National Cattle Congress

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“Now as a marsupial, they do reproduce. Quite rapidly. In fact, they’re only pregnant for about 35 days. And what they give birth to, is only about this big!”

Carolyn Lantz used her hand to illustrate the size of a newborn Joey, comparable – evidently – to a big paper clip. Dark sunglasses framed her strong, lean face, weathered in the manner of Steve Irwin or Alby Mangels. She takes her kangaroos to fairs across the country, wowing metropolitan areas of all sizes with her exotic hopping things from Down Under.

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This weekend, it was the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo.

“I’m sure a lot of you ladies are extremely jealous. We did get the raw end of that deal.”

Her delivery was straight-faced, the tone of her high-pitched voice failing to change in the slightest.  No one laughed. Tough crowd. Birthing all those stout Midwestern farmers can’t be easy.

“One day after giving birth, she can actually fall pregnant again. But she can only have one joey in the pouch at a time. So you do the math, it really doesn’t add up.”

Turns out kangaroos can delay pregnancy if necessary. I wonder how the “religious right” might react if humans developed such a capacity.

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Behind Lantz, a male albino kangaroo chased around a mother kangaroo in a giant cage, pausing only when an opportunity to catch a good whiff of her soft hide arose. Yes, it was another family-friendly weekend at the Cattle Congress. 2014 marked the illustrious fair’s 104th anniversary.

True to its name, the National Cattle Congress was – first and foremost – organized as an opportunity for the Midwest to show off its best dairy cows. As dull as that sounds to a city slicker, over 5,000 cow fanatics showed up to that initial 1910 fair. The Waterloo business community aggressively backed it, promised the Iowa State Dairy Association thousands of dollars in prize money. It’s only gotten bigger since.

Over the years, other attractions popped up to draw even greater crowds, positioning itself as a regional alternative to the mighty Iowa State Fair. A “hippodrome” (now McElroy Euditorium) and ballroom were constructed, along with brick livestock barns, a hall, and a pavilion.

The ill-timed Waterloo Hawks, an NBA team for all of one season, even played in the McElroy Auditorium. It seats almost 7,000 people, its unassuming brown exterior hiding a colorful history. The Beach Boys and Buddy Holly have played here – Destiny’s Child and Rob Zombie, too. Rough and tumble events, like roller derby matches and rodeo derbies, just look right under the low lights of the auditorium, the hard wooden benches the providing the perfect vantage of the action.

“Is anyone on this side not from Iowa?” Brian Potter asks. He was the weekend’s rodeo clown.

Like a clown you’d invite to your kid’s birthday party, he had big, baggy clothes and face paint on. His ensemble was topped off with a bright orange “ten-gallon” hat, impossible to miss, although in this case it was more like a “fifty-gallon” hat.

He wasn’t dressed that way just for our amusement. Rodeo clowns distract the bulls to protect the cowboys when the cowboys hit the ground. Potter had protective gear on under his clothes. It takes guts to be a rodeo clown. That orange hat was the equivalent of a matador’s cape.

“Where y’all from? Where? Sacrament-ah, California! Whoo, Lord! Glad, glad to have… welcome to a state that pays their taxes, sir.”

The crowd laughed for Potter. Looks like poking fun at liberals beats pregnancy jokes in Waterloo.

The PRCA (that’s the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association to you, bucko) Rodeo was probably the highlight of the National Cattle Congress. They put “ticklers” on horses and hung on to the saddle for dear life, threw lassos around the necks of bulls with almost perfect accuracy, and raced around barrels on horseback. All, of course, in shiny cowboy boots, jeans, long-sleeve button-ups, and cowboy hats.

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It was a ritualized celebration of a frontier lifestyle immortalized by no less than Marlboro and Clint Eastwood, a rugged, can-do sport that flirts with debilitating injury for a few cheers and a pint of honor. The spirit of the prairie lived on for a few days at McElroy Auditorum.

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Outside, moms pushed their strollers past weary cows tied to the walls. “Look at the cows, honey! Can you go moo?”

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I bought Molly a wool “Native American” pullover hoodie with a llama pattern on the chest. I’d learned in one of the livestock halls that guard llamas can protect livestock from coyotes and foxes.  They’ll kick, paw, scream – do what it takes.

I figured if Molly was to have her own spirit animal, she could do worse than a llama. The hoodie was a start.

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Howdy from Iowa.

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