The Dixie Highway
All American stories begin with the road. We are always going somewhere, to another town, a vacation, or a better job. Or we are returning, recovering from failure, nurturing our wounds, seeking solace back where we started. We pave our pathways to a place we think is better and do not learn the truth until arrival. Our country was created by roads, and our best literature and dreams have roads as veins sustaining their narratives.
What I have learned often came from a highway. My first teacher was a four-lane of clumpy pavement and a faded yellow line that distracted motorists bound for mundane destinations like work and the grocery store. The ice and snow of Michigan, and the heavy truck traffic rolling toward the car factories, constantly tore apart the concrete of the route that had been designated M-54, which was known fondly among displaced Southerners, black and white, as “The Dixie Highway.”
The nickname was an expression of a fondness for a locale, not a time. Our family lived close enough to the Dixie that we often heard the blasting horns of the big tractor trailers pulling their cargoes of rolled steel and new cars, and we were sometimes frightened by the screeching of tires after panicked braking. The sounds carried across the backyards and between our little tract houses and became so present in our lives that we stopped noticing the endless rattle of commerce and growth. Our neighborhood, set only a few hundred yards back from the roadway, was comprised of mostly uneducated workers, a large diaspora from south of the Mason-Dixon Line; they had all come north to find jobs out of the fields of Dixie and inside the factories that were manufacturing cars and trucks for the endlessly expanding network of American roads.
Our parents were branded as crude outlanders who probably lived in lean-tos back in the hills of Tennessee and Kentucky or worked the cotton patches in Georgia and Mississippi for a share of a crop that barely fed their children. Swinging a hoe and hoping for good commodity prices was not a proper way to set a hopeful course, and even “hillbillies” with marginal intellect and education understood the necessity of risks to accomplish change, which is what sent them northward with more hope than capability.
The Dixie Highway
Women and men, black and white, their children often ragged and even barefoot, gathered modest belongings and used years of savings to buy bus and train tickets, or fuel jalopies that were not more than a few decades older than the first models to come off Henry Ford’s assembly lines. In one of the greatest trans-migrations in American history, they also carried with them a culture that had an almost stronger viability than their determination to find better lives. I remember Sunday mornings walking around our little circle of houses and seeing gray and black coonskins hanging from clotheslines, an incongruous scene in the spreading suburbs. Coon hunting on weekends meant the harvested animals were skinned on back porches and their furs hung out like the household wash to dry in the wan northern sun. Tails flapped in the breeze and made the animals appear to still be alive and trying to escape the wooden clothespins, which later that day might hold underwear and blue jeans against the wind.
What became of those coon furs remained a mystery to me. If there were a market for them in the booming industrial Midwest, it must have been almost underground. The bloody pelts, though, became a sign of comfort, even as a boy, because they represented functional families still finding a way to survive in a nearly foreign land. Coonskins got sold, somehow, to someone, and that money often bought groceries. I cannot imagine what a visitor might have thought driving down our streets and seeing animal furs flying along the broken fences and weedy hedge rows, but we recognized it as a sign of modest prosperity in the midst of the transplant’s struggle.
In the 1950s and 60s, the cities of Southeastern Michigan had an economic and cultural allure equal to the Silicon Valley of California in the early twenty-first century. Jobs and ideas were abundant, and veterans, back from the war, got GI loans to finance modest homes in their new towns after scraping together a few hundred dollars for down payments on two-percent mortgages. General Motors, Fisher Body, Chevrolet, Ford, Chrysler, Hudson, Packard, and Studebaker were defining car culture with sweeping curvatures of design and electrified functionalities that provided their workers with mostly unrealistic aspirations of being able to buy the products they were creating.
Businesses proliferated: tool and die shops lined the highways and side roads, construction companies built unbounded neighborhoods and office towers for the increasing number of newcomers, restaurants fed the hourly employees that left the factory for lunch breaks or family nights dining out, and the proliferation of ubiquitous radios permitted the music of Motown to float through the air on notes of optimism that added graphic emotional relief to the stew of energy and dreams.
