A Civil Action meets Indian country, as one man takes on the federal government and the largest boondoggle in U.S. historyand wins.
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By Paul VanDevelder
Little, BrownCopyright © 2004 Paul VanDevelder
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHeart of the World
"The white man does not understand the Indian for the reason that he does not understand America. The roots of the tree of his life have not yet grasped the rock and the soil. He is still troubled with primitive fears. In the Indian the spirit of the land is still vested. Men must be formed of the dust of their forefather's bones." Standing Bear, Oglala
For twenty years after the spaceships landed in the pintail tulies and gooseberry woods on the floodplain, downstream from Elbowoods, Phyllis Old Dog Cross was afraid to look at the moon. A lifetime later, on a June evening in 2002, an unexpected glimpse of the prairie moonrise still sends shivers up her spine. She laughs self-consciously, then turns away and settles into a ladder-back chair at the kitchen table. The opening in the wall beside the table seems less like a window than a picture frame, one that corrals an intimidating sweep of purple sky and a bright yellow coin, balanced edgewise on a bruised horizon. Cowlicked and wind-scoured, the silver swells of storied landscape framed by this window have sustained members of the Cross family for dozens of generations. At the end of a life spent in other places, Phyllis has come back to the only home she has ever known.
"My memories of that night are very evocative, like a smell that reminds you of your mother's kitchen," she says. "I was only eight years old, but before it was over I knew that nothing would ever be the same for us." At seventy-two, Phyllis's short gray hair and high forehead frame the clear, darting eyes of a teenage girl. The muscular deterioration brought on by Parkinson's disease is advancing slowly, but things she took for granted ten years ago, such as getting in and out of her car and walking down the street to her sister Marilyn's house, require a cane and extra effort. She lives alone in a modest frame house on the outskirts of Parshall, a small community with one stoplight and eight hundred residents, farmers and ranchers mostly, perched at the edge of the world in central North Dakota. Her home is a comfortable, solidly built refuge from extremes of prairie weather. A lifetime of mementos and souvenirs surround her in every room. There were the years in the Carter White House working for mental-health legislation, the 1981 Wonder Woman of the Year Award, and her career with the Air Force as a flight nurse and with the Department of the Interior as a pioneering mental-health specialist. Despite the familiarity of local landmarks such as grain silos and cemeteries, Phyllis has been away so long that sometimes she feels like she is trespassing in her own memories.
At the center of those memories lies the broad, meandering valley of the Upper Missouri River. Where the valley begins upstream, the river shakes itself free from the high, sunbaked bluffs and sandstone pillars of the badlands, then bends southward after being joined by the Yellowstone for the long run to the sea. When Phyllis was a little girl, the alluvial valley of the Upper Missouri River was a lush, thickly wooded floodplain that snaked its way across the continent some four to eight hundred feet below the surrounding grasslands of the Great Plains. In central North Dakota - at the middle of this green, four-mile-wide belt of terraced woodlands and open meadows - was the village of Elbowoods and the small house where Phyllis lived with her mother and father, Dorothy and Martin Cross, and her nine brothers and sisters. The house sat at the edge of a dense woodland of maple trees, live oaks, and Russian olives, an unfenced wilderness that was home to white-tailed deer and sparrow hawks, badgers, black bears, rabbits, meadowlarks, bull snakes, and whooping cranes. There, just a five-minute walk from the shallow back eddies in the river where Phyllis learned to swim as a little girl, her mother and father raised cows and chickens, pigs and goats, and grew vegetable gardens and crops of grain on 160 acres of the richest bottomland in North America.
Phyllis is the oldest of the four girls and six boys, their ages spanning eighteen years. Raymond, the youngest, was born in 1948, a year after Phyllis left home. With so many chores around the ranch, and so many little brothers and sisters, Phyllis became the third adult in the Cross household on her sixth birthday. Clustered around the edges of the family portrait are aunts and uncles, and all the far-flung cousins and secondhand relations who played supporting roles in a cast of hundreds. She flips through the pages of a scrapbook. "If you live long enough, your head turns into your own private ghost town."
