Thursday, December 11, 2014

An Evening and a Morning in North Platte, Nebraska

You can't see the town of North Platte, Nebraska from the I-80 exit. What you can see there are the repositories of the four great necessities of interstate road tripping: fuel, coffee, food, and last, but not by any stretch of the imagination least, restrooms. Since the recent addition of a Dunkin Donuts, there is also available respectable cappuccino and what I like to call ring-shaped energy food. A mysterious fort-like structure also presides over the exit, and I believe its purpose is to tire out unruly children and make them fall asleep in the minivan as the family pushes forward to Yellowstone or to wherever else they are traveling. I used to think that this scattered collection of gas stations and chain restaurants was North Platte. Back in May, my husband and I took a trip out west that happily shattered my misconceptions.

We arrived fairly late at the hotel, with just enough time to catch dinner at the Depot Restaurant where I had a most delicious salmon salad and photographed the stunning woodwork that gives the place a cozy feel. We liked the place so much that we returned the next day for lunch, and vowed to always try to eat there when we pass by the North Platte exit around meal time.

After dinner, we decided to stroll around the quiet downtown. Not expecting to see much in the way of nightlife, it was quite a surprise to turn a corner and find ourselves dazzled by the Vegas-style bright lights of the old Fox movie theater. The neon display drew us like hapless moths down the street and into the vestibule. It seemed that an event was just ending, and as I searched the posters for some clue as to what we had missed, Bob peeked through the glass of the lobby door and spotted a guitarist signing CDs. I was so distracted by the information on the walls of the vestibule that I never saw the musician. It turned out to be John Davidson, that perpetual passenger of The Love Boat and purveyor of the wacky on That's Incredible. He was performing for season ticket holders of the North Platte Community Playhouse, and it was somehow comforting to know that this guy who once seemed ubiquitous on television was still plugging along as a live performer.

The next day, we spent most of the morning lost in the literary wilds of A to Z Books, a cavernous repository of used books with a small selection of new books mixed in for good measure. The clerk was extremely helpful and friendly, but the inventory was not computerized. It is difficult to believe that a bookstore could operate like that in this day and age, but I really can't blame them. When I looked around at the long walls of tall bookcases stuffed with books on all subject imaginable, when I thought of the daunting task of entering the seemingly endless titles into a computer database, when I thought of even starting such an undertaking, I could easily understand the urge to join the literary luddites. So we were forced to spend hours at A to Z, drifting from bookcase to bookcase, scanning the spines, and pulling out random books to peruse. All in all, a pleasant morning well spent.  


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Stealing from the Dead in North Platte, Nebraska

A few weeks ago, I opened up the Lincoln Journal Star and stumbled upon a short article that made me immediately go for the scissors. It wasn't the title that struck me: "Thefts at cemetery becoming blatant." What really caught my attention was the location: North Platte. It turns out that those thefts occurred at a cemetery I had visited only two weeks before. I won't repeat the contents of the article. You can read it online by clicking on the following link:

On May 19th, I accompanied my husband Bob Graybosch, USDA-ARS wheat geneticist as he checked his wheat plots at three sites across the state. (See blog post of May 19, 2014.) Our final stop that day was the North Platte Research Farm.

As we pulled onto the dirt road leading to the wheat field, I looked to the north where an expanse of closely cropped grass lay in stark contrast to the heading wheat. An open space in the windbreak framed an imposing statue of Christ Carrying the Cross, as if He were struggling away from me toward Calvary. There were no tombstones visible since all markers at Floral Gardens are flush with the soil surface, so it was not clear to me what I glimpsed through the windbreak. Bob told me that it was a cemetery, and although we were running very late and our dinner way overdue, he readily agreed to make a short visit to Floral Gardens after finishing with the wheat plots.

Floral Gardens is small, quiet, and unassuming. It is set adjacent to farmland, seeming to grow from the agricultural roots of the people who claim patches of its soil as their final homes. Only two statues break up the flat green space: the Christ Carrying the Cross and a statue of Mary standing at a distance.

