The sky was reluctantly giving up the last sprinkles of moisture when I saw the “Erick” exit, veered off the interstate and headed south. I was amusing myself with a “see how long I can go before turning on my windshield wipers because I’m just so glad it’s raining” game when I gave up and cleared my view. I was glad I activated the wipers because I almost missed the local humor:
A “dryline” is a term used to describe the formation of a moisture boundary between warm, dry air and warm, moist air; it’s one type of weather front. In the Central Plains of the United States, dryline formation often leads to the formation of severe thunderstorms and the potential for tornadogenesis. (Information from About.Com)
In other words, the western Okies are not only weather savvy, but they’ve probably seen their share of tornadoes and decided to joke about living in the ying-yang vortex of atmospheric possibility.
“Touche’,” I thought. Little did I know that the artistic expression around Erick, Oklahoma had only just begun to reveal itself.
Not a mile further down the road, I spied what I can only describe as a Twister-esque image of farm-life, sculpture and practicality. This person or family was intrigued enough with windmills, or was employed by the maintenance or creation of them, to fill their environment with all manner of the mechanistic wonders.
“Cool,” I thought. My psyche had already been primed to meet the citizens of Erick and I wasn’t even to the city limits.
When I neared what appeared to be the “Main Street” portion of Erick, a few thoughts came to mind. First, like many other small towns in Oklahoma, there seemed to be some structures the townspeople had deemed worth saving, but others that – for whatever reason – had been left to…wait. For what? I don’t know. It could be collapse, renovation, or repurposing of some sort. But for whatever destiny was in their cards, the structures mesmerized me.
I pulled over, took a few photos, and wondered about them.
I made a quick decision that perhaps the best way to find Harley and Annabelle was to speak with someone who was also a part of the local tourism scene, so I ducked into the Roger Miller Museum at the corner of Main and Sheb Wooley Street.
The front room was vacant, so I followed a low murmur of voices I detected back to the second room and found the curator. Mere seconds passed before I realized she was the kind of person who was an organizer, like the aunt at a family reunion who corrals the crowd and says things like, “Food goes here, desserts over there,” or “Time to eat, everyone…come on in!” She took charge of my visit by guiding me back to the front where I paid my $2.00 admission price.
I admired the way she immediately began to assess her new visitor: Where are you from? What brings you here? Would you like me to show you around ? But it was her answer to my question that changed the mood.
“Well, I’m primarily here to find Harley and Annabelle, and check out Erick after I see them.”
The curator, who had been leaning over the glass-encased desk stopped asking questions, and her eyes dropped. “I’m sorry,” she replied. “Uh, Annabelle’s sick. She’s not here right now.”
Wanting at the same time to hide my disappointment and validate the curator and her museum, I replied, “Well, that’s too bad. I’m sorry she’s ill…but I’d love to look around the museum while I’m here. How bad is her illness?”
I learned that Annabelle was in “the city” staying with a relative, and Harley had “not left her side.” That “she was receiving treatments” while there. When I asked about her prognosis, I caught the first glimpse of what I would see pervasively on my trip – faith in God. God was a power to be reckoned with in western Oklahoma, and He was a source of strength for those in Erick to help answer questions from strangers about how sick Annabelle might be.
I took a few moments to emotionally regulate my sadness; not only would I not be seeing Harley and Annabelle perform some song about Route 66, it appeared that no one would – at least not soon. These thoughts were still being sorted out while the curator started me on my Roger Miller tour through the display cases.
I’m a sucker for artifacts and there were plenty to see: childhood school papers where Miller had written that he “wanted to sing on the radio,” costumes Miller had worn in various performances constructed by the same designers that Elvis had used, a “Big River” cast poster, a motorcycle he had owned, and…some of the coolest eyeglasses frames I’ve seen in a long time. They reminded me of those Gregory Peck would have worn in the mid-sixties while he sauntered along a California beach. Of all the artifacts in the museum, those glasses cast their spell on me. I fought the urge to beg, “What can I do to convince you to open the case and let me take a photo of those uber-cool shades?!”
I had already broached one uncomfortable subject, however, and didn’t feel like it was appropriate to try another.
We were about 80% finished with our tour when we rounded the collectors cases and spied a man talking to someone else in the museum.
“Oh, you HAVE to meet this guy…he’s really got some stories.” The curator encouraged me toward the man whose casual, disheveled look and sideburns resembled a blend between a character in Cool Hand Luke and an iconic rockabilly silhouette. His demeanor, however, was nothing of the sort. When he talked, his shoulders slumped slightly forward, and his head was always 15% ducked so he looked slightly upward toward those around him even though he was the tallest person in the room. Kindness and humility oozed from this person introduced to me as Sam Hagen.
