Woutat is a regular contributing writer to TheScreamOnline. We are
proud to present you with an excerpt from his newly-published Dakota
Boy: A Childhood in Memory. Born in 1938 in Grand Forks, North
Dakota, Rob grew up in an age when kids were allowed to be kids, learning
life-lessons sometimes the hard way, and having to stand on
[their] own without parental supports or buttresses. All throughout
the narrative are references to historical and cultural elements (WWII,
the Korean War, the death of Stalin, Eisenhower, the McCarthy era,
Krushev, the payola scandal, Mickey Mantle, sock hops, Butch Wax,
and Brylchreme), providing a rich backdrop and a wonderful sense of
time and place in the context of a sheltered Dakotan upbringing.
North Dakota on my
I am I plus my surroundings, and if I do not
preserve the latter, I do not preserve myself.
To the Reader
Jose Ortega y Gassett
The past is always meddling in our lives.
Even the prehistoric past nudges us this way or that, can dictate that
we live our lives one way and not another. In Eastern North Dakotas
Red River Valley, the land of my childhood, the last ice age left a table-flat
landscape and a glacial lake the size of Nevada. Whats left today,
besides a few scattered remnants called Lake Winnipeg, Lake Winnipegosis,
Lake Manitoba, and Lake of the Woods, is a 20- to 30-foot layer of clay-like
silt transported by the incoming rivers and left at the bottom of that
ancient sea. The black, luxuriant earth of the Red River Valley is so
rich, they say, that if you plant a nail today it will come up as a crowbar
tomorrow. It was largely this soilthe soil and the climatethat
chose the kind of people who eventually settled there, that destined them
to be farmers, that determined what kinds of crops theyd raise,
and what kind of children. So indirectly, I suppose, this is a story about
And about climate. The quick, blunt truth about my childhood world is
that the climate sifts out the soft and the unprepared. The record high
temperature is 120 degrees above; the coldest is 40 below. Summer highs
of 100 arent uncommon, and neither are winter lows of minus 20 to
30. Cars have special heaters to keep the crankcase oil from freezing
in winter, and some merchants offer electric hookups so customers can
plug in their cars and know when they return that their engines will still
turn over. Where I grew up, people are so used to low temperatures they
dont say cold very often; they save it for when the
wind chill is 100 below, when exposed flesh freezes in minutes and your
head feels like youve eaten ice cream too fast, when cattle freeze
to death standing up in the fields, when blizzards shut down highways
and towns for days at a time and sheriffs save stranded people by snowmobile.
When I was three, a March blizzard killed 80 people in the Red River Valley.
In the mid 60s, soon after I left the state, a passenger train was
buried in snow between Fargo and Valley City along the same stretch of
track where, 90 years earlier, Custer was snowbound on his way to the
Little Bighorn. When there isnt enough snow to cover the plowed
fields, the wind whips up a snow-and-dirt mixture called snirt.
Snirt clouds the sky, grinds in the teeth, seeps around weather-stripped
windows and doors, and settles into your carpets and furniture.
Sometimes winter skips right into summer, almost bypassing spring; snow
melts fast and the rivers swell, spilling over their banks and spreading
for miles across the unrelieved flatness of farmers fields. Twice
in my childhood, the Red River spread into our basement, even though the
basement floor was 40 vertical feet above the rivers edge, and my
parents took turns getting up in the night to run the pump in a futile
attempt to keep the river outside.
The flood of 1997, the one that was portrayed so dramatically in the national
media, was set up by a series of eight blizzards that left a record 98.6
inches of snow that began in mid November of the preceding year, blizzards
that were accompanied by average temperatures way below normal. Wind chills
of 50 below were common that winter, and there were no midwinter thaws
to give relief; from the first of December to the end of January, the
temperature rose above freezing only three times.
So when all that snow finally started to melt, the Red River went wild.
