Five Ohios: The Southland

Greene County teetered on the cusp of autumn, when the buckeye trees flame orange and the yellow school buses begin trolling the streets again for kids.

Once Jennifer Green’s two sons headed out the door, she flipped on the “Today” show and started slicing onions for her youngest’s birthday dinner.

Matt Lauer was chatting with someone about Howard Hughes’ movie-star lovers. “OK. I have got to interrupt you right now,” Lauer said to his guest. Green looked up. There was something unsettling in Lauer’s tone.

“We’re going to go live . . . and show you a picture of the World Trade Center, where I understand do we have it? We have a breaking story,” Lauer said.

It was 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. Green abandoned the onions sizzling on the stovetop and walked toward the TV.

Black smoke billowed from a giant Manhattan skyscraper. “Oh, my goodness. . . . Oh, another one just hit,” a “Today” show producer said, gasping as a second jet rammed the World Trade Center.

F-16 fighters suddenly pierced the blue skies over Green’s subdivision, soaring over the same farm fields where, 100 years before, inventors Orville and Wilbur Wright first prepared to fly.

Nearby, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, pilots scrambled into the “Doomsday Plane” a jumbo jet designed for the president of the United States to wage war in the air in case of apocalypse on the ground.

America was under attack and the Miami Valley was at war.

The phone rang. Green’s husband, Greg, a commercial pilot and Air Force reservist, said he had landed safely in California, but didn’t know when he could fly home.

Jennifer listened to stunned pundits babble on television and heard stories of panic. A few hours later, she watched intently as President Bush spoke.

“The resolve of our great nation is being tested,” Bush said. “But make no mistake: We will show the world that we will pass this test.”

Those words on unwavering determination resonated then and now with Jennifer Green and many in Greene County, a 415-square-mile jigsaw puzzle of farm fields, small towns and suburban sprawl near Dayton.

For two centuries, people here have faced one test after another, battling Mother Nature, human nature, and even nature’s law. They have little patience for weakness.

The Shawnee Indians who once roamed the county’s rolling hills and river valleys called it “the land of the crazy winds.” Scores of tornadoes have shaped and reshaped the countryside, killing dozens of people and destroying much of the county seat, Xenia.

Before the Civil War when the Ohio River was all that separated the free state of Ohio from the slave state of Kentucky abolitionists here guided runaway slaves through secret passageways connecting root cellars to drinking-water wells, pushing them north along the Underground Railroad.

And at the turn of the 20th century, two bicycle-shop owners Orville and Wilbur Wright discovered how mankind could fly with the birds through a series of trial-and-error tests in a Greene County farm field.

The Shawnee tribes are gone now. Several thousand African-Americans some of them descendants of runaway slaves remain. But it’s the Wright brothers’ legacy at Wright-Patt that guides this area’s economy, its politics and its way of life.

Greene County is dominated by the military, creating a Republican stronghold that reflects the views and voting patterns of its neighbors throughout the Southland region of the state.

It has been more than a decade since voters here elected a local Democrat to office and maybe a century since the region, as a whole, cast a majority of votes for anyone other than a Republican presidential candidate.

“I’ll tell you what, when I vote, I’m going to punch the hole three times and then hold it up to the light to make sure you can see the light coming through,” Jennifer Green told colleague Jessica Vu as they sat at a conference table eating packed lunches. “No hanging chads are going to ruin my vote for George Bush.”

She smiled, but she wasn’t kidding.

Green and Vu work in marketing at Fairfield Commons, a mall in suburban Dayton where off-duty soldiers in desert-sand fatigues eat Sbarro pizza and shop at J.C. Penney.

The women’s husbands work about two miles down the road at Wright-Patt, more than 16 million square feet of military housing, airplane hangars and runways ringed by chain-link fence.

The Air Force activated Greg Green’s reserve unit shortly before the Iraq war, and he now spends a couple weeks a month flying the injured and the dead out of Iraq. The rest of the time he’s home with his family.

Vu’s husband, Augustine, is a civilian employee on base who matches military technology with that of private business.

