If Bob Greene's Once Upon a Town was a movie it would be one of those Hallmark Hall of Fame made for TV movies where there may be heartache and loss but you know going into it that all will end well and nothing will be too utterly devastating. It is not often that I can say that about a book about a war--especially a book about WWII. Whenever I think about that period and the massive upheaval of people, the suffering and loss of life and the general inhumanity, I truly find it all mind boggling. Along with the stories of the hopelessness and despair that people endured, the war also brought out the good in so many people, too. Sometimes it is the worst moments in life that you see just what people are capable of--good and bad. Once Upon a Time is all about the good.
I'm not sure how I managed to miss this book. It was originally published in 2002 and was a New York Times besteller. It's not something I would ordinarily have gone in search of--until, that is, I decided I need to read more Nebraska authors, more stories set here and more books about Nebraska--history, nature, diaries--whatever piques my curiosity and catches my eye. I came across Once Upon a Town on the very last day of 2013 in a museum gift shop. The museum is local, a place I often walk past and occasionally visit. It's only fitting that a book that has as its setting a train station station, be sold in a train station.
"On Interstate 80, three or four hours into the long westward drive across Nebraska, with the sun hovering mercilessly in the midsummer sky on a cloudless and broiling July afternoon, there were moments when I thought there was no way I'd ever find what I had come here to seek":
"The best America there ever was. Or at least whatever might be left of it."
What Greene was in search of was that elusive quality that makes a country great--a generosity of spirit and goodness just because it is the right thing to do. Watching the nightly news or reading the newspaper it is easy to lose confidence in your neighbors. Greene had heard a story about this sort of selflessness that occurred in a tiny little town somewhere in the Midwest during WWII, and he was hoping to find a trace of it. His destination? North Platte, Nebraska.
"One Christmas Day in 1941, it began. A troop train rolled in--and the surprised soldiers on board were greeted by North Platte residents with welcoming words, heartfelt smiles and baskets of food and treats."
"What happened in the years that followed was nothing short of amazing--some would say a miracle. The railroad depot on Front Street was turned into the North Platte Canteen. Every day of the year--from 5 A.M. until he last troop train of the night had passed through after midnight--the Canteen was open. The troop trains were scheduled to stop in North Platte for only ten minutes at a time before resuming their journey. The people of North Platte made those ten minutes count."
Once Upon a Town is the sort of social history I like reading about best--it is anecdotal in nature filled in with bits of interesting history by Greene as well as descriptions of his travels and time in North Platte. Greene may narrate what happened, he paints a slightly broader picture, but it is the people who lived it that tell their stories, tell the story of what happened so many years ago in the little town of North Platte. It's these stories, in first person that are so very important I think--literally, living history. As each year takes us further and further away from the war, events and reactions are reinterpreted and perceptions sometimes shift. It's so very important to take note of these happenings, to listen to the people who lived then.
According to Greene six million soldiers criss crossed the US moving towards the war or returning from it. Many of them passed through North Platte. They would not normally have been able to disembark from the train after their journey began until they had arrived at their destination, but they were allowed ten minutes in North Platte. The people from the town and surrounding communities volunteered their time and offered whatever food they could to make the soldiers moments there count. They knew they were going to be shipped overseas, some not to return, and they wanted to give them whatever support they could to show their appreciation. As the area was (is) mostly agricultural, the farms had much to give despite rationing. Sometimes they simply used their own rations to provide food and treats. Nearly every day someone would bake a cake--as almost always one of the soldiers would be celebrating a birthday.
The stories Greene shares, he interviewed many residents as well as soldiers, are fascinating. It's interesting to think of the country as it was then, the living conditions and society. There was no air conditioning on the trains, and troops were moved back and forth only on trains. There were no paper recyclables--the men would take cups and plates and leave them at the next depot to be ferried back by a returning train.
There were a number of instances of matches being made that almost always resulted in many, many years of marriage. Many of the young women would agree to write letters. One of the local schools put names and addresses in popcorn balls and the soldiers would write back. Often a young soldier was simply homesick and to see these people who were so welcoming made an impact on them. Word got around of what was happening--of the food and magazines that the soldiers could look forward to. Wives and mothers sometimes had their own husbands or sons off fighting and this was their way to offer support and encouragement.
Here are a few of their 'voices':
"Oh! The different accents, the different colors of skin . . . the men in khaki, the boys in Navy blue, the Air Corpsmen, the Marines, the dogfaces, the ninety-day wonders, and those with ribboned chests. And all of this for just ten minutes at a time! I think it was the beginning of opening my eyes to a bigger world."
* * *
"We're seeing more people out on the platform--from what I recall, there was a wide area out there. We're asking them why they're doing this, and they're telling us that they meet every train, every day, every night . . . and I remember how much I appreciated it, and especially I remember that the sandwiches were so good."
"I found out later that it was pheasant--these delicious pheasant sandwiches, with mayonnaise. I can still taste it. Can you imagine that? Ladies coming onto your train, and they're giving you pheasant sandwiches?"
* * *
"We never ran into anything like that before, or after."
* * *
"That first night, the soldiers on the train were so amazed--way out there in the boonies at eleven o'clock on Christmas night . . . they were quiet as they looked out of the train at us. We carried the bushel baskets out to the train, gave the men the apples and the candy, wished them a Merry Christmas, and the train left."
Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen was a really lovely read--easy and undemanding and a reminder that good things do happen. I don't often read 'feel-good' sorts of books, and maybe I should seek them out more often. This one sort of fell into my lap and was a perfect Nebraska book to kick off my reading year. I loved Bess Streeter Aldrich, and while they are not Nebraska books per se (am happy to read Western/Plains Lit this year, too), the Little House books are wonderful. I'm thinking of what to pick up next. With so many good choices it is a hard decision, but I'll let you know what I settle on!