I just finished up a long and fun birthday weekend, which included dinner and dancing and a Freedom Fest that was turned upside down by a thunderstorm. In short, it was unforgettable, and I’m still trying to recover from it all.
We had another brief, birthday to celebrate on Thursday evening. Our mutual friend Emmett was turning ten, so we joined him and a handful of our friends to cool off in a pool at an apartment complex and then have some pinwheel wraps and cake together afterward.
Our kids had the chance to play together for a while, and they also enjoyed pretending to “swim” in deep end of the pool with me.
Then my birthday officially kicked off on Friday. After an intense day of cleaning house, we left the kids with grandma and headed down to Don Carmelo’s for some pizza with friends. I’d wanted to give them some more business since they hosted Jack Posobiec a few months earlier, so Vivian and I got a “New York’s Finest” to share and ate with our friends Phil, Dan Wondra, Nate and Lexi, and Jon Paper.
Then afterward, Vivian and I headed downtown to the Eagle’s Lodge for our first dance with the Omaha Jitterbugs since the Halloween dance of 2019. Covid shutdowns had kept us from any swing dancing (aside from the occasional speakeasy dance with Jared and Jordan) so it was very nice to be back. I saw a few familiar faces, such as Jessica Ritchie and a few of the Jitterbug organizers such as Billy and Merinda. The crowd was only younger kids I didn’t recognize, though — young enough to make my 44 years feel even older! I did stick around for a birthday jam, which was particularly fun before heading home.
Then on Saturday came Freedom Fest down at the Sarpy County Fairgrounds, a kind of local CPAC for the “populist upstarts” here in Nebraska. Among their guests this year were Internet provocateur Alex Stein, Ali Alexander of “Stop the Steal.” #WalkAway founder Brandon Straka, and Dr. Ben Tapper, one of the “disinformation dozen.” I saw many familiar faces, including a former co-worker with Moms for Liberty, Outlaw Streamers, Turning Point USA, and Public Sq.
The day started off very low-key, with guests playing cornhole and kids jumping in the bounce houses. Others slowly arrived in the wake of a Husker Game that turned south in the last quarter. Matt Innis held an educational panel with candidates for the State Board of Education and local school boards, and VIPs mingled among the guests getting selfies. I was in my element, naturally, taking photos of nearly everyone in the meantime waiting for the show to get started. I also got photos for a few other guests, including the Boyle family, who drove nearly four hours to see Bryson Gray (again) this year.
This year’s Freedom Fest was planned as an outdoor event, and to say things didn’t go quite as planned would be an understatement. The day started off dry and relatively cool, but a predicted line of storms started to roll through the Springfield shortly before six o’clock. Guests and organizers ran through the fairgrounds underneath umbrellas while others took shelter underneath one of the larger pavilions. The t-shirt tent was upended, soaking the merchandise underneath, and we held onto the poles of the larger tent as the wind kicked up.
But the show went on nevertheless. The Moms for Liberty had their raffle drawing as the rain came down in sheets. Then Alex Stein did some stand-up comedy for us in his half-soaked sportscoat (I commented that he should have worn a women’s bathing suit, as he famously did at a town hall Meeting.) He then performed with rapper Nick Nittoli, who did a few songs about Candace Owens and “Let’s Go Brandon” as the rain continued overhead. (I even got the chance to get something to eat from “The Laughing Boar” food truck during a lull in the storm.)
Freedom Fest organizers managed to find a backup venue in a local gym up the street owned by one of the events’ sponsors, so we headed up there in a caravan a little after seven. I wound up giving Ali Alexander a ride in my car after his ride, Brandon Straka, “walked away” and had dinner with his parents instead. Rapper Bryson Gray was already there when I arrived, greeting guests and getting selfies as staff members started setting up audio equipment for a few of our guest speakers. Dr. Ben Tapper took the mike first, talking about vaccine mandates and medical freedom.
Then gubernatorial candidate Breland Ridenour spoke, talking about grassroots activism and his experiences on the campaign trail. Three other gubernatorial candidates had been slated to speak but bailed — Brett Lindstrom appeared briefly but left before the rain came, while Theresa Thibodeau (and her sister Aimee Melton) left in the wake of the storm. Charles W. Herbster allegedly pulled out when he asked to speak for a full hour and was told he couldn’t.
The last speaker was Ali Alexander, who talked a bit about his “stop the steal” experience and transition from “moderate” to “radicalized.”
After the speakers came the musical acts. First up was country singer Austin Michael, known best for an appearance on American Idol. He hand a handful of country songs and even invited security staff member Ben White on stage with him to sing along. Then Nick Nittoli did an encore performance with a few more rap songs as Alex Stein performed at his side.
Then came Bryson Gray, who did an opening song with Alex Stein before performing a series of others, including “FBI RAID,” “Gun Totin’ Patriot,” and “Let’s Go Brandon,” which hit #1 on iTunes in 2021. Gray and Nittoli finished they performances by singing “Happy Birthday” to their significant others, whose birthdays were on Saturday and Sunday.
Things wrapped up sometime after ten o’clock, and I was impressed with how the special guests stuck it out through the entire chaotic event. By some coincidence, the owners of Don Carmelo’s pizza dropped by with a couple pies for them throughout the evening, and I got to tell them both I’d been to their restaurant the previous day.
Then on Monday came my actual birthday. I got up early and had some Beard Vet coffee (which I got from him at the Freedom Fest, of course) and opened a few handmade cards from Hannah and Aaron. I didn’t take the day off work, since I got to see Pinkie Pie greeting me at my desk when I arrived (an annual tradition courtesy of Dr. Keefe). I did, however, have lunch with Vivian down at the Asian Market, having some Beef Chow Fun and sushi before browsing some of the unusual flavors of potato chips to take home with us.
Then that evening, my parents took us down to Pizza Ranch to get stuffed with chicken, salad, and (of course) pizza. I’d hoped that the kids would enjoy some buffet-style dining, but they seemed to like the little game room even better (where I tried my hand at Ms. Pac-Man). Then we returned home to open a few presents before calling it a night and heading off to bed.
Now hopefully I’ll have a little time to recover before gearing up for another birthday (or two) at the end of the month.