< Previous News   |  Next News >

Finally (!) Leaving Bismarck

After spending seven weeks in Bismarck, North Dakota doing family research, I left on a cool and sunny Friday afternoon in mid-October.  As I got onto Interstate 94 heading west, I wasn't sure if I wanted to drive straight back to Bellingham or dip south and spend a week or two traveling through Colorado, Utah and northern California before heading back to the Northwest.

 

On the one hand, I really loved the Southwest and hadn't been to Colorado, where I had worked for many years as a ranger in the 1980s, for over six years.  On the other hand, late fall is my least favorite time to travel and, from my ranger experience, I knew how cold and snowy it could get in southern Colorado during late October.  Also, after the September 11th attacks, I was looking forward to seeing my dad and my sister Doti again in Bellingham.  As I drove down the Interstate chasing the sun heading west, I weighed my options.  I usually have a plan before I hit the road but not this time.

Dickinson:  Where My Mom Met My Dad

I pulled off Interstate 94 late that afternoon and drove into Dickinson, the largest city in western North Dakota.  A Normal School (i.e., teacher's college) was built in Dickinson in the early 1900s and up until World War II, hundreds of elementary and high school teachers had been taught here. 

 

The demand for teachers dropped during the war, however, so the building was converted into a Naval Officer Training School, something like in the movie, "An Officer and a Gentleman."  Dozens of Navy V-12 schools like this popped up around the country during the war to churn out officers.  Far from any ocean, V-12 schools like the one in Dickinson involved only classroom instruction and were the first step in a rigorous program of officer training during which many cadets washed out.  After the war, the Normal School became Dickinson State University.

 

Above:  My dad's senior portrait in 1941 at Skykomish High School in Washington

Above:  My mom's senior portrait in 1943 at Bismarck High School in North Dakota.

In December 1941, my dad was an 18-year-old freshman attending Western Washington Teacher's College in Bellingham, Washington.  The Japanese attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, plunging the U.S. into World War II, and the next day my dad tried to enlist with the U.S. Navy.  Since he was in college, though, the Navy recruiters told him to stay in school for another year, then enroll in Officer Training School and become an officer instead of joining the Navy immediately and becoming an enlisted man.

 

In June 1943, after completing his sophomore year at Western Washington, he and several other Naval officer recruits were sent to Dickinson to attend the newly-opened Officer Training School there.  Dickinson's first group of officer candidates, including my dad, arrived from Seattle by train on Wednesday, June 30, 1943.  Three days later, on Saturday, July 3, the Dickinson community held a U.S.O. dance to welcome the cadets.

 

 

Here's a song I'm sure my parents danced to in 1943.  This is In The Mood from Glenn Miller.

   

During that same week in 1943, my mom, who was 18 and had just graduated from Bismarck High School, took a bus out to Dickinson to visit a girlfriend of hers there, Colleen Tobin.  Colleen's mother was on the USO's dance committee and was worried that there weren't going to be enough girls at the dance, since it was the 4th of July weekend and many families were out of town.  Mrs. Tobin pleaded with her daughter and my mom to go to the dance.  At first, my mom refused to go because she didn't like the Navy because she thought all sailors were sleazy scalawags.  In deference to Mrs. Tobin, though, she finally relented and went to the dance with her friend, Colleen.

 

A few weeks before I visited Dickinson, while I was in Bismarck, I read a front-page article in the Dickinson newspaper dated July 3, 1943, the day of the dance.  According to the article, "Girls at the dance will not be permitted to tell the cadets their last names, supply telephone numbers nor make dates.  The cadets will not be allowed to take the girls home after the dance."  That was just as my mom had once told me.

 

Above:  During World War II, Dickinson State Teacher's College was converted into a U.S. Navy officer training facility -- a so-called "Navy V-12 School."  My parents met here in 1943 the day after my dad arrived in North Dakota.

As you probably guessed, my dad met my mom at the dance that night.  Naval regulations notwithstanding, my dad asked if he could walk her home and they decided to meet outside and across the street after the dance was over.  He walked her home that night and she asked him if he'd like to go horseback riding the next day.  My dad, who had never ridden a horse in his life (but didn't admit it to her), enthusiastically said yes.  In fact, he told her that he loved riding horses.  Smart move, dad!

 

The next day, four of them -- my dad, mom, Colleen and one of my dad's Navy buddies -- went on a horseback-riding double-date on the plains near Dickinson.  My dad bounced up and down in his saddle for four hours and then hobbled home with a raw backside; his white Navy pants had turned red from the blood stains.  My mom probably wasn't overwhelmed with my dad's equestrian skills, but he must have made a good impression otherwise because they got married a few months later.

