Note: A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
Some dichotomies are as old as time.
Take the issue of urban (or, at least, suburban) vs. rural.
A Long Time Ago:
I can picture a time many thousands of years ago; a Friday night, perhaps (or whatever they called Fridays in that remote time) in a little village in the Fertile Crescent. A half-dozen or so teenage boys are hanging around outside a date merchant’s shop on the edge of the village, trading anecdotes about some of the local girls. One of them has brought a goat’s stomach, dried, cured and stuffed with straw, and as the teens talk, they are tossing the goat’s stomach back and forth.
These boys had in fact invented a game that they play with this makeshift ball; they call it “Goat.” This half-dozen boys consider themselves rather good Goat players and have amassed some hubris over that fact.
Entering the scene another half-dozen boys. But where the Goat players come from merchant families in the village, these new entries are clearly from a more rural background. They have just finished herding a bunch of cattle into town for sale, their pockets now clink with cowrie shells, and the rural kids are looking to have some fun.
Now, here, in the gathering evening, these two groups have come face to face.
“Well,” one of the village boys says, “look here – where did you guys come from?”
“The big valley north of here,” the biggest of the rural kids asks. “Why? Who are you guys?”
“Can’t you tell?” The leader of the village kids strikes a pose. “We’re Goat players!”
“Look more like goat shaggers to me,” one of the rural kids replies.
Things went downhill from there. Busted noses and black eyes almost certainly ensued. It truly is a tale as old as time.
The fact is the rivalry between country kids and townies certainly goers back as long as there have been towns. And that takes me to Allamakee County, decades ago:
In neighboring Winneshiek County, about twenty miles from our homestead, lay the scenic little town of Decorah. Decorah had a number of attractions for local teenagers; it was the site of the only movie theater and the only bowling alley in the region, there were several fast-food joints, a main drag with a pizza place and a couple of taverns, and a small private college with the usual contingent of college girls.
Every summer, Decorah, originally a community of Norwegian immigrants, hosted the Nordic Fest. Nowadays I’m told the Nordic Fest weekend is sedate, mostly focused on the history of the area and displays of Nordic food and culture.
In the late Seventies, though, while Nordic food and culture were on display, so were several beer tents in the various parking lots in the downtown area. The Nordic Fest weekend was a party, none better in the area, and this was in the days when teenagers could legally partake if they were eighteen.
Needless to say, I always planned to attend Nordic Fest weekend, and so did the collection of miscreants and ne’er-do-wells I called my friends.
The problem we rural kids always encountered, of course, could be summed up in one word:
Townies. And whenever townies and rural kids met up, a scrap was frequently the result.
By Way of Background:
Let me take a moment and define the word “townie.”
This particular pejorative doesn’t necessarily be keyed to where someone lived. One member of our group, Albert Hedley, had spent a good part of his youth in an actual by-gosh city, Chicago, and in fact lived in Waukon, where his father ran the hardware store. But nobody called Albert a townie.
A “townie” was someone who believed in the inherent superiority of those who dwelled in town, as opposed to those of us who happily lived on farms or out in the woods. Waukon, being a small town with a majority of retired farmers living there, didn’t have many actual townies in those days; but Decorah, still a small town but twice the size of Waukon, had an economy largely based around the college and its employees and instructors, and therefore had a hefty population of actual townies. The more annoying of the townies were those who belonged to the school’s sports clique; their participation in football or basketball and the resulting status as athletes frequently led them to believe they were tougher than farm kids who had grown up wrestling calves and tossing around hay bales and feed sacks.
Granted plenty of rural kids played sports as well, which just complicated things. Especially when local kids gathered in Decorah to have some fun. And it was that Decorah that was the site of Nordic Fest every summer, the best party for miles around, which attracted a lot of big, tough rural kids.
This One Time:
The summer before, several of us drove all the way to Des Moines for a concert. Compared to our local small towns, Des Moines was quite the metropolis.
We had timed our drive to arrive plenty early. Pre-concert, a bunch of us were hanging around in the parking lot near my buddy Jon’s ancient Dodge van, in which we had a cooler full of beer.
