I’ve lived here almost thirty years. People used to say, “Are you from here?” I wasn’t really from anywhere, until I came here.
We moved around a lot. Mostly around the Dakotas, but I did live for awhile in Montana. Also in Iowa. My father was always chasing a dream, some idea he had of how he was going to make it big, finally. I think he was always thinking he was going to do better than his father had.
My granddad’s place was out in western North Dakota. Real windblown, no shelterbelts. Neighbors were miles away. You scan the horizon and it’s just shortgrass prairie every direction. He had homesteaded it young, come out with a group of Norwegians from Michigan or somewhere like that. Somewhere around Lake Huron. My dad said he could never understand why anyone would leave the woods by the Great Lakes, “the beautiful woods,” he would say. My granddad was the young man in the group, a young single man, maybe 18, in a group of families heading west. Out there, with no lumber, families built houses of sod, dug into the prairie, until they had established their places, had enough money to buy the lumber they were shipping out on trains. That’s what happened to his “beautiful woods.” They cut them down and shipped them west for houses. The others he travelled with all had families. The whole family would work to build the place. My dad did a lot of helping other families, and he built his place all on his own. So I think he got started on his own family pretty late. He was a pretty old guy already when I was a kid, older than most, and my grandmother was a lot younger, even though he outlived her. They had been through some pretty tough times. Bad drought during the 30s, the Depression. I don’t know if it was true but my dad said it was so bad at times they ate soup made from shoe leather. I said he must mean cowhide, but he said no, shoe leather. They had already slaughtered off all their cows. They had a little house that the wind kinda blew through and they’d had to work hard every day, so hard they couldn’t manage to get to much school. And they were still hungry anyway.
I don’t know if it was just the hardship of that, or just the things he saw in the war. My dad left for the war as soon as he could. He fought in Italy, was over in Europe the whole time until the war ended. Volunteered to stay longer. He didn’t want to come back, I don’t think. Even the worst fighting they did in Italy was better than those years they were so hungry.
He finally did come back, and he came back here. When I was growing up and he used to complain about it I wondered why he didn’t go anywhere else. When I was in high school and I was sick of hearing about it, I’d say, Why the hell didn’t you go somewhere else? We fought about that. We fought a lot, actually. I was sick of moving around all the time. We were always moving, every few years. Little towns in North Dakota. A ranch in the middle of nowhere in Montana. A big city in Iowa, well a medium city. I don’t know people from any of those cities. No friends. That’s why I say I’m not really from anywhere.
He was always chasing some idea he had that was going to make us rich. He would finally be able to have the nice house, the nice things he had dreamed about when he was a boy. None of it ever worked. He was always looking for the easy way, the thing that would give him all the reward without the work. Course it doesn’t work that way. Maybe he thought he had done his life’s share of work when he was a boy and now he was entitled to the rewards. I don’t know. But it was always some crazy idea and even by the time I was a teenager I could tell they were crazy ideas and nothing good was going to happen. Some of them were good ideas, just too early for their time, like when he was going to manage the buffalo ranch in Montana. The buffalo were going to make a comeback, he said to my mother. Which they did, just not anywhere near the time he was trying to raise them in Montana. She said, What do you know about raising buffalo? We were in this barren place not near anywhere. The bus picked us up on the county road a long walk from the house, and then the ride to school was almost an hour. And he said they were natural to the prairie, they didn’t have to be raised. You just had to look after them a little. Well, that worked until we had a big blizzard and the buffalo walked up the snowdrifts piled up by the fence lines and walked away. By the time he realized it they were long gone.
There was the time in Iowa when the sheriff came, nailed a big blue notice to the door. I must have been young that time, because I couldn’t read it. We just stared at it, lots of words. Big men came and put our furniture and things and set them on the curb. It was gray outside and flurries were swirling down and landing on the couch, one a pile of clothes. My dad was doing a lot of yelling, at the sheriff, at the big men. My mother was crying, worrying, I think, that they would take him away and then what would we do. I remember he went away for awhile and we didn’t know what had happened. I had a Tonka dump truck, one of those old heavy metal things and I was filling it up with mud and my mother was crying. Later my father showed up with a trailer and my mother was saying, “Where did you get that? Where did you get that?” Standing on the corner, hopping around like a nervous bird. “Where did you get that trailer?” My dad wouldn’t say anything. He barked orders at us to load the truck. We were afraid, carrying things, piling them in. Things were getting smashed, falling all over the place.
