The Ties That Bind

In a frontier town 2,000 miles from the East Coast, one teen-ager teaches her neighbors that no American is a stranger.

Postcard : From A Changing Land

September 30, 2001|By Larry Bingham | By Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

SHERIDAN, Wyoming -- Autumn is the wrong season for a chinook, the warm wind that blows down from the Bighorn Mountains and melts the snow in winter, and yet what happened in the waning days of September had a similar effect on the townspeople here. It drew them together. It gave them respite from what had happened back East.

On the day autumn arrived, Ashley Roberts regretted wearing a sweater. She stood on the corner at the fire station, pushing her sleeves to her elbows. Already she had pulled her hair up off her neck and into the claws of a tortoiseshell comb. The day was warm, and she was too busy to bother with appearance.

The fund-raiser was her idea. Firefighters stationed in the intersection held plastic boots out to passing cars and pickup trucks. Traffic stalled, and the line stopped whenever someone felt so patriotic they pried loose their ashtray to dump their change.

Never in her 17 years had Ashley seen so much money. At the table where she stood, friends from Sheridan High found screws, nails, bolts, old keys and empty shell casings among the coins. They leafed through $1s, $5s, $10s, $20s and so many $100 bills they no longer paused to study them.

To think, all this from a town of 15,900 in northeast Wyoming.

"What can I do?" Ashley had asked her mother on Sept. 11. She was at home doing linear equations for Algebra II -- it was only 7 a.m. in Sheridan -- when her mother called from her job cleaning the house of an elderly woman. Ashley could hear 95-year-old Gertrude's television blaring, and through the noise, her mother's anxious voice: "You better turn on the TV."

From their trailer, second on the left on Adair Avenue, Ashley watched the World Trade Center fall and she saw the wounded Pentagon building. The desire to do something seized her. She asked her sister, "What can we do when we live so far away?"

A man from church had died of AIDS, and the AIDS quilt had come to the community college, so when Ashley's sister Anna suggested making and selling ribbons -- like the AIDS ribbons -- and donating the proceeds to the American Red Cross, Ashley had a plan.

But she never imagined a few red-white-and-blue ribbons would lead to any of this:

The radio station van parked beside the fire station, broadcasting its offer to match whatever was raised up to $5,000.

The woman in the truck who hollered at Ashley from the extended cab: "Honey, who do I make the check out to?"

Or the woman who walked up to their table with a plastic freezer bag full of copper pennies. "I lost my job in July," she said, "but this is what I've been saving."

Ashley never dreamed her town, 2,084 miles from New York City, would give this much money, spread out on the table now like a pirate's treasure.

All Ashley knew of Manhattan was what she saw on TV. She had been to Washington once, on a school trip when she was 12. Though she dreams of going east for college, her mother wonders how she will afford such an education.

The world back East seemed so far from here, where there is no such thing as rush hour. The worst traffic comes at 3:35 p.m., when the high school lets out. The tallest building, the only thing close to a tower, is part of the old Sheridan flour mill, the "Best Out West." Even that is on the outskirts of town.

Ashley's great-grandparents left Kentucky in the 1890s and homesteaded in Wyoming soon after it became a state. They settled in Jackson, an area that has since been taken over by tourists, but their pioneer spirit survived and resurfaced a century later in Ashley.

Of course, she would call the mayor and pitch her fund-raiser. What did she have to lose?

As Ashley made plans, the national news rippled through Sheridan, from the Wal-Mart and McDonalds out by the interstate, to the old cattle baron mansions that sit on the rise behind the courthouse.

The mayor liked her "American Ties Relief Fund" idea. The fire chief said his captains would help collect. Ashley and her friends, with her mother and sister, stayed up nights tying ribbons to be deposited around town in what had been saloons and hotels but were now shops that sold ropes and saddles or scented soaps and throw pillows.

In the meantime, the Sheridan Press ran a story about a local man (Tongue River High Class of 1984) who had been in the World Trade Center but escaped. Another story pictured a couple relieved to learn that their nephew who worked at the Pentagon was on vacation when the hijacked airliner struck. A third story quoted a man whose brother and sister-in-law worked in the twin towers but, as the man noted, they'd stayed up for the Denver Broncos' game and fortunately gone to work late.

Even before the editorial appeared with the headline "All of Us are Now Targets," the fund- raiser took off. Senior citizens from an apartment complex offered to tie, and ribbons soon flittered on shoulders and lapels, as common as butterflies in a summer meadow.

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