We were in a little store in Seattle’s Fisherman’s Wharf and for the third time that day I heard my colleague announce to a clerk that she was from Montana. Part of this was associated with getting the Washington state sales tax waived, but I knew it was more than that. Just the way she said it—a strange expectation in her voice, along with pride and something like personal discovery. Look at me—I’m from Montana.
We’ve all done it. Traveling puts us in the mode to contemplate home. It puts our way of life in a sort of relief and the more we travel the more we long for home. Often we just have to announce to the world that we come from a beautiful place that everyone must wish they came from. Of course, the response can be one of two things: how nice or some version of Montana, that’s in Colorado, isn’t it?
My favorite memory of pulling the Montana card goes back a few decades. I was in my mid-twenties, traveling from Washington DC up the Eastern Seaboard with my mother and her buddy, Rose. We were going to visit my sister in Boston. We talked of stopping in New York—that is, Rose and I talked about it; my mother was of the school that equates New York with mean people and dirty streets. She had no interest in Manhattan. But it was two against one. And Rosie was in the driver’s seat. She pulled off the freeway, negotiated her way into the wildness of the city and glory be, we pulled up near Central Park at a broken parking meter.
I was beyond myself with this coup. We were in the city of Henry Miller, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, The New York Times, The New Yorker, David Halberstrom, Edward R. Murrow, Lillian Hellman, Jackie Kennedy, Broadway theatre, Off Broadway theatre. The Brooklyn Bridge, Bob Dylan’s Greenwich Village, Sardi’s, Soho, and MoMA: all these places actually existed and I was seeing some of them.
We had lunch at Tavern on the Green and walked across the park, leaving time for a stroll down Fifth Avenue. A print in the window of a little gallery attracted me, and, feeling so good on my first visit to the city, I thought I’d better buy it. The owner was very pleasant, from an Eastern European country, and had a thick accent. Of course, while perusing his collection, I announced I was from Montana. When I went to pay, I realized I didn’t have enough cash (hard to believe, but I didn’t yet have a credit card). My mother was there to fall back on, but I had the temerity to ask if he’d take a check. From Montana. He said, sure he’d take a check from Montana. I looked at my mother, eyebrow arched. Mean people, dirty streets?
It was much later that I realized that the gallery owner and I were both fed by the encounter. He no doubt was taking a check from the land of the great western myth, the land of A.B. Guthrie’s Shane and Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns—maybe even Louisa May Alcott’s sweeping prairie. I was satisfying a longing for connection with a city I equated with much of the best literature I’d read, with great theatre and journalism, stories that had thread through my life in so many ways as to be part of the fabric of my Montana existence.
It was an excellent day and I remember it well, although I have no memory of the print. I was a Montanan from the high plains and he a New Yorker from Eastern Europe and we were both very happy. Sometimes traveling does that for you.
It was a delightful surprise for me to see in the Fall Montanan the picture of Lila Lee Lester handing out doughnuts to sailors coming through Missoula during World War II. The picture started a string of memories for me, now eighty-five years old and struggling with macular degeneration.
When I arrived in Missoula the spring of 1938 to work for the G.J. Petersons in their home at 415 Connell Avenue, my first acquaintance was eleven- or twelve-year-old Lila Lee Lester, the lively little daughter of the neighbors. She was a bright light to me, an eighteen-year-old bewildered and homesick girl from Richland County, where I was born and raised on a dryland farm-ranch. In the ’30s it was a drought-stricken area, and Missoula was a veritable heaven on earth to me with its lawns and trees.
Lila Lee kept me happy that first summer with her laughter and girlish antics, and we remained friends for the three years I worked for the Petersons, to whom I owe much through those years of college. I enrolled at the University the fall of 1938. There were no government grants in those days. In fact, the dean of women at the time commented to me that one in my “financial condition” didn’t belong on campus. Living off campus to work for my board and room denied me much of the fun, but I do have a real love for the old Main Hall! I graduated in June 1942 with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in English.
My first year of teaching in a high school proved to be more education. The superintendent enlisted in the Navy the Christmas of ’42, leaving the Superintendent of Fergus County and me to take over his classes and finish the school year.
In December 1945, my dearest friend returned from four years spent mostly in the South Pacific under General MacArthur. We were married in July 1946, which eventually put me back on a farm-ranch. Because of the war, there was a shortage of teachers, and I taught in rural schools for eight years in between raising five children. I think I may have the sole distinction of having taught every grade from kindergarten through seniors in high school—and that includes extra- curricular activities such as directing high school class plays and primary rhythm band!
Why do I write this letter? I suppose it is the thought that if it is published and Lila Lee sees it, she will know what happened to that lonely girl she befriended so many years ago!
Avis Schmitz Zvanni ’42
Dear Joan Melcher:
Your Editor’s Desk story about John Craighead brought to memory the day I met a talking crow. I was living in an upstairs apartment in downtown Missoula and my dog Vampire was barking up a storm. I opened the window and yelled to her to stop, but she kept up the din. Finally I noticed she was barking at someone calling to her—“Here doggy, here doggy”—and then a whistle, just like anyone calls a dog. The “person” talking finally showed up and much to my surprise, he turned out to be a crow.
After my initial shock subsided, I called out to it, and it came and sat on the roof-top right in front of me. We carried on a “conversation” for some minutes before it finally flew off. I swear I had not been drinking!
A few days later it showed up on campus and began playing a wonderful game. This was some smart crow and he soon figured out that about once an hour a bell rang and people poured out of the buildings for a few minutes. Then began the fun. For an hour the crow sat in the low branches of a tree calling out loud and strong—“Here boy, here boy”—and then the whistle. By the end of the hour there were always at least half a dozen or more barking dogs under the tree. Then the bell would ring and it would fly from its perch, winding through the students, flying close to the ground, just in front of the lead dog’s nose. This set up quite a stir and sent the students scattering. Soon the second bell would ring and the students disappeared into the buildings. … This lasted for at least a week before he took off for parts unknown and we never saw him again. I still wonder where he went, or for that matter, where did he come from?
Kevin Smith ’64
Crooked River Ranch, Oregon
A painting in this week’s New Yorker reminded me of exciting work Gogas was doing, melding Rubens and Russell in the late ’80s. I haven’t seen his work since then, though it would be one of several piquant reasons to return to Missoula. Your well-told review of Nancy Erickson’s art caused me to wonder if there would be something for Megan McNamer to chew over with Gogas, who I remember as a self-effacing, gently witty artist. What a cover! The stories [in the Montanan] often bring sweet dreams of the very best days of my life.
Bob Higham ’58
Santa Rosa, California
I quite enjoyed Caroline Patterson’s travel article in the Fall issue. She mentions a trip from Missoula to Billings on the Great Northern train, which I believe was actually the Northern Pacific line.
As a youngster I spent a number of pleasant trips riding the North Coast Limited with its Vista Dome. The farms, passing cars, people at work in fields and backyards were just a few of the delicious sights that contributed to the seemingly endless and interesting vignettes of 1950s Montana. The outside sounds were replaced by sounds of voices, doors opening and closing, and conductors announcing stations or dining car information. And all the sounds were muffled by rugs and upholstery, adding to the sense of a reality separate from the one gliding by outside the window.
The only tentative moment came when passing from one car to another. The door was heavy (at least for my young arms) and once one forced it open you left the serenity of the car and entered the roaring cacophony that was the short space between cars. The floor plates between the two cars screeched and barked against each other with each lurch of the train.
I was always relieved to leave the penetrating noise and engine smells that resided just beyond the well-upholstered serenity of the interior.
A great adventure always.
Jon Albertson ’71, ’87
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