I was feeling decidedly not thankful on a chilly spring afternoon as I walked to meet Eric Krelle for the first time.
It was a four-block walk to the downtown coffee shop, and I kicked myself every step of the way. Why had I agreed to this? Why was I about to waste time meeting with a stranger obsessed by some random detail in a 70-year-old photo? I have a bunch of other work to do, I thought. Real work.
Eric had phoned several days before and told me he had done months of research into that iconic photo of American troops raising the flag on Iwo Jima. There’s something wrong with the photo, he said. I will tell you more when we meet.
Be polite, I told myself as I walked into the coffee shop. Quick in, quick out. Back at your desk in 30 minutes.
Two hours later, I was still sitting in that coffee shop with Eric. I was on my third cup of coffee. I was wired, and my mind was churning, and it had nothing to do with all the caffeine. My gosh, I thought. This guy might be onto something. This might be ... amazing.
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As you may have heard, tomorrow is Thanksgiving. As always, I look forward to this day mostly because of an annual challenge I like to call, “Can Matthew really consume more stuffing than he consumed last year?” (Answer: Of course he can.)
But before I attempt my annual climb to the top of Stuffing Everest, I would like to do something we all did in grade school, back when we did beautiful things like play tag at recess and take naps. During Thanksgiving week, people asked us: What are you thankful for? And we actually thought for a moment, and then we answered.
So this year, I am thankful for the anonymous father and son whom I noticed for the first time late this spring, playing catch on that little baseball field tucked into the back of Memorial Park. I am thankful for the old couples who walked by on their morning strolls, and stopped for a moment to watch the father and son play catch, and then smiled knowingly and kept on moving. I am thankful for the knowledge that this sort of thing happens all over Omaha. Sometimes it is a father and daughter, or a mother and son. Sometimes, there is no baseball glove, because they are kicking a soccer ball.
Let’s not forget that Omaha is a place that has its share of problems, its share of pain, its share of struggle and strife.
But always, come spring, there are the fathers and sons. I’m thankful for that.
I’m thankful that you can drive west in our city, on the West Dodge Expressway or Interstate 80, and you can be exhausted at the end of a long day — and then you can look up at the horizon, and see the most beautiful sunset, and remember that Nebraska is a beautiful state if you let it be.
I’m even thankful for Omaha traffic jams, which are more accurately referred to as “that one time when we had to reduce our speed for five minutes.”
I’m thankful I went to Paris this year and realized that La Buvette, that Old Market mainstay, is in fact as Parisian as many Parisian cafes, except La Buvette’s prices are lower and its servers don’t look at you like you have tuberculosis if you ask for more ice in your Diet Coke. (OK, they might. Whatever. I still love you, Buvette.)
I’m thankful that if you are moving, you can call Jackson Street Books, a bookstore favored by both a famous writer/radio host (Kurt Andersen) and an Oscar-winning director (Alexander Payne), and a nice man will come to your house and sort through your excess books and buy some from you. And then you can lapse into a pleasant conversation about books and life and only at the end realize you are talking to the brother of Congressman-elect Brad Ashford.
I’m thankful that last sentence is so Omaha. I’m thankful that Omaha still manages to be both a big city and a small town, sometimes in the same afternoon.
Oh, the food. How have I not gotten to the food yet? I’m thankful for the tortas at Mula and the coffee at Archetype and virtually everything else you can get in the beautifully redone Blackstone district at 40th and Farnam. I’m also thankful for the bone-in ribeyes at The Drover and the ’shrooms-and-truffle pizza at Pitch and pretty much anything the kind people at Block 16, Dante, Le Bouillon, Kitchen Table, Salween Thai and V. Mertz put on a plate. I’m thankful that I feel sad that I left out like 47 other good places to eat on that list.
And the drinks! Let us not forget the drinks. I’m ever-thankful for the old fashioneds at Omaha steakhouses and the serious craft cocktails that Clark Ross slings at the Boiler Room. I’m thankful that you can take an elevator up to the Omaha Press Club, order a cocktail and for a fleeting moment believe that it is 1973 and you are The Next Bob Woodward.
I’m thankful for Sarah. I am so, so, every day thankful for Sarah, even when I forget to thank her.
And I’m thankful for Eric Krelle, the amateur Omaha historian who spent an obscene amount of time studying photos taken on Iwo Jima nearly 70 years ago and then called me to tell me he had found something interesting.
After our two-hour meeting in a downtown coffee shop, I started working on a story. Eric patiently answered my questions, again and again and again. Spring turned to summer turned to fall. There were complications, pitfalls, holdups, a lot of me furiously hitting the backspace key on my computer.
And finally, last Sunday, the result of all that work — the finished product of that seed Eric planted back in April — landed with a thud on your doorstep. If you missed it, here’s a one-sentence summary: We likely had some of the identities of those famous flag raisers wrong for the past 70 years, until Eric Krelle and his friend Stephen Foley decided to make it right.
As of Tuesday, nearly 60,000 people have read that column online, and tens of thousands more probably read it in their newspapers, with their coffees.
One of the hidden joys of being a newspaper columnist is being forced right out of my comfort zone, and into a coffee shop with the Erics of Omaha. Left to my own devices, I’m not much of a social animal. But give me a pen and a notebook and Omaha characters, big and small, start falling from the Douglas-and-Sarpy-County skies. And I get to talk to them! And write their stories!
I’m thankful that I didn’t go to law school.
Don’t believe me? In the past 12 months, check out a very brief list of people I have gotten to meet, interview and write about: Kaitlyn Hova, an Omaha violinist who has synesthesia, which means she can see sound. Dan Sindelar, a guy from Howells, Nebraska, who damn near won this year’s World Series of Poker. Adam Blank Blank, the pseudonym of one of Omaha’s longtime drug informants. BubbleGum T. Clown, Omaha’s only 72-year-old, thrice-divorced great-grandmother who happens to be this city’s pre-eminent birthday clown.
Jon McAlpin, a terminal cancer patient who spends his days bolstering the spirits of other cancer patients at Methodist Hospital. Susan Koenig, who delivered eulogies for her mother, father, brother and husband and is still here and still finding the joy in life. And Caleb Smidt, too. All Caleb did in the past decade was go from homeless methhead to Ironman triathlete.
I’m thankful I think about Caleb every time I want to stay on the couch, and the thought makes me get off the couch and onto a treadmill.
And I’m thankful for Eric, who reminded me this year that once in a while, when you make that four-block walk, what is waiting for you at the end of that walk might just leave you wired for reasons having nothing to do with caffeine. I’m thankful that he reminded me that 2014 — that life — can be a long, strange journey, as long as you keep pounding down the Omaha pavement.
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