Undercurrent of unease on Mississippi

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From the Chicago Tribune

Undercurrent of unease on Mississippi

The terrorists struck in faraway places Sept. 11, but the ripples continue through people's lives, even in peaceful, small-town Minnesota.

By Robert L. Kaiser Tribune staff reporter

October 21, 2001

WABASHA, Minn. -- This time of year, the Mississippi River takes about 45 or 50 days to flow from Marvel Lint's house to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, it delivers walleye to the faithful at the fish camp, rocks to sleep a man living in a houseboat and provides work for those between jobs.

But in this peaceful corner of Minnesota, the rest of the world no longer seems so far away. With dams on the river being secured against possible terrorist attack, a dark undercurrent of fear is building.

"It scares you," said Lint, who lives hard by the railroad tracks overlooking the river. "That's how I feel--scared."

Lint's America, a bucolic country lined with autumn-gold bluffs, towering cottonwoods and ghostly river birches, seems an unlikely place for fear. And indeed, a cross-section of the river here shows many people going about their business as if Sept. 11 never happened--from 12-year-old duck hunters eagerly awaiting the arrival of migrating quarry to the engaging Lint, a 77-year-old newlywed.

On the night of Sept. 11, the Twin Bluffs Tavern, a place popular with hunters, welders and factory workers, was packed with regulars. Bartender Sue Gora played "New York, New York" on the jukebox, starting an impromptu line dance that Nate Duffy, 24, joined with such abandon as to fall and break his ankle on the first kick.

"You can be in a better mood down here on the river than anyplace else," said 23-year-old West Newton Charlie Davis, who lives on a houseboat at Winona and whose father named him for a sunken riverboat.

But some here feel a vague sense of disquiet despite feeling far removed from the news.

"From my really narrow view, we all felt really spared not even knowing anyone who knew anyone" in the attack, said Melissa Gulan, area engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And yet Gulan, who was 12 when her sister's husband was killed fighting in Vietnam, said she is worried about whether her stepson will be drafted and sent to war.

He turned 18 on Sept. 12.

"I was appalled and saddened by what happened," Gulan said. "But then I realized that it's what's going to happen that's my big worry."

In that, Gulan is not alone. Last month, workers at Lock & Dam 7 near La Crosse, Wis., called the sheriff's department to report an "unidentified package," said Mark Davidson, district spokesman for the Corps of Engineers. It turned out to be a clipboard.

"We're being very wary of things," Davidson said.

Vulnerable channel

The Mississippi has 29 locks and dams between Minneapolis and St. Louis--more than any other river. Many locks are here, in the southeast corner of Minnesota. If the locks were to become inoperable, boat traffic would stop. If a dam were destroyed or sabotaged, the rushing river could become a deadly wall of water.

This time of year, barges carrying the season's harvest--grain, beans and other produce from farms upriver--pass those hauling salt and fertilizer north for next year's crops.

Like workers at every other Army Corps of Engineers facilities on the river, those at Lock & Dam No. 5 are on heightened alert, Davidson said. A parking lot and picnic area for tourists has been cordoned off, and a sign reads, "Visitor Facilities Closed."

"I've got a 5-year-old and a 15-month-old, and it just really makes you wonder what their lives are going to be like," Chief Lockmaster Dan Schmidt said, hunching his shoulders against a biting wind.

A few miles away, on East Second Street in Winona, the used books displayed in a storefront window include Twain's "Life on the Mississippi" along with Sandra Mackey's "Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom" and "The Doomsday Book" by Gordon Rattray Taylor, best-selling author of "The Biological Time Bomb."

Through it all, however, Twain's beloved river continues yielding indelibly American stories. Consider Lint's, for example. A Scrabble game at the old-folks home did more to change her world than the attack did.

Leaning on each other

Lint married 86-year-old Ralph Asfahl six months after they met playing the game at an apartment building for low-income senior citizens. They said their vows exactly one month before the attack.

"We've talked about how good it is to have each other," Lint said, "especially at a time like this."

The newlyweds live by railroad tracks in a little red-and-white house overlooking the river, spending their evenings playing cards and "cuddling a little bit," Lint said, smiling. But even here, Asfahl can tell the world is changing. After the attack, he counted 11 passenger cars on a passing Amtrak train--about twice as many as usual, he said.

One night last week, as they finished eating dinner, there was another story about anthrax on the news.

"I want to emphasize there's absolutely no evidence of exposure," someone was saying.

Rising from the kitchen table, Lint turned off the television, and the only sound in the house was the thrum of a machine pumping oxygen through a tube to her nose. The walls of the house were filled with old family photos and pictures of bald eagles. Lint has a picture of one of the birds on a button pinned to her red winter coat.

"See the tear in his eye?"

The swell of patriotism engendered by what happened in faraway New York and Washington is visible everywhere. Sometimes it's in noble ways, such as with schoolchildren's drawings published in the Winona Daily News--"Freedom is when the army protects us from enemies!"--but other times crudely. Behind the bar at the Twin Bluffs, not far from the handwritten sign promoting elk strips for $1.25, is a picture of the Statue of Liberty making an obscene gesture with her raised hand.

"I love united we stand and the American flag and all that," said the bartender, Gora, who also said she has cried at every Kodak commercial she has seen since the attack. "I think it's brought us all a lot closer."

Draft worries

But amid the flag-waving, those who would be affected either directly or indirectly by a draft worry about the future.

"A lot of younger guys don't want to go to war," said Duffy, a laid-off factory worker. "I'm kind of scared; I don't want to see another world war."

At Davidson's house in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, the hometown of one of the heroes of Flight 93, there is a mix of confusion and concern. Davidson's wife, an administrative secretary for Northwest Airlines, was laid off after Sept. 11 and now faces possible deployment as a reservist with the Air Force.

"Sometimes you think: `Oh, it's the East Coast. It's far from us,'" Davidson said. "But you never know. The way terrorism is today, it could strike Middle America."

Davidson said he has stocked up on food, water, flashlight batteries and other essentials "in case something happens."

"But everybody's proceeding fairly normal," he said.

Thinking of his grandsons

At the Bass Resort fish camp just south of Lock & Dam No. 5 last week, fishermen hauled their boats out of the river for the season, scraping algae off the hulls.

"It did affect me at first," said Al Vomacka of Austin, Minn., a veteran of the Vietnam War who doesn't like to talk about his time in the military. "I got pretty moody and stuff. I could see another war coming."

Vomacka said his mood has improved. "But when I think about those two guys ..." Vomacka said, motioning toward his 12-year-old grandsons, Cody Weatherly and Nick Nicolazzi.

Vomacka is teaching the boys how to hunt ducks, but there were few to be found last week. "All the local ducks are gone [for the winter]," he said. "We're waiting for the northern ducks to come down."

Nearby, Bruce Vanderburg was preparing to try out a new fishing boat he had bought and hauled to the fish camp on a pickup with an American flag sticker lying on the dashboard.

"America United," it read.

For many of those who live and work along the river, the abiding sense of peace and countless small pleasures they find here far outweigh any disquieting feelings they might have.

"I like it because the river's always changing," Mike Davis said as he helped his son build a rooftop addition on his houseboat. "And yet there's a predictable nature too."

Copyright 2001, Chicago Tribune

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 22, 2001

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