Our food stand occupied an enviable square of real estate, just outside the long, cavernous livestock barns, where hundreds of cattle were groomed at dawn for their moment at State Fair auction that afternoon. By late morning, after both the barns and our stand had been active for several hours, a thick ripe scent hung in the air, a humidity, mixing the fertilized sweetness of the barns with the aromatic steam from our beefburger vats. It was an unduplicable smell, not quite whetting, not quite nauseous, very nearly both. But whatever its effect, it worked, for each day, near noon, for the full two weeks of the 1961 Iowa State Fair, the crowd around our stand began to form and by 9 o'clock or so had grown so large and eager one might suspect that appetites more base than hunger were being serviced at its center.
Personally, I believed our success had little to do with the scent of the food. I believed it had mostly to do with the sign. It was a huge cloth banner, running the full length of the roof, dwarfing the stand, like a sail to its boat. It read, in blue block letters: PRAIRIE CITY METHODIST YOUTH FELLOWSHIP HELP SEND US TO WASHINGTON, D.C. Who could resist such an honorable mission? An invitation to subsidize with just one lunch both God and country. And in 1961, in the early freshness of a thousand days, those two impulses -- religion and patriotism -- were, in the ritual Midwest, much the same thing.
I stirred the bubbling beef, looking out from inside the plain, wooden stand, open all around. Faces in tiers were on every side, waving money. Short order in the round.
"Tryin' to get to Washington, are ya?" asked a farmer, wiping his lips with the greasy waxed paper that had wrapped his burger.
"Tryin'," I said.
"When ya figure you'll go?"
"Next summer, if we raise enough."
"How much ya figure you're gonna need?"
"We're trying to raise three thousand."
"Damn, that's great. Goin to Washington." The famer turned to his short, fat wife. "Hey Mildred. Let's have another sandwich." t
"I can't finish this one said Mildred, eyeing the fresh fruit pies at a stand across the walkway.
"Yes, these kids are tryin' to get to Washington, Dee Cee. Eat another one." He turned back to me. "Let us have two more here. And good luck to ya."
We left in pale first-light, from the steps of the Methodist Church. Our chartered Greyhound rumbled with an old boredom, the sound so long routine in its engine. But there was an opposite excitement in all of us as we climbed aboard, and we chattered and giggled to blunt the sick expectancy that churned in our stomachs. The bus eased away from the church and we waved and shouted at parents and friends. There was a kind of heroism in the mood of the morning, as if we were going off to something that required more bravery than curiosity. Such feeling was understandable. few of us had traveled far or often and for some including myself, this trip was the first beyond the state's border. And here we were not merely leaving Iowa, but leaving the table-flat security of the Midwest altogether, crossing half the country, for the exotic promise of history. It seemed a distance nothing less than lunar.
There were more than 20 of us, junior and seniors in high school, and six chaperones, led by our youth fellowship director, Mrs. Evalyn Stringer. She was a huge, stern farm women, who wore her hair in a tight pony tail and squinted behind bluish tinted glasses, a woman aged beyond her years by hard work and harder piety. In group prayer, she pronounced the word "God" with the hollow wonder of the especially reverent: "Gohht!" When the idea of raising money for Washington had first been heard, there was considerable skepticism in town. But with a back and a faith as strong as Mrs. Stringer's, the whole thing just seemed to be willed to completion.
So we rode away from town. It should be said that, although we were officially a church group, we were actually just the children of small-town Protestants, neither particularly pious nor profane. We belonged to the Methodist youth group because that's what you did on Wednesday nights, just as you played Saturday night band concerts in summer and got your hair cut on the last Thursday of the month. Religion, like culture and hygiene, was a deeply calendrical thing in a small town.
But a summer trip to Washington violated all the expected rhythms of daily life. Freed from work, from habits of leisure, from everything that had customarily bound us, we headed east.
The Greyhound was the perfect transportation, drawing out the change and distance. An airplane flight would have been too abrupt. We were not, in our minds' experience, just a couple of hours from Washington. We lived several cultures away and to have made the journey by plane would have been a leap giving all of us, like divers coming too quickly up, severe psychic bends.
