Monday, July 11, 2016

Mobridge Finale

Now that I’ve reconciled myself to seeing the Dakotas for the last time, I can comment on some of the things that struck me on our drives south to Mobridge and north again to Bismarck, things about my final view of my hometown, Mobridge, South Dakota.

The Dakota countryside is beautiful in its open, lovely way, with rolling hills and buttes and huge, cloud-filled skies. The farms and farmhouses away from Bismarck are out there in the middle of nowhere. I always wonder what sort of personalities would choose this solitude. Having spent all my life living with the nighttime ambient light of cities, I can only imagine how dark the nights must be for these Dakota misanthropes and xenophobes, how brilliant the star field overhead. If you love your privacy and seclusion, then the country west of the Missouri River is the place for you.

Animal life along the way? Large herds of black angus cows, browns, multicoloreds, one small herd of buffalo, one antlered whitetail deer, an occasional ferruginous hawk in lazy, flapless hunting circles, meadow larks on fence posts. And not a single pheasant in the two hundred miles from and back to Bismarck. I can’t remember ever driving a South Dakota road without seeing at least one pheasant. How sadly odd if that’s an indication of declining numbers of this beautiful bird.

The only crop I could see was the occasional field of corn, not quite as high as an elephant’s eye in early July. More like knee-high. But there were hundreds or thousands of round hay bales. In the old days, hay was baled in rectangles light enough for one man to hoist into a pickup or truck. These round bales would weigh somewhere between one and two tons and would require a fork lift for moving. Although not a crop, one can see in the ditches multitudes of the South Dakota Highway Department’s “X Marks the Spot” signs, each sign marking the demise of each automobile fatality. With these reminders, most motorists slow down, not wanting to be another statistical X.

After we turned east from McLaughlin, it wasn’t long before I could see Rattlesnake Butte to the north. When I wrote Prairie View, I created a butte of my own devising that I called Rattlesnake Butte. Quite a few people in the Mobridge area scolded me for my descriptive error. The real butte is neither as steep nor as rocky as I made it. I tell my scolders that’s part of my poetic license. The real butte didn’t serve my purpose so I created one that did.

Then we passed the Grand River Casino and down the hill to the bridge that crosses the Big Water we now call the Oahe Reservoir. Then around the curve to the south and past the Klein Museum, that Mobridge gem housing a multitude of South Dakota artifacts. One could spend days and days exploring all that’s there. One of our reasons for returning to South Dakota was to give the museum two items we’d acquired from Bonnie and Dean Scott. Rosalie’s father, Bill Zimmer, had somehow been given some Sioux artifacts which he donated to the museum. But these two were then handed off to the Scotts and then to us—a redstone peace pipe and a stone-headed weapon about the size of a tomahawk. We had them for almost ten years until we Fedexed them to Mobridge to give to the museum. The odd thing is that we had them hanging one on each side of a large print of Sitting Bull. In ten years, no one ever mentioned that curious trio of Native America memorabilia. No one seemed to notice them, or were too embarrassed to ask about them. Or maybe no one knew what the hell they were. Now, at least, they’re finally in a place where museum visitors can appreciate them.

What other Mobridge curiosities did I notice? The evening behavior of the natives. Party time and dining time are late because of the late sundowns in July. Drive just three miles west and it’s an hour earlier. But in Mobridge there’s always light remaining as late as ten o’clock. How does the cost of living compare to other states? I was surprised that it was as high as or even higher than in Arizona. Gas was nearly twenty cent a gallon higher; groceries seem to be about 5% higher; and liquor prices are at least 50% higher. On one of our drives somewhere near the old Beadle school, I saw a reminder of the past, a basement house. Once upon a time there were quite a few in Mobridge, evidence of a time when people who couldn’t afford to build an entire house could dig a hole, insert concrete-block walls, throw on a roof, and there you had a living area waiting for something to grow on top. We also had a bedraggled robin visit our room at the Wrangler. I always remembered robins as having red, red breasts as they bobbed back and forth across lawns, searching for tasty angleworms. But this little fellow had a mottled orange breast and was most interested in eating tiny bugs near the door jambs of our room and rooms to each side. Rosalie brought home from the Windjammer a cracker that she crumpled and scattered at the base of our door. The next morning all crumbs were gone. I hope he appreciated Rosalie’s bird benevolence. One last curiosity not about Mobridge but about our flight on Allegiant Airlines. There was a small sign affixed to the partition between our seats and the flight attendant space: “Fasten seat belts whilst seated.” “Whilst?!” How could anyone in this day and age think that word would be appropriate? Did he or she think that made the sign more formal and fancy? Pretentious is more like it. But that’s the least of my complaints with Allegiant Airlines, which has seen the very last of us as fliers.

We both love Mobridge then and now, but we are also saying goodbye to it and will keep it in our memories for as long as we still have memories. So long, Mobridge. So long, Big Water. So long, rodeos and Fourth of Julys and class reunions. It’s been good to know ya.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Mobridge Then & Now

Rosalie and I will be returning to Mobridge for the Fourth of July this year, probably for the last time. What used to be our hometown isn’t there anymore. Rosalie (Zimmer) and I have only a few relatives still living there. After my brother Dick Travis died and his wife Doris (Larson) moved to Minneapolis, and after Rosalie’s two sisters, Phyllis Harris and Bonnie Scott, died, we have only Jackie Hanson and Barb Keller living in the area. And the Mobridge we remember from our youth has changed to such an extent that almost no one there remembers who the Travises and Zimmers were. My dad and my two brothers owned and ran a grocery store for years and years. My Uncle Ray Travis owned the Coast-to-Coast hardware store for years and years. Rosalie’s dad, Bill Zimmer, was the projectionist at the Mascot for almost forty years. Rosalie’s aunt, Edna Hand, played the organ at the Mascot, starting back before “talkies.” All are now gone along with silent movies.

Some of you may have read excerpts of my Mobridge Memories, so I’ll try to avoid repeating myself. I’ve already written about the Mobridge city park, the golf course, and all the “vacant lots” we had.

What about the trees? The joke about South Dakota trees was always, “What’s the South Dakota state tree? The telephone pole.” Mobridge at one time had almost exclusively American elms for street and yard shade. These were not particularly nice or attractive, with rough bark and unremarkable leaves, but they grew tall and made welcome shade and they were what we had. That is, we had them until that year in the mid-sixties when Mobridge was invaded by Dutch elm disease. And there went all the elms. What else was available after that? We’d always had quite a few cottonwoods, a tree that was the king of trees down along the Missouri River. But how annoying they were when they decided to distribute that white stuff for which they were named. The ground would be white as after a December snowfall and people would track the stuff into their homes. Other trees: that peculiar boxelder tree that gave us another annoyance, the boxelder bug, those slim red flying bugs that in their season seemed to be everywhere; the crabapple trees that many homes had which produced those bitter little green apples (thus the designation “crab”); silver poplars and birch, the trunks of which made ideal places for carving hearts and initials; a few pines in a few yards; even a black walnut tree in Doc Lowe’s front yard that produced little walnuts with meat that was distinctly black and not like normal walnuts. Were there any oak trees? I remember how we all called a stand of trees in a hollow north of town Oak Forest. Only in South Dakota would we call maybe twenty trees a forest. And I’m sure they weren’t oak. I know I’m missing some tree types but I’m now old and may have forgotten them.

What about bushes and flowers? There were Russian olive bushes that were kept short of treedom and used as hedges between houses. There were lilac bushes also used as hedges. We had honeysuckle bushes that produced those lovely yellow flowers that kids always plucked and then sucked out the juice. We had chokecherry bushes/trees that must have been related to the crabapple trees because the red berries were as chokeable as the apples were crabby. We had wonderful, tasty wild raspberry and strawberry bushes/plants. Many Mobridge yards sported one or two tall sunflowers and a line of hollyhocks along the garage. Kids always picked the hollyhock flowers to make little flower dolls. The flowers of choice in Mobridge were almost always petunias and daisies. My mother planted a row of moss roses in our backyard, which thrived in the hot dry South Dakota soil.

The population in Mobridge hasn’t changed much from the 1930’s to the present, always hovering around 4,000. For some weird reason I seem to remember the census figure for Mobridge in 1940 as being 3,946. I looked at more recent censuses which show it as now around 3500. But the housing has expanded mainly north and west. In my youth, the Lutheran Academy was far out of town to the west. Now, it’s right there along the highway. And other than a few houses, the land north of the high school was empty. Housing to the east grew a little but not nearly like that to the west.

What did we do during those hot, dusty summer days? We pretty much had the run of the town for games like migs, rubber guns, run-sheep-run, and kick-the-can. We had fishing in the Muddy Mo and a few lakes and stock dams not far out of town. And on weekends we had the Mascot. Most Saturdays showed double features, and with all the short comedies like Tom and Jerry and the previews and other shorts before the movies, it was a three hour afternoon. The features were mostly Westerns with cowboys like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Tim Holt, the Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy and his sidekick Gabby Hayes. A whole stream of Johnny Weismuller Tarzans, war flicks with John Wayne and Gary Cooper, comedies with Abbot and Costello, the Three Stooges, all the Hope and Crosby Road shows, and the horror movies (Oh, yes, the HORROR!) such as Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, and The Black Panther. And my two favorites of all—King Kong and Gunga Din. We went for the movies, but also the popcorn and popsicles. Then, around 4:00, we’d stumble out squinting into late afternoon sunshine, with bellyaches and red eyes. And long before television came along to take us captive, we had radio shows to listen to in the afternoons and evenings—Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy; Inner Sanctum (with that awful squeaking door); The Shadow (“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of man? The Shadow knows.”); and The Green Hornet. In the evenings we had Amos and Andy, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Fibber McGee and Molly, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and, of course, Red Skelton. In a time when cigarettes were not only not unhealthy but were considered healthy, we had the Phillip Morris Playhouse with its distinctive theme music, “On the Trail.” I can still hear that slow “bum-pee bum-pee bum-pee” down and up passage that began the show. And now we know the truth about cigarettes. Does anyone remember the slogan, “Lucky Strike green has gone to war?” I was always too young to figure out what their green had to do with the war. Remember “L.S./M.F.T.?” Nearly everyone in Mobridge smoked and thought nothing of smoking in their homes or the homes of anyone else.

What else has disappeared from our early days in Mobridge? The Beadle School is now a college extension; the Lincoln School is now apartments; the old Middle School and High School are now only memories. The bars and saloons and watering holes along Main are gone (but then, that may be a blessing instead of a loss)—the Rustic Inn, The Arcade, The Whitehorse, the Monogram, the old Moose Club at the south end of Main, the pool hall. The Silver Dollar and the Palace Lounge are still there, but not as they were back in the old days. I remember hanging out in the Palace Lounge when Pat Morrison or Evert Bachelor would go down to Weigum’s Kernel Korn and buy for a buck a grocery bag of popcorn for us on the bar stools to share. The bottle beer back then was either Hamm’s (“From the Land of Sky-Blue Waters”) or Schlitz, maybe an occasional Pabst, but never a Bud. And the draft beer was low-point or high-point (3.2 or 4 percent). The cocktails of choice were Tom Collins (always with gin, never vodka, and lots of edibles like cherries and orange slices), whiskey sours (with that same cherry & orange slice), 7-7’s (Seagram’s Seven and Seven-Up), and sloe gin fizzes. A South Dakota bloody Mary was a mug of beer with tomato juice added. The bottle booze back then was almost always a pint or half-pint of Four Roses, Schenleys, or Canadian Club. No one then drank Scotch.

No one had cell phones then, only land lines with three- or four-digit numbers. Almost all the dogs in town were as free to roam as the kids were. No one ever locked their house doors. No one ever removed the keys from their cars. The streets now are all paved instead of the dusty gravel we had back then. The infestations of bugs and beetles and mosquitoes was far greater then than now. What was once a river is now a huge reservoir.

What things are essentially the same? Kids in cars dragging Main, the Mobridge auditorium, the Mobridge rodeo which is different only in the annual improvement of its shows, the beauty of West-River sunsets. And, of course, Pat Morrison, who may just live another hundred years to keep track of Mobridge memories for everyone.

