It's a winning experience out where the West was won

Friday, June 6, 2003

Sometimes it's a good idea to give yourself some time before deciding on the worth of an experience.

Sometimes, as a friend once wrote in a song, it's best to "make the heart look back with eyes grown cold."

So, it has been a week since my trip to western Nebraska in general and to McCook in particular, and to the Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival.

My view of the experience has now been tempered by days spent in what passes for the daily grind of a semi-retired, middle-aged, stubble-bearded, pot-bellied scribe. The verdict is in. My memories of the people and places, the hospitality and the good humor, the singers and storytellers, the cold beer and the warm smiles and the bright eyes have only grown brighter.

And, believe me, I am a curmudgeon from the old, old school. Personally, I think H.L. Mencken was an optimist. (Mencken was the guy who labeled the proletariat Boobus Americanus, and said that Democracy is a form of government in which the people are presumed to know what they want, so they ought to get it ~ good and hard!).

In those western environs, you still experience things that make blood surge through your veins a little quicker. There are landscapes that, if you haven't seen them in awhile, will make you tap on your brakes and bring a slow smile on your face. It will have you thinking: "Lord Almighty, just look at that."

Those storied, rolling hills are green enough this year to make you blink and stare. And stare some more. Cattle and calves and windmills and yucca give you the (albeit fleeting) notion that there must have been an even better life out here, once upon a pony. Take this much on faith: Any setting that can make a timeworn traveler and elbow bender reflect kindly on a world that was without bonded whiskey and in-house conveniences is a phantasmagoric thing, to be sure.

But, like I said, that's part of the equation. The other part, the bigger part, is people. In McCook, you meet a lot of people who are still folks. They're glad to meet you. I mean, they really are glad to meet you. And they show it.

Maybe the land and the sky does it for them, contributes mightily to a sense of community that, if portrayed in a made-for-network-tv movie, would throw you into a emotional saccharin overdose. Maybe it is their proximity to one another over the years. And years. One fellow said he couldn't answer a question for me, but so-and-so would; they had been classmates. "College?" I asked. "Grade school!" he said.

If you're lucky, you experience some feelings in life that you wish you could literally share with humanity at large. One of those, for me, came when I was standing on the floor of a presidential nominating convention years ago, and the crowd was singing the national anthem. I ain't no sentimentalist and there ain't no tears in my beer. But standing there that night gave me a sense of the whole of our country, how what surely seemed the impossible dream to others in the world became a miraculous reality. It gave me, for the first time, and sure and certain feeling that I understood what the dream was about, and how important it was to keep the dream alive; because, if the dream ever dies, the Republican will find itself in a terminal condition.

And another one of those, for me, came as I walked from place to place and event to event in McCook, during that weekend festival. There is a dandy coffee house there; one to put anything, anywhere in eastern Nebraska to shame. The sense of genuine community or neighborliness or trust or shared well-being or whatever you can call it, struck me to the quick.

When I looked at those people and saw their reactions to one another's children and friends, as they told stories or read poems or sang, as they ate together and laughed together and walked across the street together, it was something akin to stepping back in time, to a storybook America.

Now, don't get the idea that I'd been smoking ditch weed out of a stone pipe at the local museum. In some bars, you'll find some young fellows who might get noisy and rowdy at the Foosball table (or whatever it's called). As my friend Wolfgang used to say: "People's people, and if you get enough of 'em together, you're gonna' find a couple that shoulda' been borned ferrets. Or worse!"

I've no doubt that such is the case in and around Red Willow County. After all, there are jobs in McCook, so there have to be bosses, so the pain in the butt factor has to be guaranteed.

You can and probably will find a dolt of the first water anywhere.

What you won't find just anywhere is the atmosphere that was to be experienced in that coffee house, or in the museum where former Gov. Frank Morrison told stories about his life and his times to an audience that loved him, and showed it.

In McCook that weekend, one didn't have the sense (as one often does in bigger towns) that a bunch of mostly strangers who happen to live in the same town had coincidentally showed up in the same place -- a bunch of strangers being polite to one another at a public event.

On that weekend in McCook, every time you met someone they would introduce you to someone else with a contagious enthusiasm that seemed to proclaim, "Hey, look! I found another visitor who came to see us! Say 'hi' to him!"

During that portion of the storytelling festival wherein I did my best to hog the stage, I tossed out a couple of quotes from Shakespeare that I'd put in my notes the previous night. There was one of which I was enamored, but passed on it because I thought it would be just too much. Looking back, with eyes that have not grown cold, it seems the most fitting offering now at hand. It is from The Tempest, and is spoken by Miranda:

How many goodly creature are there here!

-- Ed Howard is statehouse correspondent for the Nebraska Press Association, a former Associated Press bureau chief, and participant in the Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival.

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