We lived surrounded by Michigan’s plenty after my parents were drawn to it by stories circulating down in Dixie. In the Mississippi bottomland where Daddy was chopping cotton and Ma was trying to make a home in a sagging shack, there were only vague anecdotes of good jobs up north with pay starting at more than a dollar an hour. The visions of my parents after the war were not of great prosperity; they sought only security and the hope of laboring less and being able to afford decent clothes, better shelter, and dependable sources of food. Whatever came after that would be considered luxury. Instead of those meager ambitions, though, their migration toward the American dream broke my father and mother, physically and psychologically, in such a profound manner that I am still struggling to understand what actually happened. Why did they not find happiness? What caused them to lose hope?
I did, however, very early, painfully comprehend my father’s longing for home. The Dixie Highway ran right past the greasy windowed walls of the great manufacturing plants where young men bent their backs to assembling cars and trucks, and throughout the interminable gray winters every son of the South must have dreamed of walking off the assembly line and stepping outside to get a ride home on the Dixie. M-54 was one of the concrete tendons that connected the industrial Midwest to the agrarian South, and transplants from Dixie endured an aching emptiness prompted by the fact that the same road that took those workers to their daily drudgery also ran a thousand miles down into the towns and the forests and the farms they called home. Every cell in their bodies had to be regularly willed away from simply standing on the southbound shoulder of M-54, sticking out a thumb, and jumping in with the first ride that stopped. The Dixie Highway was always whispering to them about home.
My fixation with that stretch of road was a result of the escape it had come to symbolize for me. Down the Dixie from our house were the Detroit Tigers baseball team, their sunny green infield that I had seen only once in my boyhood, and further south, the rising temperatures and trees leafing out, nature’s developments that arrived in Michigan too slowly at the end of the sun’s pedestrian track northward each Spring. My father dreamed only of what he had loved in Mississippi; fishing and hunting, growing things and living outdoors, and he easily forgot the hardship of his youth by creating a false memory of an idyllic longing for enjoyment that never really happened. Maybe with just one more trip home he would discover the fantastical memories of what he had left behind were truly real. Many years passed before I understood that the hopes represented by the Dixie Highway were all I had in common with the man who had brought me into the world.
Before I could take to the highway, though, hitchhiking in the direction of my hazy dreams, I had to say good-bye to my mother, which would not be easy. Her burdens had already included the institutionalization of my father, his violence and psychological breakdowns, which led, eventually, to their divorce. Ma had kept her six children mostly clothed and fed by carrying open-faced sandwiches and burger plates to diners at Louie’s Roadside Inn. Customers were generally truckers and factory laborers and they rarely spared her more than nickel tips during her 80-hour work weeks. When she came home late at night, her seersucker waitress uniform smelled of French fries and fish and she often had a white carry-out box, smeared black with grease, which contained restaurant leftovers for our dinner. I owed Ma more than I was able to even measure but I knew caring too much about her happiness would trap me and I needed a more joyful way to live. I did not expect to ever be faced with such a choice, but it was unavoidable.
The weather was drizzly the morning I left, and the forecast showed rain across Northern Indiana and Illinois, my hopeful destinations for that first day. Ma and I were standing on a small concrete slab that served as our back porch.
“Son, please,” she said. “I just don’t understand.”
“I know, Ma. I don’t think I do, either. I just know I need to go.”
She reached over to hug me, not to as a gesture of farewell, but in an attempt to keep me from going. Her head lay against my chest and I looked down on the streaks of gray in her hair. Momentarily, she pulled away and looked up, her eyes wet.
“There’s lots of good jobs you could get, ya know? Might not be in your news stuff, but there’s good money on road crews and construction. I’ll bet you could get hired and work for a while.”
Ma was right. The Saginaw Valley and Flint were still booming with the production of cars and trucks and the Arab Oil Embargo of ’73 had not yet had a noticeable impact on the economy of Southern Lower Michigan. The Great Lakes remained busy with massive freighters carrying ore from the Iron Ranges of Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula, which was delivered to foundries and steel plants and was then turned into materials for manufacturing automobiles. Freight trains loaded with cars and trucks bound for other cities rolled along past the farms and through the towns of car country, and the unveiling of each year’s new models was a wildly anticipated social, economic, and even emotional event. I just did not think I belonged, and I knew I did not care.
