Oklahoma and me… and I… and my eye
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 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.
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 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 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 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 great sports mind – I wasn’t. Instead, I was something of an Oklahoma sports historian – I was… kinda. I’d lived through some crucial 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. Still, I’d sat in the student sections with 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 cities 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 favorite local saying.)
What was remarkable about those places wasn’t that they had vast populations of immensely talented artists. There were few tremendously profitable smokestack industries from which those people could make a living. Honestly, there was little money to be made at all in most of them. I remember one man who owned property passed to him when Oklahoma first became a state.
He still scratched a living out of the soil his great-grandfather had worn out with corn and cotton years before. It was still suitable for the cattle he loved to raise, so he stayed to live and die there. Constantly 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 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, magical cultures. It was a time I never expected to relive, with a beautiful group of people whose philosophies I never expected to encounter again. My adventures were so varied and rich that no one could hope to re-visit anything like that.
For instance, from the good folks down Hugo’s way, I’d soon learn the value of a good circus performer, how they determined their own weight 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. After all, he refused to put his teeth in for the interview. The words just wouldn’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. 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 terrific, as were the ancient mountains near Mears, Oklahoma, which boasts a fine cheeseburger. Still, 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 when 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… 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. 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 groves, 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. I’m convinced that there are many more out there today who have yet to be told. They’re amazing stories. Cool stories. Almost UNBELIEVABLE stories. But they were real. Confirmed 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 know about your neighbors, grandparents, 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.
Give me your coal mine fires, world-class miniature horse farms, and 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 perhaps if you consider yourself lucky.
Truthfully, I can offer a few guarantees. I can assure you 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 fantastic 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