by Evan Stair
Lincoln, Nebraska in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s was a place of beauty in the eyes of a child living in a middle class city of a 100,000 folks, but my neighborhood was more. The Bethany neighborhood was a grand playground that filled the mind, body, and soul with wholesome goodness.
Lincoln had a glorious collection of restaurants. There was a time before the “golden arches” (McDonald’s was there at the time, by the way) became the most popular restaurant in Lincoln and you would want to eat at a local favorite: King’s Restaurant, where you could get a scrumptious hamburger, or a Little Frenchie (a fried cheese sandwich); The Runza Hut where you could get of all things… a Runza (baked bread stuffed with cabbage and hamburger) or a foot long hot-dog that was actually a over foot long and made of real beef; Valentino’s (gourmet pizza — best in the country by some accounts.)
Living The Wonder Years
Some of the experiences of childhood might seem trivial now, but to me, they are a part of an age of inexperience: Innocent as an episode of “The Wonder Years.” I lived the “Wonder Years” along with several hundred other kids in Lincoln.
Behold: A child soaking up every minute of life by watching Captain Kangaroo followed by a walk next door to a school fit for kings. This was the weekday morning routine. Saturdays were spent riding a bike down a smooth sidewalk breathing in the fresh, clean, air of a new morning. Watching countless hours of cartoons ranging from uncensored Looney Tunes to Scooby Doo followed.
Then there were the strange shows ranging from The Monkees to Lance Link, Secret Chimp. Making mud pies and carting them around for use as fake hand-grenades was also a big part of our day. Sending GI Joe to the moon for a fantasy war where no one died (flesh wounds only) in our basement was the best. Pitching a tent in the backyard “wilderness” was a big adventure while we pretended our parents could not see, or control, us. Nights were spent listening to the lonely whistle of a freight train passing through the faraway Havelock neighborhood. After that, as we fell asleep, we dreamt of repeating everything we did that day, the next day.
Sundays were spent worshipping in the Methodist Church, eating Chubbies Hamburgers and rushing to fit several more hours into a weekend that was drawing to a close all too soon.
Snow can best be defined by this Nebraska boy as that white magic stuff that blankets the state from November to March. A good snowfall guarantees to close school enough to eke out an additional week or so of vacation each year. Snow, if you don’t already know, is better than white Play Dough since you can mold snow faster, throw it father, live in it, eat it, pack it, lick it, tunnel through it, punch it, sled on it and ski over it if the drifts are high enough! When the snow melts you can wade through it and when it re-freezes you can skate on it, slide on it, and even play hockey on it. Lincoln gets lots of this magic stuff.
We neighborhood kids were a part of your extended family unit and every neighbor took responsibility for our upbringing. One minute you might find a bunch of us kids at one house and the next moment we’d all be halfway down the street invading someone else’s humble abode with laughter and muddy shoes. Values were exchanged at every stop. We were always well-supervised and when we were not well-behaved, we were punished with more than words. We quickly learned that a “hand up” can have more than one meaning. Every house was similar in a way: Supper on the stove, milk in the fridge, Mom — The Cub Scout Den Mother — trying to corral her cubs.
Every house had a basement where our parents could keep us out of sight and ear shot for a few hours of uninterrupted bliss; at least until a punching match broke out! We would then be separated and sent home. We usually arrived home safely… until the call came from those who sent us home explaining why we were home early. More definitions of a “hand up” would follow…
The way home was always wicked in that you never knew what “enemy forces” you might meet on the trek home. You might have to delay your arrival to fend off an attack from marauders from “hostile territory” like the University Place or Dead Man’s Run neighborhoods looking for hostages and conquest. My Bethany neighborhood in Lincoln was bursting with children and friendly turf wars were the cream and cereal of our days.
Brownell elementary was a place of joyous learning and an extension of our neighborhood. Other than your home, your school was your universal identity and the most important turf to defend — we called this defense “school pride.” I don’t remember any particular lesson learned at Brownell, although I did learn reading, writing and ‘rithmatic. I remember best the personalities of my schoolmates and this may be what made it so hard to leave Lincoln. We were a school centered on the Bell Curve philosophy. Brownell was centered in a middle class neighborhood filled with differing personalities but the core beliefs pounded into us daily were identical: Go along, fit in, respect each other and your elders and don’t make trouble. We were raised to say “Yes, Ma’am” and “No Sir” to everyone always with no “buts” in-between!
You could not be singled out because of your race since 99.9% of us were Caucasian. We didn’t know any religious hatred because 100% of us were Christians. Since we were all basically the same in every way, we really didn’t know about racial, social or economic division. We were all on the same page because we all came from the book.
