Thursday, May 23, 2013

On Being from Oklahoma

The last few days have been trying. Half a world away, I have been transfixed, watching the news about the EF5 tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma with a mixture of horror, fascination and awe that only someone raised in tornado alley can understand. The news, devastating as it has been, has had a certain degree of familiarity about it. It is something we know all too well. We grow up with this. It is part of who we are. It is something that will create a profound depth of pain and sorrow, but we also know that life goes on. We will mourn and bury the dead, rebuild our homes if we lost them or reach out to those who did if we did not. We will pick ourselves up, knock the mud and dirt off and go on living, but we will do so knowing that we will see this again. It is all part of being from Oklahoma, but what does that mean. What does being an Okie mean? What does it mean to me?

I have a few treasured possessions. One is, of course, my birth certificate. It states categorically that I was born very early one morning in Ardmore's Hardy Sanitarium approximately twenty minutes after my mother was admitted. The hospital was torn down in the early 1960s but I have carted around a brick taken from the wreckage of that structure for the past fifty years. It is with me today, within reach, some 6,000 miles and a lifetime away from where it originally stood. That is my real birth certificate.

Another possession is also a certificate, this one signed by Oklahoma's governor Dewey Bartlett in 1969. He officially declared that I was - and still am - “an honored citizen from Oklahoma”. In other words, according to Gov. Bartlett, I am entitled to use the honorific of “Okie”. That is something we affectionately call each other, but woe to he who should proffer that name as an insult. As we like to say, “Them’s fightin’ words.”

I have numerous other bits and pieces of memorabilia from back home, which includes the belt buckle I’ve worn everyday for well over twenty years – the Great Seal of the State of Oklahoma, several state flags, books, postcards, refrigerator magnets, and what not. The greatest memorabilia, however, is stored in my head: memories, images, sights, sounds, tastes and smells, stories told by many different people. Those are... well, let’s just talk about some of them.

We have been in Oklahoma for a long time, at least on my mother’s side. James and Mary Willis, my great-great-great grandparents, came in 1832 as Cherokee Old Settlers. James, a non-Cherokee who died in 1836, is my first ancestor buried in what today is Oklahoma. This means that six generations of my family’s bones rest in the red dirt back home. In addition, a number of Mary’s close relatives – and, consequently, mine, too – walked the Trail of Tears a few years later and settled in the Cookson Hills. My grandmother, who was born in Porum, Indian Territory, used to brag that she was the valedictorian of her high school class. She wouldn’t even wince when we reminded her it was a class of four. She went on to study at the Cherokee Female Seminary. My other grandmother - my father’s mother, raised in Arkansas, used to regale us with stories about spending nights in the storm cellar with copperheads near Spiro. She would keep them at bay on the other side of the cellar by throwing dirt clods. She also made the best pickles in the world.

As a child, I played with the requisite reptiles: terrapins, lizards and, my favorite, horny toads. At school, we reenacted the Land Run in April and the Civil War at recess the year round. Of course, the South always won – and teachers would let us stockpile our toy guns in the classroom. We started our days with the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, even for a few years after the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court rulings to the contrary. We practiced tornado drills – and learned to watch the sky. And those schools were segregated until 1965, eleven years after another Supreme Court decision: Brown v. Board of Education.

My state is conservative, but, somehow, it imbued me with the liberal and humanitarian values I hold today. I didn’t learn them elsewhere. They came from home and school. When we were taught that “All men are created equal”, I took it quite literally. As for the Constitution, that most sacred of secular documents, I believed it too – lock, stock and barrel. I was either naive, blind or simply did not accept the restrictions many of my fellow Oklahomans seemed to put on those things. It didn’t cross my mind that you could interpret things any other way. Of course, Martin Luther King and his allies were seeking justice. If rights were being denied, that had to be fixed. It was unconstitutional. It went against the spirit of why our country was founded. I still believe that, even if I am somewhat more cynical today about how evenly those guarantees are applied.

Do I get frustrated with many of my fellow Okies’ bigotry, intolerance and narrow mindedness? Hell, yes! Sometimes I get down right angry – and then something like the May 20 tornado happens. We put those differences aside and become what we are supposed to be: brothers and sisters. That is what we are seeing now. We saw it after the bombing of the Murrah Building on April 19, 1995 and after the May 3, 1999 tornado in Moore. We will see it again and again. At the worst of times, we become the best we are capable of being. It’s that simple. It is who we are. It is what we do.

I love my state. I could go on and on in this vein, reminiscing, telling stories – most of which would be true because I don’t need to embellish them to tell you about Oklahoma. I love my state for what it is, warts and all. We have everything from mountains to plains, from swampland to desert. We have virtually any type of weather that you could ever want, and a lot that you wouldn’t. Sometimes we even have it all in the same day. Our summers are blistering, our winters are frigid. When it rains, it often floods and, when it doesn’t, things dry up and die. We have wild fires and thunderstorms, hail the size of baseballs or larger, ice storms that stop everything. And we have tornadoes.

We are used to adversity. We weren’t the best and brightest when we originally came to populate our state. We were outcasts, the disinherited, the dispossessed: tribes expelled from their homelands, followed by settlers who had nothing to start with. We had to learn to live and prosper in a land that many people considered uninhabitable. That’s why they gave it too us.  Our original settlers – Indians, Black and Whites – had a hardscrabble existence. They had to be stubborn, doggedly persistent to survive – and they passed that on to us. Sometimes it is not such a good thing, but this week we have been reminded that, at times, it is absolutely necessary.

Just to finish the thought begun above, there is an apocryphal story about our panhandle being offered to other states that refused it, so we were stuck with it. I don’t know if the story is true, but I do know that the Panhandle has a singular beauty, unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. It is solitude at its peak - a solitude so breathtaking that it makes you realize how insignificant we are in the universe, how man is a small speck of nothing. It is a place where, to quote Scott Momaday, “Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is
where Creation was begun”. Momaday spoke for many of us when he wrote that. He, too, is an Okie. He was writing about his – and our – home.

You can take this boy out of Oklahoma, but you can’t take Oklahoma out of this boy.


  1. Just for the record, the house in which my daughter Georgia and I rode out the May 3, 1999 tornado in Moore was apparently destroyed on Monday. Back in 1999, it - and we - emerged unscathed.

    1. CORRECTION: I was mistaken. Aerial and satellite photography shows that our old house is one block south of an area of total destruction. The roof appears to be intact, but I cannot tell if it was otherwise damaged. It, however, seems to have ridden this one out as well.

  2. Beautiful! I love how you express your thoughts.I am proud to be your friend!

    1. Thank you, Melody. It's from the heart.