More Jobs!

…Inver Grove Heights-based CHS corporation is building a new fertilizer plant:

CHS, a farmer-owned cooperative based in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, said its board of directors gave final approval of the project on Thursday.

“With this decision, CHS is taking an important, strategic step on behalf of its membership owners by ensuring them reliable domestic supply of nitrogen fertilizers essential to help farmers raise healthy, profitable crops,” Casale said in a statement.

Casale said plant construction could begin this fall, and operating in 2018. It would employ between 160 and 180 workers, the company said.

And oh, yeah – it’s going to be in the Berg ancestral home of Jamestown, ND. 

Another Minnesota company, sending jobs to a neighboring state.

An Anniversary

It was ten years ago today that a roadside bomb in Anbar province killed two soldiers from the North Dakota Army National Guard’s 141st Engineer Battalion.

One of them, Specialist Brown, was the nephew of two of my high school classmates and of my seventh-grade history teacher. I remember him as a little kid, back in North Dakota in the eighties. His grandfather, as I recall, is a friend of my father’s.

Different people get different things out of remembering.  If nothing else, I hope it prompts you to send a prayer to the Brown and Holmes families, and all the families who’ve lost loved ones in this past decade and a half.

Goodbye, Animal Dorm

I went to a little college in the middle of nowhere. I’ve written about it a time or two; it nearly followed a hundred other small rural colleges to extinction in the eighties, but bounced back in a huge way (and, in this environment where people are starting to take the higher ed bubble seriously, provides an excellent value for the educational dollar, especially for science majors, nursing majors, pre-meds (!), teachers and a fewer other areas.  Don’t say I’ve never done anything for you, alumni office!).  Back then, it was known for a top-flight nursing program, athletic programs that fought waaaay above their weight, and a concert choir that was pretty internationally famous

But I come today not so much to praise Jamestown college The University of Jamestown, but to razz it.

(And not for changing its name to University of Jamestown, although I could).

Among Jamestown’s salient virtues – it never had fraternities. No vapid insipid Greek blar-di-blar ever poked its nose onto the campus. We used frat boys for firewood at Jamestown College.

What the college had were dorms. Three of them

Up on the far north end of campus (at that time – the campus has grown as the student population has doubled), New Hall dated from the seventies; it was basically an apartment building for married students (and, sometimes, groups of 3-4 upperclassmen who got along really well). 

Also on the north side of campus, Kroeze Hall (pronounced “Cruise-y”) was from the sixties: it was full of modern amenities, like shower stalls, telephone jacks, water pressure.

And then there was Watson Hall.

Built in 1930 on the south side of the campus, on the edge of the hill overlooking Jamestown, it was old, and it showed. The rooms were…rooms. That’s it. 14 feet by 10 feet. Two beds – twin-size.  Two closets, big enough to hold just barely more than the pre-grunge wardrobe I had. Two desks. In-room phone not an option even if you DID want to pay for it (and I did not); there was one phone per floor. Two shower heads and three toilets per floor, housing 40 or so guys (or gals, after 1982 when the third, top floor was ceded to the women, not so much to cut down on the partying as make it less violent). And if you flushed while someone was in the shower, you yelled “SHOWER” at the top of your lungs, because with the cold water flushing the toilet, anyone in the shower had to get clear before getting scalded. It was all on the same run of pipes.

Rodents were not strangers. Hot and stuffy in warm weather, its ancient steam heat system was incapable of subtlety, either chilling the residents or clankily steaming them into sweaty indolence.

But there was a chummy esprit de dorm about the place. People either stayed in Kroeze (or tried Watson and moved across campus at the first opening), or stayed in Watson their whole time at JC. The resident assistants were generally low-key and laissez-faire about rules; if you had a few beers or a girl in your room after hours (it was a dry, nominally-Presbyterian campus – no alcohol allowed, and the genders were supposed to get off each other’s floors by 11pm, or 1am on weekends), as long as you didn’t make a ruckus, it wasn’t a federal case.

The inmates hated and loved the old building. It’s petty hardships gave the locals a crude cameraderie. It was Jamestown’s Animal Dorm.

I don’t miss much about college – but i do get a little nostalgic over that old dorm.

But as the man said, everything dies, that’s a fact:

Christmas break will see the demolition of the building’s west annex, and construction will begin on a 3,100-square foot addition to the west side of the building.”Our plan is to work on the addition while the University is in session and work in the main building over the summer,” says Tom Heck, Vice President for Planning and Administration [and my Econ teacher]

The addition will include the building’s new main entrance, an elevator, a Resident Director’s office, new restrooms and shower rooms for each floor, and expanded lounges with kitchenettes on the second and third floors.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

Other work will include aesthetic improvements in the hallways, new electrical lines and upgraded lighting, and installation of air conditioning and a sprinkler system. Work will be completed in time for the start of the 2014-15 academic year.

Have these people no respect for tradition?

Hope all you epicurean punks learn to appreciate what you’re missing!

This Hard Land

Note to all you folks thinking of moving to North Dakota to start cashing in on the oil boom:  North Dakota is cold.  

There aren’t a lot of trees.  And outside of the eight or nine significant-sized cities (Fargo, Grand Forks, Jamestown, Devil’s Lake, Bismark/Mandan, Minot, Williston, Dickinson, and maybe Valley City), there just aren’t a whole lot of people. 

More below the jump, so the rest of the page can load…

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The Harvest Home (30th Anniversary)

I wrote this piece five years ago yesterday, on the 25th anniversary of what had to have been the most famous crime in North Dakota history, the Medina Shootout.

Not much has change for me, or the story, since then.  So while I usually don’t re-run pieces, I’m going to basically just update the piece from 2008.

———-

I was a 20 year old college kid working a grindingly-boring Sunday afternoon shift at KQDJ Radio in Jamestown, ND on February 13, 1983.

I was doing what I usually did on those boring Sunday shifts; playing records, doing homework, taking transmitter readings.

Then, the police scanner in the “newsroom” next door, which normally burbled with the desultory reports of DWIs and bar fights and traffic stops that make up the lives of most small town cops, suddenly erupted.  There’d been a shootout; officers were down; cops and sheriff’s deputies were being dispatched to Medina, a town of about 400 people about 35 miles west of Jamestown on I94.

It took hours to untangle the story, which became perhaps the most famous crime in North Dakota history, the Medina Shootout.

Two US Marshals, dispatched from Fargo to try to arrest a group of tax-protesters affiliated with the neo-Nazi-sympathetic “Posse Comitatus”, had been killed in the shootout that ensued.  Their leader, Gordon Kahl, and several others fled the scene.  The scanner reported ambulances on their way to the hospital in Jamestown bringing the wounded, which included Yorie Kahl, criticially injured by a gunshot; in one of the many ironies that day, Kahl’s life was saved by the doctor on duty in the Emergency Room that day, Dr. Evan Kostick, father of my high school pal David (himself a doctor today), and one of Jamestown’s tiny Jewish community.

The scene of the shootout when the first TV station, from Bismarck, arrived on the scene.

Yesterday was the thirtieth anniversary of the shootout.  The anniversary passed without much notice in the regional media.  Five years ago it was another matter; the Fargo Forum led the coverage; others from the Bismark Trib pitched in; former Forum staffer James Corcoran wrote “Bitter Harvest”, the definitive book on the event, relating not only the shootout and the apocalyptic trial of the survivors, but the social sturm und drang that the event caused on the Northern Plains.

———-

Times were brutally tough in the Dakotas in the early ’80s.  The rest of the US was slowly recovering from a recession; it’d be hard to call what happened on the Plains anything less than a depression.  What the foreclosure crisis is to the inner city today, the farm crisis of the ’80s was to the Great Plains.

The Medina water tower. The tower was there in 1983, although without the antennae.

Some farmers – and some of the workers whose livelihoods depended on agriculture, which in North Dakota back then accounted for pretty much every job in the place – did what human nature naturally bids some people to do; blame someone else.  And for some – like Kahl and a thin film of like-minded people – it wasn’t a big leap from “losing your farm to the bank” and “losing your farm to Jewish Bankers”.  The Times’ review of “Bitter Harvest” notes:

The book that turned his head at an early age was ”The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem,” and it was written by Henry Ford.

It is based on a 1918 treatise called ”The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which purported to be the minutes of a cabal of Russian Jews plotting to destroy Christianity and the white race and take over the world. Ford wrote ”The International Jew” in 1920, and it was not until 1929 that he finally conceded that ”The Protocols” was a fabrication concocted by czarist Russian anti-Semites.

