Sam Chesnut’s tender demeanor around his horse Traveler never hints at his former life as a police force sniper. Though bald and supported by a cane from various rounds of cancer treatments, Sam’s gentle voice shares story after story about his favorite horse…each one ending with a kiss on Traveler’s large, dark cheek.
It’s as if Sam is energized when in the pasture telling horse tales.
I had asked to visit with Sam and Traveler because I had been touched by their story: a formerly abused horse adopted by a Deputy Sheriff in the Oklahoma County mounted patrol, and their life as they learned to work together.
The relationship of a horse and his owner is time-tested and true, and these two were no different. Their love is deep; and perhaps deeper still these past months and years as Sam’s cancer has posed increasingly complex challenges over what course of treatment or options to try next.
See, here’s the thing. Every Point on the Map is a deeply personal and important project for me, and after “sitting on the bench” for almost a year as I transitioned to our new home in Ada, I needed my own “horse.” I waited and waited for inspiration, but never could settle on the vehicle I needed to carry me the next 8 years to the remaining 80% of Oklahoma’s 594 towns not yet visited.
The waiting ended, however, when I learned that VW was putting out their new three-row SUV and naming it…get this…the Atlas. Get it? Atlas? Every Point on the MAP? As soon as I heard “Atlas,” and learned that it was a quality, roomy, safe vehicle…I knew I had to buy one. But not only did I need to buy the right Atlas, I needed to give it the right name.
That is where Sam’s horse, Traveler, comes into the picture. I come from a long line of family members who named inanimate objects. My grandmother’s family named their tractor Elmer and their car Rupert. My uncle Gail named his truck Henry.
I named my former VW Jetta Luitgaard, German for “guarder of the light.” So, you get it that names are a big deal, yes?
But my new Atlas name had to be perfect. I knew that if I’m going to finish the last 80% of Every Point on the Map, I would be bonding deeply with my vehicle, and we would be “traveling together” for miles upon miles.
So, I went to a noble place, and spoke with a noble man, who’s noble horse gave me the blessing and permission to share his name with my own “horse.”
Knowing my own Traveler is carrying the story of Sam and his horse makes me feel more comfortable. They’ve touched my heart.
And, I hope the stories I find in all our Oklahoma towns touch yours.
When I returned to the U.S. after that trip, “Red Dirt Kelly” officially became “The Red Dirt Chronicles (RDC), a group project of thoughtful Oklahomans who wished to document and share Red Dirt culture, both literally and metaphorically.”
From spiritual reflections to sports to women’s issues to financial information and more, our team cranked out posts for two years. Then suddenly, our entire group all got tired at the same time. Sometimes doing things for free makes it easier to get tired, but that wasn’t the case. We genuinely all reached certain professional pinnacles and pivotal moments in sync.
So we stepped back, took a breather, and rather than let the RDC be put to rest, Oklahoma Horizon TV — or rather, Alisa Hines — utilized this platform to post their video news about Oklahoma, Career Tech stories, and other state-related topics.
Then, I got rested. And Alisa turned the RDC stewardship back to me and a new project I had been thinking about christened Every Point on the Map. Our team of Rachel, April and I completed almost 15% of our goal — what an incredibly incredible journey!
Then, April moved to Texas.
Then, Rachel moved to Boston.
And, sometime in-between, I had moved to Texas for two years but came back to Oklahoma and now live in Ada.
“Wild Ride” doesn’t quite capture the feeling of whiplash I’ve been through this past year.
But I’m still here. And so is the Red Dirt Chronicles. And so is Every Point on the Map. And I’m almost ready to kick off Chapter Two of that project. I’m just waiting on the right vehicle which should be here in a couple of weeks.
Until then, I want to thank all the dear friends we have made along this seven year journey. I feel like the RDC is a big magnet, and everyone who gets close gets collected…and sticks. I don’t feel dragged down by the sticking–it’s as if every time we pick someone up (a reader, a contributor, a story, a supporter), the journey is just that much sweeter.
