I was not raised in South Dakota. I’m a California kid that grew up in a South Bay area city called Torrance (which, by the way, hosts the largest Armed Forces Day Parade in the nation every May). However, I come from two imports to the Golden Bear state—my dad, born in Scotland and raised in West Virginia; and my mom, who was born in North Dakota and raised on a farm in South Dakota.
I kind of wish we had made it back to West Virginia to visit those relatives at least once while I was growing up. Never did. But we more than made up for it with our trips to South Dakota. While we visited other destinations while growing up, I have to say the South Dakota ones were among the most memorable. I’d guess we ventured back there was a family at least a half-dozen times during my stay at the Hunter estate.
It was a combination of driving and flying trips. I’m told that my first trip back occurred when I was a baby. Dad was exhausted, but the trio headed out anyway in our green ’57 Chevy Bel Air. Since this was shortly after the Jurassic Period and in the days before air conditioning, the conventional wisdom was to do the bulk of your driving during the overnight hours, to take advantage of those cooler temperatures. Of course, what else do people do at night? Sure enough, on my first trip back, I’m told my dad fell asleep behind the wheel and we ran off the road. This was also back in the days before such luxuries as seat belts. As the car eventually came to a stop, the passenger door popped open, as my mom held on to me tightly. It would be decades later before I would hear this story for the first time. Most likely, it had to do with the statute of limitations thing.
Now, flying back then was also an adventure. Because my dad worked for the “friendly skies” of United Airlines, we flew dirt cheap, but on stand-by. I remember flying United into Omaha and then catching a North Central prop plane that puddle jumped it’s way north to Aberdeen, the airport nearest our relatives. One year, we tried the Minneapolis route, but it was so popular, there was no stand-by room for a family of five. So, after sleeping in the airport overnight and being bumped off another flight, we rented a car and drove the rest of the way to South Dakota.
Who was there? Pretty much all of my mom’s side of the family, including the cousins I would see every couple of years. There were my grandparents, Emma and Emil Brandner, along with my Aunt Irene, Aunt Virginia, Aunt Doris and Aunt Judy, Aunt Yvonne and the assorted uncles. The routine was to get in, use the grandparents’ house as a headquarters, then visit the various family members for a night or two. In the early years, my grandparents lived on a working farm—as in milking cows, feeding chickens, raising hogs, etc. For a city kid from California, it was a pretty big eye-opening experience.
We have home movies that document all those trips back and this summer during a rather impromptu reunion, we delivered DVD copies for all to see and relive some of those visits. While we managed to work in some touristy things, visit a few family member grave sites and shop a little, the stories that were told of a South Dakota long ago were the real treasures we brought back.
One of my mom’s friends from her early years came by and that triggered a memory of Aunt Virginia, who was hired to babysit that same woman when Virginia was just 9. Apparently, her family came to my grandparents home and “checked out” Virginia for a two week babysitting stint.
Virginia also flashed back on the time when she and my mom needed to go out and round up the cattle. With such things as shoes a luxury, my grandfather improvised and made some ‘shoes’ for them to wear into the field—using cut up inner tubes and some rivets.
My cousin Clay also provided some great stories, including the fact that he drove a car for the very first time when he was just five. It wasn’t for a long distance, but his dad needed to drive the tractor, so Clay got behind the wheel when most kids were just starting kindergarten.
Our visit this time around was a bit of a whirlwind, but it was so great to get back to the place I hadn’t visited since 2007, and seeing some relatives I hadn’t seen in decades. While some of the young adults were just kids the last time we met, my cousins and I clicked like it had just been a couple of months since we last talked. Of course, Facebook helps us stay connected better than any letter-writing did back in the day, but it was so cool—seeing Ronda, Clay, Curt, Pamela, Corinne, their spouses and families, we just picked right off where we had left off.
I couldn’t resist and so I put some excerpts of the trip together in my weekly podcast, which you can listen to right here.
Another South Dakota trip in the books. Another reminder that, when it comes to family, I’m a pretty lucky guy.