Even so, as a young man in the 1940′s, Mr. Kahl believed it totally. He had considerable encouragement. He came of age at a time when the velvet voice of the Rev. Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest who reached into almost as many homes with his weekly radio show as Fred Allen, broadcast some of the nastiest anti-Semitic propaganda ever heard on the airwaves; when Gerald L. K. Smith established the Jew-baiting Christian Nationalist Crusade in Arkansas and gained a national following, and when Gerald Winrod, an apocalyptic fundamentalist preacher in central Kansas gained tens of thousands of adherents to a movement that came to be known as the Jayhawk Nazis.

Winrod’s son, George Gordon Winrod, kept the ministry alive.  I remember his followers leaving corrosively anti-semitic leaflets under the windshield wipers of cars in the church parking lot when I was in ninth grade.

Nobody in my circle bought into it, of course – but we all knew people for whom it rang true.  There was an audience, out there.

And they – like Kahl – weren’t necessarily easily identifiable:

When Mr. Kahl came home from World War II, he was 25 years old, and he was regarded as a hero. He had shot down 10 enemy planes as a turret gunner on B-25′s, and he had won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, two air medals, a Presidential unit citation and two Purple Hearts. That was not all the metal he brought home. Surgeons never did get out all the shrapnel he took in the jaw, chest and hip.

Kahl in World War 2

So the combination of hard times and ready scapegoats found some adherents.

———-

Kahl escaped that day; with two federal agents dead, the federal law-enforcement machinery sprung into place.  Two blocks from the house where my father still lives in Jamestown, in Stutsman County’s then-brand-new courthouse, the FBI and an alphabet soup of other federal law-enforcement agencies set up their command post; local hotels were jammed with brusque men and women in sharp suits and/or, occasionally, battledress utilities.

Kahl

And they were not happy.  Rumors began to circulate; the Feds were tramping about the prairie with big, nasty boots; they were conducting no-knock raids, presuming the locals guilty until proven innocent, acting like a hostile occupying power – or so said the rumors.

The previous summer, I’d worked at KDAK, a little station in Carrington, a town of about 2,000 about 40 miles north of Jamestown.   The station had also just hired a new “News Director”, a pretty mid-20-something named Peggy Polreis who’d just come from Carrington’s newspaper.  One of my jobs had been to make her broadcast-worthy.  I did a good job.

One day, a few days after the shootout, Peggy got a tip from a source that the Feds were going to search a farmhouse near nearby Fessenden.  She arrived on the scene to find that the press were being cordoned away from a farmhouse located a solid half-mile up the road, behind a shelter belt.

Peggy slipped away from the group, and crawled – so the story went – a quarter of a mile along the shelter belt, keeping out of sight of the cops.  She was, apparently, the only non-cop to see what happened.

The police – and, as I recall, a North Dakota National Guard armored personnel carrier – had surrounded the farmhouse.  A dog darted from an outbuilding; a policeman shot the dog dead.  The gunshot sparked more gunfire, and before long the farmhouse was completely riddled with bullet holes.  Finally, the police moved in…

This is a photo, as I recall, from the search near Fessenden. That’s an M-114 Armored Reconnaissance Vehicle on the right, a ND National Guard vehicle that was pretty much the only armored vehicle in the state at the time that wasn’t intended to carry cash.

…to discover the farmhouse empty.

It was one of many incidents that angered, and occasionally alienated, the locals from the Feds.

———-

How you look at the events of that winter (and the ensuing spring and summer, when the manhunt for Kahl led to a final shootout in Arkansas that left Kahl and another Christian Identity supporter dead) depends on who, and where, you were back then.

If you were a local, you knew that North Dakotans tend to be good, law-abiding people; they’ve voted Republican in pretty much every Presidential election since statehood, making them marginally less conservative than Utah.  And yet the Posse, and Christian Identity, found recruits and adherents – and it was no mystery why.  Radical fringes were no stranger to the plains; the Non-Partisan League, the Grangers, the Bund and other fevered activists had gestated in the area in response to other crises since the 1890′s.

The seven Kahl case defendants

So we weren’t surprised that some of the locals were sympathetic.  It was a minority – a small one – but it drew attention.  One of them even wrote and recorded – on a home cassette player, I think – a song praising and rooting for Kahl, during the manhunt and before the final fatal shootout in Arkansas.  It got a little play – mostly from news organizations who were reporting on the acceptance Kahl, the Posse and other extremists got from the area.

If you weren’t from the area, and didn’t understand it, it must have seemed odd.  And maybe a little scary.

———-

Hollywood certainly knows nothing of the area, and understands less about it.  But that didn’t stop it from making a made-for-TV movie, based rather loosely on Bitter Harvest, in 1991.  Line of Duty: Manhunt in the Dakotas starred Rod Steiger as Kahl, andMichael “Family Ties” Gross as an FBI agent from New York who flew to the state to help solve the crime.

The show got the basic facts right; the names, the places (most of the show was putatively set in Jamestown), the timeline (sort of).

But the Hollywood take on the area, and the locals, was bemusingly warped.  Part of it was the Central Casting version of small-town people; although North Dakota is a place where you can hear the Fargo accent (“Yah, sure, you betcha”) in a hundred little main street cafes and bars, the show had the local farmers speaking with cornpone Arklahoma drawls.  The locals, to Hollywood, were out of Gomer Pyle or, given the sinistry of the subject matter, maybe Deliverance.

Rod Steiger as Kahl, during the shootout scene.

Worse?  While there was support for Kahl (and even more criticism of the Feds’ heavy-handedness, arrogance, and occasional contempt for due process in the way they carried out the manhunt in the immediate wake of the shootout), Manhunt in the Dakotas showed something that was almost an active guerilla movement, with rocks and shots aimed at passing police cars, threats, Gross (and Larry Hunt as “Chief Walters”, a composite and sympathetic Jamestown police chief) being harrassed while driving in the countryside, and – in the movie’s climactic scene – the two walking, nervous, down “Jamestown”‘s main street as the “local radio station” played the pro-Kahl song (with a cheery intro from the DJ), both of them keenly aware of the hateful gazes of the locals (by now all of them seemingly Kahl-sympathizers) boring through them both, as if they were fully-bedsheeted Klansmen scurrying through Compton.

“Main Street in Jamestown”, from “Manhunt in the Dakotas”. Note the 1986 Honda Civic wagon inserted into a story set in 1982. Also note the movie theatre – and I’ll point out the relative lack of local significance to “The Alamo” in rural North Dakota. Perhaps that’s why all the “Locals” in the movie had Arklahoma accents.

It was crap, of course, factually (no station in the state played the song, except as news) as well as socially (Jamestown is a college town of 16,000 that hosts a state hospital, and a school for the profoundly disabled, where Kahl had little traction; Kahl’s base of support was out on the isolated drift prairie).  But it was interesting, seeing how inscrutable “flyover land” was to the people who actually produce these things, and the almost-superstitious fear the place engenders.

———-

That part of North Dakota is a huge place in terms of the land and the sky; the human geography is much smaller.  In the 27-odd years since I left the place, whenever I meet other expats, it’s hard to go more than thirty seconds without finding a common acquaintance.

It’s the same with events.  Besides Dr. Kostick, and Peggy Polreis, I knew Darrell Graf – Medina’s police chief at the time (and Graf has actually turned up on this blog) and people in his family.  Scott Kopp was another – a guy I remember as a Stutsman County deputy who lost a finger from a Kahl shot that could have done much worse.  Another guy – a Medina cop who was on the periphery of the action – was my friend’s sister’s boyfriend (and, the last I checked, husband of about twenty-five years).

The internet can make you acquainted with even more people.  Scott Faul – one of the Posse members who was arrested, tried and did prison time for his role in the shootout – had a blog, although it hasn’t been updated since the first time this piece ran.

Thirty years is a long time, even out there.  But memories are longer still.

The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

It’s Syttende Mai – the 107th anniversary of the day that Norway declared its independence after a bloody war of independence, throwing off the shackles of onerous, brutal Swedish rule.

Norwegian forces had fought a long-shot, underground war against the evil Swedes – a battle which may have been the model for the “Rebellion” in the movie Star Wars – ragtag rebels fighting the Swedes and their Finnish and Danish mercenaries, eventually coalescing into a movement that was able to virtually wipe out the Swedes and drive to the very gates of Stockholm, dragging the Swedish monarchy to the negotiation table, leading to the…

…the…

…oh, I can’t go on.  It’s really just the date the Norwegian constitution was ratified.  Norwegians celebrate the event with childrens parades and the sort of stuff Americans do for, well, Arbor Day.

