Nebraska Journal, Part I

by Jay Nordlinger

What do you think of when you think of Nebraska? (If you’re a Nebraskan, you think of home, of course.) I think of Tom Osborne and football; Willa Cather; and William Jennings Bryan.

I also think of my friends who live there.

Here, I should say — for I have touched down in Lincoln. Lincoln is not as big as Omaha, to the northeast — it’s the second major city in Nebraska. It is also the capital, and the home of the University of Nebraska (which has other branches, to be sure).

I’m interested to learn that Lincoln was founded in 1856 — some years before Abraham Lincoln became president. The town was called Lancaster. It was renamed for the great and martyred president in 1867.

There is another town, named for a Republican father, 50 miles away: Fremont.

I’m slightly taken aback to learn that Lincoln has a Democratic mayor. Et tu, Lincoln? Et tu, Nebraska?

Maybe that can be remedied at the next election . . .

The first person I meet in Nebraska is from Brooklyn — figures! Nice kid behind the rental-car counter.

By the way, shouldn’t “Avis” be the name of an airline, rather than a car agency?

And don’t rental-car people ever get embarrassed at their hard sell? The push for a bigger car, pre-paid gas, and gobs of insurance? In my experience, they perform the hard sell with zeal — a not entirely honest zeal — time after time.

I’d be interested in what someone who has had the job would say.

Anyway, I’ll talk about Lincoln later. First, I’m going to the southeast corner of the state, to do a story for National Review.

The first thing I see on the highway is an enormous flatbed with a strange, long white object on it. That object turns out to be a blade — a blade for a wind turbine. My story has to do with just this issue: Why must the Keystone XL pipeline be blocked while wind farms spring up, blighting the landscape (as I see it)? Why is the pipeline yucky and forbidden while these ghastly turbines are kosher?

You get the picture . . .

Driving through a stretch of Nebraska, I think of a conversation I recently had with my friend Joan. She grew up in one of the Dakotas (I forget which). Now she lives in New York City and Maine. In the Dakotas, she said, the sky was big, and the ground flat, and you could see for miles. “In Maine, you can’t see anything! So many trees!”

I’d never thought of it that way . . .

The farms I see here in Nebraska look neat and prosperous. I’m not sure how you make a farm look tidy, but people do. They certainly do in Austria and Switzerland. Have you ever seen these things? My goodness, they’re neater than many posh urban apartments. You could bounce a quarter off them, so to speak.

I reach the town of Beatrice. It’s pronounced, not BE-uh-triss or BEET-rice, but Be-A-triss. That middle vowel is the same as the one in “yeah,” or “attic.” Can you hear it?

Speaking of Nebraska pronunciations, here’s another special one: Norfolk, where Johnny Carson grew up, is called “Norfork.”

Don’t think for a second that Beatrice doesn’t have an airport.

It also has some beautiful churches — including St. Joseph Catholic Church, which has an extraordinary steeple: one with air in it (open spaces).

The Community Players Theater is near the fire department, and the A&W restaurant. Pardon my sentimentalism — or my Midwestern biases — but isn’t this the way an American town should be?

The Big Blue River, I’m here to tell you, is neither big nor blue. At least at this juncture.

I see a sign for Ben Sasse, the Senate candidate — my Senate candidate, certainly, in Nebraska. I look forward to his election. One of his opponents — Republican-primary opponents — just ran a dirty television commercial against him. A low, dishonest one. I hope Sasse beats him if for that alone.

I’m behind a police car, which seems to be going slow. I think of something a colleague told me many years ago. He was a young driver, and a cop car was going really slow. He passed the vehicle — going the speed limit as he did. The cop pulled him over, saying, “Son, don’t you know you’re not supposed to pass the po-lice?”

I thought that was kind of bad: Obeying the law is obeying the law. If you pass a policeman and do not exceed the speed limit, what’s the problem?

Anyway, my policeman, here in Nebraska, pulls over. I keep going. Then he pulls me over. He says, “You snuck up on me pretty fast.” How does he know how fast I was going? I imagine they have technology that can do anything.

Anyway, he lets me off with a warning, and could not possibly be nicer. A gentleman trooper (and I’m sure I was speeding).

