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?
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."
Nunkester, a Bush supporter "without hesitation," is patrolling the 44 miles of streets in Berwick when he says this, armed with a gun, a radio and a cell phone that rings to the tune of "God Bless America." Before 9/11, he says, the calls were always about drunks, domestics, break-ins and drugs, but now more and more are about the small plane circling overhead, or the blimp in the distance headed their way, or the car at the drive-through with a Middle Eastern driver and a map unfolded on the front seat.
Or the complaint that comes now from Greg Tingley, general manager of the Fresh N Quik, who is describing how shaken he had become the day before when some people from India, or Iraq, or somewhere that certainly wasn't Berwick, came "barreling" into the store. "I was thinking the worst," he says. "Are they going to do something? Are they going to blow up the gas station?"
That's what the war has done most of all so far, Nunkester says -- create a sense of unease in people, including in himself.
If he sees a car with tinted windows?
That could be a car bomb, he says.
If he sees someone walking around on a hot day with too much clothing on?
That could be a suicide bomber, he says.
"Well, nothing's going to happen in little Berwick," he says people say to him from time to time.
"Well, yes it is," he now says.
Asking for the Power Plant
Of all the things that have happened, everyone in Berwick agrees that the most disturbing occurred at 11 a.m. on June 29, when a Nissan Quest minivan with New York license plates pulled up in front of Rinehimer Equipment on Route 11, the road that leads from Berwick to the power plant. Wayne Rinehimer was inside at the time, and he watched through the front window of his shop as a man who would later be described in newspaper reports as "Arab-looking" got out of the minivan.
"It's not like I was looking for terrorists or anything," Rinehimer recalls. "He walks in, wants to know where the power plant is. He said, 'Do they have a pond up there where I can go fishing?' " After that, he says, the man walked back to the van to talk to four other people who had climbed out, and then came the startling sound of a helicopter, circling lower and lower over his shop. "The next thing I know, they were swarming from all directions," he says. "There were friggin' cops everywhere."
That's how Berwick's brush with terrorism -- or not -- began. To this day, the Pennsylvania State Police, whose helicopter it was, won't say much about what six hours of questioning five men produced. They will say that four of the men were of Bangladeshi descent and one was of Pakistani descent. They won't release names. They will say that the men stopped several times as they made their way through Pennsylvania to ask where the power plant in Berwick was, causing enough concerned phone calls for police to issue a bulletin that some possibly suspicious men might be on the way to Susquehanna Steam.
They will say that the men repeated to them that they wanted to go fishing, that's all, just fishing; that they had no fishing poles or tackle or licenses, only a single net; and that there was no reason to arrest them. And so the men went away, and Berwick continues to wonder how close it came to being New York City or Washington, D.C.
"Odd" is the characterization of Joseph Scopelliti, supervisor of the nuclear plant's information center. "Tremendously odd."
"Are they testing us?" says Nunkester, wondering why, if they were terrorists, they would ask people for directions. "Are they seeing what our response times are? Seeing how we handle a situation? How long we detain them? How we do it? What we do?"
"I don't know. Maybe they just wanted to go up and look at the ponds," says Rinehimer.
And then he says, "They certainly weren't dressed for fishing."
And then: "Maybe they are terrorists."
Unease, he agrees, is a word that fits him well these days. Four years ago, he voted for Bush. This time, "I don't know if I'm going to do it again. But I don't want to vote for Kerry, either." Who's going to help him feel better? he wonders. He has friends who drive cement trucks and tell of delivering load after load to the power plant, where construction has begun on a massive, five-foot-high barrier. He has friends who wonder why the five men were let go. "A lot of people I've talked to said they should have put them in jail, or shot them, because they're terrorists."
He says, "I think people are getting pissed off."
"I know I am. I never used to be. But I am," he says. "It just feels like everything's getting worse."
The Factory's 9/11 Spike
Meanwhile, at Berwick's biggest employer, a company called Berwick Offray that describes itself as "the world's largest manufacturer and distributor of decorative ribbons and bows" -- including yellow ribbons and yellow bows -- Irene Lukashewski, mother of three sons, all at the moment somewhere in Iraq, is once again wiping her eyes.