Phyllis's fear of the moon began on an ordinary school night at her childhood home in Elbowoods. It was an autumn evening, with the usual routine of dinner and dishes, homework afterward, then early to bed. As she and her mother finished up in the kitchen that evening, her father, Martin, fiddled with the dials on the small cherrywood radio in the living room. He tuned the frequency dial to KFYR, a station in Bismarck, hoping to pick up CBS's Mercury Theater on the Air. Back then, the radio's antenna was nothing more than a bare copper wire strung from a window sash at the house to the steel frame of the windmill out by the barn. Slung beneath the prairie sky, this was their ear to the world beyond the horizon, one that captured everything from basketball games and cowboy crooners to New York City jazz clubs. But that evening, instead of the familiar radio drama, Martin and 9 million other people suddenly found themselves listening to a live, eyewitness report of spaceships landing in a small town in New Jersey. Orson Welles's dramatization of H. G. Wells's novella The War of the Worlds had just begun.
It was October 30, 1938, the night the twenty-three-year-old theatrical wunderkind would become a household name. The radio drama, staged as a breaking news flash of an alien invasion, instantly spread terror across the nation. The panic that swept through the Cross household would visit thousands of other homes from Boston to San Francisco. In the CBS studio in New York, however, Welles and his cast were completely oblivious to the chaos being unleashed in towns and cities across America. In fact, prior to going on the air the cast found the script so dull that they asked for a last-minute replacement. None was available, so once the drama began, the cast's lingering doubts about the script charged their on-air performances with a heightened air of realism. Ten minutes into the show, a squad of New York City police stormed into the CBS sound studios with revolvers drawn. Out in the great beyond, from Manhattan to Elbowoods, an estimated 2 million Americans were frantically planning their escapes from the invasion.
"My memory of that night starts with my mom and dad running around the house like a couple of crazy people," says Phyllis. "To this day I can hear Orson Welles's voice describing the spaceships flying across the face of the moon as they came in for a landing. There was no doubt in my mind that they would be in Elbowoods in minutes."
The house where Martin and Dorothy Cross raised their ten children sat in a copse of trees on the northeast side of a cottonwood lane. Rutted to ankle-deep dust by horseshoes and steel-rimmed wagon wheels, the country road disappeared over low-lying hills on its way up the Missouri River from Elbowoods to the village of Lucky Mound. The house itself, a thirty-by-forty-foot rectangle, was a modern abode by the standards of the day. It was built by Phyllis's grandfather Old Dog, a Hidatsa tribal chief and judge who managed to complete it just months before he died in April 1928. When Old Dog's twenty-two-year-old bachelor son, Martin Cross, courted and married Dorothy Bartel, a Norwegian girl from the nearby village of Van Hook, on September 2, 1928, the house became the son's by right and custom.
The young couple's home lacked any sort of newfangled amenities, such as a washing machine or telephone, but for Grandfather Old Dog, frame construction was a bold step into the modern era. Until then, the revered chief had spent his entire life living in traditional, dome-shaped earth lodges and log cabins. The new house allotted each of the Cross family members a hundred feet of space. Typical of most homes built on the Great Plains by do-it-yourself carpenters, this was a practical, no-frills single-story structure. Beneath the hipped roof were three small bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a screened-in porch that doubled as an extra bedroom during warm weather. The Cross house owed its longevity less to mastery of trade by the builders than to the holding power of galvanized nails and the miracle of tar paper. Without tar paper, barbed wire, and the centrifugal pump - the holy trinity of American ingenuity at the turn of the twentieth century - the central highlands of the North American continent might well have remained an unfenced sea of grass.
The tallest order for any house on the Great Plains was keeping out the weather. Temperatures in Elbowoods could range from sixty below in February to a hundred and ten above in August. Old newspapers were stuffed into the voids between siding and lath. Tongue-and-groove floors in the kitchen and living room were covered with rolled linoleum to cut down on drafts from the root cellar. Windows let light and summer breezes into every room, a dramatic improvement from the shadowy interiors of traditional earth lodges, but this was the extent of the home's architectural luxuries. There was no plumbing or electricity, no central heating, and no closets in the bedrooms. During the winter months, a coal stove squatted in the middle of the living-room floor, consuming fuel around the clock. Beside the radio and Martin's overstuffed easy chair, a plain coffee table sat on an oval-shaped rag rug. A narrow corridor connected the living room to the kitchen, where the family ate its meals. Here were the simple necessities: a cast-iron wood stove that vented into a chimney; a table and chairs; and a hand pump that drew water from a well beneath the house.