On that day, Floral Gardens was nearly devoid of memorials left by loved ones with one notable and attention-grabbing exception. Standing guard over a lone gravesite in the middle of the lawn was a statue of a yellow dog and a small angel figurine in an attitude of prayer. Bob immediately wanted to go over to this whimsical display to take a closer look, but I hesitated, as the memory of a cemetery visit many years ago rushed back with all the accompanying sadness.

It was Eastertime 1987, and I had just moved from Alabama to Brielle, New Jersey with my parents. After unpacking, my father and I decided to take a walk and explore our new neighborhood. Soon we encountered a beautiful little cemetery set on a hill and shaded by mature white oaks and flowering dogwoods. This was the type of cemetery with headstones of all sizes and shapes standing in rows upon the young grass. Among the traditional arrangements of lilies and other spring foliage, a bright yellow Easter bunny attached to a metal stand held out his basket of treats in a welcoming gesture.

Without thinking, we hurried to that grave to take a closer look. My father and I stood there in silence as we read the very short story of a much too short life in the name and dates carved into the granite tombstone. It was the grave of a little boy who had died at three years of age. The date of his death was around seven years earlier, and as I thought of the young couple who came to this cemetery to make sure their little one would still have a Happy Easter, my eyes burned with unexpected tears. I turned to look at my father, still staring down at the grave. It was the only time I have ever seen my father cry.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached the yellow dog and angel at Floral Gardens in North Platte. I was greatly relieved to find that it was not at all a child's grave. It was, instead, the final resting place of an older and long-married couple. They were born in the same year, and for that reason, I like to imagine that they were high school sweethearts. In bringing these tokens to their grave, their family continues to celebrate this couple's love of dogs as well as acknowledge that they now live in the company of angels. I thought that since this was the only memorial we saw at Floral Gardens, the management had some sort of rule forbidding them, and that the family of this couple was defying it. Little did I know that the reason the cemetery was nearly devoid of memorials was that people have been stealing them. The reason the yellow dog and angel were left behind was because they had no resale value.

After reading the Lincoln Journal Star article, I tried to muster what I sensed was the requisite indignation, but all I could feel was pity. Pity for people whose grief is lightened momentarily as they leave little tokens of remembrance at gravesites. Pity for those same people who return to find those tokens gone, the petty theft adding loss upon loss. I thought of that young New Jersey couple long ago, and my heart ached to imagine them returning to their little boy's grave to find that someone had absconded with the Easter Bunny. And finally, I could not help pitying the thieves themselves. Perhaps hanging out even for a brief time with the departed can help put these things into perspective. The economic desperation that would drive a person to steal memorials from a cemetery is rampant in rural Nebraska where many lack job opportunities. In the world of crime, this is a small one, and perhaps for some, a necessary one. I'd like to think that the dead would be the first to understand and forgive.  

Saturday, May 24, 2014

It's 6:31 p.m. Do you know where your wheat geneticist is?

If corn is king of Nebraska and soybeans in rotation is his queen, then wheat is the clever princess, waiting to ascend the throne when the groundwater runs out. And at this time of year, when corn and soybean fields are brown expanses of prickly stubble, a wheat field rolls out lush and green like the biggest lawn you've ever seen. It's all you can do to keep from wading in barefoot, flopping down, and wriggling back and forth like a dog off its leash. But I wouldn't recommend this, unless you're the farmer who planted it. In that case, knock yourself out!

I found it hard to resist running through this lush wheat field near Wilbur, Nebraska.

This past Monday, I trailed after my husband Bob Graybosch as he traveled the state "looking at wheat." As a wheat geneticist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, this business of "looking at wheat" is a part of his job, which involves improving quality through selective breeding. He looks for and selects for traits that make wheat disease resistant and bread tastier and more nutritious, both here and in countries around the world.

But no matter how amazing these traits are, if the wheat variety can't hack it in the field, farmers won't grow it. So this past Monday, he was out looking for the winners and losers in locations near Wilbur, Clay Center, and North Platte.

