In the spring it was always the toads. My brother and I would get on our hands and knees and cover the lawn, searching for the telltale heaving of the sod. It was the yard toads, waking up from their winter’s hibernation. We would dig them out of their earthen eggs with our hands and: what? We were not killers, so we raced them, down the muddy sidewalk.
Highmore, South Dakota. Being on a slight rise on the everlasting plains, from the fairgrounds at the edge of town, just behind our house, you could see for almost forty miles. Word was that’s where the name came from: a railroad official exclaiming, “It’s more high here!” Other than no American ever talked that way, the truth is there was probably some guy named Highmore, and this dying hamlet was his eternal legacy.
One morning I awoke and there were elephants in our background. The circus had come to town and the pachyderms were employed raising the big top, just like in those stories from the Thirties. Only this was the early Sixties and life hadn’t changed much.
On another day it was the traveling evangelist who pitched his tent in the same location. It WAS a hot August night when my family gathered with the curious and stricken of Hyde County and sat in the steaming canvas, listening to that Holy Ghost rant.
The elementary school was across the street from our parsonage, the Lutheran Church just down the block. The boulevards were lined with the hardiest trees: box elder and Russian elm. Everyone’s back yard was a cornfield. In the summer I was paid a penny a piece to pick the potatoes bugs off the leaves of our family’s crop. My dog Rusty was shot by a sheep farmer. The family at the edge of town had pigs living under the floorboards. My best friend’s sister Mary Parker found a chicken feather and said it came from the hide of the sacred White Buffalo. Once, at a farm auction, a girl with dark hair poured me a glass of milk that was lumpy with curds. There was an old man who sat outside Bussey’s garage and could wiggle his ears without touching them. One night, walking across the field from the fair, I heard someone play a harmonica in the darkness: the loneliest sound I will ever recall…
And then there was the Courthouse. The seat of county government, I used to go with my dad when he had business there: a marriage license, a death certificate. The long oak banisters led to the second floor where you could look out over the portico. There was a Coke machine in the hall, each glistening bottle only a nickel. And, at night, the place was haunted.
I went back, once, forty years later, on my way from Minneapolis to the Black Hills on fishing trip. Old Highway 14 will still take you there. I found the old parsonage and the schoolyard next door. The swing sets were still the same. And the sign was there, too, warning the children to face always westward.