On August 8, 2019, opening day of the Iowa State Fair, candidates flock to Des Moines with a strong showing of women—some focused on policy, others on poultry. In 87 degree heat with 67% humidity, streets bumper to bumper, neighborhood lawns turned to parking lots, I am snagged by a swelling crowd that pushes its way up the Grand Concourse. The Biggest Boar judging is about to begin, the 600 lb. Butter Cow beckons, but the crowd keeps moving. Some folks stop at the Soap Box stage. Most, like me, head to Pioneer Hall to see who will capture the heartland and revive the hopes of the nation. Who will be the winner of the Ladies’ Chicken Calling Contest? I’m not just there to listen. I’m there to compete, and to win.
To set the record straight: I’m a fourth generation Iowan, whose family homesteaded in southwest Iowa in the 1870’s, but I settled in Seattle and have lived in a city neighborhood for decades. The only chickens I’ve been in contact with are the Orpingtons across the alley occupying my neighbor’s designer coop.
As it happens, I am visiting the Midwest in early August to see my 97-year-old Dad, who still owns the farm on which he was raised. My Dad has made our family laugh with goofy impersonations—uppity characters, villains, ballerinas—and is now in a skilled nursing facility, his body failing, but his wit intact. When a nurse enters with a syringe and asks which arm he prefers, he points to mine—“that one.” I give him a small, squishy “stress chicken” for his wrist exercises, which I demonstrate with deep breathing and clucking. We reminisce about the two of us at the Iowa State Fair, laughing and cheering the Heritage Events, not just ladies’ chicken calling, but yodeling, whistling, rooster crowing, duck, goose, turkey, hog and husband calling, all offering ribbons and a $5 grand prize.
“What do you think I’d be best at?” I ask Dad.
“Hands down, Vickidoodle, chicken calling.”
Next thing I know, I’m in Des Moines, resolved to do the family proud. I’ve done some serious prep for this contest, beginning with research. Chickens have approximately 30 distinct vocalizations, and respond to calls indicating the presence of novel food but not so much to calls about known food. They come running for a hairy dung beetle over plain old barley corn. Sort of like choosing Donald Trump over John Kasich.
There are hundreds of chicken breeds, among them: White Leghorns, Black Australorps, Rhode Island Reds, Egyptian Fayoumis, Yokohamas, Cubalayas, Russian Orloffs, Sicilian Buttercups, Appenzeller Spitzhaubens, Scots Dumpys and Naked Necks. I had to decide if I should try to speak to all 60 million chickens in the state or concentrate on my base. But who is my base? I know, as a female candidate, that likeability is a factor, but what might be the issues for a, pardon my expression, Hen Party? An autonomous, cockless flock; better laying conditions; solar powered coops; a cut of the egg money?
I’ve developed a training regimen. My vocal warm-up consists of diaphragm breathing, chest puffing and interval training—long clucks alternating with short clucks, and continuing with gawks, squawks, tuck-tucks, cackles and cheeps. I work on varying the pitch and rhythm and most of all, try to avoid shrillness. For cross-training, I yodel to Kelly Rowland’s “I’m Dat Chick.” My physical warm-up includes neck stretches, head jabs, foot shuffles, arm flaps and various hand waves.
Then comes the shocking truth. No actual chickens will be present for this event! The audience will be entirely human, and three human judges, chosen randomly from the audience, will decide our fate. The electoral college of chicken calling! There will be no telling if these chosen ones have relevant experience or even what standards will apply. That means I have to have an angle to win over the spectators. Not just a call, but an act—a higher calling with full-out physicality, a message of renewal and rebirth, all tied up with a beginning, middle, and spectacular blow off. Fortunately, I am uniquely suited for that. In my mind, I’ve stepped onto that fairgrounds already a legend.
The national press corps jostles their way through the crowd, laden with huge cameras and tripods high as corn stalks. We pass bright-colored stands hawking pork chops on a stick, corn dogs on a stick, deep-fried Twinkies on a stick, funnel cakes, lemonade, cotton candy and ice cream, while inside the 4-H building, tucked in a corner, kids’ research projects tout the dangers of saturated fats and sugar. In the Agriculture building, tables are spread with blue ribbon carrots, giant zucchinis and juicy tomatoes—only for show, not for sale. For vegans, a deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich—on a stick. Though I’ve had a liberal breakfast of almond milk yogurt and chia seeds, I grab a slab of eat-on-your-feet Iowa pork, slather it with barbecue sauce and trek on.
