“Big And Blue And Full Of The Mind Of God”

The quote is from “Dakota:  A Spiritual Geography” by Kathleen Norris.  It’s from a young Afro-American girl at a base school in Minot, ND, commenting about the sky in her adopted (likely temporary) home.

As James Lileks once put it, the sky is the big attraction when you drive across North Dakota; it’s a “painting that changes every fifteen minutes”.

Joshua Eckl is a photographer from back there, and he’s done a wonderful set of time-lapses of the North Dakota twilight and night sky:

It’s one of the things I miss about living up there.


Danny Heinrichs’ allocution on Tuesday puts a horrific, dismal, banally evil period on the Jacob Wetterling story.

US Attorney Andy Lugar’s plea deal – Heinrich confessed to a  child porn charge in exchange for no charge for Wetternling’s murder – is both absurd and utterly understandable; better to close the case and put the monster away for 20 years than leave the Wetterlings, and much of the state, in suspended animation forever.

I’m not happy – but then it’s not about me.  And there’s always the hope that he’ll accidentally swerve into General Population and get torn into long, thin strips.

One can hope.

For The Kids – I was driving to North Dakota with my fiance and soon-to-be stepson in October of 1990.    There was a muffled “boom”, and one of the tires on my 1984 Honda Accord flew apart like a Walmart end table in a gorilla cage.  I put on my donut spare and limped to the next freeway exit – Saint Joseph.

And as the town approached the first anniversary of the kidnapping, the place seemed to be plastered with posters, looking for any information anyone could find about Wetterling.

And it occurred to me – it was a terrible time to have children in Minnesota.

The late eighties and early nineties saw a slew of horrific kidnappings in the upper midwest;  Jeana North in Fargo; another young girl murdered by a revolting fat pig at a second-hand store in Northeast Minneapolis, another girl in Inver Grove Heights killed by a mom who was in the process of losing her boyfriend, a few more here and there.  Unlike Wetterling, most of the cases were solved fairly quickly.   Most involved relatives, or people known to the family.

And if we’d have found Danny Heinrich that day, I’d have happily peeled his skin off with a buck knife while he screamed vainly for mercy that’d never come.  Because while the phrase “we lost our innocence” is one of the most hackneyed-unto-meaninglessness phrases in the language these days, it certainly applied.

Because as I embarked on raising a stepson, and sooner than later a daughter and son of my own, we all got the pleasure of trying to teach kids, right in the middle of their innocent, wonderful early years, some ineluctible tactical calculus that is hard for adults to absorb.

If a stranger asks you to come with them, don’t.  Especially if they tell you we sent them.  We’ll never do that.

If a stranger pulls a knife or a gun and tells you to get in the car?  Run.   Don’t even think; run.  They probably won’t shoot – it’ll alert people.  And even if they do?  Moving targets are much harder to hit – and your odds, even as a kid, of surviving a knife or gunshot wound are much better than of coming home from a “secondary crime scene” alive.

If you hear gunfire at school, get away; do not get cooped up in a “locked down” classroom, like a pen full of sheep waiting for the abattoir to come to them.  Get out.  Go over the teacher, go out the window, do what it takes.  A moving target is harder to hit than one on its knees begging for mercy.

Oh, yeah – make lots of noise.  Make an ungodly racket – yell “Rape” and “Kidnapping”; even the most cynical urban adults should response to that – right?  We’ll come back to that.

Having to bring that into my kids’ lives?  Here’s hoping Satan spends all eternity ass-raping Danny Heinrich.  God may forgive.  I’m not there yet.

If It Saves One Life – Minnesota in 1989 was a much more pervert-friendly place than it is today.

Three boys biking on a dead-end road after dark, far from any adults, were a tragically easy target for a motivated pervert, of course.  Everything that could go wrong for those boys, pretty much did.

But a scream reaching an adult in 1989 had an almost zero percent chance of bringing an adult who could do anything more than hope to get a license plate, and shake their fists in misplaced comic fury.

Stranger kidnappings have always been rare – and while I don’t have the stats handy, they seem like they’ve gotten rarer, if only because the media hammers on them so hard when they do happen, and I’ve seen fewer stories.  It’s not scientific…

…but in places like Saint Joseph today, one adult in twenty has the means to respond to a screaming child and an armed adult in in the middle of the act in a more-than-symbolic way.  And you have to figure at least some of the perverts know it.

Believe it or don’t – I don’t care.  Although at least one life has been saved.

I, Stick – I read Patty Wetterling’s injunction to the media and her well-wishers – go forth, hug your kids, feel joy.  It was inspiring and beautiful in its way.

