Who Wants to Be a Space Debris Queen?

"Mom, what? We drove almost two hours for a street festival?" Stella asked when we pulled up in for the fourth Annual Sputnikfest, a tribute to the anniversary of the event that got Manitowoc mentioned on "Who Wants to be A Millionaire?" The $100,000 question, of course was, "Why is there a brass ring embedded in the middle of 8th street in the town of Manitowoc, WI?" Because, of course, that's where a piece of Sputnik landed in 1962
So now, that's two things that the organizers say are the northern port city's claims to fame -- Cold war-era Russian space debris and a mention on a primetime game show. Next thing ya know, they'll be bidding for an NHL franchise.

Really, though, I *was* expecting something a little big bigger than a street fest. Maybe I came at the wrong time of day to see big crowds. Or maybe the regular folk of Manitowoc isn't as twisted and ironic as such that would normally be attracted to a festival that celebrates the simultaneous wonder and paranoia of a hunk of metal casting a green light falling from the sky, turning out to be some kind of communist plot to beat the Amerikans to the moon. I had big hopes, though. This was taking place, after all, in the front yard of the Rahr-West Art Museum, a hidden jewel of an institution that I've been to a couple of times while heading north, and I say to you this: if you need a reason for a road trip, go to Manitowoc for this museum alone. It's annexed to a historic mansion with an eclectic permanent collection of American and Asian art, but the featured shows have never failed to delight. The two current shows are worth getting in your car and driving up now to see before they close at the end of the month. One is a history of the Manitowoc Fire and Police departments, complete with uniforms through the years, newspaper clippings of their take on events both national and local, and the police blotter from 1903. The other is the UW-Manitowoc Art Faculty show, and if this show is any indication, there is some seriously good (and twisted) art being made and taught in Packer country. I'm a fan of the absurd anyway, and there's a of faculty members who clearly put a dairy state twist on Dali. There's also some lovely abstract work that caught Stella's eye -- pieces made with black paper and "invisible" scotch tape that played well with patterns and loops. "Oy," Stella said, "Can you imagine trying to make that? One mistake and the whole thing is wrecked."

This wonderful exhibit actually pared down our disappointment at the size of the festival and got our brains in the right frame of mind for it. At the ticket window (yes, this is one of those annoying fests where you have to buy food and drink tickets for EVERYTHING) we asked the vendor, "We saw the replica-- so where is the real piece of Sputnik?" She looked at us, half-grin, half-quizzical, and said "Nobody really knows what happened to it."

"Oh, I see," I replied knowingly. "In other words, Top Men are working on it right now."

"Yes," she agreed, her eyes widening. "Top. Men."

With that stage set, we looked around the grounds and settled in for the Miss Space Debris pageant. (We'd missed the animal and human costume contest, as well as the cake decorating tournament.) Miss Space Debris was preceeded by a reenactment of that fateful day, when two Manitowoc beat patrolmen noticed what they thought was just some crap in the middle of the street. It was Community Theatre-style, with low production values, and a radio news-style narrative that included embellishments (if it didn't, it wouldn't be theatre it would just be documentary, right?) in the form of coneheads out sunning, a Russian cocktail waitress, and (almost keystone) cops with distinctive Northwoods accents. It would have been altogether hokey, except it had this certain NPR quality about it, very Prairie Home Companion. These people know exactly how smalltown celebrating a game show question is, and they're wearing it beautifully well.

And if you didn't think they would wear it well, then you dearies weren't there for the Miss Space Debris pageant. First, we were introduced to the reigning Queen, ready to relinquish her crown. This year, only four aliens vied for the title, and I'm not convinced they were all women. (For sure, there was one drag queen in the bunch, but our emcee told us that the didn't do gender testing ... probably because they weren't quite sure how one would intrepret alien gender testing results.) The talent comptition ranged from singing (the Sesame Street alieng song) to "consuming this delicious earthling beverage" (the contestant chugged a can of BudLite -- in special Packer-colored can issue), to, well, let's not discuss this contestant's talent in a family blog. Our winner, all green in face, was radiant upon being crowned, and the paparazzi nearly blinded her with popping flashes afterwards. She strolled the rest of the fest in regal glory, although I was concerned that she might have been trying to abduct the town's young.

The kids had a lovely time searching in a giant mound of sand for space age treasures. Beautifully designed T-Shirts were for sale (I picked up two -- I couldn't resist) and hand numbered and signed posters could be had as well. The kids and I enjoyed some root beer floats at another refreshment stand that offered era-appropriate snacks (Twinkies, Cracker Jack and other space age treats were for sale.) Plus, while I regret not doing so, I could have had, instead of a Root Beer float, a Tang float. "Mom, what's Tang?" Sammy asked. My answer of course was not to describe the drink itself, but rather, its significance: "Why, it's what the astronauts drank!"

It was getting dark and we needed to get on the road, and it seemed more people were arriving, but to see Copperbox, a local roots rock band that's been hitting the Wisconsin festival circuit. Ach, we can see that anytime and as the kids admitted, "At first, this seemed like a bust, but this was fun!" It took having to get out of "Milwaukee festival" mode and remembering why the outliers of Wisconsin hold just as much magic as the city. We got on the highway right as the cooler air rolled in, a full moon showcasing the oddly eerie dusky mist drifting across the sunset and twilight fields -- just the sort of night you would expect an errant meteor or flying saucer to come crashing into a cornfield or street corner in a small town.


And now I feel so mainstream for taking my kids to the downtown kite festival!

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