Sunrise with Dennis
A Thin Slice Of History



On July 20, 1969, a quiet, determined man from Wapakoneta, Ohio, stepped out of his fragile spacecraft and into history. Neil Armstrong--engineer, naval aviator, test pilot, astronaut and devoted family man--became the first man to walk on the moon.

The dream of mankind for centuries to explore the heavens, to leave our planetary home, to explore the next frontier--space--came to realization. 

In 2012 it is almost impossible to conj-er up the magnitude of what happened that summer night. We had been in a space race with the evil empire, the Soviet Union, in trying to land a man on the moon first for nearly a decade. There most certainly was a political and strategic component to the race. Nor can you escape the military implications of rocket superiority in a nuclear neighborhood of nations. As President Kennedy said when he challenged the nation, in September of 1962 at Rice University. “We have vowed that we shall not see (space) governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see (it) filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.”

But let's set that aside for a moment and just remember a time and place in our history. A time of great triumph, steeled by tragedy to be sure, but done so well, and with remarkable confidence that the spirits of a weary nation were lifted to the heavens along with the astronauts. 

Recall the time, and you see a nation as President Nixon described it as “falling into raucous discord”.  The young ambitious president who set us on the course to the moon was dead, by an assassin’s hand. His successor, Lyndon Johnson chose not to run for reelection in early spring 1968 as the country sunk further into the morass of Vietnam. We were coming apart at our core with the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Junior, and later that summer, Bobby Kennedy. There were riots in the cities, unrest on the college campuses and stories of body counts night after night on the television news.

At the same time, there were stories of a different nature. A mastering of science and technology. We were having success in this space race against the Russians, and after early set backs, we seemed to be on our way to the moon. These accounts caught my attention. I was caught up in moon fever. 

As a young boy growing up I was following the space race, as best I could with accounts on radio and TV and in the Omaha World Herald. Our family also took pride in owning the Book of Knowledge encyclopedias, which featured a yearbook, updated annually, with all the stories of the space flights, the astronauts and the latest accomplishments at NASA. I ate it up. I knew the names of the astronauts and what each mission was designed to test in moving toward the goal of landing a man on the moon and getting him back home safely. So like just about everyone else on the planet, as the time drew near for the historic flight of Apollo 11, I was following it closely. And like anyone else old enough to remember, know exactly where I was and what I was doing when Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the lunar module and into history with his giant leap for mankind. I was at home, in the living room, listening. Yes listening to the account of – man on the moon.

I didn't see it happen. I didn't see the pinnacle of mankind's achievement. I didn't see the shadowy black and white telecast direct from the surface of the moon that night. Our old Philco had died. The only TV my parents had ever owned, a modest black and white Philco, in a metal cabinet with genuine imitation wood grain styling, won in a drawing from the Dalton Co-op, failed to light up that evening. Of all the days in all the world, our TV gave up the ghost on July 20th, 1969. It had been on earlier that day with coverage from Walter Conkrite and former astronaut Wally Schirraw. It was wheat harvest time, but as I remember it, we weren't in the field. I recall being at my uncle Ray's farm that afternoon. The radio was on in the farm shop where my dad, and his brothers were talking farm with half an ear on the happenings in space. When word came the astronauts were soon to open the hatch, we headed for home to see it happen. But the old TV which had become increasingly slow in warming up, would only grace us with audio, no picture. We were disappointed, but at least the TV sound was clear – no static, no fade – we listened with rapt attention as the world stood still in awe and wonder.

TV or no, I have followed the space program ever since. The recent landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars breathed a bit of life back into the program that seems to be running low on fuel since the shutdown of the Space Shuttle and end of the manned space least for now. The thought of catching a ride to the International Space Station aboard a Russian ship, common place now, was unthinkable in 1969. Or even 1999....but as Linda Ellerby used to say....”so it goes”.

Upon learning of the death astronaut Neil Armstrong, this past weekend I began scouring the internet for stories of his life. I knew there wouldn't be many first person accounts from this mostly private American hero. The first of only twelve human beings to ever step foot on the moon, Armstrong was at the center of attention of the entire planet upon the successful return to Earth on July 24th of that year. But he soon stepped out the limelight, and back into the inner workings of aeronautical engineering. He continued at NASA for a few years, then slipped quietly into a teaching career at the University of Cincinnati.

One of the rare interviews he gave was to historians Douglas Brinkley and Stephen Ambrose just a few days after September 11th, 2001. Part of an Oral History project at NASA. He spoke about his return to the classroom. “I'd always said to colleagues and friends that one day I'd go back to the university. I've done a little teaching before. There were a lot of opportunities, but the University of Cincinnati invited me to go there as a faculty member and pretty much gave me carte blanche to do what I wanted to do. I spent nearly a decade there teaching engineering. I really enjoyed it. I love to teach. I love the kids, only they were smarter than I was, which made it a challenge.”

Asked about his choice to remain out of the limelight, he thought it to be a little unfair. “Well, I recognize that I'm portrayed as staying out of the public eye, but from my perspective it doesn't seem that way, because I do so many things, I go so many places, I give so many talks, I write so many papers that, from my point of view, it seems like I don't know how I could do more. But I recognize that from another perspective, outside, I'm only able to accept less than 1 percent of all the requests that come in, so to them it seems like I'm not doing anything. But I can't change that.”

Ever the engineer, few things seem to rattle Armstrong. Perhaps it was the test pilot in him that allowed him to handle the bombing runs in Korea, the crash of a lunar landing simulator out of which he parachuted to safety, or the Gemini VIII capsule spinning nearly out of control in Earth orbit, or the tricky final decent to moon. “That was far and away the most complex part of the flight,” he said. “The systems were very heavily loaded at that time. The unknowns were rampant. The systems in this mode had only been tested on Earth and never in the real environment. There were just a thousand things to worry about in the final descent …...........Walking around on the surface, you know, on a ten scale, was one, and I thought that the lunar descent on a ten scale was probably a thirteen.”

Listening to Neil Armstrong, reading his words, he reminds me of a Tom Osborne. Seemingly unflappable, detail oriented, tested, practiced, well thought out, and always giving credit to someone else, especially the team at NASA -- from the welder in the factory to the flight controller at Mission Control. And like Osborne, Armstrong also had an eye for the big picture. 

Asked if he were disappointed the attention of the nation could so quickly change from peak enthusiasm to sheer indifference, Armstrong responded, “Oh, I think it's predominantly the responsibility of the human character. We don't have a very long attention span, and needs and pressures vary from day to day, and we have a difficult time remembering a few months ago, or we have a difficult time looking very far into the future. We're very "now" oriented. I'm not surprised by that. I think we'll always be in space, but it will take us longer to do the new things than the advocates would like, and in some cases it will take external factors or forces which we can't control and can't anticipate that will cause things to happen or not happen. Nevertheless, looking back, we were really very privileged to live in that thin slice of history where we changed how man looks at himself and what he might become and where he might go. So I'm very thankful that we got to see that and be part of it.”

