Sharp Edge of Survival

Outskirts of Willow City, North Dakota

They make ’em different in North Dakota. They make ’em stronger.

I was reminded of this during a quick road trip to the great Peace Garden State last week, ostensibly to help my cousin Tommy drive the new Camaro he’d bought in Arizona back up to his home there. I hadn’t made the trip overland in decades, and thought it would be nice to retrace, perhaps for the last time, the journey my father had taken my family on several summers in my youth. That was during the 1960s and early 70s, when my father’s great boat-like Plymouths and Chryslers lumbered up and over the pine-studded, meadow-pocked ranges of the Rockies and the Black Hills, then sailed gloriously that long last day through leagues of fecund prairies, gathering dust, obliterating grasshoppers, making a dead run to the home farm like a hungry horse to its stable. Now I was back, for the fourth time in the last decade, in thrall as I have been since girlhood to the rough county lives of so many of my first cousins.

And this is where my claim for the superior fortitude of the Dakotans comes in. What evidence to have to support it?  I’ll give you two examples, one deserving of immediate dismissal by its sheer subjectivity and one with more journalistic cred.

And the Wind Comes Sweeping Down the Plains

Sunday August 23rd found me pulling into a field off a wind-swept crossroads outside of Dunseith, North Dakota with Cousin Tommy (this time in his Chevy Silverado). We’d planned to go straight to the horse show grounds where our mutual cousin Joe was to emcee the riders going through their paces. Sadly, Joe, who’d just quit his job as a long-distance truck driver to take a position as a school janitor, had been called in to work to deal with a reported bat problem (a sole bat as it turned out.) So in good North Dakota fashion, we were meeting in a field to have a quick visit. Joe was already there, with his brother Rick who’d picked him up in Rick’s own Silverado and was taking him back to his town thirty miles away.

Two Sensible North Dakotans, Cousin Tommy and Cousin Joe
Two Sensible North Dakotans, Cousin Tommy and Cousin Joe

The temperature hovered around 50. The wind made sharp staccato lashes of my hair. It had rained all day Saturday but today the sky was a deep, cloud-buffered blue. My thin cotton shirt gave scant protection and my bare neck taunted the prairie fates. I danced like a fool in the wind, slinging my song into its currents. “Nooorth Dakota, where the wind comes sweeping down the plains!” How intoxicating it was.

And how laden with dust and chaff in harvest season. That night my throat began to ache. By Monday afternoon when I deplaned in Arizona, my cold was full blown. My constitution had not been equal to that of my North Dakota cousins. It had fallen to the prairie wind, even in August.

A farmers’ daughter falling from grace with the prairie
Another sensible North Dakotan demonstrating proper wind wear

Climate and Culture of Centenarians

Don’t take my word on the robust nature of North Dakotans though. The home state of both my parents made news a year ago in Newsweek Magazine in a story entitled “The Oldest People in the US Live in the Geographic Center of North America.” That geographic center would be Rugby, the town where my Aunt Rita and Uncle Dick raised their brood of ten. According to the article, several factors contribute to this extraordinary level of health: for starters, take the stock. Most people in North Dakota go back generations (not counting the Native Americans who of course have been on the land for centuries). Those early pioneers who couldn’t take the bleak, frigid winters and backbreaking labor left, leaving survivor types. Second, consider community. People in the rural Midwest look out for each other. I saw this for myself on this recent visit when the welfare of a couple of elderly shut-ins was the main topic of conversation at a Saturday night corn fest held at the local Shooters Bar. And then there is all that clean air and water, at least outside of the fracking regions.

A Land that Suffers No Fools

Despite all the positives, this is a land that repays small lapses of judgment harshly. My father’s brother Jerry hit the angle of a ditch wrong coming out of a field in September of 1975 and tipped the tractor he was driving. It crushed him into the land he had farmed for half a century. The poetry of such an end has not lessened the tragedy of it among those who still tell the story all these years later. Then there was my grandfather’s brother Bill, who killed himself with a shotgun at the age of sixteen. I remember Aunt Rita and Aunt Jeannette nearly coming to blows as to how it happened at Uncle Roger’s funeral. Bill was either climbing over a fence or getting out of a truck when the gun went off. Either way, the gun was loaded and the prairie left to swallow the flood of pain that event must have unleashed. And twenty years ago, tragedy nearly claimed my cousin Janie’s son one record-breaking winter. Which brings us to this week’s flash fiction challenge over at Carrot Ranch.

Fence Down

August 26, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about the need for help in an extreme weather event. Is the help local or global? Does it arrive or the plea go ignored? Think about extreme weather occurrences and consequences.

Paul cranked the ignition. Only the same harsh rasp. And no service on the cell phone.

“Won’t be an hour,” he’d called, flinging his weight into the white, squinting wind; his mother’s voice a needle in the air before the sky sucked it up.

Now cold seared a sugar crust onto the windshield. The snow funneled down. It’d swallowed the fence in the south pasture. Now dense, wet waves of it lapped against the tires.

At least he’d found the cow, he thought, satisfied, settling back, closing his eyes, already oblivious to the sound of a truck door slamming.

Cousin Tommy’s Windowpane, Winter 2014



8 thoughts on “Sharp Edge of Survival

  1. What a time your family has had of it. So many tragedies.
    I can’t imagine the cold or the snow as told in your flash, and I am not sure what to make of the truck door slamming. Is help on its way? I love the imagery of his mother’s voice as a needle, then sucked up by the sky; but the photo of the windowpane amazed me most of all. Beautiful!

    1. I expect each family suffers its tragedies. It’s a part of life. And darn, I was wondering if the solution came through clearly or not. I kept reworking that last line. Yes, Paul had begun to doze off from the cold, stranded out there. But his parents went looking for him and found him. As for the photo at the end, I knew I had some photos somewhere of snowdrifts and frozen countryside but couldn’t locate them. The windowpane shot came from a series my cousin sent me last year. I will have to let him know it was admired. Thanks for stopping by here!

  2. What a North Dakotan last though — “At least he’d found the cow”! Maybe you don’t live the rustic life of your cousins but its strong essence comes through in your writing. There is something so grounded about the simplicity and every day danger of country folk. It reminds me of the Hank Williams song, “Country Boys Can Survive.”

    1. And that is exactly how my cousin told me the story. Just saw Paul and his family on the last trip. Great strapping man now, another survivor. And the wives. Will do a post on those extraordinary women someday, on isolated farms raising their kids and planting gardens and handling complicated finances (I hear a combine costs around $200,000 these days). And yes, Charli, I was the one who wanted to get away and see the real city lights. I wanted a sophisticated life. Even made a stupid comment to my brother once about how I had done pretty good “for a farmer’s daughter.” As for Hank Williams, that is the earliest music I remember coming out of our house. My dad was always whistling “I’m so lonesome I could cry…” Will have to look up “Country Boys Can Survive”!

  3. Sounds like those from North Dakota are robust ruddy folk like the Scots because if not they simply don’t survive.
    I feared for Paul and was as relieved as he would have been to hear that truck door slamming. Well written as you had me feeling the cold.

    1. Ruddy folk indeed Irene, lots of Swedes, Norwegians, Germans, and French.These days at least they have some help from technology–heated cabs in combines, heated seats and steering wheels in cars, etc. To think how they lived in that brutal climate fills me with admiration for my forbears… lovely little indie film called Sweet Land gives a sense of that time.

      1. Beautiful, Jeanne! I love the whole piece, but especially: “his mother’s voice a needle in the air before the sky sucked it up.”

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