So we watched the country move past our windows watched it dip and run and change its shape. We saw Chicago, rode slowly --safely sealed inside our bus -- through the defeated urban mesa of South Side, and the lasting impression, as vivid in my mind today as it was then, was the shock of seeing shops with steel bars drawn across the fronts. We saw the industrial smoke of Ohio and, in the middle of the night, felt the Greyhound dramtically rise and fall through Appalachia. We stopped at a simulated-Colonial Howard Johnson's on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, spectrally lit on a small bluff, like a preview. Inside we ordered sandwiches filled with something other than beef! We were far from Iowa.
And after three full days and two driver changes (a departing Wells Fargo gesture "I'll be leaving you now. It's been a real pleasure . . ."), we slowly approached the edge of our dream. The bus pulled off the highway, done with wide roads six days, led us to wards Washington. I've no idea of course, what streets it took. I only know that, as it moved through the outskirts, I received the first lesson in the illusionary size of an imaginary gone unchecked, or postcard images toned down by no moderating reality. What I expected to see was something on a scale of Persian opulence, so nothing could have met that.
What I saw in fact was in a way even more startling. I was amazed and somehow comforted by the gritty ordinariness of the first neighborhoods of Washington. Its plainness its accessibility. The buildings were certainly much older and more eccentric than anything in Des Moines, but they were not terminally decaying, like Chicago's. So before I'd seen any of what we'd raised our money to visit -- the monuments, the geometry of lengends -- I concluded that Washington was after all just a city. A huge city, to be sure, like nothing I'd seen. But not forbidingly a city; it lived.
The Greyhound hissed to a stop. Mrs. Stringer bolted out of her seat, as if struck by revelation. "Here we are, everybody," she announced. But this was obviously a mistake. We'd been sent pictures of our hotel and this bleak and weather-smeared building to which she was pointing was clearly not it. The picture had shown a shining artifice, catching the sun off, perhaps, the Washington Monument. They'd suggested wide lawns flanking either side, not the huge cafeteria and the brick apartment house that seemed to lean against this place for their support, or to give it its support, like three drunks.
"Here we go," said Mrs. Stringer. "After we've checked in and found our rooms, we'll come right back to the bus. We have a lot to cover this afternoon." She referred to a schedule on her clipboard, a copy of which we'd all been given. It charted an itinerary that a Kenyan marathoner might have met. Each day was jammed, appointments with patriotism at 15-minute intervals. I believe, as I try to recall the whole episode, that she left off a visit to the Albanian embassy.
In fact, much of that momentous week, or rather the places and official sites of it, is nothing but a blur. I remember very little of anything we visited and, as hard as I try, I cannot remember our pitiful old hotel's name, or where it was located. Whenever I'm now in Washington I try vainly to determine where it was or -- miraculously -- still is, thinking how enjoyable it would be to compare it in clear light to the sleazy structure of memory. But I've no idea in the world. All I remember are the taxi cabs that roamed the street in front of it like flies to a carcass. I was terrrifically impressed with the dozens of taxi companies and even more impressed with the explanation that an individual could have his own cab company, that the Horace D. Johnson taxi company was, most probably, only Horace D. Johnson.
But I think it was something more than our impossibly crowded scedule that gave my normally vivid memory no lasting impressions of any one piece of federal America. I believe that there were hightly obscuring impulses even stronger than devotion awakened that week. For, regardless of the intentions that had brought us to this city, the overrriding fact was that it was simply my first city, my first chance to observe urban variety, and that invitation produced an adrenal excitement that rushed with a new drug's powers. In the next few days, I'd overhear voices using accents I'd associated exclusively with newsreel bigotry on the 6 o'clock report. Now I heard Southern voices, evocative and benign; I'd see complexions of a rich and lustrous tone that I'd assumed only my father's farm animals were entitled to. In short, I'd come to Washington to pay homage, to participate in the sort of respectful necrophilia that is elementally a tourist's journey through Washington. What I discovered, instead, among all the mammoth tombstones, was the possibility of life, of people, far more various than anything I'd imagined.
