– Lincoln, Neb. resident James Kennedy, a U.S. Army veteran and former post commander for Veteran of Foreign Wars Post 131 in Lincoln
A lot of my ancestors on my mom's side are from Nebraska, and in Omaha I finally met my great uncle and aunt, Stephen and Jacquelyn Pondelis. They are 87 and 82 and have lived their whole lives here, raising four children and staying active in the Catholic church.
Steve worked 41 years for Omaha-based Union Pacific, one of the largest railroad franchises.
He and Jackie met as teenagers roller skating, but didn't start seeing each other until Steve got back from World War II. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and served "three years, two months, six days, one hour and 10 minutes," including 13 months on the ground in the Aleutian Islands.
Though their children and extended family have all moved away, they have chosen to stay.
They drove me around the city and told me lots of interesting things about the schools and neighborhoods.
There is subdivision built in 1958, for example, where each house has a one-car garage.
Steve recalls returning from the war after telling his mother to sell his car, only to find there were long waiting lists to get a new vehicle.
Some of the houses built in the past decade have triple car garages.
I love how even domestic architecture is a history lesson.
I also learned that Jackie's dad (my great grandfather) used to grow and sell horseradish, which may partly explain why I love the stuff.
She showed me a couple places investor Warren Buffett likes to eat, including this buffet:
Just imagine him and Bill Gates getting together to play bridge and you've got a nice little image of Omaha. The city was historically known for its railways, livestock processing plants, cornfields and other agriculture. Today the greater Omaha area is home to 838,000 residents and a small handful of fortune 500 companies.
The wonderful thing about Steve and Jackie is that they still have each other and are still in love.
makes him lunch every day. They have "ice cream nights" twice a week.
Steve fixes things around the house and is pretty punctual for his 10
a.m. coffee breaks.
It's been nice for me to be a part of the
normalcy while the Ford guys hack away at my RV, attempting to fix some
Plus they love my crazy little pit bull. What more could you ask for?
I've made it through most of Nebraska, now, and can finally say I've been to the middle of the country.
I saw fireflies for the first time in St. Paul. It took a second for me to realize what they were. Then I walked up and down the streets, staring at people's lawns like an alien who'd just hit earth.
The other thing I could not imagine 'till I'd experienced it is the crazy humidity that builds up during summer. It makes me wish for a storm to release the atmospheric pressure.
When the storms do come, they are sudden and powerful. In Merna, I was almost stuck in four inches of mud after rain and hail pelted my van like buckshot, waking me up at 7 a.m.
I fell asleep one night in Whiteclay watching a pulsing lightning inferno that for hours illuminated a section of clouds beside the full moon.
The winds here are mighty, too. They pick up speed over miles of plains and have a different presence than the gusts off the coast I am used too.
People in Nebraska often come across reserved and matter-of-fact. I have learned behind that front they are generally very kind.
In the small town of Merna, Neb., I chatted with six locals during their regularly scheduled coffee break at the gas station.
"If you want jobs, you can find jobs," says Bruce Brummer (right), who runs the fertilizer plant at the local farmers' cooperative. "We're not short around here."
"There's jobs," agrees retired mechanic Dennis Worth. "But if you're used to making $30 an hour at the factory, you're not going to want $10 an hour (to do agricultural work)."
Because food is such a basic need, agriculture provides a buffer of sorts against a downturn in consumer spending.
But there are other factors at play. Farmers learn to budget wisely because their 'paycheck' comes once, annually. With equipment that can cost a quarter of a million dollars, or more, they learn important maintenance skills. And they know to diversify their crops to buffer the whims of Mother Nature. Many have alternate professions.
"People have had hard times here. They just know it's coming and they plan for it," says Brummer. "They always told us, 'It ain't what you make, it's what you save.'"
But the midwest feel the impacts in one form or another.
A July 14 article in The Omaha World-Herald ("Recession jabs at Rural Nebraska, too") cites poll statistics from a survey of 2,852 rural Nebraska households indicating there have been job losses in 11 percent of homes and about a third of surveyed households have seen work hours cut.
