This isn’t the . . . timeliest blog in the universe. I know that. It was, once; when there was suddenly WAR, well, it seemed necessary to have a stance. I still have Stances. Wednesday, as it turns out, is Stance Day - but not this week. This first serving of April will be dedicated to last week, which presented four distinct themes. The Drive; The Home Town; The Late-Night chats with Dad; the Amazing Pioneer Woman Who Was my Grand-Aunt. Let's begin.
The drive up was fine. Made good time. Yes, I took 10, because the idea of sitting on the interstate for 3.5 hours is less appealing than 4.2 hours on 10, with stops in the small towns I’ve come to know - if only as places through which I pass slowly now and then, noting the changes. Hey, Verndale’s abandoned gas station is open again. That’s good. That antique store is closed: that’s sad. What happened to all the stuff inside, all the junk and detritus from farmhouses now empty or repopulated? The antique stores are the last place where Grandma’s stuff is together before it’s dispersed to the hands of collectors or dealers or buried for good with the rest of the cast-off items of bygone lives.
The light’s changed; stop woolgathering, drive on.
A few notes from the trip.
This never fails to amuse me.
If you say so; it’s your town, you’d know.
Staples is the town that haunts more than any - easy for an outsider to say, of course. Oh I am so haunted by the ghosts of history. But yes. There’s a big empty building, the Bachor’s Department Store and Opera House, and it’s a hulking symbol of diminished fortunes. Once I stopped to take pictures and was accosted by a woman with a small child who insisted I was from the Cities - correct - and was looking it over to buy it. Incorrect. She was suspicious and protective and oddly aggressive and could not believe I was taking pictures because I was just interested in the town. Why? Why would anyone be interested in the town unless they wanted to make some money out of it?
Because, I wanted to say, it’s obviously reeling, sad, empty, damned, and perhaps outright doomed now that the bypass is finished. One used to have to drive through Staples, trundling along at a diminished speed; now Highway 10 skirts the city. That’s got to be murder on the gas station at the edge of town. It’s easier than ever to pretend you don’t exist.
At that date the movie theater was still operating. It isn’t anymore.
Lefty’s is still there.
This is the wall of commercial structures that suggests a town with some heft and substance . . .
And once it was, but there’s no vitality to the corner any more.
The town has some improvements, though - mostly civic. New streets, new government building. But all the action’s up the road in Wadena. Staples is ever the poor brother who fell on lean times.
Between Staples and Wadena is Verndale - home of the Pirates! It has a tiny downtown with a big park along the train tracks. It has the Great War monument to honor the boys from the county who served.
This is where I stop to stretch my legs and consult a small cigar. Read the names. As I noted, the gas station is open again, and that’s a good sign. There was another spiffed-up storefront, too. Small things, but they mean something. The needle twitches and moves right.
Onward. Past Wadena, on to New York Mills, on to DL. Detroit Lakes. As ever, the memory of the Hi-10, the fabled Jet-Age restaurant I remember from childhood trips to the lake. I have begun to wonder if I imagined its existence, the way the name of the place was set in the concrete sidewalk in marbles, the swank counter, the big windows, the chrome Diner accoutrements complete with a special rack for the Kellogg Kel-Bol-Pac. I know it was there. Why doesn’t anyone remember it?
I associate the memory with such wide-open happiness. Summer, the lake, the boat, the slide by the old DL pavilion - and no doubt falling asleep on the long ride back home.
It was an hour to Fargo. Practically forever!
The hour passes fast now. After DL I’m almost home. And then I’m in Moorhead, looking at the enormous octagonal sign . . .
I don’t know what the sign used to be, but it’s enough to know that I know it was something else before. And I haven’t thought about the gold-flake plastic cushions on the boat since forever - a tiny detail stored away, summoned up for no other reason than I’m on the border of Fargo, of home, and everything in my head is firing like mad.
I pass the F-M hotel, which hasn’t been a hotel for decades, but it’s where I was taken as a child to get a meal once, and I have documentary proof. Over the river.
This may seem ridiculous to outsiders who would rightly say there’s not a dime’s worth of diff twixt the two sides of the Red River, but when I ease over the bridge into downtown, my entire Minnesota identification falls away like a suit of straw. I am a North Dakotan; I am a Fargoan. And I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise!
Of course, no one does.
As I said last week: it’s a curse. I am not the person who grew up here now. I’m the person who left.
This binds you tighter to a place in ways you may not anticipate. But that's tomorrow.
Or rather, since this is not a timely blog, last week.
Hmm. An expose of vice in small towns?
The audience no doubt thought that'd be great. How vicey would it be?
Oh look, it's a goody-two-shoes arguing with her mom! This will be hot-cha:
But no. It's not a morality play. This is a bizarre family. Mom listens to the police radio. The son spends his days in bed, smoking and smirking. We learn that Lefty is coming home! But not from the war; from stir. His wife lives at the house - Audrey Totter in full sulk mode. The other daughter?
She’s a klepto.
She does crazy-bad reeeeeal good.
You may ask: was she a bad actress? Because she should have been immensely famous. IMDB:
Dorothy willingly gave up her modest career when she married a math instructor in 1943. The marriage, which produced two sons, lasted 23 years before it ended. She returned to her acting craft in the late 50s and appeared in minor roles on TV, as well as two films Macabre (1958), the William Castle 'shocker' and Seconds (1966) starring Rock Hudson. A second marriage to a minister took her, again, away from the camera lights and this time it was permanent, save for some amateur theatricals.
So Mom goes to the pawn shop to move the watches daughter stole. The pawnbroker:
Hume Cronyn, looking like he's testing for "Old Bernstein" in the "Citizen Kane" sequel.
For post-war America, it looks quite Dickensian.
Hume says “since Leftys coming back home, maybe you’ll want to buy a gun.” Because he’ll be getting into the black market, right? All charming people, every one of them.
What else does every sleazy low-rent crime family need?
Dan Duryea as the son. He doesn't slap any women in this one. Usually, he does.
Audrey Totter is pretty Totteresque, but occasionally she's over-frilled in a way that doesn't become her.
What's with the aristocrat-playing-milkmaid routine, sister?
Okay, this is better.
She's the grown-up, compared to the kid sister -
- who just seems to be playing at being grown up. Anyway, the whole family is preying on soldiers who've been demobbed, which makes them just the worst. Alas: it turns into a serious PSA about getting robbed by loose women while you’re on leave, and then turns into a predictable crime melodrama, with a grim ending and a moralistic coda about how Crooks Never Learn.
There’s nothing here. Quite the cast. And there’s nothing here.
That'll do. Tomorrow: the Streets of Fargo!