What did I learn this weekend? Amazing things. Bear with me.

The Zinc has not failed me; the cold could be worse. Usually by this point the nose is a ceaseless spigot, and your Roman name could be Mucus Aurelius. (If we had Roman names, that is, which we don’t, but we should; I wouldn’t mind being Jamus Dakotus now and then.) Usually you ache and shiver and have peculiarly lurid dreams. None of the above, thank Zicam, but I’m still slightly sick. Been this way all weekend: very slightly sort of sick, which means I had to proceed as if nothing was amiss. Since I don’t do much on weekends anyway this wouldn’t matter, but this weekend we ended up at the Mall of America for Trick or Treating.

Sound fun?


“It’s the best after dark,” Gnat said. She was dressed up as a Gypsy Witch. She stood on the edge of the amusement park, staring up in amazement at the sights. At night the lights go down; rides are lit, the streetlights pop on. In October gigantic ghosts and witches are projected against the walls. The kids come in costumes to collect treats from several designated sugar-distribution nodes. The din is horrendous: between the rides, the music and the dull roar of the human multitudes, you feel as though you’re being drowned in a bottomless well of effervescence. Add a small cold-related headache and the slight disorientation that attends the grippe, and it’s a recipe for something other than total fun. But total fun we had anyway. Gnat got some candy from a couple of young ladies dressed up as .  . . well, something or other; it wasn’t clear. They were green. They also exhibited a degree of delight in their job that went leagues beyond the call of duty, and Gnat looked at them as if they had lost their mind. Kids are good judges of fakery in adults, I think, especially if it’s aimed at them.

We were supposed to meet my Dad and his wife and extended family and my wife at Twin Cities Grill at 7:30, provided someone had made the reservation. It was one of those herding-cats scenarios: my dad came down to see the Bison game in the Metrodom. He would take all the others to the Mall of America, park, leave instructions to get us on the list for 7:30, then take the train from the Mall to downtown, then return and meet us. If there was a problem he would call. Well. At 7:15 I was standing in line for the Bumper Cars, and I thought I’d check my phone. Six missed calls. Six. The din had been so great I hadn’t heard my phone ring. So I called him back, and the entire modern world boiled down to that one moment: trying to yell over the noise of bumpercars at an indoor amusement park so I could make myself understood to Mr. I Don’t Need a Hearing Aid as we were being ushered to our vehicle. I gave up and hoped we had a reservation; the Mall being the center of the universe around here, the chances of getting a table for ten without a reservation nine hours in advance were fairly dim.

I’m good at bumpercars, and yes, that’s one of the more pathetic things I’ve ever professed. But I am. The trick is to head for open seas, do a few 360s and then really bang the crap out of someone else. I was up against a grey-beard with a CORVETTE T-shirt who was also handling the car like a pro, and between us I think we bruised several vertebrae. When it was done we staggered out on rubber-legs and headed for the restaurant . . . where we had a reservation. Whew.

The meal was fine and full of meat. Dad filled me in on the business, which is gangbuster-strength these days. They’re filling all the trains that stop in Fargo, and hired four guys who were certified to drive flammables. Bought two trucks to handle the business. Two more semi-tankers with LILEKS OIL painted on the sides; that has to make him happy. He told me he was filling a train at 3 AM or so (yes, 3 AM; he still works whatever hours are required, even with the new guys, and yes, he’s 80) and the engineer got out to stretch his legs. Looked at the name on the truck, asked if he had a son who wrote for the papers. The engineer was a fan, it turned out.

Given how much my dad supported what I wanted to do even though he couldn’t quite yet see the practical application, I can’t tell you how pleased that made me feel.

Then home. Dad was staying with us for the night. Gnat fell asleep on the sofa, then I took her upstairs to bed. “I love you Dad” she said sleepily. Those are the best. My wife bade goodnight, and I poured Dad a beer, poured myself a scotch, and got to talking. We had things to discuss.

Like housing prices, for example; I wanted to see what his house would fetch on Zillow.com. But Zillow doesn’t have NoDak info. Ah well. He was interested in the satellite views, so I called up Fargo on Google Maps and looked around the old town. We looked at the station from on high. We headed north to Harwood, where my grandparents’ farm was, and looked at the land that’s still in the family. We took the County Road south (as a sign of Fargo’s unstoppable growth, it’s now “76th Avenue North.” When I was a kid this was way, way out in the country. The County Road curved south as you passed the farm, and beyond there was mysterious territory – but we’ll get to that.) (The road by the farm, which was once the old road Grandpa would take to check the crops, is now 170th Avenue SE.)

He could read the maps easily, because he’s seen them all from above. When he was flying he’d take the plane up on a Sunday and prowl over the fields he’d worked as a kid. Up above, you see something you only sense when you’re on the ground: the relentless division of the great flat plains into squares. Squares to till, squares to own. Civilization brought the grid and the deed.

He guided me to Maple Sheyenne Church. Click it, please.

