I’m not sure why it started, and – like many things in life – it’s way too late to ask now, but when I was about six or seven, my father for some reason started calling me the “Hill City Kid.”
Hill City is a little burg about 130 miles northeast of St. Cloud, on the south edge of the pine forests that blanket that corner of the state. There are a few lakes around, including Hill Lake right in town, and a skiing resort just southeast of town. About 630 folks live in Hill City these days. And when I was six or seven, there were a lot fewer than that. Tammy at Hill City’s City Hall couldn’t find the 1960 population this morning, but she did tell me that there were 357 people in Hill City in 1970. In 1960, she guessed, the town was likely a little smaller.
And Dad said that’s where I came from, that he and Mom got me from Hill City. I knew that wasn’t the case, or at least I was pretty sure, if not positive, that he was joking. So I didn’t mind Dad goofing around and calling me the Hill City Kid, which he did for a few years. Except for one thing.
When he talked about my Hill City origins, he often added that the day would come when we’d go to Hill City and he and Mom would leave me where I belonged. Again, I was pretty sure he was joking, but I was young, and I wasn’t entirely sure.
And on a summer day when I was maybe eight, we were coming home from a weekend trip to the Iron Range, in Minnesota’s northeastern corner. Our route to St. Cloud brought us along Highway 169, through Grand Rapids, where the pine forests begin to thin, and on to Hill City, where we stopped for lunch.
I did not enjoy my lunch. I don’t recall much about it except that I wondered all through the meal if Mom and Dad were really going to leave me there in Hill City. By the end of the meal, Dad had said nothing, so I figured things were okay. As Dad paid for our meals, I went to the rest room.
And when I came out and walked out the front door of the restaurant, our 1952 Ford was not there. It had been parked right in front, right where I was standing. And it was gone.
They’d left me in Hill City. And I started to cry.
And of course, in about five seconds, Dad brought the ’52 Ford around the corner from where he’d been waiting, and I scrambled into the back seat and dried my eyes as we headed down Highway 169 toward St. Cloud.
Maybe Dad expected me to laugh it off. If I’d been five years older, I might have been able to do so. But I was maybe eight and not very secure anyway. And for a few moments, I was terrified.
As far as I remember, Dad never called me the Hill City Kid again.
Here’s a self-explanatory tune: “Lonesome And A Long Way From Home.” It’s from Eric Clapton’s 1970 solo album.