written by Merry Helm
July 29, 2019 — It was on this date in 1985 that astronaut-scientist Anthony England finally reached outer space. He was part of a seven-man crew aboard the space shuttle Challenger, which orbited the planet 126 times in 7.94 days. Just six minutes after the shuttle was launched, one of Challenger’s three main engines shut down. It was too late to abort the mission; instead the situation became an “abort to orbit” – the first time it ever happened. When the Challenger returned eight days later, the mission was considered a success.
Tony England was born in Indiana in 1942, but when he was 10, his family moved to West Fargo, which he calls his hometown. He grew up wanting to be a pilot, but his eyesight wasn’t good enough, and he had to give up that dream. Instead, he studied math and science and went to MIT, where he majored in physics. When he discovered that he liked fieldwork, he brought geology into the mix and got his Ph.D. in geophysics.
England developed theories about how to predict the electrical properties of the moon and the planets, and it was this work that brought him to the attention of the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy wanted NASA to include scientists in their Apollo and Skylab space programs; Tony said yes, and joined the Apollo program in 1967.
Despite his eyesight, England was to become a pilot after all. He went to Air Force flight school, where he learned to fly jets.
England’s first brush with space disasters came while he was working as a part of the support team for Apollo 13 – the mission featured in Ron Howard’s movie starring Tom Hanks. England was there in the control room when the astronauts in the space capsule radioed, “Houston, we have a problem,” and it was England who, with other engineers, scrambled to design the CO2 scrubber, which they hoped would get the astronauts safely back to Earth. And it was also England who talked the astronauts through the process of building their own scrubber in space. When the crew returned, their device was identical to the lab model the engineers had designed.
Tony was himself scheduled to fly to the moon on Apollo 19, but NASA canceled the program after Apollo 17. In 1972, England left NASA to work for the U.S. Geological Survey, for whom he led scientific expeditions to Antarctica and the Arctic. NASA tried to hire him back in 1976, but England was too busy and turned them down. Three years later, they asked him again, this time enticing him with another chance to go into space. He couldn’t say no.
Tony’s new role at NASA was as a member of the new space shuttle program. For the first three years, he flew shuttle simulators to help programmers and engineers perfect the computer navigation software. When he finally went up in the Challenger in 1985, his job as a mission specialist was to conduct many of the experiments in the onboard laboratory.
England had only two chances to appreciate the view from space – once when his equipment needed to cool down and again on the last night of the mission when he could stay up late. The flight was during the annual Perseid meteor shower, and the Aurora Australis was in full view above Antarctica. He pinpointed West Fargo as the shuttle flew over North Dakota and was able to see automobile headlights outlining the highways below. Of the shooting stars zipping through the Aurora Australis, England said, “It was otherworldly. Definitely something to remember.”
England left NASA in 1986 and went to work for the University of Michigan as a professor of electrical engineering while also conducting research in environmental remote sensing.
written by Merry Helm
July 30, 2019 — Today is the birthday of William Gass, a writer and philosopher born in Fargo in 1924. He received his doctorate in philosophy from Cornell in 1954 and is one of today’s most critically acclaimed authors of fiction and criticism.
Each year, hundreds of book reviewers in the National Book Critics Circle vote for what they feel is the year’s best book in five different categories: fiction, biography or autobiography, general nonfiction, poetry and criticism.
Awards are on a par with the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and for most writers, receiving a National Book Critics Circle Award is considered one of the most prestigious honors in literature.
Ironically, Gass hasn’t always agreed.
In 1985, he won in the category of criticism for a book called, “Habitations of the Word.” In 2003, he won again, this time for a work called “Finding a Form.” He was unable to attend either award ceremony, but he wrote the following for last year’s event:
“A few years ago, a book of mine was honored by the National Book Critics Circle, and on that occasion, too, a previous commitment made it impossible for me to attend the award ceremony. Thinking back on my record regarding such things, I realized that when I attended the ceremonies, I became what is called ‘a finalist,’ but when I was unable to be there, I sometimes ‘won’ by a syllable or so down the stretch. I must apologize to my fellow finalists because my absence … has given me an unfair advantage.
“Naturally,” he continued, “I understand why I have received this award. In the very book in question, I have an essay (often, it appears to be the only one anybody’s read) which complains that many prize-giving panels (not the National Book Critics Circle, of course) ‘take dead aim at mediocrity and always hit their mark.’ My punishment is plain. I shall try to do better next time… As for this time,” he finished, “Thank you very, very much.”
When Gass was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 1998, it was said, “A consummate author with a philosopher’s training, William Gass joined the Washington University faculty in 1969 and (was named a David L. May Distinguished Professor in the Humanities) in 1979.
Gass introduced audiences to his polished, energetic prose with the 1966 novel Omensetter’s Luck and the classic book of short stories In the Heart of the Heart of the Country… and in 1995, Gass completed his monumental novel The Tunnel.
A distinguished artist deeply concerned with the issues writers face, William Gass was named director of the International Writers Center in 1990.”
The book to which they referred, The Tunnel, was many years in the making. In 1992, three years before it was published, John Unsworth wrote about it in the Arizona Quarterly “…Omensetter’s Luck was (15) years in the making, and parts of that novel first surfaced (11) years before the book did. That equals (James) Joyce’s record, but it pales beside the saga of The Tunnel: this work has been ‘in progress’ since 1966, and since 1969 some (19) sections, totaling more than 300 pages, have appeared in print.” The comment finished with, “Gass is now sixty-seven, and has been publishing for more than thirty years; more than two-thirds of that career has already been devoted to The Tunnel.”