This time she's using a napkin from Dunkin' Donuts. It's 10:55 p.m., and she has been drinking coffee before starting a six-hour graveyard shift during which the factory will produce 720,000 bows, 10,000 from her machine alone. She is 53, earns $10.56 an hour and is glad for the work, because her husband was one of the 670 who lost their jobs when the factory a few towns away, which manufactured television screens, shut down in August.
"What's that word?" she says. She searches for it. Can't come up with it. Says instead that her husband was there 20 years and now has no idea what to do. And then does think of it. "Outsourcing," she says.
She, on the other hand, works in a factory where there has been no shortage of business, especially since 9/11.
"The spike from 9/11 caused a tenfold increase in our annual requirement for red, white and blue ribbon," Christopher J. Munyan, the company president, says, and the war in Iraq "caused an even greater spike. As it relates to yellow, our average monthly demand increased 35 times." Put another way: "If you walked through the plant, it was all yellow." The demand became so great, he says, that his 1,200 workers became stressed to the breaking point "because you cannot meet the demand of a 35-times surge."
What Irene Lukashewski remembers of how great the demand became: a week-long period in February when she was laid off because there wasn't enough available ribbon to make bows. "But that worked out good," she says, "because I got to see my boys the last weekend before they got deployed."
The boys are Joe, 31, Brian, 30, and Andrew, about to turn 21. All are members of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. Just before they left for Iraq, their mother says, Andrew was given the option of staying home, but "the three of them made a pact that if they would go, they would go together."
Thanks to the layoff, then, they were all able to go out for pizza before the boys went off together, and now their mother stays away from the TV news and hates it when the phone rings and wipes her eyes with a Dunkin' Donuts napkin while sitting in a break room across from a worker named Bessie Guzenski, who is saying under her breath, "We shouldn't be there. None of the American boys should be there."
To which Lukashewski, who doesn't like the war, who doesn't know why her husband had to lose his job, who doesn't know whom she will vote for, says nothing. She just keeps wiping her eyes and looking away, so Guzenski keeps talking about the anxiousness she feels, not only as an overworked bowmaker, but also as someone in a country where there are now daily terrorism alerts. "That puts stress in you," she says. "It also puts fear in you. Who are they going to get this time? And where?"
She reaches across the table and takes Lukashewski's hand. They are co-workers, best friends and neighbors who have been driving to work together for 91/2 years. If anyone knows how Lukashewski has changed, it is Guzenski, who says her dear friend has become quieter and more distracted.
"I daydream a lot," Lukashewski agrees.
"I tell her she deserves a pat on the back every day," Guzenski says. "My first words, every day, when I get in the car, are 'Did you hear from the boys today?' " "No," Lukashewski says, repeating this day's answer. "Not today."
She checks the clock. Time to stop being distracted. Time to make bows.
A War She's Grown to Hate
In Berwick, of course, the bows of Berwick Offray are everywhere. Along Market Street, which runs up the hill toward the firehouse that is getting a new firetruck thanks to a $220,500 grant from the Department of Homeland Security. Along Pine Street, where a hundred or so people gathered at the armory on Memorial Day and sang "God Bless America" to the accompaniment of a karaoke machine. And along Front Street, the main commercial strip, especially a three-block stretch between the Dunkin' Donuts and the one-screen Berwick Theater.
Except now, as the second football game of the year nears and blue and white ribbons go up around town in support of the football team, word spreads that a lot of the yellow ribbons on Front Street have disappeared.
"All I know is I looked out and she was cutting down the yellow ribbons and putting up blue and white ones," says Jacqueline Hartzel, president of the downtown business association, describing what she saw taking place in front of her store.
"Well, a mother of a football player cut them down" is the explanation that Karen Finucan, whose husband, Guy, is in Iraq, got from a friend. "You need to calm down," Finucan remembers the friend telling her, but several days later she is anything but calm. "Why would somebody do that?" she says. "It was almost like somebody came up to me and said, 'Who cares about your husband?' " And that's Finucan's concern about a war she has grown to hate, she says, that as it settles into permanence, it will go from bright bow to something duller. That the unease in Berwick will become normal. That the bows will come down, and will stay down.
"They've been gone a long time," Finucan says of Berwick's soldiers. "People forget."