Anyway – happy Syttende Mai!

“Well, Golly, Elmer – We’re Gonna Have To Hire A Fella From Minneapolis To Help Us Spend This Money!”

(NOTE:  For purposes of comedic affect, the author, Mitch Berg, is going to write most of this piece in an affected “North Dakota” accent.  The author notes in advance that the written patois actually sounds a lot more like a rural Oklahoma accent with overtones of rural Tennessee.  The author acknolwedges this, but notes that trying to write in an accent from the movie “Fargo” has little comedic affect, and is almost equally linguistically inaccurate, and begs your indulgence.  And now, on with the actual posting).

I been moved down here from North Dakota since nigh on 25 years now.  Back before I moved to the big city and all its temptations and lights, I didn’t know how to write so good.  Being from a rurl state and all, edumacation wasn’t our strong soot.

In fact, untel we got some people from the big city to come and tell us how to run our lifes. we was just a bunch of loosers who ain’t know how to do much but drive plows and drink beer.

Thanks to the people from the big city, I now know how to write dern gooder than I used to.

They done the same thing with gummint back in my home state.  Back before the big city folks came to North Dakota (or Nodak, as us all calls it), we ain’t known how to run a gummint as well as the folks in Minnesota.  Oh, we balanced our budgets for years, back when the budget been small and the state barely had a pot to whiz in.  But we were not as advanced as the people in Minnesota, who kept growing their budgets and battling over budget defecates, whatever they are.

Now, back in my home state they done found Awl.  Big Awl.  Lots of awl.  The whole western half of the state is like Saudi Arabia now.  Awl is everywhere.  And all these big-city folks, like Minnesota Public Radio, have been trying to tell the folks back home what a bad deal that is, how having money and stuff is making the state all miserable – which I kinda thought been funny, since I’m old enough to remember the eighties, when farming fell into the same kind of depression that housing is in now, and a good chunk of the state’s farms got foreclosed on and you could buy entire little towns for the price of the paperwork it took to print the deed.

Anyway, awl’s done changed all that.  And that means there’s a lot of money plumb coming in to the state’s coffins.

And shore nuff, a big city guy, Dave Mindeman from MnpAct, is telling all them hicks what’s best for ‘em:

North Dakota is getting a little bit cocky.

There is a movement going on in the frozen tundra to put the elimination of property taxes on the ballot in 2012. Can you imagine? No property tax statements. Nothing.

Cocky?  That word ain’t never describe my kin back home.  ”Passive Aggressive” is the one I hear more often, but I have no idea what that means, because none of us are smart enough to know what them words means.

Anyway, Mindeman has a word or two fer us hayseeds:

Now, granted, North Dakota can afford to do this. We all know about the oil boom going on in the western part of the state. Oil revenue taxation is a major windfall. So, the money lost on eliminating property taxes can probably be recovered.

Provided we all isn’t too stupid!

But I digest.

But that’s not the problem.

Cities and counties utilize property taxes for a very specific pupose (sic). Local services. Let’s say this all comes to pass. The local city councils and county boards have no assessed income from the property valuations. What happens?

Well, the state legislature would have to appropriate it. A kind of massive LGA if you will. Cities and counties would have to compete for state dollars…..a kind of massive “pick me…pick me” distribution.

Which is sort of what LGA has become in Minnesota.

Budget calculations would be in reverse mode. Instead of taking the base line of assessments and then deriving priority needs based on what you can collect, city and county governments would estimate what is needed and then lobby the state to get it.

All that’s true.

But since Mindeman brought up LGA (pardon me as I momentarily abandon the patois of my native land and get to some writing here), let’s take a look at some history.

A little over forty years ago, Minnesota noticed that there were, to paraphrase John Edwards, “Two Minnesotas” – an outstate Minnesota that was aging rapidly, was tied to agriculture (which is intensely cyclical) and mining (which wasn’t, but was also falling off rapidly as the US steel industry obsoleted itself), and the Metro area, which was young, highly educated, growing rapidly, and making a lot of money.  There was a significant disparity of wealth in the state.  The powers that be at the time decided it’d be useful to take some state revenue from the wealthy parts of the state and use it to help the poorer parts – at the time rural and outstate – pay for some of the infrastructure of modern life.  Now, as the Twin Cities and Duluth shrank and got poorer (mostly as a result of DFL policies), the original intent of LGA has been perverted beyond it’s original scope – but that’s a story for another blog post.

Now, remember the bit above about the disparity of wealth between the Twin Cities and, say, Thief River Falls back in the late sixties?  And LGA’s justification – enabling the Thief River Fallses of Minnesota to afford a new school and some traffic lights that they couldn’t manage on their own tax bases?

Multiply that disparity by an order of magnitude in North Dakota.  Towns like Williston, Dickinson, Bismarck, and even flood-ravaged Minot are booming; real estate values are soaring, to the point where it’s making it impossible for the Air Force people who’ve been the stable mainstay of the area economy for the past sixty years to live in the area.  An apartment in Williston costs about as much as an apartment in Manhattan or San Francisco. And it’s creating ripples of scarcity that are jacking up prices all the way across the state – including places like cha-cha Fargo (itself prosperous on the fringe of the oil economy as well as a tech boomlet) and less-blessed places like my own hometown, Jamestown, which is well outside the Bakken oil patch and has, like much of the state between Fargo and Bismarck, a shrinking, ageing population with an income base that is still tied to agriculture, tourism and the military, and whose property values are holding steady even as prices rise.

And so if the notion of Local Government Aid made sense in Minnesota forty years ago – and Mr. Mindeman, if you preferred the post-2002 LGA system to the pre-2002 one, let me know, since I suspect you did not – made sense, then why doesn’t it make sense in smoothing out the vastly wider disparity in North Dakota today?

The temptation would be to overcompensate for what your budget actually needs. To ask for more with the expectation that there will be a reduction.

But think about that. Every city and county would be asking for extra and their state representatives would then have to petition the entire legislature to grant the requested amount. Monetary requests would soon get out of hand and the state would be picking winners and losers across the board.

You mean – like the LGA system in Minnesota?

Not pretty.

Maybe, just maybe, you can make that all work in a booming economic time that North Dakota has for the moment. But these oil booms are always temporary. And the future is not going to be about oil….it’s about alternative fuels.

North Dakota could lock themselves into an LGA problem that makes Minnesota’s ongoing issue look like a piece of cake.

They could if’n (oh, dear, I find myself slipping back into my native patois again) the whole “how to run a demercratic gummint” thing is just too hard fer them to figger out.

Mebbe we could send them some kids from the Wellstoned Center to hep them with all that complicated gummint and thinkin’ and stuff.

The problem is that taking that local decision making away from the local government officials that have the best chance to understand local needs, is a prescription for chaos.

Even more chaotic than the scramble for housing in Williston.

Even more chaotic than the scramble among logicians to figure out exactly what Mindeman means; is LGA a good idea in Minnesota, where the income disparity done switched isself around in the past forty years (outstate supports the Metro, today), but a bad idea in NoDak, where the disparity issue is the same as it was in Minnesota in the seventies, only much bigger?  And if so, why – because North Dakotans are too dumb to figure out an idea and process that Minnesotans have turned into such a finely-tuned success story over the past forty years?

I think that’s what you city folk call “Sarcasm”.  I saw it on Jon Stewart the other night.

The Conductor

It was a chilly, rainy night in March of 1983.

I had a horrible cold – but no matter.  I was standing on a riser in a tumbledown little church in Pendelton, Oregon, with 69 or so other college kids.   And by this time in the tour, cooped up on buses for day after day, most of us were sharing colds.

I had just finished a brisk walk up to the stage for the second of three sets of the evening’s performance.  It was our seventh or eighth concert in as many days and nights.

The house lights dimmed, and the stage lights came up, blotting the audience from view.  We focused on the conductor’s podium, where presently a guy in a formal tuxedo climbed onstage.  His cheeks were puffy and red, but his eyes were clear and sharp- “fierce”, I’d say, if the fashion industry hadn’t so devalued the word.  He smiled -partly greeting, partly saying “can you keep up with me?”

He lifted his hands, and brought them down.  And we sang - launching a capella and without fanfare directly into “Have Ye Not Known/Ye Shall Have A Song”, two movements from Randall Thompson’s oratorio “The Peaceable Kingdom”, a piece lifted from Isaiah 40:21:

Have ye not known?