I see the Livestock Pavilion in the distance and remember my Grandpa Hank’s lowing call to his Herefords, “Here, bossss, here bossss.” They’d come as fast as a cow could lumber, then he’d swoop us up on a bare back and hold on tight as we bounced, slipping and laughing, round a field of purple thistles, dried cow pies, grass and strewn hay. I know that experience has helped prepare me for the trial ahead.
We finally arrive at Pioneer Hall, an old, white, barn-shaped building on a grassy hill in the eastern corner of the fairgrounds. At the foot of the hill, the crowd is mesmerized by a chainsaw carver who frees a stubby-legged, pipe-smoking cowpoke from a piece of wood. The walk up to the hall is lined with antique tractor engines and toy John Deeres. I huff a little, amid scents of wood chips, gasoline and sweat. Inside the hall, white rafters soar over a rickety white wooden stage, hung with an American flag and red, white, and blue ruffles. Giant fans attached to support posts circulate warm air over rows of folding chairs. Behind the audience, at a long table, gray-haired volunteers in pink t-shirts lay out sign-up sheets exactly one hour before each contest begins. Herds of collectibles line shelves and booths along the back wall. I buy a set of ceramic salt and pepper shakers—rooster and hen, of course.
The seats start to fill. It is almost time for the youth rooster crow. Thirty-five kids line up to get their numbers. The three judges are chosen and told to sit with their backs toward the stage. Say what? This is because they’ll be judging on call only. Only on call! For fairness. But where does that leave physical comedians? I would have to rely on being the crowd favorite.
The kids are overwhelmingly white, like 99% of the folks here. They come in all shapes and sizes, cute in their unique ways, but their crowing is pretty generic, not much cadence and flow, just your standard cock-a doodle-doos and ur-ur-ur-ur-urrrrs.. No struts or cocky walks, they take the contest very seriously. Not one ham in the bunch. What will the ladies do?
Fifteen ladies sign the roster for chicken calling. We take our places on benches to the side of the stage. I’d considered dressing like a chicken but instead decided to aim for essence. I am wearing white-cropped pants, orange shirt, wide-brimmed red hat and round tri-colored glasses—black with touches of yellow and green.
The pecking order is already underway. I size up the competition and try to relax by introducing myself. Beside me sits Cindy, about sixty, from Ankeny, fanning herself with a cardboard fan. She has straight, gray, chin-length hair. Her flowered top flows down into her ample lap, giving her an unruffled, mother hen look. In past years, she’s won second in chicken, hog and husband calling, and is part of an animal calling dynasty. Her daughter has taken first in nearly every vocal event, which Cindy attributes to her having a “big mouth.” Brenda, from Ames, wearing Nikes and granny glasses, hair in a bun; looks to have the lung capacity of a Pavarotti. She’s been in the contest 21 times, placed, but never won. She’s counting on name recognition, but has she been around too long? Anne, from De Soto, thin, tanned, with long braids and a big toothy grin, looks like she knows her way around the barnyard, but can she stand up to a rooster? Jan, from Altoona, wears a baseball cap, jean shorts and tennis shoes, “best thing about turnin’ fifty is nothin’ left to lose–might as well make a fool of myself!”
There are newcomers, like Buffy, from State Center, inspired by her chicken-calling grandma. Unfortunately, we won’t be hearing grandma’s calls; they had to be censored, with all due respect for the First Amendment. Then Karen from Missouri joins us, wearing blue jeans and a red and white checkered top with a ruffle she bought at the Goodwill just for the occasion. “I’m a little nervous. I’ve never done anything like this before.”
“What made you want to come?” I ask.
She tucks back a wisp of gray-blonde hair and smiles. “It’s on my bucket list!”
The Rooster Crowers receive their ribbons. The judges for the chicken calling are selected from the audience: Chad, an amused middle-aged man from Carroll; Ashley, an obliging twenty-something from Solon; and Jody, whose mother managed a flock of one thousand in Anamosa, and whose daughter Koree, in sash and tiara, is the reigning 2019 Poultry Princess. With the Poultry Queen, she’ll be giving out the awards.
MC Regina Pirtle, Superintendent of Pioneer Hall, gives us all numbers to hang around our necks. Mine is 279. She doesn’t tell us what the order will be. I hope I’m not first. Volunteers check the sound. The speakers buzz. A woman in the audience waves a piece of cardboard on a stick. There are letters on it: “I’m a Warren fan.” I wish I’d thought of that. Others study their maps and crackle their water bottles. Several deep-fried turkey legs bob up and down.
