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River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative 5.2 (2004) 116-128

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The Old-timers

On August 7, 2001, I stepped into the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the discovery of oil in Williston Basin, Williston, North Dakota. I knew no one. My family had not been back to the Williston Basin since the December night in 1960 when my father had run his car into a train—as squarely-hit as any the police had ever seen—and died.

When I saw the anniversary announcement on the Internet, I bought a train ticket to Williston. I had to ride the train, it was the way my mother had come and gone from Mississippi to North Dakota and later, with her two little girls, to Denver. So in the early Memphis dawn, I stood on the train platform, close to the tracks, awaiting the City of New Orleans that would take me to Chicago. The train finally showed itself, far down the track, its front light white and piercing. Then the whistle cried. The snub-nosed engine—tall and heavy, its silver body blocking all view—screamed on the tracks. As the cars clattered into the station, slowing, I thought, you want me to get on that motherfucker?

Hours later, when the sun had risen high in the sky, I gazed out the window, and in the flattened train flying beside the tracks, I saw the truth of it: we carry our own shadow with us.

At the Airport International Inn in Williston, I paid my money and received my ticket to the headliner banquet. A table in the lobby displayed hand-made, wooden replicas of oil derricks. "For Sale" tags lay flat beside the derricks. On another table were chunky, metal drill bits, dressed up with black spray paint and tied in gold ribbon.

"It was a big deal," my mother says of North Dakota's oil boom, but I saw a trifold display board and, thumbtacked to it, several newspaper articles [End Page 116] and a Xerox of the boom's first oil lease. In the hall that led to the banquet room hung portraits of Miss North Dakotas—the Airport International Inn was pageant headquarters. The portraits were cheap, almost Polaroid quality. Maybe the oil boom was a big deal—for rural, isolated North Dakota, even more so for a girl from rural, isolated Mississippi.

Inside the banquet hall, lines of long tables angled in front of the crepe-skirted stage. A woman played a piano that had been rolled to the side of the stage. I'd seen the woman earlier when I was sitting in the lobby. "Everyone in their jewels," she'd said, talking about what to expect from the banquet crowd.

What I saw in the crowd were the old-timers, the banquet honorees. Clumped together in groups of twos, then fours, then sixes, most of them were dressed in saggy-bottomed jeans and plain, unadorned cowboy boots. The cowboy poet, who was to be our entertainment, wandered through the crowd in new jeans, carrying a guitar. Around him, the white-haired old-timers gently milled and eddied, catching up after fifty years. I watched, not with the eyes of the forty-three-year-old woman I was, but with the eyes of the three-year-old daughter I'd been when my father died—the age, a psychiatrist would later tell me, when a girl child is most attached. There, in the Airport International Inn in North Dakota, I spied on the old-timers who might have known my dad.

It's a long way from Mississippi to North Dakota. First, you travel to Memphis where you board the train, then it's twenty-seven hours, twenty-two minutes to North Dakota. To make the trip, you must hurtle between towns, survive the lurching of the cars, cast away your familiar loves. For when you're south of Chicago, the skinny pine trees, the stinkweeds growing beside the tracks—it looks like Mississippi. But when it's time for the Empire...


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