O Dakota Land, Dakota Land, As On Thy Burning Soil I Stand and Look Away Across the Plains and Wonder Why It Never Rains

Golden North Dakota prairie

We moved the summer after I finished 5th grade. This would’ve been 1976–the year of the bicentennial. I learned to sew that year because everyone was going colonial- and pioneer-clothing crazy and I was going to absolutely die if I didn’t have a Laura Ingalls Wilder dress. Joyce was still making all our school clothes and she told me she just didn’t have time to make costumes too. But she would teach me to sew, unknowingly setting me on the road to my future career. As part of our Bicentennial history lessons in 5th grade, we also learned embroidery. Joyce learned to crochet that year and started making scarves and afghans for everyone we knew.

What my Prairie Dress looked like

We didn’t leave Great Falls until after the 4th of July; I remember wearing the Prairie Dress Joyce helped me make (she did most of the work, let’s be honest, but I made the dust apron) to the fireworks show. My dress was lavender gingham and the matching prairie dress Joyce made for Tonia was pink, of course. Sean had herringbone knickers with a matching vest and engineer’s cap.  

What Laura actually wore (that’s her on the right).

When we left Great Falls we went to Pensacola to stay with the families for a month while our household goods were moved. I wore that prairie dress every chance I got, insisting I was Laura and Tonia had to be Mary. Tonia WAS blond-haired and blue eyed, even if she was the younger sister. Besides, she enjoyed pretending to be blind and being led around and tended to.

Ruby Mae asked me where my sunbonnet was and I had to tell her sadly that Joyce hadn’t had time to make the bonnets on top of teaching me and sewing the other outfits.  So Ruby Mae took two old pillowcases and made Tonia and me each a sunbonnet. She didn’t even have a pattern! She just cut and sewed and voila! A lavender sunbonnet with an embroidered brim for me and a pink sunbonnet for Tonia with a lace neck ruffle. Step number 2 on the road to my future career.

Not my sunbonnet, sadly. I loved mine to pieces.

That was also the summer my Uncle Scott and his friends took me to a store in downtown Pensacola that had costume pieces for sale in it, along with other curios and knick knacks. I found a kepi hat that I wanted with almost as much urgency as I’d wanted the prairie dress. But I had no money and no explanation for the need, so the hat remained in the store and I took one more step on that costume road.

Civil War Kepi replica

Joyce and Larry had left a lot of friends back in Great Falls; so had Tonia, Sean and I. Our parents had continued with the motorcycle racing they’d started in Missouri. It seems like we drove back to Great Falls from Minot every other weekend so my parents could take part in a racing event. They’d drop us off with Cathy, Jackie, Rita, and Randy and pick us up at the end of the weekend. One weekend, Joyce and Larry dropped us off in front of their house and drove away. We hauled our sleeping bags and duffle bags up to the front door and rang the bell.  Mrs. CathyJackieRitaRandy answered the door and I saw open disappointment and irritation flicker across her face for a moment before she asked where our parents were.

They’d just driven away, not leaving a contact number and NEVER ASKING PERMISSION FOR US TO STAY THE WEEKEND. Joyce and Larry weren’t friends with the CathyJackieRitaRandy family. There was no understanding between them to watch us kids. They hadn’t even waited to see if the family was home before driving off. Hadn’t sent food or money for food. I saw all of this run across Mrs CJRR’s face and I felt deep shame. The shame hung over me all weekend as I tried to be as helpful as I could and just got in the way. I couldn’t have fun; I was trying to be as quiet and invisible as possible.

When Joyce and Larry rang the bell to come pick us up at the end of the weekend, they were invited in for a little chat. That was the last time we saw Cathy and her siblings. 

It was just as well; Joyce and Larry were making friends at Minot AFB. We kids had the AMA, the adults soon had a group of their own regular friends. They had parties every weekend, rotating houses. I don’t remember all the friends–I know three names for certain. There was a Lynn, a Lynne, and a Guy. I remember Lynn and Lynne because I also had people with the same name as me at school, which leads everyone to be called by their name and initial. But I never heard the two Lynn(e)s defined that way. And I found the name ‘Guy’ very strange. Is his brother named ‘Man’?  Does he have a sister named ‘Gal’? I don’t know the answers to those questions but I DO know he had a son named Guy IV.

These friends were about the same age as Joyce and Larry, but all their children were younger than we were. There were several babies and toddlers and then us: Buddy, Pal, and Friend. The adults had parties where they played cards or dice. Sometimes the parties were just about sitting around, drinking and chatting. And sometimes they had dancing parties. Buddy, Pal, and Friend attended them all, as free babysitters. All the kids were confined to a bedroom with a small TV, snacks, and supplies for the babies, and the older kids watched the younger ones.  I was not impressed by this arrangement, I had no feelings for younger kids one way or another. But babies are messy and stinky and hard to comfort when they want their mama. Toddlers are fast and terrifying: they climb things and hit and pull hair because they don’t know better. And little kids get bored easily and don’t want to fall asleep. 

