External Photo Clues:
Gary Ireland was born in a small, isolated town in western Oklahoma of about 1,000 people. His formative years included World War II when all the resources of the United States were dedicated to the war effort and the subsequent boom years when the men and women involved in the war came home. His world consisted almost entirely of the events and experiences in his hometown and he experienced both austerity and plenty. This was a good time and place for a young boy to grow up.
Gary was smaller than most of the other children his age, but he made up for his size with an incredible amount of energy and speed. His short legs were a blur as he ran around town with his friends, spending most of his free time on the sidewalks, streets, alleys, and vacant lots of his hometown.
Today, this would not seem like a good, or safe, way to grow up. But, in reality, the children were free to learn and experience things that would stay with them their whole lives. They created their own forms of entertainment and solutions to problems as they worked it out with each other. More importantly, every man and woman in town acted as surrogate fathers and mothers as the children ran around and experienced the delights and freedom of their childhood. Adults observed what happened and they either dealt with any sign of a misdeed or quickly brought it to the attention of the appropriate parents. Gary’s parents were always among the first to know, as they ran the grocery store on Main Street. The African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child” was at work in western Oklahoma.
One particular group of older men spent most of the day observing the events in town. They were known as the “spit and whittle club”, a less-than-complimentary term used by the rest of the town to describe what seemed to be their only activities, chewing tobacco and carving wooden trinkets with their pocketknives. Their daily schedule was to follow the shade or the sun around town, depending on the season, and to watch and discuss the events around them. They also had their favorite dry or protected spots when it rained or the north wind howled. One of their favorite winter expressions was “there’s nothing between us and the North pole, except a barbed-wire fence and it’s been blown down”.
Actually, the spit and whittle club spent their time observing and discussing the human condition, politics, religion, philosophy, sociology, and the weather. The weather may not seem to fit in that list, but these men were survivors of the Great Depression, the worst of the Dust Bowl, and were located in the middle of Tornado Alley. One of the deadliest tornadoes in history had happened in 1947 just up the road in Woodward. These were the families that did not migrate to California as described in The Grapes of Wrath. They stayed, survived, and even prospered in the most difficult of situations. It takes a great deal of intelligence, determination, and good humor to be in their position, and they used it all as they watched and discussed the happenings of town.
Gary was one of their favorites. His blond hair was easy to spot as he gleefully splashed through rain puddles in town with the ever-present grin on his face. They observed and wondered at the times when he would get excited and jump backwards as if he had springs on his feet. One man commented that the school should add backwards jumping as one of the local track events. Gary would surely set the record.
They watched and wondered as Gary found a way to climb one of the vacant buildings in town to reach what became his favorite observation post on the roof. He spent a lot of time there watching clouds, experiencing the fierce, Oklahoma winds, and grinning as the most violent weather in the country, and maybe even the world, unfolded before his young eyes. As experts in the weather, the members of the spit and whittle club were really interested in this behavior and discussed what all of this should mean. They wondered if a person could earn a living if this field of study, but concluded that it was unlikely.
They watched as Gary and the other kids in town played baseball in the vacant lots. Most of them were different ages, sizes, and skill levels, and were a mixture of boys and girls. Because of this, there weren’t any competing teams. Instead they played a game they called “workup” where each participant progressed through all of the positions on the field. Sometimes the older kids had to show the little ones how to “choke up” on the bat and the pitcher would come close to home plate and throw them easy balls to hit. The object was to have fun, rather than to win. Occasionally, one would hear the phrase, “you throw like a girl”. Usually, the unfortunate speaker of that taunt would have to eat his words, as the young girls were stronger, faster, quicker, and more mature than boys of the same age. Boys learned to think a little more before they spoke in situations like that.
Several years later, the spit and whittle club gathered on the south side of the hardware store, their favorite winter-time-sunny-day location. They discussed whether the little league teams that replaced the vacant lot baseball were really any improvement over vacant-lot games. After that topic, one of the men said, “Say, what ever happened to that young Ireland boy – the one that was always out in the weather?” Another replied, “I’m not too sure, but I heard that he was headed for the city after graduation. He always talked a lot about The Big Town. Do you think he ever made anything out of himself? He seemed smart enough”. The first one replied, “Well, I’m not so sure. You have to wonder about someone who doesn’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain”!
About The Author:
Kenny Bomgardner is a retired and lifelong resident of Tuttle, Oklahoma, where he now works for free. He and his wife, Gwendolyn, are the very proud parents of Quentin Bomgardner, creator of the Imaginary Family Project, and Red Dirt Kelly, creator of the Red Dirt Chronicles.
About The Imaginary Family Project:
The 2011 Imaginary Family Project is a year-long collective art endeavor coordinated by occasional amateur artist Quentin Bomgardner and co-sponsored by The Red Dirt Chronicles. This project is based around “lost” vintage photographs, which have been acquired at flea markets, garage sales, estate sales, and eBay – heirloom collections, with no heir. Every week a different author will “find” one photograph by creating an imagined history around one of its subjects. At the end of the year, the collection will be compiled and presented as a group.