Have ye  not heard?

Hath it not been told you from the beginning?

Hath it not been told from the foundations of the earth?

(Here’s a high school choir doing it).

I sang my part, nestled into the midst of seventy college kids who, for a couple of hours, felt like a single organism that was much better than the sum of our parts, as the conductor – listed on the program as Dr. Richard Harrison Smith, and never anything else – wrung the last little bit of execution, passion and yes, joy out of the evening.

And while I didn’t dare make any facial expression, or even take my eyes off the podium, I smiled inside.

———-

I remember “Dick” Smith, as my dad always called him, probably about the same time he moved to Jamestown, ND.  He and his family – his daughters, Kristin and twins Karen and Kathryn, all about my age – came by our old house in Jamestown, along with his wife, June, who’d just been hired as Dad’s colleague in the Jamestown High School English department.   Smith had just taken over the music department at Jamestown College, after earning a PhD in music and an MA in Biochemistry.  I wonder sometimes if academia today would know what to make of a guy like him.

But  I was years away from knowing any of this.  I was six years old.

Now, if there’s one thing people in small college towns appreciate – or appreciated, in those days before the internet and ubiquitous TV and travel - it’s whatever scraps of culture they can get.  And Dr. Smith quickly started producing some amazing culture.

In town, we noticed this mostly from the college’s annual Christmas concerts – which morphed from sleepy little affairs into six-night runs with choir, concert band and elaborate production, lighting and sets, that drew packed houses and TV coverage.  Packing into the college’s Voorhees Chapel, to the smell of pine boughs and scorched gels, is one of the most potent memories of Christmas as a child.

Unbeknownst to me – because I was years away from caring about such things – Dr. Smith, starting in 1969, built the JC Concert Choir into one of the premiere college choirs in the United States.  One review from the seventies – and no, I couldn’t find it if I tried – placed JC’s choir among the top three small-college choirs in the US – in the same league as the legendary St. Olaf Choir, in the (choir geeks will know this) Christenson era.    In 1972, the Jamestown College choir became the first American choir to sing at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  In 1978, he engineered a visit to Jamestown by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra to accompany the choir in a concert – the highlight being Bach’s Magnificat, if I recall correctly.

You might be thinking “this is a small college choir that fought above its weight”.  It was – but that wasn’t even the amazing part.

The amazing thing about Smith’s choirs throughout their history?  While the other top-flight choirs, like St. Olaf’s, were made up of music majors and especially voice students, Jamestown just wasn’t that big.  In the seventies, the place had 600-700 students, maybe a couple of dozen of them music majors.   Over ten percent of the entire campus sang in the choir – less than a quarter of them music majors.  Imagine a tournament-grade basketball team that was 3/4 walk-ons from the Theatre and English and Nursing departments; it was the same basic idea.

And so year after year, for almost thirty years, Dr. Smith created top-flight college choirs from virtually nothing.

———-

When I graduated from high school.  I didn’t know what I wanted to be – but I knew I wasn’t going to major in music.  Still, I’d had some musical training – none of it involving singing.  I played guitar, cello and harmonica, and sang in a garage band, in a voice that was best suited for shouting out Rolling Stones and Clash covers.  That was all the singing I ever wanted to do.  I was an instrumental guy, and proud of it.

I’d known Dr. Smith and his family for about 12 years by that point – his wife June was my high school creative writing teacher; Karen and Kathryn were classmates at Jamestown High School (Kristin graduated a year before me).

My mom worked as a secretary in the nursing department at Jamestown College, which would net me a nice tuition break, so in the spring of 1981 I enrolled at “JC”.  Of course, every penny counted, so I seized on every scholarship I could find.  I got a grant to work as a stagehand in the theatre department and, late in the game, was recuited to play cello in a chamber group, and percussion and guitar for the concert and stage bands.

One day, my senior year of high school, I went up to the campus to close the deal on the music grants.  I walked into Voorhees Chapel for a chat with Linda Banister – and my spidey-sense started buzzing away; something seemed just a little bit off.

There were always plenty of women auditioning. then and always, for 35 or so soprano and alto slots – but in a school like JC, finding guys who could fill the choir’s 35-odd tenor, baritone and bass seats was a constant battle.   Smith, and his assistant, Linda Banister (a voice teacher who did double duty as the choir’s manager) prowled the campus, looking for guys who sounded like they that could be jury-rigged into instruments in a choral ensemble; they filtered through high school transcripts looking for hidden semesters in “choir”; they staked out football practice, listened in the cafeteria, and even (rumor had it) prowled the dorms, listening for guys singing in the shower.  The men’s sections – the tenors, baritones and basses – were a grab bag of football players, computer-department night owls, and just-plain guys who could, to their amazement, carry a tune, most of them with absolutely no musical training whatsoever, most of them enticed by having $1,000 a year  lopped off their $4,000+ tuition; such was the choir’s clout.

Anyway – after a too-short discussion that ended up with grant in hand way too quickly, Mrs. Bannister said “Now you need to go down to Dr. Smith’s office”.

“Er – to  talk about the instrumental stuff?” I asked, warily.

“Yeah, sure!” she said, fast enough to make me even more suspicious.

I walked downstairs into Dr Smith’s office, in the basement of the chapel.  He was already sitting behind the piano.

“Hi, Mitch”, he said – first names were fine, he’d known me forever.  Then, before I could respond, “OK, say “Mi Mi Mi” and sing along with this pattern”.  He pounded out a “C” arpeggio.

Nonplussed, I sang.  “Mi Mi Mi Mi Mi Miiii”, up and down the “C” chord..

He walked me through several more patterns, up and down the keyboard, figuring out my range.  “You have a good ear; we can work on the technique.  You’re a baritone!”

And that was pretty much it. I’d been shanghaied. Linda Banister was waiting outside the office.  “We really need you in the choir…” she said.  Being a small-town Scandinavian, my need to please others would have kicked in even had she not told me that singing in the choir was worth a $500/semester off tuition.

And so I joined the choir.  I’d be in the baritone section come the fall.

———-

Or would eventually, anyway.  Because before we could start choir that fall, Dr. Smith – and all of us, really – had a wrenching, existential diversion.

On top of being a great musician, arranger and director, Dr. Smith was also a footnote in medical history.  A very important one, actually.

In the summer of 1981 – the hot, arid three months before I started college – word made the rounds in Jametown that Dr. Smith had gotten very, very sick at the family’s lake cabin in northern Minnesota.  A very rare congenital enzyme deficiency had caused his body to start to destroy its own liver. He was in a coma and near death at a hospital in Fargo.

And at the metaphorical and literal last moment, the decision was made to fly him to the University of Pittsburgh for a medical procedure that teetered on the brink of science fiction at the time; a liver transplant.

At the time, liver transplants were almost as rare and difficult as heart transplants; the liver may be, after the brain, the body’s most complex organ.  The biochemical system that the liver manages is as convoluted as anything in nature.  And it showed, medically speaking; at the time, nobody had lived even a year with a transplanted liver.   The body inevitably rejected the tranplant, as if it was a bacterium or a splinter.  The way it was designed to do.

Liver transplants were so experimental, insurance companies were still years away from covering them.  The key to success – and it was an immutably elusive key, up until the spring of 1981 – was to quell the body’s immune system’s natural response of sequestering it off and killing it.

Shortly before Dr. Smith flew to Pittsburgh that summer, a new drug – Ciclosporin - was introduced.  Refined from a fungus found in the soil somewhere in Norway, it’d been used in treating a variety of other diseases – but it was going to be tried for the first time to prevent organ transplant rejection.

And Dr. Smith was Patient 1.

It wasn’t just the drugs.  Some of the very equipment and techniques that make the miracle of liver transplantation seem so commonplace today were invented as a result of Dr. Smith’s surgery.  From a Pitt Medical School publication on the transplant:

Fortunately, a donor liver became available. As Dr. Starzl  (the surgeon who pioneered the technique of the live transplant at Pittsburgh) pointed out in his book, the surgical team fought throughout the night to control the bleeding during Richard’s surgery.

Anesthesiologist Dr. John Sassano administered two hundred units of blood, pumping each unit by hand. When Richard survived the operation and Dr. Sassano’s job was done, Dr. Starzl reported that Dr. Sassano broke down and cried out of relief and exhaustion. Dr. Sassano went on to invent the Sassano pump, a rapid blood infusion system still in use today.

The surgery lasted 14 hours.

