By Tom Ehrich

LAWRENCE, KS – I met a pleasant woman in the laundry room at my hotel here at the epicenter of Jayhawk Nation.

She and her husband were visiting from Texas to care for their ailing daughter. While I folded and she unloaded, she told me about her daughter..

She asked if I was going to watch the presidential debate. I shook my head and said, “If I have to hear one more word from Donald Trump’s mouth, I will scream.” She nodded agreement and sighed.

So when the candidates squared off in what, I read later, was a lopsided contest between a woman who knew her stuff and an easily goaded bully who seemed deflated at being called out, I was writing an essay.

The essay was about sitting on a railroad bridge beside the Arkansas River in the delightful city of Hutchinson, KS, where, in case you didn’t know it, the original masters of “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone with the Wind,” and other cultural treasures are stored deep underground in old salt mines.

I listened to train whistles echoing across the prairie. I remembered lying on my bed as a boy and listening to the Monon Line beckoning me away from Indianapolis.

I wonder if Donald Trump has ever heard what Merle called “a lonesome whistle,” and felt the power of a Santa Fe freight train surging across the prairie, and sensed the ambiguity of loving home and wanting to leave it, and met a stranger and didn’t need to jump her or bully him, and gotten outside himself in a society filled with diverse ideas and people.

The more I observe Trump, the more I am reminded of Scott Peck’s book “People of the Lie,” about people whose empty eyes, soulless words, and cruel actions are frightening to behold. This campaign has gone on long enough that we have seen the sordidness of Trump’s character. He has been reduced to playground taunts in debates, and demagogic mob-inciting in rallies. We know who he is, and the thought of him in the Oval Office is horrifying.

It isn’t just his bad policies and rather startling stupidity. It’s the mental illness of narcissism for which there is no cure. It’s an entitled rich boy grabbing whatever he wants. It’s a man driven by appetite. It’s a deep-seated contempt for women, for people of color, for the weak and vulnerable – all felt from a self-assigned seat of power that cannot mask his own weakness and failures.

When this is all over and Trump retreats to whatever TV show awaits him, I hope he takes a break from his fawning crowds and tacky hotels, and goes on a road trip by himself in a rental Chevrolet. I hope he stays in normal hotels, eats the food most people eat, walks the streets of their cities and towns, and talks with mothers in laundry rooms. I hope he hears about ailing children, and neighbors who are struggling, and people of color getting shot, and women who fear for their safety every day.

I hope he will see what he doesn’t understand about people and about America.

We are a decent people. Even the folks waving assault rifles probably come from decent stock. We have failed, and we have stood tall. We found the humbling grace of aging, of losing jobs, and getting by. We have doubted our worth, and then found a life-partner who doesn’t need us to be perfect.

This nation is anything but a playground for the rich and would-be famous. Democracy is tough duty. Making a living is tough duty. Providing playtime and education for our children is tough duty. Going to work every day is tough duty. Growing wheat is tough duty, and so are making automobiles, writing ads, working retail, teaching in classrooms, selling insurance, watching your town die and your church die.

Americans do that tough duty. Day in and day out. To no special applause, for less reward than we deserve, but we do it, out of both necessity and self-respect. We sign contracts and honor them. We pay our bills. We pay our taxes. We serve when called to serve. We give when asked to give.

We listen to train whistles, and to worried parents, and to the cries of the oppressed. At our best, Americans are generous, hard-working, unexceptional people who take life seriously. At our worst, we sound like a rich kid who thinks only of himself.