The Heart of the Heartland

Excitement, gratitude, disbelief, nausea: Lisa Carlson, Queen of the Lakes 2001
Teddy Maki

Aquatennial. The Ten Best Days of Summer. The time when, as WCCO radio personality and former Aquatennial commodore Charlie Boone described it, "For ten days Minneapolis becomes a small town." Despite the twin distractions of an unseasonable cold snap and a genetics conference that has the place on Full Riot Alert, these ten days, packed with events as diverse as a milk-carton boat race and a free Cheap Trick concert, provide an excuse for Minneapolis to shed its big-city duds and bare its naked soul, revealing for a brief moment that just beneath our cosmopolitan surface beats the heart of a Podunk.

The chain-link fencing has yet to be erected around the embattled genetics conferees at the Hyatt, but northeast Minneapolis streets are barricaded. Bars and restaurants from 11th Street to Central Avenue have scheduled extra staff--unusual for a summer Sunday evening. Even as early as 5:30 p.m., sun still shining weakly behind cloud cover, you can see why: They march across lawns, up sidewalks, across the Hennepin Avenue bridge. They clutch webbed lawn chairs, bug spray, hooded sweatshirts, coolers stocked with root beer, deli meats from Cub, and Old Dutch potato chips. They trudge across Boom Island, ignoring the KOOL 108-sponsored oldies cover band delivering shout-outs to metro suburbs between verses of "I Saw Her Standing There." They comb the grounds like bloodhounds, finding the perfect spot to set up camp.

They are here for the Dayton's fireworks show, formerly known (and still oft referred to) as The Big Ooh-Aah. The pre-fireworks festivities feature the aforementioned musical entertainment, plus refreshments and, above all, people-watching. Much like an annual event in a tiny rural burg, people show up year after year to spot familiar faces and to show off--a new husband, a new baby, a new set of breast implants. Multigenerational families relax with Papa John's pizzas, staring at those presenting themselves for scrutiny as they wade through the sea of beach blankets on the north end of Boom Island Park. The carefree urban hippies, proud to have remained the same after all these years. The childless middle-aged couples, flaunting their economic status, their madras Eddie Bauer shorts whispering "Edina" while their faces scream "Fridley."

And as the crickets begin to chirp and the unseasonable chill that will blanket the Twin Cities for the next week sets in, it's show time. KOOL 108 and KARE 11 are broadcasting live, which somehow adds an enhanced air of importance to the event, upping the joy I derive from oohing and aahing in chorus with my neighbors.


NO SMALL-TOWN HURRAH would be complete without a parade. The Aquatennial Torchlight Parade (originally known, in 1940, as the Illuminated Evening Parade) is one of two Target-sponsored parades up Hennepin Avenue during the Aquatennial. As with the fireworks display three days earlier, the stroller-and-patio-furniture set arrives early. There's no need to kill time, though, as the curbside amateur hour is in full swing. Contestants for the post of Miss Red Wing, dressed identically in turquoise T-shirts and jeans, switch on a cheap boombox and perform a choreographed routine to the Pointer Sisters' "Neutron Dance," only to have their limelight stolen by the American Express Torchlight 5K joggers, who churn through like the Wells Fargo wagon on seed catalog day.

The parade commences with an army of Target shopping carts filled with miniature glow-in-the-dark Frisbees. Fortunately, there are enough to go around. A bit later, when grand marshal Scott Hamilton is pelted with a few dozen of the discs while waving weakly from the back of a convertible, it becomes evident that not much forethought went into this act of generosity.

Overall, though, camaraderie is not lacking. I befriend a middle-aged woman whose derriere is parked next to mine on a wooden fence. Together we sing the University of Minnesota rouser as the alumni band passes by, wave our hands in the air to "Hip Hop Hooray" (oddly emanating from an air force float), cattily critique the floats carrying metro "royalty," and heckle Minneapolis City Council president Jackie Cherryhomes.

"Hey, Miss Cherryhomes!" shouts my new pal. "Thanks for tearing down the projects. Now we ain't got no place to live!"


IF THE EVENTS of the previous eight days have been successful in their efforts to build community, it seems fitting that we have now gathered to select a queen. The scene outside the Ted Mann Concert Hall, site of the Queen of the Lakes Coronation, is a roiling sea of pastel sundresses and heavily lacquered hair, the mood ranging from proud ("I'm Queen Emily's best friend!" "This is Queen Emily's dad and grandpa, and they're sitting in the front row!") to bitchy ("It shouldn't be statewide--how can a girl from Brainerd represent Minneapolis?"). Proud relatives and Aquatennial aficionados stroll up the sidewalk, Skipper pins displayed prominently on their Sunday best.

Inside, the 48 college-age contestants take turns onstage introducing themselves to the five judges and the packed house. One by one they list "spending time with family" as a favorite hobby, and express career goals in fields involving education and children. Several young ladies blow their rehearsed lines and nearly burst into tears.

The audience is on fire, applauding at the introductions of countless committee members and the slide show of the past eight days, and bestowing five standing ovations--one apiece for the farewell speeches of the outgoing queen and her two princesses, one for the presentation of scholarship checks to the trio, and one for the coronation of the new queen.

When Miss Willmar, Lisa Carlson, is crowned Queen of the Lakes 2001, her face betrays several emotions: excitement, gratitude, disbelief, nausea. But the overall feeling among those assembled seems to be relief--as if we can only spend so long basking naked in the glow of our small-town soul, treating pretty girls like royalty and pretending strangers are just friends we haven't met.

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