Our nation's first moon walker also had a marvelous sense of humor. At a July 5thNASA news conference, just days before the 1969 launch, reporters were pressing any shred of human touch from these other worldly travelers. Asked if he were taking any personal artifacts into space with him, Armstrong responded no, but if he were “he'd take more fuel”.

God Bless Neil Armstrong. We are the ones privileged to live in that thin slice of history when men walked on the moon....and the word “impossible” was vanquished from the planet.

Ode to Andy Griffith

“You people are living in another world. This is the twentieth century, don't you people realize that? The whole world is living in a desperate space age. Men are orbiting the earth. International television has been developed, and here a whole town is standing still because two old women's feet fall alseep!”

Welcome to Mayberry Mr. Tucker. Malcom Tucker big important buisnessman on his way to Charlotte when his car breaks down on the outskirts of Mayberry, North Carolina. Its a Sunday, and Mr. Tucker arrives just as the congregation is leaving the All Souls Church morning worship service. Sherriff Andy Taylor, Aunt Bee, Opie and Deputy Barney Fife among the worshippers. Mr. Tucker asks Andy for help, and Andy complies, but suggests Mr. Tucker plan to stay the night because it's “nigh impossible to get anything done here on a Sunday.” Like most small towns in America back in the day, and lot of them to this day, Mayberry is shut down. The merchants around town are home with their families. The stores are closed. And the Type A, well fed, no nonsense, impatient Mr. Tucker is just going to have to wait. And the plot is set for one of the most loved episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, “ Man In A Hurry”. 

Long time viewer and author, Ken Anderson wrote in his book “Mayberry Reflections” when Mr. Tucker arrived in Mayberry, he found what many of today's people are searching for. He finds a town unspoiled by the hustle and bustle of big city life. He finds simple people who know how to take life easy. He does not understand how anyone can sit around on a front porch when there is work to do and money to be made. He is stepping back into a new and unfamiliar time. 

In his treatment of the television series, “Mayberry 101” Neal Brower noted the scene when Mr. Tucker tried to use the phone but could not because the line is tied up by Maude and Cora Mendelbright. The sisters visit by phone every Sunday afternoon for several hours and drives Tucker crazy when he overhears the ladies talking about “their feet falling asleep”.   He wonders “how a public utility could tied up with such drivel!”

In the end of course, after spending a day in Mayberry,  Mr. Tucker is transformed. He begins to see things differently. He sees the friendships, the contentment and the kindness extended to a stranger. Producer Aaron Ruben said he was not surprised Man In A Hurry was a favorite among fans. In Brower's book, Ruben was quoted as saying “More than any other episode, it symbolizes what the show was all about and it endures to this day. The Andy Griffith Show is every grownup's Oz. Imagine a town where one could live peacefully, securely and happily with one's family and neighbors. No drugs, no gangs, no violent crimes. If this was a dream back in the sixties, think what a longed for dream it is in today's world.”

Mr. Ruben was right. Mayberry was and is a refuge. But for many of us who grew up in rural, small town America, Mayberry wasn't so much a fantasy as some might think. Most of us went to church on Sunday and took the rest of the day as a family time. We understood the values of Mayberry. The little moral lesson in each episode wasn't very different from what we were being taught in our families, schools and churches. We could see ourselves in Opie and little Leon wandering the streets. We usually had at least one harmless town drunk, not entirely unlike Otis. And most of all, most of us understood the close family ties between Andy and his son, and his Aunt Bee, and his close friendship with his cousin and law enforcement partner, Barney Fife.

The creator and guiding hand behind all this Andy Griffith passed away this week at age 86. The success of Griffith as an actor, and singer go well beyond the 8 years of The Andy Griffith Show. But the mark he left for many of us was as the Sheriff of that little town of a thousand people or so with the day to day trivialities that comprise most people's lives. Griffith pulled together the best writers, producers and a cast of unforgettable characters. To a person the actors said it was the best years of their professional life...working on the Andy Griffith Show, creating as Stephen Spignesi put it : Mayberry, My Hometown.
Night of Terror in the Black Hills


The Police Department alerted the Mayor at about 6:30pm saying the Weather Service was warning of high waters on Rapid Creek during the next several hours. Rapid City, South Dakota Mayor Don Barnett remembers that was not unusual. Storms and gully washers are common in the Black Hills every summer. But this night in 1972 was anything but normal. It was as Mayor Barnett recalled, a night of terror.

“I called my best advisor, Mr. Leonard Swanson, the City Public Works Director, and we met at City Hall. Heavy rains were falling, and Mr. Swanson and I drove to Canyon Lake Park where a city worker and his family lived in the park caretaker’s home, immediately below the dam. Swanny ordered the caretaker, a Parks Department employee, to immediately take his family, leave their evening meal on the table, and get out of the park. The entire family survived the flood. Not a trace of the home or the contents was ever found. The Canyon Lake Dam failed a few hours later . . ."

. . . The radio and TV interrupted their programming, issueing Mayor Barnett's recorded flood warning, and ran it almost continuously for about 30 minutes. The engineer also called the other radio stations and asked them to . . . run the warning non-stop. The stations cooperated. Unfortunately, about 35 minutes after the first warning, the TV station and radio stations lost their electrical power and went "off the air." They did not broadcast again until the next morning . . ."

It was nearly 11 p.m. when flood waters broke through Canyon Lake Dam on the edge of Rapid City and water swept through the community. Power was out in many areas, the radio and TV were off the air. It was hell on earth said one survivor.

At dawn the next morning, the clouds settled down to ground level, and a heavy fog covered all of Rapid City. The meteorologists later reported that the absence of winds at certain elevations had caused the heavy rain clouds between Pactola Reservoir and the city to hang in the canyons and dump rain through the night. Reports are common of 15 inches falling, but there were some accounts of 17 inches of rain falling in the canyons, and the water gravitated to Rapid Creek. The damaged areas along Rapid Creek in the city were about six miles long and six blocks wide. It looked like a war zone. Mayor Barnett said, “We knew we had heavy casualties, but we did not have any idea about the eventual number – 238.”

The Rapid City Journal reports, tears in the eyes of Barnett, now 40 years later remembering, just downstream from the Omaha Street bridge, a woman who had been swept down in raging flood waters from somewhere upstream was clinging to a tree as a rope crew with the South Dakota National Guard tried to save her.

"Oh, it was so bad down here. The water was so deep and fast, and it was so cold," said Barnett, "A young guardsman got to within 10 or 12 feet of that woman, and then she just couldn't hold on. And she was gone. And he was devastated. That's when I knew it was going to get bad."

It got worse in ways that the 29 year old Mayor Barnett and others caught up in the flood could not have imagined. Downed wires were everywhere and fast moving debris of every description made it even more hazardous for rescue operations. Trees, light poles, automobiles, trailer houses, and homes were moving in the flooded area at speeds up to 40 mph.

