Authors Note: This is a story from a road trip I made in January of 2008. I used to write a travel story every week on Monday and called the series the Monday Morning Mystery Tour.
One of the better exchanges that I have had with strangers while traveling happened at a gas station/grocery store in Fort Thompson, SD. Fort Thompson is on the banks of the Missouri River. One of the many dams the Corps of Engineers put up years ago makes it a lake and not a river. It is called Lake Sharp. Fort Thompson, the dam and the adjoining area is part of the Crow Creek Indian Reservation in Central South Dakota.
It is a poor area economically. There is no town center with shopping and vibrance, just this oversize convenience store that is the first tier of commerce for the people here. I first came to this area passing through while on my way to somewhere else. Then, last summer, I went on a semi-organized motorcycle ride to commemorate the anniversary of the Trail of Tears for the Dakota and Winnebago people.
These people were forced from their homelands in Minnesota and transported by barge down the Mississippi River, across Missouri by rail car, then back on river boats up the Missouri River and dumped at Fort Thompson in 1863. We rode to remember their spirits and give anyone who could accept it, hope.
Gas prices were a concern when I was planning this trip as it would be a huge expense. I buy where it is the cheapest and fill both tanks on the van to the brim. I get reasonable mileage and thought I’d have enough to get to the Rapid City area where prices were less than the lightly populated rural areas where prices are usually quite a bit higher.
There was a sensational headwind out of the Northwest, as oftentimes happens in Winter on the plains, that I had to buck and the boxy shape of the Econoline just ate my petrol in no time flat. I needed gas. Both tanks were on “E”. I pulled into Lynn’s Dakotamart, gas station, grocery store, video rental, money exchange, Western Union, Deli and more at Fort Thompson to fill up.
I wonder why the gas prices in the poorest remote areas are at least a quarter more per gallon than anywhere else? Probably because they know they can gouge them for the residents have no other choice.
I could have just put in a few gallons at the high price and coasted into Rapid City and cheaper prices, and filled up there, but I figured as long as I was there and I needed gas, I’ll just fill both tanks, spend the extra money and look at it as a contribution to the economy of Fort Thompson.
First of all, you couldn’t pay at the pump. That system wasn’t installed on these pumps. Secondly, you had to prepay for your gas. I went inside and gave my credit card to the young girl with the long dark hair that stood behind the cash register. I told her that I was gonna “Fill ‘er up on number five”.
She glanced out the window behind her that faced the tarmac, spotted the van and said. “Okay”.
I went back out and pumped my gas. The damn thing took about 20.6 in the rear tank and another 14 and 1/2 in the front. The meter stopped at ninety four dollars and some change!
I went back inside to pay my charges. By the time I got my tanks filled up to the top, the place had exploded with customers. There were people all over, so I waited in a line. The young dark haired beauty called out to another young girl and asked her to open another check out aisle.
The other young woman, a bouncy blond gal wearing a blue sweatshirt went to an island and opened another register. She helped a couple of people and I was still waiting in line. I was going to be next up.
The blonde said to me with a nice bright smile, “I can help you over here.”
I looked back and smiled and said, “That’s okay, my credit card is up here. I’ll wait, no problem.”
I used to be in a hurry in the old days. Now, I could take my time and look around. Soak up the anthropology of the store in Fort Thompson. I used to blast through South Dakota and the plains states as I traveled, thinking that there was nothing to see but the grassy buttes in the distance. But I learned over time that even if the face of things was bleak, there is plenty to see and learn about.
The blonde girl closed the register where she was and walked behind the dark haired gal and verified the almost hundred dollar amount on the pump and asked me if that was mine. I told her, “Yes”. and she ran the card on a machine that was mounted on the wall.
To the side of the register, now empty of any customers, she asked to see my ID. I said, “ Sure”, and produced my Wisconsin Drivers License. She looked at the signatures and my picture, then handed my license back to me along with my Master Card.
When she gave me my stuff back, she said, “Here you go Joseph”. Then, she placed the statement down and handed me a pen so I could sign the receipt and said, “Sign this please, Joseph”.
She called me Joseph because that is the name on my card and my license. No-one calls me Joseph except one really special friend. Everyone calls me Joe or Joey. The Grandkids used to call me Papa, but I am making them call me Cap’n because we’re all gonna live like Pirates from now on.
I said to the pretty blonde girl, “My friends call me Joe.”
“Okay Joe, sign here please.” she said. She was smiling because she knew I was just making some conversation with strangers.
Then I said, “My girlfriends call me Joseph”.
She smiled and then said, “Okay then, Joseph it is.” She was being a good sport and humoring and old man. Maybe she knew the wind outside had zapped me and that I was just foolin’ around.
She touched my elbow when she called me Joseph. I was impressed by that. A genuine smile and gesture showed me she liked people. I signed the receipt, took my copy and went into the store and picked up a couple of pears and a gallon jug of water. I went up the register, where the girl with the long dark hair was working, to pay for my selections.
She tendered my purchase and said, “Thank you Sir, have a nice day.”
I immediately said, “I’m not a Sir, I am Joseph.” I smiled at her and she smiled as she had been privy to the earlier exchange with the blonde clerk. She joined in with the spirit and said, “Okay Joseph. You have a nice day.”
I left there with a smile on my face. The two people who worked there had such a great spirit about them. They allowed themselves to pretend or rather enjoy their workaday world with some laughter and humor in its simplest form, light hearted conversation and silliness with a customer, a stranger traveling through their town.
Happenstance put me there at a moment in time. Seems like we all wanted to be friendly at the same time. I was feeling good anyway about my whole day in general despite the wind and slow progress against it. It was nice to see people smile and have a friendly exchange. Maybe because I had been driving for hours in the slightly inhabited South Dakota plains had something to do with it.
I went about my business. I went to see a friend in Crow Creek and hung around the area for a little more than an hour. Now seeing that I was to head out over another wide expanse of prairie, I stopped once more at the store and used the men’s room.
When I walked in, the dark haired woman was behind the register. She looked at me and waved her hand and smiled. Another older woman was working now and the older woman walked behind the counter on her way to perform some task.
The dark haired one said, “Margaret, this is my friend, Joseph. Joseph, this is Margaret.”
I said, “Hello Margaret, pleased to meet you.”
Margaret smiled and looked at me.
I said, “See you later, maybe next week some time, Thanks.”
My new dark haired friend said, “I’ll be here.” Margaret just looked at us as the exchange took place.
I wonder if she’ll remember me?
I know back in the days when I was a child, your name oftentimes was of biblical origin. In my case, I was named after Saint Joseph, as were my Mother’s Father and two of my uncles, boith named Joseph, one on either side of the my family.
No one ever called me Joseph. I was always Joe. Mom, Dad, siblings, relatives and friends called me Joey. I do have a more recent friend that calls me Joseph. I started liking it. Now, when a stranger asks me my name, sometimes I tell them, “Joseph”.
Maybe all those years of doing the deed for the man taught me how to laugh at life and enjoy what I can. Maybe the tragedies and trauma of the years robbed some of that happiness from me. Maybe I remembered how to just have some fun once in a while as I knocked around South Dakota.
Peace to all