(“The Old Timers” first appeared in River Teeth)
On August 7, 2001, I stepped into the 50th Anniversary celebration of the discovery of oil in Williston Basin, Williston, North Dakota. I knew no one. My family had not been back to the Williston Basin since the December night in 1960 when my father had run his car into a train—as squarely-hit as any the police had ever seen—and died.
When I saw the anniversary announcement on the Internet, I bought a train ticket to Williston. I had to ride the train, it was the way my mother had come and gone from Mississippi to North Dakota and later, with her two little girls, to Denver. So in the early Memphis dawn, I stood on the train platform, close to the tracks, awaiting the City of New Orleans that would take me to Chicago. The train finally showed itself, far down the track, its front light white and piercing. Then the whistle cried—loud. The snub-nosed engine—tall and heavy, its silver body blocking all view—screamed on the tracks. As the cars clattered into the station, slowing, I thought, you want me to get on that motherfucker?
Hours later, when the sun had risen high in the sky, I gazed out the window, and in the flattened train flying beside the tracks, I saw the truth of it: we carry our own shadow with us.
At the Airport International Inn in Williston, I paid my money and received my ticket to the headliner banquet. A table in the lobby displayed hand-made replicas of oil derricks. “For Sale” tags lay flat beside the wooden derricks. On another table were chunky, metal drill bits, dressed up with black spray paint and tied in gold ribbon.
“It was a big deal,” my mother says of North Dakota’s oil boom, but I saw a tri-fold display board and, thumb-tacked to it, several newspaper articles and a Xerox of the boom’s first oil lease. In the hall that led to the banquet room hung portraits of Miss North Dakota’s—the Airport International Inn was pageant headquarters. The portraits were cheap, almost Polaroid quality. Maybe the oil boom was a big deal—for North Dakota. For a Mississippi girl in North Dakota.
Inside the banquet hall, lines of long tables angled in front of the crepe-skirted stage. A woman played a piano that had been rolled to the side of the stage. I’d seen the woman earlier when I was sitting in the lobby. “Everyone in their jewels,” she’d said, talking about what to expect from the banquet crowd.
What I saw in the crowd were the old timers, the banquet honorees. Clumped together in groups of two’s, then fours, then sixes, most of them were dressed in saggy-bottomed jeans and plain, unadorned cowboy boots. The cowboy poet, who was to be our entertainment, wandered through the crowd in new jeans, carrying a guitar. Around him, the white-haired old timers gently milled and eddied, catching up, after fifty years. I watched, not with the eyes of the forty-three year old woman I was, but with the eyes of the three-year-old daughter I’d been when my father died—the age, a psychiatrist would later tell me, when a girl child is most attached. There, in the Airport Inn in North Dakota, I spied on the old timers who might’ve known my dad.
It’s a long way from Mississippi to North Dakota. First, you travel to Memphis where you board the train, then twenty-seven hours, twenty-two minutes to North Dakota. To make the trip, you must hurtle between towns, survive the lurching of the cars, cast away your familiar loves. For when you’re south of Chicago, the skinny pine trees, the stinkweeds growing beside the tracks—it looks like Mississippi. But when it’s time for the Empire Builder—the train that will carry you across the top of the United States then deposit you in North Dakota—everyone who boards is white. Soon the churches take on a look of Poland. Moravian stars decorate houses, the silver-backed leaves on unknown trees spin like fish scales in the wind.
Inside the train, a man whistles through his teeth, the conductor’s walkie-talkie squawks, a woman laughs, low, with sex on her mind. Outside, you see not barefooted boys with trailing hound dogs, but Amish girls in white caps. Wisconsin passes, plain as dough. A town boasts that it’s the center of North America—yeah, right: if you include the Artic Circle. The next time the Mississippi River appears, it’s so narrow you can hold your breath across its width.
You buy a snack, rattle the bag empty. Lost on the northern boundaries of the country, so far from your southern home, you watch the sun go down. The next morning, you will wake to swirls of crops, fields of bowing sunflowers, miles and miles of unfenced plains. North Dakota. But, now, the sun sets. Its rays stab into the clouds, burn a hole like a match held to film. The meltings drip, smear the train’s window with butter.
