Tag Archives: South Dakota

Trip of a Lifetime:  War Eagle Goes Home

I could not wait to get to the Black Hills of South Dakota!  I didn’t know what to expect, but a part of me felt I was going home.  As a boy, growing up in rural Mississippi, I was a fanatic for cowboy and Indian movies, and in just about every one of those movies, the Indians lived, hunted, and fought in the Black Hills or those hallowed grounds were at least mentioned.  Unlike most other boys, I did not take up the role of John Wayne, James Stewart, or Randolph Scott; I played the part of the Indian.  Although I did not have a clue where the Black Hills might be, my backyard and the woodlands bordering my grandfather’s pastures became those hills.  All I knew was the Black Hills had to be a special place if Indians and buffalo lived there.

With a chicken feather tucked in a worn leather shoestring from my father’s work boot tied around my head, mud war paint smeared across my face and shirtless chest, and strips of an old sheet hanging in front and back of my shorts, I was a Sioux warrior fighting for my home.  I made tipis from ragged towels and the remains of the sheet that lent itself to the loincloths, bent oak saplings into bows with line cut from my father’s spinning reel, and sharpened the points of my featherless arrows with a buck fifty Barlow pocket knife.  My war cries could be heard from my parent’s little acre at the bottom of the hill to my grandfather’s front porch at the top of the hill where he grimaced with each yell, spat Redman chewing tobacco in a pint fruit jar or in grandma’s azaleas, and wiped strings of brown tobacco swill from his chin with the back of his hand.  My cousins said he thought I was a bit touched in the head, but that never deterred the cry of War Eagle.  Grandfather did not concern me, the great white fathers never truly understood the spirit and way of the Indian.

Over fifty years later, I finally saw the Black Hills of South Dakota.  My wife and I, along with our traveling companions, reserved a campsite for five nights at Beaver Lake Campground in Custer, South Dakota, smack in the middle of the Black Hills.  War Eagle had been put to rest years ago, but the urge to strip the sheet off the bed in my travel trailer and tear it into loincloths tugged at me.  I struggled to keep War Eagle contained as I set up the aluminum tipi, fearing my wife and friends would be even less understanding than my grandfather if I broke into a war dance and accompanying cries and chants.  I was like a child in a candy store, or on Christmas morning – my dream had finally turned to reality.

Over the following five days, we drove the main and back roads of Custer State Park watching the buffalo, long prong sheep, and prairie dogs.  We relaxed at iconic Sylvan Lake surrounded by rock formations designed in heaven and tossed rocks across the lake from leather shepherd slings my buddy and I designed and made at our campsites one morning.  The Iron Mountain Road drive with its hairpin turns, cut backs, and tunnels barely large enough for a modern-day vehicle to pass through gave us our first taste of mountain driving.  Mount Rushmore filled our hearts with awe and pride in our American heritage built upon the wisdom and sacrifice of such visionaries as Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln.  From there we drove the Needles Highway made accessible only by the engineering wonders of man!  The grandeur of the highway with its spiraling rock fingers reaching for the heavens, narrow tunnels, and landscapes draped in the mastery of the Maker was possibly one of the most beautiful drives we have experienced on our trip, and we have experienced many.  All that, along with elk and mule deer moving through the evening shadows along the roadways, was more than most people experience in a lifetime.

It did not end there!  The Crazy Horse Memorial erected almost single handed by one man and his family with no government assistance, only private funding, and the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota Indians’ commitment to preserve not only their heritage through the monument, but the heritage of all mankind took the human experience to a level of healing and spirituality that humbled the heart.  Walking the streets of Deadwood, a cowboy town famous for gold and the final resting place for Wild Bill Hickok, the original fastest draw in the West, helped us separate the real West from the movies.  From there, we gave a quick look at the little town that once every year becomes a big town – Sturgis.  The annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally swells the population of the town from 6800 to nearly three-quarters of a million people during every August, and as we witnessed, the preparation and the arrival of motorcycle enthusiasts from all over the world begins weeks in advance.

