Lydia Lett may be only 2-1/2 years old, but she can recite the Pledge of Allegiance from start to finish. Perched atop a low table, clinging to her daddy's hand, the words tumble out, more sounds than sentences, like the latest jingle from Sesame Street.
Her performance is testament to the strong patriotism that runs through these eastern Alabama hills, like the gold ore that gave the region its last shot at real wealth more than a century ago. Here, defending freedom is a way of life: Alabama has the highest percentage of National Guard enlistments in the US, and Clay County boasts more reservists and guardsmen per capita than anywhere else in the state. During the last Gulf War, this area's rate of service was so high that Alabama's legislature officially dubbed it the "Volunteer County."
In the tiny towns of Ashland and Lineville (total population 4,300), two units have already been called up. The largest, the 1208, moved a few weeks ago to Fort Benning, Ga., where it's awaiting news of its final destina-tion. A smaller command unit remains in Ashland, packed and ready to go. A third, a medical unit, has yet to be alerted.
Few here harbor illusions about what another war with Iraq might mean, both for the men and women serving in the military, and for the community they're leaving behind. Lineville High has lost its football coach. Ashland is losing its mayor. Lydia's mom, Julie, was deployed with the 1208, leaving Lydia and her 1-year-old sister, Hanna, with just their dad for up to a year.
But most here see the war as worth it, if only from a practical standpoint. Saddam Hussein represents a growing threat to the nation, they say, and the US might as well deal with him now as later. "Our motto is, you've got to get it started to get it over," says Leslie "L.P." Miles, a Lineville fireman who's in the National Guard.
Of course, there's a certain bravado that runs through the community. Locals are intensely proud of the local Guard units, and many talk of war in terms of "taking care of business."
At the Race Wings Café in Ashland, where the breakfast special is a "NASCAR egg," the men drinking coffee note that this has been a fighting county ever since the Civil War. "The call came in 1861, and everyone put on their britches and went," says Mike Howard, who teaches at Central Alabama Community College in nearby Alexander City.
Yet there's also a subdued worry hanging over the region. Highway signs urge motorists to pray for the troops. And yellow ribbons festoon shop windows and signposts in Ashland and Lineville - inescapable reminders of those who are gone, for now.
"There've been a lot of sad faces," acknowledges Michael Paschal, a local cattle farmer. In some ways, he says, the community's experience with the last Gulf War makes this departure even harder. Only two Clay County residents died in Desert Storm. But for those who stayed behind, "it was long and hard."
Strung just a few miles apart along Route 9, Ashland and Lineville are technically independent, and the towns nurse a fierce rivalry when it comes to high school football. But often, kids from the two schools wind up marrying each other, says Scotty Parker - which is how he met his wife, Melanie.
Ever since his unit was called up, Sgt. 1st Class Parker and his wife have been living in anxious suspension, waiting for word of departure. Their church has thrown him a fish fry. His packed duffel bags sit in the house. But the anticipation began long before the frying and packing: For weeks before Scotty was officially alerted, Melanie fretted that he'd miss the birth of their second son, Brody, born Jan. 6.
Scotty notes with a smile that for someone who joined the military "for college money," he's been deployed far more than he ever imagined - first to Egypt, then the Persian Gulf, and most recently Des Moines, to battle flooding.
Now, the Parkers are bracing themselves for the worst-case scenario: a year or more. "I'm hoping it's less," he says.
Still, they both support an attack on Iraq. "I think we have just cause," says Scotty. "[Hussein]'s had 12 years to comply."
Melanie, who teaches at Ashland High, agrees, offering a typically pragmatic view: "We were dating during Desert Storm," she points out. "I don't want to go through this again 10, 12 years from now. I want things to be taken care of and done with, so he doesn't have to go back."
While she's not relishing the idea of being a single parent for a year, Melanie knows she'll have lots of help. Her mom already takes care of Brody while she's at school. And there are institu-tional supports, as well. The First Baptist Church has sent a prayer group door to door, visiting those families with loved ones who have been deployed. And the Clay County rescue squad plans to offer its services to anyone who needs a hand - whether it's fixing a stopped-up sink or making a quick trip to the grocery store.
Indeed, like many small Southern towns, Ashland and Lineville are already tightly knit. They're places where, if a neighbor spots a strange car parked on the side of the road, they'll go investigate, says Robbie Lett. Rural in feel, the towns are actually dominated by two industries: a Tyson chicken plant, and several cabinet factories.
But the area's been losing young people in recent years. Mr. Lett notes that among his high school graduating class of 53, only 10 still live here - though most who stayed have done well: "One's a plant manager, and one's a police chief."
For the past two years, he's been running his own printing business in Ashland - making everything from signs to T-shirts. And while he's managed to stay afloat, he admits that his experience may be unusual. For the most part, he says, "if you don't know cabinets, or you don't know chicken, you're out of luck."
Wages are relatively low here, too, which is one reason so many families join the reserves. "It's a boost to their income," explains Anita Cotney, who's lunching with her daughter at Anita's Café (no relation) in Lineville, where the menu reads, simply: Meat. Vegetables. Bread. Dessert. $5.
Ashland's latest claim to fame is that it's the hometown of Alabama's new Republican governor, Bob Riley. Although he was elected nearly four months ago, Riley campaign signs still decorate the town square, a lingering tribute to Ashland's favorite son, who many delightedly call "Bob."
Heavily Democratic for decades, the region has been trending Republican in recent years, and the rise of Governor Riley seems likely to hasten that change. But it's possible to get a good political debate going - and not everyone is a wholehearted fan of President Bush and his handling of the Iraq conflict.
"He's too aggressive," says Ruth Carmichael, a retired teacher eating lunch at Anita's. She believes Mr. Bush has been overly bent on war, signaling that he'll go with or without allies, and failing to give other countries reason to support the US. "I don't think that's too smart."
Others say Bush hasn't been aggressive enough. "We shouldn't even stop [with Iraq]" says Phil Cornelison, a World War II veteran. "We should send [troops] right to the Pacific and take North Korea out."
Still, the prevailing mood here is one of plain acceptance. Most people here are too focused on the logistics of war - getting wills in order, adjusting to new routines - to spend much time questioning the mission itself.
"None of us wants to go to war. But it's a duty to protect our country, it's a duty to protect our community," says Ashland Mayor Norman McNatt, a major in the National Guard. Folks here know they have a job to do, "and they're ready to go today," he says. "They don't like to sit and wait."