from the Prologue
Certain events slash across our lives like lightning, leaving us forever changed. For old-timers like me who grew up in or around Sioux Falls, South Dakota, such an event came on New Year's Eve 1936. We can still remember with crystalline clarity exactly where we were and what we were doing. Strangely, what went before seems cloudy, dreamlike, even Edenic. The year of 1936 was for many of us the last year of innocence. There were epic blizzards that winter. Shoveled paths became trenches from which we battled with hard-packed snowballs across a no-man's-land of drifts. Sled rides down the steep hills near the cathedral dropped us accelerating several feet per second per second, steel runners over ice, into a soggy spring, water running in all the gutters, in which we splashed with rubber galoshes, careless as pups. The hot summer sun dried the falls to a trickle. We stretched out on the red quartzite like lizards basking, then ran for the cliff edge and dived into the murky waters of the Big Sioux, great daring leaps, knowing nothing could kill us. That fall we sat in school pretending to read, listening to the World Series on radio, Yankees and Giants, while outside leaves whirled like sparrows around denuded trunks. And then the snow again, and Christmas, fewer toys and more practical gifts of clothing, and then all hell broke loose.
"What shall I ask?"
Alice laid her hands on the palette, the tips of her fingers touching mine.
"Ask who'll win the World Series next year," I told her. "I'll bet it's the Yankees."
"If you already know, what's the point of asking?" She jerked her head, and her blonde curls bounced and spilled over the shoulder of her sky-blue dress.
That ticked me, for some reason. I wanted to reach over and give her hair a pull. "The point is, I don't know. Nobody does. And this is cow-flop."
"Don't be nasty." She parted her lips in a funny smile.
"Cow-flop," I said again. "So what?" I would have liked to wipe that grin off her face.
"I know." She closed her eyelids over sky-blue pupils. "Ouija, Ouija, who will I marry?"
I groaned. "Whom," I said. "And who cares, anyway?" I liked to correct other people's grammar because my parents were always correcting mine. They were in the living room, which was swirling with cigarette smoke. My father was shouting something about F.D.R., trying to make himself heard over the dance music blaring from the Motorola console. The ornate cabinet radio was one of few concessions to modernity in our drafty old house, a restored Victorian relic that overlooked the city from the Cathedral district.
"Don't talk about politics," my mother was saying. "This is a party." The house had been her idea. She seemed at home among last century's marble-top tables and top-heavy secretaries. She borrowed her decorum from that period, as well.
I was watching my parents from the dining room. I remember they looked like figures in a movie or a play, framed by the oak arch, gesturing through a smoky haze. Alice and I were huddled at the dining table, under the crystal chandelier, our fingertips touching over the Ouija board, a Christmas gift from my Aunt Grace from Illinois.
"We don't even know what's going to happen from one minute to the next," I was telling her. "Who knows what's going to happen years and years from now?"
"Be quiet," she said. "It's moving."
"You're pushing it."
"No I'm not. You are. See, it's going to a letter."
"Stop shoving it."
"Look, it's stopped. J."
"Okay," I said, "that's it. There's no sense even doing this if you're going to be so obvious." I kept my hand on the palette, though. I didn't want to break the contact with her fingers. I was twelve years old and I was staying up to see in the new year, and my father had fixed me an eggnog with a couple drops of brandy in it. I thought I was getting drunk. "The music goes round and round," some guy with a gravelly voice was singing on the radio, "oh-oh-oh, oh-oh, and it comes out here."
Under our fingers, the palette seemed to be trembling.
"What's it doing now?" I said.
"N.F.A., W.P.A., T.V.A., C.C.C.," Alice's father droned from the living room. "Alphabet soup."
"It's moving again." Alice looked at me, and her pale eyes seemed frightened. "Are you moving it?"
"Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh," the raspy voice crooned.
We both looked down at the board. The palette had stopped again.
"S," I said. "J.S."
Just then the dining room window, which faced east, lit up with an orange flash, blinding at first, quickly fading back to black.
"What the hell?" I heard my father say.
I found myself counting, the way my father had taught me, to judge the distance of a lightning strike: ... three, four, five, six...
"...and it comes out here."
...nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen...
"Like the sun coming up," my mother said.