That was my grandparents’ church. They’re buried there. Both sides of my family bought many plots. I clicked closer, and we leaned into the screen of the laptop.

Mom’s about there, I said. Right?

Mm hmm. He pointed up a quarter inch to where his twin brother, dead at 15, was buried.

We rose up a few notches, headed west. He showed me a farm where he’d worked for room and board when he was 15. He could find it just by reading the roads. The windbreak was all that was left.

“You know your great grandfather was a founder of the Maple-Sheyenne church,” he said.

“Mr. Turnbull?” I asked.

“No, Eric Johnson.”

Eric Johnson?

Who the devil was Eric Johnson?

I have to confess: I’m not much for genealogy. I think it’s fascinating, but it’s never had a particular personal pull beyond the grandparent level. I understand completely why some people pursue it, and I make no critique of their motives. For me it’s just felt a little . . . tribal, that’s all. Or maybe it’s not wondering what I’d have in common with my ancestors, it’s the sad certainly I’d have very little. Except for a nose.

Eric Johnson was the great-grandfather on my dad’s side. As per my previously stated disinterest, I’d never asked about my dad’s family past his mom; for some reason she seemed sui generis, a person who arose from the earth itself. Part of this no doubt stems from my own childhood, in which we were not encouraged to speculate about Grandpa, who had spun out of the orbit in the Forties.

“What was he like?” I asked. Because, of course, he knew.

"Well, he was tall. Full blooded Swede, born in Sweden; got married and came over right away and started farming. Farmed all his life, read the Bible every night.”

I typed some stuff into Google, thinking: no chance. Then again, the first time I’d hooked up the internets at my dad’s house many years ago, it had taken two minutes to find a picture of him as a young man on the bridge of his ship in WW2; that was his introduction to the world wide web.

Son of a gun.

I lifted that from a website put up by a distant relative of mine, someone I’ve never met. There’s more, but we’ll get to that.

“His farm was down the road,” Dad said. “Go west.”

We found it.

In the shape of the grove I can see the hand of my great-grandfather. Like many North Dakotans of the 19th century, you can see his handiwork from space.

The next morning we took my dad to church, hoping to run into Pastor Bud. He was the padre for our small little church in Fargo; he baptized me in ’58 in Fargo, and baptized Gnat in Minneapolis in ’00. A capital fellow. He’s semi-retired now but still present Sunday mornings; I asked around, and sure enough he was sitting in the back row. So we slipped in, had a seat, and I found myself in church with Dad for the first time in years. Dad was impressed: big church. Beautiful choir. He raised an eyebrow when I didn’t hit the collection plate, but I explained: they take it out of my bank account.

He folded some bills together and dropped them in the plate.

Afterwards we met Pastor Bud, and he was delighted to see my father. It had been forty years, I imagine. He recognized him right away. He gave us both a big hug and laughed and told my dad to give his love to his brothers and sisters back in Fargo. (Still a sizeable number. My great-grandfather had nine children, all but one of whom lasted into their 90s, and their offspring, while not farm-hardened, are also hardy.)  I think my father got a little verklempt, if you can say that about Lutherans, but if there’s anything you can say about Lutherans it’s that they would get a little verklempt. We found my wife, collected Gnat from Sunday School, got in the car, and drove home. Dad was impressed how clean I kept the car. Because, you know, I never had before.

“You Armor-all it?” he asked.

“Every Thursday.”

“Looks nice.”

Once home he collected his things, called his wife on his cell, then we shook hands and  got into his Yukon and drove off. I stood on the steps and waved until the car went over the hill.

About Eric Johnson: shortly after he arrived in America, he had a difficult winter. An anecdote was set down in “The Checkered Years,” a diary of a woman who lived in the area in the 1880s. The story was relayed on the biographical page I discovered last night, and my jaw fell when I read it. I’m sure it’s not the first or only recorded example of this. It certainly goes with what my dad said about walking from the house to the church in the winter – “the wolves followed us,” he noted. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of what life was like for the men and women who crossed the ocean and crossed the land and staked their lives on a square in the New World. I quote:

“Mr. Eric Johnson went out to water his cattle.”

“Among the drove was a large ox. The Cattle, one by one, dropped in the snow from exhaustion; and soon the ox became bewildered and lay down in the snow to die.”

“While the man was floundering around in the snow himself he had an inspiration. Drawing his knife . . .”

“He killed the ox, disemboweled it, and crawled inside. After drawing the sides of he stomach together, he was perfectly sheltered and was kept alive by the warm carcass. In the morning the hide was frozen completely stiff, but he kept calling for help until someone came to release him.”

How I wish I'd known that 26 years ago. Someday when Gnat and I watch the Star Wars movies, I’ll tell her that her great-great-grandfather actually did that. For real? For real. This is his picture. This was his church. This was his land.

This is where you come from. What you make of it is up to you.


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c. j lileks. email may be sent to first name at last name dot com.