Did you look at the designs for a new Nebraska quarter and just groan?
There's Pa pushing a plow. And Pa, again, leading a pair of oxen. And oh, on this one, we have Ma hanging the laundry while Boy swings an ax.
It's not exactly a new story, the story we tell about Nebraska. We throw the same historical iconography on license plates, billboards, the state seal and on the previous Nebraska quarter. Fish for it in your pocket, and you'll see Pa, Ma, a covered wagon and those same oxen passing by Chimney Rock.
But is this the essence of Nebraska? Are we so yoked to the past that our pioneer heritage becomes all we are?
I started to leave these questions on the answering machine of a 77-year-old Nebraskan who has studied this state, written books about it, joked about it, criticized it, loved it and described it — while wearing overalls, to the horror of some Omahans — to Sunday morning audiences when he used to do reports for CBS called “Postcard from Nebraska.”
Roger Welsch apparently screens his calls because mid-message he picked up the phone and chortled: “This is something to which I've given considerable thought.”
“If I were to do one symbol of Nebraska, if I were to design a coin,” he said, “the best symbol of Nebraska, the best part of Nebraska, the thing that distinguishes Nebraska, the thing that everyone notices is a hand at the top of a steering wheel with a raised finger.”
Come again, Mr. Welsch?
“Not the middle finger,” he said. “The first finger. The farmer salute.”
Welsch told me that when his CBS crews would come to the central Nebraska town of Dannebrog, near where he lives on 50 acres, they would notice that one-finger wave and marvel.
What kind of place is it, they'd ask, where you'd wave to a total stranger?
“That's it,” Welsch said. “That's Nebraska.”
If only that were a national monument.
The new quarter design rules require state quarters to reflect a national park or monument. So the job gets easy when you're Utah (Arches National Park) or Colorado (The Great Sand Dunes) or Florida (Everglades).
Absent arches, dunes and glades, or mountains or oceans for that matter, Nebraska's pickin's are slim. Chimney Rock was taken last go-round. So the lens turned to a national monument in Beatrice that pays homage to that carrot — free land — the federal government waved at the bold and the desperate. Homestead National Monument pretty much assures there will be no steering wheel on the backside of a Nebraska quarter.
Welsch is personally torn about the decision to go with Homestead. He calls the Homestead Acts of the 19th and 20th centuries a disaster for Native Americans.
But one of his former students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Mark Engler, runs the monument. Welsch called him “a super guy.” And he acknowledged Nebraska's heritage includes pioneers who had to eke out a living amid terrible hardships.
“Tall tales told how bad it is,” said Welsch, a humorist and folklorist. “They said living in Nebraska was like being hanged — the jolt was fairly sudden but you get used to it. Custer called his men together at Little Big Horn and said, 'I've got bad news. We're going to be wiped out. The good news is, we don't have to go back through Nebraska.' ”
Welsch scolded Nebraskans for not knowing enough about the state (guilty as charged) and for wishing Nebraska was something it's not (um, no contest) and for mistaking Nebraska's identity as being football (innocent on this front).
He suggested we Nebraskans should lose our citizenship if we've never been across the Sand Hills, never taken Highway 2 or Highway 20 and missed out on Nebraska's oceans of land and sky “where you can drive for hours and hours and never see anybody except that magnificent openness.”
He said if you fly over the Sand Hills at night, it's completely dark.
“Not a light. Absolutely dark,” he said. “Thank God there's a place on Earth that humanity hasn't lit up.”
Sounds beautiful. But doesn't this get us back to that rural identity, those old historical stereotypes that don't seem to fit today?
Welsch said the continuity of the land is linked to a certain constancy in the people. He said no matter what happens in the world, things in Nebraska seem about the same. Card players at the cafe. Crops. A low unemployment rate.
“There's a certain continuity here that can be annoying,” he said. “On the other hand, it's kind of comforting to know there's this ballast in the keel of the ship of state. That's what I find comforting about Nebraska. It just pretty much stays the same.”
Perhaps that is Nebraska's blessing and curse.
It's good to have stability. Perhaps, though, we don't have to always present ourselves in the past tense.
The present is, for the most part, good. I'm also banking on a decent future.
Maybe we should put Ma on the coin. Take off her bonnet. Put her at the wheel.
And she can wave to all the strangers carrying the Nebraska quarter.