2.25.2008

A view from Nebraska



Band concert public square Nebraska city. Flowing and circling dresses, summer-white dresses. Faces, flesh tints flung like sprays of cherry blossoms. And gigglers, God knows, gigglers, rivaling the pony whinnies of the Livery Stable Blues.

Cowboy rags and black rags. And boys driving sorrel horses hurl a cornfield laughter at the girls in dresses, summer-white dresses. Amid the cornet staccato and the tuba oompa, gigglers, God knows, gigglers daffy with life’s razzle dazzle....


I spent a few days in Nebraska last week. Not the "big time" of Omaha and Lincoln, not the rolling hills of the Northwest where the sandhills like to hang out. It was heartland Nebraska, great plains Nebraska, the homestead country where people came because the land was free, stayed because hard work was all they knew, and left ... for the most part ... because the earth rose up against them and choked the sky with dust.

Lois Winterhalter Simmons was buried in the Plainfield Cemetery, a peaceful but wind-battered square of land. She was 93. From her gravestone, you can see the land her grandfather Nathaniel homesteaded. And from the corner of his land, you can see the grain silo and cluster of houses that make up Bradshaw where Lois grew up. And from there ... it's cornfields and dirt roads to the horizon in every direction.

Even in good times, Nebraska was a tough haul: one of the last to adopt suffrage and one of the first to sign on for Prohibition. And when the Depression delivered an economic curse, Nebraska endured the added blight of a massive, lengthy drought. So they left for California.

A few days after the SIA Vegas show, I rented a Mustang and drove to Los Angeles to see Lois one last time. With Hertz and Sirius, driving through Death Valley was about as easy and natural as breathing. Seventy years earlier, traveling with a spare axle in the trunk, waterbags hanging out the window, and case of grapefruit to keep the distributor cap cool, it would've been a very different experience.

Lois smiled when I arrived. I can't say for sure if she truly recognized me, but she seemed to enjoy having me around. After a few days of watching me from her bed, she shushed me out of the room with brushing fingers. Whether accident or irony, the last words of my grandmother meant everything.

"Go play," she whispered. "Go play."

... Slow good-night melodies and Home Sweet Home. And the snare drummer bookkeeper in a hardware store nods hello to the daughter of a railroad conductor—a giggler, God knows, a giggler—and the summer-white dresses filter fanwise out of the public square.

The crushed strawberries of ice cream soda places, the night wind in cottonwoods and willows, the lattice shadows of doorsteps and porches, these know more of the story.

- Carl Sandburg

2 comments:

  1. I traveled in a lot of places, been in some fairly remote locations, but only in the heart of SD, ND and Nebraska have a truly felt the presence of being "nowhere" and I mean that in a solid, good and serious way. The midwest and the plains in general grab some hard knocks but in reality they have what a lot of people truly wish for, solitude, a simple way of life and space, lots of space.......

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  2. Lovely sentiments, thanks.

    I drove across Nebraska coming back from ORSM a few years ago. I took Hwy 20 all the way and it was fantastic....beautiful, really. If you ever get to Harrison (the farthest NW you can go without being in WY or SD), go to Sioux' Sundries and ask for a Coffeeburger.

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