Diggin’ My Roots

By Di Chapman

It’s last November on a cold morning. Temperatures were 18 to 24 “above.” Snow began to dust the ground. I patted myself on the back as I handled the temperatures in boxer shorts, sweatshirt, and socks. (I’ve never said I make any fashion statements in my version of pajamas.)

I decided to video the snowfall outside from an excellent vantage point on the sidewalk. I left the door behind me and stepped out into the cold. Annie, the resident kitty and escape artist, was thrilled to sneak outside, no doubt gleefully singing “Free again!” Oh, oh. I couldn’t let her run amok in the snow on my watch. My camera continued rolling, recording the blur of my running legs in the snow, boxers, socks and all. I just knew the neighbors were probably watching, “Well, dear, Yvonne and George, (my aunt and uncle) have another nutty visitor.” I finally made a leaping tackle, grabbing Annie’s hindquarters to a seriously loud meow.

I was visiting the place of my birth, Park River, North Dakota. It’s a town of 1508 people, established in 1884, about 40 miles from the Canadian border. The folks are salt-of-the-earth, the fields extend for miles, and the highways feature little to no traffic.

Most everyone is surprised when I tell them where I’m from. I mean, who knows anyone from North Dakota? I might as well say Tanzania, Liechtenstein, or the Galapagos. Are there really people in North Dakota? Yup. Look at me. Look at Josh Duhamel, Peggy Lee, Angie Dickinson, and Lawrence Welk. You didn’t know? There are farmers, universities, merchants, and fast food. And, yes, there are town post offices. As my Aunt Yvonne once said, “We have U.S. mail delivery. It’s not by Pony Express.”

My heritage is sometimes a hoot. Yours probably is, too. North Dakota had a Homestead Act in the 1800s, to bring in settlers. Never mind the wicked winters. They were given 160 acres free, with mandatory tree planting on 10 acres. Voila! Settlers came from Iowa, where land for new folks was gone. My people, like my maternal grandfather William Skjerven, a Norweigian, came. Icelanders came through Canada. Some snuck illegally over the Canadian border, like my grandmother Gudrun Thorstiensdottir, from Iceland. (Never say I don’t have interesting party material!) The French, Swedish and Scottish came from Canada as well, and settled in towns with their own countrymen, as did the Slovakians and Bohemians.
Grandpa Chapman, a Brit, came from Europe after WWI, in 1915. Grandma Chapman, originally a Kohnen, was of German descent. Whether I share any blood with Kaiser Wilhelm, I know not.

I’m talkin’ about, you know, the kind of ancestry info that everyone wants. We’re all on a mission to find out if we’re related to historical folks like Ghengis Kahn, George Washington, Pancho Villa, Charles De Gaulle, Albert Einstein, George Washington Carver, or any others, good, bad, notorious, jerks, geniuses or otherwise.

Admit it. If you volunteer DNA for a look at your roots, you secretly hope you’ll find somebody famous, right? In my case, so what if my lineage does go back to Eric the Red, the red-haired, firey-tempered Viking who was banished from both Norway and Iceland because he couldn’t help killing people, so he ended up in Greenland??? I have gutsy ancestors. North Dakota is where they all come together.

When I was a child, we moved to Seattle, and traveled back to Park River each summer. With my mom riding shotgun with dad, we five kids tussled over the backward-facing third seat of our nine-passenger station wagon. We’d hang our feet out of the open window. Dad’s love of speed meant we traveled like lightening from rainy Seattle, traversed the Rockies with white knuckles, and with “pedal to the metal” in Montana.

We cruised through Badlands, wheat fields and on empty highways, still the norm in North Dakota. Park River gave us a sunny place to run free, frequent the Dairy Queen, and play barefoot in the warm, soft black soil of the fields.

Amusingly, the Icelanders had settled on a tiny mound outside of Park River and called it “Mountain.” My mother’s Uncle Ole lived there, and we kids visited him every summer. Uncle Ole was an eccentric bachelor in his 70s or 80s, and we could never understand a word he said. He lived in an Icelandic-style home, basically a box with a funky severely slanted roof sticking up on one side. Scandinavians are a very practical people, but what in the heck…?

And there was Concrete, a town about 15 miles from the Canadian border, housing another Icelandic relative in what was essentially a doublewide and an old country store. Imagine, this little place became home to an anti-ballistic missile underground command center in about 1962, overseeing 50 missiles, part of an installation of 150 silos from the Canadian border to the southern border of North Dakota. Park River had its own silo just half a mile away. Live on top of a nuclear missile launcher, anyone? Anyone?

Ancestry knowledge is fascinating and useful. I really dig this stuff, and you probably do, too. I’m lucky I don’t have to throw my DNA into the pool with millions of others. We’ve talked about our ancestors all of our lives. I take my roots wherever I go—Midwestern by birth, Northern European and Scandinavian by heritage.

In the 80s, I contacted the little Park River hospital where I was born to ask for a copy of my birth certificate. Could they send me one?

The woman who answered the phone exclaimed, “Diane, I remember the day you were born! You are Blair and Donna Lou’s girl!” No DNA needed.
So, this Valentine’s Day, I’m going to do something unconventionaI and corny. I’m writing this Valentine’s column dedicated to my home town, a place dear to my heart.

Happy Valentine’s Day dear readers!

Di Chapman is an inspirational author and speaker, and a branding consultant. Di’s latest book is “Rekindle Your Purpose: Break through your disappointments, discouragements, and detours to resurrect your purpose and live it!” Write to Di.