South Dakota Top Blogs

News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Guns and poses

I grew up with guns.  My dad had a Winchester Model 97 12 gauge broken down in its canvas and leather case in the basement.  I spent most of my summers with my mother who cared for her mother who lived on a farm with two bachelor sons.  A short distance from the kitchen door was a 3-unit building.  One unit housed the cream separator.   The middle unit was where the stoves that heated the dining room and living room were stored during the warm months of the year.  The third unit was the wash house.   It contained a stove for heating water, a washing machine, and a large galvanized tub for bathing.  That unit was closest to the kitchen door.

High on the wall of the bath house was a shelf that held boxes of shotgun shells and rifle ammunition, and above it was a rack that held a 12 gauge Winchester pump and a .22 Mossberg bolt action.  Bathing was done in the aroma of laundry soap and gunpowder.  The bath house was closest to the barnyard gate so that if you heard a skunk or coon raiding the chickens or a fox taking a baby pig, you could quickly grab your weapon of choice on your way to dispatch the critter.  Such actions happened fairly often.

Guns were regarded as just tools,  like saws and hammers and fence wire cutters.  You kept them clean and oiled and unloaded.  You used them to maintain the farm, which included an occasional hunt for what we now call game.  Hunting  was not an outdoor sport by the people around me then.  It was part of providing food.  That included the elimination of predators of the food animals.  

When I was a child in Illinois, deer had been eliminated from the land by over-hunting and lack of habitat.  Hunting was therefore limited to small animals, rabbits, squirrels, and wild fowl.  It was a matter of providing food and some variety in the diet.  Many farms then had hedge fences.  Those fences were great habitat for game animals.  Game animals were part of the food production.  Although they were not referred to as game.  The rabbbits, the quail, and an occasional pheasant stretched the food budget.  They were not the objects of a sport.  The people around me regarded those who hunted for the purpose of killing as perverted and demented.  Trophy hunting was aberrant.  People who had mounted animal heads on their walls or preserved pheasants on their shelves were regarded with ridicule and disdain. 

When I was 12, I got a  Springfield .410 for Christmas from my brother.  Thus, I became a gun owner with the capability of contributing to the food supply.  And I became responsible for a gun.  

My next ownership came years later when working in the sports department of a newspaper. I joined a group that in the closing days of summer would register to build duck blinds in the chutes and sloughs of the Mississippi River.  I bought a used Winchester Model 12 for the duck season.  Men from the group would get up before sunrise and boat to the blinds, and often get our limits shortly after the sun came up on the days there were ducks to be had.  Duck hunting was almost a religious ritual in terms of the preparation and rules for the hunt. We took the ducks to our homes to clean for our freezers and stoves.  However, one of our members owned a riverside restaurant that featured game on its menu.  At the end of duck season, he would prepare a banquet for the families of the hunters with some of our harvest to celebrate the season.  He had a recipe for roasting wild duck that was renowned throughout the region. The occasion was a duck thanksgiving.

During our hunts some of the men took thermos bottles of steaming coffee which they would lace with brandy.  After sitting in a duck blind on a cold river and retrieving ducks from the frigid waters, the enhanced coffee was a welcome way to warm up stiff and cold bodies.  One morning as we were walking back to where our cars were parked, a 16-year-old son of one of the hunters seemed to have gotten into the coffee. He was careless in the way he was handling his gun so that the muzzle was pointing every which way. One of the men said, "Be careful where you're pointing that gun."  The kid stopped, pointed his gun in the man's general direction, and said, "No one tells me what to do." In an instant, three men were holding their guns on the kid.  Even the retrieving dogs were on alert. The boys father walked up, said, "I'd  better take charge of that," and took the shotgun away from the boy.

Our duck thanksgiving was kind of a doleful affair that year.  It was clear to us that our group was disbanding.  That incident with the boy had made us question the ritual of the hunt in our day and age.  

