Story by Jerome Tharaud
For one week this summer, a group of 14 local students crossed the Mississippi River and got a closer look at mines, farms, and American history.
They visited the grassy field in Pennsylvania where United Airlines Flight 93 went down on a September morning two years ago. The same day they met three of the nine men trapped last July in the flooded Quecreek Mine who barely escaped with their lives while much of the country tuned in and looked on. That was the day after they stood on Little Round Top at Gettysburg and saw where Pickett charged, and two days before visiting the site of the 1889 Johnstown flood that killed more than 2,200 Americans.
As if to prove that there is more to Pennsylvania than disaster, they visited a dairy farm, a chocolate factory and a maple sugar camp.
That strange, bittersweet mix was part of the Hill County 4-H Exchange, a program that sends area teens to a different state every two years to stay with families for a week. In alternating years, their counterparts in those families come to stay in Havre and visit some of the attractions in Montana.
The exchange provides a rare opportunity for the students, some of whom have never been out of the region, to get a taste of life in another part of the country.
This July, after two years of bake sales and coupon clipping to raise money, the exchange took a weeklong trip to Somerset County in southwestern Pennsylvania as well as other parts of the state.
It was near the town of Somerset where last July a crew of nine coal miners were digging in a shaft 240 feet deep when they broke through to a separate, abandoned shaft, this one flooded, sending 60 million gallons of water into the mine and trapping them until rescue workers plucked them out three days later, all alive.
Just shy of the one-year anniversary of their ordeal, three of the miners took the Hi-Line students back to the mine site.
"They told us about their experiences down in the mine," said HHS senior Tiffany Golden, 17. "One of them had a napkin and they all wrote a letter to their loved ones and put it in a metal lunch box in case they didn't make it," Golden said, adding that the miners have not opened the box since their rescue.
"We actually got to see what happened - how they got stuck and how they got out," said Keyla Wendland, 16, a junior at Chester High School.
About 10 miles away from the mine disaster was the site where United Airlines Flight 93 had crashed on Sept. 11, 2001.
The exchange members came to the little gravel parking lot next to a chain link fence where thousands of visitors have left mementos, from hats and pins to handmade quilts. Nearby is a small memorial chapel with a patriotic mural above the altar and pictures of the 44 passengers and crew who were killed in the crash.
The understated memorial was especially effective, they said.
"That's one of the places that didn't take a big scale and a lot of money to make a memorial," said HHS senior Tyler Dusek, 17.
"It opened my eyes to how it actually was there and how hard it actually hit the country," Golden said.
If Dusek had to choose his favorite attraction, he said it would probably be Gettysburg, where the guide peppered the group's tour of the town and battlefield with details and stories, pointing out 11 buildings with cannonballs still embedded in the walls.
"Most of the things in history we went to see are brought up as being so huge, but when I got there I got a more personal view of what it was about," Dusek said.
Still, he said, there was an odd disconnect between the idea of history and the past itself.
"You're there and you see a couple pictures and things .... You understand that a very big thing happened here .... (But) you would have had to have been there to understand what happened."
Meeting the miners was the closest he got, he said.
"You can understand it a little better when you're that close to someone who was affected by it," he said.
"But at Johnstown, you might see an uprooted tree in a building that was destroyed (by the flood). You just don't see the impact of it. What you see left of it there doesn't hit you as hard as what really happened."
As for the more recent disasters, staying with the families in Somerset County brought the reality of the situation one step closer.
The people there knew the miners, he said. Dusek said the kid he was paired with had a friend in the town nearest to the crash site who said it felt like an earthquake when Flight 93 slammed into the ground. 93 slammed into the ground. "Flight 93 was very emotional for all of us," said trip organizer and chaperone Kim Springer. "You look at all the precious little things that people left and you automatically feel a connection."
She said one of the boys in the Pennsylvania exchange had seen the plane come down while he was in physical education class and that many of the families the group stayed with were involved delivering food to the crews that worked at the crash site.
"It touched lives that we are a part of now," she said, adding that several people in the Hill County group have siblings who are with the military in Iraq. "It brings it full circle to be part of that."
The students also toured a coal strip mining operation, a wind farm and the Hershey Foods Corp.'s amusement park, Hersheypark.
Wendland did not expect her favorite part of the trip to be the tour of a pit mine. But there was something about the enormous drag line that fascinated her. The machine scoops up earth in a 50-ton bucket attached to a giant crane by a chain. Each link weighs 200 pounds.
The entire group of 30 looked minuscule posed inside the steel jaws of the bucket.
"It took me by total surprise," said Wendland, who is interested in becoming a drag line operator.
Before leaving, the group took a whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C.
Dusek recalls "madly running back and forth between
memorials and museums" in Washing-ton, covering two branches of the Smithsonian and seeing the White House, the Capitol and several monuments in about four hours, and then running through the Arlington National Cemetery to see the changing of the guard.
"We tried to jam a lot more stuff in a shorter amount of time" this year, said Dusek, who also took an exchange to New York state two years ago.
The trip wasn't originally devoted so much to sightseeing, said Springer, who has coordinated the exchange since it began in Hill County in 1996.
When some Eastern 4-H clubs began doing the exchanges 20 years ago, Springer said, the teens actually worked on the farms of the families that hosted them. Some of the guests ended up working more than they had intended.
"I think there were a
lot of people that took advantage of that," she said. "Now you can see it go too far the other way to where they're traveling and pushing so much," she said.
Today the group still visits a farm or two during its trip, Springer said, adding that the exchange is not just made up of farmers' kids.
They also try to get some history and some fun in.
"I think it's just a healthy mix," she said.
Hill County kids went to Tennessee in 1997, North Carolina in 1999, and New York in 2001, before going to Pennsylvania this year. In 2005 the exchange will be back in North Carolina.
"Our kids want to go back East," she said. "The kids want to get someplace totally different, so that's where I try to direct my inquiries."
Springer said that for many of the students, the trip is their first time outside of the region and their first time in an airplane.
"I thought basically Pennsylvania would be kind of like (Montana)," said Wendland, who also went to New York two years ago. She said the culture felt different to her. "The people were more, I don't know, get up and go."
"It's almost nothing but hills and mountains," Golden said. "Now I can see why they couldn't believe that Montana was so flat. I loved it. I want to go back."
For students from Pennsylvania or New York who get to camp in Glacier National Park for the first time, float down the Missouri River or even just stand in a field and see the big sky, the change is equally dramatic, Springer said.
"I think it has made our kids appreciate what we do have," Springer said. "You see kids (from the East) just stay out in the middle of a field and look and look. They experience that openness we take for granted."
Dusek said he values the exchanges more for the people he gets to meet than the sights he sees.
"Even if you don't connect with the person you're staying with, you become good friends with the group," he said.
"I'm such good friends with all of them over there, and I don't think I could even imagine not staying in touch with them or forgetting who they were or not talking with them," she said.