Years ago, I was praising a particular stretch of New Jersey, to my friend Martha, who lived there. She said, “Yes, but look at all the telephone wires. It ruins it.” From then on, I could see nothing but telephone wires.

And I began to notice them in other parts of the country too. Telephone wires: Whatever else they are, they are terrible blighters of the landscape.

The town (or village) of Diller has a population of 260. On the central strip is a sign that says “Kansas-Nebraska Coon-Hunter Assn.” There is also an opera house (as in “Grand Ole Opry”). The bar/restaurant is called “The Field.”

There’s a reason for that, I’m told: If a farmer’s wife calls, wondering where he is, the person who answers can honestly say, “Oh, he’s in The Field.” Alternatively, if the farmer returns to the house after being missing for several hours, and his wife demands, “Where were you?” he can say, “Honey, I was in The Field.”

No one can hear capital letters when you talk.

A friend of mine tells me there was once an orphanage here — but not an orphanage for kids without parents. An orphanage for kids whose parents were too poor to feed them. A couple, as I understand it, occupies the house now: the former orphanage. Over the years, people have knocked on their door, saying, “I used to live here.”

Nebraskans are legendarily friendly. And nothing I experience contradicts the legend; everything confirms it.

A lady makes a point I have never heard before — at least I have never heard it expressed quite this way: There are people who oppose the death penalty because the authorities might kill an innocent man. Yet, when it comes to abortion, all the babies are innocent — right?

Here is an astonishing fact: Still visible are ruts from the Oregon Trail.

The aforementioned friend of mine makes a point about Billy the Kid. “He’s often thought of as a romantic hero. But he was a really bad guy.” Was he. One of the less attractive traits of our popular culture, I think, is that it makes heroes out of people who were thoroughgoing villains, people who would slit your innocent throat without blinking.

Steele City, near Diller, is a rather sad place. “City” aside, it has about 60 people in it. There is a beautiful church — with a stained-glass window that looks like the NBC peacock. All the abandoned houses are excellent for meth manufacturers and dealers, apparently.

Almost everywhere I go in our country, I hear about a meth problem. I heard about it when I visited Hillsdale College in Michigan a month or two ago. The problem is not at the college but in the surrounding area.

What could lead to such a problem except boredom, aimlessness, and hopelessness? That’s a big “except,” I realize.

From the tragic to the sublime: a glorious farm, on a lake — or at least a big pond. I have never thought of Nebraska for water. But here it is, and waterfowl of many sorts enjoy it. There are even pelicans, I’m told.

Pelicans in Sarasota, I’m familiar with. But pelicans in Nebraska? That belongs in the category of “wonder.”

Incidentally, have you ever seen an indigo bunting? (This is a bird, not drapery for a stage.) Make a point of it, if you can.

I want to tell you about two friends of mine, just for a second — I could gush about them for an hour. They are Robert and Cynthia Milligan. I am also a friend of the youngest of their kids, Peter — who I hope will run for office here in Nebraska one day. It would be thrilling to have him in the Senate along with Sasse. Or in the governor’s office, or in any other position of responsibility.

Bob and Cynthia have had public-sector lives, and private-sector lives. Sometimes those sectors overlap, as they should. I will give just small tastes of their résumés.

He is an entrepreneur who employs about a thousand (I think). He is involved in the Boy Scouts, Prison Fellowship, you name it. And when I say “involved,” I really mean that he leads. She, Cynthia, is an entrepreneur too. And she was dean of the business school at Nebraska. And the state’s director of banking and finance. She is on the boards of Kellogg, Colonial Williamsburg, etc., etc.

Her dad, Clifford Hardin, was the chancellor of the university and Nixon’s first secretary of agriculture.

The Milligans are a fairly rare combination: masters of the universe and salt of the earth. They do more good for people in a week than most of us do in a year or more. I think, sort of wistfully, “Will there be Americans like this in coming years?” I’m sure there will — but I would like to have more confidence.

As a rule, I’m against cloning. But I could make an exception for the Milligans . . .

They will be embarrassed by this gushing, so I’d better stop now. Tune in tomorrow for more Nebraska-ing. Thanks and see you then.

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