Two hours until the concert venue (a local foot ball stadium) opened, and our group of five was well into the beers when some locals showed up.
There were eight of them, and five of us. Their leader – at least, we assumed he was the leader, as he was the biggest – was a bruiser, six-two at least, probably well over two hundred pounds.
Two groups of teenage boys stood in the late July sun, looking suspiciously at each other. The sun sent heat waves up off the blacktop of the parking lot; somewhere in the middle distance a cicada rasped.
“Where are you guys from?” the big guy asked. I noticed him looking closely at the Allamakee County plates on Jon’s van.
“Up north of Waukon,” I answered.
Silence for a few more moments. The Des Moines townies spread out a little. Our group did likewise.
“Don’t suppose you fellas would want to share some of that beer,” the big guy asked with a slanted, feral grin.
“Not so much,” Jon answered. “Go buy some of your own, and hell, we’ll hang out with you guys.”
“We’d rather have yours,” Feral replied, grinning more widely now, “…and have you guys gone back to Waukon or wherever you came from.”
“Sorry, guys, but we ain’t gonna do that,” came a voice from behind the townies. They turned, in unison…
…and there stood Mark Mallek, all six-foot-seven, two hundred sixty pounds of him.
Even with Mark on our side, five against eight were long odds, or so Feral thought. He grinned, wound up, and let fly with a haymaker right against Mark’s jaw. Mark’s head snapped an inch or two to the side; he turned his head slowly back, grinned, and said in his friendliest tone, “you shouldn’t have done that.”
A few moments later the townies helped their semi-conscious friend Feral into a car and left with muttered apologies. We finished our beers, enjoyed the concert, and later drove back north with no further incident.
Not all of our scraps ended that easily, though.
Back to the Story:
Back to Nordic Fest.
One of the major attractions of Nordic Fest was, of course, a wealth of blonde, blue-eyed girls that were the product of the Norwegian community. The downside of that was, of course, the attention that these same girls brought from the townies.
Now add beer to that mix.
Now, to be fair, us rural kids had some preconceived notions of our own. In general, we thought townies were weaklings, but just by laws of averages, not all of them were, and the boys who grew up in sports could be pretty tough themselves. This was a recipe for trouble; we thought the townies were wimps because they didn’t do farm work, and they thought we were wimps because we didn’t compete in athletics. Sooner or later, something was bound to happen to disabuse both sides of these notions, and that happened, sure enough, at Nordic Fest in the summer of 1980. And, for anyone who knows teenaged boys, it should come as no surprise that it was one of those blonde, blue-eyed gals that was the genesis of the Great Nordic Fest Scrap of 1980.
It began with a big group of us rural kids gathered in the beer tent the town had set up in the Fareway parking lot. It was a Saturday evening, most of us had been indulging generously and grinning broadly at every girl that walked past; some of the girls even grinned back (never underestimate farm-boy charm) and several promising conversations had been struck up.
I was, at that moment, not graced with feminine company, and so was ingesting a red solo cup full of beer and gassing with my pals Jon and Dave in the parking lot near the main entrance to the beer tent, when we heard a shout from inside: “Hey, you son of a bitch, are you hitting on my girlfriend?”
We recognized the voice; Steve Schneider, a member of the local high school’s football team, a pretty big guy, and a staunch, confirmed townie.
We also recognized the feminine voice raised in angry reply; Steve’s recently-ex girlfriend, Debbie, an archetypical blonde, blue-eyed gal of obvious Nordic descent, who shouted back, “I’m not your girlfriend anymore, you jerk!”
And finally, we recognized the voice that protested in return: “Geeze, Steve, you guys broke up! Everyone knows it!” It was our friend Albert, the smallest of our particular group.
The three of us looked at each other. “Shit,” Dave opined. “Better go see.”
Inside, we found Albert, backed up by Mark Mallek, the three Ackley brothers, four or five of the expansive Schultz clan and a couple other farm kids, squared off against most of the North Winneshiek High School sports clique.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” I said, trying to lighten things up with a quote from a movie that was popular at the time. It didn’t work. The three of us moved in to back up our side.