That was more than enough to fill five days of vacation, but we did not stop there!  After Sturgis, we spent time in Spearfish Canyon enjoying the scenery and the waterfalls, and on our final day, we visited Wind Cave National Park and toured the sixth largest/longest cave in the world.  According to legend, Wind Cave is the birthplace of the Sioux Nation, and if you listen close, you can hear the stories of their beginning whispered from the cracks and crevices throughout the cave.  Walking through underground passages cut by acidic water, I could feel the breath of the Sioux on my neck and shoulders and hear the elders speaking of birth, betrayal, and rebirth.  First came the buffalo, second came the people of the hills and plains, and then their betrayal by the white man and the destruction of their way of life.  There were other voices in the cave as well; voices that had every right to call for justice and revenge, but instead, spoke softly of hope, peace, and understanding for all men and nations – the way of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota.  That, my friends, is the mark of a great and wise people.

Contrary to what some folks back home told me, there was no shortage of things to do in the Black Hills.  We did not run out of things to do; we ran out of time to do everything we wanted to do!  From the base of the Black Hills to overlooks more than 6,000 feet above sea level, every turn held a new discovery and experience.  Every day in the “Ȟe Sápa” (Lakota for Black Mountains) was a new beginning and new adventure.  It was a place where man and spirits walked hand in hand speaking softly to one another of hope and peace.  The wildlife, the rolling hills, rock formations, and prairies made it easy to see why the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota tribes, known to the white man as the Sioux, looked upon this place as sacred.

In the evenings, I sat alone in the dark listening to the hills.  If you listen close, you can hear the song of the buffalo, the eagle, and the elk singing to the children of the earth, “Come to me, lay your head in my meadows, sleep under the sky God has made for all peoples, stand on the pillars of the sun, and give thanks for all you see before you.”  I am thankful I had my time to gaze upon those hills and see what the boy who played with a chicken feather in his hair, War Eagle, always knew – Ȟe Sápa is a special place – a place where spirits soar – a place where a War Eagle can find peace and whoop it up (with the wife’s permission of course) and make dreams come true.  It was and is a place the Indians call home.  War Eagle was home.

JL

©Jack Linton, July 28, 2017

 

The Trip of a Lifetime:  The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

The third stop of our trip was unbelievable!  We journeyed a couple of miles up the road from The Badlands National Park to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.  What we found there was one of the most fascinating adventures anyone in our group has ever experienced.  The Site is comprised of a not to be missed visitor center, a missile silo (Launch Facility Delta 09) with a missile still in the silo (It has been defanged), and a command center (Launch Control Facility Delta 01) just down the road.  Although the visitor center and the missile silo are must visits, the highlight of the historic site is the Delta 01 tour.  The tour of the once top secret underground command center, the center from which the fate of the world lay in the hands of twenty something year-old kids (trained young men, but kids nevertheless), was eye opening, frightening, and one of the most remarkable tours I have seen.

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site tour is a relatively new tour, and it is by reservation only.  People who stop at the site expecting to book a tour on their day of arrival are likely to be turned away.  The tour is usually booked solid for three to four weeks in advance and sometimes longer, so anyone wishing to book the tour should do so weeks, preferably months in advance, to ensure a spot on the tour.  Why is the tour so popular?  First, it takes you thirty feet underground to visit a Minuteman Missile operation center that few people have ever seen; second, you get to enter the small command module buried thirty feet underground where teams of two men worked three-day shifts waiting for coded orders authorizing them to insert their individual keys into the doomsday machine that would have launched Minuteman ballistic missiles and ignited World War III.  It is a little disconcerting to think encased inside eighteen inches of steel and concrete layers designed to survive earthquakes and nuclear blasts you are standing in a place that once held life, as we know it, and the end of time in balance; three, the tour is conducted by veterans who were there and know the inside details; and fourth, the tour is limited to six people per tour, which provides easier access to the guide to clearly hear what he says as well as to ask questions.

Having scheduled our tour three months in advance, we drove straight to the tour site as directed.  The tour began the moment we arrived at the gate of a desolate yellow-tan building hidden in plain sight off South Dakota’s Interstate 90 down a dirt and gravel road.  Surrounded by chain-link fence topped by barbed wire, we found ourselves in the world of a Tom Clancy novel, only this was not fiction.  This highly secret command center was once home to a contingent of eight security and maintenance men above ground, a cook, and two teams of two men who alternated three day shifts thirty feet underground with the fate of the world in their hands.  These two men held the keys to launching up to ten Minuteman missiles, each with a 1.2 megaton thermonuclear warhead anchored to its top.  This one site had the capability to launch its missiles with pin-point accuracy anywhere in the world the moment it received the proper orders, codes, and firing sequences from the President of the United States.  Thank God, such orders were never given although the fabulous exhibits at the Minuteman Missile Historic Site visitor center show how close we were to nuclear war on more than one occasion.  It is chilling to think we were almost never here!

