The heartbreak of Montezuma

Dateline: Thu 08 May 2008

In the final push to help Barack Obama do well in Indiana, Guy and I drove to Montezuma on Monday to hang fliers on doors. Drew Athens made the request. He's the 20-something staff person with the campaign who was working in Putnam County and West Central Indiana.

"It's about the last thing we have to do," he said. "We are trying to contact people we think might vote for Obama and give them voting information about where the polls are."

This is part of the amazing strategy of Obama's campaign and his leadership style: go to the ground, to the grass, to the roots. It is not a top-heavy campaign; it's run by a swell of volunteers and young people like Drew ($1,000 a month pay for the chance to, as he said, do a job he believes in and loves.) In effect, it is a campaign made up of those voters in Montezuma who are looking for hope.

That is a commodity in short supply in the little Parke County community.

Tranquil little Montezuma, with 1,000 or so souls, on the Wabash River, was settled in 1821. Its last boom was when the canal was a hot economic concept, almost 200 years ago. The town is severely economically depressed. In 2000, about 20 percent were below the poverty line; 30 percent for those under 18 and over 65. It has to be more now.

The poverty blew me away. It's that kind of poor-white small-town hardship that in small towns seemes especially pointless.

On Montezuma's less-prosperous south side, people are living in ramshackle homes with falling-down porches and chains or ropes outside for the dogs. The beautiful sunshiny day put full light on lack, everywhere. No place to eat in Montezuma, just a gas station where you could buy a pack of Marlboros and a Coke. No jobs to speak of -- probably the nearest employer in Parke County is the Rockville Correctional Prison east of Montezuma, off Highway 36.

On the north side were the trailers: rows and rows of decrepit motor homes, with more rickety little porches and sometimes a pile of trash where part of a trailer had been torn up. We were there long enough for the kids to get home from school. I wondered what they did for fun or entertainment. We didn't meet many people; the mission was to simply hang the fliers on doorknobs and exit. One man who was home had no teeth. He was in his 30s.

Overall, a hell of a lot of hurt.

Yet in that tiny town, there were probably 100 or so identified Barack supporters who, theoretically, had reason to hope.

What can government do for the Montezumas of the U.S.? I don't know. But anything -- a dream, a vision of a better way, that thing with feathers -- is better than this.

Time for a change.


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