I've since come to call it the Wilbur Mills Syndrome. After all, how different from my own small awakening can it be for a new bureaucrat, fresh from the awesome plainness of life in the mill village in the South or the rural Midwest, suddenly faced with the extraordinary complexity of Washington? And even more unsettling than the richness of the place is that sense of being freed from the homogenous constraints of life as it's been known. Newly arrived, looking around, confronted with sights and sense like nothing remotely in his experience, my mythical Mills begins to believe in part that Washington is several cultures away from his severe and dusty origins. So far away, on the newly forming evidence of it, that news of any social excess could not possibly travel the vast distance to those responsibilities back home. But, alas, we are not only several cultures from any new experience; we are also just a few hours away.
Like Wilbur, I, too, had responsibilities back home. Her name was Karen. We were not only in love, we were even going steady. She had not made the trip to Washington because she was some other brand of Protestant. So she had stood, waving virtuously, in the pink dawn as our trip began.
When was that? I asked my self as we walked through our seedy lobby, trying to call up my love and feel its shape for reassurance. Had that been only four days ago? Before or after Akron? And was Prairie City east or west Chicago? Was it Karen or Sharon?
We managed to get registered. While we waited at the desk to get sorted out and assigned, I looked around the lobby. It was dark and narrow and against the walls, round old men sat in sagging leather chairs, watching us. The room reeked from the dead cigars of earlier centuries. It may as well have been the Madison.
"What's your room number?" someone asked. I turned to see my friend Mary smiling. She was a year older than I and a foot taller. She was in love and even going steady with Lloyd, who was still another brand of Protestant and also not on the trip. So she had responsibilities, like Wilbur and I, back home, too. I wondered if she were having as much trouble recalling hers as we were.
"1281." I said, looking at my key.
"I'm right below you," she said. "Old Stringer's got the girls on 11, boys on 12." One of the reasons I'd always liked Mary, and been a abit daunted by her, was the sense of worldliness she gave off, a sort of natural sophistication that has nothing to do with experience. Mary had it, and I'd always admired it and now, in the musty lobby of a condemned hotel somewhere in my first city, she seemed exactly the ally I needed to share it all with.
"Let's sit together at lunch," I said.
"As far away from Stringie as possible," she agreed.
How long had Wilbur Mills been town in 1961?
I do remember the FBI tour. Hoover was nothing if not a propangandist and in those days, of course, his name was interchangeable with any of the Trinity. The tour was sheer melodrama, like stepping into an episode with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. We walked through an incongruously sleepy courtyard and were met inside by a lovely young woman who showed us a scale model of the Lindberg home -- from which the baby had been snatched -- that was used in the subsequent trial. Hovering above the doll house, on the wall, was a line of photographs -- the notorious Ten Most Wanted -- framed in all their terror, crime's best-seller list. We studied them with an almost aesthetic appreciation for their malice, moving close up to the pictures as one would inspect a photograph on a gallery wall.
"Look at this guy! He looks like my Uncle Vern's dog!"
The lovely guide led us through trophy-filled corridors. Somebody's hat, ominously bullet-ridden. Somebody else's diamond-headed walking stick, used as a signal to G-men in hiding. Then to the basement, where the agents took target practice.
It was a long dark room, a sort of lethal bowling alley, paper silhouettes dancing at one end. At the other, we were allowed to lift rifles to our shoulders and sight down the barrel toward all that was evil in this world.
Crack! Crack! Crack crack crack! I loved the liquid weight of the rifle's power. I loved the role I was playing: I was a sniper for God and country. I was ready to enlist.
Mary came up to me after she'd finished shooting. The rifle bearing so much steel and virtue, had been heavy in my arms. I'd watched Mary lift hers absentmindely.
"How'd you do?" I asked eagerly.
"Oh, I guess I got three or four," she said. "Isn't this all incredibly juvenile?"
"Uh, right. Juvenile. Juvenile," I said. I looked down the row, where my fellow Methodists were firing away like midway sharpshooters trying for a stuffed panda. Moments before I had shot targets with a childish glee. Now, seeing the same enthusiasm in my friends, I wished for Mary's instincts.
