I’m going to take a little time out today from politics and saving the Bad Lands to get a little personal. A good thing has happened for me this summer, a reunion with an old pal, and I’m feeling pretty happy about it. So I’ll tell you the story.
Those of you who know me know that my heart slides down my sleeve from time to time, and most of you still like me. This is a story with a happy ending, so far, and it’s one I want to share because when you get to my age, about three- quarters of a century, there’s much more to look back on than there is to look forward to.
The story starts in the early-mid 1960s, nearly 60 years ago. I grew up in the small town of Hettinger, nearly astride the South Dakota border in southwest North Dakota. My best friend in high school was a fellow named Brad Carroll. Officially, Bradley, but I never heard anyone call him that, except maybe his mother when she was really mad.
Our families were neighbors, on opposite ends of the block. Our families were large. I was the oldest of seven, and Brad was, I think, third of 10. As high schoolers, we were hard workers because in families our size we pretty much needed to fend for ourselves. We worked after school and on weekends in the school year and five or six days a week in the summer.
It wasn’t unusual that in the summer I would help Dean Erlandson’s crew build Eaton steel grain bins Monday through Friday and haul bales of hay for nickel apiece on Saturday, often even in the evenings after building the grain bins all day. Brad had similar jobs. There wasn’t much for either of us to do with our spare time. Neither of us was an athlete, so we didn’t travel with the Junior Legion baseball team all summer.
So we socked away spending money for college and spent quite a bit of money on our cars. Man, did we have cars. Brad had a 1950 Cadillac, a big black beast about 27 feet long, and shiny. Mine was a 1949 Plymouth, about 3 feet shorter, and just as black. You could usually find us cruising Main on summer nights and school year Saturday nights.
Gas was cheap — I remember at times, it was less than 30 cents a gallon. It was not unusual to pull into Clark’s Texaco and tell Paul Roehl, when he came to the window, to put in a dollar’s worth. That would get us by until the next Saturday.
High school graduation came in the spring of 1965, and we worked hard all summer and saved our paychecks, and in September, Brad and I and another friend, Len Bortke, headed off to the big city of Dickinson to be college students. The three of us rented a room above a widow’s residence, which I think was $25 a month each, and began our college careers.
We got educated in fits and starts, in and out of classes and jobs for a couple of years, and at the end of the fall quarter in 1967, I decided to take a quarter off from school and put some money in the bank to finish pursuing my English degree.
The quarter ended the day before Thanksgiving. I already had a job as Sports Editor of The Dickinson Press while I was attending classes, so I went happily off to work each day (the paper published six days a week, dark on Monday) keeping the residents of southwest North Dakota up to date on their favorite sports teams.
There was a war raging half a world away, of course, and my college draft deferment kept me out of that, but when I dropped out of school that fall, it was the responsibility of the college to notify the Selective Service System that I was no longer a student. It didn’t take the Adams County Draft Board long to find me. Each county had a quota it had to fill, and when an eligible young body came to their attention, it didn’t take them long to act.
My letter arrived on Dec. 24, 1967, with the dreaded words across the top: “Greetings from the President of the United States.” Merry Christmas, Jim.
Well, it said to report to an office in Fargo in January for induction into the U.S. Army. Welcome aboard, Soldier.
I didn’t go. I can’t remember my thought process anymore, but I knew I was not going to spend the next couple of years in the jungles of southeast Asia, so I just ignored it and waited to see what would happen.
What happened is that the sheriff of Adams County, Don Hewson, showed up at my desk at the Dickinson Press one winter afternoon and said, “Jim, we’ve got a problem.”
Ignoring a draft notice is just not something you can do. He said he understood I did not want to be a soldier in Vietnam. He said, “You’re from a Navy family. I think you have two choices. You can join the Navy or you can go to Canada. If you go to Canada, you can never come back. If you join the Navy, you can come back when you’re done.”
I mumbled that I suppose I’d better join the Navy. He said, “Come with me right now.”
We got into his sheriff’s car and drove to what is now the T-Rex Mall in north Dickinson, where there was a small recruiting office tucked away in a corner. He waited with me, to make sure I didn’t back out. I joined the Navy. It didn’t take long. I signed up on a “90-Day Delay” program. I was told to report to a clinic in Fargo on May 8, 1968, where I would take a physical and then get on a train to Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago.