Within the next week I’ll be sharing some content we haven’t yet published in order to ramp up for our next Every Point Run. The first out of the gate will be our conversation that took place in Cushing at the Tuesday Night Music Club.
Until we start that process, I thought I would give you a little sneak peak of an abbreviated working draft. At the time we visited this group of adorable, deeply devoted musicians, they were in their seventh year as well.
Last summer I wrote a series of articles for NonDoc covering topics of racial themes, narratives, and Oklahoma Black oral histories. The act of “saving each other” was highlighted throughout one article, with narratives covering our stops in Lexington, Grove, IXL, and Cromwell.
I personally experience difficulty when sharing what I consider to be “data” — unfiltered narratives of the dear ones who give us their time. Each decision I make on what to share is informed by my own background and culture. When reporting on themes like corporal punishment, or leaving phrases like “colored people” in an audio files, I wrestle with my own positionality…and the intersectionality of me (the listener), and they (the historians).
During one of these decision-making struggles last year, I became especially glad to have support from someone at Next Thought studios. Carl Evens, a personal friend and employee of Next Thought stepped in and relieved me of some of those editorial decisions when he was experimenting with this question: “What if Every Point on the Map had animation and/or video graphic support to help tell their stories?”
Carl’s work here with the Drucilla Martin discussion helps “just a bit more” of our work be available to you with the reframing of geographical reference points.
Thank you, Carl. You were good guide to help drag me out of the deep-tangle woods that is my own brain. I only wish we could jump from town to town as quickly as your graphics do in this video!
~ Red Dirt Kelly
Note to readers: Our family’s transition from Edmond to Ada was all-consuming. However, we’re beginning to feel settled. And paradoxically, as I personally feel settled, I get restless — my EPOTM traveling spirit is ready to go. We’ll be deploying about 8-10 more stops of content we have not shared, then in August we’ll hit the road again. We have fun, new information about our August relaunching period and I’ll tell you these trade secrets at my earliest possible time! Happy travels…RDK
“Clean lines, compelling color palettes, refined sense of balance, and the greatest subject matter on earth.” Thoughts like these run through my mind as I work my way through Audrey Dodgen’s portfolio.
An editorial and commercial photographer who calls Oklahoma her home, Dodgen describes a gravitational pull that seems to draw her back to our state, regardless of where she goes walkabout for a period of time.
“I was born and raised here, and while I’ve lived other places, I keep coming back here. It’s not perfect, but it’s my home, and I love it like no other place,” she wrote during a social media discussion.
A sense of place, the air of familiarity, the peace that recaptures your soul when return home…emotions paralleling these phrases are interlaced within Dodgen’s images. Perhaps most especially a collection entitled “HOME” she has been recently compiling.
If you’ve ever longed to stop your vehicle, breach a barbed wire boundary, and walk among sweet, freshly cut hay bales, her shots have captured that experience for you.
If you’ve ever driven I-40 across downtown Oklahoma City and wished you had time, or the right equipment, to photograph the Scissortail of Skydance Bridge, no need. She’s done that for you with a degree of perfection I could certainly not reach.
And, if you, like Dodgen, ever leave Oklahoma and need a piece of “home” to take with you, her website can most likely fix you right up.
Nice work, Audrey Dodgen. Thanks for standing under our big sky and taking it all in.
Perhaps the “memorable” encounters we have with people in each Oklahoma town are recalled by jokes, jarring narrative, or discovering something unique about our participants.
However, encounters we have with people like postal employee Mary Luman are not as cognitively memorable as they are emotionally comfortable. Mary, who mentioned the degree of kindness in the citizens of Camargo, was herself SO. NICE.
Care was taken with the words she chose when responding to our questions. Small gestures like a candy dish for those who visited the post office, or herbs growing in the sunlit reception area spoke to Mary’s character. And although her husband had recently retired from the Air Force and taken a clergy job in the area, she exuded almost childlike wonder and appreciation for how “amazing” the U.S. Postal Service was for Americans.
If you’re ever traveling through Camargo and need a soft peppermint, you know where to go. And, if you lost a batch a greeting cards, Mary may still be holding them for you.