Tonia loved it; she loved babies. I think she wanted to have dozens of kids of her own. She had all their names picked out, although the roster changed often. She rocked the babies and played with the little girls’ hair. Sean was always easy going and slow to anger so he played with the older kids and helped Tonia with the babies. I tried to keep the chaos under control and did what Tonia told me to do, all while lamenting that if I was home, I could be reading a book or drawing, but NO, here I am, stuck in a small noisy room with a bunch of messy kids that I’m not related to. And not even being paid for my time.

Every once in a while, a couple with kids our age would join the party. It wasn’t a relief; it just made the Kid Room smaller, but that’s how I met Shawn and Ronnie. They weren’t brothers, but did know each other. Ronnie has been a constant presence in my life since at least the bicentennial, maybe before, one of my oldest and dearest friends.  When I met Shawn again almost 20 years later, he immediately remembered me, but I didn’t recognize him. Too busy corralling kids to make a lasting memory, I guess.

When we moved to Minot, Larry again got a job at the base movie theater and Joyce again got a job at the commissary. She wasn’t a cashier this time; she was a stocker and worked nights. That’s where she met Jerome. Both the Lynn(e)s were wives of Larry’s coworkers–he never really changed his SOP. Joyce and Larry continued bringing home stray airmen–but I remember them mostly being women this time. They teased one of these women about being a virgin all the time and they were always giving her penis-shaped gag gifts, like candles, or what I’m pretty sure was a bong–and one that from the front looked like a statue of the Virgin Mary, but when you turned it around, it was an erect circumcised penis.

But that’s not the point. The point was the jobs. The extra money was used to buy a camper and we started going on camping trips on the weekends. We usually went in groups up to Canada. Sometimes it was just our family but those were usually one-off sites; up in Canada we had a specific area we went to and it was like everyone knew where they were and if you could show up, you did. At first, Larry built a raised mattress frame in the back of the pickup and put a topper on it–that’s where he and Joyce slept while we kids slept in a tent on the ground.  I really disliked the tent. Everything got so damp at night, it was like sleeping on wet towels. Also, we three kids had 2 sleeping bags and an old military ‘mummy bag’ stuffed with feathers that had a hole in the lining so all the feathers would work their way out while you were sleeping and you’d wake up covered in feathers and itching like mad. Instead of just buying a new sleeping bag, we had to take turns using the mummy bag.

Down-filled mummy bag

I guess Joyce and Larry got tired of the damp and the bugs and the fights over the mummy bag, because pretty soon we were the owners of a brand new camper–first in the friends group to get one. It was a Shasta 1977 camper travel trailer. It could sleep 6 in all its avocado green and pumpkin orange glory, boasting a couch that turned into a bed for Larry and Joyce, a fold down upper bunk for me and Tonia, and a dining booth that turned into a bed for Sean. Truth be told, Sean usually slept in the upper bunk with us because it was the top bunk and fun! We kept going to the same places in Canada with the same people. 

This looks just like our camper

By this time, I was starting to babysit the kids of people my dad worked with for pay; I was saving up to buy a 10-speed and get rid of what I considered to be my baby bike. On camping weekends, Tonia and I continued babysitting the little kids for free because the adults were all getting drunk and dancing and acting stupid and falling asleep early, i.e. passing out. Still, we enjoyed the camping trips; I don’t ever remember not wanting to go. We got to explore the woods of Canada and the prairies of North Dakota, just like we were pioneers. We cooked hotdogs over the fire and roasted marshmallows, and drank all the soda we could ever want. We collected cool rocks and feathers and pinecones, and beer bottle caps.

We couldn’t go every weekend, because Joyce and Larry both worked evenings and weekends. For a while, we never went if both parents couldn’t go. One weekend the group had planned to go camping but Joyce got asked to cover a shift for someone at the last minute. She told Larry to go ahead, since a whole thing had been planned. It seems to me one of the other families had to back out at the last minute too. When we arrived at our usual spot in Canada, some people we didn’t know were already there; same with the alternate site. At that point we lost 2 more families who didn’t want to wander all night and just went on home. We ended up somewhere on the open prairie. The next day there was no shade, no creek, nowhere to explore. I read a lot that weekend and I got a headache from reading in the sun. I tried to read in the camper, but the air was so still and hot, the camper was stifling. We kids spent much of that Saturday on a blanket in the shade of the camper, since the adults were hogging all the lawn chairs.

