We all pay for our sins somehow.
The cousins ran like mad from the way-back yard where I’d found my Easter basket to the group of adults watching in the spring sunshine.
“Wait!” I yelled. “Stop! Oh– Wait!– No!…,” as their backs receded from me, around the corner of the house to the south side of the Jund home in Zeeland, N.D., to all my aunts, uncles, grandparents… everyone.
“Dad! Dad!” shouted a breathless cousin to one of my many uncles waiting there in the yard with their wives. “You’ll never guess what Marty got in his basket!”
The parents were already looking my way, many with smiles on their faces. Several looked at my Grandpa Ben, hiding a grin behind his hand.
Ten years old. My face, red hot. Shame in a can.
I’d turned 10 in the fall of 1978, a few weeks after I started the 5th grade in a new school in Fryburg, N.D., about 14 miles or so down Interstate-94 to the east of where I lived in tiny Medora, N.D.
Medora is a unique little tourist town adjacent to the front entrance of Theodore Roosevelt National Park near the western border with Montana. It’s named after Medora, the wife of the Marquis de Morès, who founded the town in 1863. The Marquis was a Frenchman who had plans to cut the middleman out of the beef business by building a packing plant in the Badlands.
The park had shed the “Memorial” part of its name in 1978, thanks to a bill signed by President Jimmy Carter, giving it the full protections and prestige of any other full-fledged national park.
My father worked in a seasonal position for the Park Service the summer before my 5th-grade year. Both of my parents had worked for the Gold Seal Company, of Mr. Bubble and Harold Schafer fame, in various capacities prior to that.
Medora was a madhouse in the summertime, with thousands and thousands of visitors every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day. But come fall the tourists disappeared, and the fewer than 100 permanent residents settled in for whatever nastiness another Badlands winter would bring down. Many times, walking home from my best friend’s house at dusk, I’d turn the corner onto Main by the Rough Riders Hotel and startle Whitetail or Mule deer meandering down the street.
When summer came around again, my buddy and I sold lemonade to the tourists out of an seldom-used but permanent wooden booth half a block off Main Street, fought play gun battles up and down the buttes that surround the town like three-fourths of a deep bowl, and paid 50 cents for NuGrape soda and a quarter for Marathon candy bars when we needed a break. I was in the huge 4th of July parades for many years, a couple as a passenger in one of the original Mr. Bubble cars, others carrying flags, and one particularly memorable Independence Day as a clown with a shovel, scraping up horse droppings at the tail end of the parade line.
The Mr. Bubble car was my favorite. Imagine a rectangular can of charcoal lighter fluid on its back, painted pink with blue-white bubbles all over it, four wheels, one couch seat and a steering wheel. In the parlance of the day, it was really neat.
From 1st through 4th grade I attended Medora’s two-room brick schoolhouse, DeMores Elementary School, which accommodated grades 1-4 in one room and 5-8 in the other.
The building actually had three levels, enough space for students from 1st through 12th grade, but by the mid- to late-1970s, when I was there, there weren’t as many kids around to educate as there once had been. All told there were about 30-35, which included every kid from town and the surrounding ranches. For grades 9-12, students took a bus to the high school in Belfield, N.D., about half an hour to the east.
At some point the top floor had been blocked off; the teachers used it for storage. The lower level contained the bathrooms and a room where we did phy. ed. once a week when the traveling phy. ed. teacher came to our school.
I was the only boy in a fourth-grade class of four, and would have been the only boy in grades 5-8 if I’d been kept there the following year.
Late in that summer of 1978, my parents told me I wouldn’t be attending school in Medora. I’d be going to a more modern school in Fryburg instead, just a 20 minute bus ride from home. There were lots of other boys in the school, and lots more kids overall. It was going to be fun, they said.
I’d been in the same school room for four years. I knew nothing else. I was terrified.
But like most kids at that age I made friends quickly, and soon I was in a group of about 10-12 boys of all ages playing kickball and hanging around on the playground during recesses and after lunches eaten in the school’s gymnasium.
I was introduced to my first dip of chewing tobacco in that yard. Copenhagen. The hard stuff.
I have no idea how or where my friends got it; they just did. It seemed like all the older girls smoked, too. What can I tell you? It was the late ’70s.
I was pretty much a wimp about the dip. The taste was overwhelming, gagged me every time no matter how many times I tried. And I tried a lot; the drive to be like all the other boys was pretty strong for the younger ones like me, and especially for me because I was the new kid. My friends kept trying, bringing in different types, brands and flavors of smokeless tobacco, stuff in pouches, even plugs like my Dad took a bite out of now and again. I think it was Red Man that really got me going, the leaf tobacco in the racist package featuring a Native American chief. But I wanted to be like all the others, dipping from a tin. One day someone brought in a can of wintergreen Happy Days. It’s between-the-lip-an’-gums tobacco, just like Copenhagen but not as harsh.
