Storm’s Edge

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I’ve taken this photo a dozen times in the last three days… I’m starting to think someone’s trying to tell me something.

Every time I pause, the storm catches up with me. Every time I think I outrun it, my road curves left and there it is waiting for me.

Today, faced with a relatively commitment-free day tomorrow, I had just decided to push on a little more, to try to get a little farther north in Minnesota, to make it easier tomorrow to reach a powwow I’d been eyeing. I stopped to fill my gas tank; the skies opened up, and lightning started streaking across the sky. I even got a severe weather warning on my phone; for once, I had cell service.

I stopped. Tonight, I’ll stay in a river resort on the Mississippi, contemplating storms and their inescapability. Two days ago I visited a town wiped off the map by a tornado (Manchester); tonight, I’m taking no chances.

Yesterday, I had to make a hard choice. I’d accidentally passed up the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Wounded Knee memorial, in a white-knuckled race from the storm at my heels. To add it back in I would have had to backtrack, adding at least 5 hours to my schedule. I had to either drop Wounded Knee, or I had to drop Little Fellow’s grave. On my first trip, both of these had been powerful sites for me.

I chose to move ahead.

a white cross behind a chain link fence with red railroad spikes
Little Fellow’s grave

Little Fellow had haunted me after my last trip. I vaguely remembered the story on the historical marker: a son of a prairie farmer, he used to run out and wave to the train every time it went by. On that train was a famous railroad man (my horrid memory substituted Casey Jones). When Little Fellow didn’t show one day, or the next, the brakeman stopped, and found out he’d died. He paid for the boy’s funeral, and stopped the train there regularly to refresh the flowers on his grave.

It took me more than a decade to figure out where this was. I just couldn’t locate it chronologically in my photostream (the best I could do was narrow it down to one of four states), and my memory was too hazy. But every time I pulled out those photos, I tested my google juju again, and finally, I found it.

Located six miles outside of Clark, North Dakota, the grave is still there, with a shiny new marker. It was actually “Big Bill” Chambers (not really famous, but he has a good railroad nickname) who was the conductor on that train, and he took care of that grave for 42 years. After he passed, other conductors and engineers insisted on stopping their trains there on Memorial Day; still later, the local Rotary club took it on.

sign describing little fellow's story, against a rural background

There’s something about this story, more than just the railroad connection and a dead kid, that gets me every damn time. The respect that Big Bill had for this unknown boy — the reverence that the country boy had for this big fancy brakeman from the city — their ongoing legacy supported by the Rotary club — it just all makes me want to weep for our lost American unity.

Here’s the thing: I couldn’t make it to the grave. The road out from the marker is less maintained than it was twelve years ago, and while I gamely pushed my wee hatchback through the tall grass and mud for a quarter of a mile, I was still more than a mile away when I had to back up the road in reverse, visions of tow trucks in my mind. And with another interview waiting, I couldn’t take the time to hike it.

(Except I could have. Of course I could have. Everything is a choice. Including skipping Wounded Knee for this.)

So I drove away, my heart breaking that I couldn’t pay my respect. I left a wooden nickel from Havre, with a note from me jotted onto it, under a rock by the Rotary sign.

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It’s a fine story. But, like all my stories on this trip, it’s more formed by my own feelings than the truth, my own background, and my own desire to mold it to my narrative. I felt like the blocked road — and the storm I’ve been trying to outrun for days — was a slap-down.

So when I saw a sign on the door of the interviewee I was racing towards (“Gone to the Dr. – back soon”), I was pretty sure that was another smack. Mr. Dave Oswald — Oz, to friends — had left me the most amazing voicemail three weeks ago, with his fantastic Yooper accent, ending with a “You betcha,” and I couldn’t wait to meet him. A missed connection felt like par for the course.

fiberglass statue of astronaut D. Slayton, in front of the Sparta Masonic Temple (now a museum)

I wandered, taking photos of fiberglass creations around town, and came back a couple of hours later to find him just unlocking the door.

“I wasn’t sure if you were still coming!” he hollered. We chatted for a while through my open window, before I finally asked him to save it for the official interview. I parked next to the mold of the Piggly Wiggly mascot, and headed inside with my recorder.

Oz was a sweetheart, eager to share his stories, his photos, and his longstanding grudges with the city of Sparta and various officials (as well as his longstanding respect for other eminent men), and I can’t wait to edit his audio.

His workshop was everything I could hope for: a mostly-finished statue of Jesus destined for a small, Catholic, North Dakota town was peeking out of a cardboard box, in front of his main work in progress, the legs of a 20-foot Native American playing lacrosse.

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And here’s the thing: Oz’s story, while fantastic, was peppered with statements that I disagreed with, on a gut ideological level. I nodded and smiled, sometimes less emphatically, but I was still basically agreeable. And I didn’t really engage, not with those points. With other, less contentious points, I was all engagement.

What is the point of all this if I don’t feel like I can have the hard discussions with people? There’s a reluctance in me to do a bait-and-switch — I won this interview on the basis of talking about the art, not politics — but still. Things need to shift.

Maybe Al Simpson was right, and American unity is a myth, and I need to stop pursuing it at the cost of my own ideals. Little Fellow is a sweet story, but it’s just a story, a story of four decades of hollow gestures. We’ve been at each other’s throats for decades, for generations. We’re a nation built on contention, and maybe there’s no fixing the downward spiral we’re on. Or maybe there is, but the only way out is through.

(And another thing that needs to shift is all these [wonderful, nice, generous with their time] white men. Four official interviews so far; four white men. If I’m not running into people from other demographics at these roadside attractions, well, maybe it’s time to switch up my itinerary.)

Moving forward: Boldness. Change. Adaptability. If this narrative that I basically settled on before I even left San Francisco isn’t fitting anymore, let’s jettison it. I think I need to go watch some W. Kamau Bell for inspiration and encouragement.

Damn, that scary. Here’s hoping I still find something meaningful at the end of this, whatever it might end up being.

Into the storm, friends. (Which is also where the rainbows lie.)

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