Nearly a generation separates the women. Green is 41; Vu is 26. Yet their views about the upcoming election are nearly the same. They are rooted in Wright-Patt culture, where the war against terror and the war in Iraq are inextricably intertwined.

Folks in Greene County take the war personally. If others criticize President Bush or his Iraq strategy, people here react as if they are besmirching the soldiers in battle. When a few protesters with signs showed up outside the mall at the start of the war, people pelted them with eggs.

“Sometimes you can feel very alone around here,” said Holly Hogan, 19, who said she plans to vote for Kerry even though her stepfather owns an aerospace parts business connected to Wright-Patterson and she has several friends serving in Iraq.

“Not being behind the war or not being for Bush can make you really unpopular,” she said.

Green and Vu spent many of their lunch hours this summer lamenting that so many don’t understand what a good job Bush is doing. Why doesn’t the media reflect the reality they know in the Miami Valley? Vu and her husband, who swing dance on weekends, stayed up late one night to hear Bette Midler sing on the “Late Show with David Letterman.”

“After Bette finished this great 1940s war, rally-the-troops kind of music, she told Dave how she had just gone to banquets to raise money for Kerry Kerry,” Vu said, completely exasperated. “What a hypocrite!”

“It’s just like Barbra Streisand,” Green replied, rolling her eyes.

“Or what’s that guy, that director Michael Moore,” Vu said.

“Al-ec Bald-win,” Green added flatly, drawing out the syllables of the actor’s name.

“My husband and I turned the channel on Bette,” Vu concluded. “We’ll never dance to her music again.”

Both women sighed.

The upcoming election isn’t so much about Republican vs. Democrat, the women said. It goes deeper.

What they see are two groups of people hopelessly at odds: the Patient People vs. Impatient People.

“When I was growing up, patience was knocked into us,” said Vu, who was raised in the Southland region, near Piqua in Miami County.

Every day was a test for her family, she said. Her dad worked as a printer and her mom baked wedding cakes in their kitchen to make extra money. They never knew if they were going to make ends meet.

Mom just paid off the 30-year mortgage on their house and she’s throwing a party to celebrate. Talk about patience,” Vu said.

The women include themselves and most of their friends and families among the Patient People: They’re married because they put a lot into it; they work because they search until they find a job; they saved until they could buy a house; and they pay their bills because they spend only what they can afford.

The Patient People firmly support Bush, recognizing that the Iraq war is just the first step in a larger, more complicated strategy to overcome terror, the women said.

The Impatient People, however, are usually single parents or divorced because they make impulsive decisions; they don’t work or don’t work hard because they think that life owes them something; they pay rent because they either can’t or won’t save for a down payment; and they have maxed out credit cards because they want everything immediately, rather than saving for it, the women said.

Green stopped and then added: “Well, the Patient People might have maxed-out credit cards, too, but the difference is they’ll pay them instead of declaring bankruptcy.”

The women believe the media is reaching out to the Impatient People because they will vote for Democrat John Kerry. They consider Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, a fraud because he threw away his combat ribbons. And they fear that Kerry, as president, would sell out American interests, bending to European and world demands to secure a meaningless and short-lived peace.

“The thing is, we need more of the Patient People to speak out,” Green said.

“But the media . . .” Vu said, pausing. “. . . they’re aiming the message at those people in the apartments, people who don’t know any better.”

This notion, perhaps not surprisingly, offends many Kerry supporters, and even some Republicans who are torn.

Retired nurse Carol Campbell, 69, of Piqua doesn’t live in an apartment, nor is she divorced, but she does depend on Social Security and she isn’t voting for Bush. “The country is in a hell of a mess right now,” she said. “The media has nothing to do with it.”

Campbell, who usually votes Republican, said she couldn’t get behind Bush because he didn’t have a plan to get the United States out of Iraq. And, she said, because his prescription-drug plan is a ruse. “I buy my drugs in Canada, and he wants to make that illegal,” she said. “This country needs a new direction.”