To this day I’m not sure who threw the first punch. The old man who oversaw the beer tent shouted us to move it outside, but it was the ebb and flow of combat, not the old man’s angry shout, that caused the donnybrook to spill outside.
We waded in.
I found myself facing Jim Hoss, one of the football team’s “linemen,” whatever that was; I had a pretty good idea that it had nothing to do with the power and phone lines that ran all over northeast Iowa. He was a big guy, though, and was coming at me fast. He threw a punch that I managed to duck; I tossed one back, aiming for his nose, but Jim turned his head down and let me hit the top of his skull. “Yowp!” I was quite sure I had broken a couple of fingers, but I still had to deal with the townies. Jim, stunned, staggered away.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Dave lash out at another townie. Dave was blessed with a tall, lanky build, long legs, and a limber frame; he struck out with a kick, catching his opponent in the solar plexus, and dropping him.
Albert had taken a couple of shots from Steve Schneider but was still game; he took a couple of wide swings, missing both, before Mark Mallek managed to grab Steve, pick him up, and chuck him into the box of a nearby pickup.
The ruckus attracted attention, as ruckuses do. All over the block, rural guys and townies were squaring off. I managed to knock another townie down just before a well-swung fist broke my nose. I saw stars. I swear I actually heard birds chirping, but beyond that, I heard something of much greater import:
“Oh, shit! The cops!”
It is part of the nature of small towns, unlike bigger cities, that the cops are never very far away. At Nordic Fest, the cops were usually within a few hundred yards, and usually prepped to answer just such a donnybrook, and unlike today, those local cops generally addressed civic unrest with nightsticks and fists.
We ran. I passed a Chevy pickup to find Steve Schneider climbing out of the box with a dazed expression. “What’s going on?” he asked.
I found myself running with Steve down the alley behind the stores that lined the main drag, as flashing red lights and sirens emanated from the parking lot in which lay the beer tent. We turned past the pizza place and headed for the main street, only to hear an official-sounding shout: “You two! Stop right there!”
We didn’t. It was dark enough, as we later determined, that most of both sides of the donnybrook escaped with no more than bumps and bruises.
A few minutes later Steve and I stopped. “Where the hell are we, anyway?” Steve asked.
“Block off Water Street,” I guessed, looking around. “Yeah – there’s the Corner Bar, right up there.”
“Hell,” Steve said, “I’m thirsty. Want to grab a beer?”
“Sure,” I replied.
Beer Heals All Wounds
We went inside the Corner Bar. The bar was filled with laughing young men, most of them marked up to one degree or another. Most of the combatants from both sides were now drinking beer together.
Albert walked over and handed Steve a mug. “Here,” he said. “Listen, about Debbie…”
Steve took a drink and waved a hand. “Forget it, man,” he said. “I don’t know what I was pissed off about. I mean, she dumped me a week ago now.”
The evening proceeded liquidly after that. Eventually we wound up back at the beer tent, where we stayed until it closed down. Despite some very direct looks from the beer tent workers, the night concluded peacefully; the aggression had long since worked out of all of us.
After closing time, I ended up in the parking lot with my pals, along with Steven and a couple of the Winneshiek county football guys, trading bad jokes that, in our state of inebriation, everyone found very funny.
“You know,” Steve said, laughing carefully around his fat lip, wincing through a pair of shiners, “…you guys, you ain’t so bad after all.” And that was the great irony of the Great Nordic Fest Scrap of 1980; several lifelong friendships were borne of the conflict.
These days our population is increasingly urbanized, but the rural v. urban divide may be more pronounced than ever. From what I understand, nowadays, scrapping by teenaged boys is harshly restricted, and I wonder if that’s for the best. We already have a generation upcoming that has known little or nothing of hardship, and a plurality, if not a majority, of teenaged boys today from all sources have never taken a punch or thrown one.
I really wonder if that’s a good thing. A little scrap can be an outlet for aggression that might otherwise take a more serious turn. It certainly worked for us, and at times, we even gained some new friends from the scrapping.
A poke in the snoot is, after all, not that serious a thing in the long run.