Montana: Boom and Bust
Location: Billings, Montana
Music: “Dakota” by Stereophonics
Meal: Soup and Sandwiches (on Montana Wheat)
The highway between Minneapolis and Billings was a 13 hour stretch of hilly lands, badlands, and no man’s land. Immersed in miles of flat were sudden mounds of earth, positioning themselves around grassy valleys, and deep cut rivers. It was these buttes of Medora where Billy the Kid hid out and escaped the law.
I had not been on a horse in ages but I suddenly wished I could exchange the 115 horsepower engine in my Honda for a one solid Montana Quarter Horse. Through its tossed mane, I would whisper encouragement in its ear so that we could run across the range together, his legs beating the surface of the northern lands, striving for freedom.
The northern lands had been sign of freedom back to the generations past. The adventurous flocked here throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s seeking risk and reward. I had stories of mining, farming and goldpanning on all sides of my family. My Granny, the last living grandparent I have, gave up her family stability in Kansas when she eloped to Montana with my daring Grandfather, a nature-loving geologist.
I went into my Granny’s old barn style home, hollering my entrance so that she could hear me. She shuffled to the door. She was, I noticed, stubbornly refusing to use her walker. “It’s for old people,” she said in disgust. The feisty 84 year old woman gave me a hearty hug and asked me again why I was here and what we were doing. It didn’t matter that I had called her twice before to get ready for our lunch outing. My Granny, with her hair standing on end, was battling a losing case of dementia. “We are going to that soup place for lunch, Granny,” I said. “But I am not taking you unless you put on your foot brace and use your walker.” After a 10 minute argument, she finally relented and shoved the metal assistant in front of her, cursing under her breath.
Granny had lived on her own for most of her life. She was the definition of a self made Montanan woman, giving up a promising past for hard times upon hard times, emerging like a phoenix out of it all. Granny’s father, my great grandfather was a Texas “Boom and Bust” Oil Barron and diplomat to Mexico. My Granny’s mother, my great grandmother, was a beautiful Kansas dame who ‘never worked a day in her life.’
As I helped Granny get into a chair for lunch she told me about her own ‘Boom and Bust’ past, repeating most sentences three times; some for effect, some out of memory loss.
“While most people were in their own bust, I didn’t even know there was a depression,” said Granny. “We always had enough food back then. Oh, we ate high on the hog.” And then she repeated the phrase my great grandmother used to say at grace, a phrase we still recite embarrassedly every Thanksgiving. “We always used to say ‘Well, I wonder what the poor folk are eatin’ tonight.’”
But of course, like most pre Depression money, theirs too eventually ran out. The Texas oil fields didn’t provide enough black gold to replenish my great grandparent’s pockets.
“Well, they probably drank all the money away,” said Granny. “Daddy and Mother liked to live the high life. They spent a year living at the top of the Waldorf Astoria in New York City! And they showered money on mink capes and jewelry, and of course booze.” said Granny. “They blew all the money he made, and trust me…. they knew how to blow money.” Granny’s quivering hand raised and opened, demonstrating the easy come easy go mentality of fast oil money.
After a lot of the money was good and gone, my great grandmother took her children back to her parent’s house in Kansas, leaving her father. ‘”I never knew what happened,” said Granny. ‘They never divorced but she preferred to live with her parents than with him as he traveled all over the world. He would write us long letters, beautifully written, and send me dresses. However, I never really knew the man. I never knew my father.”
Perhaps it was that fact that made it easier to leave Kansas. After high school my Granny eloped with her childhood friend, my Grandfather (also referred to as Grandpa Dick), and traveled to Montana, never once looking back on her old life of fancy feasts and Kansas nights.
“Well we got married on a bet,” said Granny. “There was a whole gang of us that used to go around together. We would spend our evenings driving around Great Bend, chatting, chewing the fat. One night Dick was told to settle down and get married. He said ‘Well there is only one person I’d marry’ and pointed to me. I about fell out of my chair.” Granny shifted her weight and her shaky body almost fell out of her chair again. The pause made her forget what we were talking about. I reminded her of the bet. “Oh yes,” she continued, accidentally dripping soup on her collar. “The ‘gang’ made a bet that we wouldn’t do it and so we drove over to a small chapel and got married on the spot.” Instead of a fancy wedding dress, my Granny was wearing jeans and a plaid shirt.
I asked my Granny what her parents thought of the marriage. “Oh, they raised hell,” he said. But Granny was happy. “Dick was damn handsome and smart. Plus he provided something different.” A few months after their impromptu elopement the two went up to Montana, falling in love with the widespread acres of adventure. “We
would go fishing, camping hiking almost every weekend! We both liked living up north in the mountains. Kansas was so flat you were lucky if you saw a bump!” said Granny.
My dashing and smart Grandpa Dick was also a drinker and a ladies man. “He would always sache around with other ladies leaving me at home with the children. After a while I couldn’t take it anymore,” said Granny. After 13 years of marriage, she divorced him, deciding to raise her three children on her own. “I got a job with the Pacific Oil Development Company, and asked my mother to come up and help me with the kids while I worked hard to ensure we had food on the table.”
Despite her childhood from the land of plenty, food on the table in Montana wasn’t always a given. In an era when child support laws were not enforced, Granny didn’t always have enough money to provide for her family. My great aunt, her sister, occasionally sent her money from the south to ensure they could eat and pay the heating bill. The phrase, ‘I wonder what the poor folk are eatin’ tonight’ stopped being funny.
Although my Great Grandmother was there to help with the children and house, her alcoholic tendencies were sometimes more of a burden than a help. My father remembers her decked out in layers of fur coats and diamonds, wandering around the house in a whisky induced haze. She couldn’t deal with the fact that all the money was gone and instead living in the Waldorf eating caviar she was in Montana living with her daughter, eating beans. “She had a problem…if she had one sip of the stuff she was a goner.” She was a goner most of the time.
Granny wasn’t one to let alcoholism affect her much, but her stint with poverty did. Before we left for lunch I cleaned out her fridge of spoiling food. To this day she still cannot bear to throw anything away. “Aren’t you going to finish your soup?” she said, pointing at three measly minestrone pieces left in my bowl. “You better not waste that.”
I forced them down my throat and asked for the bill. Granny was perturbed by the amount. She yelled at the waitress. “What?! 14 dollars? You mean to tell me that our lunch here cost 14 whole dollars?! Well I’ll be damned……”
By working hard and stretching every penny until it screamed, Granny managed to turn her own bust into a boom. Once her kids left, she started to invest in the stock market, making enough for a small travel fund. “I figured if I was going to work every day than I would give myself a vacation every year. I really wanted to see the world.” And after years of being confined to a drafty house in Billings, Montana, Granny used her stock market proceeds to cover most of it from South Korea to Egypt.
We left the Soup Café and slowly walked back home, Granny almost forgetting which house was hers. As we entered the house she immediately abandoned the walker in revolt and teetered through her house, pointing to all the porcelain statues she had collected from her travels. “I got to see so much!” she exclaimed.
“You know I hate people that complain in life. I watched our family money disappear, got divorced, raised three kids alone, and took care of my alcoholic mother. But you know what—I had a great life! Great kids and great travels! I have no regrets.” And my Granny pointed to a hand stitched picture she made that said, “Qwitcherbellyachin”