“I have to get going, Ma.”
“Oh, son, please don’t.”
I was already wearing my backpack with the aluminum frame and she had stepped in closer to me and grabbed the rails to hold me in place. Ma had situated herself between me and the footpath through the neighbor’s yard that led up to the highway, intending, I assumed, to physically block my departure. I had not ever hurt someone I loved or who loved me. What did that feel like? Everything my mother had ever dreamed about when she came to America as the wife of a soldier had turned mostly to dust and tears and all she had left were her children, and now they, too, could no longer be held and loved when she wished.
“Where will you go, son? Where will you sleep at night without any money?”
“I’ll be okay, I promise. I’ve got my sleeping bag and tent.”
“You don’t have money to eat.” She was sobbing and fearful. “What am I supposed to do? We can’t afford collect calls. Who’s going to help me now?”
“I’ll send you post cards, and save up quarters for quick calls, Ma. I’ll stay in touch.”
“I love you, Ma. I have to go. Bye.”
She was warm and comforting as she held me close as a drizzly rain began to fall. All her edges felt rounded by the years of walking restaurant floors and hustling counters with hot food. When she finally released me, Ma’s hands rose slowly to her mouth in an attempt to control her display of anguish. I still heard her sobbing until I went around the corner of a neighbor’s yard a few hundred feet distant from where my mother stood and stared in agonizing disbelief. I loved her but was leaving and was uncertain how I might manage the grief I was causing both of us. She was the only person I had ever loved as a young man and I was fated to cause her profound hurt with my departure.
But I still had to go.
* * *
My gear rattled as I walked along the Dixie Highway with my back to traffic and thumb stuck out in the rain. The psychology of hitching was to show them your open and friendly face, but I was sad and figured I might have to walk all the way to Ohio before turning to the west. There was not much in my pack; I did not have many belongings other than another pair of jeans, a few tee shirts, a nylon jacket, socks, one collared shirt, underwear, a towel, toothpaste, and a toothbrush. A few dozen plastic reel-to-reel tapes clattered against each other with every step I made and gave me a twinge of hope. They were recordings of my college radio show that I planned to leave at stations I encountered as I traveled toward California. My brilliant idea was to look for broadcast towers, ask to be dropped off, and walk in unannounced to deliver my audio recordings and a resume, and hope to be hired. After four years of education at Michigan State University in journalism and broadcasting, and that’s best plan I was able to formulate.
I dropped my thumb and just plodded along the shoulder of the road with the mud sucking at my shoes and the traffic whooshing through my peripheral vision. My Ma was probably sitting at the kitchen table, picking at her fingernails, the uncontrollable nervous habit that often left her with bloody tears in her skin. There was nothing that did not cause her worry, and much of it was justified. Raising six children on the earnings of a waitress in the short-order restaurant was brutal because long hours were required to get paid anything close to a livable income. All those accumulating days on her feet also led her to a doctor who illegally sold her Benzedrine and other forms of stimulants to keep up her energy during interminable labor. Ma’s effort and struggles were coming to nothing, though, and suddenly her house was beginning to empty of her children.
There was more emotion than logic involved in my departure. The sadness of my parents’ struggles felt like it was seeping into my soul. They were locked into a cycle of failure and I was afraid of being pulled into its vortex. When my mother innocently suggested getting a job on a road crew for the summer, I saw myself forty years distant, wearing a hard hat on a cold shoulder of some winter road, wondering if I would ever make management. There were also the vivid memories of my father, when I was not yet ten years of age, stalking the house and snapping together the two bands of his leather razor strop to intimidate his children. We had all felt its blows against our uncovered flesh for reasons we were too young to comprehend; none was justified.
If I ever doubted my decision while standing in the rain with nowhere to sleep, I told myself I would concentrate on the images of Daddy taking drawers out of the kitchen cupboards and throwing them through the living room window, destroying our tiny home and threatening to kill people, as neighbors called the police and sirens subsequently howled in the distance. I will never forget the image of my five-year-old brother Tim kneeling in the broken glass on the sidewalk, delicately picking up scattered silverware to place back in the correct tray slots in one of the dented drawers Daddy had tossed through the window. Even as children, we thought we might reassemble our parents’ lives and end up happy.
