The social graces - please and thank you, addressing adults with “Mr.” and “Mrs.” - aren’t as common among young people as they used to be in this wheat-farming town 20 miles this side of Grand Coulee Dam.
But Nathan Hays, a 21-year-old Marine sergeant from Wilbur killed Wednesday in a plane crash in Pakistan, remembered his manners.
“He was always respectful toward adults. It was always `Mrs. Grant,”’ said Katie Grant, whose son, Fred, was among Hays’ many close friends.
A good kid with a sense of humor. Good-looking. Likable. Sincere. That’s how they remember him.
When his mother reported that Nathan didn’t just tolerate, but loved boot camp, everyone laughed. But no one was surprised. That was the way he was raised. Dutiful.
A new scoreboard at the baseball field makes a first impression on visitors driving into town from the east on U.S. Highway 2. The simple scoreboard without advertising was Hays’ Eagle Scout project in the spring of 1998. He was a junior at Wilbur High School then.
Hays raised $5,100, gathered donated materials and signed up volunteers to sink poles in concrete, lift the scoreboard into place and dig a ditch for the line that would allow the board to be operated from the dugout.
His volunteer work followed the example set not only by his parents, Jim and Kim Hays, but also by many others in this town of 900.
“You have to be more involved in a small town,” Grant said. “You can’t hide.”
At the Wilbur city limits, Highway 2 becomes Main Street. Tucked among the shops is the Homestead Cafe, where Grant and eight of her friends were eating lunch together Thursday. They are informally known as “the birthday group” because they eat out on one another’s birthdays.
Everyone at the table knew Nathan. His dad was a state trooper. His mom cut their hair.
The Hayses moved into Spokane recently for better job opportunities for Jim, the women said.
On Thursday, the parents were secluded at their Spokane home. They issued a statement through the young man’s uncle, the Rev. Tim Hays, praising their son.
“While the cause of his death is painful, it is important to speak of the pride he felt in service to others and to the nation, and of how proud we all are of him,” the statement said in part.
Across the street from the cafe is the cramped office of the weekly Wilbur Register. Alice Chrisman dug into the files and found five news articles featuring Hays. She wrote most of them. His scoreboard project made the front page.
One clipping showed Hays in his Marine dress uniform giving a stony stare that hid the great smile Chrisman will remember.
“His family reports he is living in a tent and eating MREs,” the article said. “He would enjoy hearing from his Wilbur friends.”
Moving from the photocopier to the chest-high front counter, Chrisman took only a moment to recall the name of the last young man Wilbur lost to war. Marine Cpl. Kenneth Kessinger was killed in action in 1967 in Vietnam. Like Hays, he was 21.
Hays was a flight mechanic aboard the KC-130 Hercules that crashed into a mountain Wednesday. Six other Marines died in the crash.
“Six other towns all over the USA are suffering just the same,” said Alex Ginieis, owner of Algin Computer Supplies, also on Main Street. “One death like Nathan’s affects a thousand people. Small towns. We are one big family - with problems, yes - but mostly laughing together.”
Up the hill from Main Street, 250 students from kindergarten through 12th grade remembered Hays at Wilbur Public School in a moment of silence announced by the student body president over the intercom.
A patriotic poster reading “We’d do anything for this country” had been hanging in the school’s front hallway since just after Sept. 11. On Thursday, an addendum was taped to the wall. It read: “… and Nathan did.”
Noelle Camp, 18, looked up to Hays when he was a senior and she was a freshman. Now Camp is a senior in a graduating class of 30.
Before Thursday she usually didn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance at school. It was too early in the morning, a time of day when she would rather be lazy.
Hays’ death changed that.
“Today I actually said it and it meant something,” she said. “Someone I knew fought for me to have the right to say it.”