My wife, Phyllis, was born and raised in Nebraska. And why not? Or, as Bill Bryson, a native son of Nebraska’s next-door neighbor, Iowa, put it in the opening line of one of his picaresque travel books: “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.”
As for Phyllis, she came from Beatrice, a small city (population 12,000 and change) situated 40 miles south of Lincoln on the Big Blue River.
My introduction to Beatrice — and Nebraska in general — came in 1988 when Phyllis and I were planning to get married. By then, the two of us had been living and working in New York for many years, and under the terms of our betrothal, had agreed to visit each other’s family — mine in Michigan and hers in Nebraska.
One of the first things I learned about Beatrice is that the folks there didn’t pronounce their city’s name in the conventional way. In the local argot, it was called Be-at-rice with the emphasis on the second syllable, which was uttered to rhyme with fat or drat.
No one seemed to know why, exactly, and I soon got tired of asking.
My first extended conversation with a Beatrician took place on the morning after our arrival in the late summer of 1988. Feeling the need for a tonsorial touch-up to look my best for my first meeting with the future in-laws, I made my way to a local barber shop.
As I entered the shop a barber smiled at me and, without a word, motioned me to an empty chair. As I settled in, he wrapped the apron around my torso and began to snip away. Not until then did he speak to me.
“I don’t know,” he muttered with a sigh, “we’ve lost half of our offensive line and our two best defensive backs. It’s going to be tough.”
Since I happened to be conversant with the vagaries of college football — and the operatic passions they inspire — I understood in an instant that he had to be referring to the University of Nebraska’s football team.
What did surprise me, however, was that even though this barber had never set eyes on me, he automatically assumed I would know what he was talking about. He simply could not fathom how a customer in his shop could be oblivious to the fortunes, past and present, of his beloved Cornhuskers.
As he continued to work me over with scissors and razor, the two of us chattered away about prospects for the coming season, which was set to begin in a couple of weeks.
That lively exchange was not an isolated incident. Throughout my maiden voyage across the Great Plains that August, I had similar encounters with other Nebraskans whose ardor for the Huskers bordered on obsession.
I realize, of course, that Nebraska is not alone in that regard. The litany of states that rejoice in having high-powered college football programs, with legions of rabid fans to cheer them on, reads like a presidential roll call: Alabama … Florida … Michigan … Ohio … Texas… and sundry others.
I had more than a passing acquaintance with this hysteria. I’m a graduate of Notre Dame, a school with such a hallowed gridiron tradition that its fan base extends from coast to coast through almost every region of the country.
Yet in one respect, Nebraska’s situation is almost unique. Unlike many other states, it has no major-league professional teams to distract the faithful from their devotion to the Cornhuskers.
And what is far more unusual, the state has no other college football team of any consequence. Contrast that with Alabama where even the mighty Crimson Tide has to vie for fan support with a strong intra-state rival, Auburn.
The upshot is that when it comes to big-time sports in Nebraska, the Huskers are literally the only game in town and all the fervor of fandom is concentrated on them.
But back to my barber in Beatrice. In the course of our conversation, he soon became aware that I was an out-of-towner, and that led him to ask: “Where did you grow up?”
“Michigan,” I replied. But catching his drift, I quickly added that “my primary allegiance has always been to Notre Dame because that’s where I went to school.”
“Wow, the Fighting Irish,” he said in a tone that struck me as oddly portentous. He then lapsed into a thoughtful silence, and I could sense that he was processing the information I had just given him and was trying to decide how to respond to it.
“Well, you know,” he eventually said in a confiding manner, “we have a few Catholics around here.”
I bit into the inside of my lower lip to keep from laughing, and after regaining my composure, I said, “That’s nice.”
“Not that many,” he cautioned, “but some.”
“I know,” I said with a smile, “I’m engaged to marry one of them.”
And I went on to reveal that my future bride was the daughter of Fred Knipping, who had been a fixture at the local hardware store over the past four decades.
“Ah, Fritz!’ the barber exclaimed. “What a nice man. One of the best.”
When the time came to leave, we shook hands and told each other how much we had enjoyed the football talk. Then, as I moved toward the door, he said, “And don’t forget to tell Fritz that Ted said hello.”
I promised him that I would, and I did.