Was life back then better than it is now? Certainly not, only different. And those differences are what make the present-day Mobridge no longer our home town. That place is tucked away in the minds of oldsters like Rosalie and me (and, of course, Pat Morrison). And after this Fourth of July, that place in our memories is the place to which we’ll return.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"Oh, Auntie Em!"

My wife and I are returning to our hometown in South Dakota next July for what will be our final class reunion hoorah, my 65th and her 60th. It sounds odd that we still call Mobridge our hometown after all these years, when the town in which we grew up and then then from which we fled as soon as possible no longer exists. Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again has probably been alluded to more often than the total number of readers of that novel. But the truth of that title for nearly everyone in this country, maybe even in the world, is that we’re trying to rediscover our youth, and it no longer exists except in memory. So that’s what I and two of my classmates, Gene Schlecht and Bill Sherman, will try to do when me meet in the town that’s no longer our home—reconstruct that long ago village of our youth—the places, the smells, the sounds, the tastes.

Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past revolved around the idea that sensory experience can rush us back in time to those places and times in our past. They can also take me back to my youth over seventy years ago.

My Mobridge of the 1930’s and 1940’s is recreated by an assortment of smells, both good and bad. The acrid skunk smell that surrounded The Hide and Fur Company in that tiny building near the railroad tracks on 4th Avenue East. And further south, the smell of smoldering garbage in the Mobridge garbage dump, overrun with the rats many of us shot with our 22’s. And just west of the dump, the odor of horse and cattle and pig shit from the Mobridge Sales Barn. The strong ammonia smell of a farmer’s horse barn. The tear-inducing smell of the Vicks VapoRub our mothers used to smear on our chests whenever we had a cold or the flu. The smell of steaming tar laid down on Highway 12. The pervasive smell of lilac in the basement of our Episcopal Church, the rich pine scent from the tree and pine boughs at Christmas in that same church. The reek of ether that permeated the Lowe Hospital. The smell of the valve oil I put on my cornet valves. The odor of freshly poured concrete in the house being built next door to our house on 5th Avenue West. The delicious aromas in the Masonic Lodge whenever our parents went there for a potluck supper (almost always called “supper,” not “dinner”). The redolence of burning leaves in the fall when we were still allowed to burn leaves.

And the tastes. The bitterness of those green crab apples we stole on night raids in the summers and falls. The bitterness of the choke cherries we plucked from someone’s tree, pretending that they were oh so good. The wild gooseberries we invariably ate before they were fully ripe. The Fletcher’s Castoria our mothers gave us when we got too sick from the crab apples, choke cherries, and gooseberries. The sweetness we sucked from honeysuckle blossoms. The taste of the homemade lemonade from that little food stall at the Sales Barn. The candy bars we grew up on: Powerhouse, Bit O Honey, those wonderful 7-Up bars we always ate, saving the Brazil nut for last. The soda pops (always in those stingy 8-ounce bottles, always “pop,” never “soda”): Coke, Hire’s Root Beer, 7-Up, Orange Crush, Grape Nehi, Cream Soda, Squirt (that later in high school we learned made a great mixer with the illegal 4-Roses or Schenley whiskey an older friend bought for us). Vegetables: raw carrots and white radishes we pulled from our mother’s garden, raw potatoes we nibbled on as we were peeling spuds for our mother’s dinner, tomatoes fresh off the vine out in back, sweet peas straight from the pod as we were helping our mothers get dinner, the corn and green beans and peas we had with our dinners (Isn’t it odd that none of us had ever eaten or heard of broccoli or cauliflower?). Other sweets and treats: the combination of orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream from that here-then-gone ice cream shop on the east side of Main Street; the unique taste of Dean’s pizzaburgers; the crinkly taste of the vanilla and chocolate halvah my father sold from the meat department in the Frontier Market; the chocolate slush cones Tom Miller sold in his flower shop; the hot beef and pork sandwiches we could get at the Sereno CafĂ© for only two-bits; the bismarcks and elephant ears from Emil Becker’s bakery; my mother’s lemon merengue pie; the fudgesickles we took into the Mascot (that were always more solid and lasted longer than any you might buy today); the nickel bags of “rooshin peanuts”; the gums we all seemed to chew day and night—Black Jack, Beechnut, Spearmint, Double-Bubble (wrapped separately in big round balls); Cracker Jack (with a surprise toy at the bottom and a whole lot more peanuts than you find in a box today) and jaw-breakers and Sen-Sen (those tiny black mouth fresheners when we wanted to disguise beer breath). Ethnic foods and dishes: the tiger meat my father put together for special occasions (raw ground beef and lots of spices—eaten uncooked on crackers); the milk toast my mother always made for us whenever we were sick (hot buttered milk on two slices of toast); the Norwegian lefse my sister-in-law Bonnie Scott made every Thanksgiving and Christmas; the German kuchen Mrs. Scott and Mrs. Naasz made for my father to sell in the Frontier Market; the German-Jewish stuffed cabbage (what we always mistakenly called “pigs-in-the-blanket”); and the disgusting Swedish lutefisk for the holidays (cod fillets soaked in a lye solution), then rinsed and baked. Ah, the memories.

The sounds: The train whistles whenever a Milwaukee Road train passed through Glenham and then approached the 4th Avenue crossing. The repeated hooting of the fire alarm to call out the volunteers; the single siren call at 6:00 p.m. and another at the 10:00 p.m. curfew; that most welcome repeated signal in the depths of a snowstorm to tell us there would be no school that day. The sound of Carmen Cavallaro’s piano on the radio in our living room Sunday mornings; Jack Armstrong (the All-American Boy), Inner Sanctum with that introductory squeaking door, and The Lone Ranger in late afternoons, Jack Benny and Red Skelton in the evenings. The buzzing of bugs around the lights at the Mascot Theater; the crunching of those same bugs when they fell to the sidewalk and we crushed them underfoot; the whine of mosquitoes when we ill-advisedly ventured onto the lawns on hot summer nights; the whir of grasshoppers as they fled before us when we walked in the country; the constant chirping of crickets in the night. I think we had more active insects in the past than in the present.

Then there are the birds back then. Of the town birds I most remember, the robins always signaled the end of winter when they returned to do their cock-eyed hop-hop-hop on our lawns searching for angleworms. And there were so many chirping sparrows in town we didn’t even notice them. A family of house wrens lived in a birdhouse just outside my bedroom window. We’d occasionally see red-headed woodpeckers hammering away at the American elms. There were also a few nasty blue jays that screamed at one and all. There must have been mourning doves and pigeons in town, but I don’t remember any. Out in the country, we had crows and magpies, blackbirds both plain and red-winged, hawks of various sizes, barn swallows, golden finches (that we always incorrectly called wild canaries), and owls, I’m sure, although I don’t remember ever seeing or hearing an owl in or out of Mobridge. The countryside had those tiny sandpipers that skipped and hopped and faked injury to lure people away from their ground nests. We had yellow flycatchers that would swoop down to peck at hatless heads if we got too close to a nest. We had mallards and Canada geese that made their annual way from south to north and back again. We had grouse and prairie chickens. But most of all we had those beautiful pheasants that inhabited our roadside ditches and wheat and cornfields. And finally, the most memorable bird for its sound in all of South Dakota—the meadowlark. I can never think of South Dakota and my hometown without hearing the meadowlark’s unmistakable song—long down-note, then up, then a rapid up and down warbling. Repeated every two or three minutes. Just for the heck of it. Or maybe communicating with a male or female meadowlark, asking him or her to come on over for a cocktail and a roll in the hay.

In my mind’s eye, I can locate all the houses I lived in or houses my friends lived in, the houses of the Mobridge aristocracy of the day. These were the houses on the west side of the Mobridge City Park, from the old Ellison house on the north corner of 1st Avenue West and 7th Street, then south to the grand Morrison house, then Judge Mundt’s house, and then my Uncle Ray Travis’s house on the south corner of that block. On the north corner of the next block was the Julius Skaug mansion, then the Stutenroth house, and then the old Congregational Church on the corner of 1st Avenue West and the highway.

I lived in a number of houses in Mobridge from the time I was born until I finally left South Dakota. When I was born, we lived in the Ellison house next to Morrison’s. Then we moved to a little house on 5th Avenue West. And after we moved back from Mitchell, where we spent only a year, we lived in the 5th Avenue house for several years before moving into the house on the corner of 2nd Avenue West and the highway, right next to the Dahlman house and kitty-corner from the Catholic Church. And finally, in about 1946, we moved into the Tolkein house just north of the city park, right next to Doc Spiry’s house on 7th Street. It was a considerable upgrade from our previous houses. My father had made good money in the grocery store and meat-locker business following WWII and was able to buy the house from my Godparents, the Tolkeins. I remember vaguely that their son Woody went to Hollywood and had small parts in a few movies. I remember occasionally seeing him in a film and saying, “Oh, yeah, there’s old Woody, the Mobridge film star.”

Mobridge seemed so much smaller then, the Lutheran Academy a long hike through open fields out to the west, and just north of the Academy, the old airport where Bob Brown flew in the old WWII cargo plane that sat there as a sort of club house for anyone who wanted to hike out there. To the north there were almost no houses beyond the high school, Todd’s house just north and east of the baseball diamond, Klapsaddles’s house almost by itself to the northwest. East of town, housing stopped at 6th or 7th Avenue.

In the winter, we skated wherever we could. There was a rink near Leff’s house on 3rd Avenue East, and another right next to Dougie Clifton’s house on 5th Avenue East. There must have been other places on the west side of town, but I don’t remember any. Most of us skated at the one near Leff’s. I can still smell the oiled rags and scrap lumber we burned in a 50-gallon drum for warming us on cold winter evenings. I guess some kids skated on the frozen Missouri River, but I never did, probably for fear of falling through the ice and never being seen again.

In the summer, we swam in stock dams (with those awful muddy bottoms), Molestads (always thick with green algae), very rarely in the river (but never far from shore), and finally in the recently opened city pool near the high school. Most of my classmates were reliable swimmers, but I was never more than an adequate dog-paddler. That would account for my never going into water that was deeper than my head.