Most of my memories of my childhood are just scattered like that. Sitting at the backs of classrooms where I didn’t know anybody. Again. I made friends, usually, but I didn’t put a lot into it, because pretty soon we’d be moving again. It was just me and my older brother and my younger sister. We were what we had, piled together in the back of that old station wagon all the time, going from place to place, from one plan that would have my dad excited, to the next one. And my mother sitting on the passenger side, her head slumped against the window pillar, looking tired, beaten. I used to try to get the seat behind her and I would stroke her hair.
The one place I loved going in those days, but we didn’t go so often, was my grandparents farm. They still lived in the little house my grandfather had built. Six children and it was just a couple of bedrooms. In the winter, the cold seemed to seep in from everywhere, from the roof, through the walls. But they had a big stove downstairs in the big kitchen, where it was always warm. My grandmother made big loaves of bread there, and cookies at Christmas. Warm bread out of the oven was magical stuff when I was young. I used to stick it against my cheeks and feel its warmth and then eat it. And in the summers, we could run outside, run in the grass, run out in the pasture by the cows, or through the little bit of wheat he still farmed. It was the only familiar place I knew my whole time growing up. Sometimes we stayed a long time. It was hard sometimes, especially in the winter, being squeezed into that little place, because my father would get so angry so easily. Little things would set him off like pouring gas in a fire. Then my grandmother would talk to him, in a gentle voice, and he would just blow up more. When we were visiting in the winter and we were all closed up in that house it was hard, we were always scurrying away, trying to keep clear of my dad. Sometimes even though it was too cold we’d get bundled up and go outside, just to steer clear of him.
We were back out in western North Dakota, Haywood, North Dakota, a little town that’s already blown off the map. We redid a stretch of highway out there ten years ago or so and most of its gone. I was in high school when we lived there. My brother had joined the army, just to get out. We never heard from him. It was a long while before we heard he’d been killed in Viet Nam. I was working the summer at the filling station in town. That was back when the filling station was a garage as much as anything. The owner was a mechanic, spent most of the day inside the bay, under a car or a truck or whatever had come in. And kids, like me, got up and pumped the gas for whoever pulled in. I remember there were lots of cars, going west to the Rockies, to Montana, or going east, to the Twin Cities, or Chicago. Lots of station wagons, piled with kids. A lot of them pulling camping trailers, with decals on the windows from all of the places they’d been. Places that sounded fun. At least better than Haywood, North Dakota. I’d imagine what other places would be like. I’d think, I’m going to go into the army, too, and get out of here.
I was lucky that in that school, I’d had a great teacher, Mrs. Heller, who helped me catch up. We’d moved around so much and lived in so many scattered places, I hadn’t learned to read well, and I couldn’t do math. She stayed with me a lot after school. I wanted to give up. She’d say, “You’ve got to work at it. You’re smart. But you’ve got to be able to do this or people won’t think so.” She told me she wanted to help me get to college. I said, “College? Who goes to college? Nobody in my family has ever gone to college.” I had an uncle who might have gone to college, but we never saw him. I couldn’t imagine what college even was, or what my father would say if he heard I wanted to go to college. She helped me work on it, and she helped me fill out all the forms I needed to. I didn’t know anything about filling out forms. I think my dad avoided them. Finally I had to take in some things for him to sign. He blew up. Who did I think I was? How would we afford college? I’m sure I said some stupid things, I don’t remember. I remember he drew his fists and swung at me. And I swung back. I think we were both bleeding when we stopped. My mother just stood in the corner and stared at us, blank, like she wasn’t there.
I don’t know what would have happened me if it weren’t for Mrs. Heller. I went off to Grand Forks, to UND. It was like I walked out of one life and into another. If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t be from somewhere. It was hard at first. I had a scholarship, a full scholarship. I kept thinking someone was going to come and tell me it had been a mistake, that I had to go home. It took me a long time to make friends. But I did. And one day I saw Lizabeth across the room and I thought, “I want to meet her.” And I actually talked to her.
I remember early on we were talking one night and she was saying how she had always wanted to travel after she graduated. Her father was from Prague and he had made it sound like a magical place when he was growing up. He had been to places all over Europe and had told her about them and now she wanted to see them. I remembered those cars with those decals of where they’d been, and going to famous places in Europe seemed even more amazing and exotic. We had plans, we were going to go. And then Chris came along and I got the job with the department of transportation and we decided to come back here. At least as a start. So he could have some time with his grandfather. And one thing led to another and we just never left. I still haven’t been to Europe. But I tellya, I would take being from somewhere any day over having seen all the famous places in Europe.