For some fortuitous reason, my car slowed to a stop in front of the tracks at the precise moment when Union Pacific’s Big Boy went steaming . . . on . . . by.
All around me were pickups and cars pulled off to the side of the road with cameras and phones of all kinds pointed in his direction. The man to the left of my vehicle had tears in his eyes, and after the black giant passed, he carefully pulled his camera strap over his head, stepped back into his old farm truck with his memories and pulled away. Another younger gentleman had walked across a patch of wild sunflowers growing in the ditch, his phone held high above his head, to catch a mightier view. There were husbands, wives and kids and there was me, waiting to cross Highway 30.
On the other side of the highway, I pulled into the drive of Mid-Plains Equipment where Donna Koster was smiling at her desk in the entryway and her husband Neil stepped out of his office and shook my hand. I visited with Neil about selling trailers all over the nation and Canada. He gave me the humble details about rising to the top of sales in the nation in all the categories of trailer products they offer. A simple, driven man with a core motivation – earning the trust of people.
It was a sobering and inspirational day. I had met a couple, the Kosters, who exemplify some of the best of America. I had met the employees they were proud of, including Jorge, from an immigrant family, who Neil told me he wished he could clone. Jorge walked into Mid-Plains one day, explaining that he had quit another position to strengthen the bond with his family. He wanted to apply for the job in the mechanic shop they were offering. Jorge didn’t have experience Neil told me, but he was willing to learn and learn he did.
Learning was once an American ideal. Driving home, I thought about the sacrifices made by my ancestors to allow at least some of their descendants to pursue a higher education. I considered the concept of the land grant university and the money that flowed from simple farmers and ranchers across the plains to fund the institutions that have risen among us today. I also thought of the indoctrination, the ripping of First Nations Native people from their parents to conform them to the propaganda so prevalent in the promise of Manifest Destiny. I thought of the millions of hands of immigrant workers who toiled while other more privileged were able to move upwards in society. I thought of the justice and injustice of it all.
And, I thought of that train. Magnificent in a sense and horrific in another. The power of travel it represented. The joy of the returning soldier, the woman running from it to embrace her first love and the trains that carried orphans across the nation – many never to see family again. I thought of the Chinese laborers that made up most of the Central Pacific workforce that built the transcontinental railroad east from California along with their laboring peers from Ireland, Germany and Italy. I was sobered by haunting sounds of the guns out the windows of those roaring trains that cowardly nearly wiped the majestic buffalo off the face of the earth. I also thought of the Homestead Act and Kinkaid Act that parceled out land, even land that should have never been farmed, to pioneering descendants trying to survive – from the wildest of the west to the most chaste. And the trains, roared, on.
The United States of America – home of the African American sharecropper, hung by the Ku Klux Klan. Home of the Middle Eastern refugee, the desperate fleeing from Venezuela, the gun owner and the anti-gun protester and the person who wants peace in-between. Home of the starving artist and the filthy rich. Home of the reservations striving to be sovereign. Home of the free and the brave and the cowardly and the combination of all of these. Also home of the young man who made my sushi at a restaurant in Kearney on the way home from my trip who told me about missing his family in Tibet and falling in love with a French Canadian girl he met while working in Ontario that he left behind. “So beautiful she was,” he said, looking down at my salmon roll. I have lived here for my entire nearly 42 years now, but I am just beginning to learn who I am and who you are my country and fellow countrymen and women. We are the land of “Big Boys” and underdogs, those hurting and those helping. In order to know what we could strive to be, we need to know who we’ve really been and what we’ve really done – malicious and magnificent.
Our vision from sea to shining sea can be more meaningful this time. Let’s leave no heart or hope behind and restore this great land, together, to a point that displays the best of us. In all goodness, honor and courage let us dream of a nation and a world that is better than it has ever been and better than every single one of us could dream it could be. A nation with love of humanity and life at its center and every, single, heart, beating – free.