That I’m writing this article today should tell you it worked – all the pieces; the surgical skill, the brand-new, untried techniques and drugs, and of course the liver, from a 19 year old auto-crash victim.

———-

It was a solid semester before he came back to the choir.  The cocktail of drugs he’d been given, including the Ciclosporin, had played hob with his system.  He’d gained a lot of weight; his formerly hawk-like face was swollen.  And he could only direct for short periods, sitting on a stool, before he’d get tired and hand the choir over to his backup director.

But once he started, you could tell he lived for it.

And during the second semester of my freshman year, Dr. Smith gradually worked his way back onto the podium; by the time of our spring tour, he managed to direct (as I recall) every concert at every stop on the way.

I’ll let that sink in; in eight months, he went from comatose to doing his job (albeit not at 100% just yet), with a stop along the way for a gruelling, body-crushing, experimental, never-before-seen bit of beyond-major surgery.

We knew it was remarkable back then; having nobody to compare it with – every previous liver transplantee had died in that kind of time – none of us knew how remarkable it was.

———-

If my experience with high school music groups – orchestra, stage band and the like – was like Pop Warner football, choir with Dr. Smith was like suddenly walking into Vince Lombardi’s training camp.

Smith was a renowned arranger and conductor; his specialty, oddly, was traditional Afro-American spirituals; a Canadian paper once praised the Choir for being the most authentic-sounding choir of rural white kids they’d ever heard.

Beyond that?  The programming every year was very non-trivial.  It spun between spirituals, modern/avant garde choral work, and the classics of the repertoire – and by classics, I mean the hard stuff.

The highlights?  Every couple years, Smith would break out a new Bach double-choir motet.  My freshman and senior years, it was Motet Number 7, Singet Dem Herrn.  15 minutes and 90-odd pages long, it required the choir to split into two separate choirs, singing Bach’s, well, baroque composition in eight part counterpoint and harmony.

All from memory.  Smith allowed no sheet music on stage, and the choir was rarely accompanied (as in, one song that I recall in four years).

Go ahead and try it in the shower when you get a moment.

That took discipline.  All practices were mandatory; you got two excused absences a semester, and even those were discouraged (I don’t remember taking more than one in four years).  The rules on stage were simple and uncompromising; once Smith stepped on the podium, in concert or late “concert rules” rehearsals, you didn’t look away, at the risk of a ferocious tongue-lashing during the break.   If you got sick on stage, you did not walk offstage; you sat down on the riser and your neighors closed ranks around you.  If your nose itched?  You let it itch; scratching your nose, or anywhere on your face, inevitably looked like picking your nose.  You didn’t question Dr. Smith on any of this.

The choir practiced four days a week, over the noon hour, to accomodate everything from after-school football practices to afternoon chem labs.   You earned that $500 tuition break every semester.

To turn that throng of misplaced football players, dorm-potatoes, waylaid cross-country runners, computer science majors and the odd musician into a solid choir, Dr. Smith smacked us with something that most of us had never encountered before, and only rarely since; an uncompromising demand for excellence.

Excellence is a word that’s gotten abused horribly in the past thirty years.  A wave of business books perverted the terms into meaning  ”a businessperson given him/herself license to be a prick”.

The word itself never came up, that I recall, in four years with the choir.  But it’s what Dr. Smith demanded of all of us.  Whoever we were – wrestlers, pre-meds and vocal majors alike, we had it in us to do great music – Bach, or spirituals, or avant-garde adaptations of Shaker liturgical chants alike – the way God himself intended them to be done.   Perfectly.

And he didn’t tolerate half-assed choral music, and he never cared who knew about it.  Botching an entrance or scooping a high note could earn a section, or a singer, a chewing out in front of the whole choir – and the privilege of singing the part yourself, solo, over and over, as the whole choir sat and listened, until you hit it perfectly.

So we – wrestlers, pre-meds, dorm-potatoes, phy-ed majors and voice majors alike – developed a keen ear and a sense of precision that was new to many of us, even if we had some experience with formal classical music.

He had no time for contemporary music.  At least once a year, he’d get frustrated by some bit of pop-music frippery, and bellow “Do you think people will be listening to the Beatles in 300 years?”  I was often tempted to respond “if there’s an entire academic discipline dedicated to seeing that it does, then sure!”, but he didn’t sound like he wanted a discussion…

Even other choirs felt his wrath.  A choir from another college performed an assembly before practice one day.  A “contemporary” choir with microphones and a PA and accompanists and a repertoire of mediocre modern choral music, they were also – by Smiths’ standards – unforgivably sloppy in their intonation and timing; they were also slow in tearing down their elaborate stage rig as we filed onto the stage for our noon practice, and milled about in the chapel, chattering away, getting ready to go back on the road themselves.   We saw Smith, fuming at both the late start and the sloppy music, and took our places quickly and silently as the other choir milled about the place.  We just knew this could not end well.

When Smith finally got the podium, his face was red with rage.  He uncorked one of his vein-bulging jeremiads about the worthlessness of sloppy, inferior music – he referred to “this…crap!”, as I recall, which shut the other choir’s kids up but fast.  He ran down their intonation, their entrances, their reliance on a mixer to balance their – shudder – microphones, their sloppiness – and compared some of our own traits with what he’d just endured.  Then he had us ready up one of our own songs, in a tone that strongly hinted we’d best blow the doors off that tune.

And we did, as I remember.  We didn’t dare not stick the landing.  We sang the hell out of that tune, as the other choir silently shrank from the sanctuary.

We were the JC Choir, dammit.

Of course, Smith’s temper was tempered with a sense of humor and an approachable affability.  Sitting in his office, or on the choir tour bus, or during a good rehearsal, he was quick with a joke – usually awful – and a smile and a word of encouragement.

And it’s worth noting that his relentless pursuit of precision and perfection didn’t cover every aspect of his life.  Navigation was a good example.  While on tour, generations of choir members learned the meaning of the”Smith block”, as in Smith ordering the bus to a stop in some strange city in a place where the bus had a hard time finding our destination, and telling everyone to grab their luggage and walk the rest of the way.  ”It’s just a block”, he’d assure us.  I remember walking a solid mile through the streets of Basel, Switzerland, enjoying a warm, humid evening on a “Smith Block”-long stroll, lugging my backpack and my concert clothes down the Totengässlein, feeling like a tourist.

Smith could laugh about that along with everyone. There’s a reason generations of students loved the guy.

———-

Jamestown College was a small, private, Presbyterian-affiliated school – a sister-school to Macalester, although without the political implications, in those days.  And like a lot of small colleges, Jamestown went through some lean years.  Part of it was the farm crisis; lots of small colleges failed back then.  Part of it was bad management; the college had a really, really bad president for a few years there.

But the school excelled at three things; athletics (the football, basketball and track programs were at the top of the NAIA Division III standings), nursing (one of the best nursing programs in the US at the time) and the Choir.

And so part of the job was to go out and raise money for the college.  For four years, our “spring break”, every year, was to go out on the road on a national concert tour.  Tours involved long days on the bus, taking off often before the sun rose, arriving in a new town late in the afternoon, setting up our risers and lights (that was my gig – I was a stagehand, after all), suiting up for the gig, taking a deep breath, singing a couple of hours, and then going home with a host family from the church that was sponsoring the gig.  We got a free day at the apex of the tour.

As of spring break my Freshman year, the biggest city I’d ever seen was Fargo.  Tour changed all that; each stop in turn, St. Cloud and Madison and Toledo and Philadelphia and Washington DC, was the biggest city I’d ever been in.

That’s us. We’re in the rotunda of the Cannon Congressional Office building, March 17, 1982. I’m in the third row, eighth from the left. Dr. Smith is conducting, natch. On the right is former longtime ND Congressman Mark Andrews.  Photo courtesy Katie Hall, who is “Doctor Hall” to you now, and lives in Fargo and is, I think, the far right girl in the front row.  

And in the three following spring breaks – Seattle, Denver and Phoenix, and every mid-sized city and tiny town with a Presbyterian church with a music-loving minister in between, we toured, ten or twelve days at a shot.

And the biggest tour of all – our trip to Europe, in 1983.  We sang in little villages – Uitgeest, Holland, and Altenburg, in Schwabia – and major cities, Basel and Mainz and Köln and, biggest and best of all, Notre Dame de Paris.

Where we stood, in a church nearly a thousand years old, built long before sound amplification systems were built, in a building designed to magnify the unamplified human voice, and sang at a mass stuffed with Bishops and Archbishops and other popery, and sang to packed houses, and thought for a brief moment that God had taught Man to build buildings like this just for choirs like ours.

