Oklahoma and me… and I… and my eye
Where the Wind Comes a-Sweepin’ … Anything but Plain
I’m a fifth-generation Oklahoman. My great-great grandparents bought 40 acres in Haskell County in 1913 and my family has alternately farmed and ranched it ever since. My folks still live about a quarter mile from there, and my dad ran his cattle there until about a month ago. Now my nephew runs them there. I love this state. It’s in my blood as much as my blood is here. I knew that as a boy and I know it today. Its prairies, mountains, hills, swamps, and deserts are a part of my whole self. It’s true, just as sure as my lifeblood flows through me like the ancient rivers rill and roll — Red, Cimarron, Canadian, Arkansas and Poteau, all.
About … a long time ago, I had the good fortune to attend a major university here to study whatever I wanted. Unfortunately, part of that good fortune included doing just that, and THAT turned out to be a career in Journalism. Don’t get me wrong. It’s been a lifetime rich in experience in adventure, and a lot of experience living parsimoniously. Google it.
During that long tenure, I have alternately learned about being a good writer, taught others about it, practiced it, cursed it, praised it and tried to escape it. The latter being marginally unsuccessful.
But, as is the case with most long-winded life stories, I have had a lot of fun. I’ve met and worked with good people from all over the world, and some bad people from those very same places. I’ve even married some of them. The latter being tragically unsuccessful.
However in about 1993, after an enjoyable, albeit un-storied stint as a graduate student, I got the chance to work for a handful of different magazines. So varied in theme were these publications that anyone who looked at one of the covers might never guess that they shared one important core value.
They ALL loved Oklahoma and its people.
So for about the ten years with these various pubs, I enjoyed myself tremendously. Telling stories about famous sports figures for one publication was a favorite. It wasn’t so much that I was a big sports mind — I wasn’t. It was instead that I was something of an Oklahoma sports historian — I was… kinda. I’d lived through a great deal of some very important times in Oklahoma football as it was conceived and played out by names like Switzer, Sutton, Semore and Sims; Barry Sanders, Pistol Pete and Bryant Reeves. I hadn’t actually known any of those great men, but I’d sat in the student sections with the sort of intense attention and enthusiasm only afforded to young men. And then, only those unfettered by family duties and upside-down mortgages.
So, I told those stories. Looked those men up and talked to them too. I got to travel across the cow pastures of central Oklahoma, through the dusty farm towns of Green Country and visit the waning burgs of the Red Mesas. I went to towns with names like Winona, Frederick, Gotebo, Wilburton, Alice, Maud, and Bowlegs. “You have to go through Bowlegs to get to Maud.” HA ! (I didn’t make that one up. It’s a local favorite saying.)
What was remarkable about those places wasn’t that they had huge populations of immensely talented artists. There were few, if any, tremendously profitable smokestack industries from which those people could make a living. Truly, there was little money to be made at all in most of them. I remember one man who owned property passed to him from the time Oklahoma first became a state. He still scratched a living out of the soil his great-grandfather had worn out with corn and cotton seventy years before. It was still good for the cattle he loved to raise, so he stayed to live and die there. Always working the cattle. He told me that living in his county was never making a living. But instead to just “live on what you make.”
So, sports legacies and beautiful scenery aside… one might ask why in the HELL do people stay in Oklahoma. We’re a Flyover State. The Middle of Nowhere. Only steers and Queers. Outlaws and Hillbillies. Farmers. Shitkickers. Lazy Republicans who vote against their own best interests.
So again… why do we stay?
It’s the People. Oklahoma is a true melting pot. Rich with the heritage of Native Americans and their fascinating, basically magical cultures. It was a time which I never expected to relive, with a wonderful group of people whose philosophies I never expected to encounter again. The adventures I had were so varied and rich that basically, no one could hope to re-visit anything like that.
For instance, from the good folks down Hugo way, I’d soon learn the value of a good circus performer, how they determined their own value and that the “pie car” people were the ones who fed the whole group. Concessions were the golden ticket in those performing arts. Among them, I’d make friends with a rhino named Goliath, 39 adult elephants, a 600-pound juvenile Siberian tiger named Samson and a cantankerous camel named Clyde whose practice of biting was only surpassed by his prodigious foamy slobbers.