Omaha residents tell me the casinos over the border in Iowa, where gambling is legal, are less busy these days. They also say wages have been driven lower in some industries, as out-of-region contractors move in to take advantage of continuous growth.
So maybe it's not all rosy. Still, several restaurants were full to near capacity when I visited them during weeknights in Omaha.
I arrived in St. Paul, Neb., a cool-seeming town of about 3,000, just in time for the Royal Coachmen car club's annual car show, drag race and street dance.
At the show I saw my first 2009 Chevrolet Camaro in the "flesh."
is an iconic American company in the news for recent financial
problems, so it's good to see they managed to release the new Camaro — promised since 2006 and the first since Chevrolet discontinued the line in 2002. With a base price of just over $23,000, it's still an everyman's sports car.
The owner of this one told me of the several Camaros he's had,
the 2009 model handles best. It's got plenty of power and gets 28 miles to
the gallon, he says. Fully loaded, he paid $45,000.
To get from the car show to the drag strip, people piled in the back of flatbed trailers being pulled by John Deere tractors.
Over bumpy fields and down the main roads we went.
I couldn't help but think, "This would never be allowed in Seattle… probably not even in Wenatchee. This is a reason to love the midwest."
The drag races were awesome. People lined up their vehicles in twos without regard for classes. Mustangs could race Mustangs, but it was more likely to see a guy in a late model BMW facing down his neighbor in a 1970s TransAm, or a Road Runner versus a pickup.
The driver on the right side of this picture spun his tires so long before the race, he left piles of smoking rubber in his wake.
I'm sad to say I missed the burnout contest and auto parts swap meet scheduled for the next day. I left all my good parts at home, anyway.
I got pulled over (again!) on a remote highway through the badlands area. The officer told me Washington to South Dakota is a drug trafficking route.
He asked where I was going and I told him I was headed to Whiteclay, had he heard of it? "Yes, I've heard of Whiteclay," he said with a frown. "WHY are you going there?"
He warned me repeatedly to be careful. "It's like nothing you've ever seen," he told me.
In many ways he was right, I guess, though I have been to Portugal and seen poor, disfigured and diseased people begging otuside the cathedrals. And there are many dusty, impoverished towns in Mexico.
What stands out about Whiteclay is how the ugly side of alcohol abuse (which, depending on one's tolerance, is pretty much as crippling as drug abuse) is on constant display.
No one even tries to hide it.
There's a "no open container" law. But the nearest Nebraskan police are stationed more than 20 miles away and they don't come around too much, I'm told.
I tried not to have prolonged interactions with anyone who was obviously drunk, the same caution I'd exercised anywhere.
But in the morning, during a free breakfast the BonFleurs host in partnership with Hands of Faith, another Whiteclay ministry, I talked, prayed in a group with and shook hands with lots of street people.
A guy who told me his name was Harrison showed me a cool way he tells his life story with a piece of paper, by folding it into a plane that first flies high then loses its wings due to alcohol abuse.
The ripped off pieces of wings spell the word "hell." But the remains of the original paper make a cross and by turning to Jesus, he says, the scraps can be rearanged to spell "life."
After showing me that, he rearranged the letters back to make "hell."
"So, which is it for you now?" I asked and he pointed to the rearranged scraps.
"Are you drinking again?"
He nodded and looked ashamed.
Harrison likes to say he's a perfect screw up and who am I to say I'm better? I've done my share of pavement biting. And from observation, I can tell you Alcoholism is a greedy bitch. Once she gets her claws in you, she tries to not let go.
All in all, I feel blessed to have met him and the others, who by the end of the day were probably lining the main street again like a menagerie of ghosts.
Sober, they were coherant, dignified, respectful. I do not feel they were trying to con me. They were not judging me or wishing me to fail. Sober, they were friends.