As ordered, we arrived at the tour site at 10:10 a.m., thirty minutes prior to our tour time.  At precisely 10:40 a.m., our military escort/guide appeared at the ten-foot chain-link gate.  Air Force Colonel (retired) Brad Riza, a regular visitor to the site during its heyday in the 1960s to 1990s, was our commanding officer for the tour.  After a brief debriefing outside the gate, Colonel Riza led our party of six, the four in our group and a couple from California, inside the building to tour the facility.

Colonel Riza gave a masterful tour, and his pride in his country and the role he played in the Minuteman Missile era was unquestionable.  He spoke in detail of the Cold War between the United States and Russia (Soviet Union), and how the missiles acted as a line of defense for the nation and as a deterrent to the Soviets or any other aggressor who might threaten a nuclear attack against America or its allies.  The missile field was scattered across the central and northern Great Plains of America next door to ranchers, farmers, and small towns.  Their purpose was to protect the freedoms and posterity of the American people as well as allied nations around the world.

One thousand Minuteman missiles were deployed during the last twenty-five years of the Cold War.  If launched the Minuteman Missile would travel over the North Pole and strike its target in less than thirty seconds.  However, within seconds of the launch, missiles would be incoming in retaliation.  There was only one guarantee if these weapons were used – the aggressor and the target nation would both be destroyed, which made an attack by either side unthinkable.  The greatest deterrent to nuclear war – the only trump card the people on either side of the Cold War could depend – was there would be no winners!  Therefore, why play if nobody could win?

Colonel Riza spoke of the Minuteman missiles as a deterrent not as a weapon of aggression, but primarily he spoke of the rigors and stress the young men (many barely in their twenties) endured while stationed in the missile fields.  They spent long mentally draining hours isolated from family and friends, not knowing if they might have to turn the key that would ultimately destroy the world and all they loved.  These men were forbidden to talk to family and friends about their job with the Air Force.  Faced with protocols that meant strict adherence or immediate court martial, imprisonment, or even death, they lived in a vacuum absent of any normalcy most young men enjoyed.

Part of Colonel Riza’s job was to evaluate the metal condition of the men assigned to the doomsday computers buried deep beneath the yellow-tan building on the surface.  There was no room for error or departure from protocol.  Violate protocol and orders were clear – shoot to kill even if it was the cook, your best friend, or the Colonel.  The survival of the nation was at state; everything else was collateral damage including human life in the bunker or outside the bunker.  There were no second chances!  The fate of the country depended on these young men to execute their orders without hesitation or error.  From 1963 to 1991, the fate of the United States depended on the threat of nuclear retaliation as a deterrent to Soviet Union aggression.  Finally, in 1991, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed by President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to reduce the number of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear warheads effectively ending the Cold War.

Today, there are no active ICBM silos in South Dakota, but 400 Minuteman Missiles are still deployed across the upper Great Plains of the United States.  The Russians have a like number spread across their country.  Even though the Cold War has subsided, nuclear missiles intended as a deterrent remain on alert in the United States and Russia.  The biggest difference is today it is no longer a two-nation dance.  China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and others have all bought tickets and are clamoring to get on the dance floor.  This escalation means the Minuteman missiles are more important than ever, and they will remain on alert through at least 2050.  Hopefully, by then the world will have come to its senses.

Every American needs to visit The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site!  The story it tells is a story everyone needs to hear.  All of us have one life, one family, and one country; to jeopardize any of the three with nuclear weapons is the sign of a madman.  We have lived as madmen long enough, but unfortunately, the day of the madman does not appear to be over.  Therefore, I take comfort there are men such as Colonel Brad Riza and thousands of young men who give up their youth and innocence in the service of our country to ensure our freedom and way of life.

Thank you, Colonel Riza for your service and for a great tour!  May God continue to bless you, our country, and the young men and women who serve our country 365 days a year, 7 days a week, 24 hours per day.

God bless America!  Americans, if you can, GO visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota.  It might scare you, but it will make you proud to be an American.

