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Missoula for me in the 1950s

February 22, 2021
My uncle Carl holds my sister Carol Struckman in Kalispell at his parents’ house.

Grandparents’ home.

Kalispell is 120 miles north of Missoula, where my grandparents, Carl and Ellen Bonde,  raised my mother and the rest of their family.  Carl was a wholesale grocery salesman who spoke fluent Norwegian.  He also wrote longhand with a fluid, looping style.  Family lore said he learned from Dr. Palmer, author of a textbook about handwriting, called “The Palmer Method.”  Carl’s skills in writing and speaking and generally being a “good guy” kept him working, even after he tried to retire.

Some in Kalispell, including grandma, made no secret they were racist against Native Americans. My mother’s high school annual had an ad for a business that said it catered exclusively to the “white trade.” My Aunt Corinne said grandma forbade her bringing home an Indigenous friend. These facts make me feel badly, but I think it’s important to be truthful. Especially now that lines are being drawn politically.

These days the Missoula city area spreads widely, lapping up against adjoining hills, in a valley west of the continental divide where three rivers intersect:  The Blackfoot and the Bitterroot join the Clark Fork which flows north, then jogs east, then north again.  Eventually the water skirts the mountains of the Lolo Forest somewhere in Canada, flows south again, and joins the Columbia River, thence to the Pacific ocean.

In the late 50s my brother Tom typed a cryptic message, folded and stuffed it into a tiny bottle with a cork stopper, and threw it into the Clark Fork River from the passenger seat of our car as we crossed the Higgens Avenue Bridge.  He explained to me how his message would travel.

The much wider, fertile Mission Valley to the north, gives way to Flathead Lake and north of that, the Flathead Valley with Kalispell.   The Flathead is a vast wetland fed by water from a variety of streams, notably the three forks of the Flathead River, draining the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Glacier National Park, and regions north in Canada.

Strikingly beautiful, the snow-capped chain of mountains east of the Flathead Valley is the Mission Range.  It rises vertically from the valley floor and runs north-south practically from Missoula to Glacier Park.  It has grizzly bears and hundreds of other shy species that are lesser known, less charismatic.  The wild Mission mountain chain is separated east of that from the vast Bob Marshall wilderness by the Seeley-Swan Valley that runs parallel north-south.

These days indigenous Salish Kootenai people call the wide, wet, Mission Valley their home; and East of Glacier National Park, the Blackfeet Tribe owns a large area.

If Missoula were, arguably, the best place in Montana, Kalispell might be the most glamorous.  (Feel free to disagree with me all you want.  I haven’t lived in either city for at least 35 years.)  Missoula has progressive, well-educated, liberals and Kalispell has tradition-bound conservatives (I am kind, no?).  “Supposedly,” I should have said.  However, I think conservatives like to think of themselves as “traditional.”  Liberals like to think of themselves as “progressive.”  Daddy was liberal; my grandparents were conservative. After Dad died, my mother was a Republican, although, she thought Nixon was over the top.

In the 50s and 60s Mother drove me on Highway 93 from Missoula to Kalispell and back scores of times.  In those days before seatbelts and airbags I often lay across the back seat and looked at the mountains and trees.  Sometimes in the winter we had to put on tire chains to make the top of Evaro Hill north of Missoula.  I recall our old car sliding sideways off the highway on the ice.  I don’t think the highway department plowed or sanded the road then.

Our houses in Missoula.

My parents, Robert and Helen, married in Kalispell in 1936.  Robert sold a short story, “The Night of the Pig,” to Esquire magazine and he bought Helen a diamond ring with the money.  They went to Missoula, where Robert earned a teaching certificate at the university, then moved to their first job as a married couple.  At White Sulphur Springs, Montana.  They lived in a rooming house everyone called the Castle.  Today the Castle is a museum.  A few years ago several of us visited the Castle.  I found a copy of the magazine “Frontier and Midland,” with another short story Robert wrote, “The Train.” H.G. Merriam published and edited “Frontier and Midland.”

Mother told me Robert couldn’t keep discipline in his class and would come home red-faced with anger.  After the year’s contract expired, they moved to Great Falls.  Robert taught journalism and writing at the high school for a few years until he took a job with the Great Falls Tribune as associate editor of a sister publication, the Montana Farmer.  

My sister Carol was born there in 1939.

Robert and several friends and colleagues formed a trade union, the Montana Press Association.  Joseph Kinsey Howard, Chick Guthrie, and Don Bosley were some of them.  Also Dan Cushman.

The Struckmans lived in Great Falls through the World War II years.  Carol said her uncle Buddy visited them there when he was home on furlough from training earlier during the war.  She said he was fun and physical and affectionate.  Also handsome in his uniform.

