Numbers of things

This is going to be a long blog although I didn’t originally intend it to be.  But we drive to Jackson Hole, Wyoming tomorrow morning where I’ll be on the faculty of the Photography at the Summit Workshop, a workshop run by Rich Clarkson, former director of photography at National Geographic, and I won’t have time to post anything for a while.  Rich has brought me out there for years and I look forward to joining a lot of old workshop faculty friends such as Jodi Cobb, David Alan Harvey, Jay Maisel, Dave Black, Tom Mangelsen, and others.  It’s heavily sponsored by Nikon and they bring lots of stuff for students’ use.  Tom is having the faculty for dinner Saturday night at his wonderful place at the base of the Grand Teton.  So here’s a long read that I hope makes sense.

Earlier this summer while Ani and I were working up on the Hi-Line, we spent some time in Scobey, in Daniels county, in the northeast corner of the state, about sixty miles north of Wolf Point on highway 2. Sitting just a few miles from the Canada border, Scobey is over 600 miles and in some ways a world away from the doorstep of our house in the university and sometimes thought of as the hippy town of Missoula.

Traditionally big wheat country, in 1924 Scobey was the largest wheat shipping center in the United States, probably one of the largest in the world.  In that year almost 3 million bushels of wheat got shipped by rail out of Scobey.  Homesteaders were enjoying what would go down as a record wheat producing year, yet one that was on the cusp of terrible times to come of drought, skies darkened with grasshoppers, the dust-filled Dirty Thirties, the Great Depression, and, finally, defeat for many who would just give up and walk away from their places.  Some simply turned their livestock loose and took the same train out that had brought them in.

But in 1924 they came from all over the county with their horse-drawn wagons hauling wheat to go by rail to markets far beyond Montana and when all those wagons and horses lined up to get unloaded it must have really been something to see.

We went to Scobey for their annual Pioneer Days.  A town of about 1,000 people that seems to have a grip on survival that many Hi-Line towns don’t, they have a fine collection of homestead era buildings hauled in from their original sites and made into a museum village, with an old theater where they stage the Dirty Shame dancing girls. With a Dixieland band in the pit, it’s a totally non-exotic show with pretty can-can dancing young girls from the area.  Fun for all ages, as they say.

We took a break one day and drove 11 miles east to Flaxville, a homestead era town once called Orville that was moved in 1912 to its present location because of the railroad coming in.  More than a couple of northern Montana towns relocated in the nineteen teens to follow the railroad or died because they didn’t.  Flaxville has a couple of bars, a post office, a fire hall, an antique shop open kind of when ever, and a Cenex station out on the edge of highway 2.  Some grain elevators stand like ghostly gray wooden chess pieces along side the railroad tracks.  Four farmer brothers now own the elevators that date back to the 1930’s or 40’s and use them to store their wheat.  On Main Street there are about a half dozen business buildings that are probably shut down for good.  With a graying population of around 80 residents, Flaxville resembles a lot of northeastern Hi-Line towns that are struggling to remain viable.

Flaxville’s schools are now closed, as are the schools in Peerless, another small town to the west of Flaxville.  They were consolidated into the schools at Scobey, a formal sports rival of both Flaxville and Peerless.  One day last fall when I was scouting around Scobey, Mary Richardson, who runs the Pioneer Village museum office talked to me about what tends to happen when a school closes and the town loses it’s sports teams. “When that’s gone, the town’s done,” she said.  It’s natural, I guess, and sad, I’m sure.

Schools that consolidate lose their nickname, their mascot , if they have one, and maybe their colors.  Flaxville lost its name, the “Cardinals,” and it’s colors, red and white.  They are now the Scobey-Peerless-Flaxville “Spartans” and their colors are blue and gold.  Peerless lost its name “Panthers,” but kept its colors of blue and gold.  Both towns lost their mascots; Scobey never really had one.  Without their sports teams these little northern Montana towns suffer a loss of identity that’s difficult to define but not that hard to understand.  The “Beat Scobey” posters taped to shop windows and the bar talk about kicking Scobey’s ass at Saturday’s game and the sense of the towns’ boys putting everything on the line for a win over that rival of so many years is gone when you find yourself suddenly on the same side.  The thought, “Hell, now our kids are walking the same halls,” may run through more than a few minds.  There’s a lot of positive to be found in the consolidation of these schools as well, but one can’t expect the old feelings to go away just because the kids have gotten on that yellow bus heading out of town to that other school.

Ani and I had a couple of red beers in the R_Y bar on Main Street in n Flaxville.  Ani drinks Miller Lite, I favor Miller Genuine Draft, at least for a red beer, otherwise I try to drink something out of the Kettle House brewery in Missoula. Ani’s not much of a beer drinker but a red beer seems to have made a hit with her. Some tomato juice or a can of Clamato juice on the side makes up the red beer part. Clamato juice has some spices and clam broth in it but if I had some at hand I’d take some Hutterite home made tomato juice as my first choice.  Now, with some of that, you’ve got a red beer to savor.

