The first “Zip to Zap,” or “Zap-In,” made headlines around the world, in places as different as Pakistan and Russia, to say nothing of Washington and Miami. It was 1969, with civil rights and anti-Vietnam marches, US forces in Southeast Asia at an all-time high, and, the year before, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
But the “Zip to Zap” as conceived was about as political as beer. Many of the kids were simply tired from a week of sandbagging the floodwaters of the Red River of the North—surely not an anarchic pastime—and needed to blow off some steam.
The January before the first “Zap-In,” the staff of the North Dakota State University newspaper, the Spectrum, had talked wistfully about going to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, over spring break. One of the staffers moaned that he “couldn’t even afford to go to Zap” (a tiny burg of three hundred inhabitants hidden deep in North Dakota lignite coal country). Zap was an NDSU “in-joke” at the time, and kids being what they are, a crazy idea was planted. . . .
. . . and germinated. The NDSU and UND student newspapers ran teaser ads about the “Zap-In.” The AP picked up the story; calls came in to NDSU from all over; and the first “Zip to Zap” was planned for May 10, 1969. Zap’s residents weren’t sure whether the kids were really coming, or why, or what might happen if they did. Mayor Norman Fuchs was worried at first, but decided to be a good sport. He thought maybe two hundred kids would show , up, and so he posed for pictures wearing a “Zap, N.D. or Bust” sweatshirt or playing with his “Zip-Zap,” a new toy. An obviously accomplished poet, Fuchs wrote to several North Dakota colleges, promising such delicacies as “Zapburgers, fleischkuechle: [German deep-fat-fried hamburger-and-onion dumplings] with Cow Belle sauce, hot dogs with or without the bun . . . and good, clean, beer-bust, food-munching, tear-jerking, rib-tickling fun.” In spite of (false) rumors that a band of Hell’s Angels from California was coming to the “Zap-In,” the town planned a barbecue and evening dances on Friday and Saturday nights, as well as a Frisbee tournament and a drink-off between the two universities. Jan’s Cafe started freezing fleischkuechle. A group from Florida pulled into town on. Thursday and put up signs in the two bars saying, “Florida was First.” The town decided to make the best of what seemed an inevitable but harmless invasion of several hundred kids.
On May 10, 1969, two to three thousand college-age youths descended on Zap—which had no motel. It was unusually cold, even for early May on the tundra, and the tiny park where Mayor Fuchs had envisioned the revelers sleeping was less than satisfactory; the next fateful morning, sleeping bags, blankets, and jackets were covered with frost. Only outdoor toilets were available, far from the park.
The kids hung out in the town’s two taverns—Lucky’s and Paul’s—standing on each other’s shoulders and “shooting the moon.” Lucky’s had six booths and five stools. Paul’s had six booths and ten stools. The 20,000 bottles of beer in town were obliterated early in the evening. The kids decided to help tear down a Main Street building in the process of being demolished—and used the lumber to start a bonfire in the unpaved street.
Jan’s cafe seated 25. Before the 3,000 kids came, she had made happy plans to sell 200 kids 1,200 hot dogs, 2,000 Zapburgers, some chiliburgers, and 60 cases of pop. People who later unfairly came to be called “profiteers” arrived from all over, hoping to make some money on T-shirts, souvenirs, and food. Some of them had invented their products only the day before.
All the hopeful (if halfhearted) preparations of the Zap residents and “profiteers” were sadly inadequate for the raging horde of cold, drunk, hungry, disappointed kids, and some of them—a very few—got mean. Jan’s Cafe was gutted. Lucky’s bar was torn apart. Paul’s bar suffered several broken windows, and its owner sat up with his loaded shotgun all night. The city auditorium was trashed. To fuel their bonfire after the dilapidated building was gone, the kids used furnishings from the places they’d ruined. And God only knows what they did with all the beer they drank.
It was too much for the peaceful denizens of Zap. At midnight a frustrated Mayor Fuchs, who hadn’t hired any back-up law enforcement for his constable, asked the National Guard for help. The Guard had anticipated the move, drawing up plans for “Operation Zap” a week earlier, estimating 3,000 to 6,000 students. At 7 A.M. on Saturday (May 11), 500 National Guardsmen, armed with rifles (bayonets only; no bullets) and five-foot wooden clubs, moved into Zap and prodded the groggy, frost-covered, sleeping Zippers into their cars. The drunk kids drove to nearby Beulah and Hazen and eventually to Bismarck, 80 miles southeast. In various Bismarck parks they slept off their headaches. By Sunday afternoon, Bismarck park crews were bulldozing mountains of beer cans, and the kids were on the way back to school. The Bismarck Tribune announced erroneously that “martial law” had been declared in Zap.
