This piece was originally produced for Huffington Post's Off the Bus project.
Keene, NH -
A storm blew through New Hampshire on Friday, pouring rain and gusting warm winds through wet trees and knocking down millions of leaves onto forest floors, front lawns and city sidewalks. When the sun came out on Saturday, the combination of the orange and red leaf-strewn ground with the bright blue sky made for New England autumn at its finest. Toss in Keene's wide, plaza-like main street with tens of thousands of jack-o-lanterns, seventy-odd thousand people, and the constant aroma of pumpkin pie, sausage, and cider donuts, and you get the annual Keene Pumpkin Festival in idyllic Hollywood conditions.
Thank God for those smells, too. Not only were they mouthwatering but they masked the rotten, earthy stench of those same brilliant leaves that filled my nose throughout the mile long walk from my car to the festival. It was a perfect setting for a scene of 50,000 plus jammed into a small town--a bunch of gritty people hidden behind perfume and costumes, and whether they knew it or not they were about to be confronted by one of the eight remaining Republican Presidential candidates.
So it was that I finished my walk toward Main Street, with the real smells of the season giving way to the false smells of seasoned meat, when I happened upon what I was looking for: a pickup truck with billboards attached to either side, each sporting a huge picture of Rep. Tom Tancredo on one half, and his platform written on the other.
*End Illegal Immigration
*Secure Our Borders
*Pro-Life & Second Amendment.
Critics maintain that Tancredo is a one issue candidate. But judging from the billboard, he is actually a three issue candidate, with guns and abortion crammed into the last bullet point. But most importantly, the sign maintains:
It's Your Country, Take It Back.
I met up with the candidate next to that truck, accompanied by two staffers and two supporters clad in Tancredo for President t-shirts whose motto, inscribed on the back in military-style stencil font, said I'm a member of Tom's Army against amnesty.
Within minutes a few more supporters had gathered around, one of whom was a member of the Minutemen who had driven up from Massachusetts to pay his regards and trade stories with the Congressman about the shameful state of our Southern border. Likewise in response, a gentleman strode halfway across the street to berate him about the true causes of immigration troubles, which he believed to be poverty. Tancredo ignored the man, and was consoled by a woman who called the protester a coward, and then wished Tancredo well as he headed out to campaign.
"Secure that border!" she called out as we all walked away, a look of great pride spread across her face as she paused before turning and walking to her car.
One liners like that, but with a slightly different spin, wound up dominating the day as we walked through the crowd. Passersby had the following things to say about Tancredo: I've never heard of that one; I hate political crap; Never heard of his name. The last one uttered by a guy wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Mickey Mouse flipping the bird.
The clincher came toward the end: "So you're bringing the racists to Keene. Great, great." That from a guy who kind of looked like Paul Simon (the singer, not the Senator), and wore a Viking helmet for his Halloween costume.
Fear not, conservatives, it wasn't all negative. One of the first stores we entered was a combination cigar and picture frame shop that happened to offer home made cannolis and free coffee. Tancredo savored his cannoli as three or four people timidly walked up to him to express their awe.
"Oh my God, look who's here! Tom Tancredo!"
After pressing the flesh a little bit and enjoying the support of the cigar store customers, the Congressman grabbed a cup of coffee and forged back into the streets, which were lined with kids dressed as black cats, vampires, and Gimlis, while adults were going as the King, a slutty witch, a voodoo shaman, and all the Hillary supporters were decked out in orange pumpkin garbage bags with holes cut out for their head and arms.
Upon leaving the cigar store, we all gathered in the middle of the street to meet up with a supporter who had just arrived. The staffers all began chatting with each other, while Rep. Tancredo finished a conversation with a well-wisher. After he was done he slowly wandered down the busy street, thoughtfully looking around at the vendors and smiling at the little kinds eating cotton candy. What didn't dawn on him was that all of his people were still a hundred yards behind him.
I wanted to tell him to turn around, but he seemed to be enjoying himself too much. I didn't want to ruin the moment. He eventually caught on, as he spun on a dime and shot me a puzzled look.
"Where did they all go?"
"Uh, they're still back there, sir."
Suddenly it was awkward, and time for the Congressman to make small talk. He asked me if I had heard that they used to have the world record for the most pumpkins here in Keene, but Boston topped them a couple of years ago. I acknowledged that I had read it, but couldn't remember what the exact record was.
He told me that it didn't seem right that Boston could compete against Keene for the pumpkin record. "It just isn't fair."
I almost mentioned how that sounded a lot like socialism, but I held my tongue. "You're right," I laughed. "They should pick on someone their own size."
Shortly after we returned to the entourage, Tancredo's right hand man revealed that it was almost time to go. We had to turn around immediately and head back to the car. The supporters, who were all wistfully aware that the end was nigh for this particular Tancredo fix, started to vocalize their passion more and more.
"He gets the big picture. Its not about me, its not about you, its about the heritage," they said to one another.
As it became clear that Tancredo himself, in spite of being the only candidate with the gumption to show up to Pumpkin Fest in person, wasn't going to go out of his way to introduce himself to the voters, the supporters called out to the crowd.
"Come on and meet him! Come on and meet him! He's a great guy, very personable," they called to little effect.
But still, the people did not come. Something about pumpkins and fresh food took precedent over politics.
After all, the Keene Pumpkin Festival is all about lighting up Jack-o-lanterns, so it makes sense that any candidate visit would be incomplete without its own pumpkin. Sure enough, Tancredo's supporters had carved a pumpkin for him, and it was a beauty. It said Tancredo '08, and had the American flag on it. It took the artist two hours to make, and they were two hours well spent.
So they, along with the other 25,000 carvers represented in Keene, had to find a place to put the Tancredo pumpkin. This particular gourd was huge, and the poor guy carrying it around was struggling from step one. I noticed this and immediately pointed him toward the booth where people registered their pumpkins for the official Jack-o-lantern count before placing the pumpkins one of the many racks set up in town.
There were three-shelved racks lining the entire Main Street of Keene, each one filled with pumpkins, as well as a major tower at either end of the street standing some seventy feet high and full of jack-o-lanterns. Around this tower was a two-tiered border, a fence if you will, of pumpkin shelves almost entirely full of the carved orange goodies.
Directly in front of the pumpkin tower, in prime real estate, was an eight-inch patch of empty plywood just screaming for a big pumpkin to fill the void. The only problem was that it sat horrifyingly just out of reach. There it was--the promised land, a perfect parcel to kick-start one's destiny--in clear vision, but still a painfully tantalizing four feet away.
To make matters worse, the barrier that kept Tancredo from setting his pumpkin where it seemed to belong was annoyingly small. They eyeballed, reached out in vain, and finally realized that the only way to get their prize was to take matters into their own hands and cross the fence.
So, with the wink of an eye, one of Tancredo's men walked about ten yards to the right, around the side of the shelf where the fence was a weakened strip of yellow caution tape. He looked left and right, ducked underneath, and casually placed the Jack-o-lantern front and center where it would live to make its own way in the Keene Pumpkin Festival, and maybe even to earn a living wage and to give its own pumpkin children a chance at a good education.