Maintaining in the Midwest

The heartland responds to anthrax and terrorist threats with a mixture of patriotism and fatalism.

Published November 13, 2001 9:00AM (EST)

Before anthrax spores were discovered in a stamp fulfillment center in Kansas City, Mo., the anthrax scare, the Sept. 11 attacks, the war on terrorism -- all of the things that make up our milieu of the moment -- had seemed like a primarily coastal phenomenon to me. I live in St. Louis, and news of the attacks, the subsequent bombings and the anthrax cases occupied the front pages but not my daily interactions or those of the people around me. It was rarely topic A.

But anthrax being discovered just across the state brought the whole thing closer to home for me. I found myself a little more interested in the mail safety advice that I'd been ignoring to that point. I awaited more reports of spores being found, maybe even in my own city.

Over the Veteran's Day weekend I took a whirlwind tour of the Midlands, driving 1,000 miles and talking to a couple of dozen people in three states. I wanted to ask my neighbors if they had similar reactions -- if the threats of anthrax or other forms of terrorism had changed the way they live their lives.

For the most part, they had not. As a new Midwesterner, four months removed from a lifetime in California, I'm learning that a shrugged shoulder and a low-key attitude are common. I found people who were, in varying combinations, resolute in their faith and patriotism and unworried, fatalistic or in denial about anthrax. At holiday parades and observances, or just out and about on a pleasant fall weekend, some people admitted to a heightened anxiety about domestic terrorism, but more said they're finding themselves appreciating their freedom more, living more in the moment.

John Hastie, 53 and retired from John Deere and Company, sat in a folding chair on the grass outside the golden-domed Iowa Capitol in Des Moines Sunday. Waiting for a Veteran's Day memorial ceremony to begin, he smoked a cigarette and stared at the Iowa Vietnam Memorial, a black granite curved wall, reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington but much smaller, with the names of Iowa's fallen engraved and the words "Reflections of Hope" across the top.

With long, light brown but graying hair and a full beard that's long enough to rest on his belly, he talked quietly, sadly, when I asked him about his reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent events.

"I think it's a disgrace that that happened, but myself, I've had this ongoing feeling almost since 1968 when I was in Vietnam," the Army veteran said. I asked what he meant by "this ongoing feeling." "It's a terrible thing. The loss of life, the loss of fallen comrades," he said, then, suddenly changing the subject: "I'm just hoping all these flags, the people flying all the flags, I hope it's genuine."

Veteran's Day, which dates to Armistice Day celebrations at the end of World War I, is not one of your glamour holidays. What events are staged are often attended by small -- and ever shrinking -- bands of aging vets. This year, though, with the United States, having been attacked, engaged in a popular war in Afghanistan, patriotism is running high, and usually small-time events grew in stature.

"Incredible," is how organizer Thomas Rayfield described interest in Saturday's parade in the small town of Belton, Mo., just south of Kansas City. "Last year I think we had about 40 entries," he said two days before the event. "We're almost at 60 now." Across the state in St. Louis, parade chairman Ralph Wiechert, the superintendent of the Soldier's Memorial, reported a similar spike in participants, from about 90 units in a normal year to, well, "We stopped counting at 120." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch elevated the parade to a "best bet" in its weekend entertainment section, right alongside a Neil Diamond concert at the Savvis Center arena.

The parade in Belton went down the town's quaint, but not precious, remodeled Main Street Saturday morning. Though Kansas City's metropolitan area has stretched south to meet Belton, it seems less like a suburb than a Western small town. Larry King, 38, drove north the 10 miles from Peculiar to watch the parade with his wife and two of his children. A third was marching. I asked him if the discovery of anthrax so close to home affected him.

"I don't think it brought anything really closer, personally for me," he said. "I think if it would have hit a local post office that delivers mail to residents, I think that might have been a little more of an awakening, but I think the media did a good job of letting us know that the location that had the anthrax wasn't something that posed a danger to us."

I couldn't help thinking King was in denial, but on the other hand, he was also right. There hasn't been a new Midwestern outbreak.

Later Saturday, in the lively Old Market nightlife district in downtown Omaha, Neb., I met 28-year-old Aaron Bressman, who was laid off from his job as a hotel sales manager in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. He expressed a similar sentiment to King's regarding the anthrax findings a few hours down the interstate in Kansas City.

"For me that doesn't really have much of an effect," he said as he sat with a friend on a curb outside the Antiquarium record store. "I don't feel like that's a threat to me at all. I think it's so isolated, when you consider, even if it was 100 cases in the United States, it just doesn't seem like very much."

