These are the Sandhills of Nebraska. With that name, I might expect a land rush here of RVers with dune buggies. But “sandhills” in Nebraska doesn’t define sand dunes that migrate with the wind, filling your mouth with grit if you are around when they move. Covered with grass, like a shoreless sea of green, they are the largest sand piles in the Western Hemisphere, and the largest grass-stabilized dune region in the world. Running 270 miles across northwestern Nebraska, they edge up into South Dakota. In the late 1860s, this was called the Great American Desert, and was said to be unfit for human habitation. And it looks like word got around. There is only one person, on average, for every square mile in this area that’s larger than the entire state of Connecticut. Headed south down U.S. Highway 83, getting close to Interstate 80 and the railroad center of North Platte, the roadside was freckled with yellow – the faces of sunflowers.
Ahead lay a row of hay bales – the rotund circular type – that were aged a couple seasons past their pick-up time. On a pole, stuck in one of the bales, was an American flag, waving as if in a big-city parade. It was stunning in its beauty – so out of place, yet so appropriate where it was. There were no houses, no roads, no signs that anyone lived around here. Pulling off the road, Rusty, my dog, and I got out. Rusty had her reasons; I had my camera. Somebody went to considerable work to put this flag here – why? But then again, why not? It may have much to do with the times in which we live. In this part of Nebraska, I believe it had more to do with place. Patriotism has uncommonly deep roots here. I was to discover over the next couple days just how profound and far-reaching those roots are.
Their emergence can be easily traced to the first days of World War II. It all started with a mistake. Ten days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, word got around that members of the Nebraska National Guard would be traveling through North Platte on a troop train. Knowing that all trains stopped here, about 500 townspeople gathered at the station with food and well wishes for the local boys. The train arrived, but the guys on it were from Kansas, not Nebraska. Therewere some awkward moments, but the treats were given out. The young soldiers, probably uneasy and already homesick, were obviously overwhelmed with the warmth and generosity. The people of North Platte were equally overwhelmed by their gratitude. What happened after that is an only-in-America love story between a country and its young sons.
From Christmas Day, 1941, through every hour of the war, every troop train passing through here was met. Local people, as well as families from distant towns and farms, took turns offering support, and always some of mom’s home cooking. North Platte’s modest train depot on Front Street became a canteen. The guys were greeted with friendly conversation, music, magazines, coffee and fresh milk, sandwiches and cookies. (Remember: those were days of rationing, not just sugar and coffee, but tires and gasoline.) There was always a birthday cake. It seemed every day was some GI’s birthday. Gradually the word spread among those fighting in Europe and the Pacific about the folks in Nebraska. On those long train rides across the country, guys knew that waiting for them out there in Middle America was the North Platte Canteen. Toward the end of the war, the number of servicemen visiting the canteen grew to 8,000 a day, on as many as 23 separate troop trains.
These Nebraskans, on the edge of the Sandhills, offered a touch of home to more than 6 million GIs by the time the war ended. Young kids from every American community and every walk of life rolled through here. To this day, letters still come in from veterans – in their late 80s now – who mostly just want to say “thank you.” Others go into detail about how their lives turned out after their 10 minutes spent in North Platte. What happened here 60 years ago tells of an America that we once truly had, or at least our parents did, and their parents before them. That pull-together-spirit, I think, is getting harder to find. The Union Pacific tore down the train depot – the North Platte Canteen – in 1973. Passenger trains don’t stop here any more.
Where the Canteen was, the railroad marked the spot on Front Street with a flagpole and a plaque. “That doesn’t quite do it for us,” Jim Beckius told me. He grew up here and was in the Navy during WWII. So Beckius and some other veterans formed a group to build an appropriate tribute here, not just to the American spirit epitomized in the Canteen, but honoring all who served in our country’s wars of the last century. It’s called America’s Twentieth Century Veteran’s Memorial. “It’s right next to I-80 that connects New York with the Pacific Coast, so we think of it as being tied to the whole country,” Jim said. “Just like the guys who came to the Canteen, and they came from everywhere.” To raise money, they sell bricks for $150, each one lining the Memorial’s “Walk of Honor.” Every brick has a veteran’s name on it; my name’s there, right next to my dad’s. The Memorial’s Web site is 20thcvetsmem.org.
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected].