Omaha Familiar

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 17
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom) 

Omaha FamiliarWe follow Sally the Map App’s cranky instructions for finding a giant spaghetti fork and find ourselves, instead, at the Omaha Zoo–smack dab in the middle of the zoo parking lot with no fork in sight. Brent uses The Force instead and we find a Little Italy village of houses near downtown and park the Jetta in the residential courtyard.
Omaha FamiliarTo our left is a 13-foot stainless steel fork with spaghetti in its tines. We sit in the car for a moment, deliberating, and one of us deduces that, “Look, if they didn’t want us to take pictures of it, they wouldn’t have put it there.” I’m not sure which of us says that, but it sounds an awful lot like me. That settles it, and we get out of the car. For most of our shenanigans up to now, we’re pretty much on public property or have the owner’s express permission. Today we’re in someone’s yard, without permission, in the interest of discovery and trying not to look like troublemakers. We walk a fine line.Omaha Familiar

The fork is named Stile di Famiglia in Italian, or Family Style in English, named for the serving style of passing and sharing large plates of food around the dinner table. It was made by artist Jake Balcom, and commissioned by the Homeowners Association of the Towns of Little Italy. It’s whimsical, and evocative of a time when “several Italian family restaurants defined the social life of the neighborhood,” according to an Omaha public art website found by the Googs.
Omaha FamiliarEven the neighboring houses with their large windows, flower boxes, and close placement to each other resemble a gathering of intimate friends around this fork and pasta.

We peel ourselves away and start our search for a bronze Chef Boyardee, but Sally sends us to the zoo again, a backtracking, we discover, of about 20 blocks.

“We’re seeing a lot of this parking lot,” Brent says as he turns us around.

Omaha Familiar“I’m checking us in on Facebook,” I tell him. “There, we’re at the zoo parking lot,” I show him my phone. Now it’s official. We vow to plan a return trip to Omaha just to see the zoo and especially the Desert Dome, which is visible for miles as we drive in Omaha.

Omaha FamiliarAgainst Sally’s protests and our own excitement at spending a day at the zoo, we head toward downtown, stop in the beautiful Visitor’s Center where they let us touch things, and find Chef Boyardee outside the ConAgra campus in its wide plaza, the ground of which seems to be winking at us—the ConAgra Foods logo.

Omaha FamiliarThe story goes that Chef Ettore “Hector” Boiardi was born in Italy, and followed his brother to the Plaza Hotel in New York City where Ettore worked his way up to Head Chef. In 1915, he directed the catering of President Woodrow Wilson’s wedding at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. But the Chef’s story, according to Wikipedia, is only getting started.
Omaha FamiliarThe Chef opened his own restaurant in Cleveland where he was known for sending his guests who would ask home with milk jars filled with his spaghetti sauce. In the 1920s, he helped his inlaws, who owned a chain of local grocery stores, to engineer his canning process and put his Italian foods on the shelves locally and beyond with the help of their wholesale partners. To keep up with demands, they opened a factory in 1928, and ten years later, production was moved to Milton, Pennsylvania where greater quantities of tomatoes and mushrooms could be grown.

Omaha FamiliarThen—hear this–during WWII his factory was commissioned to produce army rations for the Allied troops, requiring the factory to run 24/7 and earning the Chef a Gold Star Order of Excellence from the U.S. War Department. When the war ended, it was decided that they sell the company rather than reduce production so that no jobs would be lost. That’s decency in America, and it’s a chord deep inside each and every one of us.

There’s a lot more to the Chef’s story: the unacknowledged Order of Lenin award, the sale of the company, investment in steel mills, money lost and gained, television commercials… How it came to Omaha the Googs wouldn’t say, but then, don’t all things eventually come to Omaha?Omaha Familiar

ConAgra Foods acquired the brand in 2000, and in 2011, artist John Lajba completed this 6-foot bronze statue of the Chef that he describes as possessing “class and a lot of charm.”