And a few days later, in Köln, where we sang a duo concert with the Köln Polezeichor, the city’s police choir, themselves an excellent group.  After the show, the cops hauled us all and sundry to a bar frequented by Köln’s finest; our money was no good there.  And it was noted that Dr. Smith’s liver was now of legal age.  And as we partied into the wee hours, Dr. Smith had a beer (with his doctor’s blessing; Dr. Smith was as diligent with the gift that had saved his life as any human could be).  And as we walked – I was probably staggering more than walking – back to our hotel through the streets of Köln in the weeest hours of the morning, I looked at Dr. Smith.

And he was as happy as happy gets.  This – making music, and getting flocks of kids to make it, and make it very very well, was his happy place.

———-

The last time I sang with Dr. Smith was October, 1994.  The college threw a 25 year “All Choir Reunion”.  About 400 people – around half of the people who’d ever sung in the choir in those 25 years – came back to Jamestown to sing a concert with Dr. Smith.  It was such a huge event, we used the Jamestown Civic Center.   And people from my class in the choir sat with and sang among several generations of choir “kids”; some who’d been there at the beginning in 1968, and who’d been at that first “gig” at Notre Dame in 1972; some who’d just graduated, and hadn’t yet assimilated all that Dr. Smith had taught them.

And it was a joyous night – one of a short list of highlights of my own life.  I was able to tell Dr. Smith pretty much exactly that; how glad I was to make the reunion, and the impact he’d had on my life.  Of course, I had to stand in a long line; I think everyone was there to say the same thing, one way or the other.

Smith retired in 1998.  The travelling was harming his health.

———-

The average liver transplant holds out for ten years.  Partly it’s due to the whole “new liver” thing – all the risks attendant to transplants.

Partly it’s the drugs that bombard the body to make the transplant happen at all.  They take a terrible toll on the rest of the body – especially the kidneys.   Dr. Smith got a kidney transplant in 1997 – from his wife June, incredibly.   It bought time – and bought it for a guy who’d already run the account a lot further than anyone could reasonably expect.

Dr. Smith was the longest-lived person in the world with a liver transplant.  His transplant surgeon, Thomas Starzl, “the father of the transplant”, featured Smith prominently in his book Puzzle People – his own look into medical miracles and the people who live them.   Starzl chalked Smith’s survival up to many things – an iron-clad constitution, rock-solid faith, and a mission in life among other things- but at the end of the day, even that most gifted of medical scientists had little empirical idea how Smith had so clobbered the odds.

But the run ran out.  Dr. Smith died late last night; the kidneys, and the liver which had served two owners so well, finally gave out.  He was 73.  He leaves behind June – one of my favorite high school teachers – and his daughters, Kristin (a reproductive endocrinologist on Long Island), and the twins, Kathryn and Karen, my high school classmates, a teacher and nurse respectively, both in the Fargo area.  They’ll miss him of course – and so will the thousand or so of us whose lives he touched as director, and the hundreds of thousands who watched and listened to his work over the decades.

Yeah, me too.

Rest in peace, Dr. Smith.  And from the bottom of my heart, my condolences to June, Kristin, Kathryn and Karen.

———-

Back on that rainy night in Pendelton in 1983, the song turned into its homestretch; from the bombastic “Have Ye Not Known!” of the fanfare, through a turbulent middle section that seemed to represent the nagging doubts of the faithful, into the ending, the best part; a three-minute canon, simply repeating one line, over and over again:

And gladness of heart…

The line never changed – starting with the sopranos, quietly hinting it; the altos came in, more broadly, then the tenors, and then the basses, in a broad, three-minute crescendo.  But the song modulated through a circle of…fourths?  Fifths?  Mostly?  Big, broad, beefy resolutions  that just as suddenly modified into another set of fourths, like doubts resolving into answers and then into more doubts with even bigger, more satisfying answers.

I looked at Dr. Smith, on the podium, growing more animated as the volume swelled- because looking at the director, and nothing else in the world, what you did in the choir.  But as the song swelled, the diffusion from the stage lights seemed to me to form a corona of refracted light around the Conductor; maybe it was a trick of the light, or maybe it was my eyes getting every-so-watery from the sheer sonic glory of it all.  And as his arms thrashed at the air, wrenching more sound, more passion, more joy from the moment, Dr. Smith looked ecstatic; the song and the choir were like a natural phenomenon, like he was playing a pipe organ whose pump was driven by a hurricane, like he’d wrapped his arms around a tornado with a “speed” button that only he could control.

Like God Himself could hear his choir, so he’d better keep us on our A game.

And I stood in the middle of that swirl of spine-tingling modulating fourths and fifths and ricocheting parts and,  for one shiver-up-the-spine moment, felt as close to transcending the here and now as I ever had, or have, in my life.

And I think Dr. Smith did, too.

It may have been a first for me.

Dr. Smith?  With all the choirs of farm kids and wrestlers and business majors that he wrangled into musicians?  He was a regular there.

In Memoriam

I was at my high school reunion last weekend.

I had an absolute blast.  It was an utterly wonderful time, in just about every possible way.

Of course, any gathering of mid-fortysomethings is going to have its share of bad news.  Up until last year, we’d lost a total of six classmates out of 251; the usual stuff, really – a suicide, an Air Force crew chief who died when his C5 crashed in the run-up to Desert Storm in 1990, a couple of freak illnesses, an accident or two.

Then, we lost five classmates in one year; a fall, a couple of unspecified illnesses, and one who died of cancer.  The streak concluded with two deaths in one day, last May 17th.

One of the classmates who died that day was a guy named Dwight Rexin.

I met Dwight in tenth grade.  He’d been in my hometown’s Seventh Day Adventist school up ’til then.  Like a lot of parochial-school kids who come to the public schools, even in those simpler days, Dwight seemed like a bit of a fish out of water.  He was extremely smart – indeed, he was one of very few high school kids I’ve met, then or since, who could have made a serious claim to being an intellectual.   Blazingly well-read in history, sci-fi, political science and a slew of other areas, trying to keep up with Dwight in an intellectual conversation was like trying to waterski behind a cigarette racer; at the beginning, you just held on and tried not to get too embarassed.

Or at least I did.  And as it happened, Dwight was embarking on a bit of a quest himself.  Seventh Day Adventist school could be fairly called “sheltered”; he knew little of pop culture, the music of the day, and the stuff teenagers did just because they were teenagers, even in that simpler and less frantic time.  Not that I was any kind of party vegetable – indeed, I had exactly one beer in high school, which may have been one more than Dwight had.  But I knew music backwards and forwards; I was working at the radio station, I was a pop-culture vacuum cleaner, and I, like Dwight, enjoyed tying little pictures into bigger pictures.  Seventh Day Adventist kids weren’t supposed to go to movies, or dance, or do any secular music.  But he was relaxing some of the rules; I introduced him to Tom Petty (he liked), Bruce Springsteen and the Clash (not as much) ; I cast him as the evil magnate in a one-act melodrama I directed my senior year, which I always thought was ironic, starring in a play before, I think, he’d ever attended one.

Back then, there were two crowds in summer school at Jamestown High School; the ones that had to be there, since they’d flunked a required class, like English or Biology or Government, and the ones that wanted to be there, either to get ahead on required classes or to escape taking the Government class from one particularly boring and disdained teacher (who will remain unnamed, although any Jamestown High School grads from the era on this thread will know who I mean).  A small crew us us – Bob Martin, Dove Boe, Dwight and I – were in the latter crowd.  So in the summer of 1980 – 31 years ago this week, as luck’d have it – we spent six weeks in a sweltering classroom taking our Government class.

It was a fun time for the subject.  The 1980 election was shaping up, and at this point was still a close race.  I was, by the way, a liberal.  Not an especially articulate or well-informed one, but still outspoken and not a little arrogant.  I would have probably been a famous leftyblogger had I been born twenty years later.

But I digress.  All of my assumptions redounded with lefty “conventional wisdom”.  In early June, I’d gone to North Dakota Boys State, a mock government put on by the American Legion, and wandered my way into being a state party chairman.  I wrote a platform that might have made Paul Wellstone walk into Jesse Helms’ office to admit maybe the left had gone too far and totally ruined the younger generation.

So when we had to give our final presentations, I did some sort of giggly treacle on foreign aid.  Passable work – I got an A, but then I always did with social studies like history, geography and government.