All the places that were then and are no more. Main Street included a J.C. Penney store near the corner of Main and 4th Street, a store consumed by fire in 1970. What I best remember about this store are those odd little metal cups attached to wires that ran cash from a salesperson to an upstairs business office with change being sent back down. No registers, just high-flying metal cups. How odd. Nearly all the stores along that long-ago Main Street are new either gone or have been replaced by other businesses. The ones I remember seemed so much more spacious than they actually were. My father’s store in between Swartz’s and Perron’s Toggery was actually quite small, much narrower from north to south than it was in my mind. So too were almost all the other businesses along the street. Some of the buildings were only one-story, many two-story, with offices and apartments on the second floor. I remember going in a narrow entrance between businesses and up a dark staircase to Dr. Mohn’ office at the end of the hall for that dreaded filling or two, or even a painful extraction. I remember a tiny apartment above the Penney store where my Aunt Lu Travis lived. In high school I bowled at a 4-lane bowling alley run by Lefty Boughner. Four lanes! How odd. How narrow. I remember the Mascot as being much larger and grander than it is. Dale Lesher, theater owner, would put out a monthly schedule of up-coming movies and everyone in town would dutifully hang it on the refrigerator or kitchen bulletin board. The premium films would run Sunday through Tuesday, the B’s on Wednesday and Thur4sday, and the C’s on Friday and Saturday, often double-features on the weekends, mostly cheap Westerns with Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, or Roy Rogers, sometimes double horrors like The Mummy and The Black Panther, or a double Tarzan with Johnny Weismuller swinging through the jungle, giving us a thrill with his patented Tarzan yell. A dime got us in, rising to an alarming 12 cents a few years later, tickets sold to us by Mrs. Stacy. How heavenly, a double-feature on Saturdays, with a bag of popcorn or a box of old-maids from Emil Weigum’s Kernel Korn Pop Corn Shop. And an orange, lemon, or grape pushup or a fudgesickle to go with it. Then we’d stumble out in late afternoon sunshine, sick to the stomach and eye-weary from too much doubled-features. Haircuts at the Monogram with Charlie Bell there polishing shoes. Charlie Bell, our token Black in a white town. Root beer floats at Swartz’s soda fountain, furtively checking the magazines near the front (trying to find naked bosoms in The National Geographic). Moving north along Main Street, through Grand Crossing, past Doc Ivey’s home and chiropractic office on the west side, then the Baptist Church where I grudgingly stomped to Bible school one summer. (Was it one summer or only a piece of a summer before I convinced my parents I should quit the classes? Was that the beginning of my disenchantment with religion and formal church doctrine?) At the end of the block was the Masonic Lodge, and across the street was the A. H. Brown public library. Up those three or four steps and through the heavy door to confront the stern librarian, Mrs. Briley, keeper of the books, to whom I would fork over the few cents I owed for over-due books (and I invariably had over-due books). Then to the left in the first shelf of books, halfway down, all the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, all of which I read and re-read over my young years, all the Tarzan series and Mars and Venus series and Earth’s Core novels. Oh, the thrill of those books. And if I went down the short aisle between the first and second shelves, I found a book of ghost and horror stories, one of which has been stored vividly in my mind for the seventy or so years since I first read it, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a study in madness that horrified me then and still does. Later in my life I would read other books from the library, but mostly I read paperbacks, many borrowed from my brother Bob, some bought at Miller’s for two-bits, going through Westerns (mostly those by Luke Short or Max Brand), historical romances (mostly by Thomas B. Costain or Samuel Shellabarger), mysteries and detectives (some by Agatha Christie, mostly those by Mickey Spillane or Bret Halliday), and then onto my favorite genre, science fiction (mostly by Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, or almost anyone else writing during the Golden Age of Science Fiction). And when I tired of one genre, I’s start over with Westerns, and so on. For quite a few years I had a subscription to Amazing Stories, devouring the contents and then eagerly waiting for the next copy to arrive. My parents always had subscriptions to The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers, but I was only interested in the cartoons, not quite yet ready for the grown-up stories therein.

Moving north again to the city park, that wonderful place for rubber-gun battles and touch-football games. The bandstand where my wife broke her arm jumping to the ground, the nearby concrete fountain bowl, the birch trees the trunks on which so many or us carved our initials, birch trees and elms now gone, the one to old age, the others to that devastating Dutch elm disease). Moving north from the park, up the hill to the middle school/high school. Why do I recall it as a hill that I climbed every weekday to get to that middle school/high school? Maybe because it was a trudge up there and a frolic back down. I remember the high school library as a tiny room across the hall from the auditorium/study hall. Too many memories of classes there, classrooms there, most of them good, some of them not so good. I remember the band/chorus room on the second floor of the middle school, in which I sang in the mixed chorus and boys’ glee club, practiced in the high school band. Some of the band members I gest remember: Delbert Steiger and Bobbie Klein on trombone, Gene Zimmer on French horn, sister-in-law Kaye Zimmer and Benny Thompson on trumpet, and, of course, Wenzel Leff on first-chair trumpet. I played in the trumpet section but I was unmemorable and didn’t play very well. My memories of high school are divided—sports memories good for the most part, scholarship memories not so good.

One more place I must mention, the sand dunes several miles west of town, just before the curve up to the wagon bridge. Isn’t it odd that I still call it a “wagon bridge” even though in that long time ago no wagons passed over it, only automobiles? The sand dunes seemed to occupy at least a hundred acres of land just off the highway to the east of that final curve to the bridge, deep white sand blown into dunes by the South Dakota winds, a wonderful place to play Arabs. I don’t remember who I went there with or how often I went, but I can still see it in my mind’s eye. And that eye may not have 20-20 vision anymore.

I’m looking forward to hearing what Gene and Bill remember of that lost youth, what they remember that I don’t, how their memories of events and places may differ from mine. We should have a great time reminiscing over our last Mobridge Hoorah.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Vacant Lots and Mobridge Golf

The older I get, the faster time goes, the more friends and relatives die, leaving me with fewer and fewer people with whom I can share and confirm memories from my distant past. I saw in the paper that Olivia de Havilland is 99. Okay, I can live with that news. But today is also Leslie Caron’s 84th. Ouch! What happened to that young dancer I loved in An American in Paris, the young girl named Gigi, the big-eyed waif who fell in love with Daddy Long Legs Fred Astaire? I don’t really need those reminders of my longevity.

I’ve already written about the small town of my birth, Mobridge, South Dakota, and what I remember about it from my youth. I wonder how much of what I remember is real, accurate, and how much is made up, imagined. There aren’t many people still alive whom I might ask to confirm events and places. Which are real and which imagined? I don’t mean I’d deliberately manufacture memories. At least, I don’t think I would. Memory is such a slippery beast. Some moments in our past are so vivid, so brightly colored, that we’ve locked them in, while huge segments of our past are just gray mist.

From my earliest memories, let’s say from age four to ten (1937 to 1943), Mobridge, in the 1940 census figures as I recall, had 3,413 people. I’m sure that number isn’t quite correct but it’s there in my head because, as I recall, each of my friends and I used to think we were that last number, the “3” on the 3,413. Mobridge then was a dusty trail town, with all streets and avenues still just dirt and gravel. Main St. from the highway south to the railroad tracks was black-topped but that was it. And when the summer winds got up, the dirt and dust would turn the skies tan and gritty. It was a time when there were many what we called then and I guess most Mobridgers still call “vacant lots.” I remember the ones that had some meaning for me.

When we lived on the highway at the corner of 2nd Avenue West (just across the street from Dean's Drivein after he moved it over near the Catholic Church), the entire block to the west of us was vacant. It was cut diagonally from southeast to northwest by the foot path kids took to get to the Beadle School, with weeds, mostly ragweeds, growing up through the summer, grasshoppers flying up around us on our walk to school, the path often near the red-ant anthills we kids would just have to kick and scatter as we made our way back and forth. The lots north of the Beadle School were all vacant in the 1930’s, with a few basement houses built there in the years after the war. You remember basement houses? They were what couples would build and live in until they could afford to put in a real house on top of the basement. Couples today wouldn’t even consider such a housing plan, instead going for thirty-year mortgages on something between a quarter and a million dollars, then reneging on the loan in the divorce settlement a few years later.

One of my areas of play during the summers of late 30’s and early 40’s was mostly south of the highway around 3rd and 4th Avenues West, where my cousin Gordon lived on 3rd, the Appleby twins Ray and Roy just west on 4th, and across the street on 4th, Q.P. Coleman and Punky Miller resided, with Jackie and Gwen Hepper on the south corner in the brick house later owned by the Holgates. Back to vacant lots. North of the Miller house, from 4th to 5th, nothing but vacant lots, with a large highway billboard sign at the north edge along the highway. We played on the back side of that billboard, scaling the scaffolding for what seemed like hours but must have been more like an abbreviated hour before boredom set in. A number of the west-side gang dug an underground room on that lot, covering it with old sheets of plywood from someone’s backyard. Amazing that none of us died in an earth collapse. Some of us hiding in the weeds on that lot (But who exactly?) experimented with smoking by filling straws with used coffee grounds, lighting them, and then puffing. Ah, the thrill. Ah, the disgust. Even smoke wood was better than coffee straws. For those who don’t recognize what smoke wood was, the trees and branches of riverside cottonwoods would fall into the Missouri and stay there so long that the branches would turn punky and white and could be broken into cigar-sized pieces which, when lighted, served as youthful cigs. We played pickup baseball on the northwest corner, across the street from where Jimmy Fenlon lived. Most of the city land west of 5th or 6th Avenues was unoccupied, nothing much between there and the Lutheran Academy and further out, the original Mobridge Airport.

Later, in about 1946, we moved to a house previously owned by the Tolkeins on the corner of Main and 7th Street East, across from the city park, next door to Doc Spiry. Across the street to the west there was a vacant half-block, from 7th St. West along the park to 1st Ave. West and to the alleyway to the north. It was another place for pickup baseball, more for games of bat-and-catch than actual games with bases. As I remember that game of b-and-c, we took turns as batter with one or more of us in the field, the batter hitting stuff at us. Cleanly-fielded grounders were worth 25 points, one-bouncers 50 points, and flies 100 points. I guess the next turn as batter was determined by some pre-set number of points accumulated. Does anyone remember such a game? And if so, do I have it sort of right? Or have I again only imagined such details? There was also a vacant lot just east of the Spiry house, where someone (Who?) had put up a basket at which I and others would play sweaty games of one-on-one or whatever number there was split in two. If not one-on-one, there was always Horse. Or if alone, endless shots from close up to as far away as we could heave the ball. There were other vacant lots up near the high school that had baskets for the same kinds of basketball games we could put together. The other lot that springs to mind was south of the high school, on the corner of Main and 11th Street. It was vacant until Ben Boschker built a house on it with a small convenience store on the ground floor at the front. It became a regular stop-off to and from high school for an 8-ounce bottle of pop (never called "soda") or a much-needed Powerhouse bar.

There must have been any number of other vacant lots in town back in those days, but I remember only the ones that stick in my head, stick there either correctly or incorrectly colored by too many memory flashcards.

Another Mobridge memory so vivid to me involves the Mobridge Country Club where I spent too many summer hours playing golf, sometimes with David Durand, sometimes with my mother and father, sometimes with brother Dick, but most often alone. The clubhouse was a single large room with a bar on the south end, several nickel shot machines near the door on the east, tables and chairs in the middle, and probably a jukebox somewhere for playing dance tunes for those visiting the bar afterhours. The slots were, of course, illegal, but whenever the county authorities were scheduled to show up to confiscate them, the machines magically disappeared. Slot machines then were so much simpler than the ones we now see in casinos. You had cherries, lemons, plums, oranges, and jackpot bars. You knew immediately what you were going to win when the three wheels came to rest. Now, most of us don’t know until the computerized machine tells us with its silence or its “dingadingding!” for wins. I think the percentage of payouts then was about the same as it is now in our many casinos, not very high. I remember once, when I was in either middle school or high school, going on a winter hayride out to the Country Club for bowls of chili for the hayriders. Did I go with a girl or go alone? I don’t remember. I’m sure if she’d been a lovely young thing I’d have remembered.

