On Friday afternoon of the 96th Annual Oregon Trail Days, the grand ballroom at the Civic Center filled with long-time descendants of pioneers and those people who worked in the Nebraska Panhandle. All immigrant families. In truth, none of the land belongs to us. We’re merely stewards. The farmers, beet thinners, railroad workers, shopkeepers, laborers in a dozen commercial interests, and all the women who did double-duty by raising children (my own mother included), seeking a better life, and providing educations framed by strict manners, and discipline meted out by old-fashioned teachers. Punishments by those educators walked a fine line between what we define as abuse today with blowing whistles on the playground and wielding wooden paddles merely to keep order, but ruggedness demanded. I felt we succeeded because of them.
Former Gering High School Algebra teacher Mr. Mike Smith, wearing his thick eye-glasses, covering misty emotions, and a loose-fitting T-shirt looking every bit of the hot summer. He stood at the podium as this year’s Old Settlers Meeting and 81st Annual Half Century Club Meeting as president, telling stories of his own time as a student in Gering schools, and crediting the esteemed vice president Mrs. Helen Vogel, a teacher herself. Both represented an older-wiser generation of the town’s educators. This tough caring seemed to run in the family, and one Paula Vogel, who sat next to me in Miss Housewright’s second-grade class in Lincoln Elementary in the fall of 1972. She probably doesn’t remember rubbing the sleep out of my eyes on that first day of school, perhaps to allow me a better view of the chalkboard.
At the meeting for Old Settlers, Paula bumped my arm as she passed my table, telling me to “wake up.” The people at each table took their turn walking up to a buffet-style serving line. The simple menu, courtesy local business Kelly Bean, included sandwiches, potato chips, macaroni, and watermelon. And tea or water to wash it all down. Paula sat at the middle table reserved for honorees and stood as one of the first ones in line. It shook me for a moment. Then I recognized her familiar face. Paula probably also doesn’t know that I had a crush on her those first few weeks of second grade. To me, she was a Miss Golden Hair surprise with kind, confident blue eyes. I swore she wore a halo.
Technically, I don’t qualify as a half-century member. To do so, the rules say, I must have lived in the area for at least 50 years. Most of my Gering friends know this isn’t true about me, having moved away at 15, and barely moving back a few years ago. However, I’ll allow that in as many years, Gering was always on my mind, and I’ve thought about this small town as my home above any other place I’ve lived. I stand in the shadow of my mother-in-law, Nina Betz, who sat next to me at one of the long lunch tables, pointed to the long list of names of Old Settlers, a few of them which belonged to the Gering family. She is the only child of Cleo Gering, whose great-grandfather Martin Gering was one of the town’s six founders in 1887.
I am a member of the third generation of my family to live here; we Marquez, may not have been as well-known as the Gering or the Betz clans, the latter, my wife’s father the late Don Betz ran a successful business pouring concrete, we were every bit as hard working. Some townspeople remember my own grandfather, Frank Marquez, Sr., of Lyman, serving on the board of an organization which was the precursor to the Community Action Partnership of Western Nebraska. That’s how it was conveyed to me by a man who one day stopped into the Gering Citizen, the weekly newspaper that my wife and I ran, but closed last December, by saying he knew my granddad.
My family developed a reputation in other ways. In several athletic circles, starting with Lyman High School, my uncles made a name as baseball players during the 1960s. The town’s main street now nearly a dusty memory, and my grandparent’s home condemned and boarded up. The boys and girls in my family sought to play other sports, leaving our name sprinkled throughout past Gering High School yearbooks. My brother Fred, a standout who played Gering Bulldog football, joined with alumni of the Class of 1987 for their 30-year reunion, which included my wife Lisa. These gatherings have become a staple of the July celebration.
Mr. brother Randall and I remember wrestling in tournaments and seeing Mr. Smith don a referee’s striped shirt, blowing whistles at our infractions, however, when the matches ended, he regularly encouraged us to stick with the sport to get better. When I left Gering, I vowed never to come back because this one-horse town didn’t deserve me, begrudging me and others the lack of opportunity. But throughout the years, it kept calling me, and calling me. Now, here I am, watching others trickle back during Oregon Trail Days. They sound like me when I was gone – big jobs in big cities. My travels took me around the world to Europe, to Tokyo, to D.C. and back again.
Now, due to fortune and a wife who loves me, I wake up each morning looking out the big windows of a farmhouse to see my old friend Dome Rock staring back. That great landmark, like the Scotts Bluff National Monument, so much a part of the fabric here, once marked the trail for western settlers. Today, the bluffs remain a symbol – the land is alive as much as it was then. Sitting at the breakfast table I see cattle roam the prairie, tender bean plants, and young corn leaves fluttering in the distance.
Every time I walk along the Laramie Ditch Road at sunrise, I can see my dad setting irrigation hoses, and the toddler version of myself standing next to the ditches and fence lines along the pastures of a farm in Morrill, where it all started. My dad worked as a farmhand on land belonging to a man named Mr. Carpenter. I watched from the roadside near the pickup he drove, a long five-speed gear shift on the floor. It held the faint smells of fuel and grease. We dashed from one field to another, my eyes barely peeking above the dashboard. My dad’s strong brown arms turned the steering wheel, and his thick fingers with cracked nails, wrapped around the knob of the gear shift, moved it left and right, and up and down, the engine whirred and rumbled as we barreled over the county roads.
He worked long days for a fair wage, following the tenants of my grandfather who told him not to buy anything unless he could afford it. Due to immoral stupidity and an evil economy, my generation shelved the rule, and gave into creative financing. Flash forward to 2013, my $1,200 shoebox apartment rent near D.C. proved it. When I did return home two years ago, weeks before Oregon Trail Days, I joined my soon-to-be wife Lisa in producing our weekly newspaper. I talked to State Senator John Stinner about fracking, among other issues, for a story we planned to run. During our talk, Stinner applauded my return, saying how Nebraska needed more native sons and daughters to return home. I agreed. Retaining homegrown talent and skills, Gering potentially could become a renaissance city. Still, it thrives on farm and tourism dollars. Then I realized it isn’t money, stuffing a few extra greenbacks in my pocket, or chasing fortune and fame. There’s more.
My dream wasn’t to leave Gering. I had to find out what else was out there. Upon returning, as the prodigal son, I wondered why others stayed. My wife’s father Don Betz said everything he ever wanted was here. Why would he go anywhere else? My own great-grandfather Amador Marquez, a longtime resident of Scottsbluff, could have returned to Mexico after fleeing the tumult that reigned during the days of Poncho Villa, his life at risk as a district judge. But he didn’t. He, like my grandfather and my father, fell in love with Nebraska. If for no other reason, like all those who came here, I’m home.