And Dwight cut loose with an hour-long,  Buckleyesque jeremiad on the entitlement pyramid, on the need to get government out of peoples’ private lives, on what the Tenth Amendment really meant, on the links between cartel capitalism and big “progressive” governments like Carter’s…

…that, frankly, I found offensive.  I questioned him sharply; he responded even moreso.  Shot down all my objections without breaking a sweat.  Left me angry (in a civil, intellectual sort of way) and frustrated…

…largely because, although it’d be years before I admitted it, he was right.    At that time of my life, I wasn’t one to casually admit even a badly-thought-out premise of mine was wrong.  I was a teenager, hey?   I had always associated conservatives with icky things – just like the media raises young “progressives” to do to this day.

Dwight and I were also college classmates; we worked on our college newspaper together.  And as my journey from right to left started, and then accelerated, it was Dwight who was my sounding board, my mental test lab for all these new ideas.

I’ve credited a number of people with helping push me down the road as I wandered away from liberalism and, gradually, became a conservative; my first radio boss, Bob Richardson; my college English prof, Dr. Blake, who acquainted me with Solzhenitzyn and Dostoevskii and O’Rourke and Paul Johnson and the other great minds that led me to where I am.

But Dwight?  He was the first peer of mine, the first guy in my age group, who ever seriously challenged me.

I last saw Dwight in 1993.  We met for a couple of beers when I was in Portland, Oregon on business.  I was recently married, with two brand-new kids; he was a systems analyst at Nike.  We talked techology, and family, and caught up on classmates since the 10 year reunion.  He never came to the 20 or 25 year reunions, for whatever reason.  I’d hoped he’d make this last one; I’d hoped to let him know some of the stuff I’m writing in this post.

Anyway – rest in peace, Dwight Rexin.

You Think You Have Problems?

In North Dakota, at least in my lifetime, all flooding west of the Red River is compared to the Great Flood of 1969.  That year, pretty much every major town in the state – Fargo, Grand Forks, Jamestown, Minot, Bismarck – was inundated with runoff from record snow and rain falls.  It was the standard by which all subsequent floods – 1981, 1997, and the past couple of years along the Red, Missouri and James – have been measured.

And none of those floods, not even 1969, holds a candle to what’s projected for Minot – where my mother, incidentally, lives, although thankfully on very high ground – and other communities along the Souris River in coming weeks.

The highest flows ever recorded on the Souris are approaching a city whose defenses are destined to be over run. Can the city hold?

Dikes currently in place, recently improved greatly to combat high flows, are now expected to disappear under the traveling torrent. The amount of water flowing with a vengeance down the Souris River Valley is forecast to inundate Minot to a level seven to eight feet higher than the catastrophic and benchmark flood of 1969.

Picture a flood eight feet higher than the highest flooding ever recorded in your riverfront town.  Eight feet.

Saddened with that horrific knowledge, officials announced during a late afternoon press conference Monday that very little can be done to stop the powerful onslaught. Massive secondary dikes that were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to save much of the town from the previous high on the Souris this year fall far short of defending against the impending and rapid rise of the Souris.

My mom’s house is already crowded with refugees from the earlier flooding.  It’s going to get worse:

Mandatory evacuations were ordered Monday for all evacuation zones within Minot. Mayor Curt Zimbelman said all affected residents and businesses must vacate those areas no later than 10 p.m. Wednesday. Within minutes of the announcement residents once again began the laborious and hastened work of moving out of their homes for the second time this year.

“It’s a sad day in Minot,” Zimbelman said at the end of a press conference Monday.

Although Minot was always Jamestown’s hereditary sports rival – cake-eating bastards that they were –  my prayers do go out to them.  This sounds just awful, with water flows triple that of this spring’s already-bad floods:

“It’s pretty easy to get to 23,000 cfs, which is bearing down on Sherwood as we speak,” said Alan Schlag, Monday. Schlag is a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Bismarck.

For comparison purposes, the previous peak flow at Sherwood this year, one which caused great concern at all points downstream, was a mere 8,860 cfs.

“Basically, Canada is pouring the coals to releases from dams. Rafferty is wide open, Alameda upped to 1,800 Monday and Boundary was at about 5,000 cfs,” said Schlag.

How bad is it?  Bad enough to get a roomful of North Dakotans – classic Scandinavian and German passive-aggressives (I can say that, I’m one of ‘em) who let loose in full pent-up fury that’d shame a roomful of big-haired Long-Island Italans when dealing with government at any level – to sit down in a daze:

The crowd at Monday’s City Hall press conference sat in stunned silence, followed by a few brief murmurs, when it was revealed that releases into the Souris from Lake Darling Dam would be ramped up to “16 or 17,000 cfs by Thursday.” Minot’s existing dike system laborously protects against 10,000 cfs. The previous high release for Lake Darling prior to this flood event was less than 5,000 cfs. Numbers all along the Souris are similarly stunning, shocking and, ultimately, saddening.

I’d been planning on going there this summer.  Sounds like I’d best bring boots and a shovel.

When Out And About

If you are down and about the downtown Minneapolis gallery scene anytime soon, stop by Circa Gallery (210 North 1st Street) and see the current exhibition, by Barbara Gilhooly.

I was at the opening last Saturday.  So was “Briana”, whom I do not know, but who brought a much better camera than I did, and got a great series of photos of the whole exhibition.

Barb is, by the way, a high school classmate of mine.  And she’s been making a living as an artist pretty much the whole time.  Check it out.

And congrats, Barb!

Winter Is Springing

Via the NWS, there’s a storm brewing over God’s Country:

COLDER AIR MOVING SOUTHEAST FROM SASKATCHEWAN WILL RESULT IN RAIN CHANGING OVER TO ALL SNOW OVER WESTERN NORTH DAKOTA THIS MORNING AND THEN OVER NORTH CENTRAL NORTH DAKOTA BY AFTERNOON. THE COLDER AIR WILL REACH CENTRAL AND SOUTHERN NORTH DAKOTA BY THIS EVENING.

THE PRECIPITATION WILL BE IN THE FORM OF ALL SNOW TONIGHT THROUGH WEDNESDAY ACROSS ALL OF WESTERN AND CENTRAL NORTH DAKOTA.

THE COMBINATION OF THE VERY STRONG WINDS COINCIDING WITH PERSISTENT FALLING SNOW WILL RESULT IN VERY LOW VISIBILITIES.

THUS A BLIZZARD WARNING HAS BEEN ISSUED FOR ALL OF WESTERN AND CENTRAL NORTH DAKOTA WITH THE EXCEPTION OF SOUTHWEST NORTH DAKOTA.

ANTICIPATED SNOWFALL AMOUNTS WILL BE HIGHER FOR THOSE AREAS MAINLY NORTH AND EAST OF THE MISSOURI RIVER. BY WEDNESDAYAFTERNOON…THE HIGHEST SNOWFALL AMOUNTS WILL RESIDE OVER FAR NORTH CENTRAL NORTH DAKOTA ACROSS THE TURTLE MOUNTAINS WHERE 10 INCHES OR MORE OF SNOW IS POSSIBLE. FROM MINOT TO HARVEY AND INTO CARRINGTON EXPECT 4 TO 8 INCHES OF SNOW. 2 TO 4 INCHES OF SNOW IS POSSIBLE ALONG A LINE FROM WILLISTON TO GARRISON…BISMARCK TO JAMESTOWN AND SOUTH TO WISHEK TO ELLENDALE. 1 TO 3 INCHES OF SNOW IS LIKELY WEST OF THE MISSOURI RIVER.

Hopefully it stalls over the Red River and doesn’t arrive in Minnesota ’til Tuesday.

Another Wet Spring

Meanwhile back in my hometown of Jamestown, ND, they’re getting ready for more flooding, as the two reservoirs north of town fill to records.

Now, Jamestown is built at the confluence of the James River – the world’s longest non-commercially-navigable river – and Pipestem Creek.  Both rivers drain a huge basin in central North Dakota (and South Dakota as well) into the Missouri River.  Given their huge watershed, both rivers are fairly sensitive to fluctuations in water supply; in the eighties, during a very dry period, the James barely flowed.  On other other hand, before the James was dammed up in the ’50s, a wet season could leave Jamestown half-submerged. (The Pipestem also flooded, in 1969, leading to another dam in the seventies).  So in theory, Jamestown should be flood-proof – unless it’s been a very wet winter and both reservoirs are nearly full.

Suffice to say it’s been a very wet winter:

Jamestown and Stutsman County should prepare for the same combined releases as they did during the 2009 floods, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, which changed its forecast for the James River and Pipestem Creek Friday.