Note from the Editor
As the editor of the Red Dirt Chronicles and Director of our project, Every Point on the Map, I intentionally remove my personal presence from a good deal of our work. For example, I try to let our videos focus on the person we are highlighting, and not the person asking questions (me).
Other times, I do my best to write “about” places we go, or the people we meet, as opposed to use a first person narrative.
But today, I’m choosing to speak to you with my own voice. I’ve been out of town for a few days taking care of some research obligations. Soon, I’ll be leaving my position as an assistant professor at the University of North Texas and begin working as the “Family Initiatives Advisor” for the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma.
I know transitions take energy. I know that one way or another, I’ll have to postpone an Every Point article because we’re moving. However, if there are delays in content being delivered, please know that the silence is temporary. The voice of those with whom we are documenting our meaningful conversations will return very soon. And, my own voice, that I try to temper or pull into the background, will move forward once again.
Peace to you all. I hope your summer provided memory-making moments, love, safety, and gratitude for the goodness we observe every day. Love, Kelly Roberts, aka “Red Dirt Kelly”
What you won’t find on your Wiki screen, however, are the large and small pieces of history — some oral, some recounted from texts — that locals shared in almost every conversation we had over the course of our two and one-half days in that area.
Stories of people who disappeared and were never found. The tale of two cowboys so highly conflicted that when they finally killed each other in a gun fight, the locals buried them together as payback for the havoc wreaked upon their community. Skeletons found on the wild tundras. Tough times on massive cattle ranches. Outlaws. Historical robberies and shootouts with the culprit finally found by tracking his blood drops across the snow-covered spaces.
The people of Dewey county imbue rugged resilience, friendliness to strangers, and gifts of time for those who choose to trek into their territorial turf. It’s as if the auras of those who lived in their niche during the turn of the century continued to transfer to the next generation, and the next. So if the Putnam or Taloga or Vici or Leedey or Camargo or Fay or Seiling humanity had updated historically…the personas — somehow — had not so much.
Chism Sander was one of these folks who graciously offered his time…time enough to allow us to take in his articulate vernacular. Time enough to share familial anecdotes about his family’s fireworks business. Time enough to actually talk about guns and gun ownership, a topic that others in our project have avoided rigorously.
On a personal note, it is this gift of time Chism extended to us in July of last year that made me want to return that gift to him. A little over a month ago, the Sanders lost a family member. During that same time, I was ready to publish this work. But I just couldn’t. I felt that even though our team had only spent 45 minutes in the hot summer sun with Chism, it was appropriate that we somehow wait; somehow honor their family’s loss. We strangers who were given this moment in the Sander fireworks stand paid our respects from afar.
I will never be able to quantify what it means to intersect with the life of a stranger. Of being given permission to sit with them and to touch the edge of their life’s boundary and those included in their stories. But one way I would approach attempting to quantify the encounter we had with Chism is this: when I have thought of Seiling, Oklahoma during this past year, I didn’t associate any of those thoughts with Gary England.
Rather, I associated what I had learned about the autumn foliage as viewed from a creek bed during hunting season. As fish being pulled from the local ponds and cooked in fryers or pans at night. And, I associate Seiling with Chism Sander, a man who seems to be as comfortable selling fireworks to his town-folk as he does waxing poetic about the sense of community knitting him, and them, together.
The blades on Lee Blackketter’s road grader scrape, groom and maintain sixty miles of dirt and gravel across eastern Roger Mills County. We traveled along ten or twelve of those miles just to find him, following his wife who was driving their truck across the sage-covered tundra of mid-north central Oklahoma.
I resort to hyphenated approximates when describing our whereabouts because, truly, that’s the best I can do. If it weren’t for our guide to lead us there, and then lead us out, our team might still be driving in circles on Lee’s smoothly finished roads.
Donita Blackketter, a childhood classmate of mine, had cooked us breakfast early that morning after we had spent the night in a converted nursing home-turned-hotel. A master of her home kitchen, we sat around the island and watched her work at hyper-speed, juggling orange juice smoothies and eggs like an acrobat. Our team agreed that her home-prepared breakfast was equal to or better than anything we’d had on the road since we began the project.
