Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

HURTING IN THE HEARTLAND

Far from Ground Zero, folks in Waxahachie want Bush to ‘give ’em hell’

ANN WALMSLEY October 8 2001
Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

HURTING IN THE HEARTLAND

Far from Ground Zero, folks in Waxahachie want Bush to ‘give ’em hell’

ANN WALMSLEY October 8 2001

HURTING IN THE HEARTLAND

Far from Ground Zero, folks in Waxahachie want Bush to ‘give ’em hell’

ANN WALMSLEY

They may be more than 1,300 miles away from New York City and Washington and even a good 28 miles south of Dallas, but the residents of the picturesque town of Waxahachie, the Crape Myrtle Capital of Texas, grieved deeply over the suicide hijackers’ attacks, as though they, too, drank lattes and traded derivatives in lower Manhattan. Now they’re grappling emotionally with the U.S. war on terrorism. Along the town’s main street last week, many businesses had re-lettered their illuminated signs beneath ubiquitous American flags. Vineyard’s Auto Supply urged citizens to “Pray for peace.” Across the street, Linda Litde State Farm Insurance posted “Life is fragile. Is yours covered?” But it was the Ferris Avenue Baptist Church’s billboard advertising “A Christian response to Islam” Bible study that stood out.

One night, the church’s pastor, Rev. David Brown, explained Islam to a gathering of 100 and advised the congregation how to relate to Muslims. Brown told them to correct Muslims’ mistaken impression that the Christian Holy Trinity is polytheistic. Then, he said, “show them that their God, Allah, is an overbearing deity who schemes and picks and chooses who to bless. . . who measures them on their good deeds as opposed to their bad deeds.” Participant Amy Hines said as she left church that she would try to relay those messages to the Middle Eastern people she knows at the local gas station.

Wrong-headed as that message may be, this is, after all, the Texas Bible Belt. Waxahachians say the events of Sept. 11 have added confusing questions about faith to their already troubled feelings about physical security and economic hardships. The question of who would go to war is also on everyone’s minds because military careers remain popular among rural students. Some high-school seniors confided to friends that they’d enlist as soon as they graduated, but the legendary Texas machismo is not universal. In one Grade 11 U.S. history class, a vocal contingent said they’d flee to Canada if the draft were reinstated and their numbers were called.

Although this part ofTexas is Bush country—Ellis County residents rallied around the Bush-Cheney ticket by 26,086 votes, versus 10,628 for Gore-Lieberman last November—some express uncertainty that their former governor can protect them in America’s heartland. And when crop dusters were grounded last week following news that the suicide hijackers had investigated the planes’ chemical capacity, any reassuring thoughts about Waxahachie being an unlikely target for terrorists vanished. Crop dusters are a regular sight in the spring over the flat expanses of cotton, wheat and corn that flank the town. The day after the grounding, the Parish Pawn shop sold two handguns, two shotguns and a rifle, though two were on Christmas layaway.

As Mayor Chuck Beatty says, people here always thought they were “pretty far removed” from New York. Like a large metropolis, Waxahachie (population 20,000) is decidedly diverse—36 per cent African-American or Hispanic. But with its scenic town square, it has long been a popular location for filmmakers seeking a small-town America streetscape unchanged from the 19th century: Places in the Heart and Tender Mercies are among the movies shot here. The main attraction is the ornate pink granite and red sandstone courthouse and the dusty stores with cantilevered awnings surrounding it— including saddle repair shops and feed stores.

No one from Waxahachie was injured or killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. But, says Beatty, “like all the citizens of the country, were grieving.”

The Donut Palace gave away free doughnuts in return for donations to the American Red Cross—collecting $ 1,100 dollars on the first day alone. Firefighters offered New York their services. The National Honor Society and other student groups raised money at lunchtime at the high school. When the town ran short of American flags, Moore and Moore Country Crafts began making wooden ones.

For citizens seeking more enduring emblems, Martin Acuna, owner of Purple Dragon Tattoo, offered discounts on tattoos of the American flag. Teenagers used shoe polish to write “God Bless America” on the windows of their pickup trucks. When the high-school football squad, the Waxahachie Indians, had its first home game after the attacks, fire and police officials joined the band and the Cherokee Charmers drill team around an American flag at halftime. The football players said a prayer on the field for the first time since a Supreme Court decision last year brought an end to school-led prayer.

Now, while the patriotic displays may be lessening somewhat, anger and fear are coming to the fore. “I don’t think there oughta be a war,” said one telecom worker who asked not to be named. “I was thinking along the lines of Hiroshima instead.” Kaci Lightner, president of the highschool student council and of the drill team, too, told Macleans-. “Whoever did this, they are going to get what’s coming to them. It may not be here on earth, but they will get it.” Jean Baskin, a counsellor at the high school, proudly shows photos on her desk of her four sons. One is enrolled at the air force academy in Colorado Springs. Another is at the naval academy in Annapolis, Md. Her husband is a pathologist who serves in the reserves. “I believe we have all been given a lot of gifts and we need to give back,” she says shakily. “But what is it going to take to outsmart these people? I’m just realizing how vulnerable we really are.”

Many residents fear attacks by terrorist cells already in the United States. The

news that truckers in Texas are wanted for acquiring fraudulent licences to transport hazardous materials compounded anxiety over the crop duster link. And people are right to be concerned, says police Chief Allwin Barrow, pointing to a picture of Osama bin Laden on the police station bulletin board, with a target drawn over the terrorist’s face and the words “Wanted Dead or Alive.” The plane that went down in Pennsylvania crashed not far from Three-Mile Island, Barrow notes, and so he has stepped up patrols around facilities that could be attacked for chemicals. “Comanche Peak nuclear power plant isn’t far from here. Fertilizer is sold in great abundance for farmers—and you can make a heck of a bomb with kerosene and fertilizer. You could damage the water supply at any point—there are water towers everywhere. My guess is the next hit will come in Middle America.”

Fire Chief David Hudgins says it’s more likely that Dallas, not Waxahachie, would be targeted by terrorists. But in that case, Waxahachie would swell with injured and fleeing people from the city. “We should be lucky that the Superconducting Supercollider wasn’t completed here,” he says. That project would have put Waxahachie on the tactical map. But Congress pulled the plug on the high-tech underground research facility in 1993, after only 12 miles of the 54-mile atom-smasher had been built.

But is war the answer? There are doubts—Second World War veteran B. J. Jean, who landed in Normandy on D-Day, tells neighbours that he worries about the reliability of some “newfound friends” in the international coalition, and about hurting innocent Afghan citizens. Veteran Chester Anglen, owner of Anglen Tire, tells his customers that “I would hate to see my grandson go in there like in ’Nam.” He argues that Bush should aid the Northern Alliance rebels as a first measure, after cutting off bin Laden’s financial resources. But one thing is certain. Waxahachie residents now see themselves as inextricably linked to every other American through a powerful mutual desire to do something. As a shoe-polish sign on one student’s pickup truck window stated: “George and God, give ’em hell.”