This is the third in a series of short essays by local individuals on what Oklahoma means to them (part one, part two). If you are interested in contributing an essay to “Being Okie,” contact us through the contributors’ page.
by Nathan Gunter
On Feb. 3, 1889, almost three full months before the famous first Land Run, the outlaw Belle Starr was ambushed and shot to death near Eufaula, Oklahoma, just a few days shy of her 41st birthday. Her murder was never solved, and when it came time to prepare her body for burial, none of the women of the town wanted anything to do with the grim chore. Starr had, after all, been convicted of horse theft, had several tumultuous marriages and notorious affairs, and had proved a thorn in the side to Judge Isaac C. Parker (a.k.a. “The Hanging Judge”) in Ft. Worth.
The one exception was my great-great-great grandmother. According to my great-grandmother Leona, whom we all called “Momo”, her grandmother was the only woman in town who would prepare the body to buried, which she did, all by herself.
Belle Starr was then interred on her ranch, the site marked by a marble headstone engraved with a bell, a horse, a star and an epitaph written by her daughter Pearl.
A hundred eight years or so later, I decided that I would rather die than stay in Oklahoma one more moment beyond what was absolutely required. And so as a tenth-grader I identified a range of attractive out-of-state colleges and began padding my resume like it was a thirteen-year-old girl’s bra. At seventeen I was accepted to a private university in North Carolina; I packed up my stuff, planning to never look back.
What I didn’t know then is that Oklahoma follows you around. One night, walking to get some dinner at the student union, I came across an outdoor movie night on the Quad where they were showing “Twister.” Awful movie, right? But I sat there and watched the whole thing and felt the old sting of homesickness.
During a semester abroad I stopped in an ethnographic museum in Ljubljana, Slovenia. At the end of my visit I noticed a guestbook near the door, and when I went to sign it saw that the signature directly above mine was a couple from McAlester. The world suddenly felt small and safe, like a childhood bedroom.
And at twenty-two, when I got my heart broken for the first time and dropped out of divinity school, I packed my messed-up life into the back of my truck and drove 1,800 miles back to Oklahoma, because at the end of all this traipsing around the world, it was home. At the time I thought I was coming home to rest for a couple months – I kept calling it my “Unscheduled Summer Vacation.” But I’ve somehow never left.
Today I can’t imagine my life without the prairies at my doorstep, a hint of red dirt on my hiking shoes, or the occasional thunderstorm to look forward to. These are my roots, and this is my home. The people I love the most in the world live here, and my ancestors were some of the first settlers in the area – true Sooners, they settled in Indian Territory before the Land Runs were even conceived.
This is my history. If you buy me a beer, I might confide in you that being an Okie can, on occasion, be like being related to someone you can’t stand, someone with crazy eyes and mean cats, someone who drinks and shows her lady parts to the neighbors.
We don’t choose our families, and I certainly don’t choose Sally Kern, or Jim Inhofe, or Anita Bryant. But I’m an Oklahoman, and so are they.
I’ve known scores of people who’ve left Oklahoma for good to make a home in more progressive areas of the country. I understand the impetus behind the disapora – though I don’t really get why it takes most people only as far as Dallas – but I can’t imagine leaving here. It would feel like ceding territory. I stay because there are eight or more generations of people on both sides of my family who have made a home here, who helped to make this state into what it is.
None of these people had names you would recognize; they never found oil or made loads of money. They just worked hard and raised families, keeping their heads down and their eyes forward, and like the crazy politicians and freak weather for which Oklahoma seems infamous, they occasionally drive me bonkers. But they are my family; they came up from the same red dirt that I did. We rise from the same roots.
So, I stay. I stay and stand tall, because I dream of a better Oklahoma. When I despair of it ever happening I drive seventy miles west to stare at the forest of wind turbines over my hometown of Weatherford. I go for a hike in Red Rock or Roman Nose, or I pack a cooler full of food and drive out to Black Mesa, at the silent western edge of the Panhandle, to inhale the still, pure air coming east from the Rockies. I send money to Andrew Rice or the Cimarron Alliance Foundation. I go to a Sooners football game.
Things might change in Oklahoma. They might get worse. My experience tells me that it will be a mixture of both; that’s okay. This place is my DNA, the shape of who I’ve come to be and the person I hope to become. Even if I stand alone, like my great-great-great-grandmother, I wouldn’t stand anywhere but here.
Nathan Gunter is a writer, photographer and editor whose work has appeared frequently in the Oklahoma Gazette, as well as in the forthcoming book “Cringe: Toe-Curlingly Embarrassing Teenage Diaries, Love Letters and Bad Poetry,” (published in the United Kingdom), the Times (UK), and online at Gay Christian dot net. He blogs at okaycity.com.