"My mom baked bread in that oven at least four days a week," remembers Phyllis. "She chopped the wood and cooked three meals a day for twelve people on that stove. She canned enough food to get us through the winter, and when the temperature dropped to fifty below, we'd get that stove so hot it glowed like a cherry. Why that house didn't burn down I will never know."
When things got too hot in the kitchen in the summertime, a door was propped open onto the back porch. Beyond the porch was the requisite menagerie of outbuildings: a barn and an outhouse; the tack shed with harnesses, saddles, and bridles for Martin's small herd of horses; and chicken coops, whose occupants helped fertilize a two-acre garden that started at the clotheslines and kept on going until Dorothy Cross ran out of energy. At that very spot lay an invisible boundary to another world. Beyond Dorothy Cross's garden there was nothing but open prairie until the outskirts of Minot, sixty miles north. But neither Minot nor Bismarck conjured images of actual places in the young minds of Phyllis and her siblings. "Whatever was out there, beyond Elbowoods, was a big blank."
A half-mile walk from the Cross's front steps was the small town of Elbowoods. The town itself was a simple, right-angled grid of pretty tree-lined streets laid out around a central square on the cardinal points of the compass. A team of government surveyors had picked the site in the early 1890s. It sat at a bend in the Missouri River, about eighty free-flowing water miles upstream from the state capital at Bismarck. Most years, when the river behaved itself and stayed within its banks, the town sat high and dry on an elevated bench of land that overlooked a fertile hundred-year floodplain. As it had for centuries, the river dictated the terms of life for the valley's widely scattered residents. The only thing predictable about the Big Muddy, as locals called the river, was its unpredictability.
Within rock-throwing distance of the town's main square were Simon's and Twilling's general stores, a courthouse, a clump of official-looking Indian agency buildings, the sheriff 's house and jail, and the agency-run boarding school. When Phyllis was a teenager, the boarding school was home to more than 250 children for nine months of the year. There were electric lights in the dorms, central heating in the classrooms, flush toilets, and running water that poured from taps. Down the street from the main square was a state-of-the-art hospital and outpatient clinic. Built by the federal government in 1929, this facility was staffed year-round with a doctor and three nurses. It had eighteen beds, six cribs, a surgical center, and a new ambulance. News of local emergencies could be transmitted to the outside world on a Western Union telegraph key at the agency office, which also boasted the only telephone between Elbowoods and Parshall, thirty miles to the north. For the two thousand members of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations, Elbowoods was the heart of the world.
The War of the Worlds broadcast quickly transformed an ordinary school night into a frightful drama. Phyllis's father told everybody in the household to dress in his or her warmest clothes and to meet him at the truck. Then he raced out of the house to tell his sisters, Alice and Lucy, who lived in a small house out by the barn. The two youngest children, Forrest and Marilyn, were both with Dorothy in the kitchen. Phyllis collected the babies, one under each arm, and quickly bundled them up in coats and blankets on the living room floor. While Phyllis was helping her little brothers, Bucky and Crusoe, into their coats, Dorothy was frantically packing food and filling water jugs from the hand pump in the kitchen.
"That's when I heard the news reporter describing more spaceships landing, and I was instantly terrified," says Phyllis. With baby Forrest on her hip and sister Marilyn holding her hand, Phyllis pushed Bucky and Crusoe out the door ahead of her and led them through the dark toward the waiting truck.
In a crisis, Martin Cross was the guy you wanted making the important decisions. At six foot four, 220 pounds, the former rodeo cowboy was physically self-assured and tougher than a fence post. Having spent years at an Indian boarding school in Wahpeton, South Dakota, and several more following the rodeo circuit, Martin had a reputation for being a man of the world, a guy who could think under pressure. But in the haste of the moment that night, he had gotten a step ahead of himself. The car battery, which also powered the cherrywood radio in the living room, was still in the house. As his wife, sisters, and five children all huddled under blankets in the back of the truck, he cursed a blue streak and raced back into the house to fetch the battery.
Excerpted from Coyote Warrior by Paul VanDevelder Copyright © 2004 by Paul VanDevelder. Excerpted by permission.
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