That I liked, and kept using anytime my friends bought me a new tin. I never bought my own, and I don’t recall ever paying anyone to buy one for me, but I must have. Friendship only goes so far with kids who have their own habits to support, and their habits went beyond tobacco.
Many of the kids in 5th through 8th grade in Fryburg drank, too. I distinctly remember seeing boys and girls sipping from tiny little bottles of whiskey and vodka that winter, walking around the multi-acre field that was the school’s playground. Way out on the far end, away from the school, that was the place. The teachers almost never wandered out that far, preferring instead to holler at us to come on back when lunchtimes were over.
One weekend I slept over at the house of three of my friends, brothers who were really popular. That evening we met up with some of the other local boys and, even though it was pretty cold, we went to an abandoned, less-than-airtight shack they knew of on the edge of town to hang out. One of them slipped me a new tin of Happy Days, and the others started emptying their pockets. Cans and bottles of beer, tiny bottles of liquor and one big bottle.
I’d tasted beer before, from my Dad. I didn’t like it much, but I always begged for a sip when he hung out on our front porch with his friends after work. They’d have a couple of cold Olympias, break peanuts out of their shells and bullshit each other.
Someone handed me a beer and I drank, laughing while the other boys bullshitted each other and passed the big bottle around. Shootin’ the breeze, Dad called it, and there I was, doing the same. It was a big moment, even considering the days of infamy on the horizon.
Come the spring of 1979, when the snow inevitably started melting, teachers and school staff began picking up full cans of beer and tiny whiskey and vodka bottles, empties, from the school yard as they emerged from snowbanks. Empty cigarette packages and chewing tobacco tins, too.
One morning during the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, the principal started interrupting various classrooms with the intercom, asking that the teacher send this student or that student down to his office. A while later he’d come back on to ask for another student, then another, then another. By mid-morning my 5th/6th-grade classroom only had about five students left, myself included. I don’t know about the others, but I had a pretty good idea what was going on.
Our teacher gave up on actually trying to conduct lessons and gave us a couple of projects to work on together as a group, instead. This went on the rest of the morning, through lunch and into the afternoon. About 1 p.m. the intercom crackled and the principal came on. I cringed.
“Yes,” my teacher (whose real name escapes me now) answered.
“Can you please send Marty Fredricks down to the offices, please?”
It was almost a relief. All morning and through lunch, figuring kids were getting in trouble for alcohol and tobacco, and there I was, guilty, trying to sit out the inquisition.
The principal and several teachers were in the room when I entered, and on a table off to the side sat contraband tins and packages and bottles and cans, edge to edge. It practically overflowed with all the filthy refuse of our sins.
The questioning began. What had I indulged in? [Chew, nothing else (bit of a fib, that)]. Who gave it to me? (No response). How many times? (A few…well, O.K., lots).
It ended with the principal saying that, for penance, I needed to write a paper of no fewer than 1,000 words explaining who I thought I was. I was to turn it in before the end of the school year or I wouldn’t be able to begin 6th grade that fall.
“Oh, and by the way, we’ll be calling your parents about this,” he said. “They’ll know before you get home.”
Jesus of Nazareth
It was with a deep sense of dread that I boarded the bus back to Medora that afternoon. My mom was the disciplinarian in the family, and she was going to… heaven knew what, but it was damn sure gonna be bad.
My parents were devout Catholics. Church every Sunday; catechism classes in the summer at another town about half an hour away because there wasn’t a teacher in our tiny town during the school year; the confession booth regularly; stations of the cross on Ash Wednesdays; and no meat on Fridays during Lent. The whole shootin’ match.
I dragged my feet the few blocks from where the bus dropped me to the trailer house we lived in that year on the edge of town, trying to delay the inevitable. When I opened the door, my mother’s voice shot out from the back of the trailer where the bedrooms were.
“Martin Cornelius Fredricks the Fourth!” she hollered, and I could hear her walking down the hallway toward the kitchen where I now stood, waiting. Mom was a heavy walker even in the lightest of moods. But, boy-o, when she was pissed, you knew it; the rapid-fire STOMP! STOMP! STOMP! STOMP! STOMP! shook the place.
“Yeah, Ma?” I responded as she emerged into the kitchen light.
“Don’t ‘Yeah, Ma’ me, mister,” she yelled. “You’re in big trouble!”
“I know, Ma, I know,” I said sheepishly.
“What were you thinking!” she shouted. It wasn’t really a question, but more of a shaming statement, one I was more than a little accustomed to. “You know what this means, don’t you!”
“Yeah,” I said softly.
“I’m gonna have to watch ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’”
She burst into laughter. Couldn’t stop for a while, even with her hand clamped tightly over her mouth.
All I remember after that was a tremendous feeling of relief I’d caught her off guard, pulled her out of the tornado of wrath that she was about to bring down on my head.
