BEING A ONCE young man in the military service, I tried many experiences that did not turn out as expected. Of such type was a temporary duty to which I was assigned during the summer of 1961. You see, while enlisted in the United States Air Force (USAF), I received an order to report for training school sessions. The time would be spent learning the maintenance of a new electronic aircraft navigation system. To accomplish the classes, however, I had to leave my assigned base in the center of North Dakota and travel to Ellsworth Air Force Base, located near Rapid City, South Dakota.
Now, know that getting to the technical school was easy. All I needed to do at the time was hitch a ride on a small, twin-engine plane from my base to the other. It was only a distance of approximately 350 miles. I did so easily, and arrived at my assigned school with time to spare. Reporting in, I was given a room in which to bunk. However, a problem then presented itself.
The trouble was that the school I was to attend didn’t begin for several weeks. If attending those classes, I would be there for much longer than my time allotment. Knowing the meaning of SNAFU, I calmly called back to my home base and inquired about the delay. What was I to do? Should I return to home base?
The answer surprised me. My First Sergeant said, “No, stay there until it starts. Attend the classes and then come back.” After I told the instructor about his response, he verified the order with my sergeant, and then chuckled. He handed my orders back to me and said “Go sightseeing. We’ll see you in two weeks.”
At first I had difficulty absorbing that I’d just been given a dynamite vacation. Many questions immediately raced through my mind. How far could I go? Could I travel home to PA? There was time. Or… should I just roam around the Black Hills and see such as the Mt. Rushmore monument? The trouble was… I didn’t have my car there. How was I to get around? What to do? What to do?
Then it dawned on me! I decided that I needed to get back to North Dakota and retrieve my car. Quickly, I walked over to Flight Control to get the return flight back to my home base. There was no way that would happen, for my flight had already left. So there I was, stranded. However, know this. The U.S. military is known for making good on-the-spot decisions. I was taught no different.
Dressed in my summer uniform, I stuck out my thumb. I thought to hitch rides in cars, trucks or whatever rolled up. I’d ride in anything that was headed north. These days, for safety reasons I cringe at that thought.
My plan seemed to be a good one at first. It was rather easy to get a ride from that base to Rapid City, and then head northward to a town called Belle Fourche. It was from there, however, that I got stuck. Being somewhat persistent though, I walked just a bit north out of town and waited for a vehicle to come along. I waited there without any traffic coming my way at all… and waited… and waited some more… for about an hour. Finally, an old Chevrolet pickup truck rolled slowly up to me.
The old truck had a dent in the left front and was missing its right rear fender. As I opened the door and slid onto the forlorn passenger seat, I realized that the driver was an elderly Native American man. He had a time-worn complexion, and was dressed in boots, jeans, and a blue cotton-flannel shirt. His head was topped with a traditional looking, dirty beige cowboy hat. As he grinned at me, I noticed several missing teeth.
He said, “Where ya headed?”
I told him, “Minot, North Dakota.”
“I’m not going that far, but I take ya as far as I can.”
I settled in, and we rattled on toward the north with the truck’s stove bolt six whisking us across the prairie. We ran through a few gentle rolling hills, out onto the flat prairie… and headed toward the mesas of the Badlands.
The old man talked friendly as we went along. He told me that his grandson was in the Marines, and his enlistment was soon coming to an end. He doubted a bit sorrowfully about whether the young man would come back home. We also passed time talking about my home and folks. He seemed quite interested in the food that my mother made, because he was a cook.
We talked just to pass the time, for between our conversations there was little to see. The near silent prairie grass was blowing slightly… rustling the whisper of ages in the early afternoon wind. Then abruptly many miles out, startling me out of the road hypnotism that had settled in… we pulled over alongside a monument. A rather Pyhrric stone sat stoically; a single granite pillar on a flat prairie courtyard.
I got out to stretch my legs and wandered over to the pillar with the old man. It was then that I learned of the sacred nature of the place. The pillar marked the “Wounded Knee” massacre site. We were there at a date just before the place was declared a national monument. We stood there together, an old native man who knew too well what it stood for… and a young man of European descent who was just learning about the sinful historical gap caused by racism. We stood quietly there for a few moments out of respect, and then I listened to his telling about his family tree… and those who had been lost in that battle from the Lakota Sioux settlement… and the fallen of the Army. Then he looked away toward a small shower drawing near to us from the west, and said “It’s time to go.”
After returning to the road, my benefactor got a five-gallon jerry can from the bed of the truck and added gas to his fuel tank. I am reminded now that the old truck was unlikely to achieve more than fifteen miles to the gallon. Then we climbed back onto the sway-back truck seat and headed north once again.
For the many miles afterward we traveled steadily in a near straight line fashion. As we went, my driver pointed out abundant life hidden in the open prairie. Deceptively empty, the land was instead abundant. We saw antelope, coyotes, rattlesnakes, jack rabbits, a few buffalo and literally hundreds of pheasants. These last flew across the highway as we motored through the center of the flock.
We rode farther, and the old man described ancient days when a ten-mile wide valley that we were crossing at the time had once been covered by a shallow lake. He said that he hadn’t seen it himself, but the legend about its plenteous nature had been taught to him by his grandfather. He had in turn taught the story to his grandson… and he was also teaching it to me.
Suppertime approached as we later entered the town of Bowman. The sun had lowered toward the horizon. We pulled into a Standard Oil gas station. The old man began to fill his fuel tank and refill the can that he’d emptied. Then he told me I would have to catch another ride. He said that with a breeze and a blessing I’d go farther north, then due east and make Watford City before dark.
I asked, “How far north do you need to go to get home?”
He looked at me… and said in no great fashion, “South, I have to go back south.”
It was only then that I learned that the old man should have turned off the highway to go eastward… some 70 miles or so to the south, way back somewhere lost in time. He could have rightly dropped me off on the wind swept prairie many miles before we came to that town.
Since that time, I often think about the moment when I learned that he had gone hours out of his way… just to see me to safety. In that four hour trip he’d taught me about strife, about family ties, and the preservation of our common human history. He went an extra distance to ensure that I would not be afflicted by sun, wind, rain and the empty wildness. He had, without being asked… gone many extra miles.
To this day as a pastor who is now dressed in a different uniform, I do not know for sure whether that wonderful man was a Christian. Nevertheless, I do know that Jesus would have been very proud of him. For Jesus had once said..,
“But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other as well…. and if anyone would sue you and take your coat… let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile in doing a service, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor… and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil, and on the good… and sends rain on the just, and on the unjust.”
An unknowing wanderer back then, I was indeed privileged for that short time to ride with someone who personified the will of God, and I was blessed by the occasion. Just as he prophetically predicted. I did get to Watford City before the heaviness of night came upon me. There the sheriff gave me a cot in his unlocked jail to sleep on, and bought me breakfast before sending me on my way the next morning. Ah yes.., that is yet, just another story.