On the road at 5 a.m., headed west from the bottom left corner of Iowa across the Missouri River on highway 34, which runs through the heart of the “Prairie Capital City,” Lincoln, the setting for Tracy Letts’ play(Oct. 3- Nov. 1, The Old Town Theatre). When director Fran Gercke heard my wife and I would be visiting her Iowa relatives, he jumped at my offer to do a recon-and-report from Lincoln and blog about it. So, at 5:42 a.m., I cross the Mizzou at Plattsmouth, Nebraska, on a tiny 2-lane toll bridge ($1.25 each way) – the bridge used to be privately owned by a family who built the bridge and kept all the tolls, but now the city owns it and I believe the price has gone up since my last visit. A sign reads “NEBRASKA- THE GOOD LIFE.”
Lincoln isn’t just the state capital, it’s also the home to the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers football team – “Go Big Red!” Corn figures in this story because there’s no escaping it…15 million beautiful acres producing more than a billion bushels of corn (most of it feeder corn for livestock, not sweet corn for our plates). The gentle hills surrounding Lincoln are vast cornfields, “as high as an elephant’s eye.” This is America’s farmland – corn, soybeans, sorghum (aka milo) and winter wheat. The most important subject other than the football team is the weather.
Highway 34 turns into O Street as I enter Lincoln at 6:53, searching in vain for a Starbucks. It’s several blocks and several morning commuters honking their horns at me before I finally find one – Lincoln has lots of coffee shops, but not many Starbucks. Help me, Toto, we’re not in California anymore. But one thing Lincoln has plenty of is churches. The population is about 250,000, and there are 229 churches, or about one church for every 1,000 people. Man From Nebraska is the story of an ordinary guy who wakes up one morning and discovers he doesn’t believe in God anymore. And he goes from being a regular church-going, insurance salesman, Baptist family man to a lost soul experiencing a “crisis of faith” in Lincoln.
My friend Carol and I meet up about 8:30. She’s a U of N grad, lived all her adult life in Lincoln, and accepts my description of Lincolnites as “the plain people of the Plains” with bemusement. Carol gives me a tour of the sights: the towering State Capitol building, known to locals as the ‘Penis of the Prairie’ – hey, they said it, not me; the massive Memorial Stadium with it’s motto “Not the victory but the action, not the goal but the game, in the deed the glory” – pretty heady stuff for a football game; the beautiful Sunken Gardens and lovely neighborhoods filled with handsome homes. Most of the cars I see are American made, and one car dealer has a sign out front reading “Here to Stay!” All in all, Lincoln seems more of a college town than the seat of state government, perhaps due to the fact that Nebraska is the only state in the union to have a non-partisan, unicameral legislature (a single chamber representative body – why waste money taking two votes on everything).
Nebraska is a long state. With a girlfriend in Iowa and a family in Wyoming, I know – I’ve driven it many times, even got thrown in jail once in Hershey for speeding, but that’s another story. The state is also divided into north and south Nebraska by the Platt River (remember the toll bridge at Plattsmouth) and Omaha used to be the capital, and Lincoln used to be a town called Lancaster. Back in Civil War days, people north of the Platt were rooting for the Yankees, and those south of the river – including Lancaster/Lincoln – were Confederate sympathizers…and except for the people in Omaha, everybody wanted to move the state capital out of Omaha to some place more in the middle of the state. So, in what was seen as a trick vote, the folks in Omaha said, “We’ll move the state capital to Lancaster, but we want to change the name of the town to honor our recently assassinated hero of the Union cause, President Lincoln,” figuring the vote would lose. But, nope, it passed, they changed the name and moved the capital. Which may or may not explain why Lincoln is even today a very Caucasian city – 89.3% white, 3.6% Latino, 3.1% Asian , 3% African-American and the rest Native American and Pacific Islander or “other.” However, in 2008, while the state of Nebraska went for McCain, Lancaster County and the City of Lincoln went for Obama.
A thunderstorm breaks at 9:45, and I say goodbye to Carol, buy a bunch of “Go Big Red” T-shirts for my fellow cast members and head back to Iowa, pausing only to photograph a barn with an American flag, and stopping in Plattsmouth for a raspberry turnover – they were all out of apple. Sadly, I didn’t make it to the Johnny Carson Theatre, the black box performance space at the University named for the Tonight show star who generously donated $11 million to his alma mater (BA in Radio/Speech, minor in physics). The University also renamed The Department of Theatre Arts the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film. Other famous people from Lincoln include Oscar winning actress Hilary Swank, Vice President Dick Cheney (who graduated from the same high school in Casper, Wyoming, as I did) and Charles Starkweather, mass murderer, who took along his 14 year-old girlfriend Carol Fugate as he killed 11 people, 3 of them in Lincoln. No one was injured during the research and writing of this blog. By lunchtime I’m back in Iowa, the sun comes out and we all go to the County Fair – parking and admission are free.