But to every useful, meaningful carrot there must be a stick.   Kids who are on guard for the unthinkable, even during a time of their lives when it should be and stay unthinkable; adults who shake off the ennui of modern life and stay aware of the situation around them; the wisdom to ski the moral slalom between vigilance, judgmentalism, and concern when seeing the signs in their fellow adults that might be nothing, or might be warnings.

And we have to do all that without destroying our childrens’ childhoods – among the most important things this world offers anyone.

[Note:  I debated closing comments for this post.  I will in fact leave them open – but any comment I deem moronic and flatulently self-entitled will be either deleted without ceremony or held up for especial mockery, depending on my mood. And my mood is not good.  Be warned]

Disparately Delicious

Joe Doakes from Como Park emails:

The President calling on cops to admit they’re racist and the Pioneer Press article on racial disparity in regional park use gave me an inspiration: I plan to spend the weekend observing the customers at Big Daddy’s BBQ at Dale and University.  I strongly suspect that although the percentage of Black people in the United States is only 15%, the percentage of Black customers at a BBQ joint in the heart of a predominantly Black neighborhood will be significantly higher.

In the past, I would have said “Well, duh, it’s the local joint and they have award-winning food so why wouldn’t locals go there” but now that I’ve been educated about disparate impact, I can see it’s a clear case of institutional racism against White people.  I intend to protest this hateful practice until I get my order free.

 I’m having the half-rack of Beef ribs with collard greens and cornbread.  Wanna join me?

 Joe Doakes

I’m in.  See you there.

It reminds me of a story – quite possibly apocryphal – from North Dakota.  Back in the eighties, the Pentagon noted that roughly half of one percent of the population in North Dakota was black.   They sent a letter fo the North Dakota National Guard tellling them to take care that at least 1/2 of one percent of the NDNG were African-American – including officers and NCOs.

As the story goes, the state’s adjutant general wrote back, telling the Pentagon that the overwhelming majority of African-Americans in North Dakota were either college students, and thus only temporary residents, or already members of the United States Air Force and stationed in Minot or Grand Forks, and there really weren’t any eligible blacks to recruit.

Not out of institutional racism – but because at the time no black people lived there.

The Extreme

While I left North Dakota for a lot of reasons, I feel a certain fondness for my homestate; a certain homer pride at its economic success (and not just the oil boom, mind you – the state rode out the recession in pretty good shape before the oil boom really started)…

…and doing it all the conservative way.  Not as conservative, perhaps, as Utah or Wyoming or even South Dakota – there’s a certain Scandinavian communitarianism in NoDak that makes it a little more Minnesota-ish than some of its fellow red states – but for all that, its government is tiny and unobtrusive.  And it works – but not too much.

As a result, the North Dakota Democrat/Non-Partisan League (Dem/NPL), the local term for Democrat Party, has gone from contending for power two decades ago, to nearly extinct today;  their 2016 State Convention was held at the Kroll’s Diner in Minot1.   They had to twist arms to put a warm body on the ballot for Governor.

And as happens when party units hit their death spirals – like American Communists, or Klansmen – the North Dakota Dem/NPL has become dominated by its hard-core lunatic fringe.

How fringe-y?   They’re too far left for Senator Heidi Heidtkamp:

[13 of the 22 National] North Dakota elected delegates crafted a harsh resolution criticizing Sen. Heidi Heitkamp for endorsing Hillary Clinton.
The resolution claims Heitkamp is being “disrespectful to the people of our great state … (and) the political process” by not endorsing the Vermont senator as a superdelegate at the upcoming Democratic National Convention. Sanders carried North Dakota in the state’s primary election in June, earning more than 64 percent of the vote.

Sending 22 people to Philly, as well as Heidtkamp to DC, may have left the ND/DNPL with nobody left in the state2.

[1] Not really, but it’s fun to say.

[2] No, not that either, really.  But again, fun to say, and not as inaccurate as you might think.

Made In ND

Sports are entertainment to me.  They’re something I watch, not something I live.

But watching North Dakota State dominate the FCS in recent series has been – I’m not gonna pussyfoot around – a blast.

And NDSU’s star quarterback (and new Eagle), Carson Wentz, is the nephew of a high school classmate, so I’m gonna give some homer props over this piece.


You don’t get through winters with an average temperature of 12.8° without being a certain kind of tough — the cracked-skin-dried-blood kind of tough.

That toughness comes in handy in a place like North Dakota. You see, up there, jamming your numb fingers against someone’s ice-cold helmet happens every practice. Getting decked on the cement-like dirt is just how a play ends.