Before the carnage of that tortured night was over in Rapid City — and nearby towns that were hit by the flooding — 238 people were dead and more than 3,000 were injured. 1,300 homes destroyed, 2,800 more damaged, and an overall damage estimate of $165 million as reported in the Journal.

State and federal officials rushed to Rapid City to provide assistance, all under a spirit of cooperation that turned multiple levels of government and uncounted officials into one team.
Among those who rushed to help was George McGovern, then a Democratic U.S. senator from South Dakota, who broke off from his 1972 presidential campaign to fly to Rapid City.

"We canceled our schedule and headed for Rapid," McGovern said. "That's the only thing I wanted to do as a senator from South Dakota, was be there to see how we could help."

The help began almost immediately as private donations began to arrive along with even larger government assistance.

"Everybody pulled together, and we got substantial help. I was amazed at it, really," McGovern said. "There's something about a flood, which everyone knows is beyond the control of anyone, that gets response - even from the bureaucrats in Washington," reported the Journal.

Today, there are no homes, no businesses, no structures in the 100 year flood plain of Rapid Creek. Rapid City took advantage of Housing and Urban Development funds to create a green space along Rapid Creek, relocating survivors and prohibiting encroachment of development into the green space. "When some smooth talker from Minneapolis comes and says, 'Well, I want to buy 20 acres under M Hill and I want to put up some apartment houses down there and I want to put a shopping center down there,' we hope the city council will say not only 'no,' but 'hell no,' Former mayor Barnett says. The Black Hills flood was a wake-up call for cities across the country that had buildings in flood plains. While Rapid City rebuilt itself to handle future flash floods, many other cities have not.

Memorial Park, a large park in the center of Rapid City with a small lake, flower gardens, fountain and memorial with names of the 238 people was created in tribute to those who perished.
On Saturday, the city will read the names of those who died and reflect on how the flood changed the way the city and others towns across the country built themselves.

To mark the 40th anniversary of the flood, the city is installing memorial markers along Rapid Creek to show how high the flood waters reached.

In 2007, Mayor Barnett concluded a talk to students studying the disaster saying, “During my short four years of service as mayor, the city was fortunate to have two fine professors from the South Dakota School of Mines serve on the City Council. One economist, Mr. Earl Hausle, was also a fine historian. His hobby was Indian lore in Paha Sapa or the Black Hills. After the flood, he traveled to the Pine Ridge Reservation to discuss Indian lore and history with several tribal elders and prepared an oral or historical (recorded) report of his discussions. He asked the leaders about the Rapid City flood. 

One gentleman said, “The Indian tribes never camped or lived near the creeks that flow out of the east side of Paha Sapa.” 

Earl asked, “Why not?” 

The man said, “Too many bears! Too many floods.”
Remembering Memorial Day


Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
                        I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
                       What place is this?
                       Where are we now?

                       I am the grass.
                       Let me work.

--Carl Sandburg

For millions of Americans, Memorial Day is a three day mattress sale. The end of school, the unofficial start of summer. Time to kick back, forget your worries, head for the lake, pitch a tent, fire up the grill. And you know, there is nothing wrong with any of those activities as long as we.....remember Memorial Day.

Dawn breaks early this last day of May 2010 at the Dalton, Nebraska Cemetery. Here in this tiny farming town's final resting place small U.S flags mark the graves of her sons and daughters who answered their call to service. Loving placed by other veterans and volunteers who cannot let the day pass without remembering.

The town's folk will gather at a small space set aside near the flag pole where small white crosses are reminders of the veterans who rest here. Locals from American Legion Post 301 assemble near the gate with flags and rifles. The color guard proceeds down the gravel path, footfalls in unison mark their own cadence. The hats and caps come off, hands over hearts. Parade Rest! The roll call reminds us. One by one the names are called. Tears stream down my face. I am over taken again. The list is longer again this year. A few consoling words are spoken, the guns salute, taps echo in the breeze. The color guard is dismissed.

People mill about in no hurry to leave, visiting, reconnecting, recalling.

They--the dead--are not forgotten.

The grass, Carl Sandburg, has not covered all.

Not here, not yet.

Spring 2012 -- What the heck?

What a crazy spring season this has turned out to be.
Tornadoes in Nebraska in late February ought to have signaled it so.
Not a drop or rain nor snow in all of March.
Record temperatures in the 80s, even 90s.
Talk about madness.

Then came word the Broncos were in the hunt for Peyton Manning.
Surely the one day NFL Hall of Famer would go to San Francisco,
or Tennessee?

Not this spring.

TV news helicopters show the arrival in the Mile High City, like O.J. in
reverse.  Manning is in Denver, and Tebowmainia is gone in a New York minute.
What is going on here?

Attending a Nebraska alumni function, news of an urban development
project across the street from Lincoln's East Campus announces the demise
of the original Valentino's restaurant.  The landmark eatery at 35th and Holdrege will
fall to the bulldozer and wrecking ball.  Suddenly I'm feeling dizzy.  A medium
peperoni with extra cheese might be the fix.  I wonder if there are any "unclaimed"
at the pickup counter. 

A caller to the radio station asks if he heard right--the Huskers were thinking
of changing uniform designs?  I reassured him it must have been an
April Fools Day prank story.  Quickly I checked my sources, indeed the
tradition steeped Cornhusker football team is considering some sort of Oregon like
change least for one game.

What in holy hell is going on here?

Upon further review, if it prevents our quarterback from throwing to the
wrong team, say like Wisconsin, well maybe there is some merit here.

And Valentino's isn't closing its doors.  Just closing a chapter in its history.
The old building was out dated and no doubt expensive to upgrade.
A new Val's will be part of the redevelopment.  Perhaps the boys
in Burr Hall will still ante up money for a large hamburger pizza and draw
straws to see who has go pick it up and bring it back.  All the while enjoying
the aroma seeping out from the white paper tent covering the delicious
pizza as he hustles it back to the dorm.  Ah those were the days.

As for the Broncos, hey we all wanted Tim Tebow to succeed in Denver.
Some of us believed, some doubted, some were glad to see him go. 
Others called John Elway the modern day Judas.  I don't think so, I don't
think he took the decision lightly.....but when its Peyton Manning?
How could you pass up an opportunity for your team like that?

That leaves only the weather as unexplainable.  Then again, it always is.
Weather is what weather does.  Can't change it, can't contain it, enjoy
the best days, hunker down on the rest.  And might as well quit complaining
about it.  A little perspective from the folks in Woodward, Oklahoma or
Wichita, Kansas might help in that regard.  

The Day Doc Died

The recent passing of Dr. George Post of Bridgeport marks another milestone. A legendary community builder and servant to the people is gone. Dr. Post was a unique, one man medical force for many years in that Morrill County community. There just aren't many like him anymore. But he wasn't the only such country doc with a passion for small town medicine.

We had a doc like him in our town.

Our town is just down the road a piece. Dalton, Nebraska. Our town began with the building of a railroad depot in 1900 and a Post Office in 1902. Dalton was off to a fast start by the time it was incorporated in 1909.

