Stirring memories that slumbered for too long

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Posted: Friday, July 5, 2019 6:00 am

Jerry Olsen sent me on a long and winding journey into my past last week.

Standing on the corner of Caledonia Avenue during the Hillsboro Days beanbag tournament, I was asking Olsen about his thoughts on returning to town to celebrate his 50-year high school reunion.

Olsen couldn’t hide his smile over reconnecting with his classmates from a half-century ago.

Fifty seniors graduated in 1969. Seven had died, but reunion organizers found all 43 surviving classmates and enticed 22 to return home June 15. Eight or nine of those 22 hadn’t been to Hillsboro since they graduated. That hit home for me.

Not everyone in Hillsboro knows my background, but I graduated from MayPort High School in 1993 before the district added Clifford-Galesburg.

However, that’s not where I grew up. I was raised on a farm southwest of McHenry, N.D., 82 miles west of Hillsboro.

My family moved to a farm west of Portland midway through my high school career.

Never one to ignore his roots, I had traveled to McHenry, population 56, more than a few times over the years for celebrations and reunions. But I hadn’t been back to the farm since I was 16, roughly 28 years ago.

I’m not sure why I never returned to my childhood home. Maybe I was worried it would be hard to retrace those steps decades later.

My chat with Olsen over Hillsboro Days made me realize it was time to change that.

Armed with a box of SweeTarts and a jug of Mello Yello, I headed west for the sprawling prairies of Foster County last Friday.

I was a little nervous. I had heard the barn where we hand-milked Holstein cows and raised bottle calves had burned down a couple years after we moved. Would our old farmhouse still be standing? Was anyone living there?

I brushed aside those thoughts and cruised along Highway 200 until I found myself west of Glenfield, midway between Cooperstown and Carrington, and headed north on a wide and dusty gravel road that had no traffic.

My blue SUV passed the corner to Lee Gregor’s house (he loved Transformers) and the turn to Uncle Dave’s (one of the nicest men you’ll ever meet in North Dakota).

I was going 40 mph when I slid past the driveway to the farm and had to hit reverse.

Did it always look like a prairie trail? Why wasn’t the road graveled?

With a bracing sigh, I stepped on the gas and headed down the L-shaped driveway.

I managed to get three-quarters of the way to the house before the road … ended.

Prairie grasses 2 feet high danced in the wind, covering the path ahead in a sea of green.

No one was using this road anymore. The house had to be empty – and in a pasture.

My heart sank a little, but I had come this far. I forged ahead on foot.

I rounded the last curve to the house and took in the scene. The house was smaller than I remember. Its white exterior paint had chipped off and most of the windows were cracked or broken. The front door was intact but open.

I ventured inside and a flood of memories came rushing back.

On the far wall of the room I spotted the white metal heater vent I used to sit over on cold winter mornings watching “The Superfriends.” 

Although the kitchen was dusty and dirty, I could still picture my mom singing and twirling to Johnny Cash while she made us homemade pizza and cookies after school.

There was a bird’s nest in the hallway where I played Spider-Man and crawled up the walls to the ceiling. I avoided re-enacting this at age 44.

I paused at my parents’ room, remembering their emerald green comforter and the fact that my dad slept closest to the door.

He died at age 58 in 2008, a year before the birth of my son who bears his name.

After a bit, I went outside and visited the old chicken coop and granary, where I spent countless summer nights bouncing a rubber baseball back to myself.

Eventually I wandered back to the car and sat there taking everything in.

The farm wasn’t the same one I grew up with. But the memories were vivid and comforting in their own way.

As I drove back to Hillsboro, I stopped in McHenry to take a swing through the tiny town where I went to grade school.

Nearly all the stores and businesses have closed, although the bar appeared to be open.

The café was dark but it looked like it still opens on evenings or weekends. I hope it does.

As I drove by the school, I stopped and paused as a little blonde girl in a purple dress danced out of her house carrying a pitcher to water the flowers in her front yard.

Like the farm where I grew up, McHenry isn’t the same one I remember.

But there are still kids running around and making memories in that little town.

I hope they’re as good as the ones I cling to and remembered last Friday.

Those are the memories that last a lifetime.

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