... eighteen, nineteen, twenty...
The report was like a cannon blast, deafening: DOOM! The table seemed to lurch, the floor shook, the window rattled, and as the rumble echoed across the Big Sioux valley, the crystal chandelier danced and tinkled, a kind of delicate music, like Japanese wind chimes. A jagged crack streaked diagonally down across the dining room window.
"Jesus Christ," my father said. I'd never heard him say that before, not with my mother around, anyway. "It's the gas tanks," he said. "I knew they would blow some day."
"A meteor," Alice said.
"A bomb," I contributed. "Anarchists." I'd been reading Conrad's The Secret Agent.
"Sounded like it came from downtown," my mother said. "Maybe somebody blew up Fantle's. All that Christmas money."
"Or First National," Alice's father said.
"Maybe it's the end of the world," Alice's mother said. She was sitting, primly holding a teacup of eggnog, in the horsehair easy chair, another compromise with the twentieth century. The others were standing, watching her, weighing the idea. She smiled. "I'm just kidding."
My father and Alice's father stared at each other. I could just about tell what they were thinking. my father was an editor for the Argus-Leader. Alice's father was a reporter for the paper.
"I'll call the police station," Alice's father said. He trotted out to the hall. If it was the end of the world, by God, he was going to cover it.
Alice and I looked at each other. We still had our fingers poised on the Ouija pointer. J.S., my initials. We pulled our hands away at the same time, as though caught in a conspiracy. I'm drunk, I remember thinking, or else I'm dreaming.
"Where are you going?" There was a panic in my mother's voice. She switched off the radio.
My father was punching his arm through a sleeve of his overcoat. "East of town. I'd say four, five miles, anyway."
"I counted to twenty," I said.
My father squinted at me. "Twenty. Good. I make that four miles."
"Why do you think you have to go?" my mother said. But I could tell by her voice she had no hope of talking him out of it.
"Can I go too?" I said.
Everyone swung their heads toward me and stared as though I'd gone crazy.
"Me too," Alice said. She was glaring at me, her mouth set firm and even.
"We can all go," Alice's mother said gaily. "We'll make a party out of it."
Alice's father strode back in from the hall. "Police line's tied up. I called the paper. Dill said he thought it was the Larson Hardware powder-house. It blew once before, twenty some years ago. Killed two kids that time. They'd been out plinking with a rifle." He was getting on his coat. I think he was already writing the sidebar in his head. "Dill said they've been getting calls from Rock Rapids, Canton, Dell Rapids."
"What if it explodes again?" my mother said.
My father considered that for a couple seconds. "I don't think so. It would all go right away."
"Made a hell of a hole, I'll bet," Alice's mother said. She took a sip of eggnog.
"We'll take our Chevy." My father clapped his hat on his head. "You want to go along?" He was talking to my mother, but he didn't dare look at her.
My mother sighed, giving in. "I guess so." She shuffled over to help Alice's mother out of the depths of the easy chair.
Alice's mother swayed, fighting to get her balance. She smiled pleasantly. "I think I'm going to be--"
Sick, she meant, but before she could say it, she was it. She bent forward and spewed eggnog on the maroon dress my mother was wearing for the holiday.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, go," my mother said. "We'll stay here." She was dabbing at her dress with a lace-edged hanky and trying to support Alice's mother at the same time. Everybody else was just standing there, watching, in shock. "Go," my mother said. She meant me and Alice, as well. It was just a choice of catastrophes, as far as she was concerned.
"I'm sorry," Alice's father said in the car later. "My wife is not used to strong drink." We all knew that was a lie, of course. She got tipsy whenever we got together, supplementing my father's sweetish drinks with covert swigs from a flask of rum she carried in her purse. Often on such occasions she would engage in entertaining displays, including one memorable summer picnic when she demonstrated the Hawaiian hula to a ukulele plunking "I Want to Go Back to My Little Grass Shack." My mother had told me that in an earlier decade Alice's mother had been a flapper, something my mother, apparently, would never be.
"Hold on," my father said. The Chevy sedan tipped forward and headed down the steep Sixth Street cobblestones toward Minnesota Avenue. I held on to the strap on the seat ahead of me. Alice held on to me.
