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Jewish World Review June 12, 2002 / 2 Tamuz, 5762

Bob Greene

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'How did they know to do that for us?'

This column is excerpted from the author's latest book, Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. | "You must remember this. . . ."

The lesson in those words can seem at the same time blithely simple yet impossibly complex. Especially on at a time like today -- as our nation finds itself in the kind of war our fathers and mothers could not have imagined when they were young men and women. The refrain from the ultimate war-era song of wistfulness and longing:

"You must remember this. . . ."

Today, and yesterday, and the day after tomorrow. The wars that reside in history books; the wars, and the young soldiers who fight them, whose stories have not yet been written. You must remember this. . . .

It is in the remembering that we come to understand there really is no distance between who we are today and who our fathers and mothers were then. On the surface, it would appear there is a chasm of a million miles. Our parents and grandparents lived in a world of train stations and two-lane highways and infrequent, costly city-to-city phone calls; we live in a world of jet planes and interstates and never being more than a second or two away from contact with anyone we want. Their war was against a defined enemy, an enemy that lived within borders they could see on a map; our new war is against an enemy with no face, no flag.

But the things that matter are constant; the things worth remembering -- that kindness and love exist in abundance, even in times of war, especially in times of war -- those are what connect us, and will save us. As I spoke with the men and women from the North Platte Canteen -- no longer young -- their words told me that 100 Memorial Days from now, the things most worth remembering will not be the sounds of explosions and pain. The things worth remembering -- always -- will be moments of softness and caring.

Purchasing this book
-- from which column is
excerpted -- helps fund JWR.
Link is in Bob's bio, below.

Jack Manion -- he is 78 now, living in Florida, north of Tampa -- told me about the moment he recalls most vividly on his way to war. It was 1943, and he and his fellow soldiers on the troop train had stopped at the North Platte Canteen for their 10 minutes, had been greeted by the smiling volunteers on the Nebraska plains, had been given sandwiches and cold bottles of milk and magazines and Bibles, and then -- the 10 minutes of love and welcoming cheer over -- had continued east, toward the ships that would eventually take him and them to the battlefields of Europe.

"It was kind of lonely" after the troop train left North Platte, Manion told me. "A little sad."

But he knew that -- a little farther down the tracks, in the small Nebraska town of Kearney -- someone might be waiting.

His father was a civil engineer, working at the time near Kearney. Manion had let his parents know that he would most likely be traveling past Kearney on this day.

"Between the cars of the train there was this little platform," he told me. "They let me stand on it as we approached Kearney.

"My parents were waiting there, next to the tracks. As the train rolled through Kearney, it slowed down a little bit. I was able to reach my hand out and shake my father's hand. Just for that one little moment.

"The conductor of the train was nervous about it, but he allowed me to do it. It was: Here I come, here I go. That brief. I think my father kind of had tears in his eyes as our hands touched.

"But he knew that it was a troop train. He knew that it couldn't stop."

The things that endure -- the things that are worth fighting for, then and now. . . .

Helen Johnson, who is 73 now, was a young girl in the town of Brule, Neb., during the 1940s. Her town was 60 miles west of the Canteen, and had a population of only 410. "My mom made meat sandwiches for the boys," she told me. "It was easy to convince me to go. There was food in my dad's car from top to bottom. The trunk was chock-full of sandwiches. We would hold the cakes as we rode."

She was just 13 when she started going to the Canteen. "It all happened in such a flurry, each train," she said. "You would very quickly start putting out your sandwiches on plates, and pouring drinks so they would be ready. All of us would man our posts. The boys had such a fleeting time with us.

"There just wasn't time to get to know them. The faces all became a blur by the end of the day. But they were all real to us -- and I think they were thankful that, for a few minutes, maybe they didn't have to think about the war."

After the last train of the night had pulled out, she said -- the last troop train on days when as many as 7,000 soldiers ran into the Canteen for the precious 10 minutes of being thanked and made to feel valued -- after that last train departed, "Of course, the Canteen seemed very, very silent and vacant. The ride back to our farm in Brule would be quiet and pretty somber. All the food containers would be empty. "You never really wiped away the thought of the boys. You could still see them climbing off the trains, and then filing back on. They knew not how many days they had left, or where they were going. They looked so young -- they were so young -- but they never said anything about it. It all went so fast at the Canteen, and they knew the train was pulling out shortly.

"At night on the farm, it would pass through your mind. The railroad tracks in our part of Nebraska were not even a quarter mile from our farmhouse, and every time you would hear a train, you would wonder if it was a troop train. If it was some of our boys."

Mrs. Johnson -- who still lives in Brule -- told me she has never forgotten what she would do, as a teenage girl, whenever the young soldiers hurried from the Canteen and back onto their trains.

"I would pray," she said. "For all of them. I would watch them get onto the train, and I would ask the Lord to bless and keep them. I wanted to keep smiling, in case they turned around to look at us as they left. But I was praying for them, with my eyes open."

Our world today -- our war today -- is changed. Our eyes do not often meet the eyes of the soldiers who fight in our name; the passenger trains are gone, and when our soldiers go off toward war they speed across the American continent high in the air, high above the rest of us. On overcast days they can't even see the country beneath them -- can't even see the little towns like North Platte. Up there, they may have their eyes open; down on the ground, we may have our eyes open. But we don't see each other. Our eyes do not catch sight of theirs. If we pray for the soldiers heading off to war, most often we are praying for people whose faces we do not know.

And on a day like today it seems especially important to pause and think about who they are, and who we are: who all of us have always been, in good times and in terrible.

"A lot of times we'd just get done with one train, and here comes another one," said Leona Martens, who is 73 now and who was a girl living in Wellfleet, Neb., when she would come to North Platte to help out at the Canteen. "You'd not hardly recover from the last train -- you would have had fun with that bunch, joshed with them -- and the next bunch comes in. A lot of them had been on their train from clear across the country.

"City and farm kids both, never been away from home, some of them. You could tell those -- they were the ones who were so quiet."

It was the lonely looking boys on the way to war who would draw her attention: "There were always the boys who had the gift of gab. They're the ones who had a circle of people around them. But then you would see the boys who didn't -- the boys who didn't seem to know how to talk to anyone.

"Those are the ones you would walk over and say hello to. With boys like that, you really felt needed."

Different sons and daughters fighting a different war, but still for us. Sons and daughters across the sea right now, today -- lonely ones, and ones with the gift of gab. Sons and daughters we pray will come home to their families safely, and will grow to become old men and old women. Old soldiers, many years from now.

You must remember this, about war and the things that matter. . . .

"You think back to the war," said Lawrence W. Jones, 77 now, living in Nacogdoches, Texas, an Army Air Corps tailgunner in 1943 when he stopped in North Platte on a troop train. "It's not the shootings and bombings you think about. It's the relationships with people, and some of them, you realize now, you hardly even knew."

He was crying as he spoke. "When veterans get together," he said, "they talk about this mission and that mission. But what they really mean is: `What happened to so-and-so?'

"That's how I feel about North Platte. What happened to all of those people? They were like our mothers and our sisters. How did they know to do that for us? How did they know how much it would mean?"

Same fears; same devotion; same love.

You must remember this:

The fundamental things apply.

As time goes by.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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