YATES CENTER, KAN. — As the town barber, Bill Steiner has heard just about everybody's opinion on the events of Sept. 11 - and there are plenty to be heard. One after another, the farmers of this quiet county seat enter his shop, remove their starchy mesh caps, and hold forth on issues from politics to air travel.
For all the different views, though, Mr. Steiner hasn't heard a peep about peace.
Yes, most people here think America should proceed slowly. Moreover, most trust the president completely.
But, without a single exception, all agree that military strikes must be a part of the solution.
Nationwide, opinion polls show that Americans strongly favor a military response to the attacks of Sept. 11, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the neighborhood barber shops of the country's heartland.
Here, where haircuts cost $7, and the red, white, and blue of swirling barber poles still stand porter on street corners, there's no discussion of whether the US should fight back, only when.
The voices from several boutiques across Kansas and Missouri are always emphatic, exclusively white, and mostly male. Yet from this limited sample rises a portrait of middle America, revealing, at least in part, the solidarity that has united this region in a call for action.
"We've got to do something," says Steiner, snipping at the silver hair of a customer as he talks. "If they [the Taliban] don't turn over Osama bin Laden and don't assist us, we have to blow them up. We can't just sit back."
The customer nods his head in agreement. Another, who strides in wearing his overalls and proclaims he's here to "have his ears lowered," promptly joins in. The three feed off each other, passing the conversation like a verbal baton. In this failing farm town of boarded-up windows and going-out-of-business sales, Steiner's Hair Salon can pass as a sort of town hall, where everything is up for debate.
Steiner knows each of his customers before they plop down into the row of connected orange plastic bucket seats along one side of the dark room, and he cuts their hair without asking a question.
Most of the time, he and his customers seem to be of one mind when they talk about Sept. 11. But he acknowledges that he's getting a little more antsy than others. "Patience is probably good," he says, pausing and looking up through his tinted glasses. "But if [President Bush] doesn't do something and show signs of aggression, he'll lose some of his support."
Out Route 54, heading east past the sedate rolls of the Kansas Flint Hills, the wide prairie vistas eventually contract to the winding and wooded roads of central Missouri.
At the Big 4 Barber Shop in Fulton, the personalities and perspectives differ from Yates Center as sharply as the landscape. Yet the unanimity on the issue of force is striking.
The two barbers on duty talk over the hum of their electric shears, rarely reverting to scissors. They speak warily at first, discussing potential solutions, from trying to cut off terrorists' money supply to rousting any questionable immigrants out of the US. But the thread of conversation inevitably turns to the need for military action.
"What they need to come up with is a head on a platter," says Bob Fleming, whose closely cropped head offers only the suggestion of dark hair and a beard.
A thick, solid man dressed in an untucked blue button-down shirt, Mr. Fleming says he doesn't need to know all the military's secrets, but there have to be signs of progress. "If they're still talking about doing something in a year, then we know they're not doing anything."
Among the steady stream of customers, there are no dissenters. Sitting in vinyl chairs beneath mounted bass, several old shotgun-shooting trophies, and a box of 75-cent plastic combs, the soon-to-be-shorn often interject comments in approving tones. Owner Rodney Dungan sums up: "With what they've done, we've got no choice but to go over there and show them what we've got."
Indeed, there is a sense of unavoidability in these barber shops - that the terrorists, with such a massive attack on innocent civilians, initiated a new war that must in some way involve bombs and bullets. To some, the notion that peace rallies and diplomacy can alone handle the problem - while well-intentioned - seems naive.
"I'm a real humanitarian, but I don't believe in turning the other cheek. An eye for and eye," says Michelle Reed of the Village Barber Shop in Wichita, Kan. "They drew first blood."
The conviction that America must retaliate, however, doesn't always come with such pointed rhetoric.
Even as people call for retribution against Mr. bin Laden and terrorists worldwide, they also express their support for Mr. Bush's decision to move forward with care, building coalitions and gathering intelligence.
That's especially true of the folks at Marvin's Head Quarters in Dexter, Mo. By Dexter, Missouri has almost faded into Arkansas, as accents take on the ever-broader vowels of the deep South, and the autumn sun steeps in the humidity of the Mighty Mississippi.
Outside Marvin's, loudspeakers situated throughout the city blare patriotic music down nearly empty streets. Inside, only one customer - a Marvin who is a house painter, not a barber - is getting a hair cut.
The rice and chicken farmers come into town early in the morning, owner Linda Miller says, trimming Marvin's white hair in short strokes; the kids come in during the afternoons. Until then, she has this lunchtime lull to talk about what comes next in America's war on terrorism.
She knows the military will have a role, and that's fine. She's just grateful the administration is taking its time.
"We're not fighting the same kind of war we fought in the past," she says, as a ceiling fan spins silently overhead. "It's going to take intelligence, ground troops, air troops.... But we need to be patient and know what we're doing before we go anywhere."
A few feet away, assistant Lisa George offers the same assessment. "We need to take military action, but we also need to be really careful," she says, leaning back in her chair as "The Young and the Restless" flickers across a shop TV screen.
"We don't want to have another D-Day, but I do believe we need to do something."
Previous installments of this series ran Sept. 21, 24, 25, 26.