We're driving to Mansfield, which is a little way south of Dallas and probably shouldn't be confused with anything described in a Jane Austen novel. I'm looking at the map to see if Mansfield has a park, so we can go there and take photographs of ourselves grinning in front of the sign for later posting on social media accompanied by a variation on the joke in the first sentence. Mansfield has a Katherine Rose Memorial Park and a James McKnight Park, but no actual Mansfield Park so far as I can see. Never mind.
A couple of months ago, Andrea asked for a stylised drawing of a spinning top, something which could be used to promote a spinning top convention, a design you might see on letterheads, banners, t-shirts and so on. Andrea collects spinning tops. If you're now thinking about that big round thing you had when you were a kid, made of tin with a succession of circus clowns painted around the circumference and a handle you pump to get it going, then we're probably about the same age, but that isn't the kind of spinning top to which I'm referring. The tops Andrea collects are small, precision tooled creations of copper, brass, zirconium, and other metals. They're not really toys, at least not in the same sense as their larger, cheaper cousins. They're objects of beauty in their own right, and a decent one will set you back at least fifty dollars. Andrea collects them, as do people all across the country, and every so often they meet up to talk about it, to compare notes, and to spin tops. So I came up with a drawing of a generic metal top spinning across the state of Texas, because Texas is where this year's get together is to be held, specifically Mansfield.
Beyond agreeing that they're nice objects, neither Bess nor myself have any strong feelings about spinning tops. The distance is 259 miles heading north up I-35, which is a long way to go in pursuit of something for which you have no strong feelings, but we were invited, and it's a day out, and it's a bit of Texas I don't know. Also I'm the guy who drew the design so that makes me about as much of a celebrity as I'm ever likely to be. I've imagined myself seated at a table with a line of spinning top enthusiasts queuing for my autograph.
The journey is about four and a half hours, allowing for a couple of stops. We drive through Waco, a town which achieved notoriety when the local cult got itself blown up by government forces. The most remarkable thing about the place is that you can drive through it without even realising, just another vague urban sprawl somewhere out beyond the burger joints which have accumulated along the route; and then we're in Mansfield, eventually. We book into the Marriott, or at least we book into the Marriott after twenty minutes of pounding the bell at the front desk, requiring that I go off in search of the receptionist who turns out to have been otherwise engaged in the laundry room at the other end of the hotel.
The convention is held at Smoky Mae's BBQ, which looks as though it was a saw mill or an iron foundry or something of that sort up until quite recently. Conversion to dining establishment has been effected by the addition of a bar, tables, and stools. We queue in the part which still resembles a saw mill or an iron foundry, then make our choice from a selection of brisket, sausage, or chicken from a smoke blackened grill, delivered to our trays with tongs by a guy who may as well be the local blacksmith. Through the inner door and into the bar, we add potato salad or coleslaw and select our drinks. They've never heard of Newcastle Brown so I take a Dos XX, which is served in a ridiculous goblet of inch thick rustic looking glass that I find difficult to lift. Booze should never be such hard work.
We take our food and drink through to the convention, which is outside on a covered veranda. There are twenty or thirty in attendance. Most of them look like bikers, or people who have no problem hanging around with bikers, which is a relief because I was expecting the cast of The Big Bang Theory - at least based on the thirty seconds I saw before I felt like shooting someone.
Bess and I occupy the one free table. The others are covered with tops, displayed in the protective foam of open flight cases, or being spun upon specially made spinning surfaces of concave glass. The top people mill around, comparing notes, admiring the workmanship and so on. Some of them are manufacturers, some just people who like tops.
A realisation occurs to me. At least some of this lot probably have a workshop in their back yard, some place where they hand forge bike parts on their own lathes, and turning out a spinning top is probably not so much of a leap from a custom cylinder, or whatever it is that motorcycles are made from. The top people suddenly make sense. They're sociable, outdoorsy types, probably good with their hands, and the pursuit which has brought them together, some from as far as Michigan or Ontario, no longer seems quite so cranky.
Bess and I eat our brisket and catch up with Andrea, who arrived yesterday. Some guy called Caleb is going from table to table, offering samples of his homemade jerky. He has a huge beard, dungarees, and the denim cap I would expect of a man called Caleb, and naturally his jerky is seasoned to volcanic intensity. I try a little out of politeness but it's too much. I've never seen the point of food so hot that you can't taste anything beyond the thermonuclear capsaicinoids and end up in hospital, but each to their own. Andrea explains that we missed the hot chilli eating competition which was last night.
I am introduced to the main guy, the one who got all of this going. Andrea has had my illustration framed and she presented it to him last night. He's very pleased to meet me, but I guess no-one's that bothered about getting my autograph after all.
Bess and I submit ourselves to one of the competitions. She spins a top which keeps on spinning for two minutes and thirty-five seconds. I manage three-ten, but the winner is some kid called Daniel who makes four minutes. The top is made of wood and doesn't have the momentum of the metal ones, which can keep going for more than ten minutes.
We take our leave of all the excitement and have a look at the local branch of Half Price Books. I find a copy of John Boorman's novelisation of his film, Zardoz - fifteen dollars, which is exciting as I had no idea the book existed until about a month ago, and I certainly never expected to find a copy.
We return to the convention around six, eat some more brisket, and I attempt to pour beer from the stupid giant glass goblet into a styrofoam cup as preventative to giving myself a hernia. It's a bit of a disaster, and then the entertainment arrives to further reduce the fun quotient of the evening - a boring man with his guitar, amplified just enough to make conversation difficult, delivering the usual bloody awful covers. We leave after dark.
We drive back next morning, taking the more scenic route down 281, avoiding Austin altogether, which means we get to look at cows, goats, and horses in fields at the side of the highway. We stop at a gas station in Hamilton. I go to take a leak and find a baseball cap which someone has left in the restroom - all white material with a bright pink and purple photograph of a human foetus developing in the womb printed where one might usually expect to see the logo for either a feed company or a sports team.
Wow, I think to myself, a genuine pro-life baseball cap!