Going back in time: how I got into the Sage farmhouse
October 26, 2014
"The farmhouse on the hill was the largest the Sages had ever lived in..." starts Chapter 5. Those of you who've read American Boys know I did my best to recreate some of the scenery, the places and the people. One challenge was the Sage farmhouse in Niobrara, Nebraska. The three Sage brothers, Gary, Greg, and Kelly Jo, were killed on the USS Frank E. Evans on June 3, 1969. Their story was one, like the loss of the ship itself, that was obscured in history. People recall the Sullivans of World War II and can conjure up Saving Private Ryan references--but nobody remembers these three young men, all killed at once, in one war. I wanted to do my best to put the reader in their home.
In 2010, when I first went to Niobrara, that white-framed farmhouse on the hill was no longer around. In 2012 I went back with a mission: find another house just like that. I had access to black-and-white photos taken by a Life magazine photographer by then and knew I had to get inside one of these old houses to really be able to convey what it was like there, what it would have been like for six people to live there, three of them tall-and-growing young men. (This would supplement interviews with the surviving brother Doug Sage, the mother Eunice Sage, and Greg Sage's widow Linda Vaa.)
My first course was to contact a real estate agent in northeastern Nebraska to see if any houses like that are still around--no, the answer was. Then I took to driving around, parking my rental car along long, adandoned driveways with cornfields on each side, telling myself that this is how horror films begin. I felt like Goldilocks. Some of the houses I found and explored were either too small or too large, too new or too crumbling. Nothing was just right.
After a few days of research at the Niobrara Museum and interviews it was time to drive those long, winding roads to some city where I could catch a plane back to California. In 2012, it was three hours south to Omaha. Somewhere along the way I was hungry and needed gas. I stopped in Creighton, Nebraska. My elementary school in Philadelphia was called Creighton. I thought it was a sign.
Creighton is one of those charming little towns with mom-and-pop businesses, a main street and tall, old trees. There were some newer buildings sprinkled in between older, ornate ones, some with false fronts. Houses in the mix. And then I saw it. Right there, jammed between a sandwich shop and another house, was a house very similar to the Sage farmhouse. Weathered white with columns and a front porch. One-and-a-half stories. "Gable roof of a child's drawing," I would later write in American Boys. I forgot about my growling stomach and pulled over.
There were workers in the house and a construction vehicle out front. After calling my husband to tell him what I found and that if he doesn't hear from me in 20 minutes it means I have been kidnapped by construction workers,
I walked up the steps and knocked on the open door. The men were kind. I told them who I was and what I needed to do. I even had that Life magazine album with me. The man in charge was OK with me walking around the house and running up and down the narrow staircase and all the weird things we writers do so that we can be accurate on the page. That's how, essentially, the image of the Sage farmhouse went color for me.