Eventually the dikes gave way and the normally harmless-looking river
down the hill from my boyhood home, a river thats normally no more
than 50 yards from bank to bank, began flowing through peoples homes
and ultimately sprawled to a width of 30 miles. As I watched the breaking
story from my home on Puget Sound, there on network television was my
older brother in tears of frustration and exhaustion; his own dike had
broken and the Red River was flowing through his living room, destroying
the home he had bought from our parents, the home our parents had built
and where my brothers and I had all grown up. Up and down the river, peoplemy
mother, my brother and his family includedgrabbed a few belongings
and ran, or waded, to their cars. Feeling secure one moment, they were
refugees the next. Within a few hours, a town of 50,000 was all but deserted.
Weeks later, when the river subsided and the refugees were allowed to
return, many found their homes destroyed. In the lower parts of town,
houses had high-water stains just under the eaves. Garages had drifted
from their foundations and resettled in neighbors yards or on top
of cars. Hundreds of homes were uninhabitable and later demolished, including
the homes in my old neighborhood. Roadsides became piled high with the
soggy residuefurniture, major appliances, photograph albums, wood
paneling, childrens toys, dresses and tuxes for the upcoming promand
224 million pounds of debris had to be hauled to the city landfill. One
homeowner posted this sign: BASEMENT APARTMENT, $10 A MONTH, INDOOR POOL,
WET BAR, FRI. NIGHT MUD WRESTLING.
If you need proof of the general unfairness of things, or just little
ironies, consider that those people periodically driven from home by too
much water also suffer from drought. In the early 1930s, layers
of that invaluable topsoil, that legacy of the glacial age, just dried
up and blew away in the incessant wind. A local Episcopal priest who had
served in Africa said hed seen more rain in three months in the
Sahara than hed seen in a year-and-a-half in North Dakota. In 1936not
only the coldest year on record but also the hottest and driestthey
had only 8.8 inches of rain. Range grasses dried up, forage crops failed,
and a third of the farmers lost their property through foreclosure.
For additional discouragement, there have been infestations of grasshoppers.
In the late 1800s they came in relentless waves and drove some settlers
out of the state. They ate everything green, starting with the crops,
and when theyd finished the crops they stripped the leaves off trees,
then devoured the twine on sheaves of grain and the wooden handles on
farmers tools. A U.S. Army officer who saw the invasion of 1868
wrote that for more than six hours they passed overhead, flying low, landing
everywhereon the grass, on buildings, on everythingforming
gray, crawling masses. They hit people in the face, flew into peoples
eyes, got tangled in hair and clothes. In the small town of Mott in 1933,
the grasshoppers were so thick they darkened the sky and the streetlights
went on at midday. After theyd laid their billions of eggs, the
fields were covered with a living blanket of larvae three to four inches
deep, and the sight of the squirming larvae was probably as repulsive
as the stench of the dead.
Red River of the North, one of the few rivers of the world that flows
north, originates at Lake Traverse in South Dakota. For its first 23 miles
its called the Bois des Sioux; then, at Wahpeton, North Dakota,
its joined from the east by the Ottertail, and from there on its
called the Red. The Red continues almost straight north, separating North
Dakota from Minnesota as it follows the line of the glaciers of so many
centuries ago and, taking its time, eventually meanders into Manitobas
Lake Winnipeg, 315 air miles but 750 river miles from the source. The
river is rarely more than 50 yards wide, and in spite of numerous bows
and curves, it never strays more than five miles from a straight line
between source and mouth. From up closefor a boater, saythe
river seems anything but straight. But from miles above Earth, it would
look like a straight line pointing just a few degrees west of north, with
13 tributaries from the west and 12 from the east. The Red, dropping only
300 feet in the 315 miles from source to mouth, is a sluggish, indolent
river; if it were human, it might be arrested for loitering.