A 1908 ad reads: "...there never was another town in the state which made as rapid a growth as this town. Two elevators, hotels, livery barns, churches, and several stores were started in sixteen months. Land is level, having a rich black soil five feet deep with a clay subsoil underneath. There never was a better chance for men to get close to a good town and have better soil than this...”

Author Grant Shumway dubbed her the “Queen of the Prairie” in 1921. Will Maupin, a reporter with the Omaha Bee newspaper came through the area in 1926 calling the Dalton Table the bread basket of the world....."producing more wheat to the acre than any equal area in the world” as well as cream, eggs and poultry, beef cattle and hogs. And Dalton he said, was a “live and up to date little city”

Perhaps it was accounts such as these that caught the eye of a young 1925 Creighton University College of Medicine graduate, Dr. Joseph B. Pankau, who came upon the town in 1927. He left briefly for a stay in Kimball only to return in April, 1929 and set up his practice. He wasn't the first doctor in our town, and he wasn't the last to serve the community, but without a doubt, Dr. J.B. Pankau left an indelible mark with over 40 years of legendary service.

Doc, and that's the way nearly everyone referred to him, set about reopening the hospital which had been started by a Dr. A.E. Hedland, before him. Pioneer Memorial Hospital began in what was a two story wooden school house. Doc Pankau purchased the building, and became its one and only administrator. Within a few years, he expanded the hospital, and in the words of his wife and number one assistant Margaret, herself a registered and trained surgical nurse, made the hospital into a “16 bed modernly equipped institution, an asset of untold value to the region, not just the local community”. My mother had the distinction of being the first baby born in the “new” hospital in 1931.

I was born there too, in 1958. Had my tonsils taken out a few years later.

I don't remember a lot about that except that I was in room 6 on the second floor. I could see into the trees from the window, a view I guess I had never experienced. I remember ice cream and a kindly Dr. Pankau coming in to check on me.

Doc would have been mid career by then, and a pretty busy guy. Caring for patients in the hospital, delivering babies, performing surgery, maintaining his office hours downtown. And not only that, he was the town's pharmacist as well. He made house calls when the occasion arose, and settled accounts when the crops or cattle got sold if someone was short of cash. I'm told he never turned anyone away.

Doc Pankau was also an emergency room doctor as it were. I remember being in town and seeing the “Dalton Rescue Unit” as we called it, pull up to the office and the local firemen wheel someone in on a gurney. Believe me, this was was heady excitement for this farm boy to see. An accident or sudden illness I don't know, but Doc was there to do what he could. Anytime, day or night. And Doc could do a lot.

A native of Doniphan, Nebraska, Doc was offered a position as an Orthopedic Surgeon at a hospital in Philadelphia after graduating from Creighton University. I had always heard that the famous Mayo Clinic was interested in him, although I can't confirm that. Jean Beyer, who was an accomplished nurse and widely respected medical professional in her own right, worked at Pioneer Memorial as a nurse's aid 1952 to 1955 and later as a office nurse and registered nurse 1958 to 1964 and assisted in the operating room and wrote, “ the procedures were as advanced and complex as any she would later assist with in major Omaha hospitals”.   She went on to say “his trauma treatments for fractures, multiple injury accidents, burns and more were exceptional for a general family practitioner”.

Doc was there in the midst of the polio outbreak, the Salk vaccine, the development of penicillin and antibiotics. When I googled his name, up came a reference to an article he wrote, published in the Nebraska State Medical Journal on the treatment of pneumonia, 1932. Apparently, Doc knew his stuff. He was what we would call a compounding pharmacist today. Doc had his own formulas for medicines, ointments and salves. Anyone under his care is likely to remember the unique “three of kind” prescription of pills—good for just about anything that ailed you.

Doc served the town in other ways, on the village board, even serving as mayor, active in the Lions Club, the Tri-County Medical Association, and was dean of Cheyenne County Physicians. Wife Margaret wrote in an account in the Cheyenne County Centennial of a program in 1949 honoring Dr. and Mrs. Pankau on 20 years of service. There was a special Lions Club Ladies night dinner served by the Presbyterian Church women with members of the Tri-County Medical Association invited. The Pankaus hosted a dance later in the evening at the Legion Hall.

Our town knew how to celebrate.

And 20 years later we would again. The 1969 Dalton Fall Festival committee wanted to honor Doc and Mrs. Pankau again for 40 years of service. Recognized as Dalton's First Family, I vividly recall the turnout for them at the parade riding in the convertible as grand marshals and the packed school house gym that night for a program honoring them.

Perhaps no community was ever as grateful as Dalton – and not just for the Pankaus-- but for the town itself. Had it waited much longer to say thank you, it would have been too late. I suppose we all knew Doc would retire someday. But as Margaret wrote, Doc had no definite plans to give it up and wouldn't know what to do if he would. We were utterly unprepared for the news that came to us the morning in mid December.

As I recall, we were on the bus to school when the word came that Dr. Pankau had died. We were all in shock. How could it be? We were told he had gone to Denver for a routine gall bladder surgery and something just didn't go right and he died of complications. For the longest time I could not get my head around our good doctor dying in a big city hospital from a so called routine procedure. No one it seems, could quite square it either. Our town was at a loss.

A new reality set in. By the end of the year Pioneer Memorial Hospital closed, the remaining patients, essentially nursing home residents were moved to other facilities. We would have to find new health care providers for our families' illness and pains. Doctors from neighboring communties would establish “clinic office hours” in Dalton. Many of us found physicians in towns. The days of the local resident doctor, with his own practice, his own pharmacy, his own hospital were gone.

At Doc Pankau's it wasn't uncommon to be in the waiting room even though he was still out of the office. But you had an idea when he would be back because of a little manually operated sign with the face of a clock and the words above it which said “The Doctor Will Return At”

But Doc didn't return. And Our Town was never quite the same.
And Nothing Was Ever The Same Again

The War touched every family, on every street, on every town in America.

And nothing would ever be the same again.

Those lines are taken from the narrative of the 2007 Ken Burns documentary, The War. The film connected the lines between the home front and the battle front of World War II. The master story teller used 7 episodes over 14 hours to bring out every facet of the war. From the hideous acts of slaughter, to the courage of those who fought it, whether as patriots or soldiers trying to survive. The stories of mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters waiting back home. Unequaled in previous documentaries, this film brought out the War here at home. Its' impact on cities, towns, and rural America. The Burns' film focused on what he called a "bottom up" approach, through the lenses of four "quintessentially American towns": Luverne, Minnesota, Mobile, Alabama, Sacramento, California, and Waterbury, Connecticut.

I guess he missed Sidney, Nebraska. Or left it on the film editing floor.

Sidney has a war story of its own.
I knew a little about World War II. I had uncles who had served in the Army. I had studied history in college. I had heard my parents and grand parents talk about-- the war years. But as with most things, what I really knew amounted to very little.