The ambassadorship of Western Oklahomans is immense, just like the vistas of sky, farmland and red-tinged gravel roads within the sparsely populated areas of Roger Mills and Dewey Counties. Donita didn’t have to lead us along the rural byway twists and turns to her husband’s location, but she did. And talking with him made me realize one theme I’ve heard over and over: farmers — men like Lee Blackketter, and women like Donita — are people of multiple trades.
They’re also full of meek unobtrusiveness. Lee shared one story the “old timers” had shared with him, that stuck with him, and that stuck with me. He said that the Oklahomans who left that area for California during the Great Depression “left in the middle of the night because they were ashamed to show their faces.”
“Because they owed, you know, it probably wasn’t five-hundred dollars, a lot of ’em, but they were ashamed to show their face, and they’d leave in the middle of the night.”
Our 2016 world is so different.
Lee has welded his way through approximately 20 workshops or buildings and miles of iron fence rows, a trade he kept fresh from his high school ag classes years ago. He purchased a tire machine to fix flats produced by the hazards of their context. He farms. He is trained in vegetation management, an additional component of his county road maintenance position. He’s a father and a husband.
He does what he needs to “to get by.”
And for sixty years, the geographical niche wherein we found he and his road equipment, is where he has called home.
Twelve months later I’m wondering how Darcy, Austin and Faith are doing. I have no doubt the students they are today might be surprised to see to see who they were only a year ago. As a mother and a former high school teacher, I know maturity makes gains by leaps and bounds in the lives of our future leaders.
Is Darcy still showing goats? Did Austin go to SWOSU like he had planned? Will Faith find time to go “muddin'” this summer? Are they okay?
I hope so. For many reasons.
To me, students are easy humans with whom to make connections…they are forthcoming, sometimes lighthearted, and for these three…accepting of each other.
In the light of our recent event in Orlando, and the subsequent politically charged discourse, I thank God for places like Vici, Oklahoma. A place where high school students can have a high school life. Where they can find their way. Where they can realize they live in a fairly quiet town. And where they can openly appreciate all those things.
Peace to you, Darcy, Austin and Faith. You gave us laughter the day we met you, and we are grateful for our time together.
Dewey County was proving to be a run that felt more personal to me than most. Case in point: second stop, Taloga, OK. Enter, Mel Jean “Jeannie” Weber.
Having been referred to her from a downtown bystander, our team waited patiently in the front room theatre seating of the Dewey County Abstract Company. Jeannie was attending to customers who had questions. And stories.
Perhaps it’s because I am the mother of two daughters. Perhaps it’s because I grew up as a female child in a universe that historically deemed first-born males with magical powers and hereditary rights.
Perhaps it’s because I’m writing this post the day after Hillary Clinton has effectively won her party’s nomination for the Democratic presidential candidate. This, in a country that began with women who couldn’t vote, own property, or use their voice without public sanctions.
Perhaps…it’s because Jeannie demonstrated a keen sense of social equity, a strong sense of self, a perspective of the journey women in Oklahoma – including her mother – have taken and where they might be going. A sense of understanding male physical strength as a unique skill for some vocations but where intelligence and critical thinking provide equal footing in others. Perhaps it’s because she can comically joke about an area brothel going out of business, and in the same breath pledge her allegiance to the place where she was born, raised, and will most likely die.
Whatever the reasons, and most likely “all of the above,” today I have one thought on my mind: Jeannie Weber for President!
A friend of mine took her adopted Vietnamese son on an essential journey in the early 90s. After watching international news for years, word came of the borders finally, possibly, opening for visitors from the United States. Armed with supplies, money and large quantities of prayer, they made the long trek to the Vietnamese mountains, found their son’s tribe and watched an amazing reunion. Although his adult frame stood almost a full foot higher than his siblings’ and mother’s, they connected. He saw…and felt…the place from where he came. His people.
I thought of my friend’s son as we covered the entire perimeter of Dewey County last June. Meeting Tuffy Howell was the impetus for thoughts linking to that Vietnamese trek. It was as if, while sitting in the Putnam Co-Op, I had begun my own pilgrimage. I had found “my people,” so to speak.