And here’s the thing: I love it.

Because in North Dakota, we don’t care for flash or dazzle. That’s not our game. We don’t do things the fanciest way. We do them the right way.

Going through the draft process, you find yourself answering a lot of the same questions over and over. I get it. This is basically a very long, very public job interview. But the question that seems to come up the most is one that almost makes me laugh at this point:

“Carson, coming from North Dakota, are you worried about playing against tougher competition in the NFL?”

There’s this belief that I’m at some sort of disadvantage coming into the league because of where I’m from. But if you get to know me, you’ll understand that being from North Dakota isn’t a disadvantage. Not even close. In fact, having been raised in North Dakota is probably one of my greatest strengths.

I’m rooting for him in the big show.


The Slow Advance Of Progress

Last week, Mississippi became the ninth “Constitutional Carry” state – allowing any citizen who is legally entitled to carry a gun to carry, without need for a state permit (which was the system in Minnesota until 1974, by the way).

And in the wake of that move, North Dakota legislators sound like they’re maneuvering to make the state the tenth state to not require law-abiding citizens to jump through hoops to exercise their Constitutional rights.

Rob Port:

I spoke with Becker about the legislation last night, and he said it’s an important issue for our state.

“A Constitutional Carry law removes the restrictions that are an impediment to ‘the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed’ clearly stated in the Second Amendment,” he told me.

If Constitutional Carry passes, and when – not if – it is a complete success, it will be much harder for Minnesota’s pro-dictatorship groups (ProtectMN, Moms Want Action, Everytown For Big Brother) to yap about it.



The Republicans of the Upper Midwest have made their distaste for Trump pretty obvious.  The Donald lost Minnesota and Iowa bright and early, and went on to tank in Wisconsin and, over the weekend, North Dakota.

I won’t say I predicted it in as many words – but this bit summarizes what I’d hoped and believed; Trump’s braggadocio doesn’t resonate with quiet, modest, stoic, passive aggressive Minnesotans.

Most of us have heard of “Minnesota Nice” — the friendly, reserved, play-by-the-rules behavior favored by that state’s residents. But Wisconsin has a similar Scandinavian (though more German) culture, as do North and South Dakota. When the Upper Midwest of Europe relocated to the Upper Midwest of the United States, they brought their politeness, understatement, and emotional restraint with them.

All of these characteristics are diametrically opposed to the Trump ethos of baseless braggadocio, histrionic complaint, and conflict as first resort. Critics of Minnesota Nice cast it as barely masked passive-aggressiveness, but active-aggressiveness is considered not only unseemly, but unmanly.

Scandis find virtue in stoicism. When you’re shoveling a sidewalk buried in three feet of snow, your neighbor doesn’t want to hear your complaints — especially since she’s 68, has a bum leg, and cleared her driveway before the sun rose. Just do what needs to be done, and would it kill you to put a smile on your face?

Invoking “Minnesota Nice” is lazy – but it’s not wrong, either.

It’s Satire…

…but only barely.

As of the February before the election, the North Dakota Democrat/Non-Partisan League (the ND name for “Democrat”) Party has no announced candidates for Governor or State Representative.   The party very nearly could hold its convention at “Kroll’s”, a popular Minot diner.

How wonderful must it be, to live in a place where the peekaboo-socialists are virtually extinct?

It’s almost too wonderful to dream about.

A Sort Of Homecoming

Today’s Columbus Day.  Which, to me, is the 30th anniversary of the day I set out to move from my hometown of Jamestown, North Dakota to the Twin Cities…

…and failed.  Long story, which I told here about ten years ago.

It was October of 1985.  I’d graduated from college almost six months earlier – and, as they say, “failed to launch”, at least immediately. I’d worked on a roofing and siding job, and at a bookstore, and put some money away as I’d tried to figure out what I was going to do after college – until I made the decision in a bout of drunken whimsy two weeks earlier.

Continue reading


So after decades of ignoring the place, Hollywood has apparently set some sort of television show in “North Dakota”.

“Blood and Oil”, starring Don Johnson (who some of you may remember from, ahem, thirty years ago) airs on ABC – which is one of those “TV Networks” your parents used to talk about before even they switched to Netflix.   It gives off the appearance of being a Dallas-style soaper.

How do you think it turned out?

That was the question no doubt going through the minds of many people in the state when ABC’s new drama “Blood & Oil” premiered last week to modest ratings. The show is ostensibly set in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields, though it’s hard to tell, given the snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains looming in the background of exterior shots.
The Rockies, in case you needed an update on your geography, reside hundreds of miles to the west of North Dakota.
There were other guffaw-worthy moments for North Dakotans in the show’s first episode. A character killed a white moose at one point — moose aren’t at all common on the prairies of North Dakota — and a scene depicting two characters wrestling in jet black oil was downright incongruous.

But it could have been changed – with the help of subsidies, naturally.  North Dakota doesn’t offer them; Utah does:

Turns out it’s all about money. Utah offers filmmakers a 25 percent tax rebate. For filming “Blood & Oil” in that state, the Utah Film Commission gave the show’s creators an $8.34 million tax credit.

North Dakota, on the other hand, offers filmmakers exactly nothing. Which is why some in the state think subsidies could fix “Blood & Oil’s” scenery problem.

It’s the same reason Gran Torino, whose screenplay was set in Saint Paul, was filmed in Detroit; because Michigan has a program to transfer wealth from Detroit to Hollywood.

Which is something North Dakota’s legislature turned down by a 2-1 margin.

Which is roughly the ratio of Republicans to Democrats in the North Dakota legislature.

The Wheel Of Justice Turns Slowly, But It Turns Toward Freedom

North Dakota finally recognizes Minnesota carry permits.

They didn’t, of course, because Minnesota didn’t grant reciprocity to North Dakota permits, because of a decade of pissy DFL and bureaucratic (but I repeat myself) stonewalling on carry permit reciprocity.  The GOP-controlled legislature changed that, finally, in the past session.

This is, of course, of hypothetical importance to people utterly unknown to me, who now have no reason whatsoever to stop in Moorhead anymore.

Thanks For Nothing, Idiots

For decades – like, four or five of them – the old municipal shooting range in Jamestown North Dakota was where people went to plink, to practice their skeet, or to polish their aim or, in my case thirty years ago this summer, learn how to shoot.

Now, when we say “Municipal Range”, that may conjure up images of grandeur.  Or civilizaation.  Not so with the Jamestown range, located by the Pipestem Reservoir, about seven miles north of town on US 281.  There was a firing line with a couple of rough wooden stands and a log hot line.  There were some target stands downrange, and, 300 or so yards out, a big berm that someone had bulldozed into place.

And for decades, it sufficed; most people followed the rules, because someone would teach them.  One of my friends from the neighborhood, an Air Force veteran of sorts, hauled me out there when I was 22, lugging my Remington Nylon 66 that I’d just bought with my returned dorm key deposit ($50 at Gun and Reel Sports), and showed me the unbreakable rules, and started me plinking.

Some didn’t have the same benefit, or just lacked common sense; when we were downrange setting our targets once, a couple of moron kids with a 20-gauge shotgun started popping off at clay pigeons.  They were off on the right side of the range, away from the rest of us (me and a couple of other guys who were off to my left, and also downrange with me).   Yes, I remember what birdshot sounds like passing by 20 yards away from me.  I also remember the sound of the guy who’d been to my left, apparently a service veteran, barreling across the field yelling like all the hounds of hell turned loose on the kid with the shotgun, who I’m going to bet has never made that mistake again.

And there the range sat, decade after decade, without any problems – until now:

Shooting sports enthusiasts will be without a range to shoot here after July 1. Bob Martin, manager of Pipestem Dam for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the rifle range located west of the dam will close on that date due to safety issues.
“The safety concerns started popping up eight years ago,” he said. “There have been additional buildings adjacent to the down-range area. Outbuildings there have three or four (bullet) holes in them”

Larry Kukla, secretary of the Jamestown United Sportsmen, said it was unfortunate the range had to close.

“It is a sad day, but for safety reasons we have to close the range,” he said.

Kukla – father of a classmate and a former teaching colleague of my dad’s – and his group did all the caretaking on the range for years and years.  Which is how a lot of stuff got done back there; local groups taking care of things of local interest, without much need for governement.

But always, always, there’s gotta be idiots; even though they adjusted the range, nearby buildings and even the range’s safety signs kept turning up with bullet holes:

“Between careless, inexperienced and just being stupid,” Martin said, referring to the source or sources of the stray bullets. “If you are shooting at the proper targets, it’s impossible to shoot off the range. But you know they’re not just shooting at the targets by looking at the (damaged) signs.”

And so America’s real one percent – the one percent of people who can’t be trusted to use a public toilet without smearing something on the wall – as ruined everything for everyone else, yet again.

