Army base highway in N.C. has become lonesome road

February 26, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

ROSEBORO, N.C. -- There are signs that spring is coming to Highway 24. At the moment, farmers are beginning to plant potatoes, and a few are putting in greens.

Daffodils, pansies and a few rosebushes are in bloom, casting their colors across this rural heartland that, as one lady described it yesterday, "just seems to ache."

"It's hard to remember what life was like before the war," said Hazel Wenrich, a 48-year-old housewife who ran in to the Piggly Wiggly in Roseboro yesterday to buy a National Enquirer.

A numbness of sorts seems to have settled on Stedman, Autryville, Roseboro, Clinton, Turkey, Warsaw, Beulaville and Richlands, country towns along the 90-mile stretch of road between Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, which have dispatched 60,000 troops to the Persian Gulf.

"All this news from over yonder. You worry about who's coming home and who's not, and you wonder if it's going to be somebody you know. This whole community just seems to ache," Mrs. Wenrich said. "Now I know we got this thing licked, but it's still a worry to everybody."

The military presence is as much a part of the landscape as the tall Carolina pines that frame portions of Highway 24, the brightly-painted clay burros, swans and mushrooms that decorate so many of the yards, and the rather stern warnings on the church billboards ("Salvation is by atonement, not appointment").

"When you move troops out like that," said Jimmy Griffin, who owns a furniture store along this two-lane highway in Clinton (pronounced CLIN-non), "you empty a lot of these little towns right out. It's just something we live with here."

Folks in Turkey (population 300) still talk about the dark days of January with a sense of disbelief: First the Barcalounger plant closed, then the war started.

"It don't get much worse, two blows coming like that at the same time," noted Dotty Carlsward, whose position as owner of the tiny Turkey Grocery on Highway 24 makes her this town's unofficial monarch.

All along Highway 24, there are reminders that the nation is at war: yellow ribbons, U.S. flags and deserted parking lots at the Playpen and the Dollhouse, adult entertainment centers near LeJeune that advertise "all-girl" staffs.

"I'd like to see them kill that Saddam -- better yet, let the Iraqi people do it themselves," said Mrs. Carlsward, her voice husky from years of smoking. "Around here, that's the way we all feel."

For years, soldiers have, as Mrs. Carlsward put it yesterday, "run the road" from Bragg to Lejeune in long convoys of camouflage-colored trucks.

"People get irritated when they get stuck behind one of the those convoys, but you know, I miss them," she said.

Nowadays, traffic seems only to slow for farm tractors. This is farm country, flatlands, swampy in parts, where turkeys once ran wild.

If folks here don't have kin of their own in the gulf war, it's likely they know someone who does.

"It's shook everyone up," said Betty Draughon, a grocer in Stedman. "Here some of these girls, married, and their husbands just have to up and go. One girl, her husband's been gone since August. Another girl, just 16, went back home to her mama in Oklahoma."

"And down the road here," said Mrs. Draughon, who talks with few pauses. "We had one boy in Saudi Arabia to die, gun blew up in his face. His mother was in the store the other day. It will be a long time before people forget all this -- even after it's over. Now, a big town like New York City or Los Angeles is different. A small place like Stedman, you dwell on these things."

"People take their servicemen and women very seriously here," said Garry Stuart, a music director at Warsaw Baptist Church, which has sent nine members to the gulf. "In some ways, it seems like people have put themselves on hold while this war goes on. At the same time, there is optimism that we will prevail."

There are two National Guard armories on Highway 24. Many locals are guardsman or reservists, which is something of a tradition in the rural South.

M. E. Matthews knows a school teacher, a Marine reservist, who was put on alert three days ago. He got the call in the morning, and by 6 that night he was gone.

"War is nothing you get used to," said the 77-year-old Mr. Matthews. "But it's something you adjust to."

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