Ekalaka Saturday Night
Note: This piece is dedicated to the memory of all pioneers who have prepared the way for us – those heroes and heroines whose strong faith in the Creator directed their steps, whose strong hands built the foundations for families to endure, and whose strong hearts breathed love into all they touched.
The time was the early Fifties and rural electricity had just been introduced to the Montana prairies. Even as the switch was flipped, however, change would come slowly. Oil lamps continued to supplement sparse electric bulbs, and iceboxes preserved perishable foods to be cooked later on wood-fueled stoves. It would be years before these vestiges of pioneer life would be stored away in attics, sold to antique dealers, or bequeathed to younger generations.
Back then, ranch folks didn’t have much money, or, some might argue, much sense – because they’d stay on those dusty plains through year after year of ravaging droughts. And with the droughts came unproductive grassland, underdeveloped sheep and low stock prices at market. It was as if the land took on a life of its own, determining to rid itself of the interlopers who demanded so much of it.
But with each setback the stalwart ranchers would dig their heels in deeper and look to the next season for promises denied this one. Nothing was as rooted to the land as the people themselves. In spite of isolation and financial hardship, the ranchers would give glory to God, count their blessings and share their meager resources with those in greater need.
During my youth, a summertime favorite was the country dances at my grandparents’. Since organized social events were rare, a family dance was an occasion to invite all the neighbors. In the case of the Burches of Ekalaka, Montana, that meant all of southeastern Montana. “Pop” Burch, my granddad, loved music. It was central to his family and he instilled this love into his five daughters, so it followed naturally that the Burches frequently hosted a dance.
As soon as we’d learn of an upcoming dance, we kids could hardly contain our excitement. When the big day would finally arrive, we’d scrub and brush and polish, preening in our hand-me-down finery before presenting ourselves for muster. After receiving the nod, we’d dash down to our lookout by the cattle guard separating the ranch buildings from the pastures. From there, we watched rattling cars and rickety pick-ups process single-file up the dry gumbo road, and as the vehicles rolled into clear sight, we’d loudly announce the names of each arrival.
On those summer nights, the sweet, fresh aroma of sage wafting below a star-swollen sky dispensed an intoxicating spell over all the merrymakers. Under its influence men enjoyed a smoke and maybe something stronger than grandma’s homemade lemonade. Young sweethearts held hands and stole kisses when they thought the elders weren’t looking. Of course, the elders were always looking, and would cluck about the shamelessness of the young while rolling their eyes to heaven, thankful for the wisdom of old age.
Inside the house, a few men would roll back the braided rug to expose a worn hardwood floor, distressed after years of dances, which gave it an “authentic” look. Women would gossip while laying out a lavish potluck and keeping their ears cocked for the sounds of Pop tuning his fiddle. Then the steel guitar and piano would chime in with discordant notes – a tuners’ symphony to heighten our excitement.
Suddenly, the old ranch house transformed into a magic dance hall where music alternately floated and cracked in the air. Sad times and back-breaking work were replaced in those moments by the exhilaration of a dance shared with loved ones. Oh, how I loved those sights and sounds, and so wished I could dance the two-step like those grizzled, old cowboys. They never missed a beat as they clicked their heels and sang along with the band.
A traditional highlight of every Burch dance was my mother’s singing. She was beautiful, as only beautiful mothers can be, and I could listen to her sing or recite poetry forever. Dad would watch her in quiet admiration, always, I think, a little awestruck by this woman he had married.
As the night wore on, we kids would sink deeper and deeper into the woodwork, never wanting to let go of the festivities, and knowing that one false move would alert the adults, and we’d be packed off to bed.
Inevitably, though, the last waltz played, the last lamp was turned out, and we were shooed to bed with an authoritative clap and a stern reprimand about the lateness of the hour. No matter. We would sneak in a few more minutes of childhood giggles before succumbing to exhaustion.
Several decades have come and gone since those perfect summers, in the blink of an eye, it seems. I’m now the age of my grandparents. I have danced many a last waltz over the years, and bestowed many a stern lecture upon my own precious children, now with children of their own. But if I close my eyes and squeeze tightly, I can still see the country dancers whirling around the floor. Soft strains of the fiddle echo in my mind, and time stands suspended as Pop and grandma say good night once more to their guests.
Good night again, my sweethearts. I’ll see you in my dreams.