2002 Harper Collins Publishers
Finished on December 4, 2020
Rating: 3/5 (Good)
In search of "the best America there ever was," bestselling author and award-winning journalist Bob Greene finds it in a small Nebraska town few people pass through today—a town where Greene discovers the echoes of the most touching love story imaginable: a love story between a country and its sons.
During World War II, American soldiers from every city and walk of life rolled through North Platte, Nebraska, on troop trains en route to their ultimate destinations in Europe and the Pacific. The tiny town, wanting to offer the servicemen warmth and support, transformed its modest railroad depot into the North Platte Canteen. Every day of the year, every day of the war, the Canteen—staffed and funded entirely by local volunteers—was open from five a.m. until the last troop train of the day pulled away after midnight. Astonishingly, this remote plains community of only 12,000 people provided welcoming words, friendship, and baskets of food and treats to more than six million GIs by the time the war ended.
In this poignant and heartwarming eyewitness history, based on interviews with North Platte residents and the soldiers who once passed through, Bob Greene tells a classic, lost-in-the-mists-of-time American story of a grateful country honoring its brave and dedicated sons.
In 1992, we moved from San Diego to Lincoln, Nebraska and lived there for nearly 25 years (minus a few years when we had a job-related move to Texas). We occasionally traveled along I-80 for getaways in Colorado and South Dakota, as well as soccer tournaments in nearby towns, but other than a quick stop to fill up on gas, I don't recall ever going to North Platte. The gas stations are located right off the interstate, so we didn't drive the the extra mile or two into the town for a meal or any exploring. It wasn't until I heard about Bob Greene's book that I learned about the role this small town played in the lives of so many servicemen during World War II.
I've had a copy of Once Upon a Town on my shelves for far too many years and I finally pulled it down and added it to my stack for this year's Nonfiction November challenge. I'm glad I made the time to read about the wonderful community of volunteers and the lasting affect they had on thousands of soldiers by their kindness and generosity. It's a good read, albeit a little repetitive in nature. By the middle of the book, I felt I'd learned all that the author had to share and I was ready to be finished. There are only so many anecdotes and interviews, and Greene came to rely (over and over again) on his own numerous observations as filler. This is the sort of book that is probably better suited as a lengthy magazine article rather than a full-blown book. I'm not sorry I read it, but maybe in the hands of a writer like Bill Bryson or Erik Larson, I would have enjoyed it better.