NATCHEZ, MISS. -- The air around Natchez is heavy with the waiting. People hereabouts are bred with military pride and southern fatalism. They are not impressed with the high-tech videos and smart bombs they see on television. They figure that the war in the Persian Gulf is going to be like all wars -- slugged out on the ground, and with their boys.
"Every day they bomb, that's one more day my child doesn't have to go and fight, one more bunker he won't have to worry about," said Helen Gill, her voice rising to an unnaturally high pitch as she struggled to retain her poise.
Then she stared a stranger straight in the eye and added: "But the ground war is coming. It's going to happen."
Natchez is like a hundred southern towns, steeped in patriotism and accustomed to delivering its youth to the front lines of American wars.
The war has hit this town so hard that the Army Reserve office is closed, Natchez's reservists having been called up and sent to the gulf in November. The Mississippi National Guard's 155th Infantry Armored Brigade was activated a month later, and Company B, headquartered here, is training at Fort Hood in Killeen, Tex.
"There isn't a soul in this town who doesn't have a relative or a friend who is gone," Gill said. Her son, Chuck, is practicing tank maneuvers with Company B.
The company is not scheduled to go to the gulf until April. Typical of these folks' fatalism, however, is that Helen Gill and others are certain that the war will still be going then.
Also typical is their patriotic mood. There have been no anti-war demonstrations in Natchez. One local hardware store sold out of American flags weeks ago. "Support Our Troops" signs are everywhere, in front of a local car dealer, at a motel, on the window of the sandwich shop downtown. On a recent Sunday, the town held a prayer service on the broad bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.
But as the ground campaign approaches, anxiety is rising. Seminars for families with relatives in the gulf are held twice a week instead of once, and topics have escalated from how-to sessions on home-burglary prevention to "stress management."
"People are scared and worried," Mayor David Armstrong said. "But people are also committed. They feel this is the right thing to do."
Gill said there are plenty of mornings when she is taking a shower and thinks about her son. "All of a sudden it hits me," she said. "What if he were badly hurt or killed? There would be no way to be with him when he died, and that's a terrible feeling for a mother. He's my only child."
In bars and restaurants, televisions are tuned permanently to Cable News Network. Stories abound about how parents, deep in the rural outreaches of southern Mississippi, watch another Scud attack, then dial direct to Riyadh to check on the well-being of their children.
"There's an unreal quality to it," said Joan Gandy, managing editor of the Natchez Democrat. "They say TV brings it all home. But sometimes I wonder if it makes the war more real or less real."
What makes it real is this: The South, as always, is the breeding ground for American land forces, and Mississippi is second only to Louisiana in the number of National Guardsmen called to active duty. The reason is economic as well as patriotic. In the poorest state in the nation, the National Guard has provided a good second income.
Under ordinary circumstances, Company B trains with the Bradley fighting vehicle four or five times a year. But now the Natchez unit and the 3,900 other members of the 155th are well into their second consecutive month in the Texas desert, preparing for a meaner desert overseas. The training has not gone smoothly.
Gandy sent one of her reporters to Fort Hood recently. But the reports only increased the anxiety here. The guardsmen said they were not getting enough to eat. One night, the soldiers said, it rained so hard that water was knee-deep in the foxholes. The soldiers complained that some of their Bradleys are broken down and have been for some time. Others told the local reporter that they were not sure the 155th was ready for battle.
Still, the 155th Infantry's motto is "Stand Fast." Its battle days date to 1798, and some of the oldest units stationed in these small towns trace their lineage to the Indian Wars when Mississippi was a territorial frontier.
Company B fought proudly in every war, including the bloodiest of them all, the War Between the States. It is that Civil War experience that has made people around here so fatalistic about the guard's current mission.
"This is the only part of the country that has fought a war on its soil and lost, and that gives the South a different perspective," Armstrong said. "This entire state was burned to the ground. Up in Vicksburg, during the siege, people were eating cats and dogs."
So the people in Natchez look uneasily at the gulf. More than most Americans, they realize how hard men will fight on their home ground, even in a lost cause. They know something about the kind of stubbornness and passion that keeps a losing side going against all odds. And they wonder whether Iraqi soldiers are much different.