Eve Fisher

Here’s a couple of ways to get some idea of what TJ – Theodore James Olson – was like.There was the time I saw him and his wife, Irma, coming into Mellette’s Lounge for dinner.Actually, I should say waddling, since they were both as fat as Christmas turkeys.The Lounge phone rang as they passed the register, and TJ growled, “It’s another damn call for you.Why don’t I have a gun when I need one?”The other way is to imagine a bull walrus without the personality.
TJ had never been pleasant.But in a small town like Laskin, pleasant isn’t necessarily required.Since we’re almost all Norwegian Lutherans, we’re trained from childhood to be polite to everyone, and never let them know how despicable you really find them.The upside to this is that most people behave in a courteous, friendly manner.The downside, besides the fact that you never really know what your neighbor thinks of you, is that unpleasant people never get their comeuppance.You just live with them, like a permanent hangover.An unscrupulous person can get away with just about anything.
Not that TJ was unscrupulous.He had scruples, he was very good at business, and he had the brains, bossiness, and bull-headedness to take charge of anything he was involved with.He was on almost every board in town, and ran them.Newcomers quickly found themselves facing a man who would lower his square head, let his jowls hang down, and explain to them exactly what they were going to do (not much), say (even less), and vote (his way).He got things done.
But TJ finally got his comeuppance when he ran for mayor.He naturally assumed that since he ran everything in town anyway, he might as well run the town itself.His campaign slogan was “The Best for the Job, the Best for Laskin”.He had posters up everywhere, ads every Monday, and made it clear to all that he expected your vote.He didn’t get it.Instead, we elected Sam Johnson, who wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer and was well-liked because of it.
To say that TJ was irate was like saying a grizzly sow is unappreciative of your attempts to pet her young cub.He didn’t speak to anyone outside of work for maybe a week, and his employees – he ran the local lumber yard – had to have wondered why God had picked them for punishment duty.He was so unpleasant that Irma took off to visit her sister in Texas – “good for her,” was the general consensus – which, in turn, cheered TJ up so much he was back to his old self in no time, unpleasant but normal.There was an assumption he’d learned his lesson.
It was shortly thereafter that TJ announced his decision to raise hogs on some land he’d bought out by Lake Howard back when he and Irma had first gotten married.They said they were going to build a big house on it when TJ got rich, but since his idea of rich would have required more income than Donald Trump’s, that never happened.Instead, they parked an old trailer on it and spent a couple of weeks every summer there.By day TJ fished and Irma read paperback romances, by night they fought, and that was that.All in all, it was a financial drain, especially as land taxes went up.Or at least, that was the excuse TJ used.Plus, he said, he’d always wanted to have his own hogs.Comments were made regarding the probability of kinship.
Now if TJ had just wanted to put a couple of hogs out there, nobody would have said anything.But TJ put in an application for a permit for a hog containment unit.That meant a minimum of a thousand hogs, complete with noise and stink.Lake Howard is only a mile or two outside of Laskin, and there were houses within two hundred yards of TJ’s property.It was pretty obvious that TJ had figured out how to punish Laskin for rejecting him as mayor.But TJ never had figured out that he lived in a democracy.A petition began circulating against TJ’s operation, and everyone signed it.TJ arranged his jowls and went to the county commission. So did everyone else, and TJ’s application was refused.
If you think that stopped him, you didn’t know TJ.He took the county commission to court, saying they had no right to refuse his application just because the neighbors objected.He had the right to have hogs, and there was nothing in the laws or by-laws of the county against such an operation.The hearing was quick and dead against him.So he sued the county.And he started running ads, calling for all lovers of liberty to join him in a fight against despotic government.We thought it was mighty fancy language for someone who said he just wanted to raise hogs.
We also thought that TJ had gone too far.You can be a private nuisance to everybody and their brother up here, but you don’t sue the government.Not because the government’s always right or anything like that, but because you don’t want to cause trouble.It’s an unwritten law.So we watched in mounting horror as TJ, after losing his lawsuit against the county, filed suit in district court, and lost, and then moved on to the state court.
It was at this point that we all started wondering what was really going on with our TJ.“Why’s he so dead set on them hogs?” John Davison asked at the Norseman’s Bar one night, and no one could answer him.After all, lawsuits cost money, and TJ was still watching 2 fuzzy channels via antenna rather than pay for basic cable.And who was paying for all those ads?Some people thought it was one of those militia-freemen organizations that was backing him, although why they’d be interested in a hog containment unit no one knew.Others thought it was one of the big national hog operations, looking for a way into our county.Either way, they were in for a surprise.We’d put up with TJ all our lives, but we were all genuinely against the hog containment operation, for a number of reasons, but mainly because of the lagoons.
TJ had explained, at some length, that the lagoons were structurally sound systems for the aeration of hog wastes, which would be transformed into liquid fertilizer, ideal for agricultural production of the area.“A hundred thousand gallons of pure stink,” was the general response.Nor did it help when word got out that TJ had already dug the lagoon and started building the hog pens.All he was waiting for was the hogs.The arrogance of it was the last straw.Not only would no one support him, but now no one would talk to him.A lot of people started buying lumber over in Herman, or even Sioux Falls.And he wouldn’t give up, even when he lost in state court.Instead, he took it to the state supreme court.
The state supreme court heard TJ’s case on a grim, rainy day in April.We were all worried sick.What if TJ won on a technicality?What if it rained too much and the creek flooded again, the way it had back in ’93?What if TJ won, and there were hogs and lagoons and it rained and THAT flooded?The stress mounted high, until John Davison and his brothers, who had the dynamite, the time, and the criminal minds, decided the only thing to do was to go out and blow up TJ’s lagoon and hog barns, which would, as John later explained, “at least slow the son of a bitch down some.”
The explosion was heard all the way in Laskin.Back at TJ’s, the hog pens blasted into a cloud of sticks, mud, brown mist, and noise that John described later as mighty satisfying.Then it rained splinters, spars, mud, brown rain, and nails in a wide enough radius that the boys nearly got killed.A lot of it hit the lagoon, where it smacked down and bounced back up almost like a rubber ball, only to fall back down again.
When everything had settled down, the boys raced over to get a look at the damage.And nearly died of heart failure.Bobbing in the muddy brown water of the lagoon was a body.A woman’s body.For the first time in their lives, the Davison boys called the police, and, for once, the police didn’t arrest them.They arrested TJ in Pierre. Brought him back to Laskin in handcuffs.
We never did find out why TJ killed Irma.He pleaded temporary insanity, clamped his lower lip tight under his jowls, and refused to say another word.He’s sitting on death row right now, still clammed up.
But as John Davison pointed out one night at the Norseman’s, at least now we knew what TJ was after.Not the hogs, but the lagoon.The perfect place – smell and all - to hide what was left of his wife.The more we thought about it, the creepier it got.People started shifting their feet, rubbing their jaw, sneaking looks around.“Not that anybody else’d ever try something that dumb,” John said hastily, and everybody nodded.
But the next day a new petition started floating around Laskin, banning hog containments in the county, and everybody signed it.It was a polite way of keeping temptation away from the folks that couldn’t handle it.They might not know who they are, but we do.