I spent the rest of the hot summer week in the growing awareness that I had come to Washington wearing my country origins like a winter-weight suit. As the days progressed, and I took in more and more of what was going on around me, I began to wish for the urban fabrics I saw on others, and for a separation from those I was sentenced to spend this time with. I became acutely sensitive to the amused looks we drew as we trooped regimentally from place to place, trying to keep reasonably close to our schedule, Mrs. Stringer's mother limping along the hot sidewalks holding her white-strapped shoes in her hand. Her feet sweeled with barometric accuracy. After a few days, Mary and I, at the end of the group, had begun to see a daily recurrence.
"Is it three o'clock" she'd ask.
"Yes. Five of," I'd say. "How'd you know?"
"Stringie's mother just took off her shoes."
At one point, I despaired. "There are thousands of people walking around Washington. Why does everybody seem to be smirking at us?"
"Did you ever hear of a congressman from the District of Hicks?" Mary asked, rhetorically.
I hadn't. Not yet.
By the middle of the week, we were a scandal among our peers. Although we'd done nothing more than form a bond of the spirit, our conduct fell beyond the narrow terms of "going steady." The boys on the trip were not so much offended as bemused and jealous, wondering what Mary -- so much older and so much taller -- found in me.
"Jesus," said Gene, my friend among the boys on the trip, one night as we lay in bed. "If I'd known Mary was gonna get an itch to pollinate, I'd offered my services." Gene was tall as Mary and therefore, he reasoned, a more desirable diversion than I was. I only sighed, knowing I couldn't explain to poor provincial Gene the larger vision that Mary and I shared, a source of attraction beyond anything menially physical.
"It's Paul, then Saul," said Dennis, one of our chaperones, nearly asleep in his bed and thinking we were talking about the Bible. "Not Paul and Nate." Dennis was the editor of the weekly paper and a fanatically devout young man. He printed the Sunday church bulletin free on one of his old presses, the type for which had a chipped "t" that looked like a "c," so that the headline read: "Prairie City Mechodisc," our denomination sounding like a computer software company.
In fact, our mutiny was a seed of discontent. The whole group began to form factions -- teams of four and five. Everybody took to catty whisperings and one day, on the Greyhound, somebody scrawled on the bathroom mirror: "String up Stringie?" Sensing revolution in the place that celebrates it, she called us all together one evening in the basement "party room" of the hotel for reconciliation and a reminder of our purpose. She ordered pizza from a takeout place nearby with the extra money we'd raised. So the surplus of our fever to get to Washington was spent trying to reheat our spirit to that compelling temperature.
There were no real surprises -- except for Mary and me -- in the way the groups had split up. There was the Senior Girls, united in their disapproval of Mary. The Junior Girls Plus Amy (an obese girl whose weight automatically dropped her one scholastic year in popularity). There were the Junior-Senior Boys, the largest and most powerful faction, since that category included (normally, when I was in it) every boy among us except: Harold and Ray, the last faction two junior boys who were as outcast in our own church's basement as in this one. For they were unbelievably sincere about the Scriptures, competing only with each other for the honor, both of them nearly jumping out of their chairs with catechismic eagerness whenever Mrs. Stringer asked if anyone would read some Testament or recite His Word from memory. Naturally, they were Mrs. Stringer's favorites and, as naturally, loathed by all the rest of us.
Mrs. Stringer cleared her throat and began. "When we all said, 'Yes, let's go to Washington,' it was one of the happiest days of my life. Everybody knew we'd have to work hard but we all wanted so much to get here we knew we could do it."
"I's proud, too, when I heard it," said Mrs. Stringer's mother, sitting beside her. Her toes wiggled slowly, like worms in pain huge open bedroom slippers. "I thought: I'm goin' to Washington."
Mrs. Stringer continued. "I know some of you have enjoyed some things more than others and mayabe that's why we've kind of lost some of the unity."
"I've enjoyed every bit of it, Evalyn," said Mrs. Stringer's mother.
"Good mother," said Mrs. Stringer, smiling wearily. "So I thought, kids, since we have only two days left, we could kind of remember why we came and maybe give ourselves a chance to say if anything's bothering us."