Taking notes on winners and losers in wheat plots near Clay Center Nebraska.

By the way, if you're puzzling over how in May a wheat field is so far ahead of corn and soybeans, this is hard winter wheat, that clever princess that establishes herself over the harsh Nebraska winter while these other fields lie fallow. Then in midsummer, when corn and soybeans are desperately waiting to get a drink from the center pivot, winter wheat has already matured and is ready for harvest!

Only at North Platte did we see wheat heading. Look closely and you will see the wheat flowers peeking out!

Monday, May 12, 2014

It's 10:36 p.m. Do you know where your cafe is?

This morning I headed to the Mill in College View, ordered a slice of Beaver Crossing asparagus quiche, a mug of Brazilian coffee, and installed myself  at a little table along the brick wall in the narrow western room. I opened my journal, and then stared out the window at Conroy's Bakery across the street (ah Conroy's donuts, I hardly knew ye before my cholesterol rose) and savored that killer quiche and perfectly brewed coffee.

Almost every time my husband Bob and I sit together in a cafe like this, he poses the following question: What did people do before the proliferation of cafes? I know he doesn't mean  those greasy spoons that call themselves something like "The Roadside Cafe." (I suppose no one would eat at a place called the "Roadside Greasy Spoon" except maybe dishwasher salesmen.) I also don't mean those upscale restaurants that call themselves cafes, like the now defunct French Cafe in the Omaha Old Market. No, I mean the cozy cousins of Starbucks, the locally owned, espresso compressing, milk steaming, all generational watering holes like the College View Mill (yes, yes, I know the Haymarket Mill, but this one is my Mill.)

Here in this narrow space, the wheezing of the cappuccinos being born and the unidentifiable heavy metal music are thankfully muted. I see four young people on laptops, a middle aged guy in the back with headphones on, as glued to his laptop as the kids are, and a senior citizen couple right in front of me absorbed in a card game. (The card playing woman just said to her husband, "I  didn't mean for it to be easy for you." Wow, she wants to mop the floor with him.)

We could all be doing this stuff at home. But it's not the same, is it? So what is it about sitting here in this place that is other than home, where the music and chatter and card shuffling and laughter make us feel more productive, more creative, more social, more introspective, and for the lady at the next table, more competitive?

I still don't have an answer, so I'll throw the question  out to you. Time to put my plate, mug, and fork into the plastic bin and move on. Now if I can just get back to my car without crossing the street to Conroy's...

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

It's 10:05 p.m. Do you know where your plumber is?

     Until last Wednesday, I did not know there was such a thing as an uncloggable clog. After a good two hours of snaking from both the kitchen sink and the basement utility sink, the plumber from Green's gave up. He and I then planned out the route of the new pipes he would install running from the kitchen sink to the main outlet, a route that thankfully did not involve digging up the basement floor. When he came back on Friday, he cut the existing pipes and constructed a rather stylish bypass out of PVC pipe, tucking it neatly into the the wooden and steel supports on the basement ceiling.
     How often are we told that when we run into an obstacle (or a clog), we should keep on pushing (or snaking) against it until it budges (or flushes). What if it never does? What if it never will? What if all that slamming ourselves against an unmovable obstacle just sends us to either the chiropractor or the therapist? I am not arguing against perseverance. Perseverance is my middle name. (Actually, I don't have a middle name. If I did, Perseverance would be a good one. In that case, I might call myself Persey.) I am just suggesting that sometimes, a bypass is the way to go. I know my plumber would agree.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

It's 5:42 p.m. Do you know where your cat is?

No, this will not be a blog about cats. My husband would never forgive me for that. But since I am starting that way, here is a cat poem I wrote some time back. I wonder what happens when I hit that publish button. Does it really go out on the internet? Enjoy!

Oh enviable cat
so well-placed in life
wrapped around a table leg in transient winter light.
Your little mind
is uncluttered and clean.
Who wouldn't wish to dream only of fish
swimming lazy and slow
in a waterless stream?

Good night Nebraska!