World waits, watches, worries A nation reluctantly supports its president THE AMERICANS

January 13, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac

As the specter of war closed in on America last week, 40-year-old Carlene Barthel seemed to speak for many: "I feel like someone has cut me with a knife."

On Wednesday, Mrs. Barthel watched her 18-year-old daughter weep throughout a "48 Hours" TV special about the prospect of war and the gruesome toll it would take on U.S. soldiers and their families.

On Thursday, Mrs. Barthel, assistant manager of the stately Wort Hotel in Jackson Hole, Wyo., had barely walked through the door when concerned colleagues began asking one another the questions that were asked all over the United States last week: "How old is your son? Your nephew? Your grandson?"

On Friday, at a Chamber of Commerce repast, Mrs. Barthel says, "It was more of the same: Are we going to war? Are we going to war? I'm sick -- just sick."

And Congress' vote yesterday giving the president the authority to wage war only confirmed what she had "felt for the last week is inevitable. I guess this means there's no recourse," she said yesterday afternoon.

Across the nation, there was little talk except that of "The War." In a telephone canvass of people whose daily lives put them in touch with the views of others -- a letter carrier in Vermont, a nursing supervisor in Chicago, a talk-show host in San Francisco, among them -- Americans expressed sad, stunned resignation that war is inevitable.

Their thoughts reflected national public opinion polls that showed grudging support for President Bush's handling of the gulf crisis. But at the same time, surveys indicate that support for a war is fragile.

So did the conversations.

*

John Kareski, who owns Johnny's Newsstand in downtown Denver, has started a war pool: For a dollar, customers guess the date, hour and minute that the first shots are fired. More than 30 customers have tacked bills to the war board.

Under all the dollar bills, Mr. Kareski has written a disclaimer: "This is sick but war ain't?"

Mr. Kareski, a veteran, noted: "What you're seeing now are just the opening credits. There are going to be a lot of dead people, a lot of maimed people, and the media is going to bring it live right into our living rooms. People are going to be sickened and horrified. There's no thirst for blood here, just a feeling of pain, resignation and inevitability."

*

At the library in the central Illinois town of Mount Pulaski, population 1,800, people don't come just for the books. "They stop in, they get their cup of coffee and," as circulation manager Lynn Lakin puts it, "They park it."

And they talk -- and last week they talked of war.

"People think the president has really tried, but there are quite a few who wish we'd give the economic sanctions [against Iraq] more time to work. Of course, you talk to the older guys who've been to war, the old soldiers I call them, and they're ready to jump right in," said Mrs. Lakin, 41.

"But you talk to the mothers with sons and it's a different story. I guess no one is immune, not even in a small town like this one. And we're all hoping that maybe at the last minute, everything will be all right."

*

In the newsroom of The Daily at the University of Washington in Seattle, English major Tom Warren, 24, said students have reacted slowly to the growing prospect of war.

"The older generation's a lot more aware of what's going on," he said. "Overall, I don't know how much people think they can do. People here mostly seem to think of themselves as disconnected. . . . many don't pay attention to the news."

On the urban campus of Temple University in Philadelphia, many of the 30,000 students are anxious and angry, said Kristl Wiernicki, dean of students. "A few students have told me, 'I don't remember the Vietnam War and I don't want to remember this one.' People want to avoid it, at almost any cost. One student said, 'Blood and oil don't mix.' There's this sense that Saddam Hussein should be stopped and at the same time this fear that America is charting a course of no return here. There's this sense that it's all or nothing. They are painfully aware of the Jan. 15 deadline, and they also want to believe that anything is possible, including peaceful settlement."

*

In the battered Bronx, New York Police Sgt. Robert Imbornoni fights a war against inner-city crime almost every day. "Folks here don't talk about that war. They've got their own to think about," he said. "They're just trying to make it through another day."

At Tiffany's, the luxury jeweler on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, Glynn Valentine said: "You must be joking. . . .When we discuss anything here, it's our product."

*

At the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago, five nurses have departed for duty in the gulf and 10 more are likely to follow. "It's very difficult to say goodbye," said Beatrice Porter, the assistant director of nursing. "When you see someone in a nursing uniform one day and they are back the next day in a soldier's uniform to say goodbye, it's chilling.

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