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Steinberg: Voices of rural America speaking from a place mat

Strawberry-rhubarb pie, one of a dozen varieties on sale at the Bedford Diner, in Bedford, Pennsylvania. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

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Paper place mats are not a celebrated form of communication, with neither the romance of messages in bottles nor the eager audience for fortune cookies.In fact, I didn’t glance at the place mat in front of me as we settled in at the Bedford Diner in Bedford, Pennsylvania, on our way home from vacation Monday. But my sharp-eyed wife drew attention to it, pointing out the services offered: Excavation. Well drilling. Hydraulic cylinder repair.

“A lot of industrial,” she said, knowing I like industrial.

A dozen ads, plus one for the diner and a word search. Here, I thought, are people who want to get a message out, who paid RAK Advertising, trying to be heard. I should listen. So I phoned them all.

“Business is tough right now,” said Joe Ryan, 50, who runs Ryan Services, a general contractor. “It is somewhat slow. The natural gas business affected the area. We had the Marcellus (shale formation) right beside us in the Allegheny Mountains. A lot of drilling for natural gas. In ’07, ’08, companies out of Texas moved up, started drilling. They drilled so much, there was such an abundant supply, prices fell and a lot of people lost their jobs. We have work but not as much as we should.”

“Right now, this time of year, you might say we’re a bit busy,” said Randy Clark, whose father, Gerald, founded Clark Well Drilling in 1947. Since then, he said, things have gone downhill.

“Don’t get me into politics,” he said. “Put it this way: it’s not the country I remember when I was a kid. Some people seem to believe what we used to stand for is wrong.”

How so?

“We had to work for everything we got,” said Clark, 64.

Ryan’s 16-year-old daughter is adopted from China. I wondered if she faced any discrimination in the town of 2,800?

“There’s no bigotry,” Ryan said. “We have all different types in our school. So many times rural America gets a black eye.”

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We talked guns.

“I am a gun owner,” said Ryan. “It seems to me, I think it’s a very simple question. You have the right to protect, but you also have responsibility. It’s not about hunting. It’s truly about self-defense and tyranny”—a reminder that George Washington marched his army through here in 1794, putting down the Whiskey Rebellion.

Matt Wilson owns FlowRight Plumbing, Electrical & Drain Cleaning.

“We’re doing good,” he said. “We’re a new company, mostly do work in Washington, D.C., but I started a company up here. Eventually we’ll get rid of D.C.”

The Bedford Diner in south central Pennsylvania. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times
The Bedford Diner in south central Pennsylvania. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Why? I’d think the money is in Washington, 140 miles away.

“Yeah, but the problem is the drive and the headaches and the people,” said Wilson, 59. “A bunch of weirdos: foreigners, young people who don’t have a clue what’s going on. Not like it used to be. Now it’s a joke.”

The plumbing industry needs new blood.

“Plumbing is in bad shape because nobody’s coming into the trade,” he said. “As our generation retires, kids aren’t coming into our trade now . . . . I’ve had friends say, ‘Matt, give me five good plumbers, I’ll buy five new trucks today.’ It’s sad, just the way it is, not getting any better. It ain’t like the old days.”

I said the newspaper business has its troubles too.

“We used to go into people’s house, ask if they have any old newspapers, spread ’em out, so we don’t make a mess,” he said. “Now ask these young people, ‘Do you have any newspapers?’ they laugh and say, ‘We don’t read the paper. We read the computer.’ In the old days, they had six inches of papers. Now they look at you like you’re nuts and say, ‘I’ll bring you a towel.'”

Everyone who spoke about the election is supporting Trump.

“We don’t have much of an option,” Ryan said. “We can’t take much more growth of debt and government. You know what you got with Hillary. That’s the scary thing. More of an anti-Hillary vote than anything.”

“I’m going to vote for Ronald Reagan,” joked Steve Stoltz, 55, a branch account manager at OneMain Financial. “I’d probably vote for Trump; I wouldn’t vote for Hillary. More on the abortion issue than anything. . . . I’m pro-life.”

In the lower left corner of the place mat is the River of God Church and Pastor Richard Reed. I thought I’d give him the last word.

“It’s a pretty well-known fact where we are at as a society,” said Reed. “We gotta change or else.”

Change how?

“Putting God in the rightful place. Our country was founded on Christian principles, and we’ve drifted so far away that. We’re in bad shape spiritually, economically, physically, emotionally.”

I realized I hadn’t phoned the diner.

“We took it over two and half years ago,” said Scott Mole, 46, who owns the Bedford Diner with his wife, Nikki. “It was something we wanted to do. I worked in corporate all my life and was fed up with corporate rules and BS. We’ve got a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old. I wanted the freedom to actually see them, and this allowed me to be more of a family man. I wanted to see my kids and spend time with them. It’s important they know who their dad is.”

Is it working out?

“It’s just like anything else. Some days are harder than other days,” Mole said. “Nothing is perfect in life. But overall, I’m happy. Overall I am.”

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