The bronze Chef is purposefully placed. He’s not in the plaza center and is not up on a pedestal, but is standing, ground level, on the edge of the circular plaza, facing any and all activity that may gather there.

Omaha FamiliarWith the statue’s kind face and with our familiarity having grown up on all things Boyardee, Brent and I find ourselves hugging the statue as if we’ve run into a long-lost relative on the streets of Omaha.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Meeting a SkyGrazer

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 12
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

Well, now what?

That’s the first question on our minds as we pack up and face the sunny day ahead. Throughout all of this roadtripping, Brent and I had a goal in mind: the Trampled by Turtles concert. Now the concert’s over, we’re leaving Colorado, and we’ve got 1000 miles of road between us and St. Paul. The road ahead is flat, ridiculously flat, though right now, it might as well be all uphill.

“Why didn’t we fly?” I lament. Brent quietly agrees, but then, he picks up our travel-worn itinerary (7 pages of roadside attractions, handwritten, front and back) and carefully turns the pages until he finds today’s suggestions. His face shows that he takes his curiosity very seriously. Consulting and rearranging the list has been a sort of meditative ritual ever since Missouri–when we’d left the itinerary in the car at our first hotel stop and realized it was more of a living, breathing—okay, evolving–thing that we needed to keep close, so Brent had gone out in the middle of the night to get it. Now, seeing the pages and pages of strange roadside fun ahead of us, the wanderlust returns. The concert may be over, but our road trip is just hitting its stride.

IMG_2272After pigging out on hotel waffles, we pack up the Jetta and pop in a Trampled CD. We’re Northeast-bound, with the morning sun on our right. First stop, a meeting with a skygrazer.

Two CDs later, we exit the highway and navigate to a place called Sterling, Colorado, known as The City of Living Trees. We find it quickly, and that surprises us, especially in such an open space. Meeting a SkyGrazerWith a moniker like “Living Trees” we thought we’d find a forest-like area, not this high plains town. But Google assures us we’re in the right place, so I get the Googs to dig a little further and find that Sterling’s cottonwoods have been carved into a variety of creatures by renowned local artist Bradford Rhea. Now we’re getting somewhere! Rhea created the Skygrazers that we’re seeking.

While some of Rhea’s statues have been moved inside, there are a number of them simply dotted around the town. We drive up and down the wide, open, quiet streets of Sterling, looking for trees and creatures and hints of bronze as if we’re on a strange jungle expedition–binoculars included, because Brent has stocked the Jetta.

Sally the Map App is no help at all, directing us to a variety of buildings, none of which has any Skygrazers. We drive straight through town, make two lefts, drive back the way we came on a parallel street, and that’s enough for Brent. “I know where to go,” he says, and zigzags us to an unseen park. I’m sure he’s using The Force to get us here, but he says, “I saw this park on the way in.”

I know I shouldn’t say things like this, but I also know he’ll get a kick out of it, “I didn’t see any park,” I declare.

I can read the amused look on his face that says, “And I let you navigate?” but to his credit he doesn’t say that out loud.

“The Googs distracted me,” I defend to the look on his face. But, The Force has worked; there’s bronze ahead. We’re suddenly nearing The Minuteman and, about a block away, the celebratory Skygrazers.Meeting a SkyGrazer

Now here’s where the Googs earns its money: Their artist, Bradford Rhea, began sculpting dying tree trunks in this community in the 1980s, many of which have now been cast in bronze, and in 1993, he was commissioned by the U.S. government to sculpt a walking stick for President Clinton to present to Pope John Paul II. (The story goes that he carved it in seven days, from the roots of a honey locust tree.)

Truly—this is so America–who knew we’d find extraordinary treasure in such a quiet, unassuming place?

Brent poses with The Minuteman, but I find a quiet reserve when looking at it. I crouch down low, a few feet in front of it, and just look up at it.Meeting a SkyGrazer

The statue of The Skygrazers has an opposite effect. I want to leap, not just anywhere, but up. This statue reaches right into my heart and sums up our trip so far. It’s joyous, ecstatic, and reaching for the stars.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)