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Advertise on the Tentacle

September 17, 2002

On the Road Again in America

Norman M. Covert

Being on the road in Americaís heartland tells me that Frederick isnít alone in the challenges it faces. I found other towns with mayors who also are full of themselves, fields of corn parched by the continuing drought, and roads sadly in need of repair and realignment.

We learned that driving a compact car, with its short wheel base, is not the best way to travel 2,800 miles and the K-Mart Superstore and the big Wal-Marts do not carry products to ease the discomfort of constant highway pounding on the back and rear. The best solution was a set of towels at $1.50 each.

It was of some interest that we were in a small town in Illinois, it having little industry other than college football and corn, where we found huge versions of stores that we have in Frederick. Those stores have inventory that would be the envy of those in Frederick.

We found that the local committee seeking to market the closed-down Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Ill., has created a bustling business park, even though it has only two-lane roads leading in and out to the Interstate some 15 miles away.

We are still wondering when the committee up in Blue Ridge Summit will get its heads together and find a solution for the closed down Fort Ritchie.

When Fort Ritchie closed, there was great optimism that it could become a successful school site or industrial site, but the Department of Defense continues to have it on the books as a liability. The committee has stumbled and fumbled; has been in and out of court over stupid things, not the least of which was whether the U.S. flag could fly freely.

Perhaps Fort Ritchie should revert to the State of Maryland, which could use it again as its centerpiece training site for the National Guard and 29th Division weekend warriors.

The former Army post is unquestioningly in a remote section of Washington County, just over the Frederick County line, and it has a winding mountain road leading to it. Being remote, however, didnít slow development in the small town of Rantoul, whose primary industry was agriculture and the Air Force base. Its last mission was to house - and keep combat ready - several Military Airlift Command squadrons. Citizens of Rantoul praised the local development committee for its continuing efforts to market the huge former air base.

Frederickís own Col. Robert Barrick set up the original Camp Ritchie when the long-time Maryland Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Milton Reckord, selected it to train National Guardsmen before World War I. Its engineers also maintained Detrick Field until mid-1943.

Rantoul has been able to keep its citizens working at home, unlike so many other towns we visited. Prairie du Chien, Wis., for example, is one of those quaint little towns having no major industry. Most employable residents work somewhere else, but enjoy the quiet, small-town atmosphere and donít mind the daily commute.

Prairie du Chien has been a railroad town for many years, but it is primarily known for its recent access to gambling. Visitors fill the town each weekend, using it as a base to enjoy games of chance on a Mississippi side-wheeler, which is moored across the river in Marquette, Iowa. Tourists stay in one of Prairie du Chienís motels (one three-star, a two-star, the rest aged one-star caliber). The town has charm.

We were impressed by Madison, Wis., which still bears the impact of Fort Detrick, especially in the University of Wisconsin. The university was tapped in 1943 by the late Dr. Ira Baldwin for some scientific expertise to staff the Army labs at Fort Detrick. The university and the associated food research center of the Food and Drug Administration also provided a venue for continued science for many who were displaced in the 1972 shutdown in Frederick.

Dr. Baldwin, who left Camp Detrick near the end of World War II, established an even larger legacy at the university and is revered for the scientific programs he helped start and maintain there. Until his death in 1998, Dr. Baldwin retained emeritus status. His memoirs, surprisingly, devote only a small portion to his Camp Detrick days. He never severed the tie to the Army researchers and was proud of his founding efforts in Frederick.

Aside from its massive arboretum, Madison is the state capital of Wisconsin and we were able to visit one of the most well-designed military museums we have seen, located across from its capitol. One exhibit featured the role of Wisconsin soldiers in the War Between the States. Many of these troops met disaster at such places as South Mountain, Antietam and the Battle of the Monocacy. (They came, they saw, they got whipped.)

The museum featured displays on the personal experiences of the stateís veterans, most strikingly in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. It even featured two ceiling mounted aircraft, a P-47 Mustang and UH1 Huey Gunship. Admission was free, but a donation box stood near the exit, and staffers were friendly and helpful.

But we saw the heart of America and ate in its main street restaurants, where the people were friendly, the food tasty and served generously for a price not seen in Frederick for more than a decade.

There was hardly evidence that primary elections were being held in many of the towns we visited because there were so many unopposed candidates running for such jobs as town clerk, magistrate, and sheriff. Statewide races hardly encroached on the daily lives, with local papers practically ignoring gubernatorial races.

Local was what they cared about and the candidates forums were usually at the diner when they ate breakfast and had mid-morning coffee. You may get the "conventional wisdom" at the barber and beauty shops, still separate entities.

There were many joys traveling the interstate highway and the two-lane thoroughfares in the Midwest and Western New York. We lost the good road surfaces headed west into Pennsylvania and didnít smooth out the ride until we crossed the Mason-Dixon line headed back south near Emmitsburg. The visitorsí center on Route 15 told me we had come home.

It was good to get away from the daily crises, both real and imagined in Frederick, but we are resolved that next time weíll get a touring car. As our years mount up, our tolerance for pains in the rear diminish exponentially.

Yellow Cab
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