Rob 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.

Chapter Two

North Dakota on my Shoes

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 Dakota’s 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. What’s 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 soil—the soil and the climate—that chose the kind of people who eventually settled there, that destined them to be farmers, that determined what kinds of crops they’d raise, and what kind of children. So indirectly, I suppose, this is a story about dirt.

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 aren’t 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 don’t 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 you’ve 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 60’s, 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 isn’t 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 river’s 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 that’s 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, people—my mother, my brother and his family included—grabbed 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 residue—furniture, major appliances, photograph albums, wood paneling, children’s toys, dresses and tuxes for the upcoming prom—and 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 1930’s, 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 he’d seen more rain in three months in the Sahara than he’d seen in a year-and-a-half in North Dakota. In 1936—not only the coldest year on record but also the hottest and driest—they 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 1800’s they came in relentless waves and drove some settlers out of the state. They ate everything green, starting with the crops, and when they’d 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 everywhere—on the grass, on buildings, on everything—forming 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 they’d 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.

The 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 it’s called the Bois des Sioux; then, at Wahpeton, North Dakota, it’s joined from the east by the Ottertail, and from there on it’s 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 Manitoba’s 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 close—for a boater, say—the 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 you’re standing anywhere within fifty miles of the river, you certainly don’t feel as if you’re in a valley. You feel instead completely exposed and vulnerable, as if you’re 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 1930’s to keep the valuable topsoil from blowing away, but nothing else limits your view and there’s nothing to stop the wind. The Red River Valley, so fancifully termed, is one of the windiest places in the country; only three American cities—Boston, Cheyenne, and Amarillo—have a higher average wind speed. When there’s no wind, you’re aware of the quiet—to some a blessing, to others an unrelenting curse. And you can’t help but be aware of the sky. In parts of the world where it’s 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 aren’t 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 didn’t much like the landscape either. There’s “... 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 you’re agoraphobic, steer clear of the Red River Valley.
W.H. Auden didn’t 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 town—the four-story First National Bank building—and 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.

If you’re 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, it’s because they’ve 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 they’re no different from those who continue to live in the paths of hurricanes or forest fires or on faults in the Earth’s crust: they stay there because that’s 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 haven’t given them a metaphysical bent; they don’t waste time asking Why. They don’t wring their hands and whine about their condition. “What the hell,” they’d say, “life isn’t supposed to be easy.”

And they stay because their days aren’t always bleak. On cold, clear winter mornings the snow is so white and the sky so relentlessly blue you count your blessings—as long as your car will start. On still summer mornings as you linger in bed, you’re 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 you’ll see. They’re exciting theatrical events, like the thunder storms you can see coming from a hundred miles away—the thunder that explodes and rumbles across the prairie, the rain so thick your windshield wipers can’t 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 couldn’t place it on a map. A Newsweek article once called it America’s 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 on—it would just be a cheap disguise—and 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 90—I 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 isn’t working. In 1997—admittedly, the year of the worst Red River flood—an 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 men’s 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 you’ll 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 won’t keep,
Because we’re running out of lye.
We know we belong to the sod,
’Cause we’re good old North Dakota clods;
That’s why we sing Eye-yip-eye-odee-ay,
We’re only singing, “You’re drying up, North Dakota,
By next week you’ll blow away.”

Those of us who sang that song so lustily took a sardonic view of the real state song:

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.

But 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.

Are 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 Indians—the 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 whites—the 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 father’s boyhood home.

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 it’s 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 didn’t change very much, at least until the fur trade petered out. Until then the rich Red River soil wasn’t 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. That’s 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 didn’t 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. Rolvaag’s 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 1880’s. 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 didn’t appear until spring. Similarly many people like the fictitious Per Hansa simply disappeared in blizzards and weren’t 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 it’s 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 longing.

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 farmers—stoic, 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 aren’t 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, and—just across the Canadian border—the Valley towns of St. Jean Bapatiste, Letellier, and Joliette. The Scots didn’t leave many names on the map either; on the Minnesota side of the river there’s 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 Timer’s 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 1940’s and 50’s, 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 us—in our class there were Ganglehoff, Wohlwend, and Schimke, and in our neighborhood the Nehrings and Bonhoffs—and a few eastern Europeans—Weslowski, 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, Weslowski—these were just names to me, as familiar to me as my own. It wasn’t 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.”

My 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 wouldn’t 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 riverboat.

Within a couple of years, the name was Anglicized and Grand Forks was a frontier village with two schools, a flour mill, a Hudson’s 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 town’s 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 80’s 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 1930’s 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 state—close 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.

Grand Forks—80 miles south of Canada, at the junction of U.S. highways 2 and 81—was surrounded by table-flat fields of potatoes and wheat. Eighty-seven percent of North Dakota was devoted to agriculture, and more than half the state’s residents were farmers. We non farmers—small town grocers and car dealers and physicians and plumbers and teachers and the like—were certainly dependent on the farmers’ success. When the crops were good we could all buy clothes at McDonald’s Clothiers and cars at Wilcox & Malm; and when they weren’t, 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 us—our parents, teachers, ministers, neighbors, mostly descendents of those Lutheran, Scandinavian immigrants—were 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 dry—Grand Forks declared itself dry even before that—and 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 man’s wife, and the Ku Klux Klan had a strong hold through the 1920’s, with two of its candidates elected to the school board in 1924. So people who looked too foreign weren’t 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 weren’t hospitable to homosexuals either. Or I should say homosexuality. They didn’t know any gays, not because there weren’t any but because a gay wouldn’t 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t belong and which was no concern of ours.

So that was my world. That’s 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 me—the distrust of change, the suspicion of the outside world and of people who were “different” somehow—as just another part of the climate. This inheritance—the 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 prosperity—what 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 20’s, after a college year in Europe, I started to bemoan my origins, to wish I’d grown up somewhere else, that I’d 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 wasn’t until I left the state that I discovered what anomalies we were, we North Dakotans. “Well,” people say, “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone from North Dakota before. The Black Hills, right?” Or, “Oh, yes, I think I drove through there once. It’s pretty flat, isn’t it?”

With time I realized that trying to shake my past was futile, that in spite of my efforts, like it or not I’d 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, I’m 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 or benign.

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 past—even the ancient past—is just offstage, a ghostly figure still whispering from the wings.


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