This is an inspiring and uplifting tale . . . I was moved to tears, and you will be, too.
More than 6 million soldiers passed through then, nearly 8, 000 a day toward the end of the war.
I salute the author for preserving this story of another time in another America.
Greene locates some of the women who greeted the trains with homemade food and a dance or two. . .
. . . a glimpse into rural Nebraska culture, norms and practices long since vanished.
There is an extraordinary story that should someday be told about the railroad depot in North Platte, Nebraska, that transformed itself, during World War II, into a most memorable convening place for the soldiers passing through. Every day, from 5 a.m. until midnight, the North Platte Canteen opened its doors to the troops whose trains pulled into townproviding free egg salad sandwiches, apples, candy and homemade cakes; magazines, Bibles and music; encouragement and friendship. Between Christmas Day 1941 and early April 1946, some 6 million military personnel were fed and nurtured by a community 12,000 people strong. All of them were volunteers. All of them were inspired to do something for men who might never return home. What a story that is, and what a dire shame that Bob Greene does not quite find a way to tell it in his new book, Once Upon a Town.
A syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of some twenty books, including the bestselling Duty, Greene surely has his heart in the right place. "We're always talking about what it is that we want the country to become," Greene writes. "Maybe the answer is one we already had, but somehow threw away."
But how does one reimagine history, when most of the evidence is gone? The conundrum faces Greene from the opening pages, and he never quite stares it down. "I arrived in town, and went to the place where the train depot had stood, and there was nothing there," he reports, about the station that was demolished in 1973. His search for the story he wants to tell will, he admits, be akin to searching for a ghost.
With the Canteen no longer standing, Greene feels compelled to fill the pages ofhis book with what he finds in contemporary North Platte insteada girls' softball game, a Wal-Mart. We get the inside scoop, in other words, on many things that have nothing at all to do with his subject. In addition to making some rather obfuscating observations, Greene begins to ask old-timers to recollect the era of the great Canteen. But again, these tales are infused with so many tangents that the Canteen gets lost in the mist. For example, after one former volunteer briefly recalls for Greene the first Christmas at the Canteen ("We carried the bushel baskets out to the train, gave the men the apples and the candy, wished them Merry Christmas, and the train left"), she turns her memories upon her own "fly-by-night" mother, who had no presence at the Canteen. It's certainly easy to understand why this interviewee would choose to tell her mother's story to a kind and interested reporter, but it's harder to comprehend why Greene would include such anecdotes in this book.
What really thwarts Once Upon a Town is Greene's decision to tell the tale not as a historian mightusing the tools of synthesis and imaginative reconstructionbut as a journalist overly enamored with so many seemingly unedited transcripts. Page after page of Once Upon a Town is given over to memories of old-timers whom Greene introduces merely by name and by age, making it difficult to lose one's self in whatever they are saying or the era they have been asked to re-create.
The North Platte Canteen represents an exquisite moment in our nation's history, when perfect strangers treated perfect strangers as best-loved sons, and Bob Greene does a very special thing by putting the fact of the Canteen back into our national consciousness. He could have done so much more, however, to make us believe in the place that it was.
Chicago Tribune columnist Greene (Duty) provides a moving, detailed remembrance of North Platte, Neb., and its residents' selfless contribution to the war effort during WWII. The town, located in the middle of the middle of the country, was situated on the rail line to western military bases. Ignited by a letter printed in a local newspaper, the town's residents organized a canteen for soldiers headed for the front lines, bringing food, cigarettes and magazines. Greene interviews locals, war veterans and former residents, offering a genuine but unsentimental glimpse of Americana. LaVon Fairley Kemper remembers one volunteer who learned that her son had been killed in combat, yet said, I can't help my son, but I can help someone else's son. For the soldiers, Greene writes, the canteen and the townspeople's welcome was indicative of the nation's sacrifice, a point driven home in several memorable anecdotes. The young soldiers saw the brief stop in North Platte as one last chance to be carefree, an opportunity to jitterbug and flirt with the fresh-faced teenaged girls for a safe, fleeting moment. Beyond the wartime recollections, Greene reflects on his travels in the region, skillfully chronicling its citizens, evolution and love for its past, using the intimate, engaging writing style familiar to readers of his syndicated column. Those intrigued with WWII lore will find this well-crafted book an entertaining snapshot of a simpler, kinder America. Greene's skill makes this homage not just a time capsule but a work that will strike a resonating chord in those seeking to remember the generosity and selflessness of many when faced with adversity and peril. Agent, Eric Simonoff, Janklow & Nesbit. (June 3) Forecast: With a history of writing bestsellers, Greene will make the best of an extended tour in Nebraska and the Midwest to generate grassroots interest in this feel-good chronicle of wartime America. Faithful readers of his column and books will snatch this up, inspired by the current patriotic mood. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Greene, author of the best-selling Duty, here depicts the little North Dakota town that ran a canteen for troops passing through on their way to World War II. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Veteran Chicago Tribune columnist Greene (Duty) takes a lively, affectionate look at small-town America through the lens of a most unusual institution. North Platte, Nebraska, is one of those places that flashes by on the interstate, a typical wayside venue of fast-food restaurants, chain stores, and a decaying downtown, superficially "just another interchangeable part of a bland and homogenized America in which Connecticut is no different from Texas." Six decades ago, the town made much more of an impression upon thousands of young American men who, passing through on troop trains en route to war in Europe or the Pacific, were treated at its station canteen to cigarettes, fresh food, hot coffee, and plenty of hospitality. "This was not something orchestrated by the government," Greene writes. "This was not paid for with public money. All the food, all the services, all the hours of work were volunteered by private citizens and local businesses"with, he adds, the exception of a five-dollar donation made by President Roosevelt, who had heard about the place and wanted to pay his respects. In the course of this searching portrait, Greene wanders around North Platte, visiting with elderly veterans of the canteen and WWII, examining how the citizens' generosity and caring made a world of difference to all those young men so many years ago. (He also includes grateful letters written to the townspeople by soldiers and their parents.) Along the way, pointedly but subtly, Greene contrasts the North Platte and America of yesteryear with what they have become today. Asking himself whether an American town today would do what North Platte did then, he rejoins with a more elemental question: "What's a town?" In a literature overflowing with melodramatic, and often overblown, accounts by the likes of Brokaw and Ambrose, this pleasingly modest and meaningful account of life on the homefront deserves the widest audience.
“Greene [is] one of the great contemporary chroniclers of American life.”
“Once again, Bob Greene has shown us why he is one of the best storytellers of contemporary times.”
“Charming…a portrait of the can-do spirit at work.”
“A tale of small-town generosity in a time of war.”
“Poignant and heartfelt.”
“…the quintessential American story…”
“… I salute the author for preserving this story of another time in another America.”
“Greene is a virtuoso of the things that bring journalism alive.”
“This is a great story of love, country and uncalled-for service in a time of national crisis.”
“... a glimpse into rural Nebraska culture, norms and practices long since vanished.”