Crossing America: 'Old ladies do what we can'
Seattle Times staff reporter
MISSOULA, Mont. — What do little old ladies do in times of war? While driving through the eastern foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains one late afternoon, as the nation neared a new and terrible one-week mark, I met two and asked them.
They were having a picnic at a park. The table was covered with white linen, and over it sat a white take-out box of Chester Fried Chicken and a couple of jug-sized cups of Lipton Ice Tea.
Mary Boles is 70 with bleached-blonde hair and blue mascara under bifocals that cover a third of her face. Vera Moulton is 65 going on 85, if you count mileage rather than years. She's led a hard life and doesn't mind showing the wear and tear. She carries a Buck knife, which she was using at the moment to cut into a drumstick. The women wear identical outfits: red shorts, sleeveless plaid shirts and white sun hats.
They're the senior Thelma and Louise of the Northern Rockies, which is to say, two women on the open road, guided by fate and moxie, and the whim of the moment, but without the guns and boyfriends — "We're past those silly things." Besides, they have husbands waiting for them back home.
"They're both on oxygen," Mary says.
"Emphysema," Vera says.
The women drive a 1977 Midas motor home. They travel year-round together, two bingo-playing bandits on a lark. When not traveling, they're home taking care of their husbands.
Last week, they left their hometown of Newport in northeastern Washington and, like us, crossed the Idaho Panhandle into Big Sky country. They went 50 mph over the Bitterroot range, soaking up the purple mountains' majesty before descending into the lush, bustling valley town of Missoula.
Tomorrow or "whenever we feel like it — ha!" they'll head south to visit one of Vera's sisters. But today's mission, so far thwarted, is to find an American flag for their Midas.
The picnic was a break from their exhaustive search at Wal-Mart, a few miles down the road from the park.
"We walked down every aisle for an hour," Mary says.
"A whole hour," Vera says. "Every aisle."
Eventually, a Wal-Mart clerk informed them the store was all out but was expecting a shipment any day. This was the case all along our route so far.
Stores that sell flags sold out in a flurry, so frantic has been the demand. The Stars and Stripes have appeared everywhere — windows and billboards and porches, along city streets and country roads — and in venues not customarily known for patriotic displays: over a urinal at a truck stop, the entrance of an adult book store. Where it might have typically said "wash me" in the back of a dusty semi, someone had finger-drawn a flag and the words "Go USA."
Mary and Vera, like a lot of us, are looking for some way to help. What Mary really wants to do, she says, is drive to New York City and tell the person in charge there — "I guess that would be the mayor" — to put her to work.
But like a lot of us, she can't venture too far from home. Her sick husband could need her ASAP. So instead she and Vera decided to contribute in other ways.
Whenever they could, they shopped at stores that donated part of the proceeds to the cause. They gave money, like at Wal-Mart, where a Red Cross volunteer had set up a table. They wore ribbons to remember the dead.
The volunteer at Wal-Mart gave them each red ribbons with white stars, which they pinned over their hearts.
They attended church services and candlelight vigils. They prayed. A minister friend says we should never underestimate the power of a praying grandmother because their words have seniority in that realm.
Little old ladies have always pitched in during war — sewing military garments, working the less-strenuous jobs in munitions factories, raising money, baking cakes and keeping spirits up, not to mention giving up husbands and sons and grandsons to the battlefield. Vera's father fought in the first World War; her husband, in the second.
They can't carry bazookas, but "old ladies do what we can," Mary said.
"Yep, whatever we can," Vera said.
Editor's note: America is a land of immigrants, and thus a land of explorers. Reporter Alex Tizon has set out to explore this land as it faces a crucible challenge. This is his third report. He can be reached at 206-464-2216, or email@example.com