"Careful," Alice's father warned, but it was too late. Mv father had taken the hill too fast. He didn't dare use the brake now for fear of skidding. He steered stiffly, trying to keep the rear end of the car from slurring sideways. Where the slope started to level, he finally stomped on the brakes and the car slid right past the stop sign and through the intersection. "Ha, ha," Alice's father said. It was like a laugh, only grim.
"Everybody all right?" my father asked. He'd got the car under control again. Nobody else said anything.
We turned onto Main and my father slowed so we could look over the store fronts. Every other store window seemed to be cracked, at least, and some were shattered completely. Shards of glass were sticking out of the snow on the sidewalk like inverted icicles. There were dozens of people, New Year's revelers, standing out under the streetlights, looking at the damage and talking to each other. Many were laughing, happy witnesses, glad they were alive.
"You thinking what I'm thinking?" Alice's father asked.
"Special edition," my father said. "Whee."
East on Tenth the cars were already starting to line up.
"Where exactly is the powder-house?" my father said.
"Just follow the crowd," Alice's father advised.
Tenth had turned into Highway 38 before the caravan swung south onto a little gravel road. We passed farm houses with black holes where windows had been. Clods of black dirt dotted the snowlined ditches. Then the parade stopped completely. The narrow road was blocked in both directions. People were piling out of their cars and trotting on further south.
"You kids stick with us, now," my father commanded. But he and Alice's father were already running, leaving us behind. They had the flashlights, too, but the overcast sky was glowing softly and provided just enough light to see.
"What's that smell?" Alice panted.
"Burned gunpowder, I think." The cold air was acrid with it.
As we loped closer, we had to dodge huge clumps of dirt and clay and chunks of rock and concrete. Then there was no snow at all, just dirt. By the time we caught up, our fathers were standing in a crowd forming a big ring. We had to shove and elbow our way through to get a look.
It would be seven years, in Normandy, before I saw anything that compared to the crater that stretched before us. Dozens of flashlights swept the sides. You could put a house inside it, I guessed. It must have been twenty feet deep at the center, right down to the bedrock, pink Sioux Quartzite. Further up the sides, yellow clay, and finally a layer of black topsoil. The hole was littered with broken concrete, rock, and dirt.
"Jesus Christ," I heard my father say.
Then someone started yelling, "Over here. Over here. There's someone here."
Flashlight beams pivoted toward the east, and we got carried with the surge of the men around us. I wedged in for a closer look, and I felt Alice's fist on my coattail. She wouldn't let me lose her. I broke through the mob to where all the flashlight beams converged.
The woman was lying naked in the snow in a shallow ditch, one leg tucked under the other, her head propped on her arm, as though she had decided to lie down for a nap. There were red streaks across her body, and wounds in her thighs were oozing blood. She appeared serene, otherwise, perhaps posing for an old master -- Reubens, Raphael, Tintoretto. Her face was beautiful, I thought, and I couldn't help staring at her breasts and the triangular patch of dark hair where her legs came together. My father shucked his overcoat and draped it over her. Then he knelt and laid his hand along her neck. "She's got a pulse," he said. "She's alive. Get a stretcher in here." Two or three other men shed their coats to cover her.
My father was kneeling beside her, holding her hand and patting it lightly, as though trying to revive some fragile lady who had fainted from the heat at a Fourth of July celebration. I saw her eyelids flutter and her lips stir. My father leaned close to her face. I thought he was trying to feel her breath with his cheek.
"Look what I found," Alice said.
"Not now," I said. I wanted to see what happened with the woman.
Alice's father was bent over my father, his flashlight directed at the woman's pale face.
"What's she saying?"
"Can't make it out," my father said. "Sounds like 'ball.' Something, something, ball."
"Ball," Alice's father said. He was making mental notes.
"Look," Alice said. "Look at this. It was over by that fence."
"Criminy," I said. "What is it?"
She held out her white woolen mitten, now flecked with red. At the same time, her father trained his flashlight on the object in her palm. It was a man's thumb, pale yellow and salted with snow.