Buddy went missing Christmas eve, 1944.  A month later Helen’s parents got a telegram declaring him killed in action.  His body was not recovered, but they held a funeral for him in Kalispell.

My brother Tom was born in Great Falls in 1944.

Robert received a letter from L.C. Ford, Dean of the School of Journalism in Missoula, inviting him to find applicants for planned faculty expansion to accommodate the influx of ex-soldiers who would receive education benefits under the GI Bill.  

Robert applied for, and got an instructor’s position.  Once in Missoula, he taught courses in magazine writing and editing while earning his master’s in English.  His thesis was a collection of short stories, titled “Sundance and Other Stories.”  He was promoted to Assistant Professor of Journalism.  He was also active in the Montana Press Association union, serving as a liaison with the university.  

At first the Struckmans and several of the other new faculty families lived in the Strip Houses, or Married Student Housing near the university golf course.  Within a year the faculty members moved to Fort Missoula, a defunct detention center for Japanese and Italian interned for national security.

According to fellow journalism professor Ed Dugan, Robert was handy with carpentry and renovated the fort’s officer quarters.  

Across the street from the Struckmans and over a couple of houses was the Fiedler family:  Margaret, Leslie, Kurt, and Eric and Michael.

Kurt was my sister Carol’s age.  About 8 or 9 years old.  Eric was Tom’s age, 4 or 5.  Michael was an infant, born in 1947.  I was born in 1949.  Michael came to my first birthday party.

Carol and Kurt found ways to enter and explore nearly all of the buildings at Fort Missoula, including the hospital.  Carol said they entered the building through a basement window.  

Margaret Fiedler sewed a curtain for a production of “Peter Pan,” held in the Fiedler’s wide garage.  Michael and I were too small to be involved, but we took part in our siblings’ Missoula County High School plays.  Leslie did too, as did Kurt and my sister Carol.  

Kurt had a scar on his forehead.  Eric had a broken tooth.  Eric and Tom wanted to be beatnik Bohemian types.  When Kurt eventually went to medical school his mother was angry.  Said he sold out for conformity.

Leslie taught English at the university, and at the Fort wrote “Love and Death in the American Novel.”  The children quickly discovered that disturbing Leslie while he wrote would trigger him to put his foot through the closed door with much bellowing.  He famously told the children to get out for “vigorous outdoor play!”  Carol was afraid of Leslie.

I was not afraid of him because after our father died he brought us gifts from Greece.  I remember him from the vantage of a small child, looking up at a kindly man.

I was a year old when Robert bought the house at 334 N Ave West in Missoula with a $5,000 loan from his father, Emil.  Three years later our father died of cancer.

What should I tell about next?  I don’t remember the first years in our house well.  My father’s sister Marion convinced mother to send me to live with my grandparents in Kalispell until after Robert’s terminal illness and his funeral.  Both places were important to me.

This was the era of the “absent Buddy.”  He wasn’t in Kalispell and he wasn’t in Missoula, but he was terribly, tragically, absent from both.  I encountered much left behind in his wake.  Tears, sadness, but also physical things like games, toys, books, electronics, a camera, a radio, bullets and a rifle.  Fishing gear.  Oilstone and knives.  The stuff a high school boy would leave behind, just as I left things behind for my own nephews, eventually.

My nephews found cooler stuff I’d left behind than the stuff I found from my uncle Buddy.  I left behind a .32 caliber starting pistol that shot blanks only, two .22 rifles, both bolt action.  Many pairs of handcuffs and leg irons, which I collected.  Many magical apparatuses, including linking rings, trick dice, card tricks, tubes, wands, fake thumbs and fingers, silk handkerchiefs, special paint for the fake thumbs and fingers, special powder for gliding cards, production tubes for silks, fake pitchers for pouring milk into hats, books about Houdini, card tricks.  (Eventually, one of my nephews gave me a small stack of the magic books.)  

Then there was the movie cameras, darkroom equipment: trays, enlargers, easels.

Me, as a chid in Kalispell.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

I don’t know whether to tell about our house in Missoula where my mother helped me set up a darkroom that reminded her about Buddy’s photographic exploits just a 10-15 years earlier, or our grandparents’ on the southwestern edge of Kalispell.  I spent a significant part of my early life at both places. Kalispell held mystery.  Our grandparents had five acres with a barn, chicken coop, root cellar, storage shed, garage, and, of course the house where they lived.  It had two stories and a cellar with dirt floor.  The cellar was the best of all because lots of Buddy’s things were stashed on the foundation ledge beneath the floor.

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