Thursday, August 12, 2004

DeWine finds the country on country roads

Peter Bronson

On roadmaps, interstate arteries are drawn with a ruler and a red Sharpie, while old twisty two-lanes look like skinny blue ballpoint veins. William Least-Heat Moon named the back roads in a book called Blue Highways: A Journey into America.

And that's where Sen. Mike DeWine spends a week each August - cruising the blue highways of Ohio in an RV, rolling and swaying through green farmland and neat little towns, from county fairs to roadside diners. It's the part of America where the corn is tall and the worries are small and you're never very far from a Main Street that looks like a colorized snapshot of the 1960s.

Last Thursday, he started at his historic house in Greene County at 7:30 a.m., had breakfast in Fayette County, then stopped in Clinton, Warren, Preble, Hamilton and Butler counties before the day was over after 6 p.m.

"We love history,'' he explained as a I hitched a ride from Springboro to Preble County. Many stops are historic, such as the home of Ulysses S. Grant, where he found a U.S. grant to save it as a state museum.

His annual Magical History Tours include his wife, Fran, who is the world's greatest blue-ribbon pie maker, assorted children and grandchildren and Senate staffers. It's good politics, he admits. But the guy is so unpretentious, you almost wonder. As he shook hands at the Preble County Fair, people walked away with a "Who was that?'' look on their faces.

In his blue-checked, short-sleeved cotton shirt, gray slacks, glasses and sensible brown shoes, DeWine looked like a science teacher or an extension agent - not a U.S. senator. But I think he'd do the blue highways even if nobody knew him. And I can see why.

In Springboro, he visited a local Underground Railroad museum and the Jonathan Wright House, built by the Quaker town founder as an Underground Railroad stop, with hidden passages that have somehow trapped the spirit of fear, courage and freedom like pressed flowers in a family Bible.

Springboro is a lovely town. Listening to the Family Tree Dulcimer Band singing "I'll Fly Away'' in a gazebo on Main Street, you'd never know that underneath the sidewalks the town is Swiss-cheesed with historic tunnels for runaway slaves.

Down the road at the Preble County Fair, DeWine had his picture taken with local politicos in the GOP tent, right next to Double Tilt Sash & Door, across from Pennsylvania Funnel Cakes.

County fairs are like rivers - the farther you get from a city, the more pure they get. And Preble County's is as clean as country air and the exotic smell of livestock, straw on the ground, cotton candy and frying corndogs.

Cattleman John Shelton asked DeWine to sign a card from his deck of "52 reasons to vote for Bush.''

Then while DeWine met parents of soldiers in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Darrick Jones showed me a picture that provided the other 51 reasons.

It showed Jones standing in Baghdad, surrounded by happy, smiling students and teachers at a school that opened because he was there to protect it.

Since Jones came home, he sees yellow ribbons everywhere and nobody will let him buy dinner when he takes his family out.

"This is a very patriotic community,'' he said. "The support here is phenomenal.''

No wonder DeWine loves the back roads of Ohio. Nothing cures D.C. doubts and delusions like a few days on the red, white and blue highways of the heartland.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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