Goliath and I became fast friends, and for some reason, I miss Clyde …
I’d meet an octogenarian circus owner who’d started his multi-million dollar shows in Vaudeville. FYI: all circuses and those who work them have roots in Vaudeville. ALL of them. His humble origins began with a single pony, a monkey, three dogs, a Model A Ford and 36 cents.
No kidding. He told me that. I had to ask him to repeat it twice. Not because I couldn’t believe it. Instead it was because I couldn’t understand him because he refused to put his teeth in for the interview. The words just wouln’t form.
Try it. Take a sip of your coffee and hold it in your mouth. Now curl your lips over your teeth and try to say, “Thirty-six cents.”
So, anyway …
During his sixty odd years on the road, he’d walk away from multiple truck collisions, some of them head-on; several motorcycle wrecks – some of THEM head-on, and an airplane crash from which he climbed into another new plane in two hours and flew away to the next show. You see, he had to use another plane because the first one had burned.
Wow… reliving those interviews makes ME tired.
The artists in Red Carpet country were amazing, as were the ancient mountains near Mears Oklahoma, which boasts a fine cheeseburger, but none match the juicy double meat masterpieces they serve at the Busy Bee in Hugo. There, the scarce seats are at a premium and you’re better to get your magnificent greasy ground beef through the drive-thru.
I could talk about the time a dude pulled a knife on me in the beer joint in SE Oklahoma; then a gun. And nobody looked up either time. Or the story I did on a business owner who was either a man… or a woman… or both. No one knew for sure, so I wrote the whole story without using a single gender-bound pronoun. I liked that though. Gave me a chance to show off to you and your kind, Decent Reader.
Then there were the Mom and Pop museums and their eclectic owners. Like the dude whose proclivities for collecting stuffed cats, hundreds of typewriters and various doodads was surpassed only by his penchant for grave robbing.
And then there was the little old lady from Duncan who met me at her front door in a tube top and Daisy Dukes, insisting that we “go in a-swimmin’” at her stock pond later. I didn’t go. She was insulted. I remained clothed and in charge of my lunch.
There exist in my memory dozens, if not hundreds of such stories. I’m proud to say that it was a colorful period filled with four-pound turnips (four pounds !), 800 pound wild hogs and a 60-foot totem pole made of concrete and wire mesh. There were fiddle makers, metal sculptors, pecan grovers, sheep drovers and a roving ratite rancher who fed his flocks of ostrich and cassowary from Cessna airplanes.
Then there was the sweet little old lady from Anadarko named Clara Moonlight. I didn’t have the honor of interviewing her, but I love that name.
I could go on and on, and probably would, except that I wrote many of these stories over 20 years ago, and I’m convinced that there are many, many more out there today which have yet to be told. They’re amazing stories. Cool stories. Almost UNBELIEVABLE stories. But they were real. Real as real gets.
I know because the people who told me were real. They were the stories of their parents, neighbors, friends and church families. They were THEIR stories.
And the ones I’m “fixin’ to tell… they’re YOUR stories.
I want to tell the world about you and yours. This is my plea, Good and Faithful Reader. I want to tell about your neighbors, your grandparents, your colossal farm animals, titanic turnips and other ponderous produce. I want to tell the world about the prairie dog city under your garage, the 2 x 4 blown through your oak tree by a Cat 3 tornado last summer, and the warehouse-sized concrete bunker you built underground to escape the next one.
Give me your coal mine fires, your world class miniature horse farms, your herds of fainting goats.
Seriously. I know you’re out there.
So what’s in it for you? Fame? Probably, if only of a mild sort. Fortune? Maybe. Not a nickel from me, but maybe still; that is if you consider yourself lucky.
Truthfully, I can offer a few guarantees. I can assure that they’ll almost surely NEVER make New Yorker Magazine, or find their way to the Nobel Laureate Dinner. But they’ll be good times for you, good reads for the world and great stories.
You can be there. You will be part of a continuing effort to chronicle the astonishing group of people who have woven the humanity and rich fabric of a unique and awe-inspiring land …
… with the latter being wonderfully successful.
Contributing Writer, Uniquelahoma Magazine