A County That's in Fatigues

Times Staff Writer

CLAY COUNTY, Ala.--There are only two towns, five miles apart, in this little county. The nearest Wal-Mart is about 35 miles away, but few complain because life is a bit slower here. Families don't have much to spare, but everybody volunteers. And joining the National Guard and reserves is as much a way of life as turkey hunts and Wednesday night Bible study.

Lately, though, Clay County is on edge. The sun comes up and the televisions click on to the news as people brace for a war they know is coming. They just don't know when.

Robbie Lett has consolidated all the bills and helped his wife put her will in order. Julie Lett is making videotapes so her baby girls won't forget what she looks like when she goes.

When Anita Barrett isn't frying chicken at Ms. Anita's Cafe, she is sewing stripes on Walter Kidd's dress uniform. Kidd, whose wife, Penny, waitresses at the cafe, is doing 30 sit-ups each morning and trying to lose 20 pounds.

Buddy Griffin has made sure his wife has power of attorney. Jarred Griffin is getting used to the idea of high school graduation without his father.

Tru-Wood Cabinet Co. is breaking in a new lead man for the frame department. The Lineville High School principal is looking for a seventh-grade social studies teacher, preferably one who can also coach softball. A police chief is figuring out a way to manage without one of his five officers. The town of Ashland could lose its mayor. And the Lineville Baptist choir is wondering how it will sound minus one tenor.

As the nation ponders a war in Iraq, people are preparing for disruptions to their lives in neighborhoods all across America, but perhaps nowhere more so than here.

Alabama leads the nation in National Guard enlistments per capita. And by the same measure, Clay County, which contains the twin towns of Ashland and Lineville, sent about 1% of its 13,000 residents to the Gulf War 12 years ago, more than any county in the country. Those nine months tore holes in the fabric of a tightly woven community.

"The National Guard is real big in Alabama," said Jim Luker, principal of Lineville High School, which could lose as many as three teachers to a reserves call-up. "When you take 25 people out of a town this small, you really miss them. And when you take one teacher, 100 kids feel the effects."

A feeling of foreboding permeates Clay County. Nearly 59,000 reserve forces have been mobilized nationally. Units all across Alabama have received orders, and Clay knows its time is coming.

Based here are the 128th Medical Company and the 1200th Battalion, which handles water purification, the only one of its kind in the state. Both services are considered vital to a war effort -- particularly now, when the nation's pared-down armed forces depend more on reservists than ever before.

In addition, countless residents are attached to units in nearby counties. While Clay County's two units await deployment, a few of the county's reservists attached to units elsewhere have received their orders.

"We've downsized the active army. Once it could fight one, two, three major crises at one time. Not anymore," said Adjutant Gen. Mark Bowen, commander of Alabama's National Guard. He grew up in Lineville and worked for years as a pharmacist. He predicts Clay County will be asked to serve again. "Last time, we sent every one of 'em. We cleaned out the whole bunch."

These are not active-duty military towns. People here have civilian lives, but they put everything down when Washington calls, leaving colleagues, neighbors and families to fill in the gaps.

They join to be patriotic, they say, and because the extra pay helps make ends meet. They are rarely called up -- before the Gulf War they were summoned by the president only once, in 1963, when Gov. George Wallace barred the door to black students at the University of Alabama.

In small communities such as Lineville and Ashland, which have a combined population of 4,300, a war takes people of standing, people who are hard to get along without. Like Ashland Mayor Norman McNatt, who wears other hats as a member of the water and sewer board and a major in the National Guard.

The citizens of Ashland call their mayor for everything from the recent spate of burglaries to a barking dog. McNatt has about a year left in his term and wants to run again, but if he's deployed he'll have two choices: resign or take what could be a long leave of absence.

"In fairness to the city, I've got to look and see what's best for the city, not what's best for Norman," he said.

Hardly a day goes by when McNatt or Bowen don't bump into somebody who wants to know when.

It broke Bowen's heart when 17-year-old Jarred Griffin, who works after school at Ashland Pharmacy, asked him whether his father, a full-time lieutenant colonel in the National Guard, would be gone for his June graduation. Bowen avoided confirming what seemed likely. Less than a week later, Martha Griffin stopped by the pharmacy with tears in her eyes to tell her son that his father had been called up. "That was a bad day," Jarred said.

With so much uncertainty, life is on hold.

Chief Monty Giddens of the Lineville Police Department, a force of seven including himself, isn't authorizing any vacation. He's not sure whether Cassandra Wood -- a National Guard lieutenant and one of five patrol deputies -- will be around in a month.

"It's not only hard on the people who leave, it's hard on the whole town," Giddens said. "If she goes, nobody can take vacation. Nobody can do anything unless somebody else is willing to fill in."

Finding stand-ins in a place this remote is a challenge, particularly for professions such as law enforcement and teaching, which explains the mess on Principal Luker's desk. He had spent much of the day trying to find a replacement for Shannon Thornbury, the seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher who also coaches football and softball. A sergeant first class in the Army Reserve, Thornbury, 31, was one of few in town with orders in hand. He shipped out Friday.

"You don't have a lot of certified teachers here in town, and not many people are going to drive 40 or 50 miles one way for a teaching job, especially in the middle of the year," Luker said. "It's so hard for us rural areas to replace people."