Surplus Of Stupid

SCENE:  Mitch BERG is ordering a Banh Mi sandwich at iPho on University.  Avery LIBRELLE enters the store.

LIBRELLE:  Hey, Merg!   After four years, Minnesota’s economy is rocking under Mark Dayton, while Wisconsin is sucking pond water!

BERG:  How do you figure?

LIBRELLE:  Minnesota has a $2 Billion surplus

BERG:  Right.  After raising taxes by…$2 Billion.  Now, if the economy is humming along, you’d think that the surplus would be bigger than the tax increase, now, wouldn’t you?

LIBRELLE:  At least Minnesota has a surplus!

BERG:  Right – apparetly, entirely due to the tax hikes.  In the meantime, Wisconsin is headed toward a surplus without the need for tax hikes – or, as we call it, a sustainable surplus.

LIBRELLE:  Yeah, but our economy is still better!

BERG:   Most of Minnesota’s growth is in metro-area medical, medical device, insurance and financial services companies – the ones that benefitted from Obamacare and “Too Big to Fail” stimuli.  Things aren’t nearly as rosy in Greater Minnesota.  In the meantime, Wisconsin’s growth is being held back by the slow manufacturing sector – which is a much bigger share of Wisconsin’s economy than Minnesota’s, and isn’t doing all that well here, either.

LIBRELLE:  If Minnesota had elected Tom Emmer governor in 2010, we’d be in the same boat!

BERG:  Right.  We’d have two economies being dragged down by Democrat policies.


BERG:  The parts of Wisconsin that are dragging the state’s economy are the ones that have been run by Democrats for generations.  The decay of Milwaukee’s manufacturing base is the state’s biggest economic problem.

LIBRELLE:  Hah!  But in Minnesota, it’s the Democrat-run cities that are winning…

BERG:  …as a result of national Democrat probrams to transfer wealth from consumers to banks and health insurance companies.

LIBRELLE:  You should issue a rape trigger warning.

BERG:  Clearly.


Stampeding The Herd

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin – who currently resides atop my short list for 2016 – paid a visit to the Minnesota state capitol yesterday.

He spent some time visiting with lawmakers.

GOP ones, anyway.  A DFL linked Twitter account noted that Democrat lawmakers stayed away from the Governor.

I can see why.  Every Democrat who crosses his path gets defeated.

We need to bring him to Minnesota in 2016.


I get to catch Rush Limbaugh maybe once a month, usually for about five or ten minutes as I’m going to some noon-time appointment or another. 

Yesterday, I tuned in to the sound of Limbaugh citing a story from the Jamestown Sun, the daily newspaper in my hometown, about a North Dakota legislative proposal to require high school kids to pass the same test new immigrants must pass to become Americans


The bill is part of the national Civics Education Initiative, an affiliate of the Joe Foss Institute. Foss, a former South Dakota governor and Marine Corps pilot who received the Congressional Medal of Honor, started the nonprofit to enlist veterans to teach young people about the value of their freedoms. He died in 2003.

The effort counts among its supporters former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day Sandra Day O’Connor, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein and actor Joe Mantegna.

A similar legislative effort was announced in September in South Dakota with support from former U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, former Citibank president Ron Williamson and former Sioux Falls mayor Dave Munson, among others.

[NoDak governor Jack] Dalrymple said the goal nationally is to have all 50 states adopt the civics test requirement by Sept. 17, 2017, the 230th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.

The state’s education commissioner notes that students can retake the test as many times as they need to get to 60% – which, I think, is the right idea; the point is that they learn the stuff. 

So – how would you do if you took the test?

Film Review: “The Overnighters”

I went to the Saint Anthony Main theatre on Friday night for a showing of The Overnighters.

It’s a good movie.  It’s worth seeing.

But it’s more complicated than that.

The Punched Social Ticket:  In reporting on life and the people in the Square States (aka “Flyover Land”), our culture’s self-appointed elites have a fairly consistent three-part narrative:

  • Prosperity in the square states is at least a bad thing:  at worst, it’s an unmitigated tragedy.
  • People in Flyover Land are conservative in all the wrong ways:  Whether it be a staid, stolid “that’s not how we do it here” to a cripping setness in one’s ways to a harsh, unforgiving bigotry, the Square States are like Deliverance Lite in the eyes of our coastal cultural elites.
  • Faith in general, but especially Christianity, is always a veneer over boundless depravity: Christians, in the narrative, are deluded and usually bigoted dullards at best; hypocritical unto evil at worst.  The notion of redemption is always exposed as a toxic lie in the end.

Keep those narrative points in mind through this review.

We’ll come back to that.