JL

©Jack Linton, July 23, 2017

The Trip of a Lifetime:  STOP #1 The Corn Palace

After camping in Batesville, Mississippi; Perryville, Missouri; Platte City, Missouri; and Tea, South Dakota, we finally made the turn west in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  Our first stop was The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.  We had received mixed reviews on The Corn Palace from “A must stop!” to “If you are in the area with nothing better to do, give it a try.”  After four days on the road with little to do but drive, sing along with John Prine, Neil Diamond, and Elton John cds and watch coals die in the evening campfire, we were excited to make Mitchell, South Dakota our first sightseeing stop.  To prepare ourselves for what we would see, we discussed the functionality and structural integrity of corn as a building material.

I should have known something was amiss when we walked up to The Corn Palace and three guys with staple guns and Elmers Glue were gluing and stapling corn cob halves to the building.  I was dumbfounded!  Prior to visiting The Corn Palace, I was like the little girl I overheard telling her mother as they walked through the front door, “But, Mama, you said this place was made of corn.”  Her mother smiled and tried to explain to her disappointed daughter that the murals and pictures on the front of the building and in the auditorium were made of corn.  The little girl was having none of it, “But, is that all there is?” she asked.  The mother stopped, and looked down at her.  “Sorry, Honey,” she said, “but that is all there is.  It is what is.”  I felt bad for the little girl; heck, I felt bad I had dragged my wife and friends to see what I told them was “a building made of corn.”  To be fair, the murals and pictures inside and outside the building were made of corn and its by products, such as the cob, and if you like that sort of thing, you should go see The Corn Palace because there is not much more to the place than that.

After the little girl and her mother were gone, I sat down on a bench in the foyer and reflected on the little girl’s words, “Is that all there is?”  Those words reminded me of a song by one of my mother’s favorite singers, Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?” she sang.  “Is that all there is?” her sweet voice rang.  “If that’s all there is, my friends;  Then let’s keep dancing.  Let’s break out the booze and have a ball,” she warbled.  “If that’s all there is,” she sang with a finality that pushed me ever closer to the door – if I could only find my wife.

Unfortunately, there was no one dancing in The Corn Palace, there was no booze that I could see, and the only ball anyone was having was the stale popcorn balls sold for $3.00 each in the lobby concessions area.  The Corn Palace was not terrible; it served a purpose – from there our trip could only get better!  So, friends, whenever you are in the area, STOP if you must, to say you have done it, but don’t be disappointed when you learn “corn cobs is all it is!”

JL

©Jack Linton, July 19, 2017

The Trip of a Lifetime

After six months of planning and preparation, the time has finally arrived.  My wife and I are taking a long awaited get-a-way; she calls it The Trip of a Lifetime.  Our travel trailer and truck are serviced and packed, the house sitters are in place, people to take care of the pool and lawn have been secured, and the bank account has been depleted.  Our kids think we are too old and feeble to completely comprehend the magnitude of the trip we are undertaking, and the grandkids cannot understand why we are not taking them.  Although we have assured our children repeatedly we are not too decrepit to take a two-month camping excursion, they roll their eyes and say, “Dad, have you thought this through?  Sometimes people your age do crazy things;” “Mom, ya’ll don’t have a clue how to use an ATM;” or “We’re sure the two of you will have a great time, but where’s the will just in case?”

They are right; we may be a dime short of crazy and clueless about an ATM, but I am confident the great explorers Lewis and Clark also did not have a clue about an ATM and were called crazy when they set out to explore the northwest.  Like those trailblazers, this will be our first trip to the northwest United States, and like them, every turn will represent a new adventure for us.  If all goes well, our trip will take us north to the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Big Sky country of Montana, to Calgary, Canada, northwest to Banff National Park, back south to Glacier National Park, and Yellowstone National Park.  That is just the first 3,500 miles.  Where we go beyond Yellowstone, we haven’t a clue.  We may head southeast through Colorado and Kansas, or we may chase rainbows and UFOs to Roswell, New Mexico and beyond.  The only thing we are sure about is, the good Lord willing, we will come home eventually.  As for a will, the kids are being a little presumptuous in my opinion, besides we sank everything we own into this trip.

