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Bender: The pilgrimage

Tony Bender writes about joining old friends to say goodbye to former North Dakota GOP Chairman Tom Secrest.

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Tom Secrest's grave
Contributed / Tony Bender
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It's a mile west of Haynes, N.D., past railroad tracks that stretch across a gravel road until they merge into steel dots in the distance. Then, bumpity-bump, over a plank crossing, past an algae-green creek. The cemetery was in a pasture, a shorn wheat field to the southeast, another awaiting a barber to the west. Net-wrapped bales pimpled the landscape.

Stubble rattled beneath my low-slung coupe. Grasshoppers. Buttes. Wind towers. Wind.

I'd come to say hello. Because goodbyes are too hard.

It was love at first sight three decades ago when I came to Hettinger as the inexperienced publisher of a foundering ship. Anyone can be captain when you're sinking. But fresh air in her sails and community support was all she needed.

I can't comprehend the alchemy of magic, that cosmic concoction of personalities and circumstances—or which planet is in what house in the Year of the Cat or whatever—but I do know we were waiting for each other. Ted and Nancy Uecker, Harriet and Jimmy Howe, Al McIntyre, Ginger and Kerry Dangerud, Roxanne Johnson. Tom Secrest. There were others, but these were the usual suspects. We had wine-fueled arguments, said caustic (and hilarious) things to one another, then hugged at the end of the night. The way real friendships work.

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I returned to the scene of the crime knowing what I'd find. Attrition. Maybe my heart. I left it around here somewhere. But magic was too much to expect.

McIntyre, the leprechaun, arrived first at the Dangeruds, mocking my affinity for fedoras with a floppy white hat so ridiculous that had someone forced it upon him he would have protested it as cruel and unusual punishment. He was wearing a “BS in the A.M.” T-shirt, too: Bender, Secrest, and Al McIntyre.

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From left to right: Longtime friends Al McIntyre, Ted Uecker and Tony Bender
Contributed / Tony Bender

Everywhere in America, radio stations and newspapers are mortal enemies. Everywhere except Hettinger. Al knew a resurgent newspaper was good for the community, so he invited me to join him and Tom Secrest, a Texas-born lawyer and former head of the state GOP, for a weekly talk show where I shamefully plugged the Adams County Record. Two Republicans and me, the voice of reason.

We were, uh, irreverent. Each show began with “Apology Corner,” a segment during which we sort of apologized for the things we'd said the week before. Twice, angry listeners stormed the studio. Security was lacking.

And then there were two.

Ah, Secrest... Ah, regrets... I didn't make it back one last time before his health failed... pandemic shutdowns, my own health challenges, business obligations, and well, life.

They didn't even have a service for the big man, McIntyre complained, and that got me fired up.

“What?! I would have given a heck of a speech,” I said, my voice rising. “I would've had a lot to say!”

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“I didn't like him, either!” Al shouted back.

They were, of course, the best of friends.

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Ted, a banty rooster of a man, arrived next, moving glacially with a cane. He's 88, and all that lying (former cattle buyer) and womanizing was bound to catch up to him.

“Look,” Kerry said. “You guys have the same cane!”

Yup, the same adjustable $15 cane, his for a bum ankle, mine for a bum hip.

“Mine's longer,” Teddy sniffed, shuffling past me. “Thicker, too.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Teddy Bill Uecker, the most politically-incorrect, irascible, loyal friend imaginable. Loyalty's a trait I hold sacred. Ted thought I was good for the community, too, and once offered to finance the purchase of the newspaper. But the timing wasn't right.

The thing about magic is that it's transitory. It evaporates. Revel in it while you can.

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Ginger and I talked past midnight, laughed over old stories and new ones, and bragged about kids and grandkids. In the morning, I swung past the Uecker's for coffee and one more... one more... hello. Ted gave me one of his retired hats. We talked a bit, but I had a long drive ahead, and Ted was still in his bathrobe... I told them that I love them—because I do—and headed east.

The headstone read “Tom” Thales Latimer Secrest. Thales Latimer? Jesus. That's probably what killed him. There was no speech. I didn't say anything at all. Let the wind do the talking.

I might have choked up a little as I replayed the events of the last 18 hours in my mind—the way McIntyre's eyes snagged mine as we embraced, softly insulting each other.

I imagined Tom's gigantic guffaw booming across dimensions. No, I heard it.

I turned full circle to drink it in before I slid into the cockpit. Inside, I removed my fedora and replaced it with Ted's Stetson.

The stubble scraped away at the chassis. Grasshoppers pelted the hood like hailstones.

I smiled, squinting into the sun. For a moment, the magic was back.

Tony Bender writes an exclusive weekly column from North Dakota for Forum News Service.
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