For the unindoctrinated, “Jesus of Nazareth” is a six-hour-plus miniseries about the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ that debuted in 1977. According to Adele Reinhartz, in her book, “Bible and Cinema: Fifty Key Films,” Pope Paul VI, “…endorsed the programme in his public address for the holiday and recommended the faithful to view it.” Mom obliged, and the whole family sat in front of the TV for three long hours for each of two nights. It re-ran in 1978, and was going to be on again over the 1979 Easter weekend.
As I approached our house that spring afternoon, it wasn’t the worst thing I could think of for probable punishments, but it was close.
I’m almost certain the punishment wasn’t as harsh as it might have been. What I do remember is that a couple of weeks later our parents told us we’d be moving to Jamestown, N.D., as soon as school let out for the year.
I never did write that essay.
Thank you, Jesus.
We spent that Easter with my Mom’s folks, Ben and Laura Jund, who lived in yet another tiny North Dakota town, Zeeland, just a couple of miles north of the border of South Dakota, an area where many Germans from Russia settled when they immigrated in the 1800s.
I’ve often told folks over the years that Zeeland is “down below the sauerkraut curtain,” a combined reference to the fermented cabbage so many Germans from Russia are fond of and life behind the dreaded metaphorical “Iron Curtain” that kept citizens of the U.S.S.R. from escaping to The West in those days.
Grandpa owned the grocery store. His rival across the street had folded before I was born, so his was the only store in town for many, many years. As such, it carried items one wouldn’t expect to find in a grocery store these days: shoes, workwear, dresses, make-up, that kind of thing. Every year at Easter each of the male grandchildren received a brand-new pair of Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars from Grandpa’s store. Black low-tops. Very cool.
All of Mom’s brothers and sisters were there, each with their respective families. Five siblings, five spouses, three kids each, my grandparents… 27 people in all. It was tight in their little four-bedroom house, but somehow we always made it work. And Easter always meant a hunt for eggs and baskets for each of the grandchildren.
So, April 15, 1979.
A beautiful, semi-sunny morning, like I said. It was going to be warm, you could tell. Warm by North Dakota standards, anyway; close to 47°F. Right then, though, it was still chilly, around freezing on the thermometer.
My face was on fire, even so. Lots of giggles and remarks that were supposed to be funny, I suppose, thrown my way.
Head hanging, chin on my chest, I opened my eyes and looked into the basket. There it was, right next to the solid milk chocolate bunny – a full Happy Days tin. I turned my back to all the other people, crying hard, starting to get mad. And then…
Grandpa’s hand on my shoulder.
“I heard you kind of like this,” he chided, patting me on the back a couple of times. I pushed my chin harder into my chest.
“That’s O.K.,” he said, picking the can out of my basket. He turned it over and, pointing to the bottom, said, “See, it’s expired anyway.” And it was. Date was some time in February.
I gasped out a guffaw. He laughed his kind laugh and handed me his handkerchief to wipe my tears. Then we walked back to everyone, his hand on the back of my neck as we went. Solid back slaps from my uncles, partially hidden grins from my aunts, awkward looks from my cousins.
Later, after Mass and before Easter dinner, the cousins wanted to see the tin; none of them had done anything like that before, they told me, mostly with derision but mixed with something else, too. Not admiration, certainly, but I knew I’d never again be viewed as the innocent little redhead most of them thought I was before.
Easter, Decades Later
April 12, 2020. No church services today in the midst of the pandemic. No Easter baskets, either; our kids are too old now, or so they tell me.
Based on my Internet search, it looks like the Mr. Bubble car has been updated since I was a kid. The one in the photo I found that at least looks like the one I rode in is now at the Harold Schafer Heritage Center in Medora.
During one of the oil boom-bust cycles, the DeMores Elementary School was torn down; a million-dollar-plus replacement sits on the site now, but it doesn’t serve any more kids than when I was there. Or so I’ve been told by locals.
Last I heard of the school in Fryburg, the producers of the film “Wooly Boys” were shooting scenes in the gymnasium where I used to eat my lunches.
My grandparents and both parents are gone, now. I think about them a lot this time of year. I still own a pair of black Chuck Taylors, but high-tops. I haven’t watched Jesus of Nazareth again, but I’m starting to think maybe I’d like to, just for old times’ sake. We’ll see.
All these years later, I get that my offense had to be acknowledged with the family. I understand that it had to be public. And I know that, even though they’d embarrassed me but good, I felt better because of it.
After high school I stopped going by “Marty.” Never did like the name. I didn’t chew tobacco again until college. Different brand, though. Smoked during that time, too. Now, it’s been decades since I put a dip between my lip and gums or took a drag on a cigarette. That’s something to smile and feel good about.
Smiling today, too, at the memory of that expired Happy Days tin, Grandpa Ben’s strong grocer’s hand on my shoulders and the sun peeking out from behind the clouds.
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