“Any old place I can hang my hat is home sweet home to me.” –William Jerome
The Play. A Canvas. Broad Strokes. Black Gold. Medium Brushes. Moments. Oklahoma Reading. Recipe. Gratitude.
Oklahoma! I remember the play, barely. My mother took my sister and me to Popejoy Hall in Albuquerque to sit in the dark, to stare at the stage. From there I have hazy visions of fence posts and hay bales and fake sunsets and singing. I couldn’t remember the plot so I queried an Oklahoma native about it over lunch. She hesitated and thumbed through her iPhone for inspiration; apparently she’d seen it 5 times and didn’t know either.
Thus when I crossed the border a few days earlier on a warm sunny morning, I had little to go on; my mind was an open canvas. I’m an artist, not a writer, but I knew at the end of the week I must somehow compile my experiences into something understandable, using text instead of swirling colors to elicit images. I admit I’m learning. A friend recently told me I write how I paint, to which I smiled; I approach them the same way. She knew me well enough to unravel my fumbling thoughts, to understand my delicate attempts at convergences, to be patient with my efforts for texture and pacing; she recognized the method. Furthermore, she knew for me a work is never done, but there’s a point where it must be done, where I must unlock my knees, and walk away. That’s if I get to it in the first place.
I’m certainly guilty of procrastinating, waiting until the last minute or after, fully aware that the only way to get it done is to start. I approach the laptop screen like a work on canvas and make my outlines, lay in the broad colors until the empty space is fully covered, only then can I step back and breathe. That’s when the shapes come together and the work appears less daunting. I’m able to look at it with less embarrassment, with a better idea of where I want to go. Then I can tease out the detail, pushing in the darks and pulling out the lights, using smaller and smaller brushes to snare reality, before finally washing the work with bigger brushes to blend the details and merge them.
In broad strokes Oklahoma is a vast territory, dotted with lakes and trees, prairies and low hills. The name is Choctaw for “Red People”, and the State sign reads “Native Country”. Not only were there many indigenous people who lived here before the mad rush of American settlers, many were also painfully deposited after suffering the Trail of Tears, only to be displaced again. Nearly 40 tribes live in the area. The earnest homesteaders who followed were known as “Sooners” because they flaunted the law and staked claims in the territory before it was open to do so. True to American tradition, this rebellion gave the land’s burgeoning citizenry its identity and name.
It was the deep of winter when I entered the state, but surprisingly warm; I wore short sleeves. As I peered out the window at the beige countryside, it seemed the trees were confused as well, yearning to push forth their own searching green, but tentatively, as if the premature spring might be a sort of trick. I too kept my green sweater close, wary that the weather would snap to sudden cold, it didn’t.
Cattle and agriculture became the primary industries and the population grew, until depleted soils and drought flooded many Okies down Route 66 on a torrent of dust and desperation. These migrants were often denigrated, but as the greatest Okie Will Rogers adroitly quipped from his stylish Malibu property, “When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I.Q. of both states. “
A deluge of another kind became the lubrication that ended the drought and brought the area out of its difficult circumstances. It built the cities and highways, inflated millionaires with mega-ranches populated with zebras and ostriches, churned out art-deco sky-scrapers and led to giant energy companies that continue to dominate the state and skyline. It was the most valuable resource ever discovered. It was oil.
Oil is what my van, the Chief, purrs on. And he was relatively happy since I’d succeeded for several weeks in not poisoning him. But the lock on his door had fallen out, and no matter how rosy my sunglasses, I still didn’t like the idea of leaving my few belongings unprotected without this small deterrent, or me sleeping vulnerably unconscious without its guard. So I pulled over in McAlester to a garage where they promptly fixed the Chief, then made phone calls and suggestions for me on behalf of their town.
McAlester was named after a real-life trader who appears in the novel and movie “True Grit”, a town also famous for its Prison Rodeo. Sadly, the event had been discontinued, but I’d have missed it by several months anyway, However, the group at the garage managed to set me up with a tour of the goliath Masonic Temple that towered over town, and a man who saw my van invited me to his radio station for an interview, passing me off to another DJ as well. By the end of my first day, internet contacts had led to offers of hotel rooms in Tulsa as well as Oklahoma City; I couldn’t believe my luck as I settled into my sleeping bag that night in a Walmart Parking lot.
This was the big picture. These were the swirls of color to fill the canvas. I could now step back and breathe. I could continue to narrow the experiences down in an effort comprehend them. Comprehension compiled in the passage of days.
The week was a whirlwind of truly concerned people who made every effort to make my stay in Oklahoma memorable and comfortable, spear-headed by exceptional individuals who took me on tours of their cities, treated me to dinners, and shared with me their lives, endeavors, and families. The people I met were sincere and helpful, they loved their state and I could see why. We drove through beautiful neighborhoods and visited non-profits involved in placing teachers in at-risk schools; we explored downtowns with scrappy new stores and restaurants, ate on rivers reflecting the night and in lunchrooms crowded with cattlemen; we walked solemnly through thoughtful memorials and drank soda-pop surrounded by colorful glass bottles.
