Thunder Butte

May 13, 2006

Summers at Lake Williams

Lee & Cynthia Gulden in the 1920s (click to enlarge)  

Lake Williams, North Dakota, is (was) a sleepy little farm town which consisted of the grain elevator, railroad station, farm implement company, a lumber yard, a large hardware store, an oil company, a post office, a Catholic church and a scattering of homes. The Gulden Brothers, Lee and Ben, owned everything but the post office, the railroad, and the Catholic Church. They also owned a large number of the homes in town. Lee Gulden, my uncle, (husband of Cynthia, my aunt) owned with Cynthia a large modern home at the north end of town. To me, fresh from ranch country, this was a marvelous place. It had an electric light plant in the basement, a large cistern and wells that provided hot and cold running water, forced air heating and it was painted. Each member of the family—Lee, Cynthia, and Tracy owned cars. Tracy was given a car when he was barely old enough to see over the dash and had difficulty reaching the brake pedals.

My first summer with the Guldens was when I was about four or five years of age. I remember my size and age well, because my grandmother spanked me soundly when Tracy slammed the screen door on her one day and broke her glasses. Of course, without her glasses she could hardly see, so she grabbed the nearest small person she could catch and that happened to be me. Tracy was a constant pain in the neck to me and to the other kids in town who had to put up with his antics. An example of the tricks perpetrated by this small boy was one summer day when a bunch of us kids were wading at the lake and Tracy got the idea of making cigarettes out of sea weed. Since Tracy was the first to try it, he was the one who smoked the most. Soon he became ill and the rest of us had to carry him back to town. He kept groaning and moaning and telling us how sick he was. But, as soon as we got him home he jumped to his feet, jumped on his bicycle and away he went, good as new.

Another thing Tracy was good at was conning his father and his uncle Ben out of money. We would go to the store and sit around looking wistful and bored until uncle Ben gave Tracy 50 cents, cautioned him to give me half and away we went to buy candy. That was fine, except Tracy would buy candy for himself and laugh at me. One day when that happened, I beat him up pretty good. Tracy never held any hard feelings, since he new he brought it on himself, but his parents watched me carefully from then on. I guess they thought I was a thug.

As I had mentioned, Tracy had a car from the time he started school. There was hardly anyone he could hurt, but himself. It was not like someone with a car today. The first thing he did was take the muffler off, then he would race up and down the roads between all the little towns in that area—Robinson, Pettibone, Steele, and others. We also used to drink beer. Since the Guldens supplied nearly all the money in the area, no one took a chance on refusing any of Tracy’s whims. We would go into bars in Robinson and Pettibone, the two nearest towns, and the bartender would give us beer, usually for free. I don’t recall that we were ever drunk, probably because we didn’t really care for the stuff. It was largely bravado on our part. A few sips and we would leave it.

As I grew older, I still spent summers with the Guldens. We still raced up and down the highways between the little towns, but now there were girls with us. Of course, we had little interest in the girls, except they were some kind of strange creature who also happened to be nice friends.

One of the kids in town who used to be a pain in the neck to me, was a kid called Cooper, I don’t remember his first name, but it was probably Gary. They were naming a lot of kids Gary in those days. Gary was bigger, taller, more athletic, handsomer and more sophisticated than any of the other kids, although we were all roughly the same age. Every time we would see Cynthia, she would recount all of the latest exploits of Gary. He had gotten a scholarship; he was valedictorian; his mother was going to take him to Hollywood. He was just too talented to do what ordinary people did. So, you can see that I got really tired of hearing about the "great and wonderful" Gary.

One day, after I had been playing football for awhile (probably a junior in high school), I was visiting the Guldens when Tracy, Gary, and I decided to walk around the lake. Tracy and Gary were racing down the sands when I called to Gary, "See if you can break my tackle!" Then, I ran after them and threw a magnificent flying tackle at Gary. My shoulder hit him right above the shoe laces. It was a classic "shoe string tackle". The sand was soft and there would normally have been no harm done, but Gary went down—splat! I reached a hand out to help him to his feet. But, to my consternation, he lay on the sand curled up in a fetal position and crying like a little girl. I guess that was my introduction to the machinations of mice and men. I had no idea what was wrong with him. Tracy told me later that it was because his mother had him in Hollywood. That just deepened the mystery.

Poor Gary. About five years ago, I read in the obituary column of the Sacramento (California) Bee that Gary, born in Lake Williams, North Dakota, had finally passed away. Gary never did make pictures, to my knowledge. If my recollection is correct he had been a real estate salesman.

A few miles to the west of Lake Williams was the homestead of my grandfather and grandmother Shockley. They lived in a small tar paper house on about 80 acres. Separating them from Lake Williams was a large alkali lake. It had a smell no one could ever forget. They lived on that homestead until they were into their nineties, and then Cynthia moved them into her house in town where she could care of them more easily. One of my fondest childhood memories was walking to the well with my grandfather. He would always hold my hand, even when he was carrying a large bucket of water.

Grandpa James Shockley at Lake Williams (click to enlarge) 

--John Crowley
Mike Crowley Saturday, May 13, 2006


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