On the whole, I'd rather be in Des Moines

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The Independent Online
Okoboji - The radio announcer said the temperature was 30 below. Just right for a spot of fishing. Lonnie, the local chairman of the ``Dole for President'' campaign, agreed.

So I put on my thermal vest, shirt, two pullovers, eiderdown jacket, coat, two scarves, woolly hat and two pairs of socks and met Lonnie at the lobby of my hotel. A mountain of a man, bountifully blessed with natural insulation, he was kitted out in an over-stuffed one-piece desert army uniform.

I saluted, and we dashed to his Jeep, a 10-second run during which - forgive me, dear reader, but this is in the interests of science - the moisture inside my nostrils froze. I became aware, in a way one rarely does, of the hairs that guard the entrance to the nasal passages. It was a hard, tickly feeling. Then we drove out into the middle of West Okoboji Lake. In the summer this placid corner of north-west Iowa, a thousand miles from the sea, is a favourite beach resort of the inhabitants of the Great Plains, of Des Moines, Sioux Falls and Minneapolis. The temperature is usually 30 degrees, sometimes 40, and jet-skis plough the blue-water furrows.

Lonnie and I stepped on to the ice. He opened the back of his car, pulled out a giant corkscrew with sharp metallic blades and, employing both arms in a vigorous circular motion, drilled for water, churning up on to the surface a molehill of crushed ice. The deeper he went, the bigger the molehill grew. He tired and I took over until, 30 inches down, the blades stopped encountering resistance. Lonnie pulled out the fearsome instrument and, lo, I peered into the dark deep through a perfectly conical cylinder, polished as cut glass.

Lonnie withdrew into the bag of tricks in the back of his car and returned with a tiny fibreglass fishing rod, about a foot and a half long, and a portable igloo. He attached a worm to the hook and bade me sit down inside the igloo, a little blue canvas contraption with a retractable flap like a giant eyelid. I dropped the line into the hole, Lonnie passed me a battery-operated heater and pulled the flap down. He said we should give it an hour and then leave because dusk would start falling and it would get really cold.

After two minutes my feet started to freeze. My thoughts flashed back to my hotel room in Des Moines two days earlier as I prepared to set out on the four-hour drive north to Okoboji. I had woken up to hear on the radio that air from the Arctic had delivered Iowa, a state which every February turns to tundra, the sharpest cold spell since the Twenties. Included with the weather forecast was a warning from ``a nurse'' that in case of frostbite - ``the skin turns red first, then white, then purple'' - don't, whatever you do, apply hot water to the affected areas.

Lonnie having failed to furnish me with a kettle, this was a temptation that did not arise. After 15 minutes I became convinced my big toe would have to be amputated. I sought solace in the prospect of a heroic catch, but I knew that in this weather the fish would have no appetite for frozen food.

Lonnie, who was fishing into a hole of his own outside, turned on the radio. Bob Dole was bashing Steve Forbes, his millionaire rival for the Republican presidential nomination, and Mr Forbes was bashing Mr Dole. In paid commercials, they were accusing each other of being liars. More interesting were the commercials for herbicide, a rather more relevant issue than a presidential election for this food-basket of America. Buy such-and-such a herbicide, a voice cried, and ``Unleash the full potential of your beans!''

Three-quarters of an hour had passed. I feared I would never again unleash the full potential of my feet. You could have snapped them off at the ankles. To cry would have been dangerous, so I tried comic relief. I took out of my coat pocket a clipping I'd cut out of the Des Moines Register that morning. ``Yes, it was plenty cold,'' the story read. ``Cold enough to flip newspaper tradition on its head. Instead of frying an egg on the sidewalk on a hot day, we decided to see how long it would take to freeze an egg. Twenty-seven minutes and 33 seconds.''

Lonnie called out. ``Had enough, John?'' ``Oh, I don't know, we could try a little longer ...'' I replied. Insanely. It's hard to be a man sometimes, hard to be trapped inside the ludicrous macho psychology. Lonnie, big- hearted, understood that. ``Come on, John. We've been here long enough. Let's go.''

He took me home and gave me a bowl of hot soup.

John Carlin