Thursday, September 1, 2011

A life on the road

©2011 Omaha World-Herald.
From 1970 to 1981, many a family trip started by crossing the Mormon Bridge on I-680 from Omaha to north of Council Bluffs. It was a flat start to miles and miles of farm-dotted hillsides, endless swaths of corn and grain, interrupted here and there by the occasional truck stop or Stuckey's.

At least once a year, it was off to Tuscola, Illinois, and later to State Line, Indiana, to spend either Easter or Thanksgiving — usually the latter — with my Grandma Layne. Almost always, Dad's sister, Ann Reese, and her family would be there; Grandma's sister Helen (Grandma's name was Beatrice) would often show up as well. Sometimes the trip included a visit to Grandma's farmland, where we would visit the tenant farmer, Bill Stoerger, and his family.

Grandma Layne was almost the stereotype grandmother you used to see in commercials and television. She knitted and crocheted. She stitched comforters, one of which was always spread neatly over her cherrywood queen-sized bed (which I inherited and had to give up, and I still feel sick about it). Her study was filled with neat little bric-a-brac and delicate porcellain pieces. She wore dresses and wore horn-rimmed glasses. She spoke in a quiet, grandmotherly tone and had a quiet sense of humor. 

(One night, my brother Bob and I were lying awake in our sleeping bags in the study while she was eating some ice cream and speaking to someone else — Mom and Dad? Anyway, we heard the clatter of the spoon in her bowl as she announced, "I can't eat another bite" ... and then we heard the unthinkable: Grandma belched. Quite loudly. Grandmothers don't burp! And they don't follow it up with a quip like, "Oh, well, maybe I can eat a little bit more!" Bob and I howled over that.)

The last time I crossed the Mormon Bridge to go to Illinois was in August of 1985. It was to lay Grandma in the cemetery in Tuscola, where a site beside Grandpa had been waiting for her since 1972. It would be the last time I saw my cousin Wayne, who died in an accident a few years ago, or my uncle George, who passed away just a couple of years ago. I don't remember when Great-aunt Gertrude passed; there were so many years when we just lost contact with our relatives out there.

The last time I crossed the Mormon Bridge was 2008. I'd gone back with Bob to Omaha on a weekend visit. While I was there, my friends and I decided to eat a prime rib dinner at the Pink Poodle in Crescent. As far as I know, the Poodle is still there, serving a pretty decent cut of meat.

But the stretch of I-680 from the Mormon Bridge to I-29 (pictured above) has been destroyed. 

Massive melt-offs up in the northern reaches of Montana and Wyoming, from where the Missouri River springs, led to high river levels all along the waterway, spilling over the banks between Ft. Calhoun several miles north of Omaha and Missouri Valley a few miles south of Council Bluffs. According to the Omaha World-Herald, "parts of the road and its supports ran against the grain of how floodwaters flowed and washed away like a weakened dam;" assuming an aggressive schedule, repairs will take until at least Thanksgiving of 2012.

Yes, the road will be repaired. Nothing to get all gloom and doom about. But ....

I used to drive an ice-cream (technically "frozen novelties") truck in a great, circuitous route from Blair to Fremont. As I drove down US 30 from Kennard to Arlington, the heat shimmering off the concrete, I would see a couple stretches of dilapidated, abandoned macadam that the concrete had replaced. They're still there, if you'd like to take a look. Old Lincoln Highway, which used to be connected to West Dodge Road at about 174th (now Burt St. acts as an access road), still takes you to Elkhorn on bricks ... but historical preservation ends at Cedar St. There was a time when I would see such cobblestone bricks on Old Military Road as it ran west of 168th Street, in patches where the blacktop had chunked off.

And as I drove along these pieces of 20th-century history, I would daydream and wonder about the people who had been that way before me, when the bricks and the blacktop had been fresh and new, who had driven their Fords and Chevys and Oldsmobiles to church — to market — to their jobs — to the recruiting stations and wartime factories. Perhaps they'd listed to the radio like we did on our way to Illinois; when the signal gave out, they'd sung songs and told stories just as we had. And when they got hungry, they'd find a roadside diner just as we found a Stuckey's; when they needed gas or a "comfort break", they'd find a Texaco or Standard with CLEAN RESTROOMS and a vending machine that dispensed twelve-ounce glass bottles of Coke or Pepsi.

And now I wonder: Fifty years from now, will that stretch of I-680 be obsolete as we flit around the skies like the Jetsons? Or will it be abandoned and surrendering to entropy as those now-crumbling chunks of what used to be US 30, because our country suffered an economic cascade failure?

And will anyone in that future, be it utopian or dystopian, look upon the ruins of I-680 and see the ghost of a little boy going over the river and through the long Iowa fields to visit his grandmother?