Small-Town Heroes from the Heartland

It is late spring in Streator, Illinois, and like a thousand other places across the heartland of America, the smell of freshly overturned earth in the farmer's fields signals the beginning of that endless cycle of birth to death to birth for which we all depend on for sustenance. The miracle of life now stirring in the rich, black loam of the prairie will once again astound us as the empty fields that stretch from horizon to horizon will, like magic, fill with the green offshoots of high bio-tech seeds, engineered to grow with an incredible swiftness and biologically configured to resist almost everything that nature can do to destroy them.

I have lived in urban, suburban, ex-urban, and now rural America in my life. But this singular fact of existence dominates the pace of life in the small towns that dot the landscape of the prairie and imbues the people with a deep respect for the land and the Lord's bounty that is reaped as a result of hard work, sweat, and good luck.

Perhaps it is no accident then that so many of America's fallen hailed from towns with place names that are familiar only to those who live but a stone's throw from where these heroes grew up.

Who has ever heard of Clairsville, Ohio, birthplace of Medal of Honor winner Sylvester Antolak? Among the heroic deeds mentioned in his citation were:

With one shoulder deeply gashed and his right arm shattered, he continued to rush directly into the enemy fire concentration with his submachinegun wedged under his uninjured arm until within 15 yards of the enemy strong point, where he opened fire at deadly close range, killing 2 Germans and forcing the remaining 10 to surrender. He reorganized his men and, refusing to seek medical attention so badly needed, chose to lead the way toward another strong point 100 yards distant. Utterly disregarding the hail of bullets concentrated upon him, he had stormed ahead nearly three-fourths of the space between strong points when he was instantly killed by hostile enemy fire. Inspired by his example, his squad went on to overwhelm the enemy troops. By his supreme sacrifice, superb fighting courage, and heroic devotion to the attack, Sgt. Antolak was directly responsible for eliminating 20 Germans, capturing an enemy machinegun, and clearing the path for his company to advance.

Hundreds of other Medal of Honor winners can lay claim to a similar background, growing up in rural villages and hamlets that, in many cases, time has forgotten and the world has passed by. America's small-town culture has been ridiculed, criticized, and dismissed -- especially over the last few decades -- by an elite that cannot fathom why anyone would wish to live more than a couple of miles from a world class opera house or art museum. Nor can they understand why someone would choose country quiet over the babble and cacophony of the big city.

So they disparage these simple citizens -- the ones who do most of the living, loving, fighting, and dying for America -- because at bottom, they are what they accuse small town folk of being: narrow-minded and bigoted.

If these elites were to open their eyes, they may discover that people who live in small towns have exactly the same values as those who live in larger cities and suburbs. American values are the same regardless of where you live. The difference is they are perhaps taken to heart in a more fundamental way in small towns than in places that boast large populations and cultural diversity. Patriotism seems more heartfelt and genuine in rural parts of the country, more a regular part of life than in urban or suburban America.

Perhaps because showing one's patriotism has been equated with having an "unsophisticated" attitude -- a lack of world weariness and cynicism that the smart set personifies -- the elites accuse those of us in flyover country of possessing a dullard's sense of how the world really works. In this context, patriotic feelings and gestures are worse than futile, they are dangerous. Outward manifestations of patriotism come perilously close to upsetting the cosmopolitan self-image held by Americans not vouchsafed the blessing of living in a more pastoral setting. Such rash displays of emotion where America is concerned are contrasted with the blasé, more refined attitudes of our betters, who appreciate the splendid opportunity to feel smugly superior to the rubes who show reverence to the flag rather than dream of burning it.

But the biggest difference between city and country has to be that in rural America, the word "community" holds real meaning, far beyond the political meaning of the term that becomes a poor substitute in big cities. Small-town folk may be wary of outsiders and seem a little taciturn to strangers. But they would give the shirt off their back to their neighbor if they needed it. Yes, they may be insular and uninterested in what is happening outside of their immediate circle of friends and family. World affairs may bore them. National affairs may be something that one pays attention to every four years.

But when it comes to "community," rural America personify how Russell Kirk described the concept:

Although Americans have been attached strongly to privacy and private rights, they also have been a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community. In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. Some of these functions are carried out by local political bodies, others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community.

Faith -- in God and each other -- and an abiding sense of togetherness that manifests itself in the way this "voluntary community" leans on each other in good times and bad is what defines small-town America. No community organizers needed here. They do all their organizing through their local church, or volunteer fire department, or lodge, or other association to which they choose to belong.