M2 carbine
However, my relationship with guns continued.  Shortly after that incident, I was drafted into the Army.  In basic training, I was issued a much used M1 rifle on which the rear sight broke while I was shooting my qualifying rounds.  Up until that point I was shooting in the expert range.  I ended up with a marksman score.  Then when I was sent to Germany, I was issued a fairly new M2 carbine made by Winchester.  M2 meant that it had a lever that could switch from semi-automatic to fully automatic.  It was so accurate that the cadre of my unit were permitted to sign it out for their qualifying shoots.  They also liked It for the prank it afforded.  While it was "at rest" while the cadre were changing the range distance, a cadre man would  surreptitiously flip the switch to fully automatic.  Then the man using the carbine would carefully sight on the target, squeeze the trigger, and instead of getting a nice, clean shot, he'd get a machine gun brrrrrrrrrrp, and a lot laughter from his fellows on the firing line.  And an ass-burning chewing out by the range officer in charge.

After time in the Army, I lost interest in guns.  Other matters dominated life, and guns lost their relevance as tools of food production.   I have some that are kept as heirlooms mostly.  I gave my children opportunities to participate in shooting sports. My daughters' attitudes are, who finds it enjoyable to go out and kill things?  My son who went through 4-H firearm training, received a shotgun for Christmas one year, went hunting once and developed the same attitude. He sold his gun.  Their attitudes may have been inspired by a conversation when I had a seasonal job with Game, Fish, and Parks.  The subject of restocking pheasants came up, and a relative said that it is evidence of social dementia when we stock wildlife just so some idiots can have something to kill.

For a time my son and I participated in Civil War re-enactment  and did some target shooting contests with muzzle loaders, but the Japanese replicas we shot wore out  the rifling quickly, making them inaccurate.  And buying the black powder and making the Minie balls was expensive and very time consuming.

Hunting and hunters have earned some deserved ridicule.  Years ago  I covered the International Livestock  Show  in Chicago, which started every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  Comedian Red Blanchard said the Livestock Show was created so that farmers had someplace to bring their cattle during hunting season.

The question of gun control always raises the question of what guns are used for.  They were invented to do one thing:  kill.  Or in the case of inept users:  maim.     They are not instruments of creativity.  We do not live in an age where they are tools for provisioning.  They are used for sport. When they are not used for sport,  they are used for self-defense... mostly defending oneself from other people with guns. 

The matter of gun rights seems to have been established by the Kyle Rittenhouse case.  He went to a protest demonstration against police brutality after the police shot a man and brandished an assault-type rifle.  Some men thought he was a menace and tried to disarm him.   He shot and killed two of the men and wounded a third.  He was tried for murder, but was acquitted and his right not to be disarmed was held as law.

It turns out that the father of the boy who relieved him of his shotgun when he became threatening with it would be wrong in doing so today.   In order to collect a human trophy, you don't even need a license.   You need only to carry a loaded firearm into a crowd, act in a menacing manner, and if anyone tries to disarm you, kill them in the name of self-defense.  It is now well-established that people have no right to feel threatened and take defensive action when a firearm is involved.   It is the Rittenhouse rule, and it disproves the old adage that you should never give a baby a gun.


Thursday, November 11, 2021

What happened to Bobby Wilder

For some children, school is not a good experience.  Some kids get bullied.  Some have learning issues. and, of course, some have behavioral problems.  And some are bright and well behaved, but just cannot concentrate.  That inability to concentrate may indicate ADHD issues, but not necessarily.  Over the years, progressive school systems have initiated programs to deal with kids who for these various reasons find school onerous.  Still, some people will look back on their school years as a time they'd prefer to forget.

I have never forgotten a kid named Bobby Wilder.  We were in Garfield elementary school together where I went through the fifth grade.  Somewhere along the way Bobby disappeared. My family moved when I was in the sixth grade and I transferred to Lincoln school.  There was Bobby in the class I was assigned to.

I was never close to Bobby, but I always had a regard for him.  That regard came from the recognition that Bobby was very poor.  His clothes looked used and worn.  After sixth grade, I entered the seventh grade at John Deere Junior High School.  I do not remember Bobby being there.  He must have left the system.  But a memory of him has never left my mind.