The course back before Mobridge got so fancy with grass greens and mowed fairways had a slightly different nine holes than is there today. I remember it as having seven par-4’s (all somewhere between 300 and 350 yards), one par-3 (about 140 yards), and one par-5 (about 450 yards). Golf scores then were simply 9-hole scores. Never having seen or played on an 18-hole course, I could only envision a round made up of nine holes. The greens were all “browns,” consisting of oiled sand on round packed-earth bases, with the pins in permanent spots near the center of each green. The fairways were made up of occasionally-mowed buffalo grass, on which we played “winter rules,” meaning one could move the ball as far as one liked to find a bit of grass, which one would often then twist up to form a kind of grass tee. Mobridge rules of golf were not very strict back then, nor very strictly enforced. The roughs were fairly short right after one of the several summer mowings, and up to knee-high just before one of the mowings. The grass from mowing it would be piled up to be later hauled away for hay. But until then, if your ball may have gone into one of the piles, one never never stuck a hand in to find the ball for fear that some wily rattlesnake might take offense. The tee boxes were eight-foot squares of oiled earth within creosoted railroad ties. Each tee box had a bench with a small gabled roof above for shelter in case of that rare South Dakota summer rain. Holes one and two were then much as they are now, both par-4’s. The tee box on three, right near the fenced gravel road, had a scraggly cottonwood tree that Heinie Long tried to keep alive by carrying out buckets of water. I don’t remember if it survived or died sometime in the forties. The third hole was a straightaway par-4 with a green too close to the road for comfort. The fourth was the lone par-3, with a tee box just about where the tee is now for the fourth, hitting downhill across the small valley to a green due east. Then golfers would go back uphill to the tee box for five and play straight east pretty much on the same line as it is now for the eighth hole but much shorter then (maybe even less than 300 yards). The sixth tee was to the right of the fifth green, a straight, short par-5 up the valley to a green that sat just west of where the present pond is near the present-day putting green. Then up the hill to the west for a short par-4 with a drive straight south. Then another par-4, the eighth going diagonally north and west. And finally, the ninth, hitting east toward the clubhouse, a good drive carrying past the hill leading down to the ninth green, the only one with more than one level, this one with a back tier sloping down from the back of the green which was cut into the hillside leading up to the clubhouse. I wish I had one of those old scorecards to confirm my memories of the length and directions of the holes. As I remember, here are the yardages: 1-310, 2-330, 3-340, 4-140, 5-295, 6-450, 7-320, 8-335, 9-340. Total: 2860 yards. Pretty short by today’s standards, but back then the equipment and balls weren’t even close to today’s stuff. It was the only golf course I knew when I was a young lad, so I had nothing to compare it to. It was what it was, take it or leave it. My best scores there were several 33’s. I must have gone from scores in the sixties and fifties when I was ten or eleven, into the forties for most of my teen years, then into the thirties after high school and after I got back from Korea. No such thing as handicaps back then. You just played golf and kept score. I remember playing in the club championship when I was either a senior in high school or during that abortive year after my first year in college. It was a semi-final match against Heinie Long, the barber we boys all remember from our visits to the shop in the Monogram to get that well-known “heinie” haircut. Heinie had a short, controlled backswing, pretty good golfer, didn’t talk much. We were playing match play. I remember his drive on number three, along the road, going into the high weeds near the fence, either just in or just out of bounds. Bud Lowe was jogging along the road and saw where the ball had gone and just had to point it out to Heinie. It was in-bounds and would have been a lost ball without Bud’s unsolicited help, a win for me. Instead it was a hole won by Heinie. I don’t remember how we played any of the other holes, but I know we were tied after eight holes. I hit a good drive in the fairway on nine, somewhere over the hill and past the 200-hundred yard stake. We got there and couldn’t find my ball. It just disappeared. It had to have gone down a snake or a gopher hole. I dropped a ball in the vicinity, hit my shot onto the green, made my par to Heinie’s bogey, won the match. After the round, he told me he’d won the hole and the match because my drive was lost and I should have gone back to the tee to hit my third shot, probably making a double bogey to his bogey. I was incensed. I was livid. How could he claim a victory when a snake or gopher had obviously taken my ball? It was just another of the lessons we learn along the way that life and golf isn’t always fair.

I’d love to hear from any people from Mobridge, back then or more recent, who have their own memories about “vacant lots” and the Mobridge Country Club. Or anyone who can spot false holes in my memories of those times and places. You can write me at

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Doggy Dog World*

* As an English teacher, I’ve always collected errors in diction, words and phrases that people, especially my students, mis-hear, like “windshield factor” and “the next store neighbors.” Many years ago, one of my students wrote an essay in which she described the world as being harsh and cruel, “a doggy dog world.” I’ve since come to think she may have been more astute and accurate than those who describe it in the usual way.

Those of you who are reading my memories here may be interested in examining my blog, called Doggy Dog World, in which I write movie and book reviews or comment on news of the day, If so, click here: Doggy Dog World.


It seems that writing one’s memoirs is the hottest trend in publishing these days. But I had planned to do exactly that for the past ten years and haven’t yet gotten around to beginning. Does that make me a trendsetter, a trend follower, or a trend-procrastinator? Whatever. At long last at least I’m working on a start.

The first step of a journey is usually the hardest. Much easier to sit back and plan and plan, consider the difficulties, the inconveniences, the possible dangers, the expense. Then say, “Nah, I guess I’ll just stay here.” But if we actually do take that first step, that first foot forward, the second and third become much easier. And five thousand steps later we’re into the swing of it. Then, fifty thousand steps into the journey, we finally see the destination and we hurry down the road to a conclusion. My analogy is transparent but true. Writing anything like a novel or an autobiography may seem impossibly long at first, but the farther into the journey, the easier it becomes. I’ve written five novels so far, and at the beginning, each one seemed too long for me ever to find the ending. But I did, all five times. And I’ll do the same with this, the account of my journey through the first seventy-five years of my life.

One of my concerns, I guess the same concern anyone has who attempts to trace his life as honestly and as accurately as possible, is that I may not remember events as they actually happened, that I may see some things more favorably than they actually were, may even forget whole segments either because they weren’t important enough to remember or because they were too grim or hateful to remember. Or too unflattering. Lawrence Block, in his novel When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, said, “When you drove cross-country you didn’t remember every billboard, every mile of highway. Why bother recalling every detail of your life?” Therefore, my reader should be aware that not all of what I have to say about my life will be absolutely correct or accurate. I will have filled in some spaces with semi-fictional putty, a few fake billboards, some artificial trees and bushes, a few curves and avenues that didn’t really exist, but the overall pattern will be true. Jeffrey Deaver in his novel The Vanished Man puts a slightly different spin on it. Kara, one of the characters says to Lincoln Rhyme, a quadriplegic forensics expert, “Isn’t most of our lives an illusion?” He asks her how and she continues, “Well, everything in the past is memory, right? . . . And everything in the future is imagination. Those’re both illusions—memories are unreliable and we just speculate about the future. The only thing that’s completely real is this one instant of the present—and that’s constantly changing from imagination to a memory. So, see? Most of our life’s illusory.” So, please, bear with me in my prestidigitation involving the events of my life.

Before I begin, though, I should do a brutally honest appraisal of my personality, establish before the fact what kind of person I think I am so that I don’t get too involved in lying to myself and my readers about the events of my life. I’m a bright and clever person, always more of an idea man than a doer. I always wanted to be recognized for my creativity. I spent my life writing songs no one but me would ever hear. I’ve written novels, short stories, poems, articles, essays—all probably fated to die somewhere in the caverns of my computer. Some would say I was a dilettante, dabbling in the arts. But I wasn’t just dabbling. Success in any artistic endeavor requires two things: ability and determination. I always believed I had the ability; I just didn’t have enough determination to stay with it long enough to find success. I’m obsessive about the things I enjoy, I ignore the things I don’t enjoy. I’m an oversensitive romantic, always looking for the rainbow or the perfect love of my life. I’m lazy; I’m quick-tempered; I’m thoughtful and thoughtless. I’m honest with a thin streak of larceny. I’m a mechanical idiot. There. That’s as accurate as I can make it.

So, who is my audience? Who even wants to read a detailed account of my life? I hope my children do, or their children. If they don’t, however, then I’ll just have to write it for myself—use it to put into perspective what has happened to me in seventy-five years, what I’ve let happen to me, what others have done to me, what I’ve done to myself, what I’ve gained, what I’ve lost.

I hope I find the trip rewarding. I hope I have more than one reader.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Back to Stories

I was born in and grew up in one of the strangest little towns in the country. Mobridge, “Missouri Bridge,” South Dakota. Home to anywhere from five hundred to five thousand people from its beginnings to the present. Located in the middle of some of the flattest territory in the Western Hemisphere, located about three miles from the Missouri River, the “Muddy Mo” that Lewis and Clark followed on their trip to the Pacific almost two hundred years ago. I wonder how many people are convinced that their hometown is the most unique place in the world, that no one else ever had such an odd, interesting, magical, hateful, extraordinary, suppressive, wonderful place of birth and growth as they did. Probably everyone. But they would all be exaggerating. And I’m not. There is no other place in the world as unique (and all those adjectives I used above) as Mobridge.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it all my life.

My very first memory of it, at least the one I remember in the most detail, involved Christmas morning, 1937. The four of us—I, sister Helen, brothers Dick and Bob—all slept upstairs in two relatively unfinished bedrooms in what I’ve always thought of as the Jackson house. This was a small white house just off “the trail” on Fifth Avenue West. I say “the trail” because that’s what virtually everyone called the main road through town, U. S. Highway 12 running east and west, a two-lane cracked, humped, pot-holed piece of blacktop beginning somewhere in an east too distant to consider and running straight as a Sioux arrow west through town, under the “vidock” and out two miles to “Deadman’s Curve” where it swept down and south along the river basin, then back west to cross the “wagon bridge” and up the steep west-river bank to the plain where it passed the phallic monument to Sacajewea, or as we always called her “Suh-cock-uh-WE-uh,” and on through Sioux reservation land to northwest South Dakota and into Montana. Once upon a time early in the century it would have been just that, a dusty dirt trail leading down to the Missouri River ferry, and folks in Mobridge three or four decades later were more than content to continue calling it that despite the modern and un-dusty tar atop it.

Now, where was I before Highway 12 took me rambling? Yes, my memories of Christmas past, 1937 to be exact. I would have been four years and one month old. We must not have slept very long or very well, anticipating the glories to come the next morning. And when morning finally dawned, I remember being led down the narrow staircase in the center of the house and directly into the kitchen where we had to eat breakfast before we could go into the living room to drool over the presents around the tree. Many today, in an age of overindulgence of children, may view that detour as cruel. But it certainly honed our interest in what lay in wait for us. I have no idea what we ate, probably cereal. I know we must have consumed it rapidly. Then we were allowed to go into the living room. I remember a bike beside the mantel, a 22 rifle above it, presents under the tree, an unwrapped child’s workbench with wooden hammer, wooden spikes to hammer into wooden holes. Yikes, could a child be happier? The bike was for Dick, the rifle for Bob, I don’t remember what Helen got. Maybe nothing. No, I’m sure her memories of that morning would probably focus on details different from mine. That’s all I remember, but it must have been a glorious morning for me to have it so fixed in my memory.

And memories are what memoirs are all about. My favorite female singer, Barbra Streisand, once sang, “Mem’ries light the corners of my mind, misty watercolor mem’ries, of the way we were.” What an appropriate lyric. I’m fascinated with the way the mind establishes certain memories, freezes them with crystal clarity in the mind and yet totally discards whole segments of time. How much do we actually remember with accuracy and how much do we “water color” into scenes we only imagine or wish had happened? Lawrence Block, in another of his Matt Scudder novels, wrote, “The memory is a cooperative animal, eager to please: what it cannot supply it occasionally invents, sketching carefully to fill in the blanks.” Our lives in retrospect are strings of pearls, polished and reshaped with handling. Looking back, we realize how short the strand really is. All the more reason to take those pearls out of the mind and store them on paper, if only for our own satisfaction or the curious eyes of our children, or their children.

I never intended to do a chronological detailing of my life. How boring. How . . . lockstep. When Twain’s editors discovered the mountain of autobiographical manuscript he’d left after his death, they didn’t know what to do with it. It was monumental, and entirely out of sequence. So they put it together as best they could, grouping anecdotes and episodes as Twain must have intended, by association. Twain would begin with a memory, then associate it with whatever his personal links were for that event, then wander around linking one to another by his own connections, but not necessarily temporal hooks.

My first association hook is a rather general one—Mobridge and my youth. So let’s first associate with a place I mentioned in connection with highway 12, the “vidock.” I learned much later in life that the word was really viaduct. Where the trail ducked down under the railway as it went west toward the wagon bridge (the railway going north until it too turned west to cross the Missouri on the railroad bridge) there was a wooden bridge everyone in town knew as the vidock. It was a nasty but fascinating place for young people to play—tag, hide ‘n’ seek, campin’ out. It was dark and cool and kids could dig in the earth around the creosoted timbers and build whatever castles their imaginations could create. Never mind that creosote stains never washed out of bib overalls or white t-shirts. It was a wondrous place to while away a summer day, especially when the trains rumbled overhead and deafened the players below, raining dust and traintrack debris onto innocent heads. Those were good times.

I guess most of the memorable times from my youth involve the summers. The season of play seemed endless, even though I know now it was only three months compared to the endless nine months of school. I don’t really remember what the rules of our house were, or what the childhood rules of Mobridge were. Nearly all my friends had total freedom of movement from the time we rushed out on a summer morning until we had to come home at night. Didn’t we eat anything all day long? Or did we actually take time out from our games to come home for lunch? I don’t remember. I know our parents cared for our safety, but possibly they never knew how many dangerous places we found so enchanting.