I don't know how long it took us to get back to the Argus office. My father gave my mother a call and said Alice and I were all right and that we'd stay there for a while. Typewriters were clattering in the newsroom like a plague of grasshoppers. Alice and I were put to work moving copy, on the run, one take at a time, from writers to the copy desk, from the copy desk to the back room, where the linotypes munched it with a more monstrous clatter. We ran galley proofs back to the copy desk, corrected proofs back to composition. Our fathers were demon-possessed, tracking leads, taking down names and phone numbers, calling the police, the sheriff, Sioux Valley Hospital, lashing reporters as though they were galley slaves to write faster, more copy, more copy. It was a glorious frenzy, and we were right in the middle of it. I'd never had as much fun before, nor ever felt part of something so big. The smell of hot coffee, sweat, and cigarette smoke in the newsroom, hot casting metal and printer's ink in composition, mixed to make a perfume that ever after would fire the pleasure centers in my brain.
The sky had turned a lighter shade of gray before the Special was put to bed and my father took us down to the Nickel Plate, its windows boarded up with plywood, and treated us to a breakfast befitting such heroes: waffles, eggs, bacon, juice. And he reached over and topped off our milk glasses with coffee poured from his cup. He and Alice's father were full of questions and speculation still, planning new angles for the regular evening edition. The woman was still alive, and apparently she was telling police an amazing story. She had been part of a gang of thieves that had just got away with a haul of diamonds from a jeweller in Sioux City. She had talked her boyfriend into leaving the gang, but the gang had found out and had taken them to the powder-house, shot them both, lit a long fuse, and left them for dead. The closest estimate on the inventory of the storage shed was 300 cases of blasting powder at 25 pounds a case, and 3,300 pounds of dynamite. Somehow the woman had got out and had crawled into a shallow ditch. Her clothes had been blown off by the blast, and her eardrums were burst, but she missed getting crushed by the falling debris. The thumb was all they found of the boyfriend. Nobody knew where the rest of the gang had got to.
When the newsboys started hawking the Special, my father went out and bought two copies and brought them in to look over. He and Alice's father read the words they had written, edited, and laid out on the page, judging the result with cool solemnity. My father was finished first. He handed me the section. "By God, we did it," he said.
Alice and I read the front page together, both in awe that the bits and pieces we had been shuttling around all night had issued in this impressive product, duplicated thousands of times over. "When I get older," I told her, "I'm going to be a newspaperman."
"Me too," she said. Then she leaned over, behind the screen of the paper, and planted a kiss on my cheek. "Happy New Year."
I looked into her sky-blue eyes and thought I heard wind-chimes.
I spent most of World War II in Europe, a correspondent for Stars and Stripes. After the war, I married, started a family, and went to the University of Missouri at Columbia, my father's alma mater, on the G.I. Bill.
By 1956 we were in the horse latitudes of the Eisenhower years, and I was a reporter on the Argus, just what I always thought I wanted to be, but the savor had gone out of it. I had come to realize that high points like the powder-house blowup were rare, and that newswriting was just like other jobs most of the time, full of dull routine punctuated by short moments of fulfillment.
The 20th anniversary of the blowup was coming up in December, and I assigned myself to the retrospective. We ran a notice seeking personal accounts of the blast, hoping to turn up some new perspectives. The main facts were pretty well chewed over by then. The woman who had survived the explosion had toured for many years with carnivals in the Midwest, telling her story and displaying her scars. Then she had disappeared. Nobody knew exactly where she was, although there were rumors that she had married a farmer in Iowa. We had no luck tracking her down.
I was pecking listlessly at my old Underwood one day in October when I looked up to see a gaunt man in a heavy gray wool suit that seemed two sizes too big for him. He had a sallow complexion and hawklike features, dominated by a piercing blue glare. "They told me over there you were the guy wanting dope about the powder-house shot," he said. "I was just wondering how much it was worth to you."
"We aren't paying anything," I said. "We want, uh, voluntary information."
He nodded, grim but resigned, turned away from the desk, and started plodding away.
"Wait a second. Maybe, if you've got something special, we could pay, well, expenses."
Standing, I realized that the scarecrow before me was actually several inches taller than I, but settled down into his frame with the weight of age and hard times. He turned around and gave me another sharp look. "How much?"
"Depends on the information. What do you know?"
"Plenty," he said. "I lit the fuse."
Copyright © 2000 by Ron Robinson. All rights reserved.