American voices: Resilience runs deep in a somber time
On a journey from Plymouth Rock to the Grand Canyon, we find an America that is neither as divided as talk-show histrionics would suggest, nor as sullen as a flagging economy says we should be. We find a country that is struggling, yes, but is also pragmatic and still harbors a little idealism.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
We look down at Plymouth Rock, buried in the sand like a refrigerator turned on its back.
This is where the Pilgrims came ashore, a step onto a rock and onto a continent, to forge a new life in a new land.
We look east, Plymouth Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean stretching to the horizon, blue sea, blue sky lit by a midday sun burning bright and beautiful.
Tourists and school kids mingle, glance at the rock and move on.
More than one person asks, "Is that it?"
Plymouth Rock, so small, so symbolic, so American.
Photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman and I are on a journey to rediscover our country, from Plymouth Rock to the Grand Canyon, to find out how well America is working.
A year ago, Americans were engaged in a presidential election that divided as well as united.
We were concerned about gas prices rising to $4 a gallon, two foreign wars, and the early glimmers of an economic recession.
Gas prices are rising again. The wars grind on, unseen by most Americans, not really felt except by those directly engaged in the fight and their loved ones at home.
And the glimmers of recession have given way to the reality of an economy floundering.
Listen to America on talk radio, cable television, and the Internet, and you think that we are a people who shout, who boil over with us-versus-them anger, who think the worst of one another, instead of the best.
The truth is far different.
This is a journey in an America after the stock market crash and the housing bust, amid soaring unemployment, where people deal with hard times the best they can.
It's an America of hope.
And ultimately, we'll come to discover, it's an America largely at peace with itself.
We ride west.
Ms. Walker is an attendant at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, set on Main Street in Cooperstown, baseball's ancestral home. Long past retirement age, Walker works 24 hours a week in the summertime, when the streets swell with crowds drawn to America's game.
She remembers sitting on her daddy's shoulders to glimpse the first induction at the Hall of Fame back in 1939. That day, her brother carried Babe Ruth's bags from the train station.
Tell Walker that baseball is just a game, and she purses her lips and says, "Oh, no, no, no, no.... [I]t's very important. It's part of the United States. It's not just an old museum here. This is a standard, a standard you don't want to lose. Baseball is part of us."
Standards, she says, are missing from modern America, just like the clothing stores and shoe stores that used to line the main street here, now replaced by baseball novelty shops.
She remembers playing school softball in bloomers, teaching school, raising a family, and in 1989 becoming one of the first women to work in the galleries at the Hall of Fame.
She yearns for an America where people follow rules, remain respectful.
Here's what working here has taught her. Greatness, whether displayed in a game or on the job, matters. Not everyone who plays baseball gains entry into the Hall of Fame. You have to earn it.
Visitors give her hope.
"You'll see some kids who come along who are absolutely super," she says. "And it will renew your faith."
She tells the kids the stories, old and new, about baseball. And when she leaves at night, she makes sure to keep one seat down inside a Hall of Fame theater.
You never know, Babe Ruth just might decide to stop by.
Beth Rodgers sells the American Dream.
She's a real estate agent, born and raised in Akron. Her late father worked for Goodyear Tire and Rubber, and every time she sees the blimp float by, she thinks of him and all the other workers who created prosperity in the heart of America.
Akron isn't the Akron of her youth. The old industrial jobs are gone. Jobs in education and health are the mainstays of the modern economy. The University of Akron is expanding, taking over once run-down stretches of the inner city. Housing has gone bust, prices were down 48 percent in April, compared with the previous year. Ms. Rodgers says the statistics are skewed by the number of foreclosed properties going for PennySaver prices, under $30,000.
"We had the repercussion of bad ideas," she says of teaser rates, no-doc loans, and collateralized mortgages that brought the housing market and the country to the brink late last year.
She sees a rebound ahead.
