JACKSBORO, TEX., AUG. 16 -- On one side of Highway 281 is the crumbling stone facade of a 100-year-old block of stores. On the other is the Jack County Courthouse, where a faded purple sign with missing letters remembers the local state AA football champs from 1962 and 1971.
The bleak tableau of an oil town gone bust is relieved by unexpected dabs of color: yellow ribbons tied here, there, and, the eye soon realizes, everywhere. They flap from cars and encircle the post bearing the rusting Main Street sign.
"Our prayers are with you involved in the Kuwait crisis," says the sign in front of the courthouse by way of explanation. For the 3,000 or so residents of Jacksboro, no other is needed.
The talk at the barber shop, the church and the diner is largely about events in the Persian Gulf and the people that bring the crisis home to this north central Texas town. First there was Rainard Walterscheid, an oil company worker due back in his home town Friday from Kuwait for a month's vacation who now sits in a Baghdad hotel.
Then there are the five local boys in the 82nd Airborne Division now on their way to Saudi Arabia to settle the mess that Iraq started when it invaded Kuwait three weeks ago.
"For a town of 3,000 I think we've been touched more heavily than any other 3,000 people in the world," said J.C. Romines, whose son Daniel is a radio operator in the 82nd Airborne.
In this town of big insects and handwritten back-after-lunch signs, three of the five young men in the 82nd were close friends who played football together at Jacksboro High School, a non-descript low-slung building south of town, noticeable only for the weather-beaten plastic tiger, more bemused looking than bestial, that threatens to pounce off the school's marque.
And chances are they ate a meal or two in the steak house on 281, now weed-choked and out of business, that Walterscheid owned for several years between drilling stints in the Middle East.
But such pillars of everyday life have been shaken for the relatives of the 52-year-old drilling supervisor, one of 11 men yanked from rigs near the border and kept in the Hotel Al-Rashid in Baghdad with 27 other "restrictees."
"I've been in a dream. I don't feel real. My body is numb all over. I can't feel anything," said Connie Ogle, Walterscheid's daughter-in-law. "I feel that today it's just got to end, today he's going to come home. But I'm scared that's not going to happen. All we can do it keep hope."
Huge yellow bows festoon the house and yard, pointing out the Walterscheid residence for well-wishers known and not. Amid the bustle of friends and relatives the other evening, the pastor of the First Baptist Church, Duane Perkinson, stopped by to offer whatever support he could.
"It's drawn the community together," he said. "It was just like a rug being pulled out from us -- we all suffer."
Robin Keith, editor of the Jack County Herald and the Gazette-News, agreed.
"Everyone is just really concerned. People are really quite angry that he's not already out," she said. "It's just like he was everyone's dad. The whole town is acting like he was a family member."
The same feeling extends to the men in the 82nd Airborne.
"We're all real close, we all pray together," said Ronnye Henderson. "We're all one big family."
Wearing cowboy boots and jeans, Henderson ran a buzzer over the neck of a man sitting in his three-chair barber shop and talked about his son, Clint.
"If there's a gun battle, the U.S. stands a good chance, the boys can do their job and come home where they belong," he said, glancing at an old framed photo of himself giving Clint, now 23, a haircut. "But I'm not sure they're set up for chemicals."
J.C. Romines is also worried about his son, Daniel, 21, but pride also fills his voice.
"I don't think there's a better-trained unit in the world," he said. "I told him before he left that every soldier in the world is given a gas mask and they all throw them away. You keep that thing with you. He said, 'You don't have to worry about it.' "
The younger Romines was home shortly after the crisis began, two days into a two-week leave, when a 6 a.m. phone call sent him scrambling back across the country to Fort Bragg, N.C.
It was a call much like the one that sent his father into combat gear when the elder Romines served in the 82nd Airborne and spent two weeks waiting for a deployment order that never came during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis.
Jacksboro, as a plaque and a marker on the court lawn point out, has long given its young for causes that might seem far removed from the town: the Civil War, the Great War and the Second World War.
But this time they are preparing to fight for something that means as much as anything to the inhabitants of the modest ranch homes, neat stucco houses and thinly painted trailers hereabout: oil.
The blessing of this town when it sold for $32 a barrel in 1985 and its curse when it went for $10 six months later, oil powers Jacksboro much as it drives Texas and the Western economies now trying to protect its source in the Middle East.
Last year Jack County produced 1.8 million barrels of oil, down from almost 3 million five years earlier and at a time when the number of wells in production has more than doubled.
"Everybody just sort of quit, no one is doing any drilling or buying any supplies," said John Hensley, a manager at A&J Oil Field Supply Line who lost a 15-year job with a company caught in the region's economic vise three years ago. "There's just not any jobs here."
The Persian Gulf crisis, however, has been something of a spur to the comatose economy. Plugging wells has stopped, production is being stepped up and the sputtering wells pulling two or three barrels a day are suddenly worth keeping in action.
"Everyone is happy that prices are rising," Hensley said, "but is this going to continue?"
That is a question asked a lot at the Walterscheid house, where a banner hung low over the sofa greets visitors: "Hurry home dad -- we love you!!" it says in bright colors in the neat but curio-crammed living room.
The walls were supposed to have been stripped bare by now so Walterscheid could repaint the room on his 28-day home leave -- his idea of recreation, according to family members who say they would not be surprised if he is repairing the plumbing in the Al-Rashid just to keep busy. "My husband can't sit still," said his wife, Margie.
Walterscheid has already redone the rec room, where a backdrop of oil well motifs -- photos of blowouts spewing flames into the desert sky, framed safety performance awards and a collection of hard hats decorated with his nickname, "Peanuts" -- claims a corner marked off by a wet bar.
It's a comfortable house that bespeaks a lifetime spent in the oil business. Margie Walterscheid has not left for more than an hour since she picked up the newspaper Aug. 2 and saw a headline that changed her life.
"I'm not leaving 'till he calls me," she said.
So far, the closest thing to that was a message the State Department passed to her from her husband at, she dutifully noted, 11:10 a.m. on Tuesday: "I'm still doing good and hope things will be resolved soon. Love and miss you, hope to be home soon."
But real news is rare and whatever scraps exist are quickly passed on from one captive's family to another's.
The days are not too bad. Family and friends stop in all the time, the two phones never cease ringing, reporters fill the few slack moments with questions answered before and asked again.
But when the house falls quiet, when the kids are gone or asleep and only CNN murmurs in the background, it gets rough.
"That's when it really bothers me," Margie Walterscheid said, nervously toying with a pencil. Some nights she sleeps five hours, some none.
She has lost 14 pounds since the waiting began.
It is a life she could have hardly imagined when she married Walterscheid 15 years ago last week.
That was the first anniversary that she did not get a card from her husband. But she does not plan to hold it against him when he returns.
"I'm gonna hug him more than I have in the whole 15 years," she said.