Our family had lost my grandmother only three weeks prior to this run. That moment in our life, intersecting with wheat harvest and an elder in overalls, brought back memories of not only my grandmother cooking meals during harvest but of my grandpa who died six years prior. And, my other grandparents who had passed during my late adolescent and emerging adulthood years.
Tuffy patiently talked through a great deal of his life with us.
And, everyone in the Co-Op helped us understand wheat sample moisture tests and “appropriate levels for various locations.”
There are so many minutes of video I’m not sharing, but my hope is that what I do share somehow lends you a hint of “my people.” I certainly know that going back through our work and editing this piece help me recall the deep comfort of The Familiar.
We were standing at the counter of 116 Farmstead Market & Table on soft open day. Nestled between several historical downtown Luther, Okla. structures, the new business was populated with the owners, their children, the store manager, and several walk-ins who had come with well-wishes to “see what they’ve done with the place.”
Q: When you stand in 116 Farmstead Market & Table, sun shining, breezes blowing through the new store, what goes through your mind?
It’s difficult to quantify what it means to see my wife, kids, Angela, friends and family gathered together at 116. Sometimes it diminishes things to define them. I’ll try [to quantify]:
I saw people serving one another literally and figuratively. I saw neighbors treating others as they want to be treated – kindness, sharing, love. I heard the stories of people who had lived in Luther all their lives trying their best in 15 minutes to sum up what it meant for them to grow up in that place.
For us, it isn’t so much a philosophical proposition as it is a spiritual one. The purpose of 116 is to nourish soul through body. You likely experience this as an educator with your students, although your experience is nourishment of soul through mind. It’s the same thing in my thinking. I experience it in my law practice, parents experience it in parenting their children, and on. This may be getting too esoteric, but it really is the purpose behind 116. We seek to [meet] a community need, which is a place to eat and buy groceries, but the purpose is simply to create a space for people to intersect and share their stories. If we are ambassadors, then 116 is our embassy.
Q: I understand you’re open Tuesday through Saturday, and your grand opening is coming up soon. What information would you like others to know about your store or what to expect?
The full open for 116 will be Saturday, June 4. Store hours will be: Tues-Fri, 7-3 and Sat., 8-5. We will modify these as we learn the needs of the community. Angela Hilliard is the manager (there is a great story behind how our paths crossed and other cool intricacies to how she joined us, but I’ll save that for the first Luther Speaks event).
The goal is to provide locally grown or produced meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. Of course, there are a number of items not produced locally, such as coffee and tea, so we use local roasters and wholesalers for these items. We want to tell the story of the farms and farmers/ranchers who produce these items.
As producers of all natural beef, we never get tired of sharing what is a daily work with those for whom we produce food. We believe we were created from dirt, are tasked with caring for the dirt, and want to share that story with others. The 116 is our attempt to provide a beautiful space for that story to be told.
Wendell Berry once said that ‘eating is an agricultural act;’ he called it an ‘annual drama.’ The 116 Farmstead Market and Table is a stage for that drama to be shown and told, from the Market where producers’ products and stories are shared, to “Luther Speaks” nights, which are opportunities (think: Moth Radio Hour but Luther style) to tell stories about the land, the people, and what they produce together.
The Table is a chance to enjoy a seasonal menu of breakfast and lunch items made from what is sold in the Market.
It seems culture tells us we can have everything all the time, which we know can’t be true. It is true, though, that we are all tied by place. Today was a great experience of that truth – from the Luther High Class of 1960 to those who had never been to Luther before…everyone has a story to tell and the 116 is a place to slow down and share those stories.
Social media is great for information, but connection really happens over a cup of coffee or sharing a meal face to face, spilling drinks, seeing people’s kids run around without pants on, looking at beautiful works of art, slowing down for a moment. This isn’t pretending life is all okay; it is reconnecting if but for a moment to place, and toil, and dirt.