I stood against the banquet room wall, sipping a gin and tonic. A man—short and round, his body shaped just like his baldhead—smiled into the crowd. The old timers and their wives walked up to the man, stopping a few inches short so that they had to bend forward, like royalty, to shake the man’s hand. The man was holding a hard hat. He eased the hard hat onto the head of a dummy that was set up as part of the anniversary decorations. He pointed at the dummy wearing his hat, and everyone laughed.
A woman—blonde, probably late forties—came up to me and started talking. She was the Public Service Commissioner of North Dakota, her agency regulated the oil industry “just enough to get invited to these things.” She was happy, smiling, and didn’t even leave when she found out I couldn’t vote.
“Just go up to one of these men and tell him who your father was,” she suggested. “They’ll tell you what they remember.” She must have seen a look on my face because she added, “Unless you’re too tired.” And then she excused herself, leaving me with the pressure to talk to someone. After all, it was why I’d come, wasn’t it?
The Commissioner sent a man from the Amerada Hess Oil Company over my way, a man named Ray Minnick, I think.
“I’m from a long way off, too,” he said.
Like almost everyone else in the room, Mr. Minnick was “older,” well into his seventies. He’d been Amerada’s man on the scene in the early days of the oil boom. Back in 1951, Amerada had hit the discovery well in the Williston Basin and had remained, out of all the oil companies that poured into the state, the fair-haired prince.
I’d known Amerada ever since Mother had explained our finances to us in the fifth grade. We’d been seated on the side porch of our house on Arlington Street. Mother was doling out allowances and lunch money into oversized coffee cans. The plan was for us to be in charge of our own lunch money—that way Mother couldn’t forget it. Even little Bettie, first-grader, had a coffee can, but inside her’s was mostly nickels. I peered into the bottom of my can, resenting that the dimes were to go to lunch money, resenting that it was our responsibility to see that it happened.
“If you don’t work, how do we have money?” I asked.
“Well, we get a check from the government for your father being killed,” Mother said. “And then there’s Amerada Hess.”
It seemed that each of us—Daddy Joe’s wife and three heirs—got a monthly check from Amerada for royalty payments. As an oil broker, Daddy Joe had bought the landowners’ mineral rights and sold them to the oil companies. Frequently, he retained an interest in the rights before he sold them. A well drilled by Amerada in the Fryburg-Heath formation hit, and we’d been getting royalty checks ever since.
I already knew about the trust money that my grandfather had left us (the money that would make me grow up thinking everyone had money in the bank, they just couldn’t get to it.) I hadn’t known about Amerada, something from my father. As the dimes and nickels drained into the coffee cans, I mulled the fact that I, too, owned a little bit of what I’d always thought belonged only to Mother and Daddy Joe—Amerada and oil wells and snow and North Dakota: The Time Out West.
The Amerada man Ray Minnick asked me Daddy Joe’s name. I said, “Joe Henry Morris?” and gave a shrug, partly because I didn’t know if Daddy Joe went by Joe or Joe Henry. And partly to get Mr. Minnick off the hook in case he remembered either one.
Mr. Minnick nodded and stopped listening in the middle of my story about our Amerada well that was still paying, making me think that he did remember Daddy Joe, remembered the way he’d died, remembered who he’d died with, knew I counted for nothing.
A group of men and women came up and spoke to Mr. Minnick, slow, deferential. One of them thought I was Becky. From the way the man smiled at me, I could tell that Becky was Mr. Minnick’s daughter.
“No, I’m just talking to her,” Mr. Minnick said, and the crowd gradually moved away. Because I wasn’t Mr. Minnick’s daughter, Becky. I wasn’t anybody’s daughter.
I could’ve been Becky. Plain-spoken curly-haired Becky – I met her in the lobby of the hotel the next morning. If I’d been Becky, I, too, could’ve picked up the oil lease from the display table and read sense into it, not because I was a lawyer, but because my dad was an oilman. And if I was unsure about the oil and the gas in the well together, I could’ve turned to my dad and asked, “Dad? Is the gas in the oil? The gas is in the oil, right?”
