Julie Jacobson, Associated Press
A decade ago, customers flocked to the store in the converted fire station on the east side of Toledo, Ohio, in pursuit of Old Glory.
Howard Pinkley established Flags Sales & Repair in 1960, and runs it with his daughter, Wendy Beallas. In days after Sept. 11, 2001, customers lined up outside the door. Americans wanted to show their pride, their determination, their Americanism.
It's all a fading memory now.
These days, folks are focused on paying bills. A new flag is a luxury, and the unvarnished patriotism of 10 years ago has been replaced by disgust with government.
A recent Wednesday saw just two walk-in customers. Father and daughter have cut their payroll, but talk openly about whether they should give up. They're no less dispirited than their neighbors.
"I go home and I refuse to listen to the news because it's frustrating," Beallas says. "To me, it's not coming together and getting things done."
When Ronald Reagan ran for re-election, his advertisements boasted that it was morning in America. Nearly three decades later, as another presidential campaign begins, it feels like twilight — or, if it is morning, it is the kind of gray winter daybreak when the sun is only a rumor and only an optimist clings to hope that the clouds will break.
Listen to Americans in three closely contested states and you'll hear the same plaintive echoes, not just about politics or the upcoming election, but about the unsettling predicament that is America in 2011.
Republicans or Democrats, liberal or conservative, young or old, they lack confidence — in the country's potential to be great again, in their elected leaders' ability to do the right thing, in the economy and in themselves.
It's not that they feel incapable of doing what needs to be done, as much as they are uncertain about what that right thing is and whether anything they can do will have any real impact.
In Mount Airy, N.C., where a quaint Main Street is merely a reminder of better days: "We need to get back to the '60s and the '50s, and we need to get ourselves back to where we used to be — standing on our own two feet," says long-haul trucker Harry J. Moore, 57, punching a beefy fist into his open left hand to punctuate each syllable. "We're losing our pride. Our pride's gone away."
In North Las Vegas,, Nev., where the bursting of the housing bubble has forced hard choices: "People have lost a lot of spirit," says Elmer Chowning, 70, who had hoped to slow down in his golden years, but is instead still working in real estate while raising his 8-year-old granddaughter.
In Lima, Ohio, where people have seen America's industrial might falter: "I'm just waiting for China or somebody to take us over. That's the way it seems," says Becky Jamison, 36, who has watched her 18-year-old son look unsuccessfully for work for months. "Because we're just falling apart."
If you look, you can find optimism in Ohio.
The Armstrong Air & Space Museum is in Wapakoneta, hometown of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. It stands as a monument to an earlier, more hopeful time, and there are visitors who are convinced that those times can come again.
To Stephen Andrasik, a foam salesman from Indianapolis who has stopped in to the museum on his way back home from a business trip, the U.S. remains resilient, facing problems that can be solved by new leaders in Washington who will allow Americans to live up to their potential.
"I think we're still the same people we were back then," says Andrasik. He studies a display case filled with inventions that were spinoffs of the space program, everything from fireproof clothing to battery-powered hand tools.
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