Twisting, Skidding

AMERICA

In Farmington, New Hampshire they race cars on ice, every Sunday afternoon while the ice is thick enough. The beat-up station wagons and rusting Impalas, tire-chains cutting the ice, drift around the corners, tailing ice chips and snow. The high-pitched whine of asphalt racing is replaced by a muffled roar, the stands replaced by footstamping, flask-sipping locals retreating from the snowbanks to their cars for a little heat. The "stock" division--the cars nearest the junkyard--lines up for the start of the 15-lap feature. Jim in car #2 guarantees loudly that he will drive his "Fair Lady Beauty Salon" special, complete with dragging bumper, to victory. Damned if he doesn't, for Jim understands the secrets of iceracing: stay out of the sliding wrecks on the corners, drive in high gear but steady, pass when it's hardly a gamble. He slows to grab the checkered flag from the starter, circling Sunrise Lake in victory.

IT'S PRETTY SIMPLE, but two nights talking politics over Moosehead Ale in Farmington's leading bar robs politics of much of its complexity. In northern New Hampshire, politics is a little like ice-racing. Success lies in avoiding the spinning crashes, escaping from the crunching wrecks, collecting the most superficial dents.

Case in point--Ted Kennedy, who here, like everywhere, is the man people want to talk about. Three months ago, the checkered flag was his for the grabbing, and then the wide second turn and the slide--ice chips everywhere. People liked him; Korea vet Ed, who was going to back him because "he helps the old people who have to wrap themselves in newspapers to keep warm." Or Marie, who will vote for Kennedy in her first election because "he is a Kennedy--because his brothers were good." Or Mike, who may not vote because "it doesn't do any good. If they want to draft me, they will, and I'll probably get my head blown off sticking up for my country. Probably get my head blown off. Right now Kennedy's trying to hold the draft off, so maybe I'll vote for him. I drink a lot of booze, but if I go out there and get shot, I'm not going to be drinking any more."

But most of the interest in Kennedy is pathological, even among the town's sorely outnumbered Democrats. They speak of the man in the past tense, or if they speak to the future, it's about his chances of assassination. The consensus is that Chappaquiddick did him in: "People remembered more than he thought they would," one man says, and he is right. Jogging memories across the state, New Hampshire's biggest paper, The Manchester Union-Leader, last week ran the Washington Star series on Kennedy's dealings with long-legged rather mysterious Lana, a "European countess."

Once is trouble, Kennedy tried to push the gas to the floor instead of riding it out. The Massachusetts senator's renunciation of the Shah did not go over too well. Farmington is aggressively patriotic. Bernie, at least 300 pounds of American, announces himself ready to go to war, perhaps in the paratroops. A bar patron, deep in his cups, looks up simply to say "Protests...No...Go to war."

At the same time, Carter has carved his own high line through the curves. "Six months ago, I couldn't have bought a vote for Carter if I'd given out green stamps," Farmington Democratic committee chairman Paul Blouin announces. Now, he's the leader. People aren't happy about the war building in the Mideast, but they're not angry either. "He had no choice," one man says, whether the question deals with Iran of draft registration. Carter has one other thing going for him in this small town--he "had the courtesy," as one woman puts it, to send his son Chip to Farmington. Chip, "a very handsome boy," stopped in at the shoe mill, and then at Kristy's restaurant. "He drank a beer just like a regular guy," and that Moosehead alone probably won the incumbent a dozen votes.

THE HAND-LETTERED sign in the window of Varnery's General Store, downtown Farmingon, reads: "Announcing! Senior Citizen's Discount Day. 10% Discount on all purchases, Wednesday Only. BEER & Cigarettes Excluded."

Ron spent years working for Davidson Rubber, earning $25,000 a year helping make dashboards for Chrysler cars. No more--now he sells a "line" for Amway Products. "You can order everything from perfume to chain saws," he explains. "It's the fastest growing company in the country. IBM sold them their biggest computer, and it works so hard it heats the whole plant." So now Ron works at home, packaging detergent and appliances in cardboard boxes in his kitchen so his wife can deliver them. "I may be making $10,000, but I'm doing it my way, and there's great potential for growth," he explains. Ron signs up others in northern New England to distribute Amway products. For the rest of his life, he will collect three per cent royalties from their operations.

Paul, from neighboring Brookfield, takes a coffee break at the Crossroads Restaurant. The subject is money, and ways to make it, and ways to lose it. There's the story of the old man in the area who makes his living recognizing valuables in other people's junk, and the examples pour out--a Boston antique dealer who wrote out a $750 Check for a $40 clock, the booming market for old (and empty) bottles. "Never throw anything away," he says, sipping his coffee. When he leaves, others finish his story. Paul is an erstwhile real-estate developer--his goal to build a housing tract on a hillside the town wants to keep intact. To cut property taxes on his home, he's built it underground.

Paul and Ron are typical of many of the Republicans who wandered into the Crossroads Restaurant near Farmington for a cup of coffee last weekend. The entrepreneurial spirit runs deep here, breeding widespread interest in money, and a no-nonsense conservatism.

While the rest of the world stares at ABC-TV and the story of the hostages day 92, Paul says people in his part of the world are more concerned with inflation, with energy. "People say a loaf of bread is 89 cents, they talk about the way oil is up --those are the real things," he says. The woodstove business in the area is booming, cordwood increasingly hard to find. And almost every front door has been abandoned. People insulate the opening with a sheet of plastic and walk around back to enter through the kitchen.

What all this means for the New Hampshire primary is unclear. People seem to like Ronald Reagan. George Bush has the image of a self-made man, if he has any image at all. More tellingly, though, there is a certain amount of support even among Republicans for one Lyndon Larouche, a "Democrat." Lyndon's workers (you may have seen them holding "Nuclear power is safer then Kennedy's car" signs in the Square), are persistent, and his campaign is well-greased. A half-hour of free t.v. time to communicate his message last week earned him some interest.

Even if he is seen as something of a conservative loony (except for the Reagan supporter who insisted that his plan for a world monetary system proved that "he has a pink streak a mile wide"). Larouche's politics are not that far from much of New Hampshire's. "If You Want to Get Government Off Your Bank and You Hate Drugs, Vote Larouche," the sign in front of his Concord campaign headquarters declares. Whatever their feelings on drugs (limited usually to discussions of "dope" at the high school), most of Farmington couldn't agree more about federal bureaucracy. "I wanted to have a phone put in--I had to call Manchester, and they said to call Nashua and to Concord, and then back to Manchester, and finally I just gave up," Blouin recalls.

ALL OF WHICH is not to say that Larouche is going to get many votes at the end of the month--the people here are more sophisticated than that. But campaigns (and voters) are often defined by their fringes, and many seem to wish that Larouche, or former New Hampshire governor Meldrim Thompson (running on the Constitution Party ticket) were truly in the race. "I wish Bill Loeb (the publisher of the Union-Leader, a fanatical conservative) would run," one old man declares. "I'd vote for him--he's an honest man." The bedrock conservatism of the Granite State is as firm as any in the nation, fed by rational fears of high-priced meat and heating oil.