JASPER COUNTY, IOWA — I suppose I could have done a better job at trying to blend in when I walked into the Thirsty Turtle in Colfax. I was, after all, holding a reporter's notebook with my obnoxious press credentials dangling from my neck — not the usual sight for this small-town bar.
As might be expected when a nosy reporter from D.C. shows up asking questions, I was received with a healthy dose of suspicion and good-natured insults I can't reprint here. "I'm working on a story on Jasper County," I told the bartender and whoever else was in ear shot, "— and why it voted Trump after voting twice for Obama."
What began as skepticism quickly became familiarity and trust between me and the Colfax locals who dipped in and out of our two-hour (and multiple drink) conversation, including a number of aging veterans who served multiple tours of duty. We talked, laughed, and talked some more, and while our styles differed — I drank rum and Coke, they all drank Budweiser heavys — a good-faith conversation on all things Trump, family, kinship, service, and our flag painted the scene of an America not nearly featured enough in the annals of Acela Corridor tweets.
I've never more deeply considered the words "I pledge allegiance..." until meeting the Iowans inside the Thirsty Turtle. When the conversation shifted to the Kaepernick-style sports protests during the National Anthem, one vet began to weep openly on the next stool over, in a scene I have not shaken for several days.
"Two brothers of mine came home in caskets draped in that flag," he told me, tears streaming down his face. Plus a cousin and one uncle, both killed in action, he added. He recounted exactly how families found out the devastating news, the funeral arrangements, and how a family receives the folded-flag. He was far too familiar with the process.
The few of us in the bar listened intently; one held the vet's hand while he talked and wept. A pin drop could have disrupted the tension and searing pain in that moment as he recollected his relationship to this country.
I asked how many of them have American flags at home from loved ones killed at war. Four out of five hands shot up.
A similar veneration was palpable at the Knoxville Nationals, the sprint car championships in Marion County, Iowa we attended Saturday night. It's basically Game 7 of the World Series for the sprint car racing family, and the 21,000 in attendance stood in solemn silence for both the National Anthem and the opening prayer invocation. The rowdiness, crowd, and energy of the historic Knoxville Raceway was silent in that moment: one about duty, patriotism, and a uniting purpose far larger than any one member of their tribe.
Here in Marion County, no references to Robert Mueller. No tweets about impeachment, no jokes about indictment, or one-liners about D.C. news of the day. The reflective moment at the raceway (that quickly gave way to ear-splitting uproarious action) was a reminder to this reporter that the "important" stuff outside of Washington sometimes deserves a bit of perspective.
This part of Iowa features countless clips of red, white, and blue that dot the otherwise vastly green landscape. Community, pride, and a love for country — Americans who have pledged their allegiance to the stars and stripes, because here it means a lot more. The frenzied issues that consume blue-checkmarked Twitter worlds away don't seem to penetrate this part of America much.
And I can't wait to go back.