Sometimes my job as a writer brings me to stories I am not looking for, but grateful to have found.
I visited a small town yesterday in the center of my state. In the middle of a freshly planted corn fields and along the railroad tracks cattle grazed, a construction crew pounded nails into a new roof on a sleepy Main Street building and a group of community members gathered in a small diner, opened especially for my visit to learn about their town.
We sat around a rectangle table on diner chairs in the back of the restaurant. The room was full of local men and women who were there to talk about dairy farming and population decreases, rural living and 4-H programs, the weather and how kids these days don’t understand that chickens don’t have nuggets.
I wrote down their names and got snippets of their stories: the retired school teacher, the cook, the woman from Wisconsin, the fifth generation dairy farmer.
I thanked them for their time as they dispersed after our visit to the t-ball game down the road, to check the cattle, to cook dinner or lead a 4-H group.
But as I was rushing toward the door, checking my watch and calculating what time I would land in bed if I left now and stopped quickly at the grocery store in the big town along the way, I heard a voice say, “And one more thing…”
I turned around to find that voice attached to a man in a clean pressed shirt and suspenders, holding his white feed store hat with green trim in front of him as he spoke. It was the man who sat across from me during our interview. The man with kind eyes and the daughter who was a dairy farmer.
He had something more to tell me.
And this is what it was:
My first train ride out of here was when I was nineteen. Boy was that a ride! You hear how the train moves along the tracks, squeaking and bumping along? That’s how it was on the inside, riding along like that for days.
In those days the train came through here often to pick up passengers. It took me to the service.
The Korean War.
I anticipated his next thought and he caught me off guard when I noticed a bit of a sparkle in his eyes. He gripped his cap a little tighter. I leaned in.
He smiled big and broad and looked young as he told me…
I was lucky. They sent me to Germany and, well, my family is German. It was my second language. So boy did I have a time! I think I wore out my first pair of boots dancing.
I was a cook see, and in the evenings I would go out and, well, the girls, they asked you to dance. They did!
I was a little nervous at first, being there with all their men sitting along the bar. I asked them if they were sure, if there would be trouble, but they said go ahead and dance.
They wanted to sit and drink, see. The girls wanted to dance! And I was young and fit and I would dance.
I was lost there in that memory with him. I wanted to be those girls, I wanted him to show me his dance steps. I wanted to know him when his eyes were young.
Young, but not any more full of life than they were at that moment.
Oh, I just I loved it. I would dance all night.
With that he pulled his cap down over his gray hair. I thanked him for the story and he thanked me for the time. He held the door open for me and walked me to my car parked next to those railroad tracks, the steel lines disappearing in the distance a constant memory of the young man who took the train out of North Dakota and came home with boots worn from dancing.