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Report from the ‘heartland’: there is peace

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image Main Street USA, along with the heartland, remain the American ideal long after rural America began dying while the big cities grew. But it isn’t entirely a myth. In Clear Lake, Iowa, there is even a sign to point the way. Mitch Traphagen Photo

No one had taken to arms; there were no fisticuffs in yards, nor looting in streets.

By Mitch Traphagen

MARENGO, IOWA - On the eve of what talking heads and pundits were declaring as an approaching economic collapse, with the shrillest referring to it as “debtogeddan” or “debtpocalypse,” there was peace in the heartland of America. No one had taken to arms; there were no fisticuffs in yards, nor looting in streets.

The heartland is a concept of almost mythical proportions in America. It is referred to in ways that suggest it is the soul of the nation. It is Main Street USA, populated by people of healthy stock who are as honest as the day is long, who work hard and are driven to succeed. It represents all that is good about this 235-year-old experiment in democracy. It represents all of us.

The truth is that the heartland is slowly dying. While there are still people who move to the small towns that dot the expansive and productive plains of the Midwest, more people move out. They move in search of opportunity in the big cities: Des Moines, Omaha, Minneapolis and Chicago. In becoming city-dwellers, their migration reflects the growing awareness that the real Main Street USA in 2011 America may well be along a freeway or a suburban strip mall. It also reflects that the very concept of the heartland was, perhaps, a myth.

On any given day in this town of 2,500 people, it is almost certain that someone lied, cheated, robbed; caused tears, pain and anguish; and committed other horrible deeds. Just like anywhere else in America. There are no urban evils that haven’t invaded the heartland, at least to some degree. But at the same time, this is a place where needs tend to be answered, at least in some form. It is a place where a 3 a.m. knock on the door would be answered — and without much in the way of fear. It is a place where everyone knows everyone else, for better or for worse, and where the points of social contact are narrowly focused on the local diner, tavern, and the park in the town square. It is a place where your word is still your bond.

Next to the town runs a broad and brown river that, while appearing tranquil, holds a devastating power that threatens to rise up every few years to engulf the town and the souls within. But during the tranquil times, the word “runs” is perhaps a bit too strong. The river plods along, much like the cows that populate its banks. The faded remnants of the month-old celebration of America’s independence are still seen around town, a reminder that independence is still a very big event here. The convenience store advertises a litany of sins: beer, wine and cigarettes — in this place far off the world’s stage people do what they feel they must to get by, much like everywhere else.

It is beautiful in ways that those who just fly over it could never understand. Along with the plodding brown river are rolling hills and wildlife, including deer, coyotes and even the occasional mountain lion. The wooded hills open up to expansive plains of soybeans and corn. From the vantage point of a hill, there appears to be vast oceans of corn, acre after acre, standing taller than a man, and seemingly filling every available inch of soil. From all appearances, there will be a bountiful harvest, something that most any nation would find cause to celebrate. In America, it is merely assumed — and celebrated by some on a plate-by-plate basis.

Marked by seasons, time moves differently here. It is distinct, and perhaps the minute hand of some cosmic clock does move a little more slowly, a benefit for those who populate this place. In the heartland, the days in which no one complains about the weather would seem few. But on those days, those perfect days that are not too hot or too cold, the blue sky and green horizon merge with crystal clarity. On those days, everyone, regardless of age or status, knows what it means to be alive. They’ve all seen the bad side of Mother Nature, thus they relish the good.

And during the bad days, it is their families, their friends, neighbors, pastors and co-workers that help carry them through. In this place, friends are held closely and family even closer. Around town, bicycles are strewn on green lawns with the carelessness of youth reveling in summer. The kids don’t care about the debt ceiling. It is not their problem. Yet.

This town may be dying but it isn’t dead. Within it are good people, strong people, who care about their neighbors and their country. While the pundits jabber and the politicians bicker, they, like most of us, go on working, loving, laughing and crying. Most people here will complain — about the weather, about the town itself — but most will never leave it. Or at least they won’t stray too far. Why should they? They live in the heartland, after all — the soul of America. It is more than just a myth, it exists here and in hundreds of communities across the land. And on the eve of what some wrongly proclaimed would begin the undoing of this great nation, the soul of the nation was at peace.

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