When I was about 14 and waiting near my truck for the line at the Reliance elevator to move, I heard a couple of older truckers discussing an oil discovery in South Dakota.
The blockbuster movie “Giant,’’ starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, had been released a year or so earlier. It told of a wealthy Texas rancher (Hudson, of course) and a hired hand (Dean, in the character of Jett Rink). Rink inherited at small piece of Hudson’s ranch, struck oil and became rich. He didn’t handle his riches well, but the movie had a great scene in which Rink stood under a fountain of crude oil that spewed from the ground. That was my idea of finding oil.
When I heard the truckers talking about an oil strike, I just assumed it was in the Reliance area, maybe on my family’s farm. There is oil in the northwest part of the state, I understand. As I watched the wheat pour from the back of my truck into the floor grate of the elevator, I could see myself standing in a shower of oil that turned into $100 bills as it fell across my upturned face.
At supper, I suggested to my dad that we contact experts and have them explore our property for oil. He smiled and said we were doing just fine with grain and corn and cattle. I resented his lack of vision briefly, but eventually I forgot about my dream of instant, insane wealth spouting from our farm ground.
Gradually, as I grew older and worked the land, I came to understand that the riches from our ground came in the form of grass and alfalfa for the cattle and good soil for the wheat, oats, barley and corn. Sure, that was less glamorous than an oil strike, but it worked for us.
Many years later, during my life as a newspaper reporter, I learned that some people did find unusual riches under the ground in the oddest parts of South Dakota. The skeleton of a good-sized Tyrannosaurus, one of the fierce dinosaurs from ages ago, was discovered somewhere out west of Faith. That isn’t quite an oil strike, but the T-rex, Sue, became famous.
The newspaper sent me, another reporter and a photographer out that way to see if we could talk to the guy on whose land Sue was found. He refused, but we did get to walk some of the land where it happened. An abandoned shack at the bottom of a deep, erosion-cut draw was as close as we came to finding the actual spot. I stood in the shack and had the eerie feeling that there might be something out there, and it might be something I really didn’t want to know. I read “Jurassic Park,’’ after all. Saw the movie, too. That was enough to have me worried about prehistoric creatures finding me in a remote South Dakota draw.
It was sometime after that experience, I think, that Nancy and I visited her mom in Chamberlain. Nancy’s mom was all excited. A team of South Dakota paleontologists had discovered the fossil of a mosasaur somewhere along the Missouri River bluffs near town. Such aquatic reptiles apparently inhabited the area 60 million or 80 million years ago. The Missouri didn’t always cut through South Dakota north to south. At some point long ago, we’re told, the entire center of the United States was part of a vast ocean, home to all manner of creatures. The 10-foot mosasaur fossil found by the research team was said to be an excellent specimen of the creatures.
To commemorate the discovery, a local group had a sculpture of a mosasaur built. The sculpture is a ways south of downtown along Main Street. I read the other day — in the Mitchell Republic, I believe — the city plans to build a dinosaur fossil playground in the area. It’s to be a place where children can play, digging through sand and uncovering their own fossils.
It sounds like a pretty cool plan, certainly more worthwhile and practical than my teenage dreams of oil strikes and untold wealth.