Kenesaw, Nebraska is about as big as it sounds. It is a quick burst of texture along the railroad line to Hastings with houses, sheds and the remainder of a grain elevator reaching out of the Southern Nebraska prairie on either side of Smith Avenue. It is a town of farmer's tans and dusty boots. Strong people built this tiny town and strong people remain. It is a place where people in passing cars still wave and smile politely at their friends and even people they don't know, or don't recognize anymore. It is square jawed and honest. It is home. It is my hometown.
That might come as a surprise to people who know me and know that I have lived in Alaska for 30 years. There are, however, different definitions for the term "hometown". Your hometown can be where you live now. It can be where you grew up. It could be where you have lived the longest or where you plan to retire. It can also be where you feel safe, where you feel connected, where you feel yourself reflected in the soil and trees and grasslands. It can be the place you always wanted to be because the people who loved you most were there. It can be those things. Kenesaw is that place for me.
In this little town I can stand on the main street among what is and tell you what was. There used to be a supper club on that corner -- ok -- a restaurant, but the sign said supper club. I think it burned down. Regardless, it isn't there now. That building used to be a Jack and Jill grocery store. That old gas station used to have a really cool Coke machine that you had to pull the glass bottles out of. Over there is the Legion Hall and the Silver Dollar saloon. The Silver Dollar used to be in that building over there. In the Dollar large men would eat charburgers, drink red beer and talk Husker football. My cousin moved it when he bought it. That big building there is a nursing home. I always found it somewhat noble that the largest building in Kenesaw was a nursing home.
I don't know if my family was there when Kenesaw sprung up along the route of the Burlington Railroad, but I know they have been there long enough that it really doesn't matter. The name 'Kenesaw' was picked because the railroad named their towns alphabetically and after Harvard, Inland and Juniata they needed a K name. The town was founded in 1872 but the Oregon Trail brought people through the area long before that. My grandfather was born there and lived the vast majority of his 79 years on a farm north of town. He and my grandmother raised my mom and my uncle on that farm. As a child that farm was my favorite place on earth. I roamed every square foot. Now it is a cornfield and only traces of a driveway remain.
I can't think of my grandfather without thinking about dirt. If you don't have close relatives on a farm that sounds funny. My grandfather smelled like earth -- rich and clean and deep. He would look out over his corn or milo for a long time. I would look too, but all I saw was corn and milo. He saw his livelihood, his trade. He would reach down and pick up a handful of soil and smell it. I would smell the dirt as well knowing that I should be smelling more than just dirt. I would look up with a dirty nose and he would smile. When I think about my grandfather I remember soil, sunsets and hard work.
I see my grandfather when I look at my Uncle Jim. He is a little bigger than my grandfather but he has the same eyes and same laugh and the same work ethic. He doesn't so much smell like earth, not anymore anyway. He farmed until the 1990s when large farms and the economy made the small family farm impractical. Eventually he found his way into a career selling farm equipment; a job for which he is uniquely qualified. He and my Aunt Diane live in the preeminent house in Kenesaw on a prominent corner. Aunt Diane came to Kenesaw to teach school in the early 1960s. They have raised three sons who have all made their homes and are raising their families within a half mile of their parents.
After my mother died I searched for connections to the places around me. I could never seem to find them. My heart kept going back to this little town on a railroad in Nebraska. When I was old enough to make my own decisions, I started coming back whenever I could. When I go there I feel like I am part of something, like I am part of a history. I walk into my Uncle's house and see old pictures of people who look kind of like me. I am among people who have known me since I was born or I have known since their birth. It is a good feeling.
I am going back soon. We are going there to celebrate my Aunt and Uncle's 50th wedding anniversary. It will be good to connect again. I will walk down South Smith Avenue, cross the railroad track onto North Smith Avenue and look and remember. The town is still vibrant and vital. I will connect with what was and appreciate what is. In my 50s I will connect with memories that I made before I was in my teens. I will visit with my friends and family and appreciate this place and those people. I will visit the part of the cemetery south of town where the people I love rest. I will remember the people that were and love and appreciate the people that are. This place helps me bring my past and my present into sync. Maybe that's why it means so much to me. It is my place of perspective.
Don't get me wrong. My home, my family and my life are here in Alaska. I truly feel like I am supposed to be exactly where I am. We all have something or someplace that we connect with, the thing or place that keeps us grounded. In my case, this little town in Nebraska and the people there that I love keep me connected to who I was, and who I am. It helps me appreciate what I have and where I am. It is my hometown.