“Hey, kid, you want a ride or not?”
A car had pulled over to the shoulder and the driver was standing in the rain, waving at me. I ran to the passenger door and spoke to him across the roof.
“Where are you going?”
“Only get you as far as the south side of Detroit.”
“That’s a good start. Thanks.”
The driver was immediately garrulous and started in with small talk as my hometown slipped past in the windshield; he kept asking questions about where I was going and why. My intention was not to be distant or unfriendly, and I was struggling to understand what I was leaving behind as he talked about the sky clearing to the west and the 1968 Detroit Tigers baseball team. What parts of our childhood do we take with us when we leave home, and can we get rid of those that do not serve our dreams?
I just caught a glimpse of the restaurant where my mother worked and I wondered how she coped with what had become of her life and then we stopped at a light next to the old, three story, red brick building where I went to middle school, which was also adjacent to the high school track; I had trained relentlessly on that cinder oval to be a faster runner, hoping for a college scholarship. I felt a longing for something I was unable to name when we pulled away and rolled out into the open farm country. Maybe that emotion was what my Ma confronted every day. There was also the likelihood that she never had the time to envision an existence that went much beyond her bills being paid current, sufficient groceries in the house for six kids, a serviceable car to get her to work, and clothes to keep us warm against the Midwest winter. Surely, she had greater aspirations when she came to America.
In a few hours, I was out of Michigan and getting short rides along state and county roads through Northern Indiana and Illinois. The day was inspiring, and I had multiple energetic conversations with envious motorists. It was also a bit unsettling because I was finally launched on an enterprise that I felt was destined to succeed and make me a broadcaster. Turning back for any reason was failure. By nightfall, I had been offered sandwiches, adoption, cocktails, a tent, and male sex. All the proposals were sincere, and graciously declined; except for a sandwich. People who picked up hitchhikers, I quickly discovered, were often stranger than the roadside travelers.
I found myself at sundown sleeping beneath an overpass in the space between the steel girders supporting the road overhead and the slanted, concrete berm that led to the lower highway. The space was a bit frightening and smelled of dead plants and oil and I heard vehicles clanking across the steel joints until the sun rose. Cool air after the rain filled the space around me and I spent the darkness shivering more than sleeping and wondering anew whether my ambitions were practical or absurd.
There was a truck stop within a few hundred yards of me that I discovered the next morning and I walked over to find a bathroom. One day on the road and I already looked dusty and unkempt, my jeans smeared with dirt and grease. My tangled long hair might also be problematic for catching a ride. I did not consider myself a part of any movement, though I came to realize my political sensibilities were against many things that were considered conventional and even American, and I had been unafraid to share my thinking.
Turning back toward the entrance ramp to the Interstate, I had to cross the big fueling lanes where the tractor-trailers were taking on their diesel. I decided to ask a few truckers if they were going west and might be interested in company. My expectation was that I might be told to get lost or someone might think I was selling sexual favors but the first driver I approached was agreeable and led me over to his rig. His trailer was loaded with washing machines and he was bound for delivery to a distribution warehouse in San Francisco, a destination sufficiently exotic to me as to not even seem real. I climbed up into the cab and we rumbled and groaned down the I-80 entrance ramp in the direction of the Mississippi River.
The trucker’s name was Phil and I thought he looked like an American archetype with his thick middle and soft chin, two-day stubble, and uncertain, weary, white-line eyes. He was hard to imagine anywhere other than behind his giant steering wheel.
“Hope you took a piss back there ‘cuz I don’t like stoppin’ this rig once I’ve got it rollin’” he said. “Wheels ain’t turnin’, I ain’t earnin’, ya know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I’m good.”
“You get uncomfortable, there’s a plastic bottle in the sleeper back there with a cap on it. You’re welcome to use it.”
I saw he viewed that as an intimate offer and an act of great congeniality, and I treated it as such with an expression of appreciation. We did not talk most of the day and stopped only once just west of Omaha. Back on the Interstate, the road followed a stretch of the water course along the Platte River, and he suddenly felt in a mood to talk about the country.
“You know, this road pretty much follows the old Oregon Trail, don’t you?” He checked a rear-view mirror and began to ease into an outside lane to pass a Japanese compact car.