"These Indians, if they do sober up,what's waiting for them? Nothing but more despair. I think we need to create jobs on the reservation," such as beautifying the reservation. There could be free buses to transport the laborers.
– Wakpamni Lake, South Dakota resident and leather craftsman Kelly Looking Horse, while visiting the thrift store in Whiteclay
– Artist, photographer and jewelry maker Andrea Two Bulls, Red Shirt Table, South Dakota
On hope for the future:
"There's a word, Taku Sku Sku, it means "Sacred Mover." I think that is the movement we need more than any manmade thing…. That movement would be God himself. The Sacred Mover comes in through the Spirit living in us — evil becomes good because of a transformation."
-Leon Matthews, pastor of Pine Ridge Gospel Fellowship
-Floyd Chavers, U.S. Navy veteran, part Muskogee Indian and chaplain of Hands of Faith Ministries, Whiteclay, Neb.
Just over the Nebraska border on the outskirts of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservaton is a town with about a dozen residents and four stores that daily sell an estimated 12,000 cans of beer.
It's a dusty, intentionally forgotten place for most, dubbed "skid row on the prairie."
A group of alcoholics loiters in the parking lots and empty buildings, panhandling and leaving behind Hurricane and Camo cans.
Depending where you look, though, Whiteclay could be considered beautiful.
It's not just the golden fields in the distance or the dirt roads so littered by crushed aluminum and colored shards of glass, they sparkle in the evening sun.
There is a colorful mural on the side of busy not-for-profit thrift store, a soup kitchen that invites street people to eat, talk and pray. There's also an artists co-op and community garden.
The programs were started by Bruce and Marsha BonFleur, who in 1998 moved to the Pine Ridge Indian reservation from Florida with their two young children.
The BonFleurs were living a typical upper-middle class life ("comfortable and getting more comfortable," says Marsha) when Bruce got the "call."
"God said, 'I want to use you, with the help of others, to restore dignity to my people. And you will do that through the creation of jobs," says Bruce.
At that time, he did not know who "my people" referred to. He began researching Lakota nation and the idea came full circle.
The BonFleurs, who have backgrounds in business building, education and publishing, first worked in the Pine Ridge schools. In 2004, they opened 555 Whiteclay, a thrift store.
Because Whiteclay is over the Nebraska border, it is the main alcohol source for nearby Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Pine Ridge is the largest city on the reservation, with a population of 15,500. No alcohol is allowed to be consumed or sold, according to tribal rules.
Reports in the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper indicate an 80 percent alcoholism rate on the reservation – one of the highest rates in the country. Resulting diseases and fatalities make the average life expectancy there mid to upper-forties.
There have been riots and protests and lots of attempted legislation over the sale of alcohol in Whiteclay, yet it continues.
With all the bitterness and recidivism, it would be easy to get discouraged or even jaded here.
Neither words describe the BonFleurs.
"God didn't call us here to shut the beer stores down. He called us here to be a light," says Bruce. "In fact, when we came here, God told my wife, 'Stop looking around at what you see and begin to praise me for the transformation that's going to take place.'"
He says God had to work on cultivating compassion in him before he could be used — enough compassion to bring to his house for dinner a drunk man covered in flies and human excrement.
Their outreach is based on relationships and jobs. The thrift store employs six tribe members, part time.
With help from mission teams, the BonFleurs are working on a large garden area with a community stage. They are finishing a work shop and storefront for the Lakota Crafters cooperative. Artists will be aided by small grants and through a microlending system in which each crafter is loaned a couple hundred dollars for supplies. The loans are to be paid back after the crafts are sold, says Bruce.
The BonFleurs have a Bible-based strategy, too.
"555," the name of the thrift store, refers to the five smooth stones David in the Bible used to slay the giant – in this case alcohol abuse. Secondly, it refers to the two fishes and five loaves of bread Jesus used to feed the multitudes he was teaching. Lastly, it references five spiritual callings Christians believe God gives his people — to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepards and teachers.