A silence hung in the air like weather, Mrs. Stringer waited for someone to break it, then said again, "Would anyone like to start and just say whether anything's bothering them?"
"Just my feet. Other'n that, everything's fine, Evalyn."
Mrs. Stringer said, "Maybe if we all review what we've seen so far and apply it as Christians to our last few days, we can get the most from the time we have left."
Mary whispered to me, "I feel like I'm hearing a funeral sermon." We laughed loudly enough to draw a slow burning look from one of the Senior Girls.
"So, again, would anybody like to anything?"
Finally, Gene mumbled, "I guess I feel like we been seein' so much we can't, whatchacallit? take it all in."
That was the sentiment the room had been waiting for. Suddenly, from every group, flourishes on the theme were voiced:
"I said tonight I couldn't remember whether we saw the Treasury or the Mint and which was where they made the money."
"I tried to write a postcard to tell Mom and Dad where we'd been and all I could see in my head was steps. Seems like all we been doin' for a week is climbin' steps."
"We oughta get a say in what we want to see, I think."
"Yeah. How come we don't get to decide? It's our money. We raised it."
"Yeah. We oughta be able to say where our money's goin'."
Mrs. Stringer held up her hand to quite us. "All right," she said. "We can do that. We can vote on what you want to see. The only thing we have to do is have lunch with Representative Simpson tomorrow. That's all set up."
"I want to do that, anyway," said Amy, the obese girl. Others agreed that lunch with our congressman was something they'd looked forward to, but otherwise there was spectacular disagreement over the sights preferred. Harold and Ray wanted to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and visit Washington Cathedral again, perhaps imaging some direct celestial line from one to the other. But their voice together had no power at all. Gene stared them into quiet submission. Gene and the other Senior and Junior Boys wanted to see the Pentagon, and Gene wanted to go back to the FBI building and shoot rifles. What emerged finally was a choice between two side trips -- down the river to Mt. Vernon or into Pennsylvania to Gettysburg on our way out of town.
"Gettysburg!" shouted Gene. "I want to see the BATTLES, I want to imagine the blood, those rebels fallin'. See Grant's Tomb."
"Mt. Vernon," said May Beth. "A trip on the river. The only water I've been on is the cement plant reservoir in Cummings."
"Mt. Vernon! How can we come to Washington without seeing the Father of Our Country's house?"
"Easy. We go to Gettysburg instead."
The vote would be extremely close. May and I favored Mt. Vernon, which took the advantage from Gene and his friends, the largest faction. No one seemed confident enough of winning to call a vote and then, suddenly, May Beth looked around for Harold and Ray, seated in shadow beneath a heating duct. She quietly walked to them, and they shrank in their folding chairs. May Beth squatted beside them and asked, "Which would you guys rather see?" They looked at one another and turned back to May Beth, shrugging in unison.
"Well think about it," May Beth said. "Wouldn't it be neat to take a boat down the river to Washington's home?"
Harold looked as if he couldn't decide whether taking a boat trip or chewing his sleeve could be more exciting. Then May Beth, in a flush of inspiration, spoke again. "Imagine it. Think of being in a boat on the water. It would be like Jesus in the River Galilee. Think of Peter and his fishing nets. Or the Red Sea about to part. It would be a kind of baptism!"
Such magisterial references were, of course, far more than the quiet Potomac could possibly live up to, but that was not vital to May Beth's argument. She was after votes, using what she knew could reach the dispositions of passionate young Christians.
"Well . . . ," Harold finally said, warming to the idea of riding waters that could serve as prop to his fervor. May Beth knew she had him and, having him, had Ray, as well. And she would have, too, right then and with no further stipulation, if Gene had not seen the unimaginable posture of May Beth, smiling, with her arm around Harold. He knew immediately what was going on and rushed over to the caucus beneath the heating duct.
"Listen, you guys," he said. "FORGET THE WATER. Water's water."
"We're sailing the Red Sea!" Harold said.
"Red Sea? Oh, God." He perceived the tactics that had been applied. "listen to me. Think of Gettysburg. Armies and stuff. Hey! Think of it like a Bible battleground. Imagine you'll be seein' the ground where the Israelis went out and had their battles in --"
"Israelites. Not Israelis," Harold said.