In a curious way, that homogenized lifestyle our parents pasteurized for us didn’t teach us to hate or to identify each other by surface principles. We took each other on our word and on our own terms and, in later life, I can honestly say that, because of growing up in Lincoln, I am better able than many of my peers to accept any and all folks based solely upon the goodness of their heart the the purity of their intent as a person. Tolerance is a great thing Lincoln gave me. Intolerance was never modeled for me as a child and I can now say it never played out before me in the streets. If I didn’t learn it — it isn’t a part of me.
When the first African American student arrived in our school during 1974 he was generally greeted with wonder rather than hatred. He was accepted immediately as one of us without question. Brownell was also a school where smiles, best friends, bloody noses, first crushes, tears and general mischief made their hay every day.
The Forever Good-Bye
Tragedy manifests itself in many forms. Moving from any home is an unsettling experience, but leaving Lincoln in 1975 for Stillwater, Oklahoma at the age of ten closed an important developmental chapter in my life. The move was a tragedy and a blessing. A tragedy in that my childhood had to end; a blessing in that I learned to appreciate the folks I had to leave behind even more than I did when I was with them. At first I was excited to leave Lincoln. Then I gained first hand experience living in Oklahoma. The change in attitude, custom, and philosophy was a system shock. However, I learned to love Oklahoma, and today I make it my home while Nebraska remains a land loved frozen in time; a beautiful city, a beautiful people, and an age of grandeur associated with the fortune of my youth.
Vacation time that once had been spent traveling South to visit my Grandparents and other blood kin was instead spent traveling North to visit Lincoln. These trips back home were feeble attempts to resurrect a glimmer of joy that I left behind in my beloved city. I always hoped I might happen to rub shoulders with some of my old Bethany friends. Calling them up for an appointment just wasn’t done — it wasn’t proper (it’s seen as forward and crass even to this day) — but “bumping” into them on the street would have been acceptable.
That sort of deep friendship I shared in Lincoln with my entire neighborhood was a joy I did not feel in my new Oklahoma neighborhood. These trips to Lincoln soon ended as my new home finally became home. I no longer felt welcome in Lincoln even with my last recognized childhood friend (I called an old friend and his wife told me he didn’t remember me). Returning to Lincoln in 1991 for several hours to catch a train was an experience that sobered up my memories because the city had grown and changed so much. Lincoln now felt like a foreign land. I had officially lost touch with Lincoln’s new identity as a burgeoning metropolis of 260,000 people and the old memories were officially frozen in a time and stowed forever.
Seeking Old Friends
Then, unknowingly, 23 years to the date that I left Lincoln, the internet returned me home. You see, I attended Brownell elementary school with David Boles, the publisher of Go Inside Magazine. I was re-aquatinted with David following a chance meeting. I was not looking for an old friend but I found one via the Yahoo! Search Engine.
When I did a Yahoo! search on “Brownell” — up came “David Boles” in the return results concerning an article he’d written called Lincoln After Seven Years. As his story appeared on my screen, I washed back to Lincoln and met him again via simple electronic gadgetry: a phone line and a search engine. I was not looking for David. When I did my search on Brownell, I was only looking for a modern day picture of the school filled with pleasant memories, Christmas stories, Fried Indian Bread, multiplication tables, blonde haired, bell bottomed, Marsha Brady and Elizabeth Montgomery lookalikes, bowl haircuts, and best friends with red white and blue striped pants with jeans vests.
Although I thought long and hard about the risks of contacting David, I am glad I did. It was risky in that it could have shattered memories of something that I still hold dear; my childhood. David has filled in a part of my life in Lincoln that I never had the chance to live: 1975-1987 (he left Lincoln in 1987 after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for graduate work at Columbia University in The City of New York City he still resides today).
David peeled back the rind for me on a living time capsule — still in motion — that closed 23 years ago. As a surrogate storyteller, he filled in a wide gap in my memory and exposed events that brought Lincoln back to a normal size in my mind.
My fear of shattering the purity of the rose-colored images you’ve read about here have turned out to be unwarranted; everyone grows up, we all move on, and for many of us our childhood memories serve as an emollient muse when life gets tough.
David Boles exposed the perfect lives that subsequently crumbled and the not so perfect lives that succeeded. David detailed the beauty that became awful and the ugly that became sublime. Through David’s eyes, I re-discovered the beloved that became the laughable.
Together, we shared memories of an idyllic time and we both miss those young moments of purity and innocence that pounded and bred us into who we are today. I now feel like a virtual graduate of Lincoln Northeast High School. Now you know there are two witnesses to this wonderland known as childhood in Lincoln, Nebraska.