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Jewish World Review Oct. 17, 2001 / 30 Tishrei, 5762

Bob Greene

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Listening for Sept. 11's
echoes along Route 30 -- COLUMBIA CITY, Ind. -- You ask yourself what someone would think.

The person you have in mind is one who -- somehow -- had no idea of what had happened to the United States on Sept. 11. Someone who found himself in the middle of our nation -- sort of a Rip Van Winkle in a rented car -- driving across the highways, unaware of the events of that Tuesday.

At Rhoades Sales and Leasing, by the side of the road, the sign does not advertise the prices of the autos on display. It says, instead: "Pray for Our Nation's Leaders."

Near the entrance to the Indiana Toll Road ("Main Street of the Midwest"), there is a notification to drivers: "G-d Bless America. United We Stand."

The Resurrection Lutheran Church lets every passerby know: "Our Prayers Are With the Nation."

You ask yourself what someone would think.

That our country had found its truest self?

Or that something had gone terribly wrong while the person was away -- something had gone terribly wrong, and this was the response?

The answer, most likely, is both. Something went terribly wrong -- and we found out some basic truths about ourselves.

At least that was the best conclusion I could draw as I spent the better part of two days on the road in the heart of America -- Illinois, Indiana, Ohio -- and tried to pay close attention to what was around me.

From the air, the U.S. always seems vast enough. But it was from the air that the terror was delivered -- the air feels different these days. On the ground, the country seems just as big, maybe even bigger. Yet you see it a mile at a time, a neighborhood at a time. And that is where the changes since Sept. 11 are most visible. Quiet, in most cases -- but visible.

The flags, we all know about. People are buying flags in record numbers. To see them, though -- mile after mile, block after block, city after city -- brings on a feeling as much wistful as it is patriotic. The flags -- in tiny towns, on ramshackle houses, stuck into crevices at construction sites -- seem not defiant, not swaggering. At least not all the time.

The flags, cumulatively, at times feel a little like a plea. Like yellow ribbons, asking for someone to come home.

Who is that person? Whose presence at home is being sought?

Maybe all of us. Maybe America.

There is much dailiness in the land -- things have changed, but we're still, in the basic ways, who we were before Sept. 11. At least that is the conclusion from the vantage point of Route 30, and the side streets it leads to. The nation may have been attacked, but the Shoe Carnival, with two stores within driving distance of each other, offers "Twice the Fun!" The green sports fields near Indiana's Merrillville High School stand ready for play after the final bell of the day. A Halloween Superstore is stocked, poised to help people scare each other in the autumn of 2001.

Some things, you think, might in hindsight be revised, if they could be. Krazy Kaplans Fireworks displays a come-on featuring a cartoon version of an insane man waving a red stick of dynamite. But America is not all explosions and bluster; Ringo's Golf Center is open for business, and the Celebration Station offers "Food and Fun."

What would someone think?

Someone who found himself on this highway, and had no knowledge of what had taken place in the U.S. on that September Tuesday?

Probably that he was in the same America he had always known, but that something had changed.

Probably that it was the country he had loved for all of his life, but that it was responding to something important, something he should make a point of finding out about.

Probably that it was a country that -- just as it always has -- was doing its best to signal to everyone that it was going to be all right.

A yellow sign -- this one not new at all -- with black letters on its front offered a warning to anyone who saw it. The warning didn't require heeding now, on a bright, don't-need-a-jacket day, although soon enough it will.

"Watch For Ice on Bridges," the sign advised.

Winter's on its way. Be aware of what lies ahead.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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