I knew there was an army base not far from where I grew up in western Nebraska. The Sioux Army Depot. I didn't know a great deal about it. She was already in the spin down mode of decommissioning when I was in grade school. I can remember hearing distant explosions, not unlike thunder, and being told, “they're setting off bombs” out at Sioux Army. I knew something about the bunkers--the igloos, but I hadn't seen them up close. I knew enough to understand it was a big deal when they announced the base was going to close. Lots of jobs were ending, people were moving away, businesses in nearby Sidney were struggling with the new reality. What I didn't know was how it all came to be. And to me, its a stunning story that needs to be re-told.

Its a story of the rapid response to the Pearl Harbor bombing in December, 1941. In the accounts I have come across, there was a move on already in the fall of that year to secure sites in the middle of the country for strategic ammunition storage. Ordnance planners originally rejected the site just north and west of Sidney because it wasn't suitable for storage of lethal gas, but once Pearl Harbor was hit, there was no time to waste. This nice flat treeless land, not far from the main Union Pacific line, in a dry climate, would suit the Army just fine.

So just about now, 70 years ago came word to farm families on some 34 sections of prime dryland wheat country that the government wanted, and would take their land for the Depot. According to an account by Charles Geller in the Centennial of Cheyenne County there was little advance notice given to tenants and landowners. 30 days to move out. Some extensions were granted, some buildings and homes were moved, many were not. The displaced were not permitted to harvest their fall seeded crops, although they were paid an appraised value for them, as was the case with the land. Geller writes one party remembered it was possibly a good situation. Although he was allowed less than half what he paid for his land 25 years earlier, he was able to buy replacement land, in an area less prone to hail damage. He was a lucky one. For most, the anguish of being uprooted so abruptly left scars for generations. The Depot was coming. And nothing would ever be the same again.

March 10th, 1942. The Sidney Telegraph newspaper is reporting appointment of a committee to contact the Federal Housing Administration to determine if priority hurdles might be removed should Sidney be declared part of a “vital defense industry zone”. The County Commissioners are working on the possibility of turning the Fair Grounds into a gigantic camp to accommodate 500 trailers, to help house the anticipated influx of 3,000 workers when construction starts at the Depot.

March 20th, 1942. Chaplain W.C. Atwater arrives to help unravel the housing situation. An estimated 500 clerks, draftsmen, stenographers, surveyors and other employees would move into Sidney within a few weeks. He informs Mayor R.E. Roche it will take about 8 months and three, possibly 4 thousand workers to build the complex.

March 31st The Telegraph reports two Sidney properties are blacklisted for profiteering. The Army will continue surveillance for others. Surrounding communities are requested by the Army to help with housing of between 4,000 and 10,000 employees within a 40 mile radius.

April 7th, Raymond Graff of Dalton is named supervisor of the trailer camp at the Fairgrounds. The Fair Board was issued permit number One under the County's new regulatory status governing trailer camps. It was suggested to farmers in the vicinity to fix up spare rooms. Haylofts, granarys, chicken coops, any space available.

May 1st, The War Department issues an order advising any remaining residents in the Sioux Ordnance Depot area to evacuate within 10 days. The newspaper reports most of the 35 families have already relocated, this action was to speed up the process to give the Army the right to move in for immediate construction. The Army announced with the insufficient housing the in community, barracks would be built at the Depot to accommodate 2,300 men.

By June 5th the town of Sidney has doubled its population of 3,300 with the greatest portion arriving over the Memorial Day weekend. A change so fast reports the Telegraph, no one seems to know just what has happened. There is no such thing as idle labor. The “Defense Workers” accuse the locals of being insensitive to their needs for the purpose of profit. The newspaper responds stating all are suffering, even those who rented, and it was their desire for all to get along.

July 10, 1942 The County Selective Service Board and the Chamber of Commerce is making a formal appeal for deferment of 52 men, now drafted and scheduled to report for duty saying such a move in July will further complicate an already critical wheat harvest.

In the July 28th edition, the Telegraph reports men with pockets full of money walk the streets hungry because cafes are unable to handle the business. By late August, the government imposes rent control. Charges are to be rolled back and stabilized at the March 1st rates.

The War has come home to Cheyenne County, Nebraska. And nothing would ever be the same again.

Like other bases in Nebraska, the Sioux Army Depot had a unique mission to the war effort. Here the primary mission was the receipt, storage and issue of Army ammunition, components and general supplies. And as in other communities, the local workforce was called upon to fill out the largest proportion of jobs.

By May of 1942 the Civilian Personnel Division began functioning and from the beginning struggled in securing a work force. For one thing it was located in a sparsely populated area. At the same time able bodied men were being called to active duty. By November, women were hired as crate assemblers, and on December 1st as guards. Military personnel were vital elements contributing to the Depot's growth and men of all ranks from private to colonels were assigned to the base. During the Second World War, personnel working at the Depot peaked at 2,161, with no more than 35 active military. The highest number was 57 in 1948.

In 1944, the shortage of workers was critical. Prisoners of war, mostly Italians, that were to be transported to Scottsbluff, Nebraska were sent to Sioux to enhance the work force. Clyde Nelson wrote in the Centennial, “they were housed in a stockade with guards and interpreters”. After Italy surrendered, those POWs who signed a paper stating they were no longer at war with the U.S. were issued army uniforms with a white patch and Italy spelled out in green letters on their left sleeve. Nelson said they were moved to barracks and ate in the cafeteria. Some were allowed to leave the Depot as long as someone would sign in to be responsible for them.

Evelyn Fiegenschuh, a teenager at the time living with her mother in the Ordville apartments remembered the social hubbub on base. There was a theatre in one of the barracks, a chapel and a library. Sometimes there were dances in the dining hall with the tables pushed aside to clear a space. The Ordville apartments allowed families working on the base to live nearby. Students walked across the street to the guard house and caught a bus to Sidney for school. Later a school was built on the base. Ordville became its own village with a post office, grocery store, barber shop and gas station.
While there is no village as such today, there are people still living in those apartments and similar structures in the town of Sidney, affectionately known as Chimney Town. Evelyn recalled evenings at the Sioux Army Depot and hearing “the most beautiful music she had ever heard” coming from the POW barracks. It was the voices of the Italian prisoners, which to her sounded like those of angels. In later years she came to realize there must have been heartache and loneliness in those songs. Sung in a language she did not know, yet so touching, they remained with her all her life.

And nothing would ever be the same again.

The Sioux Army Depot continued through years following World War II, ebbing a bit in peace time, accelerating its work during the Korean War and into the early years of the Vietnam War. Among the notable post war stories is that of the blizzard of 1949 when many workers were trapped on the grounds and supplies had to be airlifted in. During the 1960s the Army began phasing out many of the numerous depots across the country. On April 23, 1964 Sioux received word that the depot would be deactivated. On January 14, 1965 the last pallet of general supplies was shipped to another depot, and on June 30, 1967 the final key was turned on Sioux Army Depot.