My sixth grade teacher, Miss Irwin, was an obese woman who coddled the children of prominent parents, but treated the poor kids with disdain.  She is one of two teachers I had during my education who openly and brazenly conducted themselves that way.  One day in class she had us working on something at our desks while she strolled up and down the aisles, checking over our shoulders.  She stopped at Bobby's desk, yelled at him, and slapped him several times on the head.  We did not know what he did or did not do, and we kept on working so as not to provoke her further.  Bobby put his head down on his desk and covered the back of his head with his hands, guarding against another onslaught.  That was the day I understood what a "broken heart" meant.  I never got over it.  That memory of Bobby Wilder being physically abused still causes deep sadness, pain, and anger.

Bobby was never an assertive or disruptive student.  He was one of those who kept quietly to himself and seemed to retreat into some inner sanctuary, away from a world that held multiple oppressions for him.  

After the incident, many of my classmates talked with dismay about the incident and we told our parents.  We tried to determine just what Bobby did that provoked the teacher into such violence, and decided it was all a matter of a mean streak in the teacher. We tried to be sympathetic and supportive to  Bobby, but he reacted passively, as if we did not understand that discrimination and abuse was a way of life for kids like him.

During my public school years,  abuse of students like that was rare.  I was slapped by teachers, once in the third grade and once in the eighth.  I did things that I admit were confrontational and provocative. Therefore, I did not tell my parents.  However, my parents were told about the occasions by my classmates or their parents.  Their attitude was that if I wanted to be a mouthy brat, I'd better be prepared to receive the consequences.  

I never really liked school.  I enjoyed learning, but found the inherent processes of establishing a social pecking order to be corrosive and depressing.  I had some teachers who worked hard at treating kids as equal and maintaining principles of justice for all, and their efforts enabled me to see education as a liberator and equalizer, and school as a demonstration of America's premise.  But the Bobby Wilder incident of abuse was an example of a failure that counteracts all the good that schools do.   It is also an expression of the human malice that is the source of much of humankind's nefarious deeds. And that malice is coddled by school bureaucracies under the pretext of maintaining discipline.

As I reflect on things I have done in my life, I realize that Bobby Wilder had an influence.  While in basic training in the Army, a unit next to mine had some cadre who were mistreating some draftees who were very poor from families who had no influence to register complaints.  One of my fellow grunts had just graduated from law school and was put on light duty because he was diagnosed with ulcers.  He and I chatted about how we could help the men from the neighboring outfit to get a hearing about the mistreatment.  He decided that they had cause to file a complaint with the inspector general's office.  The big problem was to file a report that would be taken seriously by military lawyers.  We decided that the men needed to make a record of the incidents, so I spent some evenings with some of the men showing them them how to make a record.  It was like a basic journalism report of the exact time and place, who was involved, who witnessed it, precisely what happened, and what harm resulted.  The men made a detailed record of incidents, such as a man ordered to do push ups and being struck in the back with a rifle butt when he wasn't doing them quickly enough for his tormenter.  The men created a file of such  handwritten reports and, with the guidance of the lawyer, submitted an action request to the post inspector general.  I thought I was doing something in support of those men that I couldn't do for Bobby Wilder.  After the men involved had completed basic training and moved on to other duty assignments, an investigation was conducted which resulted in a number of disciplinary actions against some high-ranking officers who weren't paying attention to what was going on in their commands.  

As a journalist and then a professor, I had many subsequent occasions to confront situations of people maliciously mistreating other people.  When Miss Irwin assaulted Bobby Wilder, she did so with an unrestrained malice toward him, apparently because he was poor and struggling.  We fellow students never learned just what he was doing at his desk that day that set her off.  But what she taught us that day is the deteriorating effect that personal malice has on a society that professes to be democratic.

My schoolmates from that class often recalled that day as we progressed through junior high school, high school, and into college.   It was a memory that formed our bond and our identities to each other.  But we did not recall it in terms of what Miss Irwin taught us.  We recalled it in terms of Bobby Wilder and what he had endured in our presence.  He represented to us what happens when decency goes awry.

I do not remember Bobby Wilder being in junior high school with us.  I have often wondered what happened to him.  I suppose his family moved.  Once when I was in the school board office on a story I was working on as a journalist, I asked if they had any records that might indicate where Bobby went.  They did not.