Baggage:  Before I get to reviewing anything, let me be up front; I have a chip on my shoulder.

I grew up in a place that barely qualified as a cultural punchline for most of its history; a place famous for durum wheat and George Armstrong Custer and scary fringe characters and Minuteman missiles and the nastiest blizzards in America, and not much else.  A place that some don’t believe exists, that some have tried to abolish and cede back to nature (before all that oil), that still provokes a lot of ignorant babble from “cultural elites” and newbies alike.

And when I was getting established in the big city, almost thirty years ago, it wasn’t a long trip for a lot of people from “you’re from a punch line” to “you are a punch line”.

And pushing against that turned into a hot ball of rage that kept me warm on many a cold night in my twenties.

That, like the narrative, will return to this review.

Hopeless Opportunity:   The film is set in Willison, North Dakota.  It’s the epicenter of the oil boom.  Ten years ago, Williston had maybe 8,000 residents; today, it’s probably pushing 30,000, and nobody’s sure about that. 

The movie’s protagonist – and for the first 90 minutes or so, hero – is Pastor Jay Reinke, minister at Concordia Lutheran Church in Willison.  We see at the beginning of the movie that Reinke is busy running an ad hoc program – the eponymous “Overnighters” – to provide shelter for people who are new to Williston and have noplace to stay.

It’s frequently a tough battle.  While North Dakota’s job market is smoking hot, it’s also more expensive to rent an apartment in Williston than in New York or San Francisco.   Property values and rents have risen to the point where some locals, especially people on fixed incomes, can’t afford to live there anymore.

And the job market’s not great for everyone; Reinke sadly informs an older black man who just got off the train that the oil fields are a young man’s trade, with brutal work and long hours and very difficult physical conditions.  For others – truck drivers – background checks trip them up.

In fact, if you didn’t look carefully, you would miss the parts where the filmmakers acknowledge the fact that the oilfields, overall, have a crippling labor shortage and that the unemployment rate is half the national average, and that Williston is a place where people with high school diplomas and (as one new arrival, a black man with a Chicago accent, notes on a cell phone) people with multiple felonies can make six-figure salaries.  

It’s an acknowledgement, of sorts – a drive-by, if you will.  But beyond that? 

The movie’s website says (emphasis added):

In the tiny town of Williston, North Dakota, tens of thousands of unemployed hopefuls show up with dreams of honest work and a big paycheck under the lure of the oil boom. However, busloads of newcomers chasing a broken American Dream step into the stark reality of slim work prospects and nowhere to sleep. The town lacks the infrastructure to house the overflow of migrants, even for those who do find gainful employment.

Grapes of what?

You’d think they were moving to Detroit or Camden.

To assert otherwise would be to break the narrative; there is no real prosperity.  There’s just bitter, broken people serving the monstrous, otherworldly oil rigs that loom on every horizon.

The movie follows several of Reverend Reinke’s “overnighters” – men who had spent time camping out at Concordia; a young guy from Wisconsin who starts at the bottom and soon moves his way up to a supervising position and an RV; a black truck driver from parts unknown; a hopeless electrician from Georgia; a former meth addict from somewhere down South; an enigmatic and very intense New Yorker who leaves thematic elements dangling like ripped-out telephone wires.

And all of them, every last one, leaves Williston a broken man; the young Wisconsinite, driving while exhausted, rolls his truck and ends up with a broken vertebra; the electrician’s wife, lonely and overworked with the kids, demands he return home or else; the truck driver flunks a background check and walks away, embittered with Reverend Reinke.  And the latter two?

That gets into spoiler territory.

Not Invented Here:  Reinke starts out as a fairly unadorned hero; a plainspoken, very Lutheran-looking man who seems to be doing a superhuman job serving as minister, homeless shelter operator, counselor and rescuer.  At the beginning of the film, it appears his biggest enemy is Willison’s status quo; a city council that’s maneuvering to curb the Overnighter program; neighbors that are alarmed at all the new people coming to the church and working their way up the hierarchy (they usually start out sleeping in cars in the parking lot, at least in the mild summer weather at the beginning of the film; then they move up to floor space in the hall; then, finally, a cot in the fellowship hall).

The other glimpses we see of the locals are straight out of central casting; city councilpeople intoning their reservations, locals outraged about their status quo being upset; I was almost surprised John Lithgow didn’t come to the City Council and demand a ban on dancing. 

