WOSTER: Calling all characters
South Dakota is a land of incredible beauty and variety, peopled by characters who can be gruff, sweet, sullen, bubbly, soft-spoken or red-faced-loud.
Now and then I miss the newspaper reporting days, mostly because of those characters. As a newspaper guy, I traveled from town to town, often several times a week one direction or another. I'd usually travel for a news purpose -- a public meeting, a campaign event, a protest, a court hearing, whatever. I usually managed to find an excuse to talk to the local characters.
I'm something of an introvert. It's my parents' fault. I was a middle child. The psychologists call that a forgotten child. I liked it that way, frankly, but as a reporter, I needed to talk to people. Over 40 years I managed to walk up to strangers on the street, interrupt groups at lunch, call folks out of the blue as they relaxed in their homes of an evening after a day of work. Sometimes I got a less than enthusiastic response, but rarely did anyone hang up in disgust, turn and walk away or call the bouncer.
Twenty-five years ago, during the centennial of South Dakota, I wangled a reporting assignment that included two straight weeks of pounding around the state looking for characters. I was allowed to travel where I wished and stop when I pleased. The idea was to find folks with stories to tell and maybe the stories would shed some light on South Dakota as a place and the interviewee as a South Dakotan.
If you've never worked for a newspaper, you have no idea how rare it was to be given two solid weeks to just go look for good stories and hometown characters. I was confident when I sold the story to my editor, less so as I started the journey. What sort of person would willingly sit down and open up to a stranger who scribbled furiously in a pocket-sized spiral notebook? What if these wonderful characters clammed up? What if I returned with nothing?
When in doubt, go west, right? I turned that way.
Somewhere past the south wall of the Badlands, in about 100,000 acres of the widest, quietest, loveliest country imaginable, I found Doug Temple, a rancher. He gave one of those West-River squints when I slid down the dirt road to his ranch house in a two-wheel-drive Chevy S10 pickup. He welcomed me into his living room, though, and poured coffee.
"This is good country,'' he said, "if you keep things as simple as you can. If you can adjust to the land, you do. It's usually easier than trying to change it to fit what you want.''
Later, I met a New Yorker named Tom Allen, who came to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to work at Oglala Lakota College and just sort of stayed.
"I still remember clearly the first time I came over that hill and saw Kyle below me,'' Allen told me. "I'd never seen anything that beautiful in my life.''
New Yorkers may keep to themselves as they walk 6th Avenue, but Allen spilled a life story to a traveling report he'd just met.
So did Mel Gibbs, a 90-year-old retired teacher having coffee in a café in Custer. I reckoned 90 years meant he'd seen a lot of change.
"Change? No, there really haven't been that many,'' Gibbs said. "Unless you're talking about things like the telephone. I remember when my dad strung a line from our house to his brother's. It was the first one in the county, and I guess that was a pretty big deal.''
I tried to listen to each of those characters, but in Brookings, a professor named Chuck Woodard showed me what it meant to really listen. College students could be unsure of themselves, he said.
"They have something to say, but they aren't certain it's worth saying,'' he said. "If I don't hear them, they may quit trying.''
When I get nostalgic over those reporting days, maybe those chances to listen are the reason. Everyone in South Dakota has something to say. If someone doesn't hear them, they may quit trying. I hope someone is out there listening.