back to the Black Table
               
  SIX THINGS YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT: NEBRASKA.  
   
   
 

As Bill Bryson said in The Lost Continent: "Nebraska must be the most unexciting of all the states. Compared with it, Iowa is paradise."

Mr. Bryson would probably choose to punch me in the stomach. When I first meet someone and freely admit that I hail from Nebraska, they respond in one of three ways.

1. "Oooh, I'm sorry. I don't know if I'd really tell anybody that. People will think you're weird"
2. "I fly over it all the time."

 
 

3. "I had to drive through Nebraska once. It was the worst day of my life. I almost went nuts. And since I can't have that time back, I'm gonna make you pay."

On several occasions I've had to move like the prairie wind to avoid taking an angry fist to my cornfed belly. Granted, from the vantage point of the arrow straight and table flat 455-mile stretch of Interstate 80, it might be a little bit difficult for one to imagine that Nebraska is more than one big cornfield and one really bad Bruce Springstein album title.

Kool-Aid, the Vice Grip, the Hallmark Card, and Malcolm X all had to come from somewhere and Nebraska was the place, a magical land where the temperature ranges from a brisk negative 47 to a balmy 118. Here are some other things you should know to before you find yourself at Ole's Big Game Bar and Grill sitting next to a stuffed polar bear -- and suddenly realize you're the one who sticks out like tits on a bull.

Nebraska, it's not in the middle of nowhere. It's in the middle of everything.

 

#1. Heaps of Junked Cars = Tourism.

Marijuana grows wild in many parts of Nebraska but one would have to smoke an acre of "ditchweed" to conjure up what Jim Reinders thought would make a great memorial to his father. To the stressed out city slicker, Carhenge may be the ultimate example of what happens when one has way too much free time.

Located a stone's throw from Alliance this full scale replica of Stonehenge is made from junked automobiles -- 38 examples of classic American iron to be exact. When Carhenge was completed back in 1987, more than a few local feathers were ruffled. Residents tried to get the eyesore removed until they realized they could make money by hawking Carhenge souvenirs to all the modern day druids and looky-loos that flock from far and wide to visit Carhenge.

 

#2. You Have Burgers and We Have the Runza.

Cali has the In-N-Out Burger. Philly has the cheese steak. The Dirty South has the Food Stamps. Nebraska has the Runza, a beef patty sandwich thing, courtesy of Germans who immigrated by way of Russia. (Catherine the Great invited Germans to freely settle in her country. Alexander II kicked them out a century later and somehow they and their Runza ended up in "The Good Life State.")

Although the Ruben and McRib are true Nebraska products, the Runza is the state's most famous sandwich. Actually, this Atkins Diet nightmare isn't exactly a sandwich. It's more like a big beefy Twinkie with a mysterious side. Just how do they sneak all that deliciously spicy beef inside the fresh, warm, bun? You can ask yourself at any of Runza's 60 plus locations. Or for the bargain price of $250 ($137.50 for the sandwiches, $112.50 for next day shipping) Runza will ship you 50 examples for you and your friends to poke and prod. That's just five bucks a sandwich!

How fond of the Runza is the average Nebraskan? If that average Nebraskan were in prison and a pack of cigarettes traded for a night of good lovin, a Runza would equal marriage. No questions asked.

 

#3. The Children of the Corn Is Kinda True.

From 35,000 feet, a cornfield may look like a happy green square in the farmland quilt. However, down below children are suffering enough to make Sally Struthers think kids in Africa have it easy. For the vast majority of Nebraskans, childhood ends at age 12 unless you're lucky enough to be less than five feet tall.

I've often told my city dwelling friends that detasseling corn is a bit like summer camp -- every day you're out enjoying nature with your peers. Except your day begins at 4 a.m. with your heartless mother dropping you off at a waiting school bus so you can be schlepped out to a cornfield far enough away where nobody will hear you scream for help, as you spend your day walking through a maze of maize pulling the male parts of the "female" corn, which is as tall as Yao Ming. Ensuring proper cross-pollination is the goal of detasseling.

The Bataan Death March is a Sunday stroll compared to spending your day trudging through a cornfield. Razor sharp leaves force you to wear jeans and a flannel shirt on a 100-degree day unless you enjoy being a bloody mess and full of corn rash. But since the corn was irrigated during the night, you're slogging through shin deep mud a mile up, a mile back.

Occasionally, following you is a "checker," a veteran detasseler who makes sure you aren't missing any tassels. He's a nice, supportive gent who will not only handout a beat down for missing a vital tassel. He'll also extort your lunch from you in exchange for not telling the crew chief, the most senior detasseler back from college who's learned a trick or two from his fraternity that he can apply to his "Lord of the Flies" management model. He gets to spend his day smoking ditchweed and making sure nobody steals the bus. Thankfully the detasseling season is relatively short; there are only a few weeks of 12-hour workdays for minimum wage plus a small bonus if you have perfect attendance.