As early as 1964 plans for the future of the site began to come into focus. A federal manpower retraining program would be housed there. This morphed into the facility becoming the home of the Western Nebraska Vocational Technical School. About 900 acres of the 19,700 acre Depot was transferred to the state for what became known as Vo-Tech. Or as some called it Tumbleweed Tech. Another 2200 acres, and 16 buildings would become the High Plains Ag Lab. The first strictly dryland agriculture experiment station in Nebraska. Today, it is part of the University of Nebraska - Lincoln. The Vo-Tech school melded into what became Western Nebraska Community College and the remaining programs on the base complex....railroad and aviation maintenance were ended before the turn of the new century.

My interest rekindled by the Ken Burns documentary, I drove out to Sioux Army Depot one fall Sunday morning just a couple of years ago. Accompanied by a friend, and fellow military history enthusiast Dave Strang, we drove from Gering to Kimball and across because I wanted to approach the old base from the south, and come in the main entrance where the guard house once welcomed visitors and where the pine trees, now fully grown, lined the street. The years have not treated Sioux Army Depot with kindness. The guard house is gone. The bowling alley torn down. Bricks and rubble strewn about. The central administration building and few of the other base buildings are there. But they're sad looking. Unkept, crumbling. Still, one can still get a sense of being on base. There are echos of a military past. But it also looks the part of an abandoned, forlorn and all but forgotten place. The fading street signs carry names of Nebraska counties. There is a small clearing with a bent goal post, a remnant of an athletic field. Perhaps this was the parade ground for a proud military ceremony or two.

Further down the way the gigantic buildings that were once the muscle and might of Sioux Army still stand. Railroad tracks run right through these hulking buildings. Suspended crane hooks, now rusting with age and inactivity are reminders of the volume of ammunitions and materiel that came through the base from bullets to bombs. Off to the north and east, more huge buildings, some of the 22 general supply warehouses from her heydays. Nearly all of the 50 plus miles of railroad tracks are gone. Some of the 200 plus miles of roads have been reclaimed by mother earth. But what has not and never will be reclaimed are the igloos.

These 801 concrete bunkers resembling overgrown gopher mounds, as Lois Busboom described them, stretch for miles over the northern reaches of the Depot land. Each its own little earth covered dome, they were built with massive thick concrete walls, ceilings and floors. With a vent on top and doors on one side resembling a dugout. Symmetrically laid out in rows, these igloos were the ammunition storage units. They were covered with earth, apparently to disguise their function from the air. But when you look at aerial or even satellite photos today, one can't help but think they wouldn't really have fooled anyone. They are curious looking units and go on for miles. The remnants of the connecting roads and rail lines are still there, though the tracks are gone. One small rusting sign we saw said G-4, apparently identifying its particular sector. I wondered about the person who drove that sign post in the ground almost 70 years ago. What stories would they tell?

Its mission long completed, the Sioux Army Depot is a story to be remembered. The rapid build up, now 70 years ago, the enormous impact on a sleepy farm town, a legacy of service to its nation's military, and finally its sad fading into history. The history western Nebraska.

For the War indeed touched every family, on every street, in every town--and farm-- in America.

And nothing would ever be the same.
A classic at the Bob

There's hasn't been much to cheer about for Husker hoop fans this year, but tonight a rousing win over a solid Indiana team gives us a smile.  I have been hoping the boys might come through with a big upset to quiet the carping and boost their confidence and the 70-69 win at the Devaney Sports Center did just that.

As the game began, I settled in hoping for a good contest and sent a Facebook message that I had a good feeling about this one.  Not that I'm anything close to being able to predict sports,  I honestly did have a sense this one might go our way.  For one thing, the team is finally healthy again.  Dylan Talley and Brian Jorge Diaz had returned to the line up last week.  The team played better but lost two close conference games.  NU was at home to face 11th ranked Indiana....who although twice beaten recently, might just be looking past Nebraska. 

The late arriving crowd seemed energized throughout a pretty good first half, and didn't leave despite the Huskers getting down by 13.  I will admit I was beginning to doze off midway through the second half,  but that's more about my schedule than anything!  The boys hung around, and hung around and pulled off a much needed win for their coach Doc Saddler.  He's been preaching patience with his team, while fending off the critics who have begun to get restless in his 6th season at NU.

I love it.  Great win for the team, for Doc and for Husker fans near and far who only want to see their beloved Scarlet and Cream succeed.  I've haven't been to a game in person for a long long time.  The Devaney Center was brand spanking new when I arrived on campus as a freshman in the fall of 1976.  Through my college years and the two seasons following, when I lived in Lincoln, I went as often as I could.  As a student broadcaster, I had the thrill of calling a few games there.  Its hosted some great last night....and some not so thrilling.  So I'm no bandwagon jumper.....just a happy NU fan glad to see the fight in the boys for a come back win.  And for the Bob to host another thrilling Husker moment.  She deserves it!

From dead horse to war horse-Broncos franchise alive!

A year ago, I wrote a blog saying there was no need to beat a dead horse.  The Denver Broncos were a dead franchise in the National Football League.  A year later, following one of the most written about seasons in the Mile High city, the Broncos are not only in the playoffs, they are in the second round having dispatched a good, if banged up, Pittsburgh Steeler team. 

At the start of the year I thought they would be better than last year.  How could they not be?  A new front office that includes the iconic face of the franchise John Elway, a new coach, a new approach, I had them figured for 8 and 8 in the regular season.  Far more lucky than prophetic, but that's actually where they wound up....but who would have ever seen it coming the way it did.

I fully thought this was Kyle Orton's team.  I said that last year.  I said it again as this season got underway.  I was as unconvinced as anyone Tim Tebow would be the man of the hour.  Frankly, I didn't know that much about him.  Even as he started a few games late in last year's disaster of a season, I didn't know that much about him.  I thought Orton was a serviceable, if uninspiring NFL caliber quarterback who could keep the franchise in business if they could get something of running game to balance his outstanding passing ability.

But as everyone knows, a few weeks into the season, the Broncos changed horses and Tim Tebow took the helm.   He made some great plays, he made some mistakes and some poor decisions.  Tim Tebow appeared to have been the number one victim of the lockout and shortened training camp.  He looked raw, unrefined, unprepared, then he would make a play.....with his feet, with his arm.  He had those "intangibles" we kept hearing about.  His teammates responded. The fans, many still doubting, responded.  He helped pull games out of the fire.  He took the team on a magical run, only to disappoint in the final 3 weeks with the team losing 3 straight only to back into the playoffs winning a weak division.  He managed to pull off one of the great stories in all of sports in 2011.

In a year with so many stories from the sports world on the negative side.  Here is a story about why we love sports.  A clean kid, a positive role model, with a never say die attitude, putting inspiration into a sometimes machine like game.  A much criticized player, Tim Tebow is an underdog, with unconventional technique and unabashed faith--and all he does is win.   Not every game, not every week, but the team has come a long long way from the end of last season.  And give some props to the coaching staff willing to throw out the play book and start over mid way though the year.

I still don't know if Tim Tebow is the best choice as quarterback to lead Denver to the promised land. But I'll hitch my wagon to this team of wild mustangs until proven wrong.  There is pride in being a Bronco fan again.   From dead horse to war horse, the once proud franchise is alive and well.  