Like the vidock, we also found the railroad tracks fascinating. We would hike out from town to the west, a mile and a half from the vidock to the railroad bridge. A mile from town, between the tracks and the river, were the Indian burial grounds. These were mounds that had been worked over by any number of amateur archeologists as well as professionals. I know the University of Wisconsin sent out a team of students to spend all of the summer of 1954 to examine the grounds. Maybe there had been others before that. I know that I and my generation as well as the generation of both my brothers sifted through them, finding the treasured arrowheads, spearheads, bits of pottery, bones, digging tools, cooking tools, sewing tools. I can still smell the rich earth as we dug down and sifted the moist dirt through homemade screens.

Bill Sherman and I once spent an entire afternoon there digging. We were very deep, in two holes, trying to connect them by an underground tunnel. I was on one side, he on the other. We were using our small Boy Scout entrenching tools, the kind where the shovel part folds down along the handle, the shovel end coming to a point like a chisel. I heard him digging and I called to him to help him locate the closest avenue, my head pressed close to the shovel sounds. The next thing I knew I was on the ground with blood pouring from a wound in my left eyebrow. Bill’s shovel had come through right where I was staring, calling out my location. By that time it was nearly dark, and somehow we stopped the bleeding and hurried home. I remember how angry my mother was that I got home late for supper, but that I also had nearly lost my eye playing at the Indian burial grounds.

The railroad tracks to the east led us to the abandoned park near Old Evarts, about three miles from town. It was one of the many places along the Missouri we used for camping out, for boyhood games, for fishing in the river. The tracks gave us our sinkers—heavy spikes and nuts we found along the way. My Uncle Ray Travis’s hardware store, the Coast-to-Coast, sold us our fish line—forty pound test, green cord, wound onto one-foot pieces of tree branch or wooden spike. The heavy hooks were threaded onto the line, then each tied by knotting them off with about a six-inch leader of cord, each hook spaced three or four feet apart, about six hooks all together. Then the sinker was tied on the end. It was a Huck Finn art form, throw-line fishing. We would unwind our line along the shore, about fifty feet of it, ram the winding stick into the moist clay of the shore, a large rock on top to hold it in place. Then we would bait the hooks with worms or chicken guts or cheese—whatever we thought sounded disgusting enough to attract the strange denizens of the Missouri’s muddy waters. Then came the throw. One had to be especially careful with the throw because of the baited hooks. The first trick was to hold the line in front of the body with the left hand, take the last three feet of line in the right hand, swing the sinker in a counterclockwise circle until it gained enough speed that upon release the entire fifty feet of line would go out into the river perpendicular to the shoreline. The second trick was to avoid the hooks after the throw. If all went well, then you could set out a second and a third line, however many lines you could afford or cared to tend. We spaced our lines far enough apart that they wouldn’t get tangled if a fish or the current pulled them up- or down-river. Then we sat and watched the muddy water, watched the lines, watched the sky, kept a wary eye out for rattlers.

Occasionally we would get up to feel the line between index finger and thumb for that exciting tug tug of fish. Sometimes the sinker wouldn’t be quite heavy enough to stay on the bottom and the line would be swung back to shore by the current. The line would be pulled in, rebaited, more weight added to the sinker, and recast. Then more sitting and watching. If the fishing was good, we might pull a line in with two, three, or four of the hooks occupied by a wild variety of Missouri fish. We caught bullheads, catfish, sturgeon, carp, shiners, suckers, eel, buffalo fish, something we called a golden-eyed herring. The sizes also varied enormously, the bullheads fairly standard at 8 to 12 inches. But the catfish and sturgeon, oh my. They could be nearly any size. I once pulled in a sturgeon that was about six feet long from tip to tail. Granted, a sturgeon’s tail was very long and slender, but that was still a big fish. I can’t remember what my biggest catfish catch would have been, probably about five or six pounds. But there were stories of catches as big as forty pounds. Lloyd Hamre always told of leviathan cats he’d caught. But he was a loner and I never fished with him. My fishing buddies were almost always Bill Sherman, Don Sieler, Gene Schlect, and Benny Thompson.

I don’t remember exactly how many summers I spent fishing the river. I can’t believe my mother would have let me go to that dangerous place any younger than twelve or thirteen and I would have been done with such summer play my last several years in high school. Summers then were filled with baseball and golf and days at the municipal swimming pool. But those are memories with a different association.

So, for about four years I fished the river. During this same span of years, I and my buddies roamed the town playing other summer games. I remember spending entire days at various billboards in town. We would climb the support timbers behind the billboards, playing tag, hanging out. These billboards were about fifty feet long and twenty feet high and the climbing could be dangerous. Looking back now, I can’t imagine spending a whole day doing just that, but in that long ago time of my youth it seemed like a whole day. We must have done other things as well, like digging tunnels and underground rooms in one or the other of the vacant lots in town. It’s a wonder that more of us weren’t killed doing all those dangerous things, like drowning in the river, dying of snakebite, smashing heads in a fall from the top of a billboard, suffocating in a cave-in. But we didn’t. The only death I remember was when Lloyd Hamre’s older brother drowned in the mouth of the Grand River. He and his friends were swimming there. He stepped off the shore, went under, and was never found. At least that’s the story as I remember it. I did swim a few times in that river, but never far from shore or far from a friendly log stuck along the shore. There were too many frightening possibilities associated with the river, like malicious undertows, underwater snags, lurking monsters in that brown water just waiting to bite a toe or leg, or pull the whole child under. As a boy, I never felt comfortable in any water deeper than my nose.

The river changed so often, shorelines tumbling in during floodstage, shores sometimes like quicksand, or quickmud as we called it, sometimes made up of flakes of black shale, all of it always covered with river debris—bits of cottonwood long soaked white and porous from the water, making wonderful smokewood cigars; dead fish; bottles and cans and candy wrappers. And the next storm would swell the water and sweep away the old and replace it with more upriver refuse.

In the winter the river froze solid enough to walk on, but that too was dangerous with possible weak spots beneath your feet. And in the spring, sometime in March or April, the ice would go out. I mean literally go out. One moment the entire river would be ice, the next moment it would break and begin its crashing crumbling tumble downriver, smashing bridges and trees and whatever else got in its way. Townspeople would drive to the wagon bridge to stand and watch the glacier chunks slam into the pilings, feel the weight of the ice below them, daring the river to do its worst, all of us probably trembling inside at the possibility that the river would take us up on the dare. And the ice would often jam a mile or so downriver as it bent to the east, forming an ice dam, the water backing up and flooding the lowlands all the way to the edge of town. We would sweat it out until the ice finally unjammed itself and the water continued to the southeast. The river breakup was always the unofficial start of spring, and we waited for it with grand anticipation.

When I was about eight or nine or ten (one of those magical years) spring was always heralded in by a certain smell in the air, the smell of recently thawed earth. One day it was there, and little boys’ noses turned up simultaneously, led as by a piper to an open field. It called us eight- or nine- or ten-year-olds to migs, marbles to the uninitiated. After school or on weekends we would find a vacant lot (not hard to find in Mobridge in the early Forties) and mark out mig pits or mig squares to use for the winning or losing of our stashes of marbles. As I recall, the pits were used for lagging. Each player would put one or more marbles into the small hollowed out place in the ground and then each of us would take turns trying to lag our shooter into the pit. Whoever managed it won all the migs in the pit. This game didn’t require much talent, just a feel for lagging. The game with the square was more difficult because it required an ability to shoot a marble with thumb at a target, one of the marbles we’d put at the corners of the square or another’s shooters. Whatever marble the shooter hit was his to keep. The players would never put one of their really good marbles on the corners of the square, and they’d never use any of their true favorites as a shooter for fear of losing it. The difference in skill levels was considerable. There were boys (never girls) who could hold a marble between tip of index finger and thumb and rifle that marble very accurately at another marble, some at distances of five or six feet. The shooter marble would travel through the air like a bullet at its target, often smacking into the target with enough velocity to send the target marble awesome distances (awesome to eight- or nine- or ten-year-olds). I was always wary of these experts and seldom played migs with them. I was one of those who held the marble in the crook between the first and second joints of the index finger with thumb under it. And I almost never held the marble very far off the ground, preferring to roll it on the ground at my intended target. This was the sissy method and loudly scoffed by the experts. But for the majority of us, rollers rather than shooters, we never referred to it as sissy. To each his own. We let the experts play against each other. We had our own game. The shooter kept his turn as long as he kept hitting marbles, pocketing each won mig as a comfortable trophy. And when the one whose turn it was missed he left his shooter marble as a potential target for those who followed in turn. When all the migs in the square were gone, that round was over. Marbles came in all sizes and colors. Some were called “steelies” because they were like large ball bearings, shiny silver and metallic. Some were called “cat’s eyes,” for obvious reasons. Cat’s eyes were rare and coveted by us all. Some were called “aggies” (short for agates) and were swirling browns and tans and grays. Most marbles were standard size, about half an inch in diameter. Some were larger, about three-quarters of an inch in diameter, and called “boulders.” Marbles smaller than the standard were called “peewees” or “pebbles.” In the early days of migs, marbles were not mass-produced as they were after WWII. The early ones were lovingly crafted by glass artisans who made each one individually different—creamy solids with swirls of various colors, transparent glass of varying colors and also streaked with contrasting colors. The later migs came out like thousands of clones. If the machine made clear with orange streaks, it made hundreds of thousands of exact duplicates. How boring. How uninviting. The season for migs seemed to us to go on and on, but it usually petered out as spring passed into summer. And the number of seasons seemed greater in memory than in actuality. I’m sure that I quit playing migs around ten.

Other games that came and went seasonally and lasted for only those magic years between eight and ten were jacks, hopscotch, and jumping rope. Jacks was mostly for girls, although my wife and I enjoyed playing jacks for a short while soon after we got married. We played on the kitchen floor of our first apartment, and she beat me with regularity. Hopscotch was also mainly a girls’ game, but some of us boys, unafraid of being called sissies, also played, although this too, like migs, had to be abandoned after age ten. Otherwise, the sissy brand would be simply too appalling and too permanent. I remember how we all searched for special glass pieces for the game. It was vitally important that the glass be a special shape and color, thus giving us with the most unusual piece a decided magical advantage over the other playe In the summer we played “Kick the Can” in the block on which my cousin Gordon lived, with the Applebys just across the alley. I remember when the Hepper girls moved to town—Jackie and Gwen—and all of us boys were so fascinated with their youthful beauty, with their exotic place of origin, Java, South Dakota. During those summer days we biked all over town and played “Cops and Robbers” and “Cowboys and Indians” on our bikes and “Run Sheep Run” on foot. If there were only two of us we would find a vacant house or garage roof and play a game of “Annie I Over,” which involved one person rolling a ball of some kind up one side of the roof and over and the other person catching it and returning it. And in the long summer evenings we played “Red Light, Green Light” and “Father, May I?” and “Simon Says.” Then we would all go on an extended rubber gun kick. We would beg the filling station owners for old inner tubes, cutting them into a variety of ammunition. We would carve and nail together guns from pistols to rifles to machineguns, our mothers’ clothespins for triggers. Then we’d form teams and spend the day racing through the city park trying to hurt each other with our knotted rubber “bullets.” It all sounds terribly violent now that I write it down, but those were times when we had to use our own resources for entertainment, and somehow we all survived. Or nearly all of us.

