Our time in Idaho was cut short when somewhere in government a bureaucrat realized that nuclear rocket engines had at least one major drawback. We were off to North Dakota in mid-1963 for three + years to build a mine mouth lignite (brown coal) fired power plant on the Missouri River. Originally, we stayed in Hazen, ND while Mom and Dad made some decisions on where to live. We were in a motel in Hazen that was on a property that included a ranch owned by some nice folks with a young boy my age and they had horses. This was my first encounter with riding horses. I got to ride Old Tom since I was a neophyte. We had BB guns with us and there were metal plate targets set up on trees all over the ranch. It was fun riding around their ranch. Very western feeling!
Mom and Dad decided to live in Mandan, which although it was a 55-mile drive one way for Dad, it offered more of a urban lifestyle with choices in schools, housing and commerce. Dad bought a 10-year-old Rambler with a head bolt heater of course for the commute. We rented one side of a duplex from Fred and Tillie Stuhldreher at 209 Division St on top of the hill in Mandan. Great neighborhood – lots of kids; Terry Barnhardt, Mike Finz, Tommie Bear, Jeff Huber (and all of his brothers which apparently arrived on a yearly schedule). I was promptly enrolled in St. Joseph’s Catholic School and then my Uncle Johnny passed away which is chronicled elsewhere.
Once ensconced in third grade at SJS, I met Tommie Tooley who ended up being a longtime friend and Jerome Kostelecky who was famous for smearing ear wax on book covers and apparently had trouble wiping his butt. Jerome’s hygiene problems aside, Mandan was a pretty idyllic life for a kid. Bicycles, 4th of July fireworks, houses being built providing both bicycling nirvana as well as great places to play army (Mike Finz was something of a WW2 nutcase simulating battles against the Hun), cub and then boy scouts, fishin’ huntin’ and campin’ along the Missouri River, living at the top of the greatest downhill bicycle and skating run of all time. I learned to swim in the Mandan public pool and I had my first, and only, fight during the fourth grade school year. Dad Hagar had always worked on boxing with me and it came in handy. Robert Burns was bullying Jerome about being something of a slob. Although I did not disagree with his assessment, I felt that he was getting a little aggressive and said something about it to Robert. He turned and rushed me and took a swing at me which I automatically blocked and apparently, based on my recollection and family lore I took a Cassius Clay swing back at him and decked him. That was good for a lot of calls and meetings with the principal and the pastor and me acting contrite with feigned, but well-acted, apologies to Robert and his mom and dad. Nobody liked Robert Burns because he was always a pompous PITA and bully. I never had another fight after that. It was something Dad Hagar said about being a good at boxing and self-defense and not abusing it.
Mom and Dad sent me to summer camp at Camp Dominic Savio on the banks of Lake Sakakawea for summer camp. It was run by Jesuit priests who really appreciated my boxing skills; as Jesuits are pretty big on boxing for stress relief. Tommie Tooley and I were there for about 2 weeks and had a blast. My first trip away from home! I wrote letters everyday professing how much I missed M&D and home. Those Jesuits, teaching kids how to lie at such a young age.
The Mandan movie theater on main street had $0.50 double feature western and war movies on Saturday’s. For about a buck and a half, you could get 3 or 4 hours of movies some popcorn, candy and a drink. North Dakota was cold in the winter. I learned to ice skate – probably in October. We went tobogganing on the golf course hills and I had my first ski lessons courtesy of the boy scouts. We had a lot of -36 degree mornings and several -40 degree mornings. There was a famous 3 day blizzard in the winter of 1964 that left houses and underpasses covered. Mom Hagar was down to cooking cans of corned beef hash. I spent a day or so in the hospital due to a case of snow blindness and possible appendicitis — Darn that corned beef hash! I also took up baseball in Mandan. I was not a gifted baseball player so I played right field and was as surprised as anybody when i would get a hit or make a catch.
Vacations from a NoDak home base were epic. A week in the Black Hills of South Dakota, trips to the Badlands National Monuments in both North and South Dakota, my first foreign travel to exotic Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Canada. Lots of long weekends camping and fishing. It was also during this period that Dad Hagar would take me to work on weekends and sometimes during the week. I had my own hard hat and little ear protection equipment. I was paid $0.10 for each drawing that I would tape the edges of with a cool little machine (there were no computers so there was no AutoCAD in 1964-1965). I learned how to use the mechanical Frieden calculator on my Dad’s desk which when you hit calculate made the whole desk shake as the carriage return happened. I also began to learn about slide rules. I walked the site with Dad all the time and saw the power plant being built. Possibly, more important to my future, I watched the construction of the Big Beulah excavator on the lignite property which began mining about a year and a half into power plant construction so that they could stockpile coal. The lignite here was pretty interesting because it was not unusual to fossilized and partially fossilized ferns, wood pieces and other biologics in the coal.
We got a dog that was half border collie and half terrier. She became Flipper and was a great companion, cementing another of my future activities. As unhappy as our border collie was about riding, Flipper was a car dog. Head out the window, ears flapping but for some reasons she barked at mailboxes as we drove past them. Took years to break her of that. Our neighbors had a visually and hearing impaired little girl and they had a black lab that was her protector and helper that was about the same size as the granddog Jax. Even when Flipper was just a pup she would go over and steal butcher bones from the lab. She had to drag them home they were so big. I always worried that the Lab would bite her in half or something equally nasty. But the lab would just watch knowing that there was always another bone.
Finally, North Dakota cemented a lot of my other interests. The electrical engineer at the power plant was a gentleman named George Scragg. George was a ham radio operator and we would go over to his house and my eyes would glaze over looking at all the radios and the smell of hot electronics. One Christmas, M&D bought me my first Heathkit, a regenerative receiver kit that I built and that worked. We also had a large basement in our house and Dad built his first darkroom with a small enlarger and we would go down there and sniff chemicals while we learned how to develop and make photo prints. He would also splice the super 8 movies together. We also had a model building area where we would put together model airplanes, ships and cars, painting them with accurate color schemes and I learned to glue, carefully trimming excess while under the influence of Testor’s glue. Then we got onto building balsa airplanes and flying them and I became hooked on the whole flying thing. All of the kids rode our bikes constantly until there was too much snow on the streets and since it was always uphill going home (10 minutes to school, 30 back) we all had legs of steel. Skate boards had started to become popular for some reason in about 1965 and we all found an old pair of steel skates that we attached to a piece of wood stolen from a home construction site and learned how to fall while hauling down the hill. Surprised none of us ended up in the hospital. I should add the skate boarding was not my forte.
Next Up: Becky and Tom had nothing on us – The Wisconsin Years.