Please plan a trip down highway 66 to visit the 116 Farmstead Market & Table. Please take the time to sit, connect and enjoy your time with the good folks who are creating this shared community story with their new business; spend time looking through all the elements on the mural hanging over their door. Make sure to ask about their 2nd floor space, and event areas. Read much more information than I can share by visiting their website. And by all means, find out when the first “Luther Speaks” event will take place so we can all attend and listen.
But more than anything, take moments to “nourish your soul and your body,” when visiting 116, and every day. I’m pretty sure we all want that for you.
89 year-old Drucilla “Dru” Martin is almost completely blind. But the life she witnessed prior to her dimming view was, in many ways, quite extraordinary.
We met Dru during our last stop in far NE Oklahoma. With more energy than most of our discussants, she told stories for well over 1.5 hours, stopping only because we had to return home. Dru’s memories are clear – her recall dating back to early childhood.
In some ways, I’m sorry we couldn’t have purchased three more memory cards and stayed until sunset. Her personality, as you will hear, is true grit. Like so many during the Great Depression, many of her narratives were supported by a rationale that she endured challenges because she, in fact no one during that time, had a choice.
Produced in “bite sized” stories averaging 3-6 minutes long, the sound files below can be downloaded into your podcast app. I would like to thank our team for documenting this conversation in fairly close quarters with low lighting, and Dru for working diligently to share her life so that others might learn about early Western Oklahoma history through her perspectives.
Finally, I want to add that it was personally difficult to hear descriptions of her younger brother as “wimpy.” However, it’s clear from her stories that having been put in the role of his protector during some extremely harsh bullying episodes at school, she would have strong feelings.
~ Kelly Roberts, Director, Every Point on the Map
Photographs by Rachel J Apple; Audio by April Kirby
Drucilla Martin was experiencing pain the day we visited her in an assisted living center located in Grove, Oklahoma. This first story tells about how she had recently fallen on her “rumpy bump.”
Many Oklahomans lived in “oil lease housing” during high production days. Children were sickened, perhaps, due to water problems in the drilling areas. And, evidently, the houses were equipped with open face stoves.
The paradox of parenting a young cowgirl is illustrated in this story of equestrian triumph.
The Great Depression is documented in many ways. However, to my knowledge, I’ve never heard of a “hobo code” – one way wandering homeless communicated during the time.
Oklahomans understand tornadoes and floods are part of our geospatial landscape. But without modern communication systems, more died. In this segment, young Dru grapples with how to describe weather events to her family.
It’s clear by this next series that Dru’s father was a giving person. And, there were both positive and negative consequences of his generosity.
“Digging in and completing extreme task”s as part of Dru’s identity and personality come through with clarity in the following stories.
As mentioned in the introductory message above, Dru’s brother endured some extreme bullying at school. And, as his sister, Dru endured some very trying times as well.
While Dru spent much more time with us than is conveyed in these sound clips, I’ve elected to share the more historically framed illustrations. I do hope you leave this post with some semblance of awe, as we did, about the “life and times” of Drucilla Miller.
Editor’s note: Dru’s story about the brick reminded me immediately of a gripping saga once told by Native American storyteller, Tim Tingle. If you ever have a chance to hear him perform, and he tells the story of his grandmother and “Salty Pie,” you’ll understand why I’m beginning to dislike bricks as weapons. He also published a book by the same name, and I’m assuming it’s the full story in written form.
Dusk was settling over Quapaw when we happened upon a tee-ball practice session. The coaches jokingly volunteered each other before Aaron Thomasson finally agreed to sit with us for a bit.
My experience during our discussion was as a teacher listening to another teacher. The fact that he was living the headlines of all that’s wrong with education was both validating and deeply disheartening.
Thomasson could have been from anywhere because his story is the same: over testing does as much harm as good; absent parents are absent for a reason, but their absence makes it that much more difficult for a child to succeed; and, male teachers balance the precarious position of being sometimes the only male role model in a young student’s life.
But, Thomasson was not from “anywhere.” He was from Quapaw, as was his family, and the generation before. His children can see their grandparents’ home from their own, and walk across the pasture to visit. His wife is from the area as well, and is an early childhood teacher in the same school system.