The valley of the Red River corresponds to that prehistoric, Nevada-sized
lake. But when youre standing anywhere within fifty miles of the
river, you certainly dont feel as if youre in a valley. You
feel instead completely exposed and vulnerable, as if youre standing
naked on a table top extending infinitely in all directions with nothing
to protect you. Out there on the prairie, as on the ocean, you can see
the curvature of the earth. In the distance you might see a neat row of
elms or cottonwoods planted by the WPA in the 1930s to keep the
valuable topsoil from blowing away, but nothing else limits your view
and theres nothing to stop the wind. The Red River Valley, so fancifully
termed, is one of the windiest places in the country; only three American
citiesBoston, Cheyenne, and Amarillohave a higher average
wind speed. When theres no wind, youre aware of the quietto
some a blessing, to others an unrelenting curse. And you cant help
but be aware of the sky. In parts of the world where its blocked
out by mountains, forests or tall buildings, you may not notice the sky.
But in the Red River Valley, there is so much sky that it commands your
attention, it dominates your view, and its color, whether blue or gray,
becomes the color of your world.
If you arent used to it, that much openness, that much sky, can
be at the least intimidating and at most, oppressive or even terrifying.
The army officer who so disliked the grasshoppers in 1868 didnt
much like the landscape either. Theres ... too much of everything,
he wrote. Too much sky, too much horizon, and definitely too much
virgin, bleak prairie land in all directions. An acquaintance of
mine from Pittsburgh, one of the soft and the unprepared, felt exposed
and vulnerable out there on the prairie; there was too much flatness,
too much openness for him. After two years of constant uneasiness, he
went back to Pittsburgh where, amid the smokestacks and tall buildings,
he felt at peace again. If youre agoraphobic, steer clear of the
Red River Valley.
W.H. Auden didnt much like the Midwest either. He referred to it
as an Eliot landscape where the spiritual air is thoroughly small
and dry. If I stay here any longer, he said, I shall either
take to mysticism... or buy a library of pornographic books.
One of my high school teachers never tired of telling us how he once stood
atop the tallest building in townthe four-story First National Bank
buildingand spotted a man reading a newspaper in Grafton 47 miles
away. I think he meant the story to be evidence of his superior eyesight,
but to me it was testimony to the unbroken flatness of the Red River Valley.
youre wondering why people stay there, why they put up with the
winter cold and the floods and the landscape and all the rest of it, its
because theyve learned to accept severity, to shrug it off in their
stoic, taciturn, North Dakota way, as if it were little more than a nuisance.
Keeps the riffraff out, they like to say. And because theyre
no different from those who continue to live in the paths of hurricanes
or forest fires or on faults in the Earths crust: they stay there
because thats where they live, where they work, where they pay their
mortgages, where they have friends, where their children go to school.
The blizzards, floods, grasshoppers and droughts havent given them
a metaphysical bent; they dont waste time asking Why. They dont
wring their hands and whine about their condition. What the hell,
theyd say, life isnt supposed to be easy.
And they stay because their days arent always bleak. On cold, clear
winter mornings the snow is so white and the sky so relentlessly blue
you count your blessingsas long as your car will start. On still
summer mornings as you linger in bed, youre soothed by the mourning
doves cooing and the cardinals whistling from the tops of the elms. And
the sunsets: With the vastness of the prairie sky, the sunsets there are
grander, more prolonged, more colorful, more dramatic than any youll
see. Theyre exciting theatrical events, like the thunder storms
you can see coming from a hundred miles awaythe thunder that explodes
and rumbles across the prairie, the rain so thick your windshield wipers
cant keep up with it. You might meet a rare tornado there, but there
are no typhoons or tidal waves, no mudslides or avalanches, no forest
fires or volcanic eruptions. Or crowds. With 90 percent of the state under
cultivation, there are only 9.3 people per square mile. If you think hell
is other people, heaven is North Dakota.
To outsiders, North Dakota is terra incognito, a cold, bleak, isolated
void, and in their mental maps of the country the whereabouts of the state
is a little uncertain. Most Americans probably couldnt place it
on a map. A Newsweek article once called it Americas Outback. Some
locals have wanted to shed that image by shedding the name; a former governor
suggested Pembina (from an Ojibway word for high-bush cranberries), Mandan
(for the Indian tribe that lived along the Missouri River and befriended
Lewis and Clark), or Lincoln. But these ideas never caught onit
would just be a cheap disguiseand as that same former governor said,
Maybe the name serves to keep a lot of weak people from coming here.