Most of our toys were handmade, not that our parents couldn’t or didn’t buy us toys. But the ones we made ourselves were better. A button threaded onto a three foot piece of string, the string then tied, provided us with a spinning button as we held the string in both hands and then wound it up, then pulling out with both hands to start the button on its furious spinning journey. Another was a match gun made with one of our mother’s clothespins. I can’t remember how we did it,. Something having to do with turning the one clothespin arm around, fastening on a rubber band, then inserting a kitchen match on, and shooting the match at someone or something, the match igniting as it left the clothespin “gun.”
But as sure as spring and summer came, they also went. In the fall, we grudgingly returned to school. I spent my first seven years attending General Beadle Elementary School on Sixth Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues West. It was a square brick building with grass in front and a dirt playground in back, and we who attended would forever be known as Beadle Bugs. One of my most vivid memories of Beadle School was the sound of a swing chain slapping against the metal support pole as a South Dakota afternoon wind blew outside my third grade classroom. Another is the taste of a gum eraser. Another is the time I first encountered Craig Hamilton. He was a new student who came to town in fourth or fifth grade, and he was bright and clever. By way of introducing him to the class, Mrs. Paul had him go to the blackboard to spell his name for the class. He did and I was so taken with a certain flourish he put on the “g” that I’ve copied it ever since. It is the nasty habit of making a figure eight lying on its side whenever I get to a letter that dips below the line. Thus, my signature has always had an infinity sign loop under the "J," and the word "Egypt" is just a mess.

Another is the time in second grade when I needed to go to the bathroom and the teacher wouldn’t excuse me. I held it as long as I could, but then I could hold no longer and I soaked my pants, deep yellow urine dripping down under my desk and forming a little telltale pool. Mary Ellen Bailey took delighted notice of it, and when school was finally out, she followed me down the hall and out the front door trying to see just how wet my pants were. Another is the time Bill Sherman first entered our class. He was the new kid from Big Piney, Wyoming, and would become one of my best friends throughout my school years. The two teachers I remember best were Pearl Paul and Florence Anderson. Pearl Paul must have been young once but I remember her always as gray-haired and tired-faced. She taught us all how to write properly, with the Palmer Method. All those tiresome exercises of circles and slanted lines—“push pull, push pull, circle circle circle.” Florence Anderson taught history among other things and we all knew her as Miss Andes Mountains because of her enormous breasts. Young boys are always very aware of large breasts, but these were mountainous. Another time that stands out in my mind is when in first grade Leefa Lesher impressed us all by getting up and counting to a hundred as fast as humanly possible. My memory comes up short when I try to remember what I actually learned in those years. I remember learning nothing. I know I must have learned important things, I just don’t remember what.

I do, however, remember the school games. We played “Pum, Pum, Pullaway” and “Squash.” The only requirement of the latter game was to form a line of people with shoulders against an outer wall. Then everyone on the ends would try to squash the ones in the middle. If I had to guess at the elements of “Pum, Pum, Pullaway” I would say it involved one team trying to pull the opponents’ arms off. I’m sure that’s not right, but I don’t remember the rules. It may have involved two teams facing each other, each team with a captain who would alternate calling out someone’s name from the other team and someone from his team. The two combatants would then have at it, the one trying to avoid the other. Something like that. I think we may have made games up as we went along.

And speaking of combatants, I remember having two fights while I was a student at the Beadle School, one with Richard Winger, Sir Richard the Big-Nosed. Richard had an enormous proboscis and was nearly always stuffed up and adenoidal. I don’t know what caused the fight, but I do remember a time when Bill Sherman and I discussed a potential fight with Richard. We agreed that if you just hit him on the nose the fight would be over. Thus my strategy in the actual fight, just hit him in the nose. I did and the fight wasn’t over. I don’t remember who won or lost (though I think I was probably the loser), I only remember our fight strategy as a failure. The other fight involved a Reiger boy who lived kitty-corner from the Wingers. It was another of those after-school affairs that get started for no good reason, or maybe over a buildup of hurts and insults over a month or two. This was not a fistfight, but a wrestling match. I remember the fight starting in a vacant lot across the street from the school. I can still picture us being in each other’s arms, rolling and twisting and turning, a circle of fans surrounding us, South Dakota dust in our eyes and noses. I remember finally getting him in a position that called for an “I give,” and I stood and brushed myself off and felt so very good about my victory, the crowd around us now silent as they watched me make my victorious exit. That was my last fight . . . ever. Here, my memory is accurate. I never fought another person with fist or embrace where a win or a loss was involved. I never struck another person in the face or body with a fist. I don’t think it was cowardice on my part; I hope it was good sense.

Years later, Lloyd Hamre and I would go barhopping together, and Lloyd was a brawler. He would go out deliberately looking for a fight, and he almost always found one. I remember one night in back of the Palace Lounge when he and some little west-river brawler had at it. The sound of fist on face is much more like striking a side of beef than the exaggerated nonsense we often hear in filmed fights. And the damage is much more real. Lloyd won in short order, his opponent a puffy, bloody mess. Lloyd so enjoyed fighting that one night at the Bridge Club, when there was no one around to challenge, he suggested we each put ten dollars on the bar and go outside to see who would be able to return to claim the bet. I declined. I’m sure it wasn’t cowardice on my part. I like to think I had better sense than Lloyd did.

The Upper-School Years

After seven years as a Beadle Bug, my classmates and I went to the junior high connected to the high school, where we first co-mingled with that unsavory group from the other elementary school in town, the Lincolnites. The middle school was the original high school, a two-story red brick building with a fascinating red metal tube attached to the west side. This was the fire escape down which we would have occasional fire drills, singly stepping into the upper end that began in the band room and sliding on our butts to the grass below. Such fun. On weekends and weekdays after school, children would climb to the top using sweaty hands and feet for leverage for the ascent, then slide down, climbing and sliding endlessly. I’m sure it was endless only in my young imagination, since a little of that went a long way.

I remember most vividly Mr. Giles, our science teacher, who evidently hated adolescents. Or possibly we as a group were hateful. I remember how we would unite to drive him to the brink of sanity and then over. One or the other of us would punch someone across from us or throw a paper plane or spitwad, and Mr. Giles, nearly foaming at the mouth, face livid, would come rushing down the aisle to grab the miscreant and shake him like a bag of twigs while the rest of the class cheered him on. He had the unfortunate habit of making all his points with his middle finger extended toward his palm, other fingers up, sort of a reverse “bird,” and we all loved to do a Giles imitation behind his back. I don’t know how long the poor man taught or even if he made it through the entire year. Probably not long, because his daily bouts of anger must have been physically and mentally exhausting. Did I learn any science? I don’t know. I don’t remember.

The ninth grade was a mixture of classes in the middle school and the high school, a kind of bridge between pre-puberty and puberty. I remember the sound of those wooden stairs creaking as I crossed the bridge between the second floor of the old building down to the first floor of the new. My high school career was an odd mixture of good grades and bad. I did well in whatever caught my interest; I failed whatever bored me. I was very good in math and science. I failed Latin. I got C’s in social science and English, more because I was more interested in watching the girls and reading forbidden paperbacks than because I was stupid. I know I read a lot of books during my classes, westerns and murder mysteries and science fiction instead of textbooks. I know I looked at Madeline Scherr and Norma DeSart and Dorothy Denoff with lust in my eyes and fear in my heart. But more on that later. Oddly enough, two of the tiny bits of information I remember learning were from my failed Latin class: the meaning of sub rosa and that consensus already suggests opinion and that anyone who says “consensus of opinion” is a dolt. I have never once been guilty of saying “consensus of opinion,” and I have often sneered inwardly at those who did. I remember having to cut up a starfish and a perch in biology. The starfish cutting is especially vivid because of the formaldehyde stench associated with the raspy feel of the outer body, the mushy inner. I didn’t care much for dissection. I remember as a sophomore reading The Merchant of Venice and memorizing the “Quality of Mercy” monologue. I remember in my senior year having to memorize the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in middle English and I can still recite it today as well as I did then. The only other thing I remember about senior English was Mary King Larson’s devotion to The Reader’s Digest as her basic teaching tool. I remember trying to achieve the magic number of 40 words per minute in typing. In our compulsory speech class, I remember the agony of getting up in front of the class to give a speech.

I remember how my classmates and I would sneak out of study hall to wander the school. I remember on weekends sneaking into the school through an unlocked window to play basketball in the tiny high school gymnasium. I remember going to high school dances in that same tiny gym strung with crepe paper, a juke box in one corner playing Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” and “Moonlight Serenade” and “String of Pearls,” the boys on one side of the gym, the girls on the other, the faculty chaperones standing around or trying to coax the boys to ask the girls to dance. I remember Bill Catey jitterbugging the night away. I could shuffle around in a kind of two-step, but I could never jitterbug. Nor did I want to. My psyche was always a strange mixture of shyness and daring. I loved to show off athletically but I was painfully shy when it came to speeches or dancing or singing. One of my most painful memories of high school is the time I was coerced into running for president of the student council. Who coerced me? Some faculty member who believed in me, believed in my ability to be a leader. I proved him wrong. I had to introduce people at assemblies and I simply couldn’t, wouldn’t, do it. I vaguely remember that sometime during my senior year I was displaced as president of the student council.

I remember parties in my junior and senior years. Parties at someone’s house where we would listen to records, dance a little, snack a little. Parties where we learned how to smoke. Parties where we sort of paired off, the pairs shifting from time to time as we shuffled around trying to find soul mates. Parties where there was some necking and petting but never much beyond that, forbidden territory beyond that, having to use our imaginations and our hands to slake that forbidden thirst. Parties at Molestad Lake or Hiddenwood, parties at the river with huge bonfires and bottles of Four Roses we’d gotten an older buddy to buy for us. Or the gallon jugs of beer purchased for one buck down at the White Horse. More smoking and drinking than we should have been doing. It was a ‘40’s and ‘50’s version of the drug use several decades later. I’m not very proud of a lot of what we, I, did when I was in my teens, but I remember it, or at least most of it.

Some of my after-school activities were playing pool, playing cards, reading paperbacks, collecting stamps, studying. Studying? Isn’t it strange that I have no single memory of doing any homework? That means that I’ve either blocked it out or that I never did any. But I know I spent a good many hours in the pool hall just a few doors up from the end of Main Street. It wasn’t a very nice place for a young man to hang out but I’m not certain my parents realized how many hours I spent there. I began by learning the fine art of slop, the game on a regulation pool table that didn’t require calling any of your shots, just hitting the lowest numbered ball on the table and getting to claim anything that went in. Thus, “slop.” I graduated to “8-ball” and “pill pool,” two games we played regularly for money, 8-ball usually for two-bits to the winner, pill pool in which five or six of us would take a numbered pill from the pill box (a leather bottle-shaped container with a neck just narrow enough to spill out one of fifteen numbered marble-sized pills) and the first one to make his pill, or numbered ball, collected two-bits from each of the other players and that game ended. But the game I most enjoyed, the one we played almost exclusively if a table were available, was “snooker.” Snooker was the sophisticate of pool games (that is, if one doesn’t consider billiards, the most sophisticated pool game of all). A snooker table was longer than a slop table and the pockets were much smaller. A shot had to be hit more purely for it to go in than on a slop table. The snooker game involved fifteen red balls and six numbered balls from two through seven. And the orange six-ball was “wild” and could be played at any time, adding six points if you made it, losing six points if you missed. The first player broke the triangle of red balls and if one went in he continued by selecting one of the numbered balls. The player collected one point for each red ball plus the number of points that coincided with the numbered ball made. A scratch cost a player four points and a non-hit of either a red ball or the numbered ball you were playing cost another four points or five up to seven, depending on which numbered ball you were shooting at. A “snooker” by definition was when one put his opponent in a position that didn’t allow him to shoot directly at the ball he was supposed to hit, forcing him into some kind of bank shot. A miss cost the player four to seven points. The game was over when the last ball, the seven-ball was made. Score was kept by moving beads on an overhead wire from the neutral side to the positive side. There was never an insurmountable lead as long as the six-ball was still on the table. One could mount a six-ball barrage and make up a lot of points. I remember playing with nearly all of my school friends, but mostly with Sherman and Sieler. The best player was Lloyd Hamre and I played against him only when no one else was available. And as I remember it, I was never foolish enough to play him for money. Catey and Baer were two others that were good but not as good as Hamre. The rest of us were about equal and I remember having to force myself out of that smoky, beery place late afternoons in order to get home in time for dinner.

