Only in America…
1. … do tractors square-dance (Rochester, Indiana)
Swinging your partner round and round gets a tad unwieldy when you’re both on four big wheels, but trust us—it’s just as much fun. This Midwestern pastime dates back to the 1950s, when farm-equipment manufacturer International Harvester featured an ad with whirling tractors. Here’s what they do: Drivers maneuver tractors to execute precision promenades, circles, and weaves, all set to rollicking square dance music and directed by a caller. Indiana’s Lily Pearl tractor dancers, for instance, perform as a team of eight, but in the true spirit of competition, they’re aiming to leave that feat in the dust. “We plan to dance with 16 tractors on the same field,” says farmer Skeeter Daugherty, Lily Pearl’s leader. “It’s never been done before.”
2. … can cancer patients get help with housekeeping (Dallas, Texas)
Debbie Sardone, 55, remembers every second of the call. Eleven years ago, she answered the phone at her house-cleaning service. The woman on the other end asked for a price. When Sardone gave her the quote, the woman responded, “I can’t afford that now. I’m going through chemotherapy and radiation,” and promptly hung up. Sardone, who didn’t have caller ID, chastised herself: Why didn’t I offer to clean for free? Later that day, she gathered her office staff and instructed them to perform services without charge for women with cancer.
Three years later, Sardone formed the national nonprofit Cleaning for a Reason, which now boasts 1,085 member businesses in all 50 states (and Canada); together, they’ve donated more than 15,000 house cleanings. One partner describes the work as “vitamins for the soul.” “I never knew how good it would feel to give away for free what I do for a living,” says Sardone.
3. … is a scientist also an artist of the night sky (Claremont, California)
Professor Tyler Nordgren’s love affair with the evening sky began when he was a Boy Scout on camping trips in Oregon and Alaska. “Once we were on a lake at night, and I saw millions of stars above me. That has stayed with me my whole life,” he says. Nordgren, 44, who teaches physics and astronomy at the University of Redlands in California, has gone to 12 national parks to photograph the sky at twilight and after dark. His mission is to raise awareness of the beauty of their night skies (many people visit only during the daytime) and the threat that light pollution poses. California’s Lassen Volcanic Natural Park is shown above, and Maine’s Acadia National Park and Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park are two other favorites of Nordgren’s. “When you look up and see a billion stars, you know that you’re part of a larger universe,” he says.
4. … do you find trees older than the pyramids (Inyo County, California)
If America’s longest-living residents could talk, they’d probably just grumble about the weather. In eastern California’s White Mountains, bristlecone pine trees have survived for millennia, despite the region’s scarce rainfall, bruising winds, and frequent freezes. In 2012, scientists dated one of the trees at 5,063 years old, making it the world’s longest-living organism. The pines’ wood hardens against the elements, guarding them from rot and forming sculptural swirls. They grow as little as an inch in diameter every 100 years, but fortunately, these pines have centuries to spare.
5. … are ukuleles even hotter than electric guitars (Honolulu, Hawaii)
What’s one pound, around 130 years old, native to the United States, and so popular, it’s nearly doubled in sales from 2010 to 2012? It’s the ukulele, now enjoying its biggest comeback since Bali Hai. And why not? The Hawaiian-born instrument is cheap and easy to master, and its plucky sound instantly dispels gloom. The craze has been stoked by a new group of young Hawaiian virtuosos, like Jake Shimabukuro and Taimane Gardner, as well as amateurs on YouTube, like Nicole Tan, 19, a Bowdoin College student who posts covers of hit songs like Nicki Minaj’s “Superbass.” “I went to the Internet, searched ‘how to play ukulele,’ and a video came up,” she says. “Five minutes later, I could play it.”
6. … do survivors pay it forward (Sandy Hook, Connecticut)
Four months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a tornado tore through Oklahoma and caught the attention of four friends from the Newtown area. When John DiCostanzo, 34 (in blue polo shirt), heard the news of the devastation, he and (from left) Peter Baressi, Bill Faucett, and Howard Wood resolved to travel 1,500 miles to Moore with supplies. “We had an immense amount of love pour into our town in December, and it continues to show up,” Baressi said to the Newtown Bee. “We needed to share it.” On May 22, the men set off on their drive with 13,000 pounds of goods. They weathered a tire blowout and broken brake line before reaching Oklahoma 40 hours later.
7. … does the Senate chaplain scold Congress (Washington, DC)
Barry C. Black is privy to a rare sight: Democrats and Republicans holding hands. That’s what the senators do at the end of the weekly Prayer Breakfast he leads. Although Black has held his post of Senate chaplain for 11 years, he drew national attention during last fall’s government shutdown. The Washington Post dubbed him “a folk hero to many” after he spoke truth to power in his invocations. On the shutdown’s third day, he prayed, “Save us from the madness … Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.” On day 11, he asked God to “give our lawmakers the wisdom to distinguish between truth and error.” Black has called his role “descriptive rather than prescriptive,” but he says that during the shutdown, “I was making sure that my prayers were not so otherworldly that they had no earthly good.” Amen to that.