I could’ve been Becky living at the Tioga oil field until I was twelve, then bringing my old man back to the fiftieth reunion because he wanted to come. I could’ve been a child of “the oil patch,” the daughter of a man who wore a real cowboy hat and real cowboy boots and walked with real cowboy authority.
But if I were to become Becky, I would have to give up Mississippi. Not just the fun Mississippi of bent grass in the summertime and heat shimmering mirages off the asphalt. Not just the pleasure of Cokes drowned in ice and little girls running in swimsuits through sprinklers in the front yard. Not just that Mississippi, but the other one, too. The Mississippi of the Freedom Riders, almost children themselves, whose blood would fly for trying to ride the bus, trying to use the “white” washroom at the bus station. The Mississippi that admitted James Meredith to its University only after 23,000 troops trained their guns on the state and forced the admission. The Mississippi who shot Medgar Evers in the back while his wife and children waited for his arrival, safe, at home.
And without that Mississippi—the good one, the bad one—I might never have learned to love something or someone in spite of themselves. Without Mississippi, I might not have cared about the bravery of James Meredith, the bull-headed commitment of Medgar Evers. Without Mississippi, I might not have known honor, respect, and empathy for the flawed. I might not have known how to love my dad.
I chose not to be Becky.
I chose Mississippi.
I choose to walk the difficult maze that is love.
Tired with non-mingling, I retreated to the tables. I chose a seat across from a woman with blunt, gray hair and a severe, hatchet face. She was from Bismarck. The capital of North Dakota, she told me, as if I were an outsider and, as an outsider, I didn’t know a goddamn thing about her state.
Our table began to fill up. The round man who’d been playing with the hats joined us. A petite, sweet-faced woman sat next to me. Her husband, she told me, was one of the old timers. They’d arrived in North Dakota in the early sixties from Texas. Her husband was a tester. “They put their tools in the well and say if it’s oil or not,” she said. The round man was the tester for the Clarence Iverson, the discovery well that started the Basin’s oil boom.
“So, he’s the one who told everyone it was oil?”
“Un, huh. He’s eighty-nine years old.” She smiled at the man. “Everyone loves Tude.”
I looked at the smiling man. His pronouncement would set off what the Wall Street Journal called “one of the greatest ‘leasing plays’ of modern times.” My father had been one of those leasing agents, buying and selling mineral rights. In all of the photos of that time, Daddy Joe is laughing, his arm usually thrown around a buddy’s shoulders. Daddy Joe was always the best-looking of the bunch, aware of the camera and laughing at the fun he was having in this strange new place. Later, the laughter in the pictures would dim, and then his face would disappear altogether.
As the waitress passed the food down the tables like the collection plate at church, my companion explained to me the difference between our table centerpiece (a tall, hatch-marked derrick—for drilling) and the black, grasshopper wells I had seen from the train window (for pumping, she told me.) Then she fell into a brown study of her own, gazing at a white-haired lady seated one table over. The woman was wearing a pearl choker and a gold medallion necklace—one of the “ladies in their jewels,” I guessed. The woman, my companion said, owned a children’s dress shop.
“I remember one day after Christmas, because I had some Christmas money, I went to the woman’s shop. It was seventy-five below outside.” She laughed. “But she had some cute clothes,” she said, staring at the woman. When the woman lifted her fork, a gold charm bracelet dangled from her wrist.
While we hacked our way though the fillet, the cowboy poet in new jeans confessed he was more of a picker/grinner than a cowboy, and then he sang about outhouses, red meat, horses. The people at the tables clapped. The topics, and the lyrics, were coarser than what you’d hear in the South, and delivered with a kind of aware belligerence.
One of the few things I’d always known about The Time Out West: my mother liked these people. She’d traveled all over North Dakota at the beginning, then lived in Dickinson for three years before moving to Colorado. She had, she said, a lot of “native” friends. Many of them were of Scandinavian descent, and they called the University of Mississippi “Ole’ Miss.” Of all the places she’d lived during that time, Mother said Dickinson was her favorite, because that’s where her friends were. But she’d been living in Denver—away from her family, away from her new friends—when Daddy Joe died . . . died so suddenly, died so shockingly.
