When a German POW at Fort Robinson looked through the barbed wire fence of the POW camp in 1943, this is what he saw: a long stretch of barren grassland and tall buttes rising in the distance.
Granted, this picture was taken in the bitter cold of January while I was on a research trip, but it still conveys the wide open spaces of Nebraska - and the desolation. I can't imagine what these German POWs thought when they arrived in Nebraska. To a city boy from Berlin or someone from the Black Forest region, Nebraska had to look like the end of the world.
But there's something special about this place. I don't know that I realized it when I worked as a waitress at Fort Robinson during the tourist season back in college. I think I was too young, too caught up in the thrill of being on my own, to realize the power of this military post on the plains.
During the summer, it's beautiful. Thick, dark green pine trees grow on the buttes that surround the fort. There's cottonwood trees and lush, green grass. But there's also dirt and dust that whips into your eyes when the wind blows. You can smell the horses (I should know - I lived right next to them in the stable guard), but you can also smell sweet, pine-scented air. Majestic brick buildings, small cottages, sweeping verandas, horses, and buggies - all convey the sounds and sights of history.
My current novel is set at Fort Robinson at the end of World War II. It's been a true delight to be able to go back to this place on research trips and look at it through completely different eyes. To see it through the eyes of a German POW...or a war widow from the big "metropolis" of Lincoln, Nebraska... that is the challenge I face.
There's something to be said for looking at a place you've seen a hundred times before and seeing it with new eyes. It's times like this when I thank God I'm a writer.