Recollections of a slightly older Montana


Did I say that Montana in the ’70s was a little different from the Montana of 2015? Yep, and for one thing, there hasn’t been a party quite like the Aber Day keggers of the 1970s since the Aber Day keggers of the 1970s.

I see where a young feller who works for the newspaper in Helena has written a piece headlined “10 things out-of-towners quickly learn after moving to Montana.”

It seems this young feller, Landon Hemsley, moved here in January from San Diego, which makes him more of an out-of-stater than an out-of-towner, but we’ll blame an editor, not Landon, for the headline.


Ed Kemmick

Anyways, I just wanted to point out that I was a young feller myself once, one of them pesky Minnesotans who’ve been migrating out thisaway since territorial days. Just read the obituaries. Amazing how many Montanans started out as Minnesotans.

Way back in 1979, I wrote a column for the Kaimin, the student newspaper at the University of Montana in Missoula, offering up tips about this state for my fellow transplants. This was nearly six years after I moved to Montana, not four months as in Landon’s case, but I understand that everything happens much more quickly these days.

I wrote about sidling up to an old cowboy sitting on a bench in downtown Missoula late one Friday night and trying to talk “Montanan” with him. Shortly after I asked him, “What do you suppose cattle think about?” he fell off the bench, stone-cold drunk.

(I should point out that this did not actually happen. I had already learned that a columnist could make shit up. I was too lazy to be a real fiction writer, but as a columnist I could indulge in fiction when the spirit moved me. And then I learned that maybe someday I could start my own paper and use the word shit if I wanted to without any goddamned asterisks. I was hooked!)

As part of that same column, I compiled a brief list of definitions to help out-of-staters adjust to their new surroundings. I think some of them are still pretty useful for any transplants out there:

Mountain: A convex piece of land affording a good view of the surrounding area.

Horse: A four-legged creature theoretically of noble bearing. Chiefly useful for transportation and demonstrations of procreation for the children of ranchers.

Four-by-four: An absolute mainstay of the Montana way of life. Used for transporting guns and penetrating the wilds.

Gun: An instrument of destruction, also known as “the great equalizer.” When coupled with the word “control,” used as a symbol of government meddling into the lives of God-fearing Americans.

Cow: A plump and sluggish four-legged creature, given to baleful lowing and cumbersome copulation. Used chiefly as an accompaniment to red wine.

Fish: A no-legged creature that lives, oddly enough, underwater. An elusive object, it is the subject of countless myths and fables, used as an excuse to spend hours hogging down beer.

Outsider: An odious two-legged creature whose parents were born outside of Montana. Chiefly used as a term when grumbling about “the good old days.” Defined much differently by Native Americans.

Landon, you would not believe how much the Montana of 1973 (the year I moved here) differed from the Montana of 2015. I spent one quarter at Bozeman, and during my first week at MSU I remember seeing at least 20 other students out roping fire hydrants, sawhorses and stop signs.

Yes, MSU was still largely an ag school and Bozeman was something of a cow town. Missoula was definitely more of a hippie town, which is why I transferred to UM after one quarter at Bozeman.

In those long-gone days, believe it or not, you could tell who the rich people were in Missoula because they drove the really old, beat-to-hell Volvos. Perhaps because so many rich people in Montana history (see Copper King William A. Clark) were colossal jackasses, people with money didn’t want to draw attention to themselves. Nowadays they build “cabins” on Flathead Lake that you can see from the International Space Station.

And Montana smelled a lot worse in those days. Missoula smelled like rotten eggs most of the year, and like really rotten eggs most of the winter. Most of Laurel stunk, too, in those days, and Billings reeked of spoiled meat seasoned with some nasty chemical.

Anaconda, Great Falls, East Helena, Libby and Columbia Falls didn’t stink much, but you had to worry every day about what you were breathing in. I like good union jobs as much as the next feller, but you shouldn’t have to live with that kind of pollution, especially not in Montana.

I could go on and on, in the manner of preachy old-timers, but you get the idea. No, Landon, wait. I do have a few more tips. To fit in, use words like feller, anyways and, sparingly, thisaway. And don’t forget to cuss from time to time, without the asterisks.

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