I learned every word of Latin I know in the basement of a modest house on the banks of the Missouri River next to the Highway 16 bridge. That's where the Rev. T.J. McPhillips used to gather grade-school guys and turn them into altar boys. In those days, girls didn't have a chance to be altar boys, which is what everyone called us back in the 1950s. Father Mac sometimes called us servers, which has a sort of neutral ring to it, I suppose. Everyone else, including me and my classmates, used the term altar boys. In those days before Vatican II, the Catholic Mass was said in Latin.
Electronic storage has eliminated much of the need for clip files, but in my early days with The Associated Press, a couple of beat-up, battleship gray cabinets held decades of South Dakota's history as written by wire service reporters in Pierre and Sioux Falls. Each drawer of each cabinet was packed with manila file folders. Each folder was stuffed with yellowed newspaper clippings and faded-to-brown pages of teletype copy, each with some identifying date or name scrawled in one corner.
When I think of life on the farm, I tend almost as a reflex to think of a dry country. I recall years when the wheat was incredible and the corn stayed green well into the end of summer.
Health care is much in the news these days, and if you think I'm touching that one, you don't understand the Lyman County will to survive. However, this week marks 15 years since a guy named Lawrence Strawbridge cut me open and sliced out a cancerous prostate gland. The procedure was barbaric. It took several hours, I lost some blood (although not as much as some guys do when they have the same procedure) and the recovery process took weeks. I didn't have any other treatment, and I've had no other treatment or procedure in the 15 years since.
My friend and former sports-writing boss, John Egan, once wrote that if South Dakota has a blue belt across its middle, Al's Oasis is the buckle. John went on to note that the renowned tourist attraction in Oacoma marks the middle of the state and the middle of the Missouri River. He added: "For those traveling Interstate 90 between Sioux Falls and the Black Hills, the buckle loosens up at mealtime." John Egan's piece was about Al's Oasis, but he told the essential story through glimpses into the life experience of Al and Veda Mueller.
My mother would never forgive me if I had a column scheduled for March 17 and the topic didn't involve the Irish and St. Patrick's Day. Marie McManus has been gone these five years now and a bit more, resting next to a Bohemian farmer named Henry J. Woster in St. Mary's Cemetery just north of Reliance. It isn't coincidence that the marker for their resting place was crafted from stone with just a touch of green in it. That sounds garish, I suppose, but the shading is subtle, the setting is rural, and somehow it all works. My mother was all about Irish.
To say Terry DeVine and I worked together in the AP bureau in Pierre for a bit more than a year is to stretch things. We were assigned to the same bureau at the same time. We were rarely there together. Terry died not so long ago, after a long stint with Associated Press and the Fargo Forum. He was a barrel-chested, loud-talking Marine from Watertown, a good newsman and a unique character in my reporting career. I became boss in the Pierre bureau in late May of 1972. DeVine reported for duty a couple of weeks later, just in time for the primary election.
Back on the farm, my folks tended to do their medical business in Chamberlain, but my aunt and uncle often traveled to Pierre to such appointments. I can recall one year when I was invited to ride along with my cousin and his family. I was pretty excited, because a trip to Pierre seemed like a pretty exotic thing back then. My excitement was for nothing. Before the day of the scheduled appointment, the Missouri River flooded, and the bridge across the Bad River in Fort Pierre was closed to traffic. Whether the bridge washed out or simply went under water, I can't remember.
The world is full of hamburger joints, but they lack the incredible aroma of those old-time cafes you could find along the side of the road in almost every town in South Dakota when I grew up. I remember most the smell of hamburger patties frying on a grill as broad as the deck of an aircraft carrier. At a corner of the grill, hamburger buns browned slowly. While the burger fried, the cook cut a huge pickle into thin slices to toss atop the patty.
Time was, a telephone brought people closer to each other. The old party-line telephone network stretched across the prairies of South Dakota when I was a kid. It was the social bridge in a country where driveways sometimes ran off over the far horizon. Our farm was eight miles from town and most of two miles from Kistlers to the north and Hamiels to the south. East or west? Forget it. The nearest neighbors in either of those directions may not have been so far away by today's Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.