Leaving his job is not Thornbury's greatest hardship, however. His infant son needs surgery in Boston for a defective heart. Bowen, the National Guard commander, offered to pull some strings, but Thornbury refused, opting to take emergency leave when the time comes.

"That's not what I signed up to do," Thornbury said of delaying his deployment. "When duty calls, you make arrangements." As he spoke, the 19 students in his class worked on essays. When asked how many of them have family in the National Guard or reserves, nearly half of them raised their hands.

Patriotism often flourishes in small Southern towns, and Ashland and Lineville are no exception. But the gung-ho spirit that prevailed before the Gulf War seems tempered now. Residents remember when convoys rolled out for the Persian Gulf, when it felt like half of the county was leaving, the streets filled with neighbors waving flags and crying, schoolchildren assembled on lawns, yellow ribbons everywhere, bands playing.

"Saddest day of my life. You don't know what kind of environment you are going to, if you are ever coming back home or what," said Kidd, a sergeant first class with 24 years in the National Guard. He is also lead man in the frame department at Tru-Wood, where he supervises 12 workers, including his wife, Penny.

He nursed a glass of sweet tea one recent night in a booth at Ms. Anita's Cafe, where Penny works a second job as a waitress. The restaurant was empty because nearly everyone in town was at church. The Baptist choir was due in after practice, and Ms. Anita, as everyone calls her, was cooking hamburger steak.

There isn't anything Ms. Anita, who is 60, wouldn't do for the Kidds, she said -- whether it's sewing the stripes on Kidd's uniform ("It's just too expensive at the cleaner's") or looking out for their three children after school. Her help will come in handy.

Kidd, 42, has been breaking in a man to replace him at work, but filling his shoes at home will be harder. Who will take the kids to church while Penny is working? Who will get their dinner? Or take them to their ballgames? Who will be her confidant and best friend?

"We ride to work together, take breaks together, eat lunch together. I spend the whole day with him," said Penny Kidd, 33, her eyes tearing up.

During the Gulf War, family support groups formed to help neighbors jump-start a car, fix a refrigerator, balance a checkbook, care for a child or mow a lawn.

The outpouring was so great that afterward, the Legislature officially dubbed Clay the "Volunteer County of Alabama," an honor that befit not just the ones who went but the ones who stayed behind.

The women's group at Lineville Baptist already has been assembling travel packs of pocket-sized toothpaste, shampoo and snacks. At a recent church meeting, someone suggested adding "the armed forces and their families" to the list of people to pray for on a permanent basis.

"We mention it in conversation every time we get together," said the Rev. Jerry Colquett. church pastor. "People are anxious. The wait is tough. They have been there before."

The sacrifice is about to get harder, which raises the question: Why stay in? "Patriotism, Southern culture, second income," Bowen said. "This is a poor county in a poor state."

Residents have watched businesses fold and factories move out in hard economic times. The streets that once teemed with people on Saturdays are pocked with vacant storefronts. Many jobs pay just a couple of dollars over minimum wage and offer minimal retirement benefits.

Indeed, while National Guard members and reservists in other parts of the country face a pay cut when they're called up, it's often a boost in Alabama. Several employers recently offered to make up the difference for employees who earned more at their civilian jobs than they would from the military. But, Bowen said, nobody could be identified as facing a pay cut.

The National Guard provides a lot -- scholarships, stipends for training one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer. Regular domestic pay varies according to rank and years of service, among other factors, but the average base pay is about $375 a month. Pay for hazardous duty and overseas assignments can mean $700 to $800 a month in extra money, which for many people means a nest egg, a vacation, emergency cash.

It is the reason Robbie Lett is urging his wife, Julie, to aim for 30 years in the National Guard, even though it tears her apart to think of leaving her girls, Lydia, 2, and Hanna, 11 months. He is trying to get a printing business off the ground and Julie, 32, is a social worker for the state. "There is the future to think of," said Lett, 37.

For all the National Guard provides, people here give plenty back at times like these.

"They make great soldiers," Bowen said. "A lot of them have lived on a farm. Staying in the woods is natural. They are used to hardships. They hunt and fish. They are born with a gun in their hands. The Army can't teach them anything on a rifle range they don't already know."

In Alabama, military service is a family legacy passed down from grandfather to father to son and, lately, daughter. Often, family members serve side by side, leaving even fewer able hands at home.

Rosalyn Wood, 55, can speak to that. In the Gulf War, she said goodbye to her husband, Monroe, son Earlvin and 12 nephews and nieces.

She owns Rosalyn's Hair Design in Lineville, where this afternoon "All My Children" is on the television, the praying hands of Jesus are on the wall and packs of cheese curls and fried pork skins are on a rack.

This time, she is preparing for the departure of Earlvin and her daughter, Cassandra -- the Lineville patrol deputy. She will become chief caretaker of Cassandra's two children -- their father is on active duty -- and expects to help out with Earlvin's six children.

"You just pray and wait and hope," she said, combing out a customer's hair.

"If you are over there, you are in danger. So I just wait and wonder and pray."

Indeed, nearly 95% of Clay County volunteers came home from the Gulf War intact. Two did not -- one succumbed to a heart attack, the other was shot when someone tossed a loaded rifle into a vehicle and it went off.

For now, though, it's not the danger that disturbs people the most, it's the waiting.

Someone asks Bowen, the National Guard commander, if he thinks there's a good chance they'll all go.

He nods.

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