Veteran Chicago Tribune columnist Greene (Duty, 2000, etc.) takes a lively, affectionate look at small-town America through the lens of a most unusual institution.
North Platte, Nebraska, is one of those places that flashes by on the interstate, a typical wayside venue of fast-food restaurants, chain stores, and a decaying downtown, superficially “just another interchangeable part of a bland and homogenized America in which Connecticut is no different from Texas.” Six decades ago, the town made much more of an impression upon thousands of young American men who, passing through on troop trains en route to war in Europe or the Pacific, were treated at its station canteen to cigarettes, fresh food, hot coffee, and plenty of hospitality. “This was not something orchestrated by the government,” Greene writes. “This was not paid for with public money. All the food, all the services, all the hours of work were volunteered by private citizens and local businesses”—with, he adds, the exception of a five-dollar donation made by President Roosevelt, who had heard about the place and wanted to pay his respects. In the course of this searching portrait, Greene wanders around North Platte, visiting with elderly veterans of the canteen and WWII, examining how the citizens’ generosity and caring made a world of difference to all those young men so many years ago. (He also includes grateful letters written to the townspeople by soldiers and their parents.) Along the way, pointedly but subtly, Greene contrasts the North Platte and America of yesteryear with what they have become today. Asking himself whether an American town today would do what North Platte did then, he rejoins with a more elemental question: “What’s a town?”
In a literature overflowing with melodramatic, and often overblown, accounts by the likes of Brokaw and Ambrose, this pleasingly modest and meaningful account of life on the homefront deserves the widest audience.