This looks an awful lot like the inside of our camper. The table turns into a bed and the cabinet above the couch opes to reveal another bed.

I think the adults were miserable all day too, with nothing to do but drink. They got really loud, really early that night. The only kids with us that weekend were Amanda, Bubba, and Shana, Lynne and Guy’s kids. The other kids had been with the families that had gone home.  It was hard to get the babies to go to sleep because the adults were being so loud, even though the camper was several yards away from the fire and tents. I was reading on the lower couch/bed and Tonia and Sean had fallen asleep beside me. I covered everyone up–it gets cold at night in Canada, even in the summer–and I turned off the lights and joined my brother and sister. 

I was almost asleep when Larry opened the camper door and said my name. I still had that nauseating headache and didn’t want to do whatever it was he wanted so I didn’t answer, pretending I was asleep. Larry climbed into the camper, followed by a giggling woman–Guy’s wife Lynne. They clambered up into the top bunk and I heard them whispering and the rustling of what I assumed was them pulling blankets over themselves. They whispered a while more and then Larry said my name again. I didn’t want to be caught in the first lie, so I didn’t answer. Larry asked if anyone was awake and no one answered him. I heard him tell Lynne, “See? Everyone’s asleep.” I heard them whispering and rustling some more and soon enough, it was true: all of us kids were asleep.

When I woke up in the morning all the adults were grouchy and breaking camp. Tonia, Sean, and I rode home in the back of the truck, like usual. We were exhausted from the strange weekend and just laid on the bed instead of playing and singing. We got home and took our baths to clean up after a weekend of roughing it, and went to our rooms until Joyce called us down to dinner. Larry went to work at the movie theater. It was still summer, the sun going down late. Joyce asked us kids about the weekend and we were all talking at once, telling her about people stealing our camping spot and the weird place we ended up, and the miserable saturday in the sun drinking too much pop. We told her about not getting to roast marshmallows because the adults were too noisy around the fire and how hot it was in the camper, especially with Amanda and Bubba and Shana in there. And I told her about Lynne spending the night.

“Well of course Lynne spent the night–that’s what camping is all about, right?”

“No, she slept in the camper with all us kids, silly.”

“Yeah? And where’d your daddy sleep?”

“In the camper, on the top bunk.”

“Oh, he climbed up and slept with you kids? Bet that was crowded.”

“No, we slept on the bottom because Tonia and Sean fell asleep there while waiting for Amanda, Bubba, and Shana to go to sleep.”

“So Lynne and all three kids slept on the table bunk?”

“No, no. There wasn’t room for her there. She slept in the top bunk with Larry, like when we have a slumber party with our friends.”

Later that night when Larry got home, Joyce and Larry woke me up screaming at each other. He kept asking her if she thought he was dumb enough to do anything with all six kids right there in that tiny camper. And she kept telling him, well WE have. And I just couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. After all, the Monsters had slumber parties all the time: me, Tonia, and Sean; Nancy, Babbette, and Stu; and Steve and Tom. And all we did was eat popcorn, watch TV until the stations shut down, and then tell ghost stories until everyone fell asleep. I fell back asleep, more sure than ever that adults were grouchy and insane.

And so life continued on.  Except I really don’t remember going camping again, or anymore squadron parties in the basement. And one morning after school started I came downstairs to get breakfast and caught Joyce on the phone in the living room, saying “I love you.” Then she saw me and said she had to go. She followed me into the kitchen to tell me she’d been talking to Grandma Nita, which struck me as odd for 2 reasons. One, I’d figured she was talking to Larry and was too sleepy to care or ask, and two, I had never heard her speak to her mother with that kind of softness or affection. So I just said, “OK.”  And then she told me she didn’t have to marry Larry. Confused and sensing danger, I stayed silent. She said she knew I’d counted months to see if she was pregnant with me before she got married, which honestly, It had never occurred to me to do until that moment.

I wonder now if she could’ve been pregnant when they married and somehow managed the lie that I was a year younger, especially since I remain confused about my actual age. I was born tiny and am still tiny. When we moved from base to base back then, the medical records were carried from hospital to hospital by the enlisted member. She could’ve changed the dates on everything. It could explain why Joyce always told me I was so mature and smart for my age. But then it would require all the grandparents and great-grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins to go along with the lie. So no, I don’t think such a wide-spread conspiracy could’ve been pulled off, all for the sake of preserving some spoiled backwoods teenager’s reputation. Maybe she had been pregnant and lost the baby? Maybe she was just trying to make me forget the soft “I Love you” I’d just heard? Maybe she was just trying to figure out why she married my cheating father.

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