I suppose it has. But the state has also struggled to dissuade natives
from leaving. A state agency once put up billboards along Interstate 90I
saw them as I was leaving, heading west. There is no California.
Stay in North Dakota, said one. Another said, Mountain Removal
Project Almost Complete. But the campaign isnt working. In
1997admittedly, the year of the worst Red River floodan annual
survey by United Van Lines showed that of all the shipments to and from
the state, 68 percent were headed somewhere else. North Dakota was leading
the country in out-migration.
When I was at the University there, some members of the mens glee
club composed an underground state song to the tune of Oklahoma.
North Dakota, where the snirt lies thicker than the snow,
Where behind each weed youll find a Swede
And the temp is 43 below.
North Dakota, where each night my honey lamb and I
Sit alone and weep, the meat wont keep,
Because were running out of lye.
We know we belong to the sod,
Cause were good old North Dakota clods;
Thats why we sing Eye-yip-eye-odee-ay,
Were only singing, Youre drying up, North Dakota,
By next week youll blow away.
of us who sang that song so lustily took a sardonic view of the real state
North Dakota, North Dakota
With thy prairies wide and free,
All thy sons and daughters love thee,
Fairest state from sea to sea;
North Dakota, North Dakota,
Here we pledge ourselves to thee.
North Dakota, North Dakota,
Here we pledge ourselves to thee.
the lyricist James W. Foley was probably a long-time resident who, like
his neighbors, loved his state in spite of its drawbacks, in spite of
the grasshoppers, the floods and the snirt, just as a parent loves his
child in spite of its pimples and runny nose, its lapses in manners, its
curious hair styles.
you wondering what kind of people would settle in a place like this, would
choose to withstand the long, brutal winters, the grasshoppers, the drought,
the floods, the monotonous landscape, the unending, overpowering sky?
Certainly not the soft or the unprepared.
First were the Indiansthe Dacotah, or Sioux, driven from the Minnesota
forests by the Ojibway and forced to adopt a nomadic life on the North
Dakota prairie where they lived off the buffalo. Next the whitesthe
French and the Scots, fur traders mainly. The French were led by Pierre
Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de la Verendrye, an early 18th century trapper/explorer
hunting for a water route to the Pacific and paying his way with the proceeds
from beaver pelts. He got as far south as the junction of the Red and
the Red Lake Rivers, which he called Les Grandes Fourches and where a
few years later he would have been within sight of my fathers boyhood
Scots like Alexander Mackenzie, Alexander Henry and Lord Selkirk came
to compete for furs with the French and built forts and staked out turf
along the Red where its joined north of Les Grandes Fourches by
the Park, the Pembina, and the Assiniboine.
Many of the French and the Scots mingled with Indians to create a new
race called the metis, skilled hunters and trappers who had amazing endurance
and in winter could cover 50-60 miles a day on dogsled or 30 on snowshoes.
Like the Indians, they lived mainly off the buffalo, but they were the
first to exploit the rich Red River soil, growing potatoes, wheat, barley,
even a little tobacco.
Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the face of the Valley
settlers didnt change very much, at least until the fur trade petered
out. Until then the rich Red River soil wasnt producing much but
prairie grass. Not that the agricultural promise of the Valley had been
kept a secret; it was widely known on the East Coast. But there was no
quick way to get agricultural products to the far-away markets, so in
economic terms the soil was just going to waste, just waiting to be exploited.
The picture changed in the late nineteenth century when a new technology
was developed for milling wheat and when, in 1872, the railroad finally
crossed the Red River at Fargo and linked the once remote region to the
mills in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Thats when the great land boom
started, when the Valley was flooded by immigrants pouring in by the thousands
to settle the cheap, fertile land, when the Valley became an agricultural
world and took on the character it had in my childhood and still has today.
