Minden high schoolers take historical play to North Platte

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MINDEN, Neb. (KSNB) - The Canteen was a famous stop on a trans-continental train ride for US soldiers during World War II.

The company of "The Coffepot Is On" rehearses their show ahead of encore performance in North Platte this weekend.

The ride took several days, but trains began stopping in North Platte where locals would provide sandwiches and coffee for the soldiers during a short, ten minute pit-stop.

This became a special moment for many soldiers that many could remember on the battlefield even if they came through on different trains.

The students at Minden High School are now paying tribute to this now obscure piece of WWII history by way of a one act play.

It was written by Jeffery Horner, a counselor at Minden High and the director. He said he was on a counselor tour of some area colleges. When they were en route to North Platte, they watched a video about the Canteen. He was captivated by the story that he, a native Nebraskan, had never heard. A couple years later, and he writes the play for their fall production.

The troupe took the play to state competition last fall in Norfolk, and took home second place at State One Acts. Now, they are back in rehearsals for an encore performance this weekend in North Platte.

The assistant director, Jeremiah Holmes, said that it was a very special piece to the children. I asked him what his thoughts were about doing a local history piece for a production, versus a classic like "Death of a Salesman," and how it impacted the students.

"The kids got to involve themselves in a period of time that Hollywood has dramatized, but that's all that they had for a connection. But then once we jumped in, then they were immediately involved in something that actually happened."

When director Jeffery Horner pitched the idea earlier in the fall at a student and parent meeting, he said many went home and researched the story, having never heard it themselves and were excited to see the production.

In speaking with some of the cast members, that excitement was still evident. Hannah Boehler has one of the lead roles, and felt the show had many parts which unveiled what went through the soldier's minds. "My favorite line is when he's talking about when he was in France and someone said..." (a line from the production) "...when there was a lull in the fighting, I heard a voice come out of the darkness and say, 'wouldn't it be great, if we were back in North Platte for five minutes...' "

Boehler continued "...and that just shows just the impact that everyone, it had on all these soldiers that came through."

Markus Ramsey plays a solider in the ensemble, who was from North Platte. "It's nice to even think that people from different parts of the us, even though they had never been in the canteen together, could reflect on being there and how emotional and fantastic it was for them. And for them to want to come back even."

Horner told me that the story was strong in and of itself, but by having students performing it, it made it more real to them. "I think that theatre does more than a history book would do in that, not only do you get the facts, but you also get to envision what the emotions were like too." He confessed that there are still parts where he still finds it emotional. "We've watched the show, I don't know how many times between practices and performances, and I still get choked up when they get to some of those lines."

The story is set in the 80s, after the site of the Canteen was torn down. It then reflects back to the 1941, right at the beginning of the war, flows through the origin of the Canteen when Nebraskan soldiers were expected to arrive and be sent off, but it wound up being Kansas soldiers. The Canteen then is organized and the story follows characters who meet there. It ends with two moving monologues from a former soldier, and one of the original members of the Canteen, acknowledging how the spot impacted and intertwined so many lives.

The show ends with a monologue from Boehler, about the gratitude the citizens of North Platte had for the soldiers. "...And your service is something I will never forget. Serving you a sandwich, pouring a pot of coffee, dancing to Glenn Miller. It was the least i could do. It was what any Nebraskan would do."