The pool hall and Miller’s were the two places that always kept little gambling devices under their counters, usually punch boards of one kind or another. We all knew the boards were set up to gain the house about fifty percent profit, but we punched ‘em anyway. On the simplest of the boards, called “Give ‘n Take,” you punched the board with a little metal key, out the bottom dropped a tiny packed piece of paper that told you whether you were going to give or take money. What a thrill it was to find a $1, $5, or $10 punch. How seldom any of those happened. How often we had to give as little as a dime, as high as a quarter.

Miller’s was the place most kids in school hung out. It was the soda place, the ice cream place, the breakfast or light lunch place. It had a jukebox and booths and tables and wire racks of paperbacks. We played Hearts, Casino, Seven-up, and Whist and Widow Whist. We played and drank fountain drinks or ate one or more of the chocolate things they were just beginning to call soft ice cream. These were more like slush cups. And on the jukebox we listened to Glenn Miller, the Dorseys, the popular ballad singers of the day. The song I most remember from those card-playing afternoons was “Heartaches” as whistled by one of the day’s best players of that seldom-heard instrument. I have, thanks to the Internet, learned that his name was Elmo Tanner. My sister Helen always used to make fun of me by calling me Elmo whenever she’d hear me whistling up a storm, which was quite often. I didn’t know at the time what she was talking about. I can still hear this whistled arrangement as vividly now as then, and when I hear it in my head I can still almost smell and taste the atmosphere in Miller’s. Another memory of that place had to do with the paperbacks. The paperback publishing phenomenon was in its infancy in 1950. Twenty-five cents a book. The one we boys discovered was Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre. We were interested in it not for its literary qualities but for its, to us sixteen-year-old South Dakota innocents, sexual content. One of the pages early in the novel was always dog-eared on the rack because of the youthful thumbing it got, a scene in which one of the male characters, one not very bright, had to apply ointment to the bare buttocks of a very sexy young lady who had just suffered a spanking from her father. We hung on every word that described that scene. It would probably be interesting to find Caldwell’s book and reread that scene to see how much my memory has altered what was actually written. That would have been about the time I began reading the Mike Hammer series by Mickey Spillaine. Mike Hammer was the first of the really tough guy private eyes in fiction, lots of violence and hinted-at-sex—My Gun Is Quick being the first and best known of the lot.

Then there’s my short-lived life as a philatelist. I think I must have started collecting stamps when I was thirteen or fourteen and continued to collect them up to my junior year in high school. After that, philately would have been considered too nerdy. I had a stamp book and I would insert stamps with little hinged glue strips, one side adhering to the stamp, one side to the book. No one at the time told me you’d ruin any good stamps by using hinges. I don’t suppose I had that many really good stamps. I had one, from Spain, a stamp with Goya’s Naked Maja as its centerpiece. It was a large stamp, maybe an inch and a half long and three quarters high. It was a clean stamp, never released, and the colors were vibrant. There she was, reclining on her left side on a love seat, left arm raised and resting on her head, legs demurely crossed at the ankles. And she was buck naked. Oh, how the young adrenaline pumped. She was large breasted, voluptuous, a mother-earth figure to make a boy’s heart yearn. In Yiddish she would be described as zaftig (juicy, succulent, or in slang, a full-figured, shapely woman). I really liked that stamp, and sometime after I’d given up the pursuit of stamp collecting, I noticed that my zaftig Maja was long gone, taken away by the borrowers or some other philatelist or sex-fiend . . . or by my mother. I can’t imagine why my mother would cart it off. Could she have thought it was some kind of salaciously bad influence on her little boy? I guess so. That’s sort of the state of affairs of South Dakota sex education. We learned on our own, no matter how wrong or warped the learning was. No matter how ill-informed. I still have that book of stamps to this day. Last year I took it to a stamp dealer and asked him how much it was worth, thinking it should, after over fifty years, have appreciated in value by huge amounts. He told me I should give it to some favorite grandson or granddaughter. So much for all my youthful diligence in the pursuit of stamps.

1958 - 1959

There is a summer I can’t seem to put in the right slot. I know I was still in college. I know I went to two summer school sessions. I know I worked one summer building bridges and one summer building the Mobridge Hospital. But I also spent one summer, or nearly one whole summer, on the road with four of my college mates, trying to sell encyclopedias to gullible military recruits. I’m not sure which company it was, either World Book or Compton’s. The set cost about $240 and the commissions were pyramidal. On each set sold I made $40 and my immediate supervisor (one of the four of us) made $20. And his supervisor also made $20 on each set sold. Now that comes to $80 right off the top of the $240. There may have been another layer of supervision above the two above me who also dipped in the pot. I don’t know.

We set off from Vermillion in June and traveled straight down through the belly of the country, visiting military bases along the way—Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, over to New Mexico, then back up through Colorado. My first encounter with the art of salesmanship was unpleasant, to say the least. To make a sale, I had to lie, as nearly all sales people do, and too often lie to young men who needed a set of encyclopedias like they needed a pair of ballerina slippers.

I remember when I was a freshman (the second time around) at USD. One afternoon a well-dressed, handsome dog of a man pulled up outside the Phi Delt house in a mile-long white Cadillac and came striding up the walk with a large valise in hand. He was there selling the Encyclopedia Americana, and we hung on his every word. The hook and main selling point was the free service for doing research papers: twice a year we could send in a topic and the company would return a footnoted research paper of whatever length we required. Whoa, did that sound good. The cost was $340, paid in 36 installments, and with the interest and carrying costs, nearly $800 in all. I bought a set, I paid it off in three years, in thirty-six of those little monthly chits that seemed like a thousand. That afternoon at least a dozen of us went for the deal, each of which must have netted the salesman at least $80 apiece. That would explain how he could afford to drive the lengthy Cadillac. I even bought a few of the annuals. I never once used the research paper service. I carted that set of encyclopedias around with me for over thirty years before finally giving it away to one of Rosalie’s co-workers at Sears. I guess my children got some use out of them. I never did. It was just another case of a bad decision on my part, not the first and certainly not the last.

My experience with selling books wasn’t quite as lucrative as that of the man in the white Caddy. In fact, I may have sold fifteen or twenty sets in our southern swing, but not all of them came through for the whole deal. I remember that after signing the agreement, the buyer had to put down $20. Some of them later decided to give up their down payments and refuse delivery of the books, which meant I didn’t get the second $20 of my commission on those sets. During the last several weeks, I often told potential buyers the deal was so good that if they didn’t have the down payment, I’d lend it to them until their next paycheck. Thus, even if I never received the “loan,” I’d still realize a $20 profit. If the company ever heard about such selling practices, I’m sure I’d have been history. I now understand why I don’t remember what summer that must have been. The selling trip couldn’t have taken all summer, more like only the month of June. I must have come home from my unsuccessful venture with still two months of the summer left, and that must have been when I became a brick-layer’s helper, the summer of 1958.

Despite the unsuccessful selling spree, I learned one thing—that I would never be a salesman, could never be a salesman, at least not one that made enough to keep himself in hotdogs. The other thing that made the month worthwhile was the golf. Why else would I agree to go out selling books if it didn’t include my fill of golf? One of my buddies from the university golf team, Jim Houts, was on the trip, and we managed to play at least one round at each of our stopping places. I remember playing the university course at the U. of New Mexico—flat, dry, little round pot bunkers all over the place. But the courses I remember best are at the last city we visited, Colorado Springs, where we spent about ten days selling at Fort Carson and at the new Air Force Academy. Daily we played one of the two public courses there. I can still see one shot I made at a par-4. I’d hit my drive into the right rough behind a tall pine tree. I took out my 9-iron, the most lofted club in my bag, opened the face, and hit it as hard as I could. It went up and over the pine, stayed in the air for what seemed like a year, and landed about a foot from the pin. Naturally I’ve forgotten the many bad shots I must have hit. It was on that same course that I hit down on a 3-iron so hard I bent the hosel, turning the 3-iron into a 2-iron. As I write this journey of my life, I’m amazed at how much of it was dominated by golf. It seems that many of my decisions about the direction my life would take hinged on golf. My decision to take that summer sales trip down the central states and back up again must have been made because of the temptation of golf on many new courses. That summer must have been my first attempt at the state amateur, that year being played in Aberdeen. I met Jim Houts there in mid-August, and we decided that if we could just shoot two pars for every bogey we’d wind up with 78’s, good enough to qualify for match play. We both qualified for the first flight (not the championship flight) and I won three matches before losing in the first flight final. Jim lost his second match so we never had to play each other. I was still playing with that silly little starter set my father had given me on my fourteenth Christmas, with the bent 3-iron and the gooseneck putter.

In September I went back to Vermillion to finish my senior year, the year I decided to change my major from geology to Spanish education. Bill Pilgrim must have been my main motivator behind that decision. He was going to be a teacher, a career I’d never even considered before 1958. The more I thought about it the better sense it made. I was making average to good grades in geology, but the job outlook that year was bad for geologists. I knew then I’d never go on to become an archaeologist, the only reason I’d started in geology in the first place. Teaching made so much better sense. Good clean job, fair money, respect from the community, job security, short hours (hah!). And the summers always free for . . . what else? . . . golf. Another case of a life decision based on golf.

I was living that year in a second-floor apartment with two fraternity brothers, and I had a blond Magnavox phonograph I’d bought in Colorado Springs with some of the money I made selling encyclopedias. We had a small room just off the livingroom that we used as a sitting room, makeout room, music room, drinking room. The phonograph was there, the lights were blue bulbs (for atmosphere), the sill over the entry was stacked to the ceiling with beer cans. I guess back then we thought that was pretty cool, pretty classy. I don’t ever remember inviting a girl up to that room. I don’t think I was dating anyone at the time. I don’t remember having more than one or two dates with any girls other than Patty Prostrollo, so my senior year must have been a celibate one. The reason I mention the phonograph is that it came up in a police investigation in the spring of 1959.

I don’t know why I did what I did that year. I guess for the adventure, the thrill, the late-night attraction of it. A band of us from the Phi Delt house began running the sub-level accessways beneath the university campus. Well after midnight we would go down one of the several manholes to the underground tunnels connecting the buildings of the campus. Why they were so accessible, I still don’t know, but they were. And we could get into virtually any building, including the dorms. The only people patrolling the areas at that time of night were occasional night watchmen, and they were no more dangerous than I was when I was patrolling my factories throughout the nights in western New York. That skunk that wandered by my post nearly caused me to fall in a faint. But back in my youth, the thrill of the nightly engagement in the tunnels was overpowering. We could get into buildings that housed faculty offices, offices with potential semester exams waiting to be run off. Or exams that had already been run off and the master copies in the wastebasket. Did I really need access to semester exams? Not really. But if they were there for the taking, why not? It was only one felonious stage beyond the prevailing use of every fraternity and sorority house’s extensive test files. And the thrill, as I said, was overpowering. As addictive as heroin.

I recall that only one test was ever actually taken, and that one was changed between the time we took it and the time it was given. Apparently the instructor discovered the theft and changed the test. It was a government exam and I was doing C work, didn’t bother to study for the final except to look up answers to the test we’d taken, failed the final, and wound up with a D. If I had just studied for the exam, I would have done much better than I did spending too much time in night raids on faculty offices.

Another time we got into the geology department and I took—stole—one of the mineral samples, a petrified pear that I’d noticed in one of my classes and decided I had to have. So I stole it. I have no idea to this day how much it was worth, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I stole it. I’ve always felt bad about my theft, guilty, but not guilty enough ever to send it back with apologies. It was one of those acts one justifies by saying, “Who does it hurt? Who suffers the loss?” Just like what tax evaders and insurance cheaters must say. But what to do about it? Make restitution? Mail it back to the department after years and years had passed? No. And I’ve had it for all these years and never felt like displaying it.

One time, late in our forays, actually after I’d given up such night journeys, the local police came to our apartment and asked about my phonograph. I told them where I’d purchased it and showed them the bill of sale (I actually still had it). It seems that one of the dormitory rooms had been robbed of exactly the same kind of phonograph, by thieves who had broken in during the night and taken a few valuables, the phonograph among them. I don’t know how the police happened to know to come to our apartment, I don’t know if my roommates had done the pilfering, but I strongly suspect they did. Nothing more ever came of it, but it’s always bothered me that I was, if not in fact one of the thieves, one of those who actually got started in that sort of thing, and that my roommates may have been the culprits.

