Little Freda awoke in the back seat with a yawn and the same old refrain: “Are we there yet?”
Fred, in the driver’s seat, was the only one awake. They had made an early start and everyone else had nodded off, lulled by the drone of the highway. Debbie, who was riding shotgun on their cross-country venture, snapped awake as she always did, a habit developed over five years of motherhood. She looked back over her shoulder and smiled at their daughter.
“Not yet, honey,” she said. “We still have a long way to go.”
Fred frowned and shook his head with another sidelong glance at Debbie, then said brightly: “But look how far we’ve come!”
Their daughter pouted and stared out the window at the dry, barren hills known as the Badlands. “It all looks the same. It’s too far.” She tugged at the T-shirt of the young woman sitting next to her, as if to appeal to a higher authority than her parents. “Kota, tell them I want to go home.”
“So do I, bright eyes,” Dakota yawned, stroking Freda’s blonde curls. “And my home is much closer than yours now. Don’t you want to come see it?”
“Yes!” Freda’s blue eyes sparkled with excitement. Her father’s grip tightened on the steering wheel as he focused far down the road, avoiding his wife’s sidelong glance.
They were finally in South Dakota, the home state of their passenger. Most Easterners, including Fred, mangled her Lakota name when they tried to pronounce it. At Dartmouth she was known as Dakota, which she told them meant “friend.”
Many alumni, still smarting from the retirement of Dartmouth’s Indian symbol, didn’t take well to the college’s recruitment of students like their passenger. The increasingly vocal Native Americans at Dartmouth made them uncomfortable.
But not the Warners–she was a friend nicknamed Dakota, or Kota for little Freda. They had met at Fred’s 10-year reunion, when she was working Commencement and Reunions after her freshman year. Both Debbie and Freda had taken a liking to Freda’s new nanny-for-the-weekend, and they had become close friends.
Too close, Fred sometimes thought. Dakota had a way with kids, and especially with Freda. Debbie, a pediatrician who had just bought out a retiring doctor’s practice, had hired her during semester breaks and off terms. To save on expenses, Dakota had stayed in a guest room at the old Warner place instead of taking the long trip back home.
Now it was time.
Dakota’s home was a small village on the huge Cheyenne River Reservation, which took up two of the most poverty-stricken counties in America. The land was flat, barren and dusty. With poor farming and no industry to speak of, life on the reservation was bleak, as it had been for a century.
Fred wasn’t sure little Freda was ready for this. He wasn’t sure big Fred was, either. Yes, he was privileged, and he knew it. He didn’t deal well with suffering, deprivation. He felt so helpless, so guilty, even though rationally he knew there was nothing he or his family should feel guilty for.
Sure, they came from old New England money, a century of success in the Widget City. But Warner’s Widgets weren’t part of the great westward expansion. They were cogs in the mechanisms of the great factories of the East. The Warners were Nutmeggers. None had ever been west of the Mississippi. This was his people’s first expedition into the Wild West.
With every mile, he felt more lost.
Behind the wheel
Even so, Fred liked being in the driver’s seat, in the car and in the newsroom. He liked being in control. He was a confident leader–much like the president, he thought. George Bush, like Reagan before him, was strong, decisive, reassuring. Together the two of them had ended the Cold War. They made it clear that if any country started a shooting war in the future, the United States would finish it.
Bush proved it, earlier that year. The Gulf War was over and done in a matter of months. Kuwait was free. Once again there was peace in the Mideast.
Bush was a Nutmegger, like him. A Navy hero. Fred respected that. A Yale man. Well, nobody’s perfect.
The war’s bad news was good news for journalism. Reporters were on the scene in Iraq, able to broadcast by satellite live from the front lines. That sleepy cable news network, cleverly named CNN for Cable News Network, was catching big ratings.
The Morning Sun’s readership had rocketed, its sales on the stands and in the coin boxes boosted by the dramatic war photos, well-played, on the front page. His team of reporters busy covering the local servicemen and their families at home. Their three wire services were full of different national and international perspectives. Fred’s copy desk worked hard against their midnight deadline to make a compelling news package each night. He personally approved every front page.
But the war of winter 1991 had been won by springtime. The troops were shipping home in time for everyone’s summer vacation–including Fred’s. By July, the biggest headline was about real estate magnate Donald Trump proposing to actress Marla Maples with a garish 7.5-carat diamond ring.
Fred was glad to be free of the newsroom, on the road to nowhere.
Fred was a safe driver, far more so now that Freda was with them. And frankly, navigation wasn’t his strong suit. That he left to Debbie, who was confident reading maps and quick to spot the directional signs from a distance. They made a good team.
Except when they didn’t. And this was about to be one of those times.
“Fred, where are we?” Debbie asked as she looked around. “This isn’t the interstate.”
Fred gripped the wheel a little harder. “I know where I’m going. You told me on the highway that we turn right at the exit for Wall Drug. So when I saw the sign for Wall Drug, I turned right at the exit.”
“And you didn’t stop at Wall Drug?”
“We haven’t reached it yet. You’d think it would be right off the exit, or in the center of town. I just kept going. It’s got to be out here somewhere.”
“And you didn’t stop to ask for directions?”
“I didn’t want to wake you girls.”
“You ‘didn’t want to wake us girls.’ And with one of those girls only five years old, it didn’t occur to you that maybe she’d need to visit Wall Drug?”
“Wall Drug!” Freda echoed in the back seat. “Wall Drug! Wall Drug! Wall Drug!” An early reader, she’d been picking out the signs on the interstate for hundreds of miles.
“Oh.” Fred pressed on the accelerator. “I hadn’t thought of that. Well, there must be someplace along here where we can …”
“When you saw the sign for Wall Drug, what else did it say?” Dakota broke in.
“This sign, right by the exit, said ‘Wall Drug 40 miles,” Fred bristled. “I turned right at the exit but I don’t think we’ve gone that far yet.”
“Forty miles!” Debbie fumbled at their AAA Triptik. “You got off at Kadota, not Wall.”
“Kadota, Dakota, everything’s off the Wall out here.” Fred’s lame attempt at humor did little to break the tension.
“We’re way north of town, not that Kadota is much of one,” Dakota said. “There’s not much up here except a few farms. No–um, ‘public facilities.'”
As if on cue, Freda began tugging at her nanny’s arm. “Kota,” she said in a stage whisper. “I have to…”
Fred pressed down further on the pedal. The road was straight, nothing in sight for miles.
“Fred, slow down and pull over!” Debbie snapped at him. “We’re going the wrong way. We won’t get anywhere in time. We might as well stay alive. Don’t scare … people.”
Fred slowed to the speed limit but didn’t pull over until Debbie pointed out the side road into a farmer’s field. With no farmer in sight, they had no one to ask for directions–or for permission. Fred and Debbie got out and bickered sotto voce as they spread out the map over the hood of the car.
Changing the guard
“Come, little one,” Dakota said, unbuckling her charge. “I’ll show you what we do when we camp under the stars.”
“Indian style?” Freda asked, wide-eyed.
“Outing Club style.” She led her out of sight into the field.
When they returned, Dakota helped Freda into her car seat, as usual. But both were startled when Fred slid in next to his daughter.
“Daddy!” she shouted, hugging him.
“My turn to spend time with my little girl,” he said, buckling himself into Dakota’s usual place. He nodded to the nanny to take the seat next to Debbie, who was adjusting the mirrors and seat position to suit her shorter frame.
“Now, how do we get where we want to go?” Debbie asked, handing her new navigator the map.
Fred watched them work together. Who’d have thought? he mused.
An Indian … No, a Native American–riding shotgun. Look how far we’ve come.
— 30 —