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Jewish World Review Oct. 18, 2001 / 1 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Bob Greene

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A place that reminds
us: We can do anything -- WAPAKONETA, Ohio | When things seem to be at their darkest, there's always a sign of hope.

These are not the happiest days in the United States. What happened four weeks ago, on Sept. 11, threw us. There's no getting around it: For all the talk about not giving in to terrorism, we have been profoundly knocked off balance.

From the economy, to our sense of safety, to questions about the effectiveness of our military might in a world that has shown us a different kind of warfare, to worries about the air we breathe and the water we drink. . . .

This is different. This is uncharted.

And in the dead of night, many Americans can be excused if they lie awake and ask themselves: Can we handle this? Can we get this done? This is an unprecedented kind of challenge for us. Defeating what threatens us today is a task no one has really ever been asked to accomplish before.

We know we want to do it. We know we have the will.

But can we? Can we vanquish what is ahead of us?

In the darkest moments, hope can make itself known.

Sometimes hope comes in the form of a reminder.

Sometimes you can find it by the side of the road.

On my way through the middle of the country the other day, trying to take a look at America at ground level in the weeks after Sept. 11, the highway sign said the next exit was Wapakoneta.

Can we get this done? What lies ahead of us -- can we conquer that which seems arduous, if not impossible?

Wapakoneta provides the answer.

Small Ohio town -- only a little more than 9,000 people live here.

You'll find places like Wapakoneta all across the United States. Nothing in common with New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, it seems. Not a capital of ambition, or of lofty dreams.

Unless you know about this town, and what happened here.

In the 1940s, a boy went to Blume High School here. Not a flamboyant kid; not a loudmouth. There was an airstrip north of town, and when he was 15 he went out to that airstrip and signed up for flying lessons. Who would ever expect to hear from a kid in an Ohio town with so few residents? Who would ever expect that a kid in a town like this--like any American town by the highway--would go anywhere, would do anything?

When the entire world considers something impossible, who would ever think that a silently self-confident kid from side-of-the-road America could prove the world wrong?

This kid did. This kid from the airstrip grew up, and on July 20, 1969, he became the first person in the history of the world to step on the moon.

Neil Armstrong, of Wapakoneta, Ohio. Don't ever say anything is impossible. Don't ever -- in this country -- assume that if something is important enough, we can't find a way to do it.

There's a little museum in the town. It celebrates what the boy who once lived here accomplished. My favorite touch in the museum can be found in the collection of newspapers from all over the globe, newspapers that, on July 21, 1969, the day after the miracle, announced on their front pages the glorious thing that had happened.

From New York, from Los Angeles, from Chicago, from London, from Italy, from Thailand, from Germany -- all of those papers, like every paper in the world, reaching for superlatives to describe the triumph.

And then there was the Wapakoneta Daily News, the edition of that July day. The headline said it quite simply:

"Neil Steps on the Moon."

We have some very difficult days ahead of us. We are being asked, by history, to win a victory of the sort for which there are no road maps. We are being asked to do something no one can show us how to do. It's the opposite of easy. It's the opposite of a sure thing.

We can do anything. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that; sometimes the reminder is sitting right next to the highway, an exit sign that tells us everything we need to know. Wapakoneta.

Up ahead, at the Auglaize County Fairgrounds, the billboard says that the Indian Summer Festival is open to all. Thousands and thousands of towns like this, all across the country. We can do anything. You think not? Look up at the October moon.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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