 

After graduating from Navy V-12 school in 1943, my parents moved to Chicago where my dad graduated from Navy Midshipmen's School in 1944 and became an officer.  After that they moved to Florida, where he trained in one of the first groups of Navy SEALs (called "Scouts and Raiders" back then).  Then he was sent to China to fight the Japanese and later told me some harrowing stories about his experiences there.  Starting as an Ensign, the lowest rank of Naval officer, he left the Navy in 1946 and returned to America, now a Lieutenant.

 

I had spent much of the past four months driving around America while researching my family's history so, of course, I had to see the place where my parents met.  I told this story to a nice woman at the Chamber of Commerce in Dickinson, but she said that the Community Building, where the dance was held in 1943, had been torn down the previous year.  She gave me directions to the lot where it had once stood, though, so I drove out to see it.  As I stood there in the empty lot, I tried to imagine what that night in 1943 must have been like.  I could almost hear the music.

 

       

Above left:  Dickinson State University in Dickinson, North Dakota.  During World War II, my dad attended Naval Officer Training School in this building, May Hall.

Above center:  This was May Hall in 1943.  It had been Dickinson Teacher's College before World War II but during the war it was converted to a Navy V-12 school to train officers.  That's my dad in his Navy uniform, behind the fellow in front.

Above right:  My mom and dad ice skating near Dickinson in 1943 shortly after they met.  They married a few months later, before my dad was sent to China to fight in World War II.  He still has that Western Washington University sweater.

 

   

Above left:  A front page story in the Dickinson newspaper on July 2, 1943.  A dance was to be held on Saturday night at the Community Building for the newly-arrived naval officer candidates.  As it states, "Girls at the dance will not be permitted to tell the cadets their last names, supply telephone numbers nor make dates."  Yeah, right!

Above right:  Unfortunately the Dickinson Community Building, where my parents had met in 1943, was torn down last year.  This is the empty lot (with my truck, of course).  After the dance in 1943, my mom walked across the street to meet my dad and the rest is history.  Good thing for me they didn't follow those dance rules!

 

   

Above left:  My mom's friend, Colleen Tobin, on the horseback ride the day after my parents met at the dance in July 1943.  My mom's horse is on the left.

Above right:  My dad, dressed in his Navy cap and white pants, on my parent's first date.  He bounced up and down so much in the saddle that he had blood stains on his backside -- but I'm sure he didn't complain!

Close Encounters at Devils Tower

After visiting the site where my parents met, I stopped at a Burger King in Dickinson late that afternoon and ate a Whopper and fries for dinner, while deciding which way to proceed:  south to Colorado or west straight home to Washington.  I decided on Colorado, so I drove south on a two-lane highway for a few hours and pulled into the small town of Bowman, North Dakota around 9 p.m.  This being hunting season, the motels in Bowman were jammed and the only room available was cloaked in a heavy fog of cigarette smoke.  Not wanting to pay $40 for a motel room and the privilege of smelling like a pack of Marlboros for the next three days, I decided to instead sleep in my pickup truck next door in a church parking lot. 

 

Above:  On U.S. 83 near Belle Fourche, South Dakota and just a few miles from the geographic center of the 50 states.

Always having a place to sleep is one reason why I like pickup trucks.  I used to sleep in parking lots quite a bit during my younger (and poorer) traveling days, but this was the first and only time that I'd done so on this trip.  There's no shower in the morning but hey, it's a cheap way to travel.

 

Early the next morning, I headed into South Dakota and drove by the geographic center of the United States, which is just off Highway 83.  In the late morning I reached one of my favorite places in America, Devil's Tower National Monument in northeastern Wyoming.  Even if you haven't been to Devils Tower, you'd probably recognize it if you've seen the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," since it was the source of Richard Dreyfuss' obsession in that film.

 

I'd been to Devils Tower twice before, both times during the late spring, and always had a great time.  Indeed, it's one of my very favorite national parks in the U.S.  This time was different, though:  the skies were gray, the air was crisp, the campground was closed, the leaves had fallen, and the park was nearly deserted.  It was kind of depressing, actually.  As I hiked around the base of Devils Tower, I changed my mind and decided to just head straight back to Bellingham instead of going to Colorado.  I missed the Northwest too much and just wanted to get home.

 

       

Above left:  Belle Fourche (pronounced "Bell Foosh"), South Dakota, is located a few miles south of the geographic center of the United States.

Above center:  Back in the late 1800s, a guy named Harry Longabaugh spent several months in the Sundance, Wyoming jail for rustling cattle.  Ever afterwards, he was known as the "Sundance Kid."

Above right:  Entering Devils Tower National Monument in northeastern Wyoming.  It was cold, gray, and dreary when I was there, not at all like my other visits to this park.

 

       

Above left:  According to Indian legend, the sides of Devils Tower were scraped by a giant grizzly bear who was trying to climb it.  Geologists, on the other hand, claim it's a geologic formation known as "columnar basalt."  I prefer the Indian version. 