In Praise of Winter

I love winter. 
On a night with a forecast low of 10 below zero that seems counter intuitive, but I do love the season of short days, long nights, cold temperatures and snow.

There are, to be sure, many hazards of the season, and by no means do I endorse blizzards, slick roads, or high heating bills.  I have taken plenty of missteps on ice, spun cookies on streets when I didn't mean to, and been defeated by vehicles too cold to start.  And its not that I don't like the other seasons, but I do appreciate winter.  I love living in a area where seasons change.

I love the shorter days.  I get up very early in the morning, so  it's dark when I go to work every day. year round.  A lot of people complain about that in winter, but its no big deal to me.  I also go to bed early.  That's much easier to do when its already been dark for several hours.  Its not easy to do when its still light out in summer and the evening is young and brimming with outdoor activities.

One of the greatest pleasures of winter is the crisp air.  Especially after a snowfall has cleansed the atmosphere and blanketed the barren landscape with a pristine,  sparkling cover.  On a recent walk in my Nebraska town,  I was reminded of something a priest had told me once about walking in winter, how it raised the awareness of his Creator.  How by becoming small we become aware of something much greater than ourselves.  Its not hard to feel small walking into a winter wind.

More so than the cold, I love the light of winter.  There is a softness to the sky, with colors simply not there other times of the year.  Hues of blues, pinks and purples, soft orange and yellows.  Yes they are there in other seasons, but not like this.  Summer is the 8 count box of crayons you had in  grade school.  The winter sky is drawn with God's deluxe Crayola box of 120.  

Even the shadows are different in winter.  The lazy southerly arc of the sun is never directly overhead.  The contrast of light and shadow is less defined.   And while some complain the landscape is boring without the foliage of summer,  one can study and appreciate the architectural wonder of a burr oak tree standing strong, albeit naked, on a winter's day.

And I love watching wildlife in winter.  There is something to be said for the wylie squirrels and various birds that choose to stay in the area.  I put out bird feeders and love to watch the locals come to the perch for a meal.  Its fascinating to see how word travels in the bird world there's a new "restaurant" in town and to literally watch the pecking order.   Of course as a millet producer, I would highly encourage you to put out all the bird seed you can afford!

It would be easy to launch into an appreciation of winter because of the festive holidays, and the many memories associated with family gatherings.  Those are for another day.  I hold up winter on its own accord.  I think I'll stir up a pot of soup for supper. 

Like it was yesterday

November 22nd, 1963
Love Field, Dallas Texas
Air Force One
Happy crowds press the greeting line
To the Trade Mart
Turning on to Elm
Dealey Plaza
Texas School Book Depository
The grassy knoll

"Something has happened in the motorcade...."
Rushing through the triple underpass
Parkland Hospital
"The flash, apparently true, President Kennedy is dead....."
Andrews Air Force Base
Why can't Mrs. Kennedy open the hearse door?
Jack Ruby--what is going on down there? 
Flag draped coffin,  John Jr. peeks under the flag
Horse drawn casket--John John salutes
The eternal flame.

I was a 5 year old in  Eagle School District 69, rural Cheyenne County Nebraska.  How much I actually recall from those days, how much is from stories told and retold, and the endless hours reading, and watching documentaries -- is mixed together.  It's a story I still can't put down.

Like Apollo 13, I know the outcome, and yet I transfix on it. 

How it went down, what happened, when and where.  Some of it is nostalgia, a time machine with images and voices of what my world looked like and how it sounded in my childhood.  Some of it comes from my interest in how the press reported the story, how fledgling television coverage forever changed how we see things happen. 

A mature appreciation evolves for the players in the story.  Not just the Kennedy's, but for the Johnson's, who needed to seize the moment, but not appear to stepping over the dead president's body to do so.  We understand the mutual dislike--hate--is not too strong a word--between members of JFK's staff and LBJ's.  Not the least of which was Bobby Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson himself.  No matter what LBJ did or said, he knew it could and would be construed as political self interest.  The Kennedy camp can be forgiven for their reluctance to let go of their dream and having to hand it to a man they didn't even like as the Vice President.  Still their sense of entitlement to the Oval Office may have tainted anything Johnson could accomplish as President.

For a long time I believed there was a conspiracy.  There just had to be right?  No two bit flunky, kicked out the Marines, deported from the U.S.S.R., could possibly have acted alone.  Why would Jack Ruby have rubbed him out?  There had to be a connection.  But as time goes by, and more sealed archives are released, there was no Mob action, no Soviet plot to bring down the U.S.  No shooter from the grassy knoll, no gunman in the sewer drain, no plot to remove the Presidents brain, or alter the autopsy.  Our fears let such theories flourish.  They were not unfounded fears.  But in the end there is just no evidence to support it.  The Warren Commission actually got it pretty close to correct.

Just a God awful series of events seared into our collective memories. 

It was very mild for late November in 1963. 

The folks were butchering chickens for the freezer. 

Dennis Folkerts came back to school from lunch--their farm nearby, he returned with the news.
The school house radio came on......

Say it ain't so

"Honey, I'm jumping out of the pressbox." 

 It was a funny line on a not so funny Saturday in college football.  Nebraska was losing to Northwestern, in the 3rd quarter,  when retired linebacker coach John Melton called his wife at home to see how she was weathering the game.  "She's not even watching,"  he told his old friend Ken Fisher,    "She turned off the TV....couldn't take it anymore."  "I don't blame you", he added...."Fischer and I are thinking about jumping.....yeah its that bad"  Melton said, smiling as he put down his cell phone.

Folks like me nearby in the Nebraska press box got a laugh from the witty old coach, who hasn't lost his sense of humor, nor timing.  It was just what we needed to break the tension and frustration.  It is after all just a game, but it was a disappointing one to Husker fans who thought perhaps the team had turned the corner with the thrilling win over Michigan State just a week earlier.

"Sloppy", "inconsistent", "lack of focus", "Taylor's best day"......these were just a few of the lines uttered by fans as Bob Anderson and I made our way from Memorial Stadium out into the throng of people on 10th Street.  "Why didn't Nebraska stop the clock sooner?"  "Boy the turnovers killed us!"  Big Red Reaction....or as I like to call it, Big Red Bitch and Moan live and in color right there on the street.  Although more subdued than angry, the mood seemed disappointed more than anything.

Ahead in the crowd some Northwestern fans were making their way.  A couple of Husker fans came along side complimenting their team and thanking them for making the trip to Lincoln.  Earlier, I saw a Wildcat fan shooting video of the west side of the stadium with his cell phone, praising the Nebraska experience and calling the locals the best fans in America.  That warmed my spirits as the harsh November wind chilled my hands and face as we made our way toward the car.  Nebraska had not played well on this day, the outcome the only downer of an otherwise fun Husker football trip.

