Anna Deen is 39 years old, good-looking, with light brown hair, a pink halter-top and a pin on her right lapel. The pin has a photograph of a young man with a military hard hat on his head. Above the photo are the words “My Hero.”
Deen works as a program coordinator at the Salvation Army in the small town of Shelbyville, Indiana. The man in the photograph is her son, Kevin. He is 20 years old, a communications specialist currently stationed in Iraq. He is in the Army because, when he was 17, his mother gave him an ultimatum: Either do better in school, or she was calling the recruiters. He chose the Army, went through basic training in Georgia, was stationed in Germany and, from there, was shipped off to Iraq.
“I know my son’s there for a reason,” Deen says fiercely. “And whatever might happen, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. And if I took it any other way, I’d be in a funny farm. I wouldn’t be here able to talk about it.”
Shelbyville is a very ordinary town. Thirty-two miles southeast of downtown Indianapolis, it has a population with an age distribution similar to that of the country as a whole, and with a median household income ($36,824, according to the 2000 Census) just south of the national average–which in practice means that it has a fairly affluent upper middle class and a large number of blue-collar workers and retirees struggling to pay their bills, worried about their health insurance and pension benefits, concerned about the loss of jobs through NAFTA and trying not to end each month further in the red. It’s an unostentatious, conservative, bedroom-community town, with a population just shy of 18,000, whiter than most but otherwise a pretty representative slice of small-town Middle America.
Shelbyville has dozens of churches, many of them fundamentalist, dotting its back streets, and a handful of mediocre restaurants, fast-food outlets and taverns with Bud/Coors/Miller on tap. Its population is not terribly political or outspoken, but the residents care deeply–in a traditional hard-work-and-duty sense–about town and country. The town’s motto is “Pride in Progress.” It has none of the in-your-face urban poverty of Gary, Indiana, or the glitz of a city like Los Angeles. Many of the houses, most wooden, some brick, are extremely large (three-story behemoths in the 5,000-square-foot region); but almost all of them sell for under $200,000. The more modest houses are still generally of a decent size, although they show signs of stress, with flaking paint, crumbling porches, gates askew. There’s a Wal-Mart Supercenter on the edge of town and a host of nervous mom-and-pop business owners fearful they’ll be driven out by its presence. And there are a lot of factories nearby that produce a variety of car parts for the large automobile companies.
The town’s businessmen, their stores and banks and restaurants located on Harrison Street and the east-west streets that intersect it on either side of the unimaginatively named “Public Square” (a small parking lot with a green bronze statue of a man holding two wolf cubs aloft, a nondescript water fountain and sixteen trees ringing its perimeter), belong to the Masons, the Knights of Columbus or one of the other lodges in town. Blue-collar Joes and Janes take out membership in the large Eagles Aerie on Franklin Street. Veterans come together for beers and bingo at the VFW or the American Legion post out by the cornfields on the poorer, western edge of town. On back streets of the scruffier residential neighborhoods, a handful of hair salons and barbershops also provide places to congregate and while away the time. A multiscreen cinema and a biker bar are the epicenters of the town’s entertainment.