"I think America always works," she says. "I'm looking forward to 2010. It can only go up from here. As Americans, we get through about anything, whether it's the tragedy like 9/11 or the bottom falling out of the economy. There is a certain amount of resiliency, people's stamina to make it better, make it right."
In a north side neighborhood, weeds and boarded-up homes dominate one street while just a few blocks over, there are well-tended yards, beautifully painted homes.
For Sale signs are abundant.
Neil Nagy is painting the trim on one home that has been on the market for more than a year. His girlfriend is housesitting the place.
Mr. Nagy has plenty of time. A recent University of Akron graduate, he was laid off this spring as an investment analyst at a local bank.
"My mom sent me a text message that said Akron will be the last place out of the recession," he says.
He's not leaving, though. He keeps sending out résumés. In the meantime, he'll go back to waiting tables.
The car salesmen are working hard in the parking lot outside the Delphi plant. Once, the enormous swath of cracked asphalt was filled with the vehicles of workers who built automotive parts inside the sprawling factory.
Now, the lot is the site of a two-day new-car sale organized by the city's four remaining car dealers.
Red, yellow, and blue balloons, filled with helium, dangle in the air, heavy with heat.
Danny Mann worked 20 years as the finance director at a local Pontiac GMC dealership, working the numbers to put people in vehicles.
The dealership shut in December.
Mr. Mann, not quite old enough to get Medicare, is working in sales for another dealership, trying to hook buyers, trying to support his family.
"A lot of dealerships had to close down the last couple of years," he says. "They weren't selling enough cars to cover the overhead."
Mann's son used to work at the Chrysler plant just across the street. He was laid off 18 months ago.
"I know just enough about the economy to be dangerous," Mann says. "For every time it goes down, it comes back up. The only question is just how much it will take to come back."
Jon Shallenberger, laid off by Chrysler in April, is shopping for a new Jeep with his son Taylor.
"I was looking for a smoking deal," he says. "I hear everybody has to get rid of their stuff."
There are plenty of cars for sale. Soaring gas prices clobbered Kokomo.
"It seemed like this area just stopped," he says. "It's on the recovery now."
Mr. Shallenberger's mother and two in-laws worked in auto manufacturing. He wants something different for his sons.
"I have an 18-year-old who'll be going to college later this summer," he says. "It is college or you're sunk. We're going to push him through even if it takes 10 years."
One block from a street given the honorary name of Barack Obama Boulevard, African-American boys are practicing baseball on a quiet Saturday morning. Their mothers, and a few of their fathers, look on.
"Everyone has a stereotype of how men of color are supposed to act," says Kim Causey. "Barack Obama broke the mold. It gives my son something to look forward to. My son was really into the campaign."
Kim Causey's 10-year-old son, Richard McClain, is into baseball, taking his turn at the plate by smacking a tennis ball with a stickball bat and then fielding grounders on a rutted infield.
It's awfully difficult to assess race relations in America. Many of us still live in separate worlds, divided by class and color.
The election of Mr. Obama has changed some things, but not all, of course. Drive through predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the north side of St. Louis, and you see businesses boarded up, empty lots where housing used to be. There are pockets of rejuvenation, too, a new business here, a fresh coat of paint there.
But here's the big problem, especially in the Midwest: the loss of manufacturing.
America's black middle class was built on manufacturing, assembling cars, building engines.
Those jobs are going, if not gone.
What will replace them? How will a new, larger black middle class, be created?
Joyce Franks, a retired autoworker, is poised to go back to school for the first time in 32 years, ready to take up a new trade in medical office supervision and billing.
"I'm 51 years old, and I don't want to be in a classroom with a lot of high school students," she says. "I went to orientation and I saw students about my age. I said, 'oh, my goodness.' That will give [me] the willpower, yes, I can do it."
Work, she says, transcends race.
"We need to at least work together, instead of pushing each other further apart," Ms. Franks says. "This is one nation. All of us should be supporting each other. We're all here for the same reason."
Lew Moye's life is a testament to the power of work and the ability to transcend race. He started on the assembly line at Chrysler July 15, 1964. He just retired, after a long career on the line and in the higher ranks of the union.