Above center:  Each year, along with grizzly bears, hundreds of mountain climbers try to climb Devils Tower.  Can you see the climbers making their way to the top?

Above right:  Over two billion prairie dogs lived on the Great Plains in 1800.  The habitat has since shrunk to a few small pockets, including here at Devils Tower.  Cute critters, eh?

Across the Plains of Montana

After leaving Devils Tower around noon, I hopped onto Interstate 90 near Gillette, Wyoming and drove west, then spent the night at an EconoLodge in the quintessentially Western town of Livingston, Montana.

 

Here's Jimmy Buffett singing about A Livingston Saturday Night.

 
   

For some strange reason, Jimmy Buffett once wrote a song about this place, which he called "A Livingston Saturday Night."  Contrary to his lively description in the song, though, the town seemed pretty dead on this chilly Saturday night in October.

 

Nevertheless, I thought Livingston was interesting with its scads of charismatic brick buildings, many dating back to the 1800s, that give the town an authentic Western feel.  As I strolled around town, I felt like I'd stepped back a hundred years and was expecting to see a fight break out in one of the bars and some dude wearing a Stetson hat crash through a window.  No such luck, though, so I moseyed back to the EconoLodge and flipped on CNN.

 

       

Above left:  After stopping in Gillette, Wyoming to refill my gas tank and get a Whopper, I got back on Interstate 90.  Gillette, a large yet desolate city on the high plains of Wyoming, has more house trailers per capita than any town I know.

Above center:  A sleepy Sunday morning in Livingston, Montana.

Above right:  With its brick facades, Livingston is a quintessentially Western town.

 

       

Above left:  End-of-the-season sign in Livingston.

Above center:  I found this photo in my grandmother Helga's photo album a few years ago.  This was a friend of hers and on the back, she had written "This is in Washoe Park in Anaconda.  Just fished my hat out of the stream. 1916."  The only Anaconda I knew was in Montana, so I stopped to see if there was a Washoe Park there.

Above right:  Sure enough, there is.  This is where the photo was taken.  I believe the woman was a high school friend of Helga's from Fessenden, North Dakota.

Completing my Circle around America

It was chilly the next morning as I left Livingston.  I got back on Interstate 90 and, after driving through Bozeman, Butte, and Anaconda, I got a motel room that evening in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where I enjoyed watching the Seattle Mariners beat the New York Yankees in the playoffs.  I left Coeur d'Alene the next morning and drove west on I-90 across Washington, a rather bland drive, especially on a chilly and gray day in late October.

 

Before I returned to Bellingham, I wanted to make one last stop on my U.S. trip, and that was in the small town of Skykomish, Washington, which is located on the western flank of the Cascade Mountains.  My dad grew up in Skykomish during the Great Depression and has told me many stories of his father, George.  From the 1930s into the 1960s, my grandfather owned a small grocery store in Skykomish, which he called "Leu's Market," and he worked hard to eke out a living for his family.  My dad's mother, a lively woman named Minnie May, raised him and his five siblings.  The Leu family had a tough go of it during the Depression; such times I can hardly imagine.

 

To cap off my four-month tour of this beautiful country, here's Ray Charles singing America The Beautiful.

 
   

As I crossed over the crest of the Cascades at Stevens Pass, the drizzle turn to snow and then back to drizzle as I descended.  A half-hour later, I pulled into Skykomish.  I spent a few minutes there driving around town, then continued onto Monroe, where I visited the graves of my grandparents, George and Minnie May Leu.  According to a family legend, my grandfather George Leu briefly played professional baseball in Cleveland when he was a teenager in the early 1900s -- until he got beaned one day with a fastball.  Of my four grandparents, George was the only one I even vaguely remember and he died when I was five.  I had visited his wife Minnie's birthplace in Mayville, Michigan a few months earlier (see News:  August 10, 2001) and traced the history of her grandfather, Ransom Myers, the Union army Sergeant who had lost his left arm while fighting in the Civil War.

 

After giving my regards to George and Minnie at the Monroe cemetery, I hopped on Interstate 5 and headed north to Bellingham, then pulled into my dad's driveway late that afternoon during a blustery storm.  After being gone for over four months, I was home again.

 

   

Above left:  Some roadshots during the last day of my four month trip around the U.S.  This is driving across the bleak wheat fields of central Washington. 

Above right:  And over Washington's Cascade Mountains on Highway 2.

 

       

Above left:  I encountered the first snowfall of my trip here at Stevens Pass (elevation 4,061').  With winter on the way, I figured this was a good time to head home to Bellingham -- and then down to the southern hemisphere.

Above center:  My dad grew up in the tiny town of Skykomish, Washington (pop. 365) during the Great Depression.  This is the high school he had attended in the 1930s, where he was a star on their championship basketball team.

