Wednesday, February 21, 2007


When I got on the elevator at lunchtime, another man in there was saying to his friend, "... and he just got back from Montana."

Being the buttinski that I am about that, I said, "Montana? Where?"

He said, "Kalispell. Or Whitefish," and I said, "I love Kalispell." And that was the end of it.

My Grandma and Grandpa lived in Kalispell when I was growing up. The other Grandma and Grandpa lived there too, but this is about my mom's parents.

Grandma and Grandpa used to live in Dearborn, Michigan, where Grandpa worked for Ford (funny, I remember that he always drove GM products). When my mom was nearing high school age, Grandpa's doctor told him that if he didn't move to someplace with clean air, he would die young. Since Grandma had lots of relatives in Montana, that's where they decided to go.

Grandpa bought an acre just outside Kalispell on Highway 2E and built a two bedroom house on it himself. Then he got a job helping build the Hungry Horse Dam. He told us grandkids a few stories about building the dam, but the only one I remember is the one about the Big Swede, when it was time to remove all the supporting timbers after the concrete had cured. But I need to use my hands when I tell that story, so it will have to wait until my mom and I are on our trip and we meet you.

After the dam was finished, Grandpa got a job at The Plant up in Whitefish or Columbia Falls. I have no idea what company it was or what he did there, just that he worked at The Plant. He carpooled with some other guys to work, and Grandma (who had a passive-aggressive streak) always served dinner at 5:00. If it was Grandpa's turn to drive the carpool, meaning he didn't get home until 5:15, he ate dinner cold. Dinnertime was 5:00. Period.

There was a pig farm next door (I think Grandma & Grandpa's house was upwind, because I never smelled the farm), and one year when we were visiting, the farmers' granddaughter was there, so we went over to play with her. We didn't spend much time looking at the pigs, because we got to climb into the hayloft in the barn, and being high up above everything was better than pigs.

That might be the same year my brother and I went fishing. There was a creek that ran through the pig farm and along the back boundary of my grandparents' property. My brother and I found a couple sticks and tied string around them, with an open safety pin as the hook, then we headed up the creek to the little bridge on the pig farm. There we sat, dangling our hooks in the water, watching and feeling for the bite of a fish that never came. While we sat there, we saw a couple fish swimming along the edge of the creek, but they must not have been interested in a bare safety pin. When we got tired of sitting there, we headed back to the house.

After my dad retired from the Navy, we moved to Missoula, about two hours from Kalispell, so we saw my grandparents a lot more. Sometimes, on our way to Glacier National Park, we'd stop at their house, which was on the way. And other times, we went just to see them.

Grandma loved to play cards, so she'd play Rummy (not Gin) with the three of us. She taught us Pinochle and Cribbage, and for a break from Rummy, we'd play one of those. If one of us kids started to beat her, she'd declare, "I'll fix your little tugboat!" and usually she would.

Grandpa used to watch cartoons with us on Saturday mornings when we were there. He laughed more than the three of us put together. Watching cartoons was more fun with Grandpa than without him.

But that was then. These days, for the Hollywood crowd, Kalispell is the outdated town they fly into on their way to the chic ski resorts in Whitefish or Columbia Falls. They don't linger there very long.

But for me, Kalispell is an oasis. It's a place where I had love and joy and freedom from the worries of school, the place where our trips to Glacier felt as though they started. It's a treasure I carry in my heart, and I get to take it out and gaze at it now and then, when someone on an elevator happens to say, "... and he just got back from Montana."

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