Friday, February 16, 2007

New Eyes

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.


  1. Beautifully put, Melissa. Even if you hadn't included the photo, I could see it through your words.

    Isn't it awesome how we continue to grow and see things differently each step of the way? I love it!

  2. That's the only thing that ever made history interesting for me, is learning and picturing how people lived. I love visiting heritage/museum establishments where they act out the roles of the original inhabitants. I'm especially interested in the roles of women and have a wee collection of cookbooks with recipes from the past.

  3. I do the same thing! We'll drive through the mountains or the desert and I'll think about the pioneers trecking over here long ago...

    Personally I would've turned and went back home. My mom said she would've never left the mother land! lol

  4. Your book sounds wonderful, Melissa. I can't wait to read it! History and a sense of place -- and how they affected people. You can't get a better read than that, IMO. :)

  5. Great pic - and yeah, I can imagine just how much different it would have been to someone born and bred in central Europe, especially those from the cities.

  6. I call it bouts of being a tourist in my home town. It's pretty amazing.

    I think prairie is amazing anyway -- I'm used to forest or beach, so to my eye, a prairie dazzles!

  7. That's fantastic Melissa! I want to read your books so badly!!

    Sue :-)

  8. Lovely Melissa--have you ever listened to Bruce Springsteens album Nebraska? Very poignant.

  9. "the sounds and sights of history"

    People think I'm nuts, but I can see 'ghosts'--or more appropriately 'the way it used to be' way back when. Before highways and railroads, telephone lines and electricity. That's why I studied history to begin with, and it's a big part of what I write. Nicely said :)

  10. That's a very inspiring pix for someone writing western historical! Thanks!


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