My wife saved a clipping from the April 5, 2013, issue of the Wall Street Journal. I had not seen the hard copy and can't remember if I linked the electronic version. I'm sure you can find it if you google the headline, "In North Dakota, Oil Brings Housing Squeeze." It's another one of many stories about the impossible housing situation in the Bakken oil patch. I remember polling folks about a year or so ago, asking whether folks thought the housing situation would have improved by now. Apparently, housing is still a big issue. I have some thoughts about that but will leave them to myself. I am posting for other reasons right now.
The hard copy includes a huge photograph of a young mother, perhaps 28 years old with two children, one daughter about 2 years of age in her arms, and a male toddler, perhaps four or at most five years of age. They are standing in front of some austere trailer houses, and although it cannot be seen, the landscape behind them is probably just as austere.
To folks who have not experienced such austere living conditions on the prairie, this has to make them wince, and ask why anyone would put up with this.
For me it brings back sweet memories. When my mom and dad moved from Bismarck to Williston, I was two or three years old. This must have been in 1953 or 1954. I don't remember much then, but I do remember my dad rocking me to sleep, watching the airport beacon light go round and round. The house was very, very small, and was probably smaller than the typical single-wide trailer home, and certainly with less amenities than trailer homes have now.
A couple years later, we moved to a wonderful, large, "Larson and Stang" house, pretty much on the edge of town. I remember digging "forts" in an empty field only a block away from our home. At first the street was dirt and gravel, but within a few years it was paved.
There were no trees. It was prairie and it was austere. My dad planted trees and today they are overgrowing the original lot. Looking back, one really wonders how families remained in such a place. But we did. And over the years it got better. My siblings and I had an outstanding public school education, and because the school census was generally small throughout the years, we could participate in any activity. And we did.
We always said we did not live at the end of the world, but we could see the end of the world from where we lived.
But the experiences did not seem to hurt us. A lot of folks went on to bigger and better things.
Vice Admiral Donald F. Hagen, the thirty-first surgeon general of the US Navy, was a native of Williston, North Dakota.
Phil Jackson, NBA player and NBA coach, was a native of Williston, North Dakota, taking the Williston High School team to state. I think I was in middle school, or as we called it then, "junior high," when Phil Jackson was a high school senior. I know my dad was very impressed watching him play those years. I did not care much for crowds and did not attend many games.
I cannot imagine a more remote place, a more difficult place to grow up. The winters, we were told, were horrendous. We did not know anything different, so I don't recall them as being so bad.
But I look at the photograph in the Wall Street Journal. My heart goes out to the young mom. I can only assume she will have days that she will absolutely hate Williston. Maybe not. There is so much more in Williston now than there was when I was growing up. But she also knows there's a lot more in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Denver, even Fargo or Bismarck. [The caption says she is a teacher, which suggests she sought this assignment/location.]
But, as my daughter says, life is a journey. I look at her two children in the photograph and wonder what the future holds for them.
When I was younger, I wanted a lot of material things. Now that I am older, money does not mean much, and material things mean even less. [I can say that; I have a comfortable retirement -- no minerals. I know
others are not as fortunate, and thank God daily how things have turned
out.] I am very much like Scobie in Graham Greene's book The Heart of the Matter. As I've grown older my possessions become less.
It does not take much to keep children happy. When I look at that photograph, I don't see the austere housing. I don't see the austere prairie. All I really see are the children. Their housing will not define them and their housing will not determine who or what they become. I hope it all works out for them. It will be very, very tough, but the rewards can be great.