DOUGLAS, Wyo. Until recently, it would be safe to say that the good citizens of Douglas, population 5,652, didn’t have much use for New York City.
As far as they were concerned, New York was one of those uppity East Coast cities where the people can’t seem to mind their own business. Every time they turned around, New Yorkers were trying to tell them what to do on their own land, or take away their guns, or tell them that protecting some bug was more important than their being able to earn an honest living.
Worse yet, it was New Yorkers who put former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Senate. To understand the magnitude of this crime, it’s important to note that the name “Clinton” is almost never spoken aloud here.
Like the wizards in “Harry Potter” who fear they will jinx themselves by saying “Voldemort,” the residents of Douglas prefer to simply describe former President Bill Clinton as “the previous administration.”
Long ago the people of Douglas devised a way to welcome New Yorkers who might stumble upon this remote, windswept cowboy town: Invite them on a jackalope hunt.
You can’t miss a jackalope in Converse County: it’s painted on the sides of the fire engines, it’s sold as a stuffed animal in drugstores and there’s even a statue of one in front of the what else? Jackalope Mall.
When tourists from the East would ask about the creature, which looks just like a jackrabbit except for the long, antelope-like horns protruding from its head, the local guides would take them hunting for jackalope in the foothills of the Laramie Range.
Funny thing is, no one can remember anyone ever bringing back a jackalope.
Until recently, it would have been hard to imagine a community with less regard for New York than Douglas. Then came September 11, and reminiscent of President John F. Kennedy’s declaration, “I am a Berliner,” the people of Douglas are all New Yorkers now.
They love New York
Terry Emmert, an oil field worker and native Wyomingan, is one example. He has never visited New York, he didn’t know any of the victims and he has no connection to any survivors. But at a recent Douglas High School varsity basketball game, he was watching his son Brandon play and wearing something you don’t see every day in Wyoming: a long-sleeved New York Police Department T-shirt that came directly from ground zero.
Mr. Emmert said he wants to show his support for the people of New York, whose courage and spirit have impressed him. “It’s amazing how strong those people are,” he said. “I’m really proud of them.”
Jess Rodgers, the local Farm Bureau representative, had been under the impression that New Yorkers were “rude and disrespectful,” although he admitted that “we don’t know, because we’ve never been there.” Sitting at the kitchen table with his wife, Eleanor, and friend Bob Vollman, he said he now feels “a more direct bond” with New Yorkers.
“It took a real strong people to go through what they’ve gone through,” said Mr. Rodgers. “I thought it was amazing how they pulled together and said, ‘We’ll overcome this.’”
Mr. Vollman, a third-generation rancher who runs cattle and sheep with his father and two sons on their spread about 20 miles from town, agreed that his perception of New Yorkers has improved.
“I do have a different opinion of them. It really did surprise me to see what they’ve done I didn’t realize all the heroes that we have,” said Mr. Vollman. “I know when somebody’s in need in our community, we all pitch in. And now everyone in the nation is pitching in.”
Closer than they thought
With its tiny population and rural communities separated by hundreds of miles, Wyoming may have been the state least affected by the terrorist attacks. As far as anyone knows, no Wyoming resident was killed September 11 hardly surprising in a state whose scant 481,000 people live more than 2,000 miles from ground zero.
Rather than counting their blessings, however, Wyomingans have found themselves grasping for connections to the tragedy. They found one in New York firefighter Faustino Apostol.
It turns out he had a Wyoming nephew, Phillip Dodge, a roughneck on a drilling rig for the True Drilling Co. As soon as word got out, U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas, Wyoming Republican, flew a flag in the late firefighter’s honor over the Capitol building. Mr. Dodge’s boss, Diemer True, arranged to honor the firefighter’s sister at the True company’s annual awards ceremony Nov. 30.
The sister, Theresa Camp, flew in from New York to Casper for the ceremony. Mr. Thomas presented her with the flag, and she told the crowd how her brother had been ordered to abandon the building moments before it collapsed.
“She said his last words were, ‘I’ll come out when the chief comes out,’” recalled Mr. True. “Then our ranch foreman, Dean Johnson, who has a beautiful voice, got up and sang that Lee Greenwood song, ‘God Bless the U.S.A.’ There were 500 people there, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
Amazed at the city
In Douglas, the community has its own unique link to the disaster. Two months after the attack, a local therapist, Jane Stearns, flew to ground zero to provide on-the-spot counseling at the behest of Disaster Mental Health Services.
A petite blonde who lives with her husband and two children on a ranch outside town, Mrs. Stearns spent the first two weeks of November working with firefighters, police, the port authority and other emergency personnel at the site. Having never visited New York, she said the experience gave her a different perspective on the city’s tough-guy image.
