These are trying times in the Midwest. The long hard winter has been followed by the long hard spring, or no spring at all, and each day seems to bring a new test for people here.
Electrical storms crackle across the region night after night. Heavy thick clouds scud over the prairies and the skies alternate between a glowering gray and an ominously charged yellow-white. Tornado alerts keep people tuned to their radio and TV sets. They warily watch the heavens. Hailstones the size of golf balls, blinding sheets of rain and sudden gusts of wind leave trees uprooted, low-lying farmland flooded, rivers swollen and muddy. Planting of crops is delayed. Farmers, already suffering from some of the worst economic conditions since the 1930s, worry about even tougher days to come. Merchants, beset by high interest rates and declining sales, relate their tales of woe. Homebuilders, their business at a virtual standstill, express anger over economic policies in Washington and a state of growing desperation about their future.
Together, nature and man are combining once again to measure the fortitude of these Midwest Americans.
They are used to such difficulties and, as always, will endure. But something else contributes to their present sense of unease: a feeling, whether articulated fully or not, that they also face even more troubling conditions than those they see all around them.
It is not unusual today to hear people talk of fears both of depression and war. And no wonder, for actions far away are heightening the belief events are slipping out of control.
The old days of Midwestern isolationism are long gone, though some of the vestiges remain. These towns and cities are bound as closely together as any in the country; they retain a certain insularity and small-town suspicion of outsiders, but their citizens are acutely aware of currents from around the nation and abroad that directly affect them. Even if they wish to, they cannot escape them.
Through television, the umbilical cord that links every American to world events, each international tremor reaches intimately into each person's home. In recent days the pictures coming over the screen have been especially unsettling.
To turn on your TV set each morning is to see war in the Falklands, with scenes of missiles and flaming ships, followed by more vivid pictures of greater conflict and casualties in the Mideast. Each war suddenly flares into action. Each threatens to escalate and spread. Each appears far from over. Each bears long-term consequences. None offers an easy solution.
On top of these are other scenes that, paradoxically, add to the disquiet.
World leaders are gathering. They provide pictures that stir memories of age-old scenes: of princes and prime ministers, ceremony and grandeur, troops and colors, red carpets and trumpets. History marches before us.
Yet aside from pageantry, their meeting only underscores the difficulties confronting them. During a week-long Midwestern political swing I have heard more than one person wonder what reality lies beyond the scenes of splendor in the Vatican, or the elegance of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, or the horseback rides in Windsor Castle.
For even as these scenes unfold they are interspersed with battle footage from distant fronts and that show bickering and stalemate at the United Nations.
Neither leaders of the most powerful nations of the West nor those of the church appear able to influence events. All their military might and all their moral authority come to naught. And certainly the United Nations, supposedly the forum to resolve international disputes and stop wars, proves even more impotent in the face of the present outbreak of violence around the globe.
To round out the picture, the cameras focus on massive crowds of demonstrators protesting nuclear armaments in world capitals. Those scenes are not alien. Echoes of fears of war are heard here, too. Not surprisingly, the nuclear freeze movement has taken root in Midwestern churches.
That is but one of many signs of the unease you find among Midwesterners now. It helps explain why many are asking sobering questions about the world in which they live.
They are wondering where to turn for reassurance that events can be controlled.
The German general, Erich Ludendorff, one of the supreme warlords of World War I, characterized the British Tommies opposing him as "lions led by donkeys."
The French leader, Georges Clemenceau, of the same war period, returned the favor from the politician's side. "War," he said, "is too serious a matter to be left to the generals."
And the historian, A. J. P. Taylor, after studying their collective failure to wage a war to end wars and achieve a lasting peace after such terrible loss of blood and treasure, observed: "Experience also showed that it was too serious a matter to be left to statesmen."
Yet, to paraphrase our president, if not them, who, if not now, when?
Midwesterners, no more than any others, don't pretend to have the answers to such cosmic questions, but the ones I'm hearing think we better find them fast. Their experience, from this harsh spring to their memories of past hardships, teaches them something else. It's easier to deal with assaults of nature than with mistakes of man.