ELY, MINN. — On most winter nights in this northern outpost, as the sun fades below the popple and jackpine trees, folks tend to disperse quietly to the warmth of hearth and ranch home. Or they might retreat to their fish houses on Shagowa Lake, questing for walleye. Or head to the public sauna where they'll pay $5 to escape the cryogenic winds, where they tell stories about the walleye they should have caught but didn't.
But one balmy night last week (21 degrees F.), dozens of residents squeezed into the wood-paneled courtroom at city hall, all focused on one topic: war and peace. Even the town's two cops showed up, standing by with arms tightly crossed, just in case.
The issue: an antiwar resolution quietly passed the previous week by the city council during a sparsely attended meeting. The vote made Ely one of more than 100 cities and towns in the US to take a public stand against war with Iraq. Now, with a group of veterans leading the charge as if it were D-Day all over again, most of the residents stuffed into the courtroom wanted to make Ely the first American city to rescind its antiwar resolution.
The debate that unfolded over the next two hours - and in subsequent days in cafes, shops, and bars - offers a window into wartime sentiment in small-town America. It's also the story of a community grappling with the passions and perspectives forged on all of the 20th century's biggest battlefields, as well as deep in the dangerous iron mines of northern Minnesota, amid one of the planet's great wilderness frontiers.
In much of this debate, it's veterans who hold the most sway. As folks here will remind you, Ely (it rhymes with "steely") sent a bigger portion of its residents off to World War II than any other town in the US. Some 35 percent of Ely-ites fought Hitler or Hirohito.
Many of those fighters in this two-traffic-light town of 3,700 were of tough immigrant stock - Pryzbylskis, Golobichs, Lundstroms, Klingsporns - whose fathers or grandfathers came to toil, and sometimes perish, in the mines. To this day, some residents retain traces of eastern European accents.
More recently, a new wave of immigrants has arrived. These typically more-liberal folks come to live in an underpopulated wilderness that's the gateway to a canoer's paradise - the boundary waters between the US and Canada. In fact, it was a group of activist women, united in the wake of Sen. Paul Wellstone's passing, who originally presented the resolution to the council.
In the debate that ensued, just about everyone in town agreed on one thing: They all wanted peace. They just disagreed over how best to achieve it.
Take local icon Bob Cary, for instance. "The country is in a state of emergency, and something's got to be done," he says. In his first seven decades, Mr. Cary fought the Japanese at Guadalcanal, ran for president on the Independent Fishing Party ticket, learned the language of a local Indian tribe, and painted a giant historical mural downtown.
Sipping his noontime coffee in a vinyl booth at Britton's Cafe, Cary talks about his World War II days. "It was wonderful," he says with an impish grin, "I had an all-expense-paid trip to the islands of the South Pacific."
Actually he fought in some of the toughest battles of the war - and was set to invade the Japanese mainland. Then President Truman dropped the atomic bombs. Cary's view of peace is battle-hardened: "The way I look at it," he says, turning suddenly serious, "when there aren't any more of the other guys standing, that's when you've got peace."
As Cary and others see it, the US is already at war, and it can't afford to shrink from any of its enemies. In Ely, at least, the generation that fought the evils of Nazi Germany seems comfortable with a black-and-white analysis of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
"We waited too long to get Hitler," says Frank Volk, a World War II vet sporting a red satin VFW jacket. "If we hadn't let him get as far as he did, there wouldn't have been a World War II." His unequivocal message: The US shouldn't wait to confront Hussein.
With a round face and warm eyes, the retired mine worker cuts an avuncular figure. But he comes from sturdy stock. His dad once escaped a mine explosion, but got specks of iron ore lodged permanently in his cheek. As a girl, his mother-in-law was smuggled out of Slovenia in a suitcase by her parents as they fled a repressive regime.
But Mr. Volk isn't an absolutist. He understands the concerns of the local women's group. "Women tend to be more serious about not going to war," he says. "It's their sons who get killed."
Nor do all Ely's veterans support attacking Iraq. "Because I've seen war, I choose peace," says Kim McCluskey, a lanky, soft-spoken Vietnam vet who has since returned to the Southeast Asian country many times, including as a kayak guide. During the war, he remembers seeing women cradling injured infants in villages where no medical help was available. "Civilians are the ones who get hurt most," he says.
He's also uncomfortable with the lack of clarity about whether Hussein has chemical or biological weapons - and whether he's connected to Al Qaeda. "There is a time for war," he accedes. "But for us to go in now into this impoverished country, with our weapons of mass destruction, just doesn't make sense."
Shawn Chosa, a former Marine who fought in the first Gulf war, harbors reservations, too.
"We've walked down the war path so many times" in the last century, says the native American, who ancestors have deep roots in northern Minnesota. "But no war was really worthy since World War II."
Mr. Chosa, a Chippewa, takes another drink of his coffee at the Northern Grounds Cafe. Outside, winter hasn't arrived yet with its usual irascibleness. The two inches of snow on the ground barely form a gauze, certainly not enough to draw winter tourists for snowmobiling and dogsledding.
Yet local residents, resourceful in all kinds of weather, have found ways to continue their traditions. They were still able to stage their annual winter carnival, with its snow sculptures in the park, which this year included a six-foot crystalline rose and an eight-foot moose.
Chosa, for his part, says he doesn't share the concern of many older vets, who worry that dissent will spark Vietnam-style protests that divide the nation and undermine support for the troops. "There's nothing more honorable," he says, "than to do your best to make sure troops aren't put in the position of fighting a war."
That's why he supports EMPOWER, the women's group, even though the city council ultimately didn't.
At a second meeting last week, practicality took precedence over politics: The council apparently decided it was too controversial to make pronouncements on foreign policy. It reversed itself and nullified the antiwar resolution.
Local businesses had been getting calls from irate tourists who said they wouldn't return to Ely, which is dependent on visitors' cash. Even Jay Leno had been calling to set up interviews.
The veterans and their supporters cheered. EMPOWER member Sharon Magliulo said she was satisfied: "We put our voices out there - that's what democracy is about, and we never intended to divide the town."
Then, as residents filed out toward their fish houses or saunas or homes, the debate in this passionate place rolled into the cold night along with them.
• Ely population: 3,800.
• Main Ely industries: logging, construction, and tourism.
• Ely's average January temperature: 3 degrees F.
• Ely's record January low temperature: -44 degrees F.
• Number of people typically present at Ely town meetings: 5.
• Number present last Tuesday night, at the meeting on the antiwar resolution: 200+.
• Number of professional canoe outfitters in Ely: 22.
• Number of resorts in Ely: 34.
• Ely's world ranking in number of dogsledding-guide services offered: 2 (Alaska is No.1).
• Price of a Generator Burger at The Chainsaw Sisters Saloon: $2.50.
• Number of moose-themed products available online at Ely's Mostly Moose & Moore: 168.
• Years of local history catalogued at the Ely-Winton Historical Society: 12,000.
• Number of wolves in the International Wolf Center's Ambassador Pack at Ely: 5 (Lucas, MacKenzie, Lakota, Shadow, and Malik).