“I was amazed. The New Yorkers I met were very friendly,” she said. “When I got out there, I was treated so kindly, especially by the New York Police Department.”
As a rare Wyoming resident working at the site, Mrs. Stearns became something of a celebrity. “A lot of people wanted to know about Wyoming because they wanted to take a vacation away from the city,” she said.
Mrs. Stearns contacted the Douglas Chamber of Commerce, and soon she was passing out tourist information packets to emergency workers. “A lot of them were hunters, so there was that connection,” she said. “A lot of them liked to hear about the support from all over the country.”
New York police officers gave her precinct pins and patches for souvenirs, and she reciprocated by passing out Douglas police patches. “They were very touched. There were a lot of tears,” said Mrs. Stearns. “I saved one patch and put it on the memorial at St. Paul’s Church.”
Before her return, she bought dozens of T-shirts and other souvenirs to pass out in Douglas. “I had to throw away some of my clothes to fit everything in [the luggage],” she said with a laugh. The shirts, trinkets, patches and photos she managed to squeeze into her suitcases have been received as precious treasures in Douglas.
Bill Roberts, the Douglas fire chief, proudly displays his gift from Mrs. Stearns, a sketch of three New York firefighters raising the American flag at the site. “It’s one of my most prized possessions,” he said.
Hardest for him to accept were the deaths of more than 300 firefighters in the collapse of the Twin Towers. “For a department like ours, that was just unthinkable,” he said. “A high-rise to us in this town would be a three-story building.”
His own crew of 37 firefighters responds to calls throughout Converse County, a sprawling, 4,000-square-mile area that contains just 8,000 people.
The disparity in their job descriptions hasn’t lessened the bond between his rescuers and those in New York. The Douglas fire department sent patches to the ground zero firefighters and did a pass-the-boot fund-raiser. Many of his crew are ordering FDNY hats and T-shirts, and most are wearing bracelets with the names of the fallen firefighters.
“We’re really right there with them,” said Chief Roberts. “All the guys are thinking about them. That’s the brotherhood of the fire department.”
Visit Douglas in the winter, and you start to understand why fewer than half-a-million people live in this state. A cold, bitter wind sweeps over the range until late spring, making it almost impossible to leave the house on some days and creating a dry, desolate landscape where nothing green can stay.
Living in such isolation has its drawbacks, but it has also created a sense of security for many townspeople. “I worry about something happening, but because we’re clear out here, I don’t think it’ll affect us too much,” said Mr. Vollman.
What keeps the ranchers awake at night is the specter of a biological attack aimed at their livestock. “I worry more about hoof-and-mouth disease if that got into the cattle, that would be more devastating than anything that’s happened with anthrax,” he said.
Then again, it’s hard to imagine terrorists slipping into town unnoticed. In a place where the arrival of two East Coast journalists was enough to merit an article in the local weekly, you have to wonder what would happen if a couple of Middle Easterners checked into the Best Western.
“They’d definitely raise an eyebrow or two,” said rancher Brady Vollman. “But I don’t think they’d have to be scared.”
The town’s location in the middle of nowhere hasn’t stopped the local authorities from going on the alert. The police and firefighters are taking special training classes in how to handle biological and chemical attacks, and city hall now has a contingency plan for how to keep the community running if an anthrax scare forces an evacuation.
“We’re not going to get that ‘It can’t happen in our neighborhood’ mentality. We’re right in the middle of the biggest coal supplier in the nation there’s a target,” said Chief Roberts. “And they’ve said something might happen at the Salt Lake City Olympics. Well, they have to transport [explosives] through somewhere what if they happen to break down right here?”
In the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the police department was flooded with calls. “People were asking about anthrax. If they saw somebody suspicious, what should they do?” said Sgt. Lori Emmert. “Everyone took it personally.”
Matthew Velasquez took it more personally than most. A high-school senior, he’s probably the only person in Douglas perhaps the entire state with a poster of the Twin Towers in his room. It was a gift from his father, David, who lives in Manhattan.
His father, said Matthew, “went down and volunteered in the hospital after the attack. He was devastated.”
The combination of high patriotism and scarce job opportunities has made the prospect of a military career more attractive than ever in Douglas. Despite his mother’s worries, Matthew plans to enlist in the Army after graduation.
He said the prospect of fighting in a real war doesn’t scare him. “It’s not much infantry fighting it’s mostly missiles in the air,” he said.
The town is already stirring about the prospect of visitors from New York City. Mrs. Stearns said several rescue workers she met in November are planning to take vacations in Douglas in the spring and summer.
Whether anyone will take them hunting for jackalopes remains to be seen. “I’ll show them around town,” said Mrs. Stearns. “It’ll take about 10 minutes.”