It was weeks in the planning.  My one and only annual trip to a Husker game.  Arriving Friday evening, I took my traveling partner and long time Gering teacher and coach Bob Anderson to Misty's in Havelock for dinner and a chance to meet up with my son Jeff.  Saturday we headed downtown early to shop the University Bookstore in the Student Union, stop by the radio pregame at the other bookstore, and head across campus.  As usual, I made sure we stopped by the little known grave site near Architecture Hall (I'll leave you in suspense on that one) and headed for the stadium.   Flashing our press passes, we gained entrance to the field level and milled around taking pictures and frankly standing in awe in middle of one of college football's great cathedrals. 

All in all, including a trip to the original Valentino's near my old stomping grounds on East Campus, it was a great time. Yes, I'm a traditionalist, Misty's, Val's.  Time may have passed but its still special to me to visit those old haunts.  Too short, too seldom, but perhaps the scarcity of the experience makes it all that more enjoyable.  When I think back to the days of child hood, listening to the games on the radio, and studying the game photos in the Sunday World Herald, its surreal at times to consider I'm standing right there on the 50 yard line, or looking on from above in the press box. 

Good thing you didn't jump coach......its a long way down.  We'll get em next week.  Go Huskers!

They shoot horses don't they?

A sea change in the Ernest household this month.  I traded trucks. 

Big deal?  Well for me it is.

Nearly 20 years ago, in April 1992 I laid eyes on a little white Mazda B2000 pickup.  I took her home for a "look see" date, fell for the "we have someone else looking at it" bait, and bought it.  It was a clean little truck with an after market radio, amp and speakers.  Hey when you're selling to a radio guy, that sort of thing can seal the deal and it did.

While short on creature comforts, the folks at Mazda had perfected the utility of a dependable small pickup with great gas mileage.  That little truck could get it done, and it did for years and years.  And when the Mrs. was no longer the Mrs. and she took the car....the little Mazda was all I had left.  Two kids, a dog and me up and down the highways and byways.  Spring, summer, fall and winter, like a Timex it took a lickin' but kept on tickin'.  It went to Casper, it went to Kearney, it went to Denver.  Wherever we needed to go, it took us there.  Not the most spacious, comfortable ride you ever had, but it never left us stranded.

As the years went by and the cloud of white smoke grew larger, it became clear I was going to have to do something.  By then there were other vehicles in the family....but the kids were driving them and I was still depending on the old Mazda truck as my daily driver.  I remortgaged her title, put a new engine and clutch in and kept on truckin'.  That was about 5 years ago.  And until this year when a new radiator, fuel tank, and gas gauge had nearly completed her makeover, I thought I would just keep on rollin'.  Alex Marsh at Morrill Repair had done a master mechanic's job of keeping her going despite having to search farther and farther for parts.  I kept thinking well I've come this far with it, and it costs so little to insure and they practically give me a refund when I to renew the license......but there comes a time....and that time had finally arrived this summer.  On going engine cooling issues finally left me frustrated enough to consider putting her down for good.  That and 7 dollar a bushel wheat.

It almost felt as if I were committing a sin. Browsing the internet, looking at.....a possible replacement for her...... while she sat ....right out there along the curb unaware of my intention.  But hey, I'm just lookin'....right?  No harm there.  Just... lookin'.....maybe something similar, you know,  a little younger, prettier, shinier, a little less worn in the seat......I'm mean after all, I haven't had dash lights in years.  And well, I'm not saying I will, I'm just .......wait a minute...  Look at this one.  White, 2006, 2 wheel drive, long bed, clean, low miles, AM FM with CD, and a V-8.   She had me from hello. 

I almost talked myself out of it as I explained to the sales person all I done with old girl.  Then I hoped I could get it over there and not blow up on the way to the dealer's lot.  I went home to break the news to her.  Found some interesting stuff under and behind the seat, the pull of nostalgia was real as I took her away and left her there.  She proudly started right up, though I hadn't driven her for over a week.  She bravely steered to course toward the auto center,  hitting on all 4 cylinders in perfect harmony, the troublesome cooling system keeping her temperature in check as if to say....don't trade me bro, don't trade me......but the deal was done, the papers were signed.  The keys were exchanged.  The time had come. 

Like a death in the family from a long illness, you think you are prepared, but when the time comes you find out you're not.  Its not quite like that, my God, I'm just trading off an old beater whose better days were long since behind, but there is a particular fondness we attach to our vehicles, at least I do.  Like the astronauts aboard Apollo 13, who said of the lunar lander turned life boat, "She was a good ship." 

A century worth of Buck

In a few weeks, Buck O'Neil would have been 100 years old.  In just a few days, he will have been gone from this earth for 5 years.  The legendary Negro Leagues baseball player, manager and Major League bench coach and scout left an endearing mark on baseball and on me.

I have but a few sports collectibles.  Its just not something I pursue.  But of the ones I have, a signed baseball scorecard with the signature of Buck O' Neil is most treasured.  I had the opportunity to meet Buck outside Kaufman Stadium in Kansas City back in the early 90s.  As always, I had arrived with my family at the ballpark as soon as the gates opened.  Approaching the main entrance I saw this older man standing near the door.  I said hello...."You're Buck O'Neil....I'm so honored to meet you"  He responded with his genuine kindness asking where we were from, and when I told him western Nebraska....almost in Wyoming, he said, something to the effect of   "You have come a long way....let's get a win!"  His enthusiasm and kindness to pose for a picture later in the press box is not to be forgotten, but the more I have learned about him, the more genuine a man I have found him to be.

This was just before the Ken Burns documentary Baseball had come out.  Burns latched on the indomitable story and style of Buck and made him a big part of his film, unleashing Buck O' Neil to America.  Prior to that I knew a little about the Negro Leagues and that Buck had been a player and manager and that he was a scout for the Royals and always had a special seat behind home plate...but that was about all I knew. 

What I have come to know later was this amazing man from Florida loved the game of baseball and played it, coached it and groomed it will all his heart and soul.  He was instrumental in founding the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame and Museum in Kansas City.  He spoke and wrote about the discrimination he lived through, and the pain was palpable.  Yet he harbored no anger or resentment about it.  Instead he spoke proudly of League he played in, the negro owned businesses where he and his teammates were welcomed, the hotels, restaurants and night clubs.  You could see a certain sadness in him that it faded out, as the major leagues began to include the black players and take the top talent from the Negro Leagues....and with them the crowds.  But he fully supported Jackie Robinson and the trail toward integration and the role sports played in breaking down color barriers in society in general....a work still in progress. 

Somehow the Baseball Hall of Fame did not vote Buck O'Neil into Cooperstown.  But Buck O' Neil came anyway and spoke proudly of the new inductees.....which didn't include one vote:  "Don't shed any tears.  You think about this:  Here I am, the grandson of a slave.  And here the whole world was excited about whether I was going into the Hall of Fame or not.  We've come a long ways.........Don't weep for Buck.  Be happy, be thankful"

I am Buck, I am.  I am so glad to have met you in person, and to come to know your spirit.  God Bless you Buck O'Neil.