First up is Rene, Iowa resident and first-time contestant, who grew up in “Memphis, Tennessee—nowhere near a chicken.”
“Break an egg,” Jan says.
Rene is followed by my nemesis Brenda, whose call is so loud it could have blown over the Poultry Barn. Karen’s bucket list call is third. She pretty much dies on stage, a few chick-chicks, followed by, “come on, ladies, what you really want is a cock-a-doodle-doo.” No, they don’t. Not this year. Then Ms. Pirtle calls number 279. Is that me? I look down at my number to be sure. Yes, this is it.
I stand and turn to Karen for a high five and walk toward the stage. I am probably the oldest participant, no spring chicken at age 69, but nevertheless, I lift my knees, quick-stepping up the stairs. No one would ever guess this spritely lady had a lumbar cyst, two knee arthroscopies and a bladder shored up in a sling made from the thigh ligament of a cadaver. I skip to the center of the stage and grip the mike, raising it to fit my nearly six foot height. I dare not look at the crowd.
I take a deep breath and, as loud as I can, let loose with “Here, chick, chick, chiiiick,” then pause, as if waiting for the ladies to arrive. I give the same call again and motion them on in. I keep this up, sounding more irritated when they fail to appear. The audience faces look blank and confused. I stop, say “Ah, chic!” as if I’m swearing, which doesn’t translate well. No simpatico. I lose my head for a moment, but quickly recover and proceed to my piece de resistance—flustered bucking and bawking that builds until it takes over my entire body, head darting, arms flapping, legs widening. Now I am fully into it. My back and pelvis undulate, I lower into a squat, stop clucking, look down, look back up to the audience and give a giant ba-gawk of surprise and joy. It lands, over the top, awarded with guffaws and applause, some raised eyebrows and open mouths. The other ladies don’t look offended. Ms. Pirtle is pleased. It feels great, but will it be enough?
Ann from De Soto doesn’t appear to have given much thought to her theme song. She might have gone with the tried and true—Fleetwood Mac or Springsteen—but she clucks to the Blue Danube Waltz, and ends with an acapella cock-a-doodle-do. Jan takes a personal approach, a shout out to her constituents, Beatrice and Myrtle. This is a clever move, because chickens know their names and even the names of other chickens, but risky, because the judges may not know a dang thing.
Then number 331 gets up, Cala McGin of Nashua. Six foot two and a lean, mean, chicken machine. Lordy! She puffs her cheeks, cups her hands around her mouth, works her throat and dang! The lady sounds exactly like a chicken! Can’t be more than thirty years old, not one limb twitches, nothing moves but her mouth, but she’s chicken through and through.
We are called to the stage after the contest to introduce ourselves and say a word or two about the chickens in our lives. For a moment, we’re pulled together for the greater good, reminding us that there are more important things in the world than vying tooth and neck for best dang chicken caller in the state of Iowa.
Then it’s time to announce the winners. I grit my teeth. Tenth place goes to Jan. That means five people won’t place. But there are a couple of ties, which means three losers. Fourth place to Cindy. When they get to third place and my name hasn’t been called, I panic. Granted, I’m not as serious a contender as most of them, but I can’t go home empty-handed. What would I tell my Dad, my siblings, my husband, kids and grandkids? Is there a West Coast bias factor?
I hold my breath. Third place to Brenda. Only two left. Then I hear my number! 279! I have placed second in the Iowa State Fair Ladies Chicken Calling Contest! I lose only to Cala, who confides that she has been talking to, in fact, having entire conversations with chickens, since she was a kid. Now, how can anyone compete with that? I am asked to do an encore with full physical expression for the benefit of the judges, who are now facing the stage. “I knew it!” says Jody. When I was judging your call I said to myself, ‘why, that woman just laid an egg!’
I tuck my red ribbon safely away in my purse and exit Pioneer Hall, surrounded by fans demanding selfies and autographs. In the press tent, the heat is on. Would I put all the eggs in one basket? A chicken in every pot? Were my opponents counting their eggs before they were hatched? How do I expect to reach the chickens who have flown the coop? Would I be attending the Wing Ding Dinner? What about New Hampshire? It’s all too much. I duck out for a cool glass of lemonade and a hard-boiled egg on a stick.
Victoria Millard lives in Seattle and writes humor, essays, memoir and poetry. She is writing a memoir about her life as a stage and hospital clown and has published in Humor Times, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, and Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine. She can be followed at https://medium.com/@quicktovic and on Twitter at @quicktovic.
© 2019, Victoria Millard