"Israelites, right," said Gene. "Imagine you're seein' where they fought those bloody battles in the book of Jacob we studied, where they killed off the Ai people --"
"Joshua," said Harold. "Not Jacob."
"Chapter eight, said Ray.
"Verse 25," said Harold. "And so it was that all that fell the day both of men and women were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai.'"
"Even the men!" urged Gene.
Ray said, "And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree until eventide. '"
"Praise the Lord," said Gene, "Lets go to Gettysburg."
"No. Mt. Vernon," said May Beth. "By the banks of the Galilee."
"Gettysburg," said Gene. "Thousands of Ai ghosts layin' in the weeds."
Harold looked at Ray and they formed a tight huddle, whispering back and forth. Soon they began to nod and Ray turned back to announce, "We'll vote for Mt. Vernon, if we can spend another morning at Washington Cathedral."
"What?" said May Beth and Gene. "We've already been."
"Not long enough," said Harold. "I prayed, the night after we'd been there, for His forgiveness. We only stayed a few hours. Ray agrees with me. This is His way of giving us a second chance to do right by Him."
May Beth returned to her group to explain the terms. A few girls raised their heads to throw baleful looks at Harold and Ray. So long as she was at it, one of them threw still another at Mary and me, as if in some way we were responsible for all this. At the same time, Gene explained the demands to the boys. Their reception was immediate. Howls rose from their circle, and a cold pizza wedge arched like a missile toward Harold and Ray. They realized they were beaten. They'd rather not see Gettysburg at all than see it in a trade for another morning at the cathedral. But, losing the vote, they'd have to endure Mt. Vernon and the cathedral. Harold and Ray would have to sleep in shifts on the bus trip home.
Mt. Vernon won by three votes. None of the chaperones voted, and Mrs. Stringer was visibly moved to hear that there was such strong sentiment for another visit to the cathedral. She asked us to end the night in prayer.
"Gracious Gohht," she said. "I feel like we've captured again that spirit that got us to Washington in the first place, thanks to Your help, as we've demonstrating by the spontaneous need that has welled up in our Christian hearts to pay one more visit to Your great and glorious temple here in Washington."
And so we got the spirit back, at least in the astigmatic eyes of Mrs. Stringer. What neither she nor any of the rest of us recognized that night were other Washington lessons that had been used impressively, the customs of compromise democracy. That, and the dialogue of the country's founding protest, had been echoed in the party room. Perhaps it was merely coincidence; or, perhaps it was some subtler spirit, some osmosis that infects a tourist, just as surely as the encompassing ancestry is supposed to work. In either event, legislation got made, and Harold and Ray, God's lobbyists, could sleep the sleep of those who'd won amendments.
We walked the next day to the Capitol for lunch with Congressman Simpson. The weather was bright and hot, and the vast lawns gleamed as if mown in the morning's dew light. Thin strips of sidewalk running here and there seemed the marched borders of field-pieces, and I looked at the spreading vista and was amazed at how the pieces fit together with such snug and strict order in comparison with the endless pastures back home, held in only by the lenient line of the horizon. People hurried along the sidewalks, passing us, meeting us, their costumes and their speech continuing what had been for me animated travelogue. My head spun this way and that as I followed conversations of those I passed, listening hard for the metric peculiarities in their voices.
We reached the Capitol and followed our chaperones through hallways, on elevators, as the guides and operators condescendingly counted our number. It was as if the more there were of you, the higher the rube quotient of your group. I yearned to be, and to be able to be, alone in Washington. To be by yourself meant, by definition, that you knew your way, regularly walked here.
We found the Speaker's Dining Room. Everyone had agreed that Congressman Simpson must know the speaker will to be able to use his dining room. Gene wondered where the speaker would eat. We trooped meekly into the room and took places at the long table. The room was smaller than I'd anticipated but was filled with inconceivable luxury. Dark velvet drapery cast it in an opulent gloom. The table was set with things that gleamed -- silver and crystal that seemed to hold their own source of light. Finally, this was the Washington I'd imagined as I'd stirred the beefburger at the State Fair stand, the place of ornamental excess beyond the range of a plains imagination. I was sitting inside my fantasy, timidly fingering its heavy utensils, when a large red-faced man entered the room, smiled and broadly waved.
