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Jewish World Review July 8, 2002 / 28 Tamuz, 5762

Bob Greene

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The strength to be found in empty places | HILLROSE, Colo. The United States is under siege. That -- in so many words -- is what we have been told since Sept. 11. We can't always see our enemies, but they're out there. The Office of Homeland Security -- soon to grow into something bigger and more permanent -- is our first line of defense.

And as long as the news footage of the World Trade Center collapsing is shown -- which is to say, until the end of time -- the visual image of America as a target will persist.

Which is why the picture of the United States here at the Hillrose exit of Interstate 76, in the isolated miles of northeastern Colorado, is such an oddly soothing one to behold. Near most highway exits across the nation, signs are posted to tell motorists which chain restaurants are available, which gas stations, which hotels. At the Hillrose exit there is a signboard posted for the edification of those behind the wheels of their cars. The sign says:


No need to get off the highway. You can't eat here. You can't refuel your car here. You can't sleep here. You're running on empty, in every way that counts.

The sign at the Hillrose exit was the second "NO SERVICES" sign I had seen this day. If the dominant image of America during our new war is that of a country that consists of skyscrapers ready to be knocked down, airports ready to be sabotaged, subways ready to be infested with deadly gas -- if, in the months since Sept. 11, we have all become conditioned to see ourselves as potential victims, packed closely together to provide a maximum target -- this span of highway near the Colorado/Nebraska/Wyoming convergence is a reminder of how large and spread-out a land we really are. And how no one is likely ever to truly bring us down. We sprawl too far -- there's too much of us for anyone ever to conquer. At least it feels that way here.

"NO SERVICES." We're so vast that there are pockets in our midst where we acknowledge there's nothing there. No place to hide? This is the converse of that -- we have so many open spaces and open places, so many miles to regroup and extend ourselves, if we ever need to ... we are enormous. We have room to grow -- room to move. If anyone thinks they can strike at our heart by hitting one of our cities, they don't know us. They don't know just how much we have available.

On either side of the highway I saw few signs of life -- but coming out of the sky above, like an old friend, was a voice I knew, a voice that I was aware was broadcasting out of a small room on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Paul Harvey -- with those exquisite phrasings and grand massagings of words, with those magnificent pauses, with one-sentence narratives that pack more power than some novelists can deliver in 400 pages. ... Paul Harvey was speaking into a microphone in crowded Chicago, and here his voice was, floating down from the clouds. There weren't many radio stations you could pick up out here by the "NO SERVICES" sign, but I switched around and there was Mr. Harvey again -- the same broadcast coming out of the endless sky from two stations in two time zones in two states.

No services -- you wouldn't think that would be a cheering notion, but it was, at least on this sun-washed day near the three-state nexus. How far can we spread out, if we ever have to -- how much room do we have to utilize in any way we find necessary? All the room in the world. We can't be cornered. We can stretch as far as we want to.

Paul Harvey was talking on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and his teasing pause, followed by a small chuckle, followed me along I-76, and for just a moment his voice sounded like the only voice in the world. It'll fool you some time, this country will; any time you think you've got a handle on it, it will remind you that it's way too big for anyone, friend or foe, to presume any such thing. "NO SERVICES," the sign by the side of the highway said, with the alternate translation: We're not even close to all filled up. Not the U.S. We've got miles and miles just waiting to be used. "Good day," Mr. Harvey's voice said as I passed the Hillrose exit. He seemed to be right.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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