ONCE more clouds stroke this hilly western Maryland town with diaphanous fingers. Mist and rain again fall in day-long alternation, and the sun is a week's memory away. The nation's capital seems even more distant - roughly 100 miles down the Potomac River and light years away in pace.
Despite these distances, Hancock, Md., population 2,000, stands squarely beside official Washington in support of US action thus far in the Middle East, as polls show three-quarters of America does. Residents strongly support President Bush's decisions to mobilize troops and call out the reserves.
``I really think we're doing the right thing,'' says Reba Johnson in the parking lot of Pittman's IGA near the manufacturing plant of London Fog, one of the town's three major employers. ``I think the President's doing the best he can'' in a difficult situation.
But a visitor seeking opinions up and down Hancock's Civil War-era Main Street often hears an implicit warning: The US must act swiftly. Protracted stalemate has no support here; if US military presence remains long in the Gulf, Hancock's backing for US policy will sharply erode.
``Either do something or get out,'' says Terry Hepburn bluntly, ringing up a string of purchases at his fruit stand just off the interstate.
``We don't want another Vietnam: That's what everybody's afraid of,'' says Linda, a bluejeaned Hancock resident strolling by the long-defunct C&O canal two blocks from Main street.
It costs American taxpayers millions of dollars to have the US military ``just settin' and doing nothing'' in the Middle East, says Jeff Breeden from behind the counter at the Western Auto store. ``I'd like to see 'em go in, take 'em out, and get it over with. ... You're paying them guys too much to set there - might as well be doin' something.''
``For the most part the people of Hancock are patriotic,'' says Sondra Bishop, the only full-time reporter on the weekly Hancock News. ``They love their country. ... I guess most people would agree we have to be there. But everyone hopes it will be settled soon.''
And settled with a minimum of violence. ``You hope there's a solution without anybody shooting at each other,'' Hepburn says. ``Unfortunately, this thing is probably going to be a little more than that.''
That worries people in Hancock as elsewhere. ``I don't want a war to happen,'' says Tina, a quiet young waitress. Her voice is plaintive. Standing under the Kirk Ford clock in the National Restaurant, where regulars come every Sunday to savor the chicken dinner, Tina worries about the possibility that friends and family might have to go to the Middle East: ``There's four I know who might have to.''
Hancock has always been known for food. It used to be renowned for its orchards, but the last big one went out of business four years ago. Today it is known for its restaurants. Besides the National at one end of Main Street, there is Park'n'Dine at the other, where out-of-town cars have filled the parking lot on Sundays ever since a major magazine wrote about it. And Weaver's, in between, is famous with tourists for homemade pies and cakes and delicious raisin-filled cookies.
To big-city America, with its sophistication and frenetic skyline shuffle, Hancock is a town where time has stood still for decades, where a dime still buys two hours of parking and a T-bone steak dinner costs $6.75.
But to tens of millions of citizens, towns like Hancock are the real America, where genuineness and friendliness are both practiced and appreciated and residents are willing to stop and talk with a perfect stranger.
``It's kind of a close-knit community,'' says reporter Bishop. Adding to the close-knit atmosphere: ``Ninety percent of the businesses downtown are family owned,'' says Mr. Breeden.
Hancock has felt the the first economic strains resulting from the Middle East crisis. ``It's already affected our jobs,'' says Stanley Golden. He works in another of the town's three major employers, Fleetwood Industries, which makes recreational vehicles (RVs). ``We had six layoffs this week,'' and his factory was shut for four days.
As soon as the price of gas soared RV sales went down, and Fleetwood soon put many employees on shorter hours, Mr. Golden explains. ``People are thinking now about what they need, not what they want. To pull a travel trailer takes gas.''
``This thing should not be taken lightly, as far as our energy is concerned,'' Hepburn warns. ``It's in the national interest.''
``We send over food'' to Middle East nations, says Jackie Jackson of nearby Little Orleans, Md. ``So why shouldn't they share their oil with us?''