Jennifer and Greg Green met as students at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. On their first date, they saw “An Officer and a Gentleman,” a steamy love story about a handsome Navy pilot and a kind-hearted woman. As Jennifer tells it, she told her sorority sisters later that night that Greg an aspiring Air Force pilot was the man she would to marry.

They wed after graduation, and Greg quickly rose through the Air Force ranks as a pilot. In 1998, when the couple wanted to lay down roots for their sons, Mitch and Matt, they returned to Greg’s home of Greene County. Greg took a job as a pilot for Airborne Express and joined the 89th Airlift Squadron of the 445th Airlift Wing reserves based at Wright-Patt.

Since the Iraq war began, Greg, a lieutenant colonel, usually spends a couple of weeks a month overseas, flying a C-141 Starlifter between Iraq and Ramstein Air Base in Germany. His plane carries supplies in to Iraq and casualties soldiers blinded, or missing arms and legs out. He also flies the caskets of the dead, although Jennifer said the Air Force tries to put those on separate flights from the wounded.

Between missions, Greg is home in Beavercreek, watching his sons’ hockey games or sneaking away with Jennifer to their favorite Buffalo-wing joint.

“I can still see him standing in his sandbox looking at the planes fly over,” said Greg’s mom, Joyce Green, smiling as she caught sight of her son this summer at a high-school graduation party. “A friend bought him a flight suit when he was about 7 and he wore it until it was worn out.”

She and Greg’s dad, Lou Green, live in Jamestown, on the other side of Greene County. Life is comfortable for them now Lou owns a surveying company and Joyce is a retired schoolteacher. But times weren’t always so prosperous. It took generations for Lou Green’s family to break free of Ohio Appalachian poverty, first through military service and then through college.

Lou, now 65, and Joyce, 62, once were Democrats. But a black cloud of sucking wind forever changed their allegiance.

In 1974, one of the most devastating tornadoes of the past century ripped out Xenia’s heart, killing 33 and destroying hundreds of buildings. Lou who spent 10 years in night school earning an engineering degree was one of three men working in Xenia’s engineering department at the time.

Over the next four years, Lou said he and the other men designed and rebuilt more than $34 million worth of infrastructure in the devastated city streets, sidewalks, even the downtown shopping center.

“That could never happen today,” he said. There would be committees, lengthy bid processes and fights over the projects. “And we didn’t have the time. Those people were desperate.”

Even the Republicans today want too much government, Bush in particular, Lou and Joyce said. They don’t like his tax cuts. They worry about the burgeoning deficit.

And they also disapprove of Bush’s faith-based efforts, saying he has torn down the necessary wall separating church and state.

If they could hand-pick the next president, they would turn to conservative Georgia Democrat Sen. Zell Miller or maybe onetime vice presidential candidate and former Republican U.S. congressman Jack Kemp.

But they don’t have that choice.

Voting for Kerry is out of the question because he will spend even more than Bush, they said. “So we’ll vote for Bush and hope for the best,” Lou Green said.

A few yards away, Jennifer looked relaxed, standing next to her husband in the summer shade.

When Greg was flying in Iraq the week before, her days were crazy: She woke before dawn, walked their collie, Corky, and then drove the boys to a golf camp and herself to work at the mall.

On her lunch hour, she’d shuttle the boys home from golf camp and return to work, only to pick up the boys again at the end of the workday to drive them an hour away to hockey practice near Cincinnati. Jennifer whose license plate reads HOCYMOM’ was usually home by 11 p.m., only to wake and repeat the cycle the next day.

Her friends and co-workers say they are amazed not only by her schedule, but that Jennifer never complains.

She doesn’t gripe when Greg is gone.

She doesn’t worry aloud about the war.

She doesn’t even grumble about juggling the boys and work.

“This is not easy,” Jennifer said when asked. “I think America has forgotten how to sacrifice.”

Responsibility, perseverance and loyalty: These are the things that are important to Jennifer and her family.

“And that’s what George Bush says.” Jennifer Green said. “All of this, it’s all part of a larger test.”

Plain Dealer reporter Dave Davis contributed to this story.

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© 2004 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.