#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 16
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)
Somewhat awake now and with bellies full of roadside leftovers, we pack up the Jetta in the sunny morning in Lincoln, Nebraska, set on making it to Minneapolis by day’s end. We should get there, unless we do something silly. Perhaps we’re being ambitious.
There are three states, hundreds of miles, and plenty of America to learn between here and there. Today’s plan is to find a spaghetti fork, a coffee pot, a spider, railroad spike, and if we’re lucky, a tree in the middle of the road, and still reach Minneapolis tonight. I review the list with Brent, looking to trim the fat, but after everything I say he says, “We’re not cutting that.”
“Spaghetti fork?” I question.
“We’re so close to it.”
“Jody,” he sighs, “We could cut everything, but not Volkswagen spider. That I want to see.”
“What’s a stamp ball?” I ask, eyeing the list.
“A big ball of stamps,” he says. Of course it is.
“Well, looks like everything’s in,” I say. Brent nods.
We’re tracking down a giant masonry head, which doesn’t seem like it’ll be too hard to find. The giant head sits atop the Ogallala (there’s that word again!) Aquifer. This is the Groundwater Colossus by artist James Tyler, and though it’s supposed to sing and so far this guy’s silent, we’re pretty sure this is it–unless there’s another giant head of blocks in Lincoln.
I think about the Colossus of Rhodes, and how I never knew America had a Colossus of its own—other than the Marvel super hero. I post our #MericaTour progress on Facebook, and look up to find Brent trying to pick Colossus’ nose. Rhodes never had this problem. Luckily, our silent Colossus has some interesting surroundings or I’ll never pull Brent away. On Colossus’ right is a giant painted light bulb, and on his left is a wide, gurgling fountain.
We splash around in the fountain and take thoughtful pictures with the light bulb before climbing back into the car.
We’re not even out of Lincoln yet when a truck in front of us hauling sand manages to dust us with it. Our windows are down, and there’s sand all over the place inside the Jetta. I brush the puddle of sand from my lap and look at my sooty face and hair in vanity mirror.
My nicely showered self is a thing of the past, which, technically, was a thing of the past once I jumped in the fountain back in Lincoln. But now I’m all gritty, too. Brent navigates around the truck. “Well, there goes today’s photos,” I say. We have a good laugh about it.
We drive to Omaha and stop for gas at the giant coffee pot on our list, which, luckily, is a gas station, too. There are a lot of these Sapp Bros. travel stations in Nebraska, but this is the only one with the giant coffee pot on the property. We don’t get coffee, strangely enough. I buy a giant travel mug and fill it with hot tea, and we nearly buy a cool Chuck Norris driver’s license, but decide against it after much deliberation.
Instead, we gas up and mill around the parking lot studying our vantage point to the giant coffee pot, rea
lizing we can get the best view if we walk across the quiet side street.
Quiet my—Assuming we can get across the side street, that is. It’s strangely deserted until we need to cross it on foot, then it’s suddenly and dangerously full of 18-wheelers traveling both directions. We wait and wait and finally get across, take some photos with Brent’s direction as the road is suddenly silenced, and then wait to return across the once-again super busy street. “This is so very Frogger,” I think.
Dodging death and alligators (okay, not alligators), we head back to the relative safety of the lily pad, I mean Jetta. As Brent drives us around the parking lot back toward the highway, I post the initial entry for these “Stories from the Road” on my blog, promising to write out our adventures in full (promise kept!).
As we approach Omaha, I’m repeating the Charlie Daniels “Uneasy Rider” lyrics, “If I went to L.A., via Omaha…” when my Google search tells us that Boys Town is nearby. I relay the cross streets to Brent, who frowns. “That sounds familiar,” he says. Sure it is. “Where is the stamp ball?” he asks.
I check the itinerary and find that he’s right. “Same campus,” I tell him. He grins. In a few minutes we’re driving in tree-lined circles on Flanagan Boulevard around the quiet Boys Town campus.
There’s no stamp ball or signage in sight, so we decide to go in to the Visitor’s Center. Inside, we chat up the lady in the gift shop, who gives us campus maps and shows us the incredibly cool mini-stamp balls (softball size) that the kids make for charity.
As I carefully choose one signed by Alexis with a Love stamp right on the top center, a couple enters from a side doorway and the man asks, “Aren’t you worried that someone will make a bigger one?
“Well,” the gift shop lady says cheerfully, “It’s over 600 pounds, with 4.6 million stamps. With stamp prices today, it’ll cost about…” she lists a figure that’s in the billions. And because it’s numbers I instantly forget it, but it’s impressive. The couple starts to browse and Brent asks where the original stamp ball is located and scrutinizes his map. The lady says, “Right through this doorway.” She points to where the couple had entered.
We look at each other, shocked that we don’t have to cross the campus to get to it. It’s right here! There’s no major security. You can walk right up to it, touch it, take goofy pictures and everything. Only in America.
I pay for my Alexis stamp ball and we head through the doorway. “I’m sending two more to ya, Hank!” the gift shop lady calls into the wide hallway. At the end of the hall ahead of us is the World’s Largest Ball of Stamps, collected by the stamp club in Boys Town in the 1950s. To the right of the ball sits Hank, a retired local veteran (who neither works here nor is a volunteer we find out, but is just hanging out, which is his custom). At the moment, he’s sorting stamps. “Where are you from?” he asks us.
Hank tells us his service company and says, “There were some nice guys from Pennsylvania there with me.” We talk about Pittsburgh together, and he insists we can touch the stamp ball. So we do. Hank is good at egging us on. Together, we spread silliness all around, and eventually have to say farewell to Hank and to the gift shop lady as we head out to see the Dowd Memorial Catholic Chapel where Father Flanagan is laid to rest.
Father Edward J. Flanagan started his home for boys around the time of WWI, and moved the home to where we’re standing, at what was formerly the Overlook Farm back in 1921. According to BoysTown.org, “Since 1917, Boys Town’s mission has been to give at-risk children and families the love, support and education they need to succeed. Because we firmly believe that regardless of background and circumstances, every child and every family has the potential to thrive.”
The site goes on to say: “He had a dream that every child could be a productive citizen if given love, a home, an education, and a trade. He accepted boys of every race, color, and creed. Father Flanagan firmly believed, ‘There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.’”
“I can’t believe we’re standing here,” I tell Brent, feeling the immensity and the importance of the work that was/is done here.
For his mindset, Father Flanagan was called a visionary. And though he was born on Irish soil, not American, Father Flanagan’s vision of opportunity over birth status is as American as it gets.
(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12, Segment 11, Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8, Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)