They are deeply embedded, and invested, in the Quapaw community.
We sat with Thomasson at the end of May, 2015. In the midst of most likely the worst budget cuts in our State’s history THIS year, I just wonder…how is their school doing now?
When grappling for a descriptive term to help you understand where we were, “as the crow flies” came to mind.
Approximately three to five miles southwest of Picher, OK, as the crow flies, we met Sherry Pierce. To reach her, we crossed a cattle guard and ambled across the gravel property entrance. She was attending to trash burning in a barrel at one of two trailers in a desolate setting, her dog skipping around at her side.
Sherry looked minutia-like against the vast gray sky, the empty acreage, vacant cattle trailers and the capable farm equipment scattered close by. Chat piles broke up the landscape to her north and east. As we drove up, rolled down the window, and explained our project she didn’t blink. An inner peace and easiness about her permeated our conversation.
After eight years of commuting to Joplin to care for animals every day, and helping her uncle and grandfather during nights and weekends, Sherry no longer lives at this location. Her grandfather has passed away; her reason for being there is gone, and she – along with her dog named Red Solo Cup – are now somewhere to the north and east a hundred miles. As the crow flies.
The animals who meet you are lucky, Sherry. You “fall in love with them.” You see the souls in their eyes.
Thanks for sharing your own soul with us when we showed up that day.
The first time I was to pass by a dead body during a funeral service, my stomach twisted into knots. A line of grownups in front of me sauntered alongside the casket, solemnly paused, murmured words to family members on the front pew, and moved on. Those in line modeled what I was to do, and I did it. However, the emotional flooding didn’t fade until much later that day, long after I had followed that single-file row of mourners exiting the church house doors.
These familiar funeral knots gripped my insides as our team explored rows of vacant houses in Picher, stripped bare of windows, doors, wiring, shelving, and more. These dead house bodies of the multi-year Tar Creek Superfund funeral were once and for all silenced as a 2008 tornado took eight human lives and injured 150 more; that tragedy was followed by a 55-6 vote in 2009 officially calling for the closing of the Picher-Cardin school district. And, the Picher Wikipedia link reads:
The municipality of Picher was officially dissolved on November 26, 2013. Linderman, the only remaining resident of Picher, died June 9, 2015
Gary Linderman only lived 8 days past the Sunday of our visit. The tornado, school closing, and his death tightly sealed the casket lid over the entire town.
As we walked closer to the homes, each sprayed with a “KEEP OUT” warning, we began to hear noises. Some kind of electronic pinging danced on our ear drums until, finally glancing through the windows, we realized the source. Smoke alarms in the homes, still powered by the smallest trickle of electricity from their 9-volt batteries, were beeping a warning: time for replacements. Time for replacements. Replacement-replacement…over and over.
The weakening sounds faded as the wind swept any remaining decibels away – past the other dead houses, across and over the piles of chat, and out onto a prairie where no one will hear them.
The knots in my stomach returned slightly when I edited the video and looked at the photos once again. It’s been 9 months since we were in Picher; I am guessing all the smoke alarms are now silent. Silent like the sounds of the true graveyard Picher is, and silencing to experience in real life.
Emotions carried me through our entire visit with Danny Dillon at the Coleman Theatre in Miami, OK. As he shared anecdotes from teaching high school drama, I was running a parallel process internally. Having taught high school drama for eight years, I had experienced a similar story for each one he told. Cripes, I missed the theatre…and Dillon did everything he could to help us enjoy the full experience of the Coleman the day we sat and talked…which made me miss it even more.
Our photographer and videographer filled up too many memory cards to count during our time with Dillon. We could produce multiple pieces of the Coleman’s history, special features about the tourists going walking through the the theatre’s plush hallways with us, profiles of the volunteers who spend hundreds of hours using the donor’s hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring back the original glory, and more.
And we may. Someday.
But our first duty is to those with whom we get to know, and we had a beautiful conversation with Dillon. His full heart is invested in what he does at the high school, his church, and at the Coleman. It’s as if he has three hearts…no, four. A heart for his children and wife were apparent as well.