This wave of immigrants came mostly from northern and eastern Europe,
mostly from Scandinavia and Germany, and they didnt fade into the
general population as the French and the Scots had earlier. Norwegians,
represented fictionally by Per Hansa and his family in O. E. Rolvaags
Giants in the Earth, outnumbered all other immigrants in the Valley
by far; 120,000 of them came in the decade after the Civil War and another
170,000 in the 1880s. Settling on the rich soil of the Dakota Territory,
they withstood their first winters in sod houses heated with nothing but
tufts of twisted hay. Herds of cattle smothered in the deep snow and their
carcasses didnt appear until spring. Similarly many people like
the fictitious Per Hansa simply disappeared in blizzards and werent
found again until snowmelt. Others, without access to medical help or
even simple household remedies, died of coughs or other mild ailments
gone unchecked. When they died in winter, they were stacked in snowdrifts
to await burial until the ground thawed in April or May. Afflicted by
loneliness and implacable desolation, some simply went crazy. It was probably
not one of those early Norwegian settlers who first uttered the line,
Let the good times roll.
But thanks to the soil and their own durability and stubbornness, most
survived and many prospered, and its their descendents who were
my neighbors and who make up most of the population today.
Those first settlers brought with them a bent for farming and the stamina
to withstand the climate and the expansiveness of the prairie. They brought
the Lutheran religion and such native customs as Leif Erickson Day and
Syttende Mai, lutefisk and lefse, krumkake and julekake. They even published
their own newspapers, two in Grand Forks alone. But there were other national
groups too, and some of them settled in towns of their own: the Poles
in Warsaw and Minto, the Czechs in Pisek and Lankin, and the Icelanders
in Mountain, a name chosen either in a fit of irony or a moment of irrepressible
These new immigrants, pushed out of their Old World homes by land shortages,
population pressures, or poverty, were farmers, or fishermen who on the
prairie had no choice but to became farmersstoic, taciturn people
who were used to working outdoors, who could tolerate the extremes in
the climate, who were willing to gamble everything on that deep, rich,
black, alluvial soil.
There arent many signs left today of the earliest white settlers.
The French left a few place names: the Bois de Sioux River at the headwaters
of the Red, the towns of Belcourt, Bottineau and Rollette, andjust
across the Canadian borderthe Valley towns of St. Jean Bapatiste,
Letellier, and Joliette. The Scots didnt leave many names on the
map either; on the Minnesota side of the river theres Caledonia,
and on the North Dakota side, McCanna and Edinburg. But the tracks of
the Scots have been more durable than those of the French. In 1902, the
Old Timers Association in the little town of Bottineau had 96 Scots
on the roster, some having come directly from Scotland, the rest via Canada.
When I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s, some Scottish
communities were still celebrating Robbie Burns Day, and today the strange
Scottish sport of curling is still played up and down the Red River.
But the Scandinavians left the heaviest stamp. In our neighborhood we
were surrounded by the descendents of those nineteenth century immigrants
from Northern Europe: the Dennisons, the Hultengs, the Hoghaugs, the Thorgrimmsons,
the Hansons and the Aldersons.
My high school class of 180 sounds like the Oslo phone book: Gunderson,
Halvorson, Ditlovson and Evenson; Bergstrom, Dahl, Branvold and Anderson;
Carlson, Erickson, Helgeson, and Kjensrud; Johnson, Johnson, Johnson,
and Jondahl; Lindgren, Lagergren, Larson, and Loberg; Lovegren, Lovegren,
Olson and Olson; Magnuson, Osmundson, Paulson, and Sorenson; Svedberg,
Thompson, Nelson, and Thorfinnson. There were a handful of Germans among
usin our class there were Ganglehoff, Wohlwend, and Schimke, and
in our neighborhood the Nehrings and Bonhoffsand a few eastern EuropeansWeslowski,
Stepanek, and Kosmatka; but the Scandinavians were most numerous by far,
their names as commonplace as potatoes and wheat. Prudent, guarded, somber
and steady, far from effusive or frivolous, through their vast numbers
they created the human climate of my childhood world.