I have waited for this trip for fifty-three years.  When I was ten years old, I remember a school friend, Rocky, telling the class about his summer camping trip to Yellowstone National Park.   He talked to us about boiling water that shot hundreds of feet into the air, a grizzly bear studying him from the trees bordering his campsite, buffalo that stopped traffic for an hour, and mountains capped by snow in mid-summer.  Hooked, I told my parents, being careful to leave out the boiling water and grizzly bear, about this fantastic place Rocky had visited.  I did my best to sell them on friendly buffalo and mountains with snow cone peaks, and I believe my father was hooked and ready to go, but my mother said, “No!  We cannot afford it.”  Desperate, I blurted, “Tents don’t cost much.  We could camp like Rocky and his family.”  That was maybe the greatest blunder of my youth.  My mother was a beautiful lady – prim and proper – and although she worked hard, she had never dropped a bead of sweat in her life, and she was not about to do so camping in a tent.  “Over my dead body,” she said, and that was the end of the camping discussion and as it turned out the Yellowstone discussion as well.  I have often wondered if things may have been different if I had kept my mouth shut about camping.  The closest I got to Yellowstone after that was National Geographic and pictures of grizzly bears and buffalo my teacher gave us to color in class.  At the time, I despised her; I felt she was intentionally trying to rub salt in my wounds.

This trip is my wife’s dream as well.  I don’t know if there was a Rocky in her life to inspire her, but regardless, I have never seen her more energized and excited.  She has taken on the persona of a “town crier” excitedly sharing with anyone who will listen every detail of the trip.  By now, all our children, grandkids, and friends know the color of every outfit she plans to bring and wear, know the menu by heart for each meal, know the locations by city, state, latitude and longitude of every picture she plans to take, and know how many times per week she plans to do laundry.  As for me, one pair of shorts and jeans as well as a couple of t-shirts and pairs of underwear are all I need; you waste less time if you wash a t-shirt and a pair of underwear in the sink and dry them on the back of the camper as you travel.  Fortunately for me, stately and dignified was not high on the compatibility list when we married.

For years, we talked about this trip, but always found an excuse to put it off to next year.  Of course, life has a funny way of pushing by several “next years” before you know it.  Finally, we woke up one morning, not as young as we once were, and realized the possibility of running out of “next years” was too close to home for comfort.  We had some decisions to make.  We could hang around the house and help our kids plan how to make our home of thirty years more elderly friendly and accessible when we were no longer capable of climbing the stairs, we could practice for the retirement home, or we could thumb our nose at age, get off our butts, and take the flipping trip we should have taken years ago.  We decided to take the trip!

Once we decided the trip was a go, my wife started planning, packing, and talking.  She told everyone where we were going, until one day, she mentioned it to some good friends who decided to join us.  They had recently bought a new travel trailer and truck and were anxious to get on the road.  We were absolutely thrilled to have them join us on the trip.  Since our kids had stopped coming to see us for fear of having to listen to their mother talk about the latest trip menu or “ooh” and “aww” at the latest gadget I had purchased or built for the truck and camper, it was good to finally have some likeminded geriatric souls (seniors only in the eyes of our kids) to talk to about the trip.

The only downside was our planning became competitive.  In a very short time, the trip wardrobes for both wives doubled.  Heaven forbid they would ever be caught wearing the same color, style, or brand of shoes or clothing at the same time.  As a result, the bunk area of both campers had to be re-purposed to provide space for their wardrobes.  However, to be fair, I must admit my good friend and I became a little competitive ourselves.  When he bought a gadget for his truck, I one-upped him with a bigger gadget for my truck, and of course, he would counter with a fancier gadget for his truck, which in turn led me to reciprocate with another blockbuster gadget for my truck.  The dashboards of our trucks now look like the cockpit of the space shuttle.  There are monitors for the GPS, monitors for dashcams, monitors for rear view cameras, monitors for the monitors, and wires so thick it looks as if the dashboard is overgrown with black vines.

But, all is okay; all is better than good.  Before we leave, we may be forced to have a fire sale to lighten the camper and truck load, but if I must put a harness and blinders on my wife to help pull the camper, we are going on this trip.  Next year has finally come for our Trip of a Lifetime.  The family thinks we are crazy, but they are behind us one-hundred percent, and we are living and sharing the dream with good friends who we pray are still good friends by the end of the journey.  We are blessed with a family, friends, the means, and the health to make such a trip possible – life is good.  In a few days we will head north, so keep us in your prayers, we’ll see you somewhere along the six or seven-thousand-mile mark.

JL

©Jack Linton, July 5, 2017