"Hello, everyone," the man said. "Sorry I'm a minute or two late."
Who was this? I wondered to Mary. She looked equally blank. He was quite tall, perhaps 50, and his cheap brown suit strained against the work-formed breadth of his chest. He wore two-toned loafers, brown with white tops. His gray hair was combed inelegantly straight back and shone from Brylcreem. And his forehead, in contrast with the rest of his pink complexion, was milk-white. The unmistakable markings of a Farmer's Tan.
He was doubtlessly in the wrong room, though it was understandable why he'd be so obviously at ease with us. He was as identifiably a farmer as we were. But here he was, making his way along the table to its head. How fitting, I moaned: a farmer-tourist gone amok in the Speaker's Dining Room. We had to get him out of here before Congressman Simpson arrived. He waved to Mrs. Stringer as she stood, beaming, at the chair next to the one he was heading for and as he reached it, she shook the lost farmer's hand, matching his arm strength no doubt, and to all of us, she announced, "Everyone? Meet Congressman Simpson."
Impossible. Congressmen were of this place, of Washington. Congressman Simpson, therefore, would be man of urbanity and grace. Of course, I would not have recognized urbanity or grace if Averell Harriman had walked into the room. but if I didn't know exactly what I was looking for in the personality of the congressman, I knew full well what I saw before me. I saw one of us, and the slow realization, during the length of our lunch, the Congress, the city of Washington could include the kind of person I'd been in full flight from all week was a shock my new, fanatic arrogance could not begin to digest.
We ate in muted silence, all ears straining to her the words of the congressman, while black waiters in stiffly starched white jackets moved briskly about, their hands darting between us to give and remove courses. I continued to stare hard at the congressman, eyeing his every movement, as if trying to discover a magician's moves. What confounded me so was that he was both obliviously at home among the luxury of this room and yet glaringly apart from it. I'd assumed one must be completely one way or the other, not some honest balance of who and where one was. Just as I thouht I was beginning to learn the steps and recognize the fabrics, I'd been undermined by the congressman from the District of Hicks.
His words came intermitently to the far end of the table on a flat South Iowa twang. I heard, " . . . mostly corn and soy beans, some beef cattle." And: " . . . not much, really. Read my staff reports and watch the news before I turn in."
We ate "clear consoamie," chicken and small scoops of sherbet. Gene said he was damned glad he hadn't had to pay for such stingy portions and figured that, free of cost, the meal was just about worth the price. At the end Congressman Simpson stood and said, "I'm just real proud of all of you and what you've done in getting here. Too often those of us who've lived in Washington for a while come to take it all for granted and when a group of young people, like yourself, work and earn money to come here, it reminds all of us just what this city signifies.
"So thank you all for coming to see us. It was my pleasure to have you for lunch. And now I have to run. There's a vote on the floor in just a few minutes."
And with that he strode out, smiling, taking big long awkward steps, shoulders dipping alternately, the barnyard gait I'd seen on the sidewalks of Prairie City every day of my life.
I was suddenly, terribly homesick.
The bus ride back was twice as long as the one that had brought us, or so it seemed. No one wanted any longer to be where he was, only to have been there. What we wanted now was to tell about it, each of us clutching his particular impressions like an assortment of shells after an exploration of the beach.
I wasn't sure what I was clutching. There were certain shells whose markings were elusive. One thing I'd decided, for sure, was to face my constituency straight on, explain to Karen the innocence of my apparent infidelity despite anything she might hear. The Huey Long "Tell-'em-I-lied" psychology
Mary and I sat together for the first day, then moved gradually farther apart as the bus got nearer home. We were four rose away from each other day the time we reached Gary, and when the Greyhound cruised smoothly past Iowa City at midnight, she was sitting in front with May Beth and I sat in back, wide awake, listening to the cadent snoring of Gene, pleased to recognize the first of those reliable rhythms I'd been so eager to flee.