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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

A County That's in Fatigues

In Alabama, one place will sacrifice like no other if war comes. Police, teachers, even a mayor, are set to deploy, leaving critical gaps.

January 21, 2003|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

CLAY COUNTY, Ala. — CLAY COUNTY, Ala.--There are only two towns, five miles apart, in this little county. The nearest Wal-Mart is about 35 miles away, but few complain because life is a bit slower here. Families don't have much to spare, but everybody volunteers. And joining the National Guard and reserves is as much a way of life as turkey hunts and Wednesday night Bible study.

Lately, though, Clay County is on edge. The sun comes up and the televisions click on to the news as people brace for a war they know is coming. They just don't know when.

Robbie Lett has consolidated all the bills and helped his wife put her will in order. Julie Lett is making videotapes so her baby girls won't forget what she looks like when she goes.

When Anita Barrett isn't frying chicken at Ms. Anita's Cafe, she is sewing stripes on Walter Kidd's dress uniform. Kidd, whose wife, Penny, waitresses at the cafe, is doing 30 sit-ups each morning and trying to lose 20 pounds.

Buddy Griffin has made sure his wife has power of attorney. Jarred Griffin is getting used to the idea of high school graduation without his father.

Tru-Wood Cabinet Co. is breaking in a new lead man for the frame department. The Lineville High School principal is looking for a seventh-grade social studies teacher, preferably one who can also coach softball. A police chief is figuring out a way to manage without one of his five officers. The town of Ashland could lose its mayor. And the Lineville Baptist choir is wondering how it will sound minus one tenor.

As the nation ponders a war in Iraq, people are preparing for disruptions to their lives in neighborhoods all across America, but perhaps nowhere more so than here.

Alabama leads the nation in National Guard enlistments per capita. And by the same measure, Clay County, which contains the twin towns of Ashland and Lineville, sent about 1% of its 13,000 residents to the Gulf War 12 years ago, more than any county in the country. Those nine months tore holes in the fabric of a tightly woven community.

"The National Guard is real big in Alabama," said Jim Luker, principal of Lineville High School, which could lose as many as three teachers to a reserves call-up. "When you take 25 people out of a town this small, you really miss them. And when you take one teacher, 100 kids feel the effects."

A feeling of foreboding permeates Clay County. Nearly 59,000 reserve forces have been mobilized nationally. Units all across Alabama have received orders, and Clay knows its time is coming.

Based here are the 128th Medical Company and the 1200th Battalion, which handles water purification, the only one of its kind in the state. Both services are considered vital to a war effort -- particularly now, when the nation's pared-down armed forces depend more on reservists than ever before.

In addition, countless residents are attached to units in nearby counties. While Clay County's two units await deployment, a few of the county's reservists attached to units elsewhere have received their orders.

"We've downsized the active army. Once it could fight one, two, three major crises at one time. Not anymore," said Adjutant Gen. Mark Bowen, commander of Alabama's National Guard. He grew up in Lineville and worked for years as a pharmacist. He predicts Clay County will be asked to serve again. "Last time, we sent every one of 'em. We cleaned out the whole bunch."

These are not active-duty military towns. People here have civilian lives, but they put everything down when Washington calls, leaving colleagues, neighbors and families to fill in the gaps.

They join to be patriotic, they say, and because the extra pay helps make ends meet. They are rarely called up -- before the Gulf War they were summoned by the president only once, in 1963, when Gov. George Wallace barred the door to black students at the University of Alabama.

In small communities such as Lineville and Ashland, which have a combined population of 4,300, a war takes people of standing, people who are hard to get along without. Like Ashland Mayor Norman McNatt, who wears other hats as a member of the water and sewer board and a major in the National Guard.

The citizens of Ashland call their mayor for everything from the recent spate of burglaries to a barking dog. McNatt has about a year left in his term and wants to run again, but if he's deployed he'll have two choices: resign or take what could be a long leave of absence.

"In fairness to the city, I've got to look and see what's best for the city, not what's best for Norman," he said.

Hardly a day goes by when McNatt or Bowen don't bump into somebody who wants to know when.

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