“I’ve never met anyone from Nebraska.”

Usual response when I tell people where I grew up. Then, “Where is that, up near Maine?” Followed by, “Did you have to draw water from a well?”

I say, “Yes, it’s near Maine, because ‘N’ comes after ‘M’ in the alphabet and that’s how all the states are arranged geographically.” And I say, “On the prairie, we didn’t drink water. Just gin. Which springs up from a well naturally, and is why we’re always drunk out there.”

When I first moved to Massachusetts, having driven across the country in a small black Honda Civic that wheezed at even the hint of an incline, I still had my Nebraska license plates on the car – a bright orange and red dramatization of the Midwest, with a fiery, setting sun in the upper corner and three geese artfully flying home. A few cattails garnished the corners. Somebody got carried away.

These plates shone ostentatiously in every parking lot, in every traffic jam, as if my car had worn an inappropriate dress to a party; they stunned people. I nearly ran some folks over because they lost all sense of time and place and human dignity and just stared. I once watched someone mouth the word, slowly, as if pronouncing it for the first time, “Ne-bra-ska,” and then elbow a friend and point at me in astonishment. I could have been a Lost Boy who escaped the Congo for wintry Minnesota. How did I ever survive there, or make it out alive?

A few weeks after I moved into an apartment, my neighbor trotted across the street to introduce himself. He was a teacher, and he was thinking of inviting me to speak to his class. I thought it was because I was a young, intrepid journalist who could inspire a stray kid to “stay in school.”

“Because you’re from Nebraska,” he said. “My students have never met anyone like you.” Exotic, corn-fed girl to give speech about the hard life on the Plains, her encounters with natives, tilling the soil, meeting boys at county fairs and then never seeing them again until they ride up on horseback to ask her papa for her hand, and the wonders of cooking with sorghum.

I’ve now been on the East Coast for over eight years and ditched those license plates long ago. I started to get weary that they read, “Rob me.” But after all this time, I’ve noticed there’s still some mass confusion, and dare I say – hysteria – about what it’s like growing up Nebraskan. So I thought I’d clear it up for y’all.

First, we don’t say y’all. Or at least I never did in my neck of the woods. We didn’t say “neck of the woods”, either. I did not walk for miles to get water. I did not tussle, barter, or give poisonous blankets to Indians. I learned about Native Americans the same way everyone else did – at a museum where I stood in a fake teepee and wondered where they went to the bathroom. My parents did not own a farm.

A lot of people know how to read. The state is flat, but not all flat. It’s in the middle of the country, surrounded by a group of states that make up what’s known as “the Midwest.” Wiki that for more. We didn’t own cows. Omaha Steaks really aren’t that amazing, even though they’re a prize on “Wheel of Fortune.” Also, not everyone from Nebraska is the nicest person you’ve ever met. I’m not that nice; I just come across that way. Finally, I probably don’t know the person you know who lives/lived in Iowa, Missouri or Kansas.

And yes, for god’s sake, yes, I’ve seen a tornado, and yes, it was scary.

So what was life like, on the prairie and all? No prairie – I lived in the suburbs of Omaha, in the town of Bellevue, where my dad worked as contractor for the military in the underground buildings at Offutt Air Force Base. I was told Bellevue would be the second place bombed if the U.S. was ever attacked; the first would be the White House. Sometimes I looked up at the sky and wondered if anyone was aiming for us.

I learned about the prairie and covered wagons and baking biscuits in iron skillets by reading Willa Cather. O pioneer, indeed! That sounds like it was hard. Once, my dad forced us to drive across the entire state on a family vacation on our way to the Badlands, and I liked the town of Valentine, Nebraska, only for it’s name. Its emptiness scared me. You could have called this trip, “The Trail of Tears,” but that joke might be too soon.

In high school, I was a Cornhusker fan like everyone else. I went to the stadium to watch a couple of games and got caught up in the eerie, nationalistic fervor as the Red Sea parted for our favorite players, like Tommie Frazier and Brook Berringer (whose death in a plane accident made all the girls at school cry, including me). We won Orange Bowls and other fruit-type bowls, and head coach Tom Osborne became a congress member. I didn’t know his politics then, and didn’t care. No one did. He had led our team to victory, and somehow that made him a little like God.

Speaking of God, there was a lot of Him. Probably because there wasn’t a whole lot else left to do – God and football. So if you imagined this, you were right.

I did work on a farm for one summer when I was fourteen years old, de-tassling corn with a crew of child labor. We were bussed out to farms at five in the morning, our sleepy heads bouncing in the dark. Other than this experience, I didn’t grow up any closer to the land than a kid in Brooklyn. I ate a lot of Taco Bell.

See, it’s all pretty normal, growing up stuff. You and me, we’re not that different after all. The whole “Nebraska” thing doesn’t have to divide us anymore, or utterly confuse you.

Do I plan to ever move back? Are you crazy?! That state is as crazy as all get out. Never said “as all get out”, either.









