09/17/2001 11:00PM

On the road: A traveler's tale

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CARLSBAD, Calif. - Once, when they were both still young, Gary Stevens and Pat Valenzuela squared off in the jocks' room at Hollywood Park after a race filled with strife. Words were exchanged, then Valenzuela sent a punch in the general direction of Gary's firm, patrician chin. He barely flinched. Valenzuela held his hand in pain.

"That all you got?" Stevens said.

As the miles went by last Thursday night, the scene kept coming to mind, a metaphor - clumsy but pertinent - for the resilience of the American jawline. Civilization should never have to endure such an awful blow.

But now it was America's turn. America's turn to see if it could recover from its own London blitz, its own siege of Stalingrad, its own Nagasaki.

"That all you got?"

All night long, past the truck stops and the roadkill, the speakers of the dark green Mustang rattled with the voices of talk show hosts. It was Radio Free America, and it was all I had to get me through the darkness of 747 miles, from Des Moines to Dallas-Fort Worth, in time to make a flight back home.

The events of Sept. 11 found this reporter on a brief holiday, celebrating a special family event near the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. Then the planes went down and the towers fell, freezing the country cold with fear and anger. So far away from lower Manhattan, feeling helpless and emotionally at sea, there was nothing to do but grieve and rant and finally try to find a way back home. The inconvenience was trivial, but, suddenly, being home became very important.

So the search began, through the heart of the country, looking for an open airport and an available flight to just about anywhere, as long as it was headed west.

The road signs passed like Scrabble tiles: Onomonowoc, Towanda, Makquaketa, Shickasha. "Pat, I'd like to buy a vowel." There was Belmont, Wisc., pop. 866, and Derby, Kan., pop. 17,807. Just after sunset, a few miles east of Highway 61, sat Clinton, Iowa, the birthplace of Allen Paulson. A little while later, off to the west of I-35, the deep Missouri night sheltered tiny Parnell, where Jimmy Jones had been recently laid to rest.

I am now fairly certain that I can identify at least two of the Quad Cities. But I did not know that the National Teachers Hall of Fame was in Emporia, Kan., or that the National Balloon Museum was in Indianola, Iowa, or that a skunk smells decidedly different if you are driving the car that hits him first. That was just north of Guthrie, Okla.

Maybe the stink was coming from the radio. Sometimes it was hard to swallow. For every sober minute of Dan Schorr, there was an hour of Michael "Just Like My Dad" Reagan blaming the Trade Center tragedy on Bill Clinton, or Mike Savage and his "Savage Nation," demanding nothing less than a nuclear apocalypse to be rained down upon Afghanistan.

At one turn in the road, a new station beamed in, bringing a classic radio episode of "The Green Hornet." It was called "Murder Across the Board," a fine piece of theater set at a racetrack. There was a scam, a ringer, and a damsel in some sort of petty distress. I turned back to "Savage Nation."

An all-sports station found its people arguing back and forth over the same point: To play or not to play. The announcer read the list of cancellations. "Major league baseball, NFL football, the PGA, NASCAR . . . even horse racing!" Even horse racing, the game that never stops, bowed its head for a moment out of respect for the nation's loss.

Most of the talk show callers were honestly conflicted, although such a moment flushes out the bitter cynics as well. In Oklahoma City, where terrorism is not an abstract, one caller suggested that canceling football games just because something bad happened back East was pure hogwash. His logic?

"I'll bet when the federal building was bombed they didn't miss a beat in New York." The talk show host agreed.

It was warming up on a bright Texas morning by the time I found the rental car lot at Dallas-Fort Worth International and pried my backside out of that fine green Mustang. She never missed a beat, or an oat, and she wore her New York license plates with honor. Maybe she'd even been to downtown Manhattan.

The painful delays expected at airport check-in were temporarily alleviated by a light schedule of flights. Only the desperate and the stranded seemed to be travelling. I confessed to both. And since the pull of home was stronger than any fear of flying, there was only a wave of relief when - at 10:47 a.m., Central Daylight Time - Capt. Patrick Palmer lifted our Delta MD-90 off the runway, banked westward, and opened the throttle.

It was only then that I stopped to consider my fellow passengers, something travellers will be doing now with a new, anxious intensity. And that's when I saw them. Four or five young men scattered throughout the coach cabin, well-muscled and wearing t-shirts, jeans, tattoos and identical haircuts.

Breathe easy. They were U.S. Marines, called back quickly from leave to their base at Camp Pendleton, just north of Del Mar. Soon they would be following their own dangerous orders, placing themselves in harm's way, acting out of duty and honor, and generally behaving like New York City firefighters. The kind that rush headlong into flaming, 110-story towers to save lives.

That's what we've got.