OAKLAND, Neb. — In small towns across America, cruising Main Street is a thing again. This time, there’s a twist. It’s not just teens wanting to connect. It’s the whole town.
In Oakland, about an hour’s drive north of Omaha, families are piling into everything from spiffy golf carts to brawny pickup trucks and hitting the bricks downtown on Sunday evenings for an hour of two-lane socializing — from a distance.
The first communitywide cruise on March 22 drew about 80 carloads of friends and neighbors. On Palm Sunday, the convoy had mushroomed to almost 200.
It all started with Oaklander Steph Benne, who was suffering from cabin fever and social withdrawal brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
News of a community cruise in nearby West Point sparked an idea. Benne called her parents, sister and brother — who all live near Oakland — and invited them to cruise downtown with her family. She posted it to Facebook, too, and the idea took off.
“You know small towns; word spreads quickly,” she said.
When Benne’s six-car brigade hit Oakland Avenue about 5 p.m. March 22, she was surprised to find the main drag hopping with about 80 carloads of other equally stir-crazy families. Soon, all were honking, waving and laughing along a 10-block stretch through the business district — and beyond. That went on for about an hour.
The cruise was so much fun, it was easily reconvened a week later. Again to Benne’s surprise, the participant count had almost doubled.
“Our kids are 20, 17, 14 and 12. We told them this was what we used to do as teens for entertainment,” Benne said. “They didn’t get it until we hit the bricks with the radio blasting ’80s music.”
She even dug out her high school letter jacket. “I saw a lot of those, and cars that used to drive main back in the day,” Benne said.
“It got a lot bigger than anyone anticipated,” said Julie Johnson, owner of Nelson’s Food Pride at the north end of Oakland’s main street. She served almost 100 free pizza slices to passing motorists on March 29. “It was a blast,” Johnson said. “Everybody needs a smile right now.”
On the south end of Oakland Avenue, Pastor Joel Rathbun of Oakland First United Methodist Church stood streetside offering “campers communion” — a few fresh grapes and wheat crackers in a sealed baggie.
“The coronavirus is a wake-up call to all of us that the church isn’t just a building,” he said. “Worship is about a lot more than my message.”
His ministry is about helping his flock stay connected and serving others during the pandemic.
“Members of my church are eager to see each other and interact,” he said. Oakland’s Sunday evening cruises are helping. Members of a sister congregation in Lyons, 7 miles to the north, have a touchstone, too, in their own regular Sunday cruises. Rathbun could use a clone, though. The cruises are at the same time.
On Palm Sunday, the cruising crowd in Oakland was bumper-to-bumper at times. A few passengers waved palms through windows and sunroofs to mark the Christian holy day.
Vehicles started lining up at 4:50 p.m. at Oakland Heights, the assisted living center that shares a hilltop with the town’s water tower. Wide smiles and big waves continued for several minutes as residents of the center and people in passing cars exchanged “hellos” under a nearly cloudless sky.
The line of vehicles snaked from Oakland Heights, across U.S. Highway 77, to Oakland Avenue several blocks away. The atmosphere was festive, almost joyous, as the community cruised the bricks.
Johnson, the pizza-serving grocer, and her husband, Terry, brought out their 1930 Model A. Two teenage granddaughters shared the rumble seat. She relished the chance to cruise on this perfect day.
Sue Beckner was all smiles in her Oakland-Craig High School letter jacket. She met husband Ted — Oakland’s mayor — cruisin’ the bricks in 1979.
“It’s the best thing in the world to see people smiling and laughing together,” Benne said as the town’s version of livestreaming wound down.
“The benefit of a small town is that we all know each other. Small acts of kindness are what we all need right now.”