Friday, November 6, 2009
Cities of the Plain
I'm with Cormac McCarthy - Those rare cities dispersed between the Mississippi and the Rockies have never gotten their due, and many of them hold a charm that will pull you into repeated visits back to Omaha, Lawrence, Fargo... Bruce Springsteen also caught the flavor of the long-distance Plains drive in his wonderful 1982 acoustic album Nebraska. I got invited to give a couple speeches at Creighton University and St. Mary's College in Omaha in early November, and decided to once again do a solo long drive down that I-76/I-80 corridor. In my first experience taking this road at age 17, heading to Colorado, the great transcendent expeirence was listening to King Crimson's Starless and Bible Black on an endless 8-track tape loop at 3 in the morning, after everyone else fell asleep. It was so moving, I went out immediately that year, and had a T-shirt made proclaiming "This Night Wounds Time."
So I drove the corridor once again, skipping a stop at the Archway Memorial to the Platte River Road pioneers, but stopping to visit Fort Kearny, named for Stephen Kearny, a key player for the struggle for California during the Mexican War of the 1840s. Stopped at the desolate area that had once been home to 'Dobytown,' the place where William Tecumseh Sherman met his match with a whiskey that was such an apostasy, Sherman named it 'tanglefoot.' (I should mention, the nearby town of Kearney, Neb. is where Richard Powers located his beautiful 2006 book, The Echo Maker, which won the National Book Award.) Since this was not sand hill crane season, there was little reason to see much of Kearney (yes, the town adds an "e" not present in fort or Stephen), where the quaint places Powers described are overridden with chain restaurants and corny steak houses.
The occasion of my visit was the Strategic Space Symposium in downtown Omaha, which brings out military contractors to talk about planetary dominance through orbital space. Nebraskans for Peace wanted to have speakers at the local colleges to challenge that concept, and a direct-action group, Midwest Catholic Workers, had the die-in shown above. Among those arrested were 92-year-old Peg Gallagher, and Catholic activists Louis Vitale, Frank Cordaro, and Jack MacCaslin. Below is an excerpt from a classroom talk I gave at Creighton (Part 2 of the same speech is at this link).
Every time I go to Omaha, my good friend Frances Mendenhall is always up to something new. She edits and publishes videos, including Democracy Now, for the local public-access channels, and is always agitating the local authorities on topics surrounding net neutrality, broadband access policies of common carriers, etc. She also has a community garden that grew enough squash this year to feed the multitudes, using the infamous "cardboard in the squash garden" growing method. This year, Frances had bought the house next to hers, gutted it, and was rebuilding it for both zero net energy and multiple broadband access. She was pulling coaxial and Ethernet cable simultaneously when I visited her.
No trips to Conor Oberst's Saddle Creek Records this time around. My next plains visit might have to be to Lawrence, where it's been far too long since I relived the days of "Bloody Kansas." But Omaha, Omaha, I'll always love my Omaha, as staid and Republican as it may be on the outside (I know, not one to talk living in Colorado Springs)....