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Unease Pervades a Peaceable Town

Home of Yellow Ribbons Tied Up by Fear of Terror, Fact of War

By David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2004; Page A01

BERWICK, Pa. -- On Day 1,088 of the war on terrorism, the high school cheerleading coach got an idea. "This town needs a boost," Bernadette DiPippa decided.

All summer long, the news here had been unsettling, from the day in June when police stopped a mysterious van as it bore down on the nuclear power plant at the edge of town, to the day in July when a soldier from the next county was killed in Iraq during a mortar attack, to the day in August when 670 area workers lost their jobs when yet another factory shut its doors. "A boost," DiPippa repeated, September now, and what better way to accomplish that than to remind this borough of 10,000 people of some of its heroes?


For Berwick, along the Susquehanna River, ribbons and the nuclear power plant upstream seem to symbolize the spirit of unease that has settled on the community since the 2001 attacks and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. (David Finkel -- The Washington Post)

_____Where's Berwick?_____
Map of Area


Yellow ribbons, a moment of silence, and a recitation of the names of all the Berwickians in Iraq and Afghanistan -- this was DiPippa's plan. "I believe there are 47 names," she said as thousands of her neighbors began streaming into the downtown stadium on a Friday night for the first football game of the season.

But by then, her plan was falling apart. While the little yellowish bows that had been donated would be nice on a birthday gift, the hope had been for big, fluttering ribbons. And some soldiers' wives, living alone now, were reluctant for the names of their husbands to be read aloud, even in tribute.

The meanings of war: In tonight's presidential debate, George W. Bush and John F. Kerry will face questions about foreign policy, al Qaeda, 9/11 and Iraq. What are the consequences? What are the day-to-day effects?

In Berwick, where everything that has happened in the past three years has blurred together to cause a persistent sense of uneasiness, they already have their answers. And while not the anxious answers that can be heard in the cities where the jets of 9/11 were aimed, they are instructive nonetheless, especially at a football game, where, if this were before the war began, the sky over the stadium would be exploding in fireworks.

Game after game, this is what happened in Berwick for 30 years. But then came Sept. 11, 2001, and then no fireworks were allowed the following week, and then came Afghanistan, and then insurance costs went up, and then came Iraq, and then it got harder to get fireworks at all, and now, this night, instead of fireworks, there is only the voice of the public address announcer saying, "At this time, we would like to observe a moment of silence to honor our community members who cannot be in attendance this evening due to their current deployment overseas."

No names. No fluttering ribbons. Only 5,000 people standing in silence to commemorate Day 1,088, and Bernadette DiPippa, maybe the peppiest person in town, trying to shrug off her disappointment.

"Better than nothing," she says.

They Aren't, Are They?

Berwick is located in northeastern Pennsylvania, underneath the two cumulus clouds that are always floating above the twin cooling towers of the Susquehanna Steam Electric Station nuclear plant. The town's claim to fame has long been its football team, which for two decades has been one of the best in the country, but its immediate importance comes in being part of a battleground state, and a community where four years ago the difference between Bush and Al Gore was a few dozen votes.

This time around, Bush, Kerry, John Edwards and Vice President Cheney have all made campaign appearances in the vicinity of Berwick, hoping to win votes in a place where the houses have American flags out front and potassium iodide pills in the medicine cabinets -- distributed free after 9/11 just in case the cumulus clouds ever become radioactive.

It is where the fire department now locks up its extra uniforms, also just in case, and where the Internal Revenue Service showed up recently at at least one convenience store to audit recently purchased money orders -- also just in case.

And where the owner of the Dunkin' Donuts, a man from India named Manoj Vsava who is one of the few dark-skinned people in a town that is 97 percent white, has taken to calling himself Mike.

Also just in case.

And where the chief of police, Roger Nunkester, is thinking about Dunkin' Donuts and terrorists one morning when he says, "They know all police officers go to Dunkin' Donuts. The word comes -- they're going to hit. Do they do something to the coffee a couple of days prior to render us incapacitated? Hey. It's just a thought. A stupid thought. But that's how you have to think since 9/11."


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