Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Another of God's children lovingly tucked into bed, one last time. Good night, Gordon.
Gordon was the last of the Van der Booms to once have lived on the townsite known as Govert, South Dakota. The bell tolling for Uncle Gordon ended this Van der Boom family connection to the feisty little town founded by his father, my grandfather, on the South Dakota prairie.
On September 7, 1918 the population of Govert, South Dakota, grew by one precious baby boy, a birth that would be celebrated by the entire community. On that September day 96 years ago, 33-year-old Emma Van der Boom gave birth to her second child, a son Emma and Govert named Gordon. This was not a family name, but neither was Virgil, the name they gave their first son, or Roger, the name they would give their third son. Homesteading in West River was a new life, calling for new beginnings. None of their sons would be called Govert. But, with a twinkle in his eye, Govert Luther Joseph Marion Van der Boom, the founder of the town of Govert, named his children Virgil Marion, Gordon Luther, and Roger Joseph.
All three brothers were handsome men. Their lives took them along different paths but they also held in common a sense of wonder and curiosity as to the world surrounding them. They each also inherited their father's twinkle - right there in the corner of their eye. Maybe their father's father charmed women and children with that same alternately merry and mischievous twinkle, too, but the elder Govert died in 1895 two weeks before the younger Govert's 12th birthday, and these last decades have left no one to remember such things as twinkles.
Gordon started his childhood in Govert, South Dakota, finished those years in Newell and then, in 1937, armed with little more than his handsome looks and the twinkle in his eye, Gordon headed for California, leaving the prairie behind. He was 19, a young man in search of opportunity and adventure. Gordon's motivation differed little from that of his mother and father before him when they chose to change their lives by claiming homesteads west of the Missouri River. Young Gordon must have overheard the men talking in his father's mercantile store at Govert and later at the implement company in Newell - if any destination still held magic in the 1930s, that destination was California. The images that fired Gordon's soul at the age of 19 were probably similar to the romantic images his nieces and nephews carried for him, the stories told to them by their parents.
The earliest memory of Gordon, created for me by my father, was that of my swashbuckling uncle seeking fame in Hollywood as a tap dancer, which made me admire this mysterious uncle all the more. The birth of twins, uncommon in the Van der Boom family, made the California Van der Booms more exotic than ever. Then came my father's story of an invention by my clever uncle, then the modern house with the white carpet, swimming pool and tennis courts, and even a sophisticated sort of clover for a lawn. Then there was the time Gordon rescued my brother from drowning in the pool. All part of the star package, mostly true, all believed. As you can see here, Uncle Gordon could have been a 1940s movie star, and that's not just his eight-year-old, awe-struck niece speaking.
Govert Van der Boom must have been puzzled, but he also must have understood what drove his middle son to reject the known for the unknown. So in 1937 when Gordon left South Dakota for California, Govert accompanied his son to the train station in Newell, the last stop on the spur from Belle Fourche. Gordon climbed aboard the caboose attached behind two cars and an engine. What does a father say in his reluctance to part with one of his sons for the first time? In the awkwardness of accepting this farewell, the Dutchman - in his heavy accent - cautioned Gordon to "stay away from bad girls." And then Govert watched his son fade with the train against the horizon.
Gordon took his father's well-meant advice and, in California, Gordon fell in love with a beautiful and talented woman, a promising young author, Marjorie Jean Nichols. Their daughter, Linda, was born in 1942, followed by the twins, Gordie and Sherry, in 1945. And then came the gift of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Gordon could not have muted the fast forward that drove him to California, and there he made his own magic.
Watching his grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow older, Gordon began to reflect, the kind of reflection in which we can engage only after our life experiences mature us. Gordon's "what once was" arose from that piece of land in southeastern Harding County where he spent his earliest years, and Newell where he passed the years of teenaged introspection. In his 80s, Gordon harbored a sort of wonder about the life his parents chose in a small community that was both close and supportive.
I know this because Gordon told me so. He told me in 2004 when he traveled to Oregon to join my mother, my sister, my brothers and me in memorializing my father, Roger. I know because Gordon made a pilgrimage back to Govert, South Dakota, that same year. I know because of the close bond Gordon formed on that pilgrimage with his great-nephew who lives in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. I know because Gordon followed my research with a sense of wonder, that same sense of wonder he shared with his brothers. My Uncle Gordon was a romantic image all my life, but I didn't know him until 2004 when Gordon was 86 and I was 52.
They grew where they were planted, these Van der Boom boys, or they grew where they were transplanted. All three of Govert's and Emma's sons flourished, each with his once-and-forever wife, just like their parents. Govert died in 1957 and, in 1968, Emma joined him at Rose Hill Cemetery in Spearfish, South Dakota, 81 miles from the homestead life they shared with their three sons earlier in the century. The youngest son, Roger, was the first of the sons to die and he was buried as a soldier, a veteran of World War II, at the National Cemetery outside of Sturgis, South Dakota. The oldest son, Virgil, was the second to die, two years later in 2006. You can find Virgil and his beloved wife, Mildred, in the small cemetery adjacent to Newell, South Dakota. And now the middle son, Gordon, has died. September 24, 2014 was not a good day for all the people who loved him. Gordon and his wife, Marge, are interred in a columbarium in the western state Gordon adopted as his own.
And now, no Govert, South Dakota, Van der Booms remain. Not a single one. The prairie wind dispersed Govert Township and the memories of the town, leaving Govert, Emma, Roger, and Virgil ... and now Gordon, too ... as echos of Gordon's "what once was".
Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate
[Written with gratitude for having known Gordon. Some of the stories my father told me about Gordon may or may not be completely true; Gordon himself declined to comment. My father admired his older brother, and my father was fond of telling stories, a dangerous combination for recording family history with accuracy. Join me here soon for Gordon's memories of life on the prairie, which I believe to be based in truth, like nearly crushing the Dutchman's car in the 1930s. The 18th Century "lay me down to sleep" children's prayer is the formula I followed at bedtime every night of my childhood, and Emma Van der Boom most likely supervised the repetition of this prayer as recited by Virgil, Gordon, and Roger kneeling by their beds in the attic of the frame house next to Govert Mercantile in the 1920s. The photograph of Gordon comes from my archive.]