Truth be told, outside the congregation and City Hall and the central casting Small Town Regulars, we see very little of Willison; neighbors that Reinke canvasses to try to reassure them about his charges; a newspaper publisher and his greasy, slimy reporter; one farm woman who, burned by a man who’d rented RV space before relapsing into methamphetamine, greeted Reinke and his film crew with a hunting rifle and a broomstick.

And then comes the word that some of the men have “sex offender” on their background checks.  And the movie’s third act begins.

Faith No More:   I’m going to try to walk the thin line between spoiling and reviewing, here.

Reverend Reinke, it turns out, falls short of his Christian ideals, as a believer and a minister.

On the way there, of course, we find that nobody was saved.  The unemployable are still unemployed.  The homeless end up with noplace to live.  The unredeemed, aren’t. 

I say “of course” because that is the cultural elites’ narrative these days; faith is beyond futility; it is absurdity.  A few of the plucky heroes whom Reverend Reinke “saved” earlier in the film turned out to be pretty spectacularly un-saved.

All that is good in the movie turns out to be “good” – in sarcastic scare quotes. 

Including – no spoilers, here – Reverend Reinke himself.

Every single person in the movie ends up, on one level or another, destroyed. 

Expectations: Now, I don’t mean to say The Overnighters isn’t an excellent bit of storytelling.  It is.

And I’m not saying it’s not worth seeing, if you get the chance; it is.  The cinematography is absolutely glorious.  The editing and pacing and the storytelling itself is enthralling.  If I had to give it a rating, I’d say “Four stars, and I didn’t like it”. 

Because truth be told, I walked into the movie fully expecting:

  1. Prosperity to be shown as a curse (or a mirage),
  2. North Dakotans to be depicted as clenched, bigoted caricatures, and
  3. Faith, the Church and its people to be shown up as frauds, hypocrites and hollow shells of sanctimony (or, at best, people whose flaws overwhelm and overshadow all good about them).

And I expected it because – the guy for whom the little ball of rage still burns deep down inside tells me – that’s the way it’s always been.  From the intelligentsia’s chortling about “Buffalo Commons” a decade ago, to MPR’s tut-tutting about all that unseemly prosperity on the Plains, to the NYTimes’ Gail Collins giggling her idiot giggle about having no place to shop and waiting in line at the Williston McDonalds, The Overnighters is an excellent story that fits squarely, unsurprisingly and predictably within the narrative.

It’s exactly what I expected.

And I wasn’t disappointed – or, put another way, I was deeply disappointed.

North Dakota’s Greatest Sailor

Today’s story ties together a bunch of my favorite themes; Epic Historical Events that happen as a series of happenstances and blunders; second-chance redemption stories; untold stories of great significance.

But most of all, it’s the story a maritime people sweeping the seas of their foes.

The maritime people, in this case, is North Dakotans.

We Come From The Land Of The Ice And Snow:  Joseph Enright was born in 1910 in Minot, North Dakota.

Enright, near his retirement in 1963, as a Captain.

He graduated from Annapolis, spent three years on the battleship USS Maryland, and then transferred to submarines, qualifying as a sub officer in 1936.  As the Navy, and especially the submarine service, grew frenetically before World War II – part of FDR’s version of “shovel ready jobs”, as well as getting ready for the war everyone on both sides of the Pacific knew was inevitable – Enright moved up fast, serving on the crews of the World War I-vintage subs S-35 and S-22; not long after the war started in 1942, with a new promotion to Lieutenant Commander, Enright was given command of an even older boat, the USS O-10, a predecessor of the S-boats, used as a training ship.

USS O-10

The early years of the war were tumultuous ones in the submarine service; equipment problems dogged American submariners’ efforts for the first 18 months.  It didn’t take long for a combat command billet to open up for Lt. Commander Enright; he assumed command of the brand-new USS Dace.

USS Dace, which went on to a stellar war career.  In one notable episode in 1944, after participating in sinking two Japanese cruisers and damaging a third, it rescued the entire crew of the USS Darter, which had run aground in an area crawling with Japanese ships.  It ended up in the post-war Italian fleet from 1955 to 1975.

Take Me Out, Coach:  He took command of the boat in July of 1943.  By November, he had the boat worked up and ready for action.  The boat’s first war patrol took it into Japanese home waters.

Enright, aboard Dace.

On November 15, a few weeks into the patrol, directed by an intercept from the US Navy’s “Ultra” cryptography unit, Enright and Dace were directly in the path of the Japanese aircraft carrier IJN Shokaku, one of two surviving carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor.  Enright made contact with the carrier’s task group – a powerfully-escorted force, dangerous to attack – but couldn’t quite maneuver into position by daybreak; in his own report, he described having made a “timid approach, breaking off as daylight approached”.  Later in the patrol, an attempt on a Japanese tanker ended with a sound depth-charging at the hands of Japanese escort ships.

