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July 07, 2006

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The first thing I saw…

The first thing I saw when I pulled into Tuttle, North Dakota was a corner gas station that looked like it could have been the model for a Norman Rockwell painting. Everything was the way it might have been in 1958: the red and white frame building, the single mechanic’s bay, the “bubble gum machine” gas pump, and the public bench out front. The elements missing from that idyllic version of American’s past were the things that made Rockwell, and perhaps America herself, famous throughout the world. When I drove slowly past Tuttle, North Dakota’s only gas station, I found no sense of pride, no impression of enterprise, and no hope of prosperity.

Mike Forsberg had begged the use of a house across the quiet street from the gas station from Scott Stephens, Ducks Unlimited’s director of conservation for the Dakotas. Scott lived in Bismarck and his life is ducks. He studies them, he hunts them, he loves them. He purchased the house for a song because it is in the center of Missouri Coteau, perhaps the greatest duck incubator in the world.

I pulled into the unpaved driveway and was not surprised to find Mike gone. The day was waning and, like a vampire drawn to darkness, Mike would be haunting the potholes and swamps in the buttery light of late afternoon. I tossed my bag, books, and notebooks into the spare bedroom and checked out the house. Nothing but duck and Labrador prints on the walls. Waders hanging from hooks on the back porch and decoys and a sneak boat in the garage. There was a small charcoal grill and a note from Mike. “Be back after dark. Start the coals. We got pork chops.”

I stood in the yard and stared across at the gas station. I had not caught sight of a living person since I’d gotten to town, but the front door of the gas station was open so I strolled across the street without considering the possibility of traffic and walked in. This was not a convenience store. Not an In and Out. Not a Pack and Go. This was a gas station frozen in time and forgotten. The smell of the oil soaked wood floor took me back to my boyhood and I stood savoring the way the light slanted through the frame windows, across the empty shelves, and dissolved in the scratched and worn glass of the counter top. An ancient till waited on the counter for a rare transaction and beside it, a coffee can with an assortment of pens and an old yellow pencil.

I caught Thurman catching a nap on an old, green sofa in the back. He sat up a little disoriented and smiled. “We’re open,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

Instantly I felt bad. “I didn’t come to buy anything but you could tell me about your town.”

The fact that I hadn’t come to buy didn’t seem to bother him. He motioned toward another couch, this one red and set opposite the one he preferred. “What can I tell you about this town?” We started slow and his answers came with something like reluctance. He was in his mid-seventies and had lived his entire life in Tuttle or the surrounding rolling hills of the coteau. He’d driven the school bus, on and off, for decades. The busses had once lined up in front of the school but now there were only a few students. A second layer of consolidations was eminent and he suspected the big brick schoolhouse might be soon shut down completely. There was nothing really new in what he told me. Tuttle was like hundreds of other Great Plains towns. He talked about the four hardware stores that had once been there, the two car dealerships, and the competition between the implement dealers. I thought of all those expensive implements used to alter the coteau – drain the wetlands, plow the flat spots. I took the chance of cussing the government and, from there; it took only seconds to get to Franklin Roosevelt, the “last decent politician.”

In the end I think Thurman and I became something like friends, and as I waited for Mike, sipped whisky, and tended to charcoal under a wild Great Plains sunset, I thought of all the people I knew that would consider a week in Tuttle, North Dakota a vacation. When a trio of young screech owls appeared in the huge, silent cottonwood above me, I got as wild as the sunset and wondered why we couldn’t use the technology that was driving us all crazy to bring people to this place and revitalize it. A fiber-optic cable could open this place up like the hard-surfaced highway had opened it in 1949. But I was dreaming, and one of the young screech owls moved his head fluidly and comically back and forth to underline that fact.

The sun was down and there was absolutely no sound, not a light on a street that had once been home to scores of families. The starry sky pressed the stellar cold down on me and the coals radiated heat from below. I thought of the coteau that lay around the enclave of deserted houses and the ducks cruising and chortling the way they have for many centuries. The town of Tuttle was never meant to be an economic hub. Perhaps, it was never meant to be at all. The value of this place was the silence itself, the screech owls, and the coteau that surrounded it. Mike was no doubt just crawling from a wet and mucky blind where he had been documenting my thoughts. His touch was gentle on the land, indeed. The lights of his truck would be winding toward me soon. From above they would look like a pair of white snakes slipping along the edge of the potholes, toward a temporary town where I laid pork chops over charcoal as red as horse shoes fresh from the forge.


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