“Yes, sir, I do. I studied a bit of western history in college.”
“Well, then you know them old wagon trains never got far from that river out there.” He nodded toward the open plain to our north. “It ain’t much more than a sand bar, but it kept them alive, I reckon.”
The Great Platte River Road
I looked out the window toward the Platte River and the scattered cottonwoods dipping roots into the muddy flow. The Nebraska land, though green, did not seem to offer many prospects. Sand hills rose in the distance and a large herd of cattle trailed up the soft inclines and out of sight beyond the riverbank. Wagon trains had, indeed, hung close to the Platte as they made their way westward toward the Rockies and it was impossible not to think about the people who had fallen to disease and conflict on that ground rolling by outside the glass. I recalled having read in college an historian’s estimate that there were enough lives lost on the trail that there could be a grave every 50 yards along the 2000-mile route. This thought was intellectually confounding while cruising along a smoothly paved and divided roadway as it crossed the High Plains and rose imperceptibly toward the Intermountain West.
I was suddenly certain I saw a radio tower in the distance against the darkening rain clouds to the west.
“Hey, Phil, you mind letting me off at the next exit ramp?”
“At North Platte? Sure will, son. Ain’t much of a town, though.”
“Yeah, I know, but they’ve got a few radio stations and I thought I’d apply for a job.”
A few hours earlier he had finally asked me about the reasons for my travel and assumed I was just a college kid wanting to see the country. That part was true, but I was mostly hoping to find a job in broadcasting, a notion he had apparently found entertaining.
“Well, sure.” He looked over at me bouncing in the high seat on the passenger’s side of his cab, making another appraisal. “Like I said, you just don’t look like no newscaster to me.”
“Yeah, I know. I don’t look like one to me, either.”
After clicking on his signals, the trucker downshifted his gears and slowed to the breakdown lane. I opened the door, jumped down, and pulled my pack to the pavement. I thanked him for the ride and wished him luck with delivering his cargo. There was a fence between the local road and me and I had to cross a wet field of center pivot irrigation rigs spinning watery nitrate fertilizer rainbows in every direction.
Main Street ran north and south and intersected I-80 and within a few blocks I had found the bus station. Inside of a bathroom stall, I changed my blue jeans, put on the only shirt I had with a collar, and then went to the sink to wash my face. My backpack fit nicely into a rented locker and I easily pulled a tape and resume’ envelope out of the top. Radio station KAHL was just around the corner past brightly painted storefronts and down broad sidewalks. A small hill rose to the north and the town appeared to simply stop as the land opened up to the farms and ranches in the sand hills of Western Nebraska. I fantasized about starting my broadcasting and journalism career on the High Plains, doing Saturday morning broadcasts from hardware stores and grain elevators, announcing high school sports, and taking long weekends to race to the Rockies for hiking and camping. My dreams were not very exotic.
The station’s call letters, KAHL, were painted in broad letters on the studio’s glass door and the lobby was air-conditioned and cool. A receptionist, wearing a bright green dress, smiled warmly as a strange young man came in off the street and approached her desk.
“May I help you?”
Nervous, I cleared my throat. “Yes, mam, I’m a reporter and I’m looking for a job. This is my tape and resume’ and I was just wondering if you had any openings in your news department.”
“Well, well,” she said. “You may have the best timing of anyone I’ve ever met.”
“What do you mean?”
“Our news director of many years announced he was quitting today. We need someone to replace him and to hire a few other reporters.” Her kindness was genuine, and I wondered if she acquired it from living all her years on the remote edge of the plains. Had she ever even been to Chicago?
I was as still as stone, afraid to move, as if I might make some motion that would destroy my unfolding opportunity. A job at the first place I stopped was not an outcome I had even pondered. She picked up a phone, spoke softly for a moment, and then motioned for me to take a seat on an old sofa.
“Mr. Dahl will see you shortly,” she said.
The lobby was austere with yellowish paper and wood paneling on the walls and had the temporary feel of a mobile home. The control room, which was visible through a window into the studio, was gray and indistinct. The back of the head of the announcer playing records on the other side of the glass was bald and in the low light his shoulders leaned over the turntable where he was cueing up an album cut.
