We were playing chicken with the Sun, pushing our last stop that day as we swirvingly navigated through a crowded parking lot full of cars bearing license plates from all over the U.S.
The scene: The “Expo” building on the Holdenville fairgrounds.
The event we were trying to crash: A 50-year Holdenville High School class reunion, lovingly given a “Prom 2.0” theme by those who had been planning the event since their 45th “Prom,” five years back.
The whole city of Holdenville seemed like an eager high schooler, all dressed up for a party. From the minute we rolled into town two hours prior, there were events taking place on the streets, people smiling and suggesting we speak with this person or that person, jovial groups meeting at the Palmer Inn where we were staying for the night, and promises to meet each other at the local bar once The Prom ended. Even those manning the local police office where we stopped to ask for directions made sure we knew exactly where Grinder’s Ale House was in case we got hungry.
Holdenville had an air of expectation, of uplifted spirits, of a welcoming narrative to those who were just in for the night.
Practically leaping the car into a parking space, we agreed I would run into the building to find our participant while Rachel lugged the equipment to a place where some shred of sunlight remained. As I headed into the building I could hear, “Brick House” bellowing away. 68 year-olds were entering the building dressed to the nines in tuxedos and frills; I also spotted a few in shorts and golf shirts. Yelling over the music, I was tipped off by the registrar that Dale Jenkins would be “the perfect guy to speak with you. He’s the one who organized this whole thing!”
Jenkins was standing by another man in a well pressed suit, hands in his pockets entrenched in a casual but intimate conversation over things classmates talk about when they see each other so rarely. Knowing full well the sun had just slipped under the horizon, I butted in. A perfect gentleman, Dale politely obliged.
Of course he did. He had been an Ag teacher for thirty years, he sat on the Soil Conversation Board, The Alumni Board, and the Fair Board where part of the business was granting scholarships to school children. Dale was the kind of guy that makes Oklahoma hang together when all the seams are straining.
He suggested I go find his wife because “she’s the one who is doing all the work in there.” [see note below] I followed his directions back inside to find…the person who had referred me to him at the registration desk. HA! Robin Jenkins reluctantly left her post for the portrait, then we chatted a bit with Dale.
His conversation style cut right to the heart of things; no beating around the bush. “Nothing comes easy,” was the wisdom he’d pass along to others. “Of course, you all know that.” He looked right at us acknowledging the 594 towns we would be visiting.
“How is it that you’re living back in Holdenville?” I asked.
“Well, we came back to take care of my parents. My mother is still alive, she’s 88. But when people ask me that question I just tell them that I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It’s the best place on earth.” His expression matched the resolved nature of his message.
Dale was busy, trying to say hello to all the folks who had shown up for the event, so our discussion was fairly short. I had seen someone inside, though, who I really wanted Rachel to photograph before we left. I ran back inside, scanned the room, and found Linda Whitaker by the punch bowl.
Explaining our project, I shared that I loved her skirt and wondered if she would be willing to come outside for a photo.
“Of COURSE I will,” she replied with a smile. “As long as you’ll let me get my lipstick on!” Linda sauntered across the room with perfect posture, and promised to meet us outside at the corner of the building by the light pole.
She was part of it…the “everything’s great today” air Holdenville was offering to anyone willing to breathe it in. She chatted easily as Rachel got the shot. “Color My World” played in the background while Linda smiled for miles.
Back in town, we snooped around in the Bed and Breakfast, admired their cake serving collection, then headed across the street to Grinder’s Ale House. A friendly barkeep, a couple of ruffnex from Arkansas, a guy who didn’t talk much but nodded a lot and a silk marijuana plant in the corner were just some of the elements to our dinner.
Maybe it’s because so many people we encountered had been looking forward to all the incoming visitors that particular June 28th. Maybe it was because people in Holdenville are just generally positive. But whatever the combination, our first overnight trip for EPOTM was made better because of that town. As we finished our beers and headed back to the B&B, that night I completely believed it was indeed the best place on earth.
Note: The quote mentioned by Dale re: his wife is not exact. He said something to defer attention from himself helping the event happen toward his wife for her work on it as well. This quote was the best we could recall, but only represents the spirit of his statement, not his exact words.