Up the street, Summer Holliday, a 24-year-old hair stylist, also declared herself unchanged by the anthrax finding. "I don't know why I'm not scared of it," she said during a break from filming a TV commercial. "I just feel like I'm not scared anymore, like it could be anytime, I don't know when, so I've just got to keep doing what I've got to do."

Fellow hair stylist Lynn Hofeldt, also 24, said that, like her friend, she's found herself emboldened by the world situation, taking more of a live-for-today approach to life born of a newfound -- and invigorating -- fatalism.

"I feel like the things that were big deals to me, like all the little problems in my life that were so big, aren't so big anymore. I realized that my life isn't so bad. It made me realize that there are worse things in life [than my problems], and we're pretty lucky," she said. "What's going to happen is going to happen, and you can't sit and worry about it every day."

On the way to Omaha, I'd found someone who'd been made a little anxious by the anthrax find in Kansas City. Glen Davis, 50, paused from raking and burning leaves in his front yard in the gravel-road farming town of Mound City, in Missouri's northwest corner, and admitted some nervousness.

"Yeah, that's gonna get you scared," he said. "It makes you wonder every time you go to the mailbox. It puts everybody on the alert just a little bit more than what they were. Everybody took everything for granted, you know, and now, you can't. You've got to watch everything. Hell, it could be down there in this post office. You never know ... That anthrax scare, now listen: That's nothing to be messin' around with."

Also not to be messed around with would be the apocalypse, which is what we're witnessing the beginning of, said Mary Neighbors, a realtor back in Belton.

"Anybody who knows Bible prophesies understands what is going to happen in the last days, and they all know that it's always been about Ishmael and Isaac, which is Arabs and Israel, and that's just exactly what this is," she said as she stood in front of two empty Main Street storefronts -- the former Steinbruecks Furniture store and Davis Paints, soon to be occupied by new businesses -- she owns and watched Saturday's parade, which her son, a Gulf War vet, marched in. "This is the beginning."

I asked if she meant that the apocalypse was really starting right now. "Yes," she said, almost brightly. I asked her if that thrilled her or frightened her.

"Both," she said. "Being a Christian I know that the Christians will rapture out of here, that Jesus will come and take us out of this," she said. "We will not be through that last battle. We will not be here through the seven years of tribulation. So that's exciting, but it's also frightening, because no matter what it is, it's the unknown, and there's always the fear of the unknown. But I have perfect peace that I know I'm going."

I asked Neighbors how her life has changed since the attacks. "Actually not at all," she said, "because Jesus also says you have to occupy. You occupy. So that means you go on with your life but you're a little bit smarter than you were the day before. "

Up the street, in front of the Hy-Klas Food Store, Elsie Muir, 78, watched the parade with her friends Mary Jane Hanson, 82, and the Rev. Charles Moore, 60. ("He's a kid," Muir said.)

When I asked if they were frightened by the events of the last two months, the trio chimed in simultaneously: "No."

"No, we're just taking it in our stride," Muir said. "We're Americans, and Americans have been here, and they're just not going to get rid of us."

Though the crowd at the Belton parade, perhaps 300 people lining Main Street, was better than in previous years, it could have been better still, Muir said, if not for some timidity on the part of the younger generations. "The mothers are kind of keeping their children in," she said. "They haven't lived through all the stuff we've been through, and you just keep on going."

It looked to me like there were plenty of kids out, and I couldn't imagine parents keeping their kids inside on such a glorious day because of some vague fear of terrorism. But looking back on the things people said over the weekend, I began to see a pattern.

Though we hear a lot about how events as huge and frightening as the terrorist attacks or the anthrax infections change us in some fundamental way, it seems that they serve more to confirm the way we already feel. Not to put words into people's mouths, but older people who have lived through a depression and a world war see the younger generations as overly cautious, lacking confidence and vigor. Younger people engaged in the rightfully self-indulgent years of their lives see new reasons to live for today, "to keep doing what I've got to do." Those in between, the husbands and dads whose job it is to be strong and supportive for their families, talk about staying the course, not being too affected.

"Of course you watch the news all the time now, see what's going on, constantly, you know, every night," said Glen Davis, the man raking leaves in Mound City, "but, you know, around here it's still the same old get up and go to work in the morning, and that's it."

His 8-year-old daughter, Taylor, was out helping him with the yard work. "I can tell you how he's been acting," she'd said when I first approached Davis, but then she stayed quiet as Davis and I talked. When Davis had said his piece, I asked Taylor how her dad had been acting.

"He hasn't changed," she said.

That got a laugh from Davis. "We've got to stay on the even keel, don't we?" he said as a pile of burning leaves offered up the comforting smell of autumn, just like every year.

This story has been corrected.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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