It's Friday night, and there is high school football in Nebraska. Beneath floodlights swarmed by insects in the warm breeze of early autumn, Alliance High School assembles on the blue and white steel bleachers of Bulldog Stadium for its homecoming game. Faces are painted, the band is playing, and cheerleaders toss out dozens of tiny plastic footballs.
Yet on this seemingly most ordinary of nights in middle America, something is undeniably altered.
It's more than the rendition of "Taps" before kickoff, or the cathedral-quiet moment of silence, constellated by candlelight. Rather, it's the subtle but unmistakable fact that even here - in one of the remotest corners of rural America - the fans, the coaches, the students feel they are different people than they were two weeks ago.
Few know anyone who lost a brother, a mother, or a wife. Moreover, for most, the World Trade Towers existed only as an image on a box in their living rooms.
But when the buildings collapsed into ash on the morning of Sept. 11, this town changed for
ever, say the people who live here. With thousands of miles of America between it and anything else, Alliance seemed to be enfolded in the security the United States stood for.
Now, its unease shows how no community - no matter how far removed from the events of the East Coast - has been left untouched.
On this night, as the last traces of a vanishing sun lend county cornfields a russet glow, the town comes here to at once remember and to forget. This is, after all, high school football - a virtue most Nebraskans value below only God and good soil.
For a few hours, the back-and-forth between the undefeated Bulldogs and the Holdrege Dusters offers a hint of the normalcy that so many here hope to recapture.
But even in this most joyous of pastimes, reminders of what has happened are everywhere. Behind the home bench, a large "A" lined in Christmas lights stands above two small American flags and a candle. On the 50-yard line, "USA" is spray-painted below the Bulldog paw print.
Earlier in the afternoon, the students even turned the Homecoming parade into a patriotic rally of sorts, adding liberal portions of red to an event usually tinted only with the school colors - blue and white. The reason was simple: The students' thoughts and prayers still dwell with the victims - and the images of the attacks.
"I don't feel safe," says senior Kristi Grothe, who has No. 57 painted on her cheek in blue. "My parents flew to Missouri, and I cried for an hour."
She speaks only in a group with two other friends, each taking turns adding to the others' thoughts. Physically, the three stand here in a setting suitable for any idealistic portrait of heartland life, framed by the field and the packed stands. Their voices however, tremble as if they were at ground zero in Manhattan.
"I was thinking about joining the reserves," says Miranda Wodke, almost amazed at her own words. "Not now."
Miles from ... well, anything
Now, the isolation that once seemed as if it could smother the happiness of youth in the unvarying sameness of small-town life has instead become a cherished buffer, giving some measure of protection from the encroachment of an unsettled world. Indeed, it's hard to imagine anyplace farther away from everywhere else.
Set three-quarters of a mile above sea level on the upward slope of the continent's rise to meet the Rockies, Alliance is reminiscent of scores of other prairie towns, with its red-brick streets and Victorian storefronts. But its isolation is almost total.
Nicknamed "an oasis in the Sand Hills," Alliance lies at the western edge of the largest uninterrupted area of mid- and tallgrass prairie in North America - a region of whiskered swells and lonely cattle that is larger than Massachusetts, yet with fewer people than Ham Lake, Minn. For tonight's game, the opposing team needed to travel 300 miles just to get here.
Since Sept. 11, however, that encompassing emptiness has been seen as a good thing. "Ask any of us before all this, and the first thing they would say is, 'We want to get away from here,' " says Courtney Blume, mindlessly tugging and twisting her necklace. "Now, it's the opposite.... It makes you appreciate living in a small town."
Bill Reno has seen this shift from his office at Alliance High. The bespectacled guidance counselor stands in the last row of Bulldog stadium, arms folded and intent on the Bulldogs' steady march toward another touchdown on their way to a 24-7 win.
When a student approaches - quietly waiting until she's noticed - his focus shifts from the game to her.
"Is that a new haircut?" he asks. It is, she responds. "I like it," Mr. Reno replies.
He knows almost all the parents and students here, it seems, and he says, for many of them, their mindset has changed. Residents are thinking twice about leaving homes and cars unlocked.
Parents are less enthused about sending their kids to far-away colleges, and some seniors don't want to go, either. Chadron State, only 45 minutes away, is becoming a serious consideration for more students, adds Reno.
"They want to be closer to home," he says.
Sticking close to home
Count Kristi among them. While she hasn't decided what she'll do next, she knows one thing: She will not go to the East Coast.
For now, she and others are happy to remain in the prairie's broad embrace - and hope the terror comes no closer.
"Sometimes we feel isolated," adds Reno. "But right now, we're all glad we live here."