An antique shop across the street from the R_Y bar is run by a pleasant elderly couple and that day we were there they gave me a blank sales receipt book from a Flaxville hardware store that evidently went out of business a long time ago.  The pad is from the 1940s. I use it now for grocery lists.  At the top of each receipt is the name: “FLAXVILLE HARDWARE & LUMBER, Everything in Building Material,” the names of the proprietor and the manager and the telephone number: 14W

How easy must it have been to remember that telephone number– 14W.  How easy or perhaps, how conditioned are some of us, especially, I suppose, we older folks, to remember numbers, as opposed to “passwords” and “user names?”

Everything used to be about numbers.  Now it’s all about passwords and user names.  We seem to live in a world of passwords, most of which I forget within a short time of establishing them.  There are passwords necessary for every damn thing one has to do, with almost any transaction or intention one would like to accomplish: when going to the bank, trying to get on e-Bay, paying for your winning bid after you’ve managed to get on e-Bay, and on and on and on.

“Forget your password?” the stupid screen says, after I’ve failed to succeed with the combinations of numbers and letters that swirl in my mind during some internet interrogation.

Yes, damn it, of course I’ve forgotten it.  I’ve tried three versions and all have been refused and now I’m being told it’s over, no more tries, as if I’ve been at the plate in some perverse ball game and I’ve got three strikes so now I can’t play anymore until I go to some site with an endless e-mail address that I try to accurately copy  in order to establish a new password.  Just what I fricking need—a new password.

What happened to numbers?

It seems we can remember numbers, sometimes contrary to the stereotypical guy who can’t remember anniversary dates. We remember past addresses, zip codes, telephone numbers ours and others, car license plates, even, for those amongst us who really are anal, and, of course we’re drilled into the Social Security thing, we get it so young, carry it forever and it’s needed seemingly almost daily.  Photographers remember numbers in combinations although our cameras today usually do the real remembering.  Probably one of the best known numbers in photojournalism is former National Geographic Magazine editor-in-chief Bill Garrett’s answer to what the best f/stop may be in a certain situation:  “f/8 and be there.”

I can remember the telephone number of the home in which I grew up in north Minneapolis:  JAckson 1-2612

I use that telephone now as a bookend on a shelf in my home in Missoula. On top of the black baklite receiver grip is a long, cream-colored label my mother glued on that lists the numbers for both FIRE and POLICE and in the middle is the name of the provider of the label: McDivitt-Hauge Funeral Chapels and their number.  That was my mother, German and pragmatic.  One really should have the number of the local funeral chapel handy, as if there were any rush, as if whomever has passed away can’t wait until somebody can look up the number in the telephone book that usually rests, held in place beneath the telephone. This is a serious quality label, glued on so that it would probably take a chisel or a belt sander to get it off.  And now when I hold the receiver it feels really good.  Gripping it, it fills my hand, its obvious place to speak into not crowding my lips and the circular other end cups my ear with a kind of certainty; this is a device of substance and presence, as though if one were talking to someone through this instrument what one would have to say would carry more weight, be perhaps better understood.

“Hello?  I’d like report a very noisy party going on across the street and it’s almost four in the goddamn morning….Can you tell me why I haven’t received my UPS package that was due yesterday……?  Yes,  a party of two at eight and what we’d really like would be one of those booths by a window, please, if possible.

“Of course, certainly, it’s JAckson 1-2612.  Thank you.”

And then when all your thoughts and requests are communicated through this instrument of substance, you don’t shut if off.  You hang it up with a comforting “kulunk.”

So, maybe it’s a generational thing but all in all, I think I prefer numbers to passwords.  I often hear that one really should change one’s passwords frequently.  Hell, one should probably do a lot of things frequently.  I’d like to stop at the Kettle House brewery on Myrtle Street for a pint of Cold Smoke every afternoon but I can’t really.  At least not until Ani leaves for Peru.  But passwords really elude me in their appeal and I detest having to create new ones because I can’t remember the old ones.  Give me a couple of numbers and I’ll get them down eventually and they’ll stay there for a while.

Just the other day I heard about a guy who really needed to call his girl from some place but he didn’t know her number and he didn’t have his cell phone.  Can you imagine?

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5 Responses to Numbers of things

  1. Diana says:

    Great post, Bill. Have a safe trip to Jackson Hole. I arrived this afternoon and the weather was glorious. Hiked around Jenny Lake and enjoyed the golden leaves.

  2. Tracy says:

    Are you talking about the phone that was upstairs at 4043? I always wanted that phone.

  3. Larren says:

    If you were a country kid, your two-digit phone number wasn’t as important as the number of rings assigned you on the 4-party line. Three short rings & I went flying to the phone. The neighbors had two short rings followed by a long one. My social life hinged on the last ring being short. As the rings were the handiwork of the spinster at the “Central” switchboard, they were never the same. Never did figure out why she preferred “Central” to “Operator”.

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