Impromptus

South Dakota Journal, Part I

by Jay Nordlinger

Last year, I did a North Dakota Journal. I was in that state — the least visited in the United States — to investigate the oil boom. The fracking miracle. For the resulting piece in National Review, go here. If you’re interested in the journal, the three parts are here, here, and here.

And now, South Dakota. I’ve been in that state in order to do a story from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The story will appear in an October issue of NR. Care for a journal, as a kind of supplement? If so, great. If not — that’s great too.

Anyway, here we go . . .

As I head into Rapid City from the airport, I have a political thought, for some reason: McGovern didn’t carry this state. He didn’t carry his home state when he ran for president in 1972. That must be kind of embarrassing: not to carry your home state. The state you represent in the Senate.

He did win Massachusetts and D.C., though. (Sixteen years later, Fritz carried his home state, Minnesota, plus D.C.)

Western South Dakota is just what it’s supposed to be. The sky is big and beautiful, with enormous clouds. The landscape is panoramic. “It’s the visual equivalent of surround sound,” I think. The Black Hills live up to their billing.

Yes, this is seriously beautiful country. The Indians must have hated to relinquish it. (Not that I’m advocating the nursing of grievances.)

I pass a Roosevelt Park. I’m assuming the Roosevelt is Teddy, not Franklin — because of TR’s association with the Dakotas (and with the West at large).

Plenty of things in Rapid City are called Rushmore — because Mt. Rushmore is just a half-hour away.

You want some fun with spellings? The Dacotah Bank.

I must say, the Dakota Mill & Grain building looks quite beautiful: both beautiful and utilitarian. There’s no reason that beauty can’t go with agribusiness.

New York Street seems a little out of place in this town. But then I think, “It probably refers to New York State, not merely Times Square.” And New York State is a place of many, many small towns and much, much farmland.

At the hotel, the manager on duty is a woman named Aufdengarten. That’s the sort of name that people should have, I think, in South Dakota (land of German immigration).

Out my window, I see a dinosaur. A dinosaur on a distant hill. What the . . .? I thought this was a land of bison, not dinosaurs.

(Turns out that Rapid City has had a dinosaur park since 1936. They don’t move, as in the Steven Spielberg movies, but they’re kind of nice all the same.)

It feels good to hold a newspaper in my hand. Been a long time. And what’s in the Rapid City Journal today? At the tippy-top of the front page, there’s a little notice about Syria. But the page has these headlines:

“Newt Johnson Named Athlete of the Week.” “Toddler Calls for Help, Saves a Life.” “Fields Drying Out from Heat.” “Oscar Meyer Wienermobile Stops in Rapid City.” “Swanson Resigns from School Board.”

That’s just what a paper, except for a few national ones, should be. I would not want to stop progress — but I will miss this kind of paper.

In the park, or a park, is a curious-looking statue: It’s of a handsome, youngish man with a mustache, sitting in a wheelchair. You don’t see that every day. Who is it? Scotty Backens, a late local disability activist.

There is a war memorial: commemorating World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Gulf War. It stops there. I wonder whether there will be an add-on for the Afghan and Iraq wars.

In the World War I section, there’s a quote from President Wilson. And in the WWII section, a quote from FDR. Korea, Truman. Vietnam, LBJ. The Gulf War, the first Bush.

The LBJ quote includes these words: “We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else.”

Let me quote more fully from that speech (given in July 1965):

Our power . . . is a very vital shield. If we are driven from the field in Viet-Nam, then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American protection.

In each land the forces of independence would be considerably weakened and an Asia so threatened by Communist domination would certainly imperil the security of the United States itself.

We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else.

Nor would surrender in Viet-Nam bring peace, because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another country, bringing with it perhaps even larger and crueler conflict, as we have learned from the lessons of history.

Moreover, we are in Viet-Nam to fulfill one of the most solemn pledges of the American nation. Three Presidents — President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, and your present President — over 11 years have committed themselves and have promised to help defend this small and valiant nation.

For the complete text, go here.

Rapid Creek — after which Rapid City is named — is a modest-looking thing. It’s hard to believe it could have done so much damage: so much damage in 1972, when the creek flooded, killing over 200.

Then again, I later see the creek when it’s true to its name: rapid, very.

Downtown, I bump into presidents, lots of them. This is the City of Presidents, where life-size bronze statues of our presidents stand on every corner, or many corners. Who’s that guy with the birds? Sculpted birds, I mean, not visiting pigeons. Is that St. Francis?

No, it’s Benjamin Harrison. Whether he had a bird thing, I don’t know.

Who’s that westerner, with the cowboy hat, boots, and saddle? Some Texan in our past? No, Calvin Coolidge, the Vermonter. Go figure.

Hoover, like other presidents, has a high collar, and he looks terribly overdressed on a hot, hot day like today. He must be roasting. Bush the Elder, I must say, looks great, standing next to a globe. He cuts a sleek statue.

Eisenhower is dressed, not as the president, but as the general. Nixon is sitting down, with his hands together, looking thoughtful. Plotting? Polk leans on a barrel that says “54° 40’ or Fight.”

I hate to say this — Democrats won’t like it, if any are reading — but Clinton looks totally and appropriately snake-oily. He looks like a huckster, or the worst kind of televangelist, with a microphone.

Kennedy is holding a toy airplane in one hand and a little boy’s hand in the other. Is the boy John-John? I can’t help thinking that JFK Jr. died in a plane crash. Harding is pictured, or sculpted, with a large dog.

I really like the way they handled FDR — the solution they came up with. Remember when the people in charge of the National Mall put him in a wheelchair, though FDR had fought for years never to be seen in a wheelchair? Remember that debate, concerning the FDR Memorial? Should Roosevelt be turned into a kind of disabilities advocate?

The Rapid City people do something really neat: They show him leaning against a podium. The podium has microphones on it: for CBS, NBC, and so on. Tucked behind the podium, discreetly, is a cane.

Such a classy way to handle this issue.

I would think that the Rapid City presidents would be an excellent educational experience for children. I should say, too, that there is a sprinkling of Indian notables, or Native American notables, as there should be (probably). I should say this too: There must be no vandalism here, or very little. I don’t see any pigeons either.

On consecutive days, I have a bison burger. That may be two more bison burgers than I’ve ever had before. I do this on “When in Rome” grounds.

I wonder, “Am I turning into Billy Casper?” (Casper was a great golfer who famously went on a diet of buffalo meat. From that, he got the nickname “Buffalo Bill.”)

Now to the question of “pop” versus “soda”: What do they say here in Rapid City? Both, actually. I hear people say both. And I see both written. So, a bilingual city.

See you for Part II tomorrow.