My senior year ended. Nearly all those I knew from my four years graduated in the spring. I was still short of hours and had to return in the fall of 1959 to finish my new major, Spanish education. I even had to pick up hours in summer school. That was the summer of my bike. I biked in early morning and evening, as hard and as fast as I could go. It was one of my many attempts at self-improvement. I had a 3-speed I would take out in the country, out about ten miles and back ten miles, as fast as I could go. I remember stopping at Dorothy and Mahlon Baer’s trailer to visit. They must have been finishing up their degrees at that time. I remember living in a one-bedroom apartment on main street. I remember eating dinner with a young Vermillion High graduate and her family who was just then beginning college work. She was very bright and I was very attracted to her. Her mother and father were intellectual, as were most of their children, one of whom was a mentally retarded boy. I was so enamored of the daughter that when she asked me if I would take one of their Dalmatian pups, I agreed. What a mistake. I kept the pup, whom I called Benjy after the idiot in the Faulkner novel The Sound and the Fury, in my apartment while I was going to school. The pup really hated living with me in that one-bedroom apartment. I hated having that pup living with me in that one-bedroom apartment. At the end of the summer session, I drove home to Mobridge with my new pet, a now healthy and growing Dalmatian pup. I finally talked the couple living in the upstairs apartment in my father’s house into taking the dog off my hands.

He was not the only Benjy in my life. After Rosalie and I were married and started teaching in Redfield, South Dakota, we got another Benjy, a miniature Collie that was truly an idiot. And we were idiots to think we needed to have a little furry companion waiting for us at the end of every day. Benjy was hyper, to say the least. But we loved him. The problem for us was that he didn’t care much for anyone else. So we couldn’t have visitors unless we shut him in the bedroom. We were living in a forty-foot mobile home and the bedroom wasn’t all that far away from the living room. Thus, he just wouldn’t shut up if he heard strangers in the house, and he didn’t much care to be imprisoned. With Benjy, life for us was a test.

One Christmas, probably our first together in 1960, we went home to Mobridge and stayed with Rosalie’s parents, Bill and Lily. It had been a long drive from Redfield to Mobridge, about three hours. We arrived in early evening and went right in the house. Benjy, who hadn’t taken time out to hit a tree when he got out of the car, went directly to the Christmas tree, raised his leg, and wet down a good number of the packages. Bill and Lily were not amused.
The following summer, we were in Mobridge staying with the Zimmers. I took Benjy down to the Oahe, straight south down Fourth Street East from the Zimmer house to the big water. I was throwing sticks for Benjy, trying to wear him out a bit before going back to the house. Benjy had never been in any water, so I thought I’d test his natural ability as a swimmer. I threw a stick out into the water and Benjy went right out after it. He got it in his mouth, turned around, and started doing a reverse dog paddle. The more he paddled, the farther away from shore he got. I went in after him—shoes, clothes, watch and all—and hauled his silly self in to shore. He may have been the only dog in dogdom that couldn’t swim.

Another time in Redfield, that same summer or the summer following, Benjy and I were at the local golf course, Fisher Grove Country Club. It was a tiny sand-green course, only nine holes, a few miles east of Redfield. In early afternoon there were seldom many people on the course, so Benjy and I had it pretty much to ourselves. The first hole doglegged left around a bend in the James River, a small, shallow stream some thirty feet across. Small trees and bushes lined the riverbank where it fell rather steeply down about ten feet to the water below. I had hit my drive across the corner of the dogleg and Benjy and I were walking down the fairway to my ball. Then Benjy decided he had to explore the bushes to the left. He stuck his head in a bush, lost his balance on the bank, fell down the slope and into the river. This is a dog who can’t swim, and by now I’m aware of this fact. I slide down the bank, using small tree trunks to hold myself from going in the river with him. I reach down and grab his collar and hoist him out of the river. So far so good. I get him in front of me and give him a big shove up the hill. He lopes up the slope, gets right to the top . . . and tips over backwards. Down the slope, into my chest, and we both go in the river. Right—shoes, clothes, watch and all. I get us out again and together we struggle up the slope to dry ground above. I was grateful no one ever saw us in our totally graceless act. I was muddy and wet, Benjy was muddy and wet, my golf was over for the day, and I was so mad at him. But when I looked back at how it had all happened I could only laugh at the ridiculousness of our actions. I really did love that awkward, non-swimming dog.

We suffered through five years with Benjy, three years in Redfield, one in Greeley, Colorado, where I went to get my masters degree, and one in Barstow, California, where I went to teach after leaving Greeley. We, the five of us—Rosalie and I, Jeri Lynne, Benjy, and our adopted dog Lucy, whom we had acquired from Tom and Kaye VanderVen while they were going to school in Boulder—made our way across the Rockies in our 1958 Edsel, the five of us on the Million Dollar Highway, so named because it cost a million dollars per mile to build, not because it was magnificently beautiful, although the views across those deeeeep valleys and up to the summits of those hiiiiigh mountains were breathtaking. We, however, Rosalie and I, were too busy watching the edge of the highway where it crumbled away dropping hundreds of feet straight down, thousands of feet straight down, to enjoy the view. It was a long, scary, hot trip from Greeley to Barstow, and having Benjy with us didn’t make it any easier.

Some time after we settled in our new home, the same mobile home we’d lived in since we were married, having had it hauled first to Greeley, then to Barstow, we were at a drive-in movie with Jeri, now about three years old, and Benjy. They were in the back of our new used Ford station wagon. We heard a growl and a scream and looked back to see blood pouring from Jeri’s cheek where Benjy had nipped her. That was the end of the movie.

That summer of 1965, we drove to Mobridge to spend part of my school vacation visiting families and friends. We stayed with the Zimmers again, but life there with them and with Benjy was simply intolerable. After much soul-searching and discussion, we decided to have Benjy put to sleep. What a hard decision that was. But our lives together just couldn’t continue with him. There wasn’t anywhere else we could put him, and no one else who wanted him. I took him to the vet on the lower end of Main Street, signed the papers, paid the fee, and left him there. That was maybe the worst thing I’ve ever had to do, and I was weeping like a baby when I left the office. But I didn’t look back and I kept going, and eventually we both got over it. Our lives were much saner after that. But I can still see Benjy whenever I call up the one image I remember best and am fondest of—seeing him struggling up that slope, then falling back into me and the two of us locked together going for a swim in the James River.

There were no more Benjys in our lives, no more dogs to worry about after we took poor blind Lucy Baines back to the VanderVens in mid-summer 1969. I swear, dogs are tougher to take care of than babies. They require so much of your attention. We became cat lovers while we were living in Barstow. Our first cat, named KittyKat, was a stray that a neighbor of ours picked up and then left for an extended time while they were away on a trip. We sort of took over her care and the neighbors never asked for her return. She was a Manx, and she had one litter of kittens while we had her, one of whom we kept. Sometime later KittyKat was killed on the highway and I buried her in the desert just behind our house. The kitten we kept was black with white feet. So we called her Sox. Sox had one litter of her own, all of which we managed to give away. We left Sox with my sister Helen at her country home outside of Kenosha, Wisconsin. They took her in while I was spending the two years from 1969 through 1971 trying to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Sox was always a little spooked by strangers, so our attempt to get her a nice home in Wisconsin didn’t work very well. Shortly after we left her there, she ran away and was never seen again.

We got our next cat just after we got to Lakewood, New York, where I would spend the next twenty-two years teaching at Southwestern High School. We bought a kitten at a local pet store, but when we brought her home she was so full of fleas and mites she was going crazy and wasn’t eating right. We had tentatively named her Dipper, but decided we just couldn’t keep her. We took her back and got another, an orange tabby male we named Dipper. The first was Little Dipper; thus, the second became Big Dipper.

We had planned to have only one pet at a time, one cat. But our children had other plans. Daughter Jeri acquired two cats, both of which wound up with us—Tweakie and Tuffy. Tweakie was a shorthaired calico and Tuffy an orange-eyed, all black mutt that might have been the dumbest cat I’ve ever known. My judgement of Tuffy may be unfair, however. When he was about six, he fell into a lethargy we couldn’t figure out. He stopped eating, lost weight, just lay on the floor and acted like he was deathly ill. We couldn’t see anything wrong with him, but we took him to a vet for an examination. The vet discovered that Tuffy had encountered something right on the end of his nose, maybe someone’s toe, maybe Tuffy’s running full-tilt into a wall. In any case, his septum was split wide open and his sinuses had become so infected that his head literally was full of maggots. The doctor cleaned him out, sewed up the split in his septum, and sent him home with us. Tuffy regained his appetite and became a roly-poly black cat. But his sinuses never did heal completely, and he would go into sneezing fits that caused him to sneeze out gobs of green pus. We all learned to jump well away from him when he looked like he was about to go into his act. It became so bad that I finally had to take him to the vet to be put to sleep. Jeri never forgave me for doing it, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Tuffy wasn’t happy living that way, and we who had to live with him weren’t happy living that way. And one can spend only so much money on a pet. We decided we just couldn’t take any more heroic actions to cure him.

Dipper, meanwhile, was sick and seemed about to die. He would have been nine or ten at that time. Rosalie decided we needed to buy a new kitten to replace Dipper. She and Michael went to the pet store and found a tiny calico, the runt of the litter. They brought her home and our daughter, then attending Camp Onyasa on Chautauqua Lake, chose to name her Stephanie. Dipper didn’t die and went on for another four or five years, dying just after Jackie was born in 1985. So at one time we had, counting Laura’s short-lived cat Dale, five cats living with us. And Stephanie managed to survive all of them, and may yet survive Rosalie and me.

Tweakie and Stephanie were never friends, always hostile housemates who kept wary eyes out for each other. But Tweakie got cancer in her jaw and we had to leave her with the vet. Daughter Laura, after graduating from high school, moved into an apartment with a friend and decided she had to have a kitten of her own. So she got Dale. And when she later moved back home, Dale moved with her. But Dale wandered out onto Summit Avenue soon after she came to live with us and was killed. Now, the next to last of all the cats in our lives, Stephanie, was eighteen years and three months old just a day or two before I wrote this tribute. She outlived all the other contenders for our affection, she survived all the beatings Tweakie gave her, she survived a most traumatic trip in our moving van when we brought ourselves to Sun City West, and she survived deafness, arthritic front legs that gave her a cowboyish bowlegged appearance, and a hyperactive thyroid that caused her to be nervous, finicky about her food, and prone to vomiting several times a day or night. But we finally had to decide, when she started vomiting liquid foam and refused to eat a thing, that she was beyond any more help. We put off the decision for the five days she didn’t eat anything. We were more afraid of losing her than willing to release her. Those last few days she was more than ready for release, almost readying herself for it.

When the time finally came, Rosalie drove and I held Stephanie and Stephanie didn’t even get big-eyed as she usually did in the car, almost as though she knew what was going on. I carried her into the clinic and one of the ladies behind the reception desk asked me what was wrong, meaning what was wrong with my cat, and I literally burst into tears. Like a baby. I’ve always wept at Hallmark commercials, so my maudlin display was no surprise to me. And I said I didn’t think I would be staying there with my cat until she died, I just wasn’t strong enough for it. And the lady who had taken Stephanie from me patted me on the back and told me it was all right, that they’d be very gentle with her. And I blubbered a thank you, signed the euthanasia certificate, wrote the check, and got out of there.

We got home, both spilling tears all over the place, and without a word we both started picking up all her things—all the papers, all the accumulated drinking glasses, the food dishes, the litter box. I immediately thought of one of the Dickinson poems about death: “The bustle in a house / The morning after death / Is solemnest of industries / Enacted upon earth. / The sweeping up the heart / And putting love away / We shall not want to use again / Until Eternity.” Were we ever bustling around, and sweeping up our hearts. After putting our love away, we cocktailed, as always, and supped on a salad. Then we watched tv a bit until we fell asleep in our chairs, then stumbled off to bed to dream of Stephanie. And wept another silent tear into our pillows.