When The News-Sentinel asked readers to select the most important local story of 2012, the summer windstorm that left more than 78,000 people without power was the runaway winner with more than 40 percent of the vote.
But with firefighters, scores of competitors and thousands of spectators counting on an event that's been held every year since 1954, you just don't have time to seek refuge in a city cooling center or Red Cross shelter. So when those scorching temperatures and “derecho” gales hit Arcola in late June, the people in charge of the town's annual tractor pull did what never-give-up Americans have always done:
“It was 106 degrees on the first day, then the electricity went out an we had to operate the last two days on generators,” said Matt Butts, co-chair of the Arcola National Truck & Tractor Pull, which ran June 28-30 and has just been named “Regional National Pull of the Year” by the National Tractor Pullers Association not only for the excellence of the event itself but also for the tenacity and ingenuity with which volunteers assured its success.
For the uninitiated, tractor pulling is neither small-town nor small-time. Although Arcola's event began as a way for farmers to test the pulling prowess of the same tractors they used in the field, the event has accepted “modified” machines since 1979 went “national” in 1989. Today, the events bill themselves as the “world's heaviest motorsport” and people come from across the country to compete in the small town in northwest Allen County – some of whom have spent more than $250,000 on their machines.
“Some of them have sponsors, but anybody who thinks pullers just do for the money is wrong,” said Treasurer Jim VanEvery, referring to a first-place prize of $660. “It's for the love of the pull.”
In Arcola, it's also for the Volunteer Fire Department, which could not function without the $40,000 or so the event generates for its budget every year.
And so, without power and unable to reschedule an event that had already attracted so many participants and spectators, volunteers contacted businesses and anybody else with a generator in order to make sure the show went on as planned.
Sure, the tractors could have run without electricity, at least during the day. And much of the cooking was done with charcoal. But try operating at night without lights. Try keeping people or food cool in 100-plus degrees without fans or chillers. Try being heard over 4,000 fans and the roar of engines without loud speakers.
Try drinking warm beer. If you dare.
Instead, “People didn't notice the difference,” Butts said.
I don't mean to make too much of all this. Despite the event's importance to the fire department, we're talking about a sporting event here.
But the virtue of a principle does not rise or fall according to the factual details involved. The determination to persevere and even prosper despite conditions organizers acknowledge as “horrible” and readers deemed extraordinary should not be dismissed simply because it was employed in the service of “just” a tractor pull.
This country was built upon a such a principle, but today's Americans too often seem unwilling or unable to overcome obstacles without the help of a federal government that is only to willing to expand the supply of bureaucracy and control to meet the demand.
But whatever we've gained as a result, we've lost far more. If the folks in Arcola had depended upon FEMA to save the day, they might still be in the dark, in more ways than one. And if their triumph over long odds had generated the kind of response too many other success stories have received lately, they would have received not a commendation but condemnation – for daring to prosper and enjoying themselves while so many others were not.
So, yes: On its own, this is perhaps a little thing. But for an uncertain nation entering a new year, Arcola has offered us all a worthwhile resolution of self-determination in the face of adversity – if we're willing to accept it.