As the holidays and new year approach, I start thinking about how things have changed since my youth and some of the fun things that have occurred between now and then.
My youth was spent in Grand Forks until Dad was appointed to the federal bench at the end of my sophomore year at St. James Academy. My earliest unusual recollection was when the milk was delivered by horse-drawn wagon. The milkman would pull up in front and rattle the glass bottles so you’d know he was near. In the winter, we used to hook the back end and slide behind for a half block or so. We learned the hard way that fuel leaking from the horses’ tank was not fun to slide through … enough said about that.
Shortly after that, the sleek new round-faced milk trucks appeared; it wasn’t long until the horses were phased out. I loved those big, friendly horses a lot more than the trucks, but such is progress.
We lived on Seward Avenue. Right behind our home were Tainters Warehouse and Glendenning Dray Service. On the other side of the trucking company were the railroad tracks.
In those days, everything was drawn by some of the biggest steam locomotives that one could ever see, from then to this very day. The passenger trains had the sleek-looking monsters, and the freight trains had the biggest of them all. Belching fire and smoke and with steam whistles that would shake your butt out of a chair, they went behind our home on a regular basis.
One day, Dad came home and told me I should get my neighborhood gang over to the tracks because the first diesel locomotive was about to be put in service and was making its maiden run.
We went over to the tracks and put our heads on the rail ― that’s how you could tell the train was coming. It was spooky. We knew it was coming from the racket on the rails themselves, but the noise you expected to hear was nonexistent. Unlike the steam mammoths they were replacing, the diesels were sleek, boxy and really quiet. That was an experience, I can tell you.
Dad came home one day and talked to Mom about taking the maiden flight of a new Northwest Airlines passenger airliner. Mom, however, wanted no part of doing anything in the air, so Dad said he’d take me. I jumped out of my skin! For the life of me, I don’t remember where the rest of my siblings were, so I was the lucky one.
Well, when we got to the airport, they told Dad children could not go on this short flight. So there was little Tommy, tears pouring out of my eyes. I had to sit with some other similarly situated children while our parents were airborne. It was only a wait of 45 minutes or so, but it sure seemed longer than that.
My brother Tim had (I think) a ’48 Ford or Mercury two-door. He came home one day with Bambi strapped to his hood. My neighborhood friends and I had never seen a dead deer, and we decided on the spot my brother would pay for this. The three of us decided we were going to get pantry knives and slash his tires. We each went our separate ways and regrouped 10 minutes later. To a man (or woman), our mothers would have none of it. Each of them said, “No way — no knives.” It was probably for the best, as I look back; if we had done that, I’d still have my brother’s foot marks on my butt.
One of the dads ― it sure as hell wasn’t mine ― told his son that a little salt in the gas tank would fire up the Merck. Good thing we ignored that advice, too, or both my brother and Dad would have made me pay dearly.
If they happened today, we would have been arrested for our activities back then. We were expert garden raiders and crab apple thieves. When the sun went down, we’d slither on our bellies like snakes through the area gardens, eating as we went. Then we’d climb those apple trees. Many times, we brought bags and feasted. The neighbors pretended they didn’t care (but I think they did).
We always took a shortcut on our garden raids. One of the fellows who didn’t like us cutting through his yard decided to mount an attack on us as we ran through the hedges for the length of the whole block. He strung a rope as big as an adult’s arm through his hedge and, being the good guy he was, set it at ankle height … if he’d done so at neck or belly height, I wouldn’t be writing this column here and now.
Trying not to be too modest now, I was the fastest kid in the neighborhood and also led the charges. When I hit that damned rope, I fell straight down … not forward, down. My three friends right on my tail did the same thing. There were the four of us on our faces when old Mr. Grinch came out. He made sure we weren’t hurt and suggested we stop cutting through his yard. Point made. We didn’t do that again.
In those days, once the street cars were replaced by shiny new buses, we’d hook rides on their bumpers around the Riverside Park area. The bus made a big U-turn around the park, so we’d get on one corner. Usually we’d only go a block. But if we decided to go for the record that day, we’d go all the way around the circle and slide off when the U had been completed, leaving us just one block from home. Sometimes, you’d get too far; that made it a long walk back.
Stores that sold overshoes made big bucks off of us. It was fun ’til Mom discovered why and how I was wearing out so many shoes. Once she learned, that too stopped.
I met a few dignitaries through my dad. One day, he and Sen. Bill Langer (the man who’d single-highhandedly see to Dad’s appointment as judge) were sitting on the porch swing. I remarked to my Mom that there must be something wrong with him because he was chewing on a cigar still in the wrapper. Mom just said, “That’s Bill Langer for you.”
My last two memories concern Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and Robert F. Kennedy.
Justice Blackmun was the author of Roe v. Wade decision. In person, he was one of the nicest yet most dignified men I have ever met. His wife, Dottie, had a sense of humor that had me laughing days after they left Fargo. When Dad asked me to drive the justice and his wife back to the airport, I jumped at the chance. I tickled Dottie Blackmun’s funny bone all the way to the airport, while the justice and the judge talked away. Thank God, it was way back when, because otherwise what my dad had me do next would have left me in jail for life.
We approached the gates at Hector Field. The gate the gas trucks used was open, with no one there. The plane was in sight. Dad told me, “Drive us right out to the plane.”
I turned to him and asked if he was serious. He said, “Yes,” so I drove in. By the time I reached the plane, some very angry attendants and one police officer were waiting ― I figured my life of crime had just started. Damned if once they recognized Dad (but not the Justice of the United States Supreme Court), they let the boarding go on and escorted my behind back behind the fence.
For those who didn’t care for Justice Blackmun’s decision on Roe v. Wade, I have to tell you that God must have liked him … because as we drove to the airport, we saw one of those tornadoes that don’t reach the ground wiggling around in our rear-view mirror. I told him that clearly validated his decision. His wife’s tickle bone kicked in for the rest of the drive.
My last recollection for today involved RFK. When he came to Fargo, I volunteered to get vehicles for the motor pool. I could only do this because I had met every car dealer in town by then; Dad liked to look at new cars. I obtained the cars; then two friends and I chose the Lincoln convertible, because that’s what Sen. Kennedy wanted. A lot of old political biddies were irritated by my presence in that car, and all I could do was laugh at them.
Now the excitement began. We saw the plane in the distance and watched as it touched down on the end of the runway. Excited as hell, I hit the ignition and … nothing. Tried again ― nothing. Left the car, raced to the terminal, grabbed a phone … and in five minutes or less, John Berkey had his chief man, Howard Reinhardt, out there. He popped the hood, did something, and it started.
When the first car didn’t start, three others pulled ahead, picked up the senator and were on the way out. That left three or four cars still behind us. We thought, “What the hell.” My friend, Lee Olson, a big man, got in the back, and Gary Zespy got in the front. We pulled into the car line. All the way to the Fargo Civic Center, Lee sat in the back seat waving like a celebrity, as did Gary from the front.
To this day, Fargo has never witnessed another street crowd like the one we drove through. What was really funny was that everyone was waving back at Lee. Once in a while you’d hear, “Who was that?” The reply was, “Beats the hell out of me, but he must be someone important.”
Why these thoughts came up at this time is for you and me both to ponder! Have a very happy holiday and a prosperous and healthy new year.