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Mood in Mid-America

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Around here, Ivan Parks and his wife are almost synonymous with summertime celebrations. Their Sno-Cones have been the salvation of overworked high-school football teams up in Nebraska and the guilty pleasure of fair-going teenagers in the tiny farm towns of western Kansas - who know the Parkses' electric-blue kiosk by sight.

Yet this Independence Day, along with the unfurled flags and thunderous fireworks, there comes a discordant note for the Parkses amid the brassy marching tunes. The gnarled brim of his green cap pulled low, Ivan worries about $60-a-barrel oil and the end of Social Security as he has known it for his whole life. Glenda wonders if the loss of life in Iraq is worth it.

Here in America's Heartland, the love of country is all but unquestioned, but concern over the nation's course spreads to every corner of the wide-open plains. Some of it is surprisingly candid - invectives against a president and his policies that would make a blue-stater blush. But more often, it is simply a fact to be accepted and overcome - like a poor harvest or a cold winter.

Indeed, on street corners from Rock Springs, Wyo., to Cambridge, Ohio, Middle America remains much as it ever was - straightforward, unfailingly polite, and above all resilient. It is in this resilience that these farmers and teachers and Sno-Cone salesmen put their hope. To them, America is its people and its laws, and these will endure policies, oil prices, and wars.

"That's the American dream," says Ivan. "Things get better."

For now, that remains just a hope for most Americans. Satisfaction with the direction of the country is dropping, according to Gallup polls, but at 42 percent it remains well above historic lows. Troubled but not panicked by the war in Iraq and a fitful economy, Americans have slipped into a lingering sense of unease.

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