As a child, of course, I was as oblivious to the ethnicity of my world
as I was to the existence of people to whom blizzards were unknown. Lundgren,
Ganglehoff, Weslowskithese were just names to me, as familiar to
me as my own. It wasnt until I moved away from it that I learned
what was distinctive about my world, that I wondered how those ubiquitous
Scandinavians might have shaped my life, that I wondered who I might have
become had I grown up instead in the South, say, or among Spaniards, Italians,
and Greeks. Or recognized the truth in an observation by Raymond A. Schroth,
biographer of another North Dakotan, Eric Severeid: To grow up in
a North Dakota town, it seems, is an experience so radical... that it
is more than a clue to the character of anyone who survived.
hometown was not launched with a sense of high moral purpose. The truth
is that Grand Forks began with a hangover. In the fall of 1870, when the
white population of now-North Dakota was about 500 and the Red River still
carried cargo between Winnipeg and Minneapolis, two barges left Minneapolis
at about the same time, one of them carrying beer to Winnipeg. The beer
barge was in the lead when a storm hit one night and a couple of kegs
fell overboard. The second barge, piloted by Captain Alexander Griggs,
stopped to pick them up, and by the time he and his crew reached the junction
of the Red and the Red Lake Rivers, they were too drunk to go any further
and had to tie up for the night. As I said, seasons can change quickly
there; that night the river froze over and their barge was iced in for
the winter. To survive until spring, they tore apart the barge and used
the lumber for shelters. Griggs made a 12 x 12 foot cabin for himself,
and at some point he decided that maybe Les Grandes Fourches wouldnt
be such a bad place to stay. Soon he built a sawmill to produce lumber
for more riverboats and barges and for the new houses that started popping
up along the riverbanks. In 1871, a telegraph line came to town and a
post office was built, with mail arriving twice a week by dog sled or
Within a couple of years, the name was Anglicized and Grand Forks was
a frontier village with two schools, a flour mill, a Hudsons Bay
Company store, two newspapers (One of them, The Herald, is still
published today; it won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 1997
flood.) and a blacksmith who with his two-foot tongs, could double as
a dentist. By 1878, the population had grown to 450.
Two years later the railroad pushed north from Fargo through Grand Forks
to Winnipeg, pretty much securing the towns future. The Territorial
legislature boosted the town again when it established ten-day waiting
period for divorce, so before long, before Nevada existed, visitors from
as far away as Europe flocked to Grand Forks to shed an unwanted spouse.
In 1883, the University of North Dakota was founded there, and by the
mid 80s Grand Forks even had a white glove crowd, entrepreneurs
who had come west with hopes of turning the town into a hotbed of culture
and learning. Mimicking their counterparts in the East, they staged formal
balls and extravagant weddings, dressed in expensive jewelry and elegant
clothes, dined with crystal, linen and china, and rode in elegant carriages.
They even built an opera house with an ivory, blue and gold baroque décor,
two curving balconies, luxurious draperies, upholstered seats, and specially
designed loge chairs. When it opened November 10, 1890, with a performance
of Martha by The Emma Abbott Opera Company, the place was packed.
But by the late 1930s when I was born, the Valley had been through
the Dust Bowl and ten years of Depression, and all the glitter was gone.
We were a town of about 20,000 frugal, unostentatious people, the second
largest town in the stateclose in size, as Plato saw it, to the
ideal city state. We had the university with about 2,000 students, a public
high school, two junior highs, and six grade schools. There were a couple
of traffic lights downtown but still no one-way streets.
Forks80 miles south of Canada, at the junction of U.S. highways
2 and 81was surrounded by table-flat fields of potatoes and wheat.
Eighty-seven percent of North Dakota was devoted to agriculture, and more
than half the states residents were farmers. We non farmerssmall
town grocers and car dealers and physicians and plumbers and teachers
and the likewere certainly dependent on the farmers success.
When the crops were good we could all buy clothes at McDonalds Clothiers
and cars at Wilcox & Malm; and when they werent, everyone wrung
his hands and lamented for himself and his family and especially for the
farmers. For knowing a feeling of community, there may be nothing like
growing up in a small town in farm country. And for promoting a need for
community, there may be nothing like strife.