A young brunette handed me a cup of strawberry ice cream and a sugar wafer. Two women wearing tiaras took the stage. One of the women turned out to be the current Miss North Dakota. She sang a song for the old timers, something about a hero. She was pretty, with long blonde hair, but her hem was draggy.
“She’s from Minnesota,” my companion told me. “Just going to school in North Dakota. Some people don’t like that.”
The old timers didn’t seem to mind, not even flinching when she got stranded on the high notes.
Me, I really didn’t need to see a beauty queen. Not when I was in North Dakota searching for my dead father. Not when the woman who’d been in the car with him that night, the woman killed right along beside him, had been a former beauty queen herself.
The woman in the car. It was all anyone could see. A young, attractive woman, a former model and beauty queen. Daddy Joe on his way out of town late at night, and he died with another woman in the car. What was she doing there in the car with him? At night? When he was on his way out of town? “Your father and his . . .” the woman bureaucrat in Vital Records said before she caught herself, knowing no more than this: the man had died with her in the car.
In her death, she—the woman in the car—became more important than he. Because the people who loved him so—everyone except my mother—were more afraid of her than they were in love with him. More worried about scandal, than caring about the loss of life. “What did the coroner tell you?” my grandparents asked my mother, worried not about Joe’s death—of course, the coroner told her that—but about the other, more important fact: that he’d died with another woman in the car.
So, their answer was not to erase her—a woman I didn’t know existed until I was in my thirties—but to erase him. Scrub, scrub, scrub, erase him from the picture. Keep a few mythic stories, but never answer any questions, maybe give a nod, one word at best. Soon, even little girls could learn it is not a good idea to talk about your daddy. We wouldn’t know why, but we would know fully: it is not even a good idea to say his name: “Daddy Joe.” Don’t hunger for its sound. Learn to live with its absence, the silence, and don’t care, quit caring.
But what happens if we turn our cheek and care less about the scandal, care more about the death? Aren’t we glad that the woman was in the car? For if she hadn’t been, who would have been the proper person, there, in the car with my father? My mother.
So were they wishing that instead of the unknown woman, my mother had been by his side, that she, too, had been thrown from the demolished car, that her neck had been broken, her skull crushed?
Be grateful she was there, the other woman. Be glad it wasn’t Mother. Be glad, finally, that Daddy Joe wasn’t alone. That at the moment when he realized it was a train, he wasn’t alone in the dark, cold car. Alone when he jerked the wheel and slammed the brake, alone as he blacked out and knew he was dying, alone when he was dead.
Just be glad that whatever she was doing there with your father, be glad that neither she—the woman who wasn’t just a beauty but also a business woman, an honor graduate, a scholarship recipient, a civic do-gooder—be glad that neither she nor he were alone.
It was time for the banquet’s main speaker, the Amerada Hess Senior Vice President from Houston, Texas. The V.P. emerged from a round table beside the far corner of the stage. Earlier, I’d noticed the group of men sitting, eating by themselves. Younger men in Khaki-colored slacks and navy blazers, the men were modern day Amerada men. They had clumped together during the reception, not mixing with the locals, standing apart. They had disappointed me, these Amerada men. Not clapping when the old men were acknowledged, when they stood and, with curved hands, saluted themselves. The Amerada men suppressing smirks at whoever had thought it was a good idea for them to come to a celebration where the center of attention was a black and white photo of the discovery well, hitting and flaring fifty years ago, now thumb-tacked to a display board.
The Main Man, the Amerada V.P., tried to be nicer. But he was nervous—his smile flickering on and off—when he talked about 3-D seismic data, like maybe the old guys with their plain cowboy boots wouldn’t like him if he talked that way too long. Forgetting himself and bragging about deep-water drilling to a group of men who played golf on sand fairways because there wasn’t enough water to grow grass, who could tell you how many inches of rain fell in July, whose eyes opened each morning to the sight of section after section after section of uninterrupted wheat.