Ed Dahl came through the door from his office wearing a plaid sport coat and displaying the enthusiasm and energy of an endlessly optimistic farm implement salesman. We shook hands and my knuckles collapsed under his fervent grip.
“Come on,” he said. “Follow me. I gotta tell ya, son, what did you say your name was? You just seem like a blessing walking in off the street right now.”
“So, you need a reporter then?”
“You aren’t gonna believe this but my newsman, who has worked here many years, just told me this morning he’s gotta leave for a new job.”
Ed Dahl took off his coat and hung it on the back of a swivel chair.
“This is my tape and resume’.” I slid the envelope across the glass top of his walnut desk.
“Good, good,” he said. “What kind of experience do you have. Where have you worked? You live here in North Platte? Somebody tell you about my guy leaving?”
“Um, no sir, Mr. Dahl. I just came in off the highway. I’m traveling around the country applying for radio jobs. I’ve only worked at my college radio station.”
Ed Dahl’s big, soft hands paused for a second as he reached for my tape, and he frowned.
“Tell ya what,” he said. “I don’t like to listen to no pre-produced tapes. I like to see what a fella’s got, how good he is on his feet. Let’s go tear some wire copy, have you do a rewrite, and then record me a newscast and we’ll go from there. What do you say to that?”
“It sounds great,” I said.
He stood and I followed him to a corner next to the main control room where an old Underwood typewriter and a green swivel chair were waiting for me across from an Associated Press wire machine. The newsroom was little more than a low shelf for writing and spreading wire copy and holding up a microphone. Mr. Dahl tore off a stretch of the yellow AP feed, scanned it quickly, and handed it to me.
“Why don’t you rewrite this? I’ll go put a tape in the machine and all you’ve got to do is hit that red record button when you are ready. When you get done, just go out front and tell my secretary and she’ll bring me the tape to give it a listen.”
“Okay, sure. Thank you, sir.”
Many of the stories on the AP wire were about Vietnam. Richard Nixon had resigned as president and Gerald Ford was trying to find a way to expedite a peace process. American ground troops had been removed from the battlefield but were still flying air support for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. The anticipated completion of the U.S. withdrawal meant there was no longer a need for a draft.
After quickly rewriting and then recording the AP copy, I went back to Mr. Dahl’s secretary and told her I was finished with his assignment. She went to collect my tape and take it to her employer’s office. In a few minutes, much less than it would have taken him to listen to the entire newscast I had recorded, Mr. Dahl came out and motioned me back into his expansive workspace. Photos of his family were on a bookshelf behind him and I stared at them as he began to talk with a tone of voice that sounded like a doctor delivering a terminal prognosis.
“Son, I hope you don’t think I’m an SOB for telling you this,” he said. “But if that’s how you react, maybe someday down the road you’ll thank me for being an honest SOB.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Well, here’s how it is and I’m not gonna sugarcoat this for you. But you need to think about doing something else with your college degree. You see, everybody can’t be a broadcaster. Some people just aren’t cut out for it. They either don’t have the voice or the writing skills, or just whatever it takes. It’s like somebody wanting to be a major league ballplayer but they can’t hit a curveball. You have to make adjustments in life, you know what I mean?”
“I guess so.”
“Look, I need somebody and if I thought I could work with you, smooth out the rough spots, I’d give you a shot, son. But you just don’t have a voice that is ever gonna work in broadcasting. And I know I asked you to write that copy fast because that’s the way things work in radio, but the writing just doesn’t communicate, either.”
“I didn’t think I was that bad.”
“What you ought to do, if you are determined to work in broadcasting; you should think about sales or management or something of that nature that keeps you off the air and out of the creative side of things.”
“Yes, but I want to be a reporter. I got my degree in journalism. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do really; except be a writer. But I’ve got to make a living and I can’t wait to make it as a writer. Takes too long, and I thought I might learn to write better and gain experiences in journalism.”
“Well, I’m sorry, son, that I can’t be of any help. I wish I could tell you something more positive. Best way I can help you is to be honest with you and I just don’t think you have much of a future as an on-air broadcaster in radio and certainly not television. Why don’t you give something else some thought?”