Detassling corn is a rite of passage and a quick lesson in the Nebraska work ethic which boils down to this: Nebraskans are such hard workers because they live in fear of losing that cush job and ending up back in the fields.

 

#4. We Were Bombed in World War II.

August 16th, 1943: Tarnov's dozens of residents take to *the* street and dance into the morning in celebration of the annual Harvest Festival. Had the Tarnovians remembered to turn off the strings of party lights maybe they all wouldn't have been so rudely awakened a few hours later when Army Air Corps bombers rumbled overhead.

Thinking the lights marked the targets of a bombing range, (they were only a few miles off target) bombardiers got the party started one more time by dropping a few bombs on the sleeping village below. The bombs were only 100-pound dummies and didn't actually explode as they crashed through a few roofs below. Fortunately, nobody was even hurt and the errant pilots helped keep Nebraska "safe" from Adolf Hitler, who was making eyes at Nebraska.

As the story goes, Hitler fantasized about making the Nebraska State Capitol his headquarters when the Third Reich succeeded. He really enjoyed Nebraska's centralized location and the fact that the German architect Bertram Goodhue designed Nebraska's capitol to look like a giant penis. Heck, Hitler even had the blueprints in his desk.

 

#5. Nebraska & Hollywood Go Together Like Mickey & Mallory.

For as long as there's been a Hollywood scene Nebraska has played a key role. Wahoovian, Darryl F. Zanuck founded 20th Century Fox. Grand Islander Glenn Wallich was a co-founder of Capitol Records. Marlon Brando and Henry Fonda got their theatrical start in Omaha, as did Fred Astaire. On the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest Actors these Nebraska natives are ranked fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively. Johnny Carson started as The Great Carsoni, working Norforlk's amateur magician circuit. The trend continues today with the likes of Nick Nolte, Swoozy Kurtz, and Chris Klein -- who was discovered by "Election" director Alexander Payne.

Heck, even plain and simple Nebraska residents have inspired award-winning movies. Father Flannigan was the man behind "Boy's Town." Teena Brandon was the Transgendered murder victim that earned fellow Linonite Hillary Swank and Oscar for her role in "Boys Don't Cry." And Charles Starkweather, America's first serial killer, and Caril Fugate, his 14 year-old girlfriend gave life to "Natural Born Killers."

Just how serious is Nebraska about the entertainment industry? Well, there's group in Los Angeles called the Nebraska Coast Connection, specifically for Nebraskans in the entertainment industry, with over 2,000 members, or 0.12% of Nebraska's population.

 

#6. Sometimes, We "Cheat" to Lose at Football.

No story about the 37th state would be complete without mentioning the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers. Formerly known as the Bugeaters and Rattlesnake Boys, the Cornhuskers are the best team -- make that *teams* -- in the history of college football. Jeff Sargarin's highly scientific and accurate study places the '95 and '71 squads first and second on his list of the all-time best. Think your Alma matter has loyal fans? When a Husker fan bleeds they make sure it's Husker Red and they've made sure every home game's been sold out since 1962.

But did you know the Huskers lost the best game in the history of college football?

New Year's Day of 1984 found the Huskers in the Orange Bowl trailing the Miami Hurricanes 17-0 with halftime looming and their dreams of a National Championship slipping away. There was no reason to panic. On the sideline coaching the Huskers was Tom Osborne, a man so focused and wise he makes Yoda look like a special needs student with ADHD. Dr. Tom -- he as a PhD in Developmental Psychology -- decided it was as good a time as any to unveil a little something he drew up called the "fumblerooski."

The play started with quarterback Turner Gill *placing* the ball on the ground as if he fumbled, then All-American lineman Dean Steinkuhler picked it up and rumbled 19 yards for a touchdown. To say fumblerooski was a surprise is an understatement. Nebraska's offensive was as conservative as its citizens who haven't voted a Democrat to the Whitehouse since FDR. Was Miami fooled? Does a golden retriever look stupid chasing his own tail? The fumblerooski was so dastardly it was eventually banned from college football.

Nebraska should have won -- but the Huskers came up a point short, losing 31-30 on a failed two-point conversion in the final seconds of what many experts call the greatest college football game ever.

Still the game was not a failure. It was the start of a decade long test of Coach Osborne's Nebraska work ethic and the Husker Nation's patience. In 1995 Osborne got a rematch and won his first of three National Championships over a five-year run in which his teams went a mind boggling 60 and 3 -- and produced the best football team ever.

 

Want More?

Visit the Archive.