The city was left with 750 pounds of beef and a lot of frozen fleischkuechle. It cost the state $23,000 to break up a fling that caused $3,000 in damages, nearly half of which the penitent university students raised after they got back to school. Area hospitals were busy with many slight and some serious wounds, including the student stabbed in the buttocks with a bayonet who became a separate news story when he told the attending physician to send the bill to the state and the state refused to pay. And the Jefferson Airplane featured “Paz, South Dakota” on their Volunteers album. Zap was on the map at last.
Ten years later, absolutely nothing happened. But in early April of this year, the 20th anniversary of the “Zip to Zap,” rumblings of plans for “Zip to Zap II” were heard. Fraternities were rumored to have chartered buses. The NDSU Spectrum staff, most of whom were in diapers when “Zip to Zap I” took place, sold T-shirts and set a date of May 6. “Zip to Zap II” became an issue of honor; the kids wanted to undo damage that had been done before some of them were born. The Spectrum editor said the group planned to have “designated drivers,” and reminded Zapites that “people aren’t like they were 20 years ago.”
Ex-mayor Norman Fuchs was skeptical. He wasn’t worried about the few forty-year-olds who might return for a nostalgic weekend; he was thinking of the current crop of college and highschool students and what they might do. Still, Zap made on-again, off-again plans, the younger citizens all for trying to get something good out of the visit, the over-50 crowd in favor of barricading the road into town. Not until eight days before the event did the city fathers agree to allow outdoor beer gardens and cooking in the Community Center. “It kinda got thrown in our lap,” said one member of the Community Club, which decided to host a dance. Local nonprofit organizations would provide food and portapotties, and clean up the park. The athletic association would sell fleischkuechle, souvenirs, and last year’s Zap Diamond Jubilee items, hoping to at least get a weight machine out of the deal.
Saturday, May 6, 1989, dawned with a record cold temperature of 18° (the old record was 22°); later in the day it would get up to 70°. By noon, the little town of three hundred was bustling—with residents, that is. Zap’s downtown forms a “T,” each section of which is a block long; all along the “vertical” block, ten-foot trailers had been wedged between buildings, and garage doors had been opened to sell food and souvenirs. Hand-lettered signs offered fleischkuechle (surprised?), Indian fry-bread (exactly what it sounds like), Indian tacos (taco ingredients in fry-bread), and even “sopapias.” Talk about ethnic diversity! Husbands and wives made numerous trips on foot between their homes and their makeshift places of business carrying crock-pots full of hot nacho cheese dip and sloppy joe mix. Two different designs of T-shirts were on sale, as well as “I Zipped to Zap and Had a Blast” buttons, caps, and wraparound Velcro beer-coolers. The Zap Diamond Jubilee books were displayed in the Community Hall, the top book opened accusingly to the page chronicling the disaster twenty years earlier. Eighteen extra officers were on alert in case the Mercer County deputies needed help, and many of them ambled around downtown, eyeing the drive-through spectators. But there were no kids to be seen.
By late Saturday afternoon, things were only a little better. An estimated 300 to 1,000 visitors had accumulated (it was hard to tell: they kept moving around, and the drive-through gawkers were still heavy). A 60-acre field on the outskirts of town was set up for a “Battle of the Bands” that never materialized, so August Little Soldier, aged 75, and Carroll Smith, 83, performed traditional Indian dances. DJ’s played records in the street and field that night. On Sunday morning the Bismarck Tribune proclaimed, “Sequel at Zap lacks 1969 Zip,” and “Zap isn’t as zany.” A vendor of a truckload of pizza-by-the-slice said he was losing money.
Around midnight Saturday, however, Zap got what it had wished for and feared: another several thousand people. Cars were bumper-to-bumper between Zap and Beulah, nine miles east. And things worked like a charm. The town’s two bars—the Little Dipper and the Lignite—wound up doing a great business. Older Zap residents danced in the street and in the field with Zippers. There were only about 70 arrests, and those people paid their fines and went back to the party. Zap Mayor Albert Sailer, aged 65, beside himself with glee, said, “I’m saved. I can still walk uptown.” He had been one of the few older Zapites in favor of -the reunion. Late Sunday afternoon, Zap children picked up litter, which Mayor Sailer said wasn’t any worse than at the annual Lignite Jamboree. Not a T-shirt, button, hot dog or piece of you-know-what was left—although the pizza vendor says, philosophically, that he never did break even.
Zap’s already busy planning “Zip to Zap III.”