The corps’ had originally estimated releases of 1,800 cubic feet per second. The new forecast recommends building emergency levees to handle combined releases of 3,200 cfs from Jamestown and Pipestem reser-voirs — the same level the two dams released at the peaks of the 2009 flood.

1,800 to 3,200 cubic feet per second.  Bear in mind the usual combined release from both dams is about 30 cfs.

According to the corps, the 0.5 to 1.5 inches of precipitation received in the James River Basin this week changed the situation and now reservoir pool levels could exceed 1997 levels, according to the “most likely” forecasts. The upper range of forecasts indicate reservoir pool levels could reach the same levels as in 2009, said Col. Robert J. Ruch, Omaha district commander for the corps.

It’s going to be another flood-prone year throughout the upper Midwest.

Attention, Jamestown High School Class of ’81 People

This is a closed-circuit message for the readers of this site who graduated from Jamestown (ND) High School in 1981.  The rest of you can rejoin this blog with the next post.  Thanks.

’81 people – the artist formerly known as Ruth Newman is starting work on the 30 year reunion.

If you’re a classmate, there’s a Facebook group, and/or an email address if you’d prefer.  I won’t post ‘em here, but send me an email at “feedbackinthedark” which is at Yahoo dot com, and I’ll get you the info.

I’m already looking forward to it!

A Note From Fargo

A high school classmate of mine who lives in the “exurbs” north of Fargo writes:

Just a note that if you’re interested in listening to local flood coverage in Fargo, below is a link.My daughter is out again sandbagging today.Many volunteers and homehowners are exhausted, many others still eager. Keep them in your thoughts and prayers.Thanks – [redacted]

Wish I could get up there.  I’m banking energy and vacation time in case Saint Paul and Newport flood again.

 

All The Jamestown News That Fits

This one blows my mind; all you Jamestown natives who read the blog will get it.

On Tuesday, the city’s airport was closed due to flooding:

The airport is on the high ground.  The airport remains closed to fixed-wing planes today.

This, just in time for the blizzard, as the flooding in the lowlands of the James Valley (which I wrote about yesterday) kicks off.

And it is kicking off in earnest; apparently the “worst case” forecasts show both the Jametown and Pipestem dams rising to within a foot of their emergency spillways, even as the Army Corps of Engineers increases outflows from the dams to compensate for the recent rain and massive melt-off.  Over that level, and the dams’ll release directly into the rivers without any regulation, pushing the normally-sluggish (and already-swollen) James way over its normally-ample banks.  The Corps of Engineers is working on building temporary dikes, and  sandbagging is reportedly underway.

(Via It’s Good To Be In N.D. the only Jamestown-centered blog I can find)

The Spring Of ’66

A few weeks ago, I noted the 43rd anniversary of the greatest blizzard of my lifetime, the Great North Dakota Blizzard of ’66. 

Of course, all that snow had to go somewhere.

The Army Corps of Engineers had put up a dam on the James River – the longest un-navigable river in the world – in the fifties, which put a stop to the frequent floods that had plagued the city when that shallow, muddy river had gotten even the faintest surge of water.  But Pipestem Creek – which joins the James in Klaus Park, on the west side of Jamestown, under the Fort Seward bluffs, a place that was the city’s original reason to exist since its days as an Arikara camp since time immemorial – had no dam at the time.  And so the spring runoff pushed the Pipestem – and the James, south of the confluence – over their banks.

I was three at the time.  Dad spent a couple of nights sandbagging.  I remember worried conversations about the sandbag line protecting downtown (also our neighborhood, although our house was on higher ground) being more fragile than people would have liked.

And best of all?  I remember the National Guard putting its command post or supply dump or something across the street from our house, in the yard in front of Trinity Hospital.  Skids of sandbags, trucks full of sand, front-end loaders and, best of all, an amphibious DUKW “Duck” truck congregated there, with streams of guys coming and going at all hours. 

A few years later, the Corps finished a dam over the Pipestem.  And that was the last flood Jamestown saw.

Until now. The immense snowfall this year – more than the usually-dry state, more famous for wind than snow, has seen in a generation – is causing flooding even in Jamestown.

Of course, as a blizzard pounds the state, the flooding is everywhere.  An ice dam on the Missouri River, at its confluence with the Heart River, is  hbacking up water into Bismarck and Mandan.  The National Guard and, believe it or not, the Coast Guard tried to blow the jam open earlier today; we’ll wait to see what happens.  In the meantime, another huge ice jam north of the city threatens to let spill another deluge into Bismarck.

Of course, Fargo is frantically sandbagging against a crest that is  supposed to be higher than 1997′s epic flood; in Grand Forks, which was largely destroyed in ’97, the crest is expected to be competitive with the epic of 12 years ago.

All the while, a blizzard is thrashing the state.

There are times I miss the place.  I wish I could be there now.

Rumors of Winter’s Demise…

…are greatly exaggerated:

The North Dakota Department of Transportation announced on Tuesday afternoon that the westbound lane of Interstate 94 from Mandan to Dickinson will remain closed tonight through Wednesday morning until the road can be cleared. Blowing and drifting snow with heavy accumulation will continue to create hazardous driving conditions in the westbound lane throughout the afternoon and evening.

At this time, the eastbound lane of Interstate 94 from Dickinson to Mandan will remain open but will remain under a No Travel Advisory, unless conditions continue to deteriorate. Motorists should be alert to changing conditions.

I love the smell of freeway closures in February.

Smells like…

real winter!

Welcome Home, 817th Engineers

I wrote last year for Veteran’s Day about the history of the North Dakota National Guard from the Spanish-American War through Iraq.

There was a bit of current history I’d missed; Jamestown’s National Guard company (renamed again – it’s now the 817th Engineer Company (Sapper), specializing in minefield clearance) has done its second tour in Iraq (the first was almost four years ago, as Company B/141st Combat Engineers). 

And I’m happy to relate…:

Soldiers of the 817th Engineer Company (Sapper) are tentatively scheduled to return from their one-year tour of duty in Iraq to Ft. McCoy, Wis., from June 1 to 8.

Nobody died in action this time; on its first tour, the 141st lost four killed in action.

Anyway – welcome home, from a long-time expat!

It Was Forty Years Ago Today

My dad doesn’t remember this – but I do.

We were driving down Sixth Street Southeast in Jamestown, heading toward the tracks.

Dad was listening to the radio (tuned in to KEYJ, naturally) in our old Mercury.  It was bright and clear outside.

And the announcer led with a story about “Martin Luther King” being shot.  It’d be absurd to say I knew what was going on – but I remember being familiar with the name.  He’d been on the TV a time or two.
And it seemed pretty obvious it was an important story.   I obviously didn’t know why – I was still probably ten years away from meeting my first black person.  Jamestown North Dakota was pretty white, back then.

More people remember.

Five Ate For Owe Won

First things first. My dad, Bruce Berg, has a book coming out in the next week or so. I think it’s called “Heard It Now And Then”, and it’s an anthology of his best guest editorials from his 25 year archive of material for North Dakota Public Radio.

And I was surprised to learn that it’s actually his fifth book. Common Grounds, his first, is probably the best-known; his history of Jamestown’s old ball park touches heavily on the glory years of North Dakota amateur baseball, when the league was a stop on the Negro League circuit. In one fabled story, a team of North Dakota all-stars – half of them Negro League stars like Satchel Paige and company, the other half locals – swept the Major League All-Stars, who were passing through by train on their way to Japan for an exhibition series. It’s all in there. Anyway, he’s had others; Writer’s Block, which is a sort of combination geneology and collection of peoples’ reminiscences about the city’s history a collection of his Jamestown Sun columns, and a novel (whose name eludes me, and is self-published so it doesn’t show up on Google).

So congrats, Dad!

In news that may or may not be related, Dad’s asked me (as well as my brother and sister, among others) to write and send him things we remember about the city. I’m not sure if this is for another book project, or just for his own edification – either way is just fine.

But, appearances notwithstanding, I don’t have a lot of time for writing stuff; my “me” time is usually from 5:00 to 6:15AM every morning.

So in the interest of simplifying my life and doing the job, I’m going to add them into the blog, here. They’ll be posted under the category “Five Ate For Owe Won”. If you’re not into Mitch Berg’s self-indulgent reminiscences (or if you’re just a joyless harpy), just scroll on down.

I do, however, invite Jamestown people (you know who you are) to leave comments, elaborations, or what-have-you. (I will most likely be much more ruthless than normal about excising off-topic or dumb comments).

So there you go!