Gass once wrote, “A culture morally and functionally fails which does not let its crazies, its artists and its saints, its scientists and politicians, claim, on occasion, a higher law than its own congresses can pass, traditions permit, or conscience conceive.” Amen.
written by Merry Helm
July 31, 2019 — It was on this date in 1955 that the state’s monthly oil production topped the one million barrel mark for the first time, when 1,000,154 barrels were produced in July of that year.
It was in 1916 that the Pioneer Oil and Gas Company began drilling the state’s first wildcat well southeast of Williston. It turned up dry, but that didn’t stop the many attempts that followed it. All told, it took 45 years for dry holes to turn into gushers.
The Amerada Petroleum Corporation finally discovered oil near Tioga in April 1951. The well was named “Clarence Iverson Number 1,” and it produced over three hundred barrels of oil in its first 17 hours.
An exciting boom followed, and by year’s end, two-thirds of the state was under lease.
Crowds of strangers swarmed into the region, completely changing the complexion of western North Dakota with overcrowded schools, outbuildings being turned into living and office spaces, and roads wearing out – which led to a boom in the construction trade as well.
written by Merry Helm
August 1, 2019 — On this date in 1894, the Grand Forks City Council approved the purchase of a half block of land to create the city’s first water filtration plant – the first in North Dakota.
For two years, the city had been experiencing an epidemic of typhoid fever; 10% of the population had contracted the disease, and 150 people had died.
It turns out that a short distance upstream, Crookston was dumping its sewage directly into the Red River – from which Grand Forks got its drinking water.
Unsanitary conditions existed all across the state in those days.
Every home had an outhouse that could easily contaminate water from wells.
In Bismarck in 1886, untreated water from the Missouri River was being piped into homes and businesses – handy, but not great for drinking.
Many towns also had slaughterhouses, and after hog or beef butchering was completed, there was no systematic means of disposing of rotting carcasses.
Runoff from these areas was infested with billions of deadly germs and bacteria – not to mention the stench, flies and maggots.
Hope we didn’t spoil your lunch…
Turkey Track Bill
written by Merry Helm
August 2, 2019 — It’s interesting how some characters sound good just because they have three names. Like South Dakota’s Wild Bill Hickok or North Dakota’s Limpy Jack Clayton. Well, here’s another one – Turkey Track Bill.
It was on this date in 1942 that Turkey Track died in Dickinson, and it seems that he was sorely missed by a lot of people, including his good friend Frank Fiske. Fiske was himself quite a character – photographer, steamboat pilot, journalist. A month before Turkey Track died, Fiske wrote a story about him for The Selfridge Journal, saying he would only do so because “Turk” was out of town, and it was safe. “He is still a fast man with a gun, either hand, and I am not taking chances,” he wrote. “There was never a more picturesque cowboy than this same Turkey Track,” Fiske told a friend. “I met him first 45 years ago, when he was cock of main street in Mandan. They couldn’t have the state fair without him, and it has been said that he used to run relay races all by himself. Figure that one out.”
Turkey Track was born William Molash in Vienna, Michigan, in 1875 to parents who were French, Chippewa and Spanish. No one knows for sure when he first came to North Dakota, but it is known that he trailed cattle for the Turkey Track Ranch in Texas.
In the Pioneer Chronicles, Larry Sprunk of Garrison related a story told by Keene rancher Brooks Keogh in 1975. Keogh’s father, Patrick, and Turkey Track worked together.
“Well, in those days,” Keogh said, “they would go out on these roundups, you see, and they’d sleep in an old tent. And Turkey Track and dad slept together,” he said, “and all this amounted to was a bedroll and a tarp over the top of it under this tent. And ol’ Turkey Track, dad said…two of the last things he took off, he seemed to hate to part with, was his hat – that’s the first thing he put on in the morning before he even put his pants on – and the second was his six-shooter. He never failed…, he never was without his six-shooter. When he went to bed he slipped it under his pillow.”
Another man who knew Turkey Track in those days was Isadore Smith, who lived south of Mandan at the time. When comparing today’s bronc busters with those from back then, he said, “All those guys would get liquored up before they’d ride, you know. Those days they was born in the saddle; they rode every day. They had these riders backed off the map, cause it come second nature. Fact is,” he said, “there was an Indian, George Defender, was top cowboy. He’d ride anything. Then there was ol’ Joe Wicks, he’s dead now, and Turkey Track Bill. He was the character, always carried two guns.
“Old Turkey Track came out pretty well drunk,” Smith said, “and the horse piled him and turned around and kicked him in the head with both hind feet. It sounded like he’d kicked a plank wall. Course it knocked him cold, and in those days, Kinelly was the undertaker, and he had to come down with a horse and buggy to pick up the body. So they better do something. So they laid Turkey Track down and covered him up with a blanket.
“Come time for ol’ Harry Engels to ride,” he said, “and Harry had a bottle he didn’t know what to do with, so he lifts up the blanket and puts it alongside Turkey Track. He made his ride and he come back pretty dry, so he had to have a drink. He lifted up the blanket, reached under and got his bottle, and it was empty,” Smith said. “So he lifts up the blanket, and here was ol’ Turkey Track laying there laughin’ at him.” And then he said, “That’s a true story.”
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.