"There's still a lot of poverty in St. Louis," Mr. Moye says, relaxing at a church picnic. "We're having a tough time. There is a class of African- Americans who always had a tough time."
Moye says Obama's election has not completely healed America's racial divisions, although, goodness knows, he has seen much in his life on the line, seen blacks shunted to the dirtier jobs in the plant. He and others helped lead a fight for equality on the shop floor.
"America is still working," he says. "It's working with difficulties. A lot of people are hurting. I mean, Americans, we always find a way to make due. But things are difficult."
"A lot of people are losing their dream," he says. "It's hard to find two people working in a family. But I'm optimistic. In the 1980s, it was bad, but we came back. I think President Obama is going to lead this country back."
Curt Cook is lean, fit, and remarkably unhurried on this Sunday morning as 9,000 parishioners come streaming in and out of the James River Assembly church, which sits on an access road along a four-lane parkway.
This is a megachurch, supersized religion, a testament to the power of prayer and faith in a country that remains deeply religious, especially here near the buckle of the Bible Belt.
Organized in 1991, the church has 370,000 square feet of space under one roof, with a massive sanctuary that looks a lot like a theater, a cafe that serves Starbucks coffee, and modern classrooms to serve kids from kindergarten through the first two years of college.
In the autumn, the church is due to open a second campus in Springfield, Mo., where Cook will oversee the flock.
"This is kind of a monoculture here," he says. "We loved the diversity and weather of south Florida. But when it comes to your morals and values, this is a much better place. People are much more family-oriented. That is reflected in the schedules for work and school."
The church binds religion and patriotism with a July 3 "I Love America" program that includes music, fireworks, and "sharing the Gospel."
"We want to use tools people respond to," Cook says.
Christian rock blares in the sanctuary and video screens bring the pastors closer to the parishioners.
The church may not suit everyone's style of worship, but it is clearly drawing a crowd.
Kevin and Drenda Rusenstrom have spent most of Sunday morning at the church with their three children, Ireland, Rose, and Grace.
Kevin is a chaplain for a hospice-care company. Drenda is a stay-at-home mom who homeschools her children.
"Faith plays an important part every day in our lives," Drenda says.
She worries a bit about the direction of the country under Obama.
"Our president's take on Israel and not proclaiming us a Christian nation concerns me," she says. "I think the Bible tells, when we support Israel, God blesses us. When we don't support Israel, we have some trouble ahead."
After a Sunday spent at church, Drenda says the family leaves refreshed and reinvigorated.
"We go away, wanting to be better people," she says.
There is neither a stoplight nor a national franchise store in the entire county.
In 2008, John McCain beat Obama in the county 1,502 votes to 287.
The campaign is long over. Now, the people watch what happens in Washington and watch what happens close to home, where oil and gas are kings.
When prices are high at the pump, times are good in oil country. When prices collapse, wells get capped, people get laid off.
"I accept whoever you have in office," says Steve Musick, head of the local Chamber of Commerce and owner of a small hotel and a liquor store that sit just off the dusty main street. "You're going to have to give him support. You're American. You can't give up and you can't hate."
Mr. Musick watches the television news. He's not sure about bailouts for car companies and banks, but he has a sense that whatever is ailing America is being cured.
"It's on the verge of working back up," he says. "As long as the gas prices are going up it makes the people secure up here. With a high demand, they'll have to go back to drilling. The wind energy gives people more hope."
Wind rolls through here, and there are tentative plans to erect windmills in the area.
But oil remains the county's lifeblood.
Mark and Tonya Roark have made a good living off oil. He's a roughneck, a motorman who works on the wells. She runs a daycare that caters to families in the industry.
They know the oil and gas business is fragile now. "I'm scared to death to lose my job," Mark says. "There are not many out here."
Politics doesn't really interest him.
But he knows that he can't completely neglect the outside world.