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Megan Tady is a blog editor and video producer for a national non-profit and writes a monthly media column for InTheseTimes.com. Prior to this, Megan was a national political reporter for In These Times, a staff reporter and editor for The New Standard, and worked extensively as a freelance journalist writing for AlterNet, The American Prospect, Colorlines, Reuters, Yes Magazine and Women's eNews, among others. She also blogs for the Huffington Post. Although she's typically writing about "serious issues of concern," on the side (which side? where is that?), Megan writes "humorous, poetic and refreshingly honest fiction and creative non-fiction that you want to savor like the last bite of homemade cherry pie.*" *She wrote that quote herself. Follow her on Twitter @MegTady.

15 responses to “Growing up Nebraskan”

  1. Reno j. Romero says:

    megan:

    first: hello. and good morning. well, thanks for clearing that mystery up. personally, i never thought of those things when i think about nebraska. the fetching of water, the prairie, the covered wagon. now, oklahoma…

    i’ve been to oklahoma numerous times and was showed the ropes by the locals. don’t mess with oklahoma, megan. dear people but they don’t take any shit. i know i’m a stranger to you, but trust me on this one.

    when i think of nebraska i think of two things. 1) football. the cornhuskers. great history. but you know this. 2) the counting crows. “omaha” is one of my favorite all-time jams. love it to bits. which reminds me that i need to get my CD back from my ex. you think after two years she’d give it up? hell, she probably burned it or sold it at a yard sale for three pennies.

    anyhow, i’m rambling. glad to know the peeps in nebraska know how to read (people actually think they can’t? lordy…). that was a fun and funny read. take care.

    reno romero

    • Megan Tady says:

      thanks for reading reno! oh, i know all about oklahoma — that’s where my kin live now. never said “kin.” oklahoma makes nebraska look like a democrat. maybe that’ll be my next post…

      and get the cd back; it’s a good one.

  2. Matt says:

    Megan,

    Ashamed to admit that most of the very little that I know about Nebraska has come from those Willa Cather novels as well. Oh, and the movies Up In The Air and Election, both of which are set in or involve Omaha. Ashamed to admit, too, that I chuckle every time I hear Gene Hackman’s line from Unforgiven: “Hell, even I thought I was dead. Turned out I was just in Nebraska.” So, sorry about all that. This is an eye-opener.

    Richard Cox lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That’s nearby, right? Do you know him?

    • Megan Tady says:

      i totally know richard cox! what a dick! right??

    • Richard Cox says:

      According to Google Maps, the distance between Omaha and Tulsa is 382 miles, which is exactly the distance listed between L.A. and San Francisco. Not really that close.

      But I mean it’s all the same, right? Flyover country? Just a big homogeneous stretch of guns and god?

      I mean, it is sort of like that, but Megan’s right. Oklahoma makes any state look Democrat. For the love of fuck.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Simon Smithson and I drove through Nebraska in June – unfortunately what I remember most about it was the 6 hour lack of cellphone coverage and the fact that every gas station was running a pretty good line in Jesus tee shirts.

    Then we stopped in Lincoln and it was just lovely. Perfect temperature, lovely brickwork. I now have a soft spot reserved for this city.

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh! Oh! Yes! Nebraska!

    Lincoln’s awesome. We actually spoke to Richard while sitting at a Starbuck’s there. It was that Starbuck’s that reminded me how much I totally love the US. Which is to say, I guess, Nebraska’s all right in my book.

  5. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    I’ve seen those Nebraska license plates and remember once thinking how much cooler they were than the Pennsylvania plate with the owl on it that I was surrounded by growing up. Much later in life, in a camper, I stayed a night at Fort Robinson near Crawford where the sunset over the rolling prairie hills was actually fairly astonishing and not too far off from the license plate image. Though in place of the geese was a historical plaque that said ‘Crazy Horse was killed here.’

    But this line of yours I love and maybe sums up the state, or even the whole of the Midwest: “I’m not that nice; I just come across that way.”

  6. Don Mitchell says:

    I’m a sucker for any piece about being from a place people think they know something about, but don’t. Good job.

    I’m with you on the weird questions and license plates. In the mid-sixties I drove from California to Massachusetts with Hawai’i plates.

    “Did you drive here?”
    “Sure, the bridge is open now.”

    I’ve driven through Nebraska many times and can’t say that I was very attracted to it, but for me this is true of any largely-flat state. This is a preface to saying that I feel as though I know Nebraska better from Jim Harrison’s novels Dalva and The Road Home than ever from being there. Do you know them?

  7. Megan Tady says:

    I haven’t read those books, but now I will. Hilarious bit about the Hawai’i plates!

  8. Ross Hickerson says:

    Everyone says, “Oh, God, It’s SO FLAT,” and that lets you know that they’ve only ever been through the state on I-80. Nebraska’s southerly fifth is flat. Everything else rolls.

    Also: Omaha Steaks. I met my cousin at the fancy italian restaurant she hostessed at, in NYC, and her very gracious employers fed us for free, bragging all the while that they served Omaha Steaks, but in the back of my head, all I could think was, “Man, I feed these to my dogs…”

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