The people who raised usour parents, teachers, ministers, neighbors,
mostly descendents of those Lutheran, Scandinavian immigrantswere
morally and politically conservative. Earlier, in the fur trapping days
when liquor was a form of currency, when you could buy a horse for a nine-gallon
keg of rum, drunkenness was common. But starting with statehood in 1889,
North Dakota was dryGrand Forks declared itself dry even before
thatand to buy liquor you had to cross the river into wicked, more
free-wheeling Minnesota, to East Grand Forks with five times the number
of saloons allowed by law.
In 1882, a black man was hanged from the new railroad bridge for allegedly
raping a white mans wife, and the Ku Klux Klan had a strong hold
through the 1920s, with two of its candidates elected to the school
board in 1924. So people who looked too foreign werent welcomed
there. If a black showed up in town he was probably playing ball for the
Chiefs, the local Class C team. The only Hispanics we saw were migrant
farm workers who arrived each fall to pick potatoes and wisely stayed
to themselves in the shacks outside of town. Our parents werent
hospitable to homosexuals either. Or I should say homosexuality. They
didnt know any gays, not because there werent any but because
a gay wouldnt dare admit it. There were enough Jews in town for
a synagogue but only one, as far as I know, in my high school class. When
I grew up it wasnt unusual to hear others tagged as niggers or spics
or queers or kikes. (Not to their faces, of course; we were too polite
for that. We might disapprove of a group but accept an individual member.
Greenstein is a pretty decent man, we might say, for
a Jew.) And there was a widespread distrust of Easterners too; it
was those Eastern Liberals, after all, who were trying to drag us into
a war in Europe where we didnt belong and which was no concern of
So that was my world. Thats where I was born and where I steered
guardedly through childhood, simply accepting the blizzards and the floods
and the droughts as a part of everyday life, automatically inhaling the
prejudices around methe distrust of change, the suspicion of the
outside world and of people who were different somehowas
just another part of the climate. This inheritancethe remoteness,
the sometimes-unsparing climate, the agricultural environment, the strictures
of mid-century Lutheran conservatism, the posture of defensiveness against
the outside world, the post-war prosperitywhat part did it play
for those of us who grew up there? How did it mark us? And how did it
mark one particular boy, the second of three sons born to a young physician
and his wife, a boy who very early showed signs of timidity and a cautious
approach to his world, who was much less inclined to dive into life than
to stand on the shore and watch?
As early as 14 or 15, and even more so in my early 20s, after a
college year in Europe, I started to bemoan my origins, to wish Id
grown up somewhere else, that Id been heir to more worldly beginnings.
So eventually I moved away, as did all of my friends, and tried to leave
North Dakota behind.
It wasnt until I left the state that I discovered what anomalies
we were, we North Dakotans. Well, people say, I dont
think Ive ever met anyone from North Dakota before. The Black Hills,
right? Or, Oh, yes, I think I drove through there once. Its
pretty flat, isnt it?
With time I realized that trying to shake my past was futile, that in
spite of my efforts, like it or not Id just have to go through life
with a certain amount of North Dakota on my shoes. Later, in middle age,
I just accepted the time and place of my childhood, even appreciated it,
even enjoyed the novelty of being a North Dakotan and found a certain
amusement in it. And finally I came to suspect that all growing up, no
matter where, is a long, futile struggle to overcome one thing or another.
Now, with sexagenarian hindsight, Im struck by the uncompromising
power of distant geological events to mold the dwellers of those plains,
to dictate how one earns a living there, to indirectly color the temperament
of a whole region, and by the cohesion that develops when its inhabitants
are all subjected to the same whimsical forces of nature, whether malignant
Whoever I am, however many layers of veneer I put on to conceal it, childhood
is an unshakable part of me still. Wherever I go, the pasteven the
ancient pastis just offstage, a ghostly figure still whispering
from the wings.