“A treasure hunt,” the V.P. smiled and delivered his keynote line. As if the old timers would ever call being able to lay open the earth’s core in blue and red computer graphics a “hunt.” A hunt had been drilling wildcats: wells so far from any known field that it was impossible to say whether any damn oil lay below. “A treasure hunt,” the ignorant V.P. said, then confessed he’d never been to (heard of?) North Dakota before he’d joined Amerada.
The V.P. just nervous and young and telling the old timers—with their missed-it-shaving tufts of hair and satisfied glimmer of recognition at the sighting of an old buddy—telling them how the industry was trying to overcome its “old school” image. Kept using the early ‘80’s as “the past” when these men—and their wives of twenty-two, thirty-five, forty-one years—had gathered to celebrate 1951.
The V.P. meaning well, not ugly at all, just not knowing.
Not like the young Attorney General from Williston who came, he said, with his first ever Power Point presentation. The slides he pointed to made fun of the geologists, so that I learned it wasn’t land men like my dad who had been at the bottom of the oil industry food chain, but the geologists. The Attorney General poking fun at himself, too, telling it on himself that he only got to speak wherever the Governor had declined, but telling it in a joke so that none of the old timers in the banquet crowd stopped and thought, “We’ve been declined.”
Later, the Mayor would talk about the oil people who came from far away and decided to stay. Forty, fifty years later? And he’s still telling them it’s okay to be from Texas, Oklahoma? Just like the woman minister praying thanks for the “diversity,” and the Chamber of Commerce song about them coming for the oil and becoming friends. Reminding them, reminding me: outsiders you began, and outsiders shall you stay.
The first time I married, I wore my mother’s wedding dress. I carried the same white flowers she’d carried, wore on my head the veil that she’d worn. I had my photograph taken with the groom in front of the mantel, because that’s the picture Mother and Daddy Joe had taken. At the reception—held at the home my father grew up in—I listened as the murmur ran through the crowd: “That’s the groom? He looks just like Joe!” After the party, my Uncle Hebron, Joe’s younger brother, snapped a picture of my husband and me waving from the window of the going-away car, then sent me the photo of my mother and father, waving from the 1951 car. A desperate wedding, really: desperate to belong, desperate to remind everyone: he was my daddy.
But I didn’t go to North Dakota. I didn’t give birth to two little girls and one on the way when my husband was killed. My husband did not die. I had to divorce him.
I never became the young lady that Daddy Joe wanted, when he told the doctor to put my smallpox vaccination on my upper back where it wouldn’t ruin the glamour of an off-the-shoulder gown. I became the lawyer that my new father admired, attended the law school that carried my new grandfather’s name over the door. Then, when the marriage that had begun under a shroud ended, I married a lawyer of my own, a man who moved me up north—to Memphis. A man who didn’t look a thing like Joe.
Yet, when I was throwing away everything from that first marriage, I kept one picture. A picture of my husband-to-be at the rehearsal dinner. He’s laughing, wearing the same white dinner jacket that Joe had worn at his wedding. Taking it upon himself to be just like Joe, for me. To give me what I wanted—to belong. The picture, framed in red velvet, I tucked in the far back reaches of a drawer. Able to give it up. But unable to give it away.
By the time the banquet program came to a close, I was exhausted and had to go into the bar. Not to the Hospitality Room where everyone would be waiting for me to explain myself, to tell what I was doing there, but to the bar, which was a lounge with a window in its door, covered in cardboard. There, while the sound system played Pasty Cline’s “Crazy,” I talked to a geologist.
“That woman who prayed?” he said.
“She listed every profession.”
“Oh, no,” I said.
“Listed the engineers.” He’s ticking the professions off on his fingers. “The pipeline workers, the land men, the brokers, the company men. Listed everyone except the geologist. The only one she didn’t list.”
And when he said it, I realized that the woman minister had prayed for my land man dad. She’d prayed for my dad, who wasn’t one of the old men with the glimmer of recognition in his eye, who hadn’t made it past 1960 so he couldn’t come back to the 50th reunion.
But I had been there, watching the old men remember and shake hands and slap backs and re-introduce themselves, respectful. Watched them love Tude. Wanting not for those old men to know my daddy but wanting them to be my daddy, and me being there so I could be with him old and having made it. And not one of the old timers in that crowded banquet hall knowing they were being my daddy for me, except maybe for Tude—assessing, seeing my mother in my face, maybe.
