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.
Showcasing Red Dirt culture ~ authored and managed by contributors with connections to the great state of Oklahoma.