Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Books I'm Reading: Once Upon a Town

I've been to North Platte, Nebraska. I've driven along its quiet streets, looked at the grassy park near the center of town, and visited the Union Pacific Railway's classification yard there. I went to North Platte on a little detour during a drive across the country a few years back--an impulsive act resulting from my realization that I'd never really seen much of the United States between Lake Tahoe and St. Louis, Missouri, and by a certain restlessness. I had purchased a book called Road Trip USA (Jamie Jensen, Avalon Travel, 5th Edition, 2009) just before leaving home that recommended lesser known points of interest along some of this country's lonelier roads. I was surprised to read in the section on Nebraska that the southwestern part of the state, along Highway 80, was a beautiful place. In my mind, there had been little to distinguish any part of Nebraska from the image of unrelenting flatness I associated with its southern neighbor, Kansas. The area right around Highway 80 proved rather boring, in fact, but at Laramie, Wyoming I turned off the interstate and headed north on Highway 71 to Scottsbluff, Nebraska and the countryside there was very beautiful, indeed (photo below).

North Platte is known as the hometown of Buffalo Bill Cody. Here you'll find Buffalo Bill State Historical Park, site of Buffalo Bill's Scout's Ranch. There's a Buffalo Bill Rodeo in the summer. Railroad enthusiasts go to North Platte to visit the rail yard used to configure freight trains coming across the country (below), the biggest classification and switching yard in the world. As I noticed on my trip across country a few years back, today's interstate highways often follow paths cut across the country many years before the automobile. North Platte was a stop on the Oregon Trail and it was a Pony Express stop. The Lincoln Highway, America's first transcontinental road, followed the Oregon Trail in this part of the country. North Platte was part of that road as well.

I must have been close to the location of what became known as The North Platte Canteen, but I saw no sign of it and didn't think to look, although I had heard something of the story before. Bob Greene's Once Upon a Town (Perennial, 2003) tells that story in detail.

During the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of soldiers moved across the country on troop trains to their deployments, usually on the coasts. Many troop trains went through North Platte. Some soldiers passed through on their way back home on leave or after the war ended. Someone local got the idea of handing out food and drinks to the servicemen on their brief stops in the town (usually 10-15 minutes at most). It was an idea that took hold. Once started, the informal canteen provided a steady stream of refreshments, encouragement, gratitude, and friendly words to young men on their way to war--many of them having left home for the first time. It's remarkable that the canteen was open without fail from 5:00AM until after midnight on every day of the year in every year of the war (and for a period afterwards, greeting men coming home), staffed and supplied entirely by volunteers. Every train was met, without fail. All the food and drink was donated by the citizens of North Platte and surrounding communities. It was an act of love.

The North Platte Canteen disappeared when it was no longer needed. The building that temporarily housed it has been torn down. North Platte--then and now a place known mainly as somewhere on a road to somewhere else--for a few years was an overflowing well of the most generous hospitality. Once Upon a Town, based mainly on interviews with people who volunteered at the canteen and of the soldiers that found brief solace there becomes somewhat repetitive because of the use of personal accounts (many of which are necessarily similar), but the cumulative effect of the many little stories is to create a vivid picture of one corner of the home front during WWII--a picture that seems worth handing on to future generations.

1 comment:

  1. Jim Harrison writes lovingly and well about this part of the world in his novel Dalva and its sequel, The Road Home.


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