When times were good, he plunked down $39,000 for a Ford F-250 diesel pickup truck that got 13 miles per gallon. A year later, he traded down for a $28,000 pickup that got a little better gas mileage.
Tonya worries about how the economy will affect her day-care center. More layoffs would mean fewer kids at the center.
She watches Washington and Obama from afar.
"I don't agree with all the policy changes he's making," Tonya says. "I don't believe Obama should have shutdown Guantánamo. I'm not in favor of the bailouts. They're overextending the government."
Yet the Roarks have not given up on America, haven't given up on their dreams. They play catch with their kids. They work hard. Every day from the front door of their home that sits on a small farm they can see the future, a windmill on a neighbor's land.
Sam Hermesmeyer's life is defined by horses, cattle, and land, 44,000 acres spread across the O'Brien Ranch in the Texas Panhandle.
"It is hard work, the pay is not great, but I like being out in this country," says Mr. Hermesmeyer, a cowboy and ranch foreman. "I don't care for city life."
It's midmorning and Hermesmeyer is working some calves with his 8-year-old son, Cutter.
Cutter can ride and rope and is the image of his father, right down to the way he tucks his thumbs in his bluejeans.
The cattle, scrub, and dirt can put things in perspective.
Like a lot of Americans, Hermes-meyer pays no heed to politics. He didn't vote in 2008.
He's connected to the rest of the country through computers and cellphones. But, in some ways, he's disconnected. His world is the land that spreads to the horizon.
"Our country looks good," he says of that land. "We've had good rains in the late spring. These calves will stay here until October 1, then they'll go to the feed yard. Right now, we've been real pressed. Our country is in good shape."
But what about the prospects for America, how does it look from out here, 10 miles from the nearest town? "Not too good," he says of the way America is going.
For Hermesmeyer, America is what you make it, through hard work and sweat. He says, "What I think is the matter is that everyone says there are so many job losses but people don't want to go out and get a job like us, where we're making no money but we're making a living."
The calves need to be moved in the corral. Work is never done.
Adrian Ramos is a firefighter.
His brother Christopher was a Marine.
Adrian drives a fire-truck, saves lives, sees people on their worst day, yet somehow sees the best of life in America.
He was 26 and left behind a wife and a baby girl. Adrian misses his brother terribly, especially on hikes and fishing trips through New Mexico.
"He wasn't a really big guy," Adrian says standing by his truck in Fire Station 17. "Probably my height, my build; he just had a lot of heart."
And courage, more courage and toughness than Adrian says he can summon up, even though he is a firefighter, even though he protects the public.
The wars of Iraq and Afghanistan are faint echoes throughout America. Most people don't pay attention to them anymore.
But there is no way that Adrian and his family can forget the wars.
"My mom," he says, "is the strongest person in this whole world. She wears the pain like a heavy coat."
Here's what he wants for Iraq – a finish, completion, America leaving the country stronger and safer than it found it. He has no timetable in mind, but neither does he want an open-ended American commitment in Iraq. And he certainly doesn't want Iraq to fall back into chaos.
In 2008, Ramos voted for the first time in his life. He cast a ballot for Obama.
"I was just hoping he would put a good end to something," he says.
He remembers his brother. He waits for the end of war.
After 12 days and 3,005 miles, we reach the end, the Grand Canyon.
We are met by a chorus, the sound of cicadas echoing from pinyon pines. A melting pot of tourists walks along the ridge path – the sound of German, Russian, Japanese, French, and Italian mixing with English.
Kids clamber up and down the slippery rocks out to craggy overlooks, parents demanding they only go so far. "I don't like being up here," says one mother about to pose for a photo. "Let's hurry."
You feel as if you're in a painting, the play of light on rock, the Colorado River flowing, somewhere, way, way down there.
The Grand Canyon is timeless and will outlive us all.
The United States, though, remains the sum of all of us. The country is hurting but hopeful.
Some of us are out of work. Others are cutting back. All of us are retreating after a splurge.
The land is still beautiful. And so are the people.
We dare to dream.