Most people in my everyday life have never heard of Hebron, Nebraska. It’s a quiet little town on Highway 81, the road that runs right up the middle of the United States, originating in Fort Worth, Texas and ending at the Canadian border. It’s an even quieter town, now that 81 is a four-lane highway. It’s the town where I grew up.
As a driver, I have to say I like the fact that it’s a four-lane road, but it’s been hard on small businesses that always counted on travelers passing through to stop for lunch or a dip cone from the DQ. Mostly what you see these days along Highway 81 are the franchised businesses you can find nearly anywhere in the country. Some may view this as a sign of progress, but I see it as a loss of the unique local culture. There are other losses I feel each time I return to Hebron, as I did this past weekend.
Although I spent most of my adolescence dreaming about getting away from there, Hebron provided childhood years that, in hindsight, set the course for the rest of my life. Our house was on the east end of town, sandwiched between Highway 81 and the rest of the town. There was a large field on the north and east sides of our house, a small stand of trees, and plentiful bushes on one edge of the property. The field was hilly enough for sledding in the winter and flat enough for a dugout the other three seasons. We had sand, dirt, water, sticks, lizards, snakes, field mice, and an array of other natural materials and creatures available on a regular basis. It was a laboratory for imagination that, looking back, was instrumental in our development as creative, innovative thinkers. We made up worlds, built communities, planned strategies, and solved problems, both imagined and real. As my brother reminded me recently, we had time. Time to pretend in an unstructured way, time to be with other children without an adult monitoring our every action, time to develop the complex layers of play over days and months and years. There was a depth to the worlds we fabricated that happens only when there is sufficient time to sustain it.
When I think of many children I know today who are driven by their parents to this activity and that, scheduled for “play dates” so they can be in the company of another child, and living in places where there is little or no access to mud and sand, I feel a sense of loss for what their childhood is missing. Standing in our field just west of Highway 81, cars and life zooming by, I remember the gift I received as a child. Hopefully, I can find ways to pass it on to the children I know, to give them some time to live their childhood with the depth and inspiration they deserve.