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On the road with John

Who finds that America is running on inertia

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Out in the seemingly eternal flat sameness of carbon-copy gray-green cornfields, out where the July dust on the back roads hovers at about four feet and there's seldom a breeze-gasp to jiggle the motes, out along the monotonous straightness of U.S. 50 in southern Illinois, if you're heading west toward St. Louis and you've got 75 miles to go, don't wipe the sweat from your eyes or you'll miss it.

The sign flashes by: "Odin 1200." Whoosh, you're past it -- and the town it memorializes. The "1200" is supposed to be a tally of the souls living in Odin, but there are barely 1,100 nowadays. They're divvied up among 480 households and 330 families. A lot of people are related to each other.

And more than a few of those relationships connect directly, indirectly, sideways and maybe-ways to me. My family was one of the founding clans of Odin. There's a Sugg Avenue, and one of the burg's landmark (an admittedly grandiose adjective) buildings, on Main Street where it curves a little between Green and Laury streets, is the John F. Sugg Building. Except in the style of almost a century ago, my granddad chipped "Jno F. Sugg Building" into the stone facade.

Back when Mark Twain was dodging the sand bars on the Mississippi River and Teddy Roosevelt was roaring from his bully pulpit, Odin mirrored the rest of that youthful brawler dubbed the United States. There were coal and oil mines. The Illinois Central and Baltimore & Ohio railroads intersected at Odin. Industry flourished. People made things. There were thousands of folks in the town -- it wasn't a struggle to keep four digits on Odin's road marker. Earning a living wasn't a problem -- jobs grew faster than the corn.

"All of that's gone now," Jeanie Winkler -- who has, as she says, worked at the Village Hall "almost forever" -- told me last month. Odin is clearly and sadly tired. "We're like a lot towns in America. Business has got up and gone."

Out in the town's cemetery, the Sugg clan occupies a good bit of acreage. My grandfather abides there. So do his first wife, who died young, and his second wife, my much-adored grandmother, Grace. Lots of aunts, uncles and cousins. My five kids wanted to know if I'd be planted there. Let's not rush such thoughts, I replied.

I'm pretty proud to show my brood the family roots. My grandfather, who was an old man when he finally had kids, died in 1920. He built businesses, farmed and served his community in a variety of elected posts. His father, James, led two wagon trains across the continent before settling in the area and staking out a farm we still own. Odin would have been a great place to grow up in the 1920s or '30s. The town was a Norman Rockwell archetype. Now, the streets are lifeless. Most storefronts are shuttered. Odin is running on inertia and the tank is getting low.

The Jno F. Sugg Building, once the hub of my grandfather's real estate and industrial ventures, is not quite vacant -- the bank branch and Pentecostal church that were there the last time I visited are gone but an all-but-customerless curio shop keeps the two-story building from going derelict.

On the outskirts of Odin is one of the larger houses in the area. Built by my grandfather, it's where my father and his brother and two sisters grew up. My wife walked around to the house's back yard and pointed to a neighboring house about a quarter of a mile away. "I bet your dad ran across those fields to go see his friends," she said, and I start weaving a little O. Henry story in my mind of my father's childhood.

Jim Soper now owns the home. For years he ran Lincoln Trail Antiques a hundred yards down U.S. 50 from the house.

"You a Sugg?" he beamed after I pounded on the locked door of the antique store. "I was hoping one of you would come by someday. I found something of yours." He flapped his arms, hustled into a back room of the shop and returned carrying a worn but intact child's boot, a century out of style. "Found this in the attic," Soper says. "It must have been your dad's or [his brother] Arnold's."

I ask about the neat rows of furniture, art, books and knickknacks in the antique emporium. It's a formidable collection. "I closed up a few months ago," Soper shrugged. "No one around here has money to buy this stuff. I'll keep it and hope that like gold, the value will increase. I consider it an investment, but I don't think it will pay off anytime soon."

Like most of America, Odin isn't making anything any longer. There's a reason: globalization. As Pat Buchanan points out in the current edition of American Conservative, "U.S. manufacturing is in a death spiral, and it is not a natural death. This is homicide. Open-borders free trade is killing America."

A half-century ago, more than a third of working Americans made and built things. Today, the percentage barely reaches double digits. One in seven manufacturing jobs has been killed since George Bush copped the presidency.

Other than agriculture, I couldn't find a whiff of production of anything in Odin -- or in much of the 7,000 miles of America I traveled in July and August.

Those horrible acronyms -- NAFTA, GATT, WTO, IMF -- have cost millions of American jobs. The free-trade fanatics and multinational corporations (by their very definition these once American firms have no loyalty to this nation and, indeed, are guilty of treasonously undermining the United States) promised we'd prosper from globalization. But first the factories closed and the work went to the maquiladoras on the Mexican borders. Now, even cheap Mexican labor isn't profitable enough for the plutocrats, so the jobs are being sent to the sweatshops and prison factories of China. Both American and Mexican workers are victims.

Not only is unemployment setting records -- 3 million Americans can thank Bush for losing their jobs since January 2001. But what jobs are being created are crap. Industry creates wealth and rising incomes. The stagnation of America is because "work" is now slaving at chain stores and fast-food restaurants.

I found out where the jobs are going in Odin. Twenty miles down the road, there's a new Wal-Mart selling the cheap Chinese-made products that have put so many Americans out of work. People throng the store for the bargains, not realizing that the writing on Wal-Mart's walls spells out their names.

Senior Editor John Sugg is back from his travels across America. "I encountered cowboys fighting what they call the 'Republican rich bastards' in Wyoming, government-subsidized bison massacres in Montana and casinos everywhere," he recalls. Read about them next week. Sugg can be reached at john.sugg@ creativeloafing.com or at 404-614-1241.

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