And that was that. May 8, 1968, my Navy hitch began.
Brad, meanwhile, was facing the same fate. He joined the Navy, too, following his two older brothers, just a few months later, before the draft board got him. Our paths didn’t cross much after that. Once, in the spring of 1969, I think, we both ended up at home on leave to see our families, and they convinced us to have our picture taken together.
Brad maybe married his hometown sweetheart, Harriet, on one of those trips home, and she followed him around the country, maintaining a home “on the beach” while he was at sea. After that, we only saw each other occasionally, at class reunions and chance meetings when we were home visiting family for holidays. We were both discharged in 1972 at the end of our four-year hitches, I chose to spend most of my life in North Dakota, while he and Harriet settled first in Montana, then Wyoming.
Then along came Facebook. We both joined up a few years ago and connected online from time to time. And on March 9, 2022, I received a Facebook message that read, “Jim, Harriet and I have moved to Bismarck. We bought a condo and moved in last Thursday. We decided it was time to be closer to family and Bismarck will be a good fit for us. Would like to visit, maybe over coffee soon. Let me know. We would enjoy seeing you and meeting Lillian. Brad.”
I replied, “No shit! That’s great! Let’s have lunch soon. Lillian’s gone right now, but when she gets home, I’ll check her schedule and get back to you. Welcome home!”
The rest is history. Recent history. We’ve had coffee, and lunch, and supper, and beer, and great times reliving the old days, even though they were 50 years ago.
We laughed the other night over an incident on one of our weekends at home during our college years. We’d heard there was going to be a party Saturday night, so on Friday night, we drove to Lemmon, across the border in South Dakota, to get some “supplies.” At the time, the legal drinking age in South Dakota was 18, and we were 18. After a couple ofbeers at the famous Kokomo Inn, we picked up “a 36” of Old Milwaukee and headed back to Hettinger.
As we came into town, we were driving a little too fast, and Hettinger Police Chief Don Hewson (he was elected sheriff a couple of years later) was sitting in the alley by the post office with his radar on. Bam! He pulled us over, came walking up to the car, spotted the beer in the back seat, confiscated it (you had to be 21 to possess beer in North Dakota — we were 18), and took us to City Hall where he called one of our parents — we think it was Brad’s — to come and get us.
I’m guessing we got a stern talking to, although we weren’t in a lot of trouble just for having a couple of beers, and that was that. No beer for the party Saturday night.
But here’s the end of the story. Back to college, and a few weeks later, my dad called and said he had to drive to Fargo to take Hettinger’s “Handicapped Citizen of the Year” there for a recognition banquet, a program sponsored by the American Legion. It was going to be on a Saturday, and he wondered if I would like to ride along and help drive. I said, “Sure.”
At the appointed time, he pulled up at my Dickinson apartment in his big grey Pontiac station wagon, and who else do you suppose was riding along in the front seat? Don Hewson, a fellow Legionnaire. I hopped in the back seat with the Handicapped Citizen of the Year, and we took off down U.S. Highway 10. Interstate 94 was still under construction at the time, so we were alternately on two-lane and four-lane roads on that trip.
We hadn’t gone far when my dad said, “I’m thirsty. What do you say, Hewson, should we have a beer?” Hewson said that would be all right, so my dad said, “Jim, reach back over the seat into the cooler and get us a beer.”
I complied, grabbing three cans of Old Milwaukee, handing two up to the front seat and one to my fellow passenger in the back. And then Hewson said, “Better grab one for yourself, too.”
I hesitated. And then he said “Go ahead. You paid for them.”
Brad and I remembered that story on a warm summer night a couple of weeks ago as we sat on our patio and ate hamburgers and drank Old Milwaukee. And we laughed at a lot of other stories. And we’ll keep laughing, I hope, for a long time now that we’re back together. I hope Lillian and Harriet are patient ladies. We’re celebrating 50 years this summer since we were both discharged from the Navy in 1972, and we’re still here. I think the next few years are going to be fun.