Tuesday, September 4 Bill and the guys from BG&S Transmissions are my new favorite people, and I hope I never ever see them again. It’s nothing personal. I’m just so glad to be out of Grand Island.
I really did try to make the best of it. When Kenny walked back from dropping off the Jeep I dragged him to the Chamber of Commerce so I could pick up some brochures on the area, and then we headed back to BG&S because Bill was letting us borrow a courtesy car. Coffee and brochures in hand, I wanted to hug him when he said that one of the guys in the shop just happened to have an old Jeep transmission. They were hoping to just drop it in, and then we’d be on our way again this afternoon. If not, they’d Frankenstein the two and we’d have to stay another night. Oh, please please no!
“We get a cheap rate at the Days Inn,” Bill said. “You don’t want to stay where you are. I’ve had other customers tell me they’ve got roaches, so make sure you shake out anything you had on the floor.”
“We also got a really great mall,” he said, looking at me. Then he looked at Kenny. “I’m looking at her because I figured she’d want to go shopping.”
“You’ll be able to find anything you want over there. They got Applebees and Red Lobster and Menards and everything.” Still looking at Kenny. Which is understandable, considering he mentioned food and a home improvement store.
We left Bill to his stereotypes. He could have called me the little woman and I wouldn’t have cared. (If anyone else tries that, though, we’ll have words, and not very nice ones.) He was loaning us a car, and I was willing to make any number of exceptions for the man who controlled the length of our stay in Grand Island. Spoiled Chicagoan that I am, I was even willing to eat at Red Lobster if that’s what he thought I should do.
Earlier I’d seen the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer on the atlas. From the brochures the women at the Chamber gave me, I learned that it was a settlement reenactment. That sounded fun and appropriately touristy. Plus I hadn’t been to one of those since I was in elementary school.
We started off at the indoor museum. Larry greeted us and seemed just pleased as a professor with his favorite pupil. He loves his area’s history, and since we were the only two there he had a captive audience.
“Do you know what the leading cause of death east of the Mississippi was?” he asked. “Shooting. And from the river to the Rockies it was disease, and west of the Rockies was drowning.”
He went on to tell us why that was the case, and then details about wagons and other transportation. There’s an earth lodge on the grounds, so he told us about the Pawnees and how several families would live in one lodge, and there would be several lodges in a community.
“And then we white people came across the Mississippi and brought them all these little gifts, like typhoid and cholera and mumps and smallpox,” Larry said.
The Pawnee population was decimated. Finally, he said, they got tired of the little gifts and picked up and moved to Oklahoma. Later he cornered us as we were going from one exhibit room to another and told us that the “Indians” weren’t this big “red threat” that everyone was afraid of.
“Sure, they’d come steal a horse, but if you went and asked for it back they’d give it to you.”I’ve never quite heard a tale like Larry spun of the relations between the Pawnee and the settlers, but I have a feeling it’s a bit revised to put Hall County and Grand Island in a positive light.
We finally escaped the well-meaning Larry and headed towards the settlement. It seemed almost like a ghost town since there weren’t any other visitors. The “residents” were all indoors. I could see someone sitting inside the hardware store. He welcomed us to his store, tugging on his navy blue vest with a watch chain sneaking out of his pocket, smiling all the way to his red-rimmed rheumy eyes that have probably seen years just a few shy of a century. As he came from behind the counter and lovingly pointed out various items, he reminisced to his childhood and the cold winter mornings when he would jump out of bed to be warmed by the heat of a coal burning stove just like the one in the store. This man was proud of the wares on display, of the tools used to hand-carve intricate details into wood, of the octagonal cabinet with triangular shelves secured with a simple peg and notch system, of the mica sheets used in the windows of the stove. We shook hands and left him to his relics, and I imagined him settling back behind the counter like the items he so lovingly guarded.
Next door the noise from the planing mill interrupted the quietude of the nearly vacant town. A center pole ran the length of the building, and large leather bands extended from it to an assortment of saws and machinery. The pole turned the bands, spaced out like inverted V’s, and those powered the machines. To the left and back a ceiling fan rotated keeping the sawdust from hanging in the air. A gentleman sanding what looked like a decorated post on a lathe stopped his work as we entered. He had dusty red hair, and like his neighbor at the hardware store, a gleam in his eye that belied the wrinkles on his face.
“What are you making?” Kenny asked over the whir of the bands.
“I’m just playing,” he said. “Where are you folks from?”
We chatted for a little bit about our trip and his other visitors that day. Then he asked “Wanna see the best saw you ever saw?”
How could we resist that? “Sure!”
When he headed back to turn off the generator that powered the pole that turned the bands, he explained that back in the day it would have been a steam generator, “but we didn’t want to mess with that.” He opened the gate and invited Kenny to sit at a contraption that looked like a combination of a bicycle and a bandsaw. Peddling would turn the gears that operated the saw. After he give him a piece of wood, he instructed him to push it through the saw along the penciled lines and to peddle.
“Come on, peddle!” he urged. I could just picture him peddling so hard he’d peddle his finger right off, but I kept quiet.
His completed project was a “skyhook”. It looked like the number seven. He turned the number on its back and showed us how they would place a belt in the groove and then balance the long back end of the seven on a shelf.
Our last two tradesmen were the tinsmith and the blacksmith. The tin smith told us of his 60-year-old apprentice while hand cutting a perfect circle to be used as a lid on a can. He let us twist a skinny piece into what would have been used as “tinsel” on a Christmas tree.The blacksmith, the youngest of the townsmen, made a decorative leaf that he put on a keychain.
We were starting to get a little antsy at this point. Why hadn’t Bill called us? It was after three in the afternoon and we just wanted to get the heck out of Dodge. We quit the town, popped into the earth lodge and the teepee, and headed out of the museum. As we were driving past the Ruby Tuesday and the Steak Buffet and the Italian Buffet and the Chinese Buffet and the Red Lobster, Bill called and said four magic words.
“Don’t get a room.”
It wasn’t quite ready, so we headed directly to Sonic. We’d noticed it immediately on our way into town, busted transmission and all, because it was the first one we’d ever seen. I’ve seen scads of commercials, like every other Chicagoan, and wondered why they play them in a city that doesn’t have any. Sure, they’re funny, but are they hoping the random person will visit a place where they do have a location and try it out because they’ve seen so many of their commercials that they just have to see what all the fuss is about? Like that would happen. (If you never get the opportunity to visit one, don’t worry. You’re not really missing much.)
By 5:45 we were on the road again, and we’re now well on our way to Denver. I’m usually pretty good at making the best of bad situations, so I wondered why I was so darn antsy and irritable and could not wait to get the Hell out of Grand Island. It was more than just wanting to get to the mountains. It was a tension that took over my body and my attitude. I felt that if I were to live there I could quickly become a bitter, cynical woman, and Kenny can attest that I was well on my way.
The answer came quickly. The people who live there hate it. There’s a cloud of negativity that hangs over the area like a swarm of locusts, sucking the lifeblood out of its residents. They were extremely nice to us, but they feel stuck. Even the poor guy at Sonic told his tale of woe. He’s from Sacramento and was a traveling salesman. After two years they dropped him in Hastings, an even smaller town than Grand Island, and refused to get him a plane ticket home. He’s trying to work his way back. Everyone we met wanted us to get out of there quickly, for our own sakes. Could that be why Bill and his crew tried so hard to get the Jeep rolling again?
At this point, as we head ever upwards towards Denver, on a pitch black night brightened intermittently by passing semis and small towns, I’m just happy to have that adventure behind me and ready to experience another.