In this town, kids talk about politics, not Pokmon

Shepherdstown, W. Va., is all abuzz with the Israel-Syria peace talks,

My 10-year-old son has become a foreign-policy wonk. Instead of Pokmon, his conversation now revolves around water rights and who should control the Golan Heights. Instead of rock music, he listens to National Public Radio while waiting for the school bus.

Unusual for a fifth-grader? Not if he lives in this small town of about 1,500 along the Potomac River in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, where President Clinton is pushing Israel and Syria to talk serious peace.

Everyone here has an opinion about what should be done, even Michael. His class at Shepherdstown Elementary School broke into groups to negotiate the issues. Finding a solution was not as painfully slow as the real-life negotiations going on a quarter of a mile away. The class worked things out.

But Michael held on stoutly to his minority position on the water, in terms much simpler than the diplomats use: "I thought they should share it. They have to try to conserve water. Syria needs it for their crops, but they should only water their crops when they need to."

The town has pretty much rolled with the public onslaught that comes with being an international dateline. Crowds still line up regularly along the route of the president's motorcade, from the landing site at the Shepherd College baseball field to the Clarion Hotel where some of the talks are being held. But when he showed up last week for the fourth time in five days, only about 35 people watched him land.

The media have described the town as "quaint" and "tiny." Well, it isn't very big and it has some quaintness, but its choice has also given outsiders a view of a little-known section of West Virginia.

"The image of West Virginia is, 'Aren't they the people with no shoes?' " says Shepherdstown Elementary Principal Suzanne Offutt. "If you're born here, you're very aware of that image. These talks have focused attention on a sophisticated community."

Shepherdstown, the oldest town in West Virginia, is about 70 miles northwest of Washington. Originally chartered as Mecklenburg, Va., in 1762, it was later renamed for the largest landowner. One famous resident was James Rumsey, the true inventor of the steamboat. Nearly every building in town, many still standing, served as hospitals after the Battle of Antietam.

Lately the area has attracted a mix of retirees from Washington and young families escaping the suburbs. On weekends Shepherdstown is full of tourists, and downtown reflects that, offering craft boutiques, antique shops, art galleries, restaurants, and bakeries.

Now the media fill the hotels, and peace is the talk of the town. The local newspaper has upped its coverage of the Mideast from very little to three to four pages a day, including a column that urges readers to send in their spottings of celebrities around town.

Shepherd College President David Dunlop says the biggest impact has been educational. "It's been a catalyst for discussion on campus. It really brings home what's happening for students," he says.

It's also been good for business downtown at a traditionally slow time. Betty Wang of the China Kitchen has noticed more carryout than normal. And the other night she had to figure out if one of her patrons was a New York Times reporter.

After receiving a call from the secretary of state's staff, Ms. Wang went from table to table to locate the reporter. Fortunately for him, he and a few others walked in as she was looking for him. Unfortunately for Wang, they left without ordering. "He called on his cell phone and then they all left," she says.

There have been a few good-natured grumbles. The biggest fear was that traffic would be hampered at the four-way stop sign, the town's major intersection, but the motorcades have had little effect. "Traffic is bad in Shepherdstown anyway," says Shirley Staub. "At least now there's a reason."

Shepherdstown takes its role seriously. Librarian Hali Taylor posted a sign on the library door reading "Peace" in English, Arabic, and Hebrew. The sign caught on, and now copies of it can be seen in the windows of businesses and cars, and on the doors of churches and homes.

Now the big questions are (1) how long will the talks continue and (2) whether an agreement will be reached. After all, a visit from the president doesn't compare with a place in the history books as the home of the Shepherdstown Accords.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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