Nebraska Journal, Part II

by Jay Nordlinger

Friends, I started this journal yesterday. Should I just resume, with no explanation or ado? Okay. For Part I, go here.

I was talking about Lincoln, at the beginning of yesterday’s installment — Lincoln, Neb., the capital. It is handsome and friendly, like Nebraskans. The city reminds me a little of Ann Arbor, Mich., my hometown — except we don’t have a capitol. We have a big state university, but not a capitol.

Also, when I pass the YMCA here in Lincoln, I think, “I bet the ‘C’ still means something here.” Do you know what I mean?

In general, Lincoln speaks to me of American well-being. And some facts bear me out: Lincoln is ranked as one of America’s “happiest” cities, “healthiest” cities, and “most welcoming” cities. You could do worse than to visit or settle here. A lot worse.

The capitol is a tower, or dominated by a tower. I remember how surprised I was seeing North Dakota’s capitol a couple of years ago. I guess I thought a capitol should be a dome—as in Washington, D.C. The capitol in Bismarck looked to me like a couple of office towers, not very attractive.

Nebraska’s tower is like a fat carillon, with a smallish golden dome. It is quite beautiful. And the North Dakota capitol could grow on me, I guess. I’d need some time.

In front of the capitol here, there is a statue of Lincoln. His head is bowed, reflectively, prayerfully.

Just beneath the Nebraska flag flies a POW/MIA flag. I have mentioned this issue before: Do we still fly that flag out of habit? Do we do it unthinkingly? Or is it still necessary, desirable, or right to fly this flag?

I keep meaning to do a piece on the subject someday . . .

Over a door of the capitol are engraved these words: “The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen.” I think I’ve copied that right.

Also: “Honour to pioneers who broke the sods that men to come might live.” And “Honour to citizens who build an house of state where men live well.”

(Note the “an house.” Also the British spelling of “honor.”)

Across the street from the capitol is the governor’s mansion. I can’t help thinking this strange, homespun thought: “Does the governor come home for lunch?”

I also think, “Bob Kerrey lived here with Debra Winger, if I remember correctly.”

One more thought: “Shouldn’t someone named Winger be an extreme conservative?” Also, “Why is it that only right-wingers are called ‘-wingers,’ and not left-wingers?”

Not the most important thoughts, I realize . . .

At the governor’s mansion today, there is an Easter-egg hunt. Children are in the yard with their parents. There are those little places that you rent where kids bounce up and down. You know what I’m talking about? They’re like fancied-up trampolines. I think I see a three-legged race. Anyway, there are ice-cream-social-like activities.

And it is so very, very American.

Do leaders and their spouses in other countries pause now and then to host and play with ordinary children? Maybe they do, but I wonder.

I see a Hruska Law Center. And I think of Lord Acton. Bear with me a second, please.

Recently, I was a guest in someone’s home, and a volume of Acton’s essays or lectures was laid on the bedside table. I picked it up. He is really good, of course. And I thought, “Pity he is known for just one thing, just one line” — the bit about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely.

Well, Roman Hruska, the Nebraska senator, was known for one thing, and continues to be known for one thing, if he is known at all: “Even mediocre men deserve representation” (by other mediocre men).

Now, he didn’t say that, exactly, and the context is important. But this is the way it has come down to us, in legend.

Here in Lincoln, people wave at you, as they wait in their cars for you to pass. Holy smokes. They’re not waving with their middle finger either, as people might elsewhere . . .

There is a Duffy’s Tavern. Was it established before the radio show or after?

A friend has made a point to me about reverence for the University of Nebraska athletic teams, especially the football team: In Michigan, you have the University of Michigan and Michigan State University; in Iowa, you have Iowa and Iowa State; in Oklahoma, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State; etc.

In this state, there is no other university — no Nebraska State. So the reverence for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers is statewide, undivided, total.

There is a bar and grill called the “N Zone” — clever.

In front of one building, I see a sign that says the building is “monitored by UN security police.” I think, “Holy sh**, is the United Nations that much out of control? Has America ceded that much sovereignty? Does Jesse Helms know about this, and can he do something?”

“UN,” in this context, means, of course, “University of Nebraska.”

Here is a sight that makes me shudder: the “Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center.” Et tu, Nebraska? Really?

America at large is a “multicultural center” — blending into one, American culture.

You’ll like this better, or at least I did: kids walking around in fatigues, bearing rifles (though they are in bags). (The rifles, I mean, not the kids.) I see them outside the Military and Naval Science Building.

And I see a sign giving the history of the Pershing Rifles. I may not have copied it perfectly, but it goes something like this:

General John J. Pershing . . . was professor of military science . . . between September 1891 and June 1895. Upon his arrival in Lincoln . . . Pershing found the morale of the Reserve Officers Training Corps at a low ebb. To infuse life into the Corps, Pershing built an elite drill team, which eventually became known as the Society of Pershing Rifles. The organization served its purpose well, and from 1900 to 1911 it carried prestige not only in military circles but in the social life of the university as well.

Those words seem to me from a different planet — a planet I like.

As you might expect, the football facilities here are on the Taj Mahal scale.

There is a statue of a coach — but who? I don’t recognize him. “Bob Devaney,” says a student. “He won our first two national championships.”

As if Lincoln weren’t American enough — weren’t Norman Rockwell enough — I come upon a baseball diamond. A new but old-style ballpark: Haymarket Park. The Nebraska baseball team is playing today.

Spring has sprung, with a bright sun, and crisp air. The ballpark is sparkling. Families stream in, dressed in their Cornhusker red. It is all so American, I could cry . . .

A young mother says something to her children about their grandparents, “Oma and Papa.” That’s the part of the country we’re in: with lots of German heritage.

I’ve thought it before, I think it again: To be a “meter maid” (verboten term, I realize), you have to have the toughest skin in the world. I think I’d starve to death before doing that job.

About the beggars, I wonder what I often wonder: What are their stories? Are they drunkards, drug addicts, slackers, con men? All of the above, I think. And such types need help too . . .

Reagan used to talk about the “truly needy,” and so do others. I suppose that everyone, in some way, is truly needy.

But I knew what the Gipper meant . . .

Apparently, you can’t get a Nebraska cap without the Adidas name and symbol on the side — and prominently on the side. Why can’t you wear the traditional “N” without advertising a company at the same time?

Ticks me off, to a degree that startles me a little.

But here’s a little balm: Nebraska girls are pretty, and they seem even prettier than they are because they smile at you and are friendly.

Stepping onto the plane, a woman says to a flight attendant, “Can I have a seatbelt extender?” She says this matter-of-factly, without embarrassment, pleasantly. I admire her for it.

The flight attendant answers, “Sure, but you probably won’t need one. The seatbelts are longer now than they were.” That is a measure of our times.

I think of a short story I praised in Impromptus once — and I’ve found the column, though the link is broken. No worries: I’ve found the short story, here — “Customer of Size,” by Mary Jones. Poignant, painful, as I remember.

One more thing: I know I have mentioned in columns past the Mattheses — or the “Matthei,” in an alternative plural. They are friends of National Review and friends of mine. Jeff and Janet have four girls, and the family lives in Lincoln. We had sort of an old-fashioned musicale after dinner, in the living room. Piano playing, violin playing . . .

In its way, it was as satisfying, or more satisfying, than an evening with a great lieder singer in the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum, Salzburg.

Okay, I guess I’ll wrap up, y’all. Thank you to Nebraskans and non-Nebraskans alike.

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