Above right:  The last cemetery visit of my trip, I promise!  This is the gravesite of my dad's parents, George and Minnie May Leu, in Monroe, Washington.  George ran a grocery store in Skykomish from 1932 until shortly before his death in 1965, while Minnie raised six kids including my dad.  For more about George and Minnie, see My Dad's Ancestors:  Map and Photo Essay.

 

       

Above left:  Home, sweet home.  I returned to Bellingham on October 22, after 4-1/2 months on the road.  It was great to be back and to see my dad and sister again.

Above center:  My dad (far right) on the Bellingham School Board.  He's 78 years old and totally irrepressible.  After a 50-year career in education, he's done just about everything education-wise:  school teacher, principal, professor, dean of education, assistant superintendent of education for the state of Michigan, international education consultant, and now a school board member.

Above right:  A terrific birthday dinner that my sister Doti made for me last week in Bellingham.  After my mom passed away a few years ago, Doti moved up here from Oregon to look after my dad.  She's doing a wonderful job and he greatly appreciates her company.

Getting Ready for Part 2

I've been in Bellingham for the past month getting ready for my trip overseas and have been extremely busy here, putting it mildly.  It seems like there are a million things to do, especially since I'm planning to be overseas for eight months.  I'm trying to take care of everything before I go and to plan for contingencies.  Always have a Plan B in life, that's what I always say.  It's been a real learning process for me because this will be my first trip overseas. 

 

Along with all the logistical planning, I've been spending a lot of time on the Internet making reservations.  During the past month, I've made seven plane reservations, four car reservations, and numerous lodging reservations, and I've had to change some of those a few times as my plans have shifted.  And I won't even get into the whole issue of finances (setting up wire-transfers, online access, traveler's checks, extra credit cards, etc., etc.).

 

In between all the trip planning, though, dad, Doti and I spent a nice Thanksgiving at my cousin Bob's house in the Cascade Mountains near Skykomish.  Here are some photos:

 

   

Above left:  Thanksgiving at my cousin Bob's house in Grotto, near Skykomish.  That's my Uncle Bill opening the wine.  He was in the Navy during World War II and survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.  The next year, Bill's ship, the U.S.S. Neosho, was sunk in the south Pacific, but he survived that, as well.  My Aunt Dorothy and my dad are in the background.

Above right:  Thanksgiving dinner.  From left to right:  my cousin Bob, my sister Doti, Uncle Bill, Aunt Dorothy, my dad, and Aunt Lois.  During dinner, I described how to cook "Turducken" by stuffing a duck inside a chicken and turkey.  And speaking of duck, I told them how a guy in Florida was killed by a duck recently.  He was zipping around on a Jet Ski and ran into a flying duck (seriously).  So always be careful around ducks -- those are the other words I live by.

My Itinerary 

I'll be leaving Bellingham on Friday, December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day, though I'm hoping my trip won't be as disastrous) and will fly down to southern California and spend a day with my brother Dave and his wife.  Saturday evening, I'll board an Air New Zealand flight in Los Angeles bound for the island of Rarotonga in the South Pacific, arriving there bleary-eyed at 5:30 the next morning.  Rarotonga is supposed to be a beautiful island with lots of white, sandy beaches and palm trees, and apparently it's not nearly as touristy as Hawaii or Tahiti.  Best of all, it's cheap.

 

Above:  Ready to go!

After spending a few days in a beach-front studio on Rarotonga (and for only $30 a night), I'll fly on a tiny plane to the even smaller island of Aitutaki, about 150 miles away.  I read about Aitutaki in a travel book and it's supposed to be even more spectacular than Rarotonga.  I'll spend a couple nights on Aitutaki in a primitive beach-front studio (and for only $14 a night), then will fly back to Rarotonga and spend another day there.  After that, I'll fly to Auckland, New Zealand.

 

I've made reservations at a B&B north of Auckland, where I'll spend a few days getting ready for my two-month drive around New Zealand.  I'll probably rent a Toyota Corolla in Auckland, which will cost about $15 per day, but I may instead buy a pickup truck if I find something decent in the first few days that I'm in New Zealand.  The way it looks now, though, I'll be doing a lot of tenting around New Zealand instead of sleeping in my pickup on a comfy foam pad.  I'm not sure if my back will forgive me for that decision.

 

By the way, some people have asked me if I'm afraid to travel because of the 9/11 attacks.  Frankly I'm really not concerned about it because I figure that flight security is much higher now than it's ever been.  Actually, I'm more concerned about mundane things, like trying to remember to KEEP LEFT when I drive around New Zealand, and shifting gears with my left hand instead of my right.

 

That's about it, folks.  I hope you'll enjoy reading my future updates from New Zealand and Australia, and keep in touch!

 


 

Next News

 

 

Previous News