Even after having documented the Miami stop over six months ago, I am quite awestruck when I think about how many children have been introduced to the stage, to plays and musicals, to silent movies with amazing organ music, and to history…because of Danny, the Coleman at large, and the “extra at-large” community that makes it happen.
We are tipping our Tom Mix hats to you, Miami. You’re really quite something.
When Gary Linderman died last summer, I couldn’t help but think the town of Picher, or rather the former-town, was finally dead. Gary was the last holdout in Picher, a man who refused to leave as the town around him withered and died, staying long after tornadoes and lead poisoning had taken its toll on the meager little municipality in the northeast corner of Oklahoma.
Quietly, I watched Cassie Pearl Browning name each relative who lived within a couple of miles of her new home, the lease signed only two weeks before we visited her. She was in her element, surrounded – literally – by family members who had settled in Wyandotte generations ago.
I live on the corner of this mile section – I’m the only one on THIS mile section.
The mile section directly south of us – I have some distant cousins just on this corner across from me.
And the mile section directly east of us, on the corner, the 40 acres was owned by my great-great grandparents.
And, the corner – my great-aunt had built her and her husband’s house whenever they got married – they moved in there. We sold it when she passed away, and it went to another family member, which happens to be my landlord’s mother.
And then on the back side of that 40 acres is my aunt…my mother’s sister…and then half-way down that road is my second cousins from Dallas – they moved up here in 98 and built a house, and if you go travel north on that same mile section – you go half a mile and my parents live down there.
But before you get there, my other aunt and uncle live down here.
And, if you go on the mile section that’s cattycornered from us – my brother lives on the opposite side of it – south side of it – facing that section…and, uh,..that’s all of us…maybe…
Cassie was raised in Miami until she was twelve, when her parents bought their 40 acres in Wyandotte. She’s so attached to the land and the area that she moved back into her parents home for a year after graduating from college, waiting for property in the area to become available.
Just as she was about to give up and “move into town,” her landlord’s son took a preaching job. So, she’s now living in the home her great-great and possible one more great-uncle built.
In the video, Cassie mentions the rocks with which her great-times-three uncle covered the home. They had been retrieved from the Picher mines, and when you peer close, tiny worlds of crystallized quartz and other formations can be seen.
Cassie Pearl Browning was surrounded by history, and completely comfortable with those surroundings.
She feels at home in her “new-old” home, as did we on that drizzly day while sitting on her porch.
When you glance left, then downward just a bit on our Red Dirt Chronicles homepage, you’ll notice a small section we’ve entitled: “RDC Recommends.” And, we do.
We choose our recommendations carefully, sharing those we feel not only fit with our mission, but provide a quality read.
One site listed is on our minds especially today. NonDoc, a site and mission dedicated to quality journalism and “the public good,” launched a series today highlighting broader themes collected through our Every Point on the Map project.
One of the most unjust things I could ever imagine would be to decide whether Abbey or Carolyn Rollins has more grit. Carolyn, having been in the periphery of baby Abbey’s community life over nine years ago, took her in…first as a foster child, but soon to adoption court. Although the State had been grateful for her foster parent status, she was denied her petition to adopt because of her age.
But Carolyn didn’t accept that answer. She appealed, and was eventually granted permission to become Abbey’s mother.
Abbey’s high school-level vocabulary and tender heart are a product of her educational deep dive into her studies at Quapaw schools, mixed with being socialized by a mother who volunteers at their local church food pantry every week.
The day we rolled into Peoria was as gray as clouds could bear. Rain dripped from the rooftops, dogs barked as we cruised by aging houses with bars on their windows.
But as we sat in the wood paneled living room of Carolyn’s trailer, the view was transcendent. Carolyn rocked in her recliner, Abbey sat on the arm rest, and they held hands all the while we were there.
Of this I’m certain: they needed each other, and they are better because of each other. Bless everything about you, Carolyn and Abbey Rollins.
Showcasing Red Dirt culture ~ authored and managed by contributors with connections to the great state of Oklahoma.