The curator told me that Sam had published a book of photographs, and to “…tell her about them. Here’s his book…” She handed me the copy that another person had been looking at while talking with him before we joined the conversation.
As I flipped through the pages of the book, Sam shared a few anecdotes about his work: One of his photographs had been hung in the State Capitol; this person was “The Windmill Doctor” (aha! perhaps that was the person who lived north of town!); this person had “lived off the land as long as he’d known him…page after page the photographer guided me through his art.
“Tell her the story about your horse photo, Sam.” The curator had the perfect job. She was an ambassador for Erick and they were lucky to have her.
“Well…,” he hesitated. “It’s okay,” I said. “You don’t have to share it if you don’t want to…” I gave him the option to bail if he needed. He opted to tell me the short version.
He had recently returned from the southern U.S. and was setting up his tri-pod to catch an early morning shot of horses going to a pond to drink. He recounted that a black horse had approached the water while he was adjusting his settings, as the lighting was fairly dim. However, the sun rose over the horizon just as the white horse approached the water, and as it lowered its neck to take a drink, the sunlight hit the water, reflecting the pink morning sky. He ended the story by saying that he took most of his photos, but he felt like God took that one for him as the dividends paid out on the image were quite a bit. Then he said the next day he was in a store talking about the experience of getting that shot, and a light bulb exploded over their heads in the store just as he said he “thought God had taken the photo.” I interpreted the look of surprise on his face when he recounted this story as someone who was still trying to reconcile that situation and apply meaning to it.
“Hmmm,” I said. “It’s like God sort of exploded a flash bulb or something, huh?” I’m not sure the “meaning” I applied was any help, but I wasn’t about to posit that perhaps the light bulb just exploded on its own. Clearly, the event touched him somehow, and, that event might be the inspiration to help him continue his work.
Somewhere in the middle of our conversation, I found one degree of separation with Sam Hagen. Evidently, he had attended a class at a regional university where Jeanetta Calhoun Mish was guest lecturing. She had mentioned the Red Dirt Chronicles and he quickly put that together with me. I told him that she had contributed to The Imaginary Family Project, and that I was taking some of her books to China with me soon to give as gifts. We talked a bit longer then at some point it seemed he arrived at a decision because he asked me to stop by the quick store down the road once I left. He “wanted to give me a book to take to China” as well. I was humbled and delighted that I would be distributing to creative works covering Oklahoma culture, and agreed.
Before Sam left, the curator mentioned that I had come in to see Harley and Annabelle. Sam replied, “Harley is my cousin.” So, I followed up and asked if he knew anything about her prognosis. I’m not sure if I was still hoping to see them at some point in my life, or now if I just felt connected to Erick and wanted her to get well. His eyes dropped, just like the curator’s earlier that day, and said, “Well, there could be a miracle.”
God again. There He was, providing answers for those in Erick who didn’t have them. Giving them strength to live in “a dryline” and inspiration to publish their photographs…and weld their windmills.
I thanked the curator and those who were collected in the story-telling group, bought a few t-shirts and headed to the C&K Quick Stop. I didn’t get to see Harley and Annabelle, but I got what I needed. I was graced with seeing good people who cared about their town, doing things they loved on behalf of the community. I was done with Erick, but would probably be back. The townsfolk were just too friendly to leave for very long.
When I walked into the C&K Quick Stop, the clerk on duty was waiting for me. She handed me a box, neatly packed with THREE books from Sam and a sticky note affixed to the outside. “He’s already gone?” I asked. “That’s just Sam,” she replied.
As I headed north back to the highway, I stopped at what I thought was the home of Curtis Austin, The Windmill Doctor, to take a few photos. As I was shooting, he turned off the highway and into the driveway, so I waved and approached him. As we talked I was struck by the “Doctor’s” bright blue eyes that contrasted with his suntanned, aging skin. They looked like turquoise set in bronze. He was a welder, as was his son, and he joked about how many welders were in town due to the oilfield business around that area. I shared that I had met Sam and seen his photo in the book. He nodded. “He’s a nice guy,” he affirmed.
“Yeah, he was,” I thought to myself. And so are you, Windmill Doctor. And you too, Curator and company.
I watched The Windmill Doctor head into the barn, and then left. I later found out that the property I was photographing was actually his daughter and son-in-law’s home, and his shop is west of their home. Inferring doesn’t always make things so, eh?
I was finished with my visit and ready to cool off in Elk City. As I drove toward my next destination I thought about the Harley and Annabelle videos and their singing…and hoped for a miracle.