She says she can see it happening already. "Where's Guy today?" people say now when they run into her, as if they can't remember whether he is in Iraq or at the Kmart on Route 11. Even she has changed. She no longer checks for his e-mails obsessively and is down to sending him one a day. But in her case, she says, the defenses are for sanity's sake. She won't watch the news. She doesn't read the paper.
Seven months into a deployment that is likely to last until next summer, she and her husband of six years have a relationship where he phones on Saturday mornings and talks in hints about what is going on, which she then deciphers once they have hung up. It is how she realized he was telling her that he had been sent to Fallujah the day after some civilian contractors working there for the Army were shot, burned, dismembered and hung from a bridge. Or that when he said, "Okay. That's it. I'm done," it was because seven Marines had been killed, and that he had known them all.
In turn, she protects him, too, rarely mentioning what daily life has become for her. But on the Saturday after she found out about the ribbons, she couldn't help herself.
"Honey, you're never going to believe what happened," she said, telling him.
"What do you mean?" he said.
"She cut them down. To put up football ribbons," she said.
"You've got to be kidding," he said.
"And then," she says, relating the conversation, "he got quiet," and now, she says, she is sure he is somewhere in Baghdad brooding on it and will bring it up the next time he calls. "He's not one to forget," she says. "When he calls Saturday, if he calls, he's going to say, 'Did you get the ribbons back up?' " And she will be thinking what she is thinking now, that who would have expected this? Any of this?
Fourteen years ago, Finucan says, she was a Berwick High School cheerleader to whom blue and white were the most important ribbon colors in the world. Now, still in the place where she has always felt safe, her life is tied up in yellow ribbon, she has doses of potassium iodide for herself and her daughter hidden among her cookbooks, and she gets phone calls all the time about things she can't believe she is dealing with, such as one the week before asking if the names of Berwick's soldiers could be released to someone named Bernadette DiPippa to be read aloud that night at the stadium.
All day, her phone rang with calls from wives who were worried that such a public acknowledgment would identify them as living alone and make them vulnerable to burglars, to rapists, to mystery men in minivans. At 7 p.m., she was in the midst of another one when she heard something in the distance that made her realize the problem had solved itself. It was a roar. Pre-game ceremonies were over. The game had begun.
"It's not a large town," she says of Berwick. "Everything echoes."
Suddenly, a Game Freezes
"Good evening," the public announcer says. "With tomorrow being the anniversary of September 11, at this time we would like to observe a moment of silence to honor all those who lost their lives on that tragic day . . ."
Day 1,095. The second game of the season. This time DiPippa's theme for pre-game is a recognition ceremony for all of the police departments, fire departments and ambulance companies in the Berwick area. The yellow gift bows stuck here and there on the sidelines are still not what DiPippa had hoped for, but the ceremony this time is. Chief Nunkester and two dozen other officials, who will be the first responders if a terrorist attack ever does occur, get certificates of appreciation and applause, and then, as 5,000 people settle into their seats for a bit of Friday night football, the game gets underway.
A kick. A run. A touchdown. A roar. It is a timeless American moment, where the view from the top of the press box, from which all of Berwick can be seen, offers the clearest view of all.
Over there are the cooling towers, under the ever-present cumulus clouds.
Over there is the bow factory where a daydreaming Irene Lukashewski is two hours into her shift.
Over there is the home of Karen Finucan, who is 12 anxious hours away from a phone call.
Over there and there and there are the churches and buildings with flags, ribbons and anti-radiation pills that on Nov. 2 will become polling places.
And here, where half the town has come on a Friday night, Berwick has scored again. Up goes the point-after kick. It soars between the goal posts, keeps going and slams into the scoreboard -- at which point something happens that has never happened in Berwick before.
Somehow, the ball hits the scoreboard in a way that causes a short-circuit, which in turn causes a row of lights to go out, which in turn causes the game to come to a sudden stop.
Everyone looks. No one seems quite sure what to do.
"There's a digit missing on the scoreboard," the announcer finally says, and some people shake their heads, and some people say they have never seen anything like it, and that's what everyone says Berwick is on Day 1,095 of the war on terrorism: a place where you never know what's going to happen next.