On 9/11, Fear Reached Into the Heartland

Out of harm's way, Middle Americans still feel an innocence lost.

By + More

DANVERS, ILL.—There could hardly have been a greater contrast to the smoke-choked chaos of lower Manhattan than that presented on the same day in this farm village 900 miles to the west. Just hours after the World Trade Center collapsed, Jim Vierling sat alone with his troubled thoughts at the Danvers Farmers Elevator in the shadow of the village's own twin towers—the huge grain silos that loom over comforting plains and fertile fields.

Although this year's busy soybean and corn harvest has begun, only one farmer had trucked in grain all day. "This is the most subdued day we've had in a long time," Vierling noted somberly. The CNN broadcast playing out on a portable television brought in for the occasion offered an unnecessary explanation why. "This was coordinated to disrupt the economy, and they have accomplished their objective," Vierling said. "I'm concerned there might be confusion in the grain markets. All major companies have pulled in bids because they don't know what will happen when the market opens."

Vierling, who manages the elevator, had just hung up the telephone after a long conversation with one of his sons. "He wondered what I thought about it all. I told him it was a very significant event... This could be the most dramatic thing that has happened in our lifetimes. In larger terms, I fear that our free and open country is compromised now." Vierling said he had also considered that his sons could be drafted into military service. "It has gone through my mind that all of my boys are of the age that, if this thing snowballed out of control, they could be vulnerable."

Similar thoughts ran through fathers' minds and mothers' hearts wherever they stood in relation to lower Manhattan. Even here in the Midwest, far removed from the taste of blood and the smell of destruction, there was fear, a tinge of panic, and the undeniable notion that something had changed forever—and for the worse.

Just a few miles southeast on the meandering blacktop of Illinois Route 9, toward the booming prairie-opolis of Bloomington-Normal, cars, trucks, semis, and motor homes were lined up in raucous disharmony four and five deep at each of the 12 pumps of the Road Ranger Shell Station. Its looming yellow and black road sign announced the fresh insult of $1.99 a gallon for regular unleaded, but the pumps themselves still carried the $1.57 charge from the innocent start of the day.

"Which one is it?" demanded an overheated customer at the pump. Other drivers honked their annoyance at the advertised price, at the wait, and at the turmoil so inexplicably forced upon their lives.

So much was difficult to understand on this day. Kimberly Courtade, 20 years old and majoring in political science and French, sat alone at a small table in the Bone Student Center of Illinois State University in Normal, watching the television news. "I heard in my first-hour American diversity class that a plane flew into one tower, and I thought it was an accident. Then I heard in my second-hour political science class that another plane had hit the other tower, and I was surprised the teacher kept going because after that I couldn't hear a thing," said the aspiring diplomat from Bartlett, Ill. "I was really scared about them maybe attacking Chicago because I have family there, and I have a lot of friends in New Jersey and New York State, and I was afraid it was going to go throughout the day and I didn't know when it was going to end."

Call for revenge. After her third-hour class was canceled, Courtade watched CNN for three hours straight and tried in vain to study. Her father is a businessman who travels all over the country, but "thankfully, he was sick, and thank God he is home," she said. "I told my poly-sci professor that I hope Americans look at what we are doing to other countries. Nothing justifies this, obviously, but what are we doing that brings such a strong reaction?"

Ralph Hafley, the owner of a local crane service who was having coffee with friends on South Main Street, appeared to have no such questions; he was thinking of retaliation. "We've been bombed in our own country. What I don't understand is why we aren't over there bombing them already. If they can read the name on a mailbox with a satellite, why can't they figure out who did this?"