The seven week patrol ended with no sinkings.  Disappointed in his own performance, Enright asked to be relieved of command.  Admiral Lockwood, the crusty submariner who commanded all US subs in the Pacific, obliged, as he had not a few earlier officers who’d decided they didn’t pack the gear.  Enright was assigned to administrative duties at the Midway Island submarine station.

And with most officers relieved of a combat command, that’s where it would have ended.

Redemption:  After six months of administrative penance, Enright asked Lockwood for another shot.

Incredibly, Lockwood said yes, assigning him to command the USS Archerfish.

USS Archerfish

Archerfish had had almost as disappointing a war as Enright so far.  In four war patrols, they had attempted three attacks, for zero kills.  They hadn’t even seen a ship on two patrols, and had spent one patrol on “lifeguard” duty off Iwo Jima, rescuing one shot-down naval aviator from the water.

Crew of the Archerfish on Guam, Christmas 1945, on their way home from their fateful fifth war patrol.  I’m not positive, but I think that’s Enright, in the baseball cap, on the far left of Row 2.

And so in October, Enright took Archerfish out on its fifth war patrol.  From November 11 to November 28, the boat cruised off the Japanese coast not far from Tokyo, on “lifeguard” station again – cruising in a small, fixed area that damaged American B-29 bombers could get to if they were too badly damaged to make it back to their airbase on Saipan.

With the cancellation of the day’s strikes on November 28, Archerfish was cut free from lifeboat duty, and was free to patrol.

And there, toward dark, his lookouts spotted what they originally thought to be a Japanese tanker, with an unusually heavy escort of three first-line destroyers, leaving Tokyo Bay.

Enright and his officers soon figured out it was actually an aircraft carrier; the ship was moving at a good clip, zig-zagging toward the south.  The officers worked out the math, and moved Archerfish as fast as its 20-knot surface speed could manage, to get it into position for a shot at the one point in the zig-zag they could intercept.

After six hours of maneuvering – much on the surface, but the last stretch underwater to avoid detection – the ship zagged into Archerfish’s path.  Enright ordered all six of the boat’s forward torpedo tubes fired, and watched as the first torpedoes hit and the ship began to list, before ordering the boat deep to avoid a depth-charging.

Four of Enright’s torpedoes hit the ship.  Although Enright never did see the final outcome, his sonarmen could hear the sound of internal compartments rupturing, the unmistakeable sound of steel ripping and crumpling. They knew they’d drawn blood.

They returned to Pearl Harbor, claiming an aircraft carrier.  The Navy staff was certain it had to have been a cruiser; they were pretty sure there were no surviving Japanese aircraft carriers in the area.  They grudgingly credited Enright and Archerfish with a light carrier after Enright sketched what he’d seen through the periscope in great detail.

The Big Kahuna:  They were both wrong.

The ship was the IJN Shinano, at 70,000 tons the largest aircraft carrier ever built.

The only known photo ever taken of Shinano (other than one taken from an Air Force reconaissance plane), on its very brief sea trials in Tokyo Bay, days before its sinking, taken by a civilian photographer on a harbor tug, who had no idea that he was committing a capital offense (for which he was thankfully never discovered).

The ship had started life as a sister ship to the Japanese battleships Yamato and Musashi, the biggest battleships ever built to this very day.  As it became clear that the age of the superbattleship had ended and the aircraft carrier was here to stay, the Shinano was converted into a large aircraft carrier.  It retained much of its battleship structure, including armor.

It had been built under complete secrecy, so paranoid that most of the Japanese fleet knew nothing about it; built in a covered drydock, by workers sworn to secrecy on pain of death by beheading, with no mention of it ever made on the radio or any other medium that the Allies could monitor.  It was the only major warship of the 20th century never to have an official construction photograph.  Shinano was in fact a complete surprise to the Allies – so complete, in fact, that they didn’t believe what Enright had sunk until they looked at records after the war.

It was the largest aircraft carrier ever built (until the American supercarriers of the 1950s through today).  It was the largest ship ever sunk by a submarine – and one of the largest ever sunk in combat, period (only its half-sisters, Yamato and Musashi, were bigger).

The moral of the story?

Forget F. Scott Fitzgerald; America is all about second acts.  Enright came back from palookaville to score one of the biggest notches in the history of naval warfare.

And watch out for North Dakotans.  We’re a maritime people.

And we know how to break things.