But me not asking because as long as I was just sitting there, I could pretend like I was a part of them. Pretend no one blamed me for my Daddy Joe running his car into the train and killing himself and the other woman. Pretend that the silence that spread over the years didn’t mean everyone had stopped loving him, pretend that the silence wouldn’t descend on these people, too—once they found out who I was, where I’d come from.
So I just stood. Or sat. And didn’t ask. Because I couldn’t risk feeling shut out again.
The woman conductor on the train calls me “Sweetie.”
She doesn’t know I’m wondering whether, in this day and age, they still ship bodies by rail, if our train itself could have a body car, who meets the body at the station?
North Dakota never became Texas, with spreads of cattle and gushing oil. The oil was too hard to get at, the country in too little need of it, not when the world was swimming in the stuff. There were other Williston Basin “booms,” in the late sixties, the eighties. Just enough to give the state a love/hate relationship with the industry that goes away, comes back, goes away.
The tents of the oil patch were folded, the fires of the ever-burning gas extinguished. “It’s dust under the wheels now,” one of the old timers said. Trees—Russian Olives, planted in the 1960’s—have come to North Dakota’s wind-swept landscape. The sunflowers still face the sun.
I am leaving the state where they write “Pop” on the ticket when you order a Coke. Where they tell jokes about Moses taking the two tablets and going into the wilderness. Where, because there are no cabs, strangers offer you a ride to the train station. Where I could smell no smells in the air. Where I touched no one, except for a handshake, quick, brief. A place where you get on the train, or you get left.
The train has its own smell: a dense, heavy, people smell. You touch, arms to elbows, kneecaps to thighs.
Your Daddy Joe.
My heart—my child’s heart—in shock.
Crying at the muzzle of the train, when it came time to leave North Dakota. They were honoring your Daddy Joe.
I bought a ticket, and everything came bubbling up like crude, but now I’m worn out. I’m ready to be off the train, ready to brush my teeth. Ready to throw away the guilt I’ve worn for so many years, for the death, for the way he died – because if you weren’t responsible, if it was a pure accident, then the world would spin out of control, wouldn’t it? No—not anymore.
My Memphis house, my Memphis husband. I need them, I need where they are. I need dusty roads. I need figs. I need fans—ceiling, attic, black metal oscillating, hand-held paper funeral fans. I need Lifesavers stuck together in the bottom of a black pocketbook, plastic seat covers that burn when you slide your bare legs across. I need willows dipping cool into dark green lakes, and porch swings creaking in the breeze. I need the tailgate of a pickup truck, chairs pulled into the yard. I need shadows of leaves, I need kudzu climbing the pole. I need cicadas wailing in the night and the moon hazy with rings of heat. I need the South. I need you.
The doors between the train cars open and the sound of the tracks come clacking up from below. We are six hours outside of Chicago, many hours from Memphis. The Mississippi River has returned, wider, but still not wide. A crane standing in the water watches as the train passes.
The women in the seat in front of me are playing a slow game of Password. Three little kids are talking about what they see out of the window. A man is trying to get his son ready to leave the train. The man heaves a red pack onto his back. His son grips a heavy duffle bag with both hands.
Soon, we’ll leave Illinois and enter Tennessee. There, we’ll pass shacks with kids playing in the dirt. Levees, the alluvial plain of the Mississippi, will appear. Then I’ll see my house, my husband waiting for my return.
One of the little kids peering out of the window keeps telling her friends that she sees a jet. The little girl says it again: “I see a jet.”
The dad and his son inch into the aisle, ready to depart when the train stops.
The dad keeps asking, “Do you have everything?” He asks it again.
“Do you have everything? Are you sure?”
“one of the greatest ‘leasing plays’ in modern times,” Wall Street Journal, “Dakota Oil Boom,” June 12, 1951
a former beauty queen herself. Ever since my mother gave us Daddy Joe’s death papers, I have believed the other woman in the car to have once been a beauty queen. In researching this book, I could find no such reference, only that she was a former model. I, however, believed this to be true when in North Dakota and report this firmly imbedded belief.