Places Called Home: Steele, North Dakota

1974 was a crappy year in many ways.

We were facing a move out of state, and I had never once stepped foot outside the state of California in my first 10 years of life, and we were moving to North Dakota of all places. I didn’t even know where that was.

One of the good things about 1974 was my grandfather had moved out from Texas and was living with us. I’d only met him once before, in 1972, when he came out for a few days to visit. He and my Dad were getting back together after years apart. He and my grandmother had divorced and, as happens all too often, lies were told that kept them from having anything like a normal father-son relationship. But now he was living under the same roof and I was getting to know him.

Just before the big move, my uncle died during a trip east. He’d pulled over to take a nap and left the car running to stay warm on a cold, early spring night in the mountains east of Salt Lake City. There was a leak of carbon monoxide and he never woke up. We were on that same stretch of I-80 two weeks after the funeral. I always think of him whenever I pass that little town, just as I did back in July.

June_2009_Trip 087We got to Steele, a town of 400 residents, and a culture shock to be in a town THAT small that was the largest town in the county. Oddly enough, I fell in love with the place. In an alternate history, I wouldn’t have minded spending my entire life there.

Steele was where I discovered the books of Louis L’Amour, a native of nearby Jamestown. The barber shop in Steele also served as a used book store and Ray, that was the barber, had copies of every book L’Amour wrote. Well, at least he did until I got there and started relieving him of his inventory at $0.25 a book.

It had a small newspaper, with an old-style printing press, the Steele Ozone – which is still in print to this day. I like to think I might have grown up to be its editor. During music class, Mr. Charles Wells, who also taught science, would lead us all in a rousing rendition of “The Steele Ozone” – sung to the tune of Dr. Hook’s “Cover of the Rolling Stone”. We just swapped out Steele Ozone for Rolling Stone and let fly. The principal showed up one morning to tell us he could hear us in his office…on the other side of the school. We had to watch the volume levels after that.

There was the Ro-Do-Rah Drive In, a little burger shack right at the entrance of the town, just off I-94. Crown Lanes, where I first bowled league in and made quite the tidy sum in the evenings keeping score on the old overheads with the cellophane sheets and wax pencils for the leagues three nights a week. Being a whiz at math made me popular and kept me in comic book money. The golf course was just nine holes and had sand greens that you had to rake when you were done. You got your exercise in when you played that course.

Whiskey
Whiskey’s brother, who we got after the first Whiskey was killed.

There were a lot of happy memories for the three years we were there. But two very sad ones too. In August of 1974, my grandfather collapsed and died two days later. One month after that, our dog Whiskey was struck by a car and killed. It was a long winter, which included a massive blizzard that introduced me to living in snow for the first time.

When the snow melted the next spring, it seemed things were much better. The pain and loss of 1974 was fading. Life went on. It seemed simple then and the road ahead filled with nothing but promise.

I think that is what I miss most about that time. Even though Steele has changed, we went through there in 2019, and much of what used to be there no longer is, whenever I do pass through I always leave feeling a little better about the road ahead, if even for only a little while.

2 comments

  1. Such a small world. *Waves from Fargo area* Everyone knows about Louis L’Amour being from ND, along with Angie Dickinson, Bobby Vee and Lawrence Welk (Strasburg isn’t that far from Steele) being from here. And recently we’ve had Cara Mund (Miss America) and Josh Duhamel (was in one of my math classes in high school).

    I didn’t realize Catherine Wells was originally from here (Robinson, which isn’t that far from Steele either) until I started reading The Earth Is All That Lasts. And now you.

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