of which the campaign had acquired about 80.
My job was to be the "firebase" (or "welcome center") director for the tiny Storm center located in Fort Dodge, about 90 miles north of Des Moines. We were expecting some 90 people or so, most of which would be sent from Des Moines, Ames and Mason City.
The drive went easy and conversation with Karl was pleasant. At 19, he has an impressive knowledge of political history and is working hard to be a delegate for the Texas Democratic party this year. Karl was given the role of being my "check-in/check-out" coordinator and I put him in charge of our various walk lists that had been assembled for us.
Fort Dodge is a quaint, Norman Rockwell-eqsue all-American town. It didn't take long for us to find "The Galley," the perfect greasy spoon where green vegetables were not served but the hash browns were just right. The architecture was so amazingly Americana that I felt like it was some kind of theme park. Even though they haven't built any sizeable buildings in forty or fifty years, Fort Dodge, Iowa puts more architect-infested towns like Eugene to shame.
Upon arrival we met James, the local, low-key field office director and Mike, the staff person who was assigned to us to help out. We spent about an hour getting the tiny, run-down office in order, and then we settled down, waiting for our guests.
Sometime after noon, a group of eight from Columbus Ohio arrived, and we wasted no time getting them divvied up into groups and sending them out canvassing with their walk lists. Then we waited some more. Around three, we started calling around. Mason City had no intention of sending us anyone. Des Moines didn't know what was going on. They sent us a list of people who had been assigned to us, but apparently nobody on the list knew that they had been reassigned.
So Friday was a slow day. Karl and I both tried to hack our way into the wireless networks we were detecting, probably from the John Edwards office at the end of the block. For dinner, we went to Fizzoli's, an Italian fast-food chain that was a favorite of my grandfather in Lexington, Kentucky. The manager there was amazing ignorant of what the Iowa Caucus was all about, and the vanload of North Carolinians who were working for Edwards apparently weren't interested in informing her, so Karl and I took on the task.
Now I do have to say this about the people who work for the various campaigns. As previously mentioned, the Kucinich folks were hippies, both young and old, mostly young. The Kerry people were yuppies, my age and older, with turtleneck sweaters and manicured nails. We were the most diverse of the bunch, but in general, we were rather slobby and homely, like a bunch of tech nerds with insufficient sleep. But I doubt I'm the only one that noticed that Edward's people were mainly enthusiastic, well-dressed, good-looking college-aged women with Southern accents that certainly attracted my attention. And I wonder if that had anything to do with Edward's surprising outcome. I guess we'll never know.
Our camp that night was someplace called "Hidden Acres." It was probably forty miles from Fort Dodge, way out in the farm country, which gave us plenty of opportunities to get lost. Worse, my navigator was falling asleep, and it was the coldest night I had experienced yet. When we reached "Hidden Acres," the place was deserted and, at first, I couldn't even find where it was we were supposed to sleep. Like Wesley Woods, it was a Christian summer camp, and the only housing I found were some covered wagon-shaped cabins.
So while I was stumbling around in the negative five degree ice-covered gravel paths of Hidden Acres, Karl was snoozing contentedly. (I later learned the way to keep him awake was to pelt him with questions about voting patterns and campaign strategies.) When I finally found the very comfortable quarters of the retreat center, there was no waking him, so I took my bags inside, took a bath and went to bed. Apparently, he finally came in around two in the morning, once the van had become too cold.
The second day in Fort Dodge wasn't much different than the first. I had five more people visit in addition to the eight from Ohio, and we were able to do a bit more canvassing. But the promised hordes did not arrive. Late in the afternoon, I received a mysterious call from my order-giver in Des Moines, which went something like, "If you get a call from someone named 'Becker,' do what he tells you too." Uh, okay, Matt. And sure enough, "Becker" did call to let me know that on Sunday I'd be getting seven busloads of Texans.
At some point on Saturday night, I learned that two stars were coming to Fort Dodge to do a little pro-Howard Dean performance: punk rocker Joan Jett and comedian Janeane Garafolo. The event was held in an un-lit community college cafeteria and there were maybe two hundred Dean fans there. I tried to reach any of my friends on the cell phone so that they could share some words with Garafalo, and Luna was the lucky one, although the conversation was so short ("Vote for Dean!") and the connection so poor that I doubt it was as exciting for her as it was for me.
Texans: a mixed blessing. While some Texans, like Karl-Thomas and Kim, were manageable, most of them were not. When the first wave hit on Sunday, it was like a tornado. I tried to keep them all together, but they all wandered around like sugar cereal kids, getting into everything. I placed myself between the exit door and them, making sure that they didn't leave with anything I didn't want to part with. A good thing, too, because one particularly assertive woman had grabbed her own walk list and hadn't bothered checking it out with Karl.
And the other thing about the Texans is that they're annoyingly slow, and they expect things to be slow. One group spent about an hour examining the contents of their walk list before hitting the streets. They came back two hours later and then took a two hour break before going out again. For Monday, I asked people to show up around eight so that we could wave a lot of signs on the street corners. The Texans arrived at 10:15, and when I handed them signs and pointed to the corner, they complained about no "how-de-dos," no breakfast, and the cold. Definitely, Texas must be a different world.
On Sunday, I did receive the promised hordes. So that was a busy day. But most left me high and dry on Monday and we had a lot of downtime while we were waiting for the crowds to return. Mike, who is a sports fan, and I started a little baseball game in the office. He was swinging one of the sticks from our picket signs, I was tossing a ball made of discarded duct tape. Sick and tired of the Quaker Chewy Granola Bars, I chose to pitch a few of those as well. Unfortunately, Mike connected with a line drive down center and I had a fat lip that night from our little game of "peltola."
We were completely out of touch up in Fort Dodge: no Internet connection. We had no way of know what was going on in the campaign, but whatever it was, it was clearly not good. On Sunday, we called all the people in one precinct that said they'd be supporting Governor Dean and out of 17 calls, we had zero confirmations. People were jumping the Dean ship in droves and James in the field office was having kittens.
By Monday afternoon, there wasn't much more we could do. A few people waved signs on the corner. We telephoned a lot of people that evening, trying to get them all to go and caucus for Dean, but they weren't sounding too hot. We did the best we could, but as it turned out, it wasn't enough.