But I remember him, especially when I come across instances of malicious injustice and cruelty.  Bobby Wilder was the real teacher that day in the sixth grade.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Obituary for South Dakota newspapers

 The newspaper business in the East River of South Dakota is in its death throes.  Watching it die is not pleasant.  When newspapers announce that they are shutting down their printing presses, such announcements are the gasps of a dying enterprise.  The publishers will insist that they are changing with the times, but the blunt fact is that they are coming to an end.

In fact, they are already laid to rest as far being able to state the news in blunt, factual terms is concerned.  They have outlived their function when they can't state the facts, but have retreated to making feeble public relations gasps.

In April 2020, the Aberdeen American News announced that it was shutting down its printing press and that the newspaper would be printed at the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls.  It said:

Twenty-one positions will be eliminated at the American News. As a result of this transition, Sioux Falls will be adding production staff in the pressroom and in packaging, including press operators and packaging staff. Affected employees will be invited to apply.

Then yesterday, 20 months later, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader announced it was closing down its printing press and that it, along with the Aberdeen American News and the Watertown Public Opinion, would be printed in Des Moines, Iowa.  It stated:

The move means 24 people working in the press room, 15 full-time and nine part-time workers, will be allowed to seek employment elsewhere in Gannett or will receive severance.

If there was a Pulitzer prize for inanity, the Argus Leader would finally win some kind of award for its journalism.  Rather than saying it was firing 24 people, it says they "will be allowed to seek employment elsewhere..."  With news writing like that, the potential end of the newspaper will be a blessing to the literate world.  Editors I knew and worked with would rather be dead than let a line like that get into print.

And one must wonder if any of those 21 canned at the American News got jobs at the Argus Leader so that they could be canned again 20 months later.

Newpapers are keyed to operate around their press runs.  Morning papers tried to cover all that happened during the day preceding the printing of the morning paper.  In Aberdeen that all changed when the newspaper canceled its Sunday edition.  It could still get Friday night sports events into its Saturday morning edition, but Saturday events would be covered in the Monday morning paper.

When the Aberdeen newspaper was printed 200 miles away from its editorial offices, some changes in its coverage was obvious.  Some Friday night athletic events at the high schools and colleges were not reported until Monday morning, and that delay was noted by the local sports fans who like their weekends to be filled with news and chatter about local sporting contests.  There also was some gap between other events such as government and civic meetings and reports on them. 

Now Aberdeen is 480 miles from where its newspaper will be printed.  While copy can be transmitted electronically, it must be edited and assembled, then printed and hauled 480 miles to be delivered to the carriers for distribution.  In addition to the elimination of the production staff, the editorial staffs are also shrinking.  The news columns are meager with fewer capable people out in the communities keeping track of what is going on.

The newspaper business has been taken over by organizations that are interested only in multiplying their capital, not in telling the stories of our communities.  

Gannett publishing which owns the three South Dakota newspapers whose printing facilities are being shut down is the largest news publisher in the U.S.  It was bought out by a venture capital company, Gatehouse, which has presided over a decline in journalism in the past two years.  It is the old story of what happens when the bean-counters take over.

The Atlantic has a detailed story of what happened at the Burlington, Iowa, newspaper, titled WHAT WE LOST WHEN GANNETT CAME TO TOWN.  

 [The local] stories are the connective tissue of a community; they introduce people to their neighbors, and they encourage readers to listen to and empathize with one another. When that tissue disintegrates, something vital rots away. We don’t often stop to ponder the way that a newspaper’s collapse makes people feel: less connected, more alone. As local news crumbles, so does our tether to one another.

What Gannett has set up in South Dakota is a scheme that eliminates the most fundamental tool of the working press:  the press itself.  Consolidation of the press actually means termination of the press.  

Newspapers in South Dakota are an endangered species.  If they are to be revived, it will take journalists, not bean-counters. Editors, reporters, and publishers who really want to tell the story of America will have to work out the revival. Journalism provides the information that democracy feeds on.  Can they do it before the republic starves to death?  

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States