“I don’t know what else to think about. I’ve been thinking about this since I was a boy.”
Mr. Dahl stood up and came around the desk, indicating our conversation had concluded. His hand fell on my shoulder as he walked me to the lobby.
“Well, good luck with your career, whatever you decide to do,” he said.
“I appreciate you talking to me.”
Ed Dahl watched me move toward the door of his family business, a radio station he had built to be an influence in his community and had proudly placed his surname in the call letters. I did not think he was intentionally cruel, but I did hope he was wrong.
“Wait a minute, young man,” he called out. “Just a minute. As long as you are just out running around the country looking for a job, why don’t you go to McCook? I own another station down there and I just got a call from my general manager yesterday and he needs a newsman, too. McCook’s not as big a community as North Platte but maybe he can use you and give you your start. How about I call him and tell him you’re coming?”
“Oh my gosh, thank you so much. That would be great. I’ll head down that way now.”
“Good. Good. I’ll give him a call and tell him you are on your way.”
There are probably not too many more humbling rejections than being told by a radio station in North Platte, Nebraska that you have made a horrible career choice; especially when you decided that future when you knew no more about life than whether you wanted cheese on your hamburger. I went back to the bus station and grabbed my backpack, walked over the Interstate bridge, and stood on the southbound side of the state road to McCook. How did such a small farm town even have a radio station? A rancher stopped his pickup and his wife motioned me to jump in the bed after I told them I was going to McCook. The south wind of summer and the sun blasted my face as I hung to strands of hope that reminded me that I was being completely irrational. Surely, Mr. Dahl predisposed his McCook manager to my lack of potential, and was asked the reasonable question: “Why didn’t you hire him?”
I was dropped off just north of town and assumed I looked a bit more like a cowboy searching for work than a nascent journalist. The radio station’s tower was a half mile straight ahead and when I reached the wooden steps to the lobby, dripping with sweat, I leaned my pack against a railing before trying to straighten out my wind-twisted hair.
The general manager was friendly and quite young, and I hoped he might be impressed by my determination to go anywhere and do most anything to get a start in the industry. Rather than making me record in his studio, he listened to the audition tape of my college radio show that I had taken out of my pack, and he let me sit in the room as he tried to remain expressionless, but I knew his response before he touched the stop button on the tape deck.
He ran his hand across his flattop haircut and gave me his painful assessment.
“You’re not really what I’m looking for,” he explained. “And I don’t even know exactly what I am looking for. But I’m pretty sure you’re not it.”
“Really? Can you tell me what I need? Anything I can do?”
“No, no. I don’t think so.” He had nothing further to say.
“Well, okay. Thanks for your time.”
He opened the door and held the knob tightly as I nearly stumbled out into the diminishing light of the day. I would not have been surprised had he locked the door behind me to make sure I did not return and plead, desperately, for any kind of job. My journalistic dreams had certainly never been significantly grandiose, but they were greater than McCook, Nebraska. I had a hope that I might one day be reading newscasts and doing reporting for a big city radio station and writing novels during my spare moments in the evenings. Perhaps, my goals needed to be more modest, or even abandoned? A university degree was a guarantee of nothing more than an education, and the grants and loans and scholarships did not appear to be an investment that was accumulating value just then in the Nebraska gloaming. What kind of a future does a guy have when he is not even good enough for North Platte or McCook?
I shuffled westward along the side of old Highway 6, the transcontinental route that had given rise to communities like McCook before they were bypassed by the restricted access superhighways. The sun was down and there was an orange and purple glow lingering along the eternal western horizon of the plains. I thought about the Rockies, not that many hours off, and hiking and camping all summer along mountain trails. I needed work, though, and was still hoping I might get started on my professional career. Instead, my determination was overcome with weariness, and all I could think about was sleep.
I stepped across an irrigation ditch and began walking down a corn row, deep into a farmer’s field. Less than $20 in crumpled bills and coins were in my pocket but I did not worry about money and unrolled my sleeping bag beneath the tall, dark foliage of what appeared to be a bumper crop. I fell asleep listening to the wind shuffling cornstalks beneath the big, black curve of a Nebraska night sky.
And I had no idea what I was going to do next.