In America, we can judge the significance of an event by the pre-maturity and questionable taste of the memorabilia it spawns. In mid-January 1989, three months before the Women’s International Bowling Congress (WIBC) was scheduled to descend upon Bismarck, North Dakota (pop. 45,000), the J.C. Penney store was selling T-shirts that claimed “I Survived Bowling in the Boonies,” and others with an incredible bowling cowgirl clad in Stetson, boots, and miniskirt. That’s when we knew this would be some blowout.

In December, four months before the event, a travel agent told a relative of mine that if he planned to do any flying out of Bismarck between April and mid-June, he’d better make his reservations quickly—the few planes coming into and out of Bismarck would be full of women bowlers.

And there was even talk of a bill in the legislature to repeal the state’s Sunday closing law. Granted, the legislators who did the most talking had been saying the same thing every two years for ten years. But this year they banked on having more greed on their side than the conservatives had, well, Teutonic shortsightedness on theirs. Any out-of-town woman with shopping money burning a hole in her pocket should have places to spend it, they muttered, and women in most states were used to shopping on Sundays, darn it. Frankly, they said. North Dakota’s law was worse than an embarrassment; it was not modern.

The figures tell why Bismarck and nearby Mandan acted—and are acting—so uncharacteristically frivolous. Nearly 8,000 WIBC teams will flow through Bismarck-area motels, restaurants, and shopping malls between April 6 and mid-June. (Did you know that Bismarck has the largest mall between Minneapolis and Seattle? It’s worth a trip.) There are five people on a team. That’s 40,000 people—nearly as many as live in Bismarck (Mandan has 15,000). These teams will stay an average of four days. Forty thousand hungry, tired, ready-to-party or ready-to-shop people times four days—it’s enough to make city fathers swoon and the downtowners dress up their windows with pins and balls.

And all the time there is the smug knowledge that two weeks after the last of the bowlers leave town, the state’s Centennial celebration will begin. Another 50,000 people are expected over the long Fourth of July weekend: 50,000 people who came prepared to spend. Pabst, the German god of serendipity, is smiling on Bismarck for a change.

North Dakota’s most famous daughter, Angie Dickinson, will be in Bismarck for the Centennial festivities from July 1-4. So will Myron Floren, the renowned South Dakotan accordionist for North Dakotan Lawrence Welk. Bobby Vee (Fargo, North Dakota), is coming, and so is Roy Clark (not from North Dakota, so it doesn’t matter where he’s from). North Dakota’s famous Western novelist, Louis L’Amour, is dead. President Bush has been invited, although this isn’t one of his home states.

There is a special Centennial commission, and one of its duties is to sanction special Centennial events and products—Centennial mugs containing lite salad dressing. Centennial marble etchings of moose and bison. Centennial honey, gigantic Centennial belt buckles for Centennial jeans.

Hundreds of Germans and Norwegians—real ones, from Germany and Norway—have chosen to leave the fjords and the Alps and come to Bismarck for the Centennial. (Those jokes they tell about each other’s intelligence appear to be true.) There will be a choir from the People’s Republic of China, a cavalry unit, a 300-unit wagon train parade, and an Indian camp. (Apparently there’s still a law on the North Dakota books making it legal to shoot an Indian from a wagon train. Some of the Indians are nervous about that law, but there’s no move in the legislature to repeal it.) There will be four full days of ethnic and patriotic activities across the state, with the “Party of the Century” in the capital city, mostly on the capitol grounds (there’s also a bill to make Monday, July 3, a state holiday just for this year), and on the 4th a local network affiliate will devote the entire day and evening to the festivities.

The seventeen-story capitol building may be outlined with Christmas tree bulbs at night. Another suggestion was thousands of candles in little holders, the light from which would shine up and onto the face of the capitol building—but this year will probably be as dangerously dry as last. At this writing, various committees are busy finding parking and housing for all the expected cars and RV’s. Then there are the port-a-potties, telephones, first-aid units, and handicapped access problems to worry about, and the biggest problem of all—finding enough ice for all the concessions—especially if it’s over 100 and windy, the way it was last year.

Of course, the god Pabst could solve that problem, too.

All of this is corny as hell, and no, you won’t find it happening in major metropolitan centers. It only happens where there is a possibility of community life. And when it does happen, people know it’s corny and like it that way. There is a huge intrinsic difference between the flawlessly choreographed festivities put on by paid PR experts in, say. New York City on our nation’s Bicentennial 13 years ago, and these little but bighearted local and regional explosions of exuberance and sentimentality. The difference is that the small, corny celebrations are authentic, or they don’t happen.

Take the women bowlers (please). Struggling Bismarck businesses knew four years ago, when the Convention and Visitors Bureau announced that they’d nailed up that convention, that it meant Something Big. They weren’t sure what or how much, and time will tell whether the estimates are right; in January, Bismarck television and newspaper editorials were still wondering where all those women were going to sleep, and whether Bismarck had bitten off more than it could chew, ruining its chances of ever getting another big convention. But the townspeople, most of them, are grateful and prepared to take advantage of the gift. They’re willing to have faith that the WIBC will do some good, directly or indirectly, for nearly everyone in the city. Who in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles could ever say that? Who there still believes that anything good can happen to a large number of ordinary people?

As for the North Dakota State Centennial, it’s nothing more—or less—than one huge family reunion, with some guests invited. Families and friends will be drawing together not only from all over the country, but from all over the world. Residents will be opening up their homes to strangers, for free. In North Dakota, people just haven’t come that far, psychologically speaking, from the days when the horse was their best means of transportation and there was only “Dakota”—and they’re tenaciously proud of that pioneer racial memory. They would hold this hundred-year celebration even if there weren’t money to make. They would hold it if it cost them money—and it will, many of them. North Dakotans (and South Dakotans, and Montanans, and Washingtonians) will, in 1989, buy their T-shirts and hats and jackets and buttons and belt buckles and lite salad dressing in sanctioned Centennial mugs. Those who live in Bismarck or anywhere for 50 miles around the state capital will open their doors to all the relatives and anyone else who wants to sleep on a cot or on the floor.

When they’re caught at it, they’ll grin and shrug, “I may not be around for the next one.”