Posted by: George | July 11, 2010


July 7, 2010 (morning)

Last night, after I checked into my hotel at Lake Someplace, I decided to drive around a bit.

I still haven’t figured out the name of the town, but about lunchtime I did figure out it was Saturday. I was having lunch in Missoula, Montana. I put some coins in a parking meter, and an old man walking down the street starting yelling at me, “You don’t need to do that. It’s Saturday.” If the old man had quizzed me on anything (the day of the week, what’s happening with the oil spill in the Gulf, or what’s happening with the World Cup), I would have probably answered, “I saw about two hundred bison yesterday, the last of the wild ones in the world, grazing in an expansive meadow.”

Anyway, I saw a baseball field that looked nicer than the one my university’s baseball team plays on. I thought it might even host a minor league professional team. It was well groomed with lights and stands. Cars filled the parking lot. And a bus. Not a yellow school bus, but a big tour bus.

I found out it was a 12-and-under girl’s softball tournament. They wanted $6 at the gate. In the early 1980s, I regularly paid $2 to sit in the bleachers at Wriggly Field and watch the Cubs loose. I coundn’t afford this game, so I decided to use the $5 in my wallet to buy a beer and a pack of Cheez-It.

As I walked back to my room, bag of treats in hand, through a maze of hallways, I hear a few parents talking. One said, “I keep telling her that sports is not everything.”

When I played Little League baseball (rather badly, I never made it out of the farm league), we played on an open field and felt lucky that we had a backstop. At the beginning of the season, some of the dads (not mine, he was long gone) and kids would pull weeds in the infield and cut the grass in the outfield.

A homerun was not over the fence. A homer was all the way into the tall grass, and even then a kid could throw you out, providing he could find the ball fast enough. I hit only one homer in my sad baseball career, and I remember, as I was rounding second, watching some kid jump around in the tall grass like a rabbit. He eventually had to ask his friend to help him find the ball, long after I crossed home plate.

I’m really not being critical here. This is American at its best. We believe in progress—all kinds of progress. When I was a kid, girls didn’t play sports. Now, they travel to tournaments in big buses and have fancy uniforms. Studies have shown that being involved in sports helps young girls enormously, even long after they’ve stopped playing. They are more confident and less likely to be desperate for some guy’s attention.

We so believe in progress that we can’t conceive of anything else—at least, not here, in America. As Vicki, John, and I were driving around northeast Colorado and western Nebraska, looking for sites related to family stories, we saw one dying town after another.

Bruhl, Nebraska, where my grandmother’s family built a hotel, is losing population. Bruhl was once a water stop on the train line. The train would have to stop for water, and some people would want to take a break, find a hotel, spend the night. This seemed to be a sure thing.

When I came through the area in 1993, the Polley Hotel had a For Sale sign on it. Now, it just sits there, boarded up, without a sign, without any hope that someone will want to buy it.

Blue Springs, where my grandfather built a post office and ran it for a while, has residents and a tavern, but not much else. It once supported agriculture in the area. With bigger tractors and more automation, it takes fewer people to run a farm. Towns like Blue Springs are stagnant. We found the post office, or the foundation. This town is no longer big enough to support a post office.

As I have talked to people on my trip, I have been surprised to hear that most of them are pretty satisfied with their lives. The recession hasn’t seemed to cause much damage to most Americans—this, when some Americans are losing their jobs or their homes. Campgrounds are filled with RVs and trailers, but few tents.

In contrast to their personal lives, which are okay, maybe with a little belt-tightening, everyone is worried about our country in general. They are afraid that their kids’ lives will not be as good. They are afraid America is losing its status in the world. They’re not so sure about progress or the American Dream, but they also don’t know what comes in its wake.


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