There were times I took off on my own, pushing out into a country of golden grass and windmills, small towns with painted buffalo, their furry counterparts roaming protected quadrants of plain. I smelled the flowers in botanical gardens, and walked through the nightlife of Brick Town. The kindness of Oklahoma made my stay extravagant compared to what I was used to. In terms of generosity, the State really set the bar; I had warm showers and comfy beds every night, and breakfasts every morning.
If I bring out the smallest brushes I can talk about the moments: An old man peering at a photograph containing his own face from 50 years before. And then looking at more modern pictures in rows on the wall where the suits once worn by his faded brothers had turned into short-sleeve shirts or sweaters as the years progressed. He shook his head. The change both in himself and the world were beginning to breach his understanding, so that the past was something he referred to again and again, protected by the towering walls of memory around him. He commented that there weren’t many of them left anymore.
A group of men, early risers at a cafe, all with baseball caps and dressed in shades of brown as if permeated by the smell of the dark coffee they drank. The conversation circled around opinions that carried the conviction of absolute truth. “He doesn’t have a strong enough arm. He’ll never make the Super Bowl.” “It’s the Chinese who’re working hardest these days, we gotta catch up.” “What’re the plans for the commission this Wednesday?” Three were always sitting with their arms crossed over their bellies; one was always standing as if ready to leave. But he never did, the conversations shifted to other topics that kept him tethered to his friends.
The sun low in the sky as the grass shined like a threaded blanket striped by the bare shadows of trees and elk. Buffalo descend slowly to a stream, lowering their heads to drink; one hesitates as he catches me on the wind, raises his great bulk and turns to lock his eyes into mine. For the briefest moment time melts away and the years become defined in a single glance between two creatures who have seen each in the other many times before… and then the connection is lost as the wind changes direction and the bison returns to its thirst.
A blind man and woman show me a machine that reads to them, and talk to me of their library that collects audio books and records new ones. She speeds the recording so I can barely understand it, but this is how she likes to read, deciphering it with her ears. I asked her what the author said. She told me it was a description of a woman by a sunlit window with the city below. I wondered what these descriptions must mean to someone who has perhaps never seen them.
These were a few moments plucked from an endless stream that formed my conception of Oklahoma, a state that has embedded in its name the sound of “home”. A home that is always reachable because of the friendly paths that intersected for a time and brought me here. Paths and moments. I heard somewhere that you do not remember a day, you remember a moment. This is what our lives are composed of, details. These are what I hold on to. For me it is the texture of these moments that ties everything together, the tiny dots on a canvas that Ferris Bueller’s gaze falls into on a museum wall; tiny dots of color forming a spectrum which builds into a picture that becomes the painting of our existence. My painting will never be perfect, but for me there’s a point where it’s good enough, when I can unlock my knees and walk away.
Angels in Disguise by Lou Dean, The 101 Ranch by Ellsworth Collings, Where the Heart Is (Oprah’s Book Club) by Billie Letts, Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Oil Man: The Story of Frank Phillips and the Birth of Phillips Petroleum by Michael Wallis
2 pounds round steak, sliced 1/2 inch thick and twice-tenderized by the butcher
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
1 tablespoon hot red pepper sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
shortening, for deep frying
***CLASSIC CREAM GRAVY***
1/4 cup pan drippings
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups evaporated milk
1 cup unsalted beef stock
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
salt, to taste
homemade buttermilk biscuits
Cut steak into equal portions. Pound until each is about 1/4 inch thick. Place flour in a shallow bowl. In a second dish, stir together baking powder, soda, pepper and salt; mix in buttermilk, egg, pepper sauce and garlic. The mixture will be thin.
Dredge each steak first in flour, then in batter. Dunk steaks back into flour and dredge well, patting in the flour until the surface of the meat is dry. Add enough shortening to a deep cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven to deep fry steaks in at least 4 inches of fat. Bring temperature of shortening to 325 degrees F.
Fry the steaks, pushing them under the fat or turning them as they bob to the surface, for 7 to 8 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Drain steaks on paper towels and transfer to a platter. Keep warm while preparing Classic Cream Gravy. Divide steaks among individual dinner plates and serve with mashed potatoes and gravy.
CLASSIC CREAM GRAVY: After cooking chicken-fried steak or similar dish, pour off the top fat through a strainer, leaving about 1/2 cup pan drippings in the bottom of the skillet. Return any browned cracklings from the strainer to the skillet before starting the gravy. Place skillet over medium heat. Sprinkle in the flour, stirring to avoid lumps. Add milk and stock.
Simmer until liquid is thickened and the raw flour taste is gone, about 3 minutes. Stir the gravy up from the bottom frequently, scraping up any browned bits. Season with pepper and salt.
*derived from the Internet
Richard Beattie for unflagging support; Tina and the Crosley family for making sure I was safe and secure with beds and showers; Michelle Langston and her son Harrison for setting me up in OKC and being consummate tour guides; Apple for replacing my iPhone