“You were over in Dateland?” asks the bus driver whose name is John. “You like the place?”
“Everyone was lovely.”
“Oh yeah? Anyone talk to you about those lights?”
“The red and white lights up in the sky, at night. Folks in Dateland are all obsessed because they all think UFOs are watching them. They even claim that a light specialist from NASA is out there, setting up machines and trying to find out where they come from.” John sneers. “You find a lot of cranks in places like that, but you want to know what those lights really are? They’re bombs on parachutes from the nearby military training center. They just send them out to hover in the air.”
Outside, the hills and dunes resemble nothing more than the flank of a hairless dog covered in ticks, there are so many four-wheel drives, dirt bikes, and ATVs roaring over them, depositing pollutants, compacting the soil, destroying flora, wildlife habitats, and driving as many species as possible into extinction. Lending a helping hand, are those heeding the many roadside signs advertising gun shows. And, all along the way, the only sustenance available is junk food served in those wonderful Styrofoam cups and clamshell packets that will be here, tumbling across the earth’s surface, long after we humans have managed to kill ourselves off.
People inside the bus seem stranger than usual. One man wearing a pirate patch mumbles on angrily about Tennessee, Los Angeles, and Orlando. A woman who has chosen to wear a pair of pink underpants on her head, huddles together with her two well-behaved children.
“Nice kids,” I say.
She stares at me with suspicion and hatred. Pulls the children closer and mutters, “my babies,” as if certain I’m about to devour them whole.
Somewhere along the road, a lumbering creature boards. “I’m from Georgia,” she announces to us all. “They threw me off the last bus, claimed I was drinking. I’m gonna sue, that’s just what I’m gonna do. I got metal pins in my spine and I’m on my way to get electrolysis to stop the pain.” Which should be interesting, I think: unless she has a lot of hair to remove, she’ll be in for a surprise.
“I also got liver cancer that I’ve been fighting for years, but they say it’s benign. At least I got rid of the husband. He wasn’t doing nothing but drinking.” She then curls up on the floor of the bus and, mercifully, goes to sleep.
“Plenty of cranks around everywhere,” says John. “Once, a woman started beating me with her cane because she said I wasn’t driving fast enough. Thank God they got metal detectors in the bus stations these days, and drunks aren’t allowed on board. My first wife was killed by a drunken driver. It was bad for me for quite a while. Got to the point where just one sentence would send me off again into a depression, and I couldn’t fall asleep unless I had the radio on. Then, I got married again, to a woman twenty years younger than me. She takes even better care of me than the first wife did. She’s a beauty. You’ll meet her. She’ll be waiting for me at the bus station when we arrive. She always does.
And she is there, too, a naturally lovely woman, warm-faced and shy.
“Isn’t she a beauty?” John asks.
“Oh yes, she certainly is.”
I’ve always found Oklahoma remarkably beautiful, but the state’s history makes me wary. Back in 1838, after being evicted from Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee to make room for profitable cotton fields worked by slave labor, the Cherokee were one of sixty-seven banished tribes who struggled to survive here, adapt to Oklahoma’s grasslands, so different from the woodland terrain they had once known.
They were settled on “unassigned land”, but shortly after, white settlers of the “Boomer Movement” decided these lands were public property, thus open for settlement. In 1889, further political pressure and an amendment to the Indian Appropriations Act officially opened all unassigned land for settlement. Ten thousand homesteaders known as “Sooners” flooded into the area in an event known as “the Land Run”. Oklahoma City was founded; the town grew quickly, boasted a broad ethnic diversity with Indigenous Peoples, European settlers from Germany, Italy, Russia, Scandinavia, Mexican-Americans, Anglo-Americans, African-Americans, and Jews. Thus, became a happy hunting ground for the Ku Klux Klan and other bigots.
Formed in 1865 as a purification movement, the KKK was opposed to immigration into America, especially of Catholics and Jews. In the 1920s, hidden under Oklahoma’s cloak of prosperity, there was tension between agricultural laborers, tenants, and their landlords; between town merchants and rural customers; between native whites and immigrants; between oil field workers and oil company managers; miners and mine owners. Social injustice, poverty, inequality, and dangerous working conditions resulted in demands for reform and increased salaries — ideas viewed as radical, foreign-influenced, and anti-American.
To keep America strong and white, to quell radicalism, stop the decline of morals threatened by the alien influence, increased mobility, relaxed dress codes, and a decline in church attendance, the politically conservative Sooners and their descendants were more than willing to band together with their neighbors under the KKK’s fiery cross. Membership soared, and the Knights of the Klan became the most powerful influence in the state. The Knights were often businessmen, and ousting a governor, pressuring rural residents to support them and vote them into office, Klan sheriffs in Oklahoma City and Tulsa ensured the strict enforcement of Prohibition laws, laws against prostitution, dancing, joyriding, and the use of tobacco. Justices of the peace, court judges, jury commissioners, and district attorneys — all Klan members — made certain petty offenders and “parasites” received swift arraignments, and that conviction rates were high. Allying itself with the American Nazi Party, the Klan also used lynching, murder, shootings, and bombings to kill off politically active blacks and their allies. Only after the scandal surrounding the 1925 rape and murder trial of Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson did the image of the KKK as an organization upholding law and order decline.
The number of active members of the KKK in Oklahoma City is much smaller these days. However, just to show that local guys have a “fun” sense of humor (and of history) in 2015, Cary Sharp, the mayor of Lahoma’s husband, and a few of his cronies dressed themselves up as Klan members on Halloween and placed a cross beside a fire. There were calls for the mayor’s resignation, but she assured the press that the men had meant no harm: “It’s four good ol’ boys sitting around drinking, and things got out of control.”
After arriving in Oklahoma City, I decide to clean up and have a good breakfast before calling the people who have invited me here for my book talk. I’m still feeling somewhat suspicious and sulky — not being gifted with an ability to see into the future, how could I know I’d be wined, dined, treated like royalty, and urged to stay on for a few days? I go into a very appealing old-fashioned, un-renovated coffee house with no video clips, no television, and no pumped in music beside the bus station. The women working there and the customers are all friendly and chatty, so I order a hearty breakfast, read for a while, and thoroughly enjoy myself. When I finally get up to pay the bill, the smiling waitress informs me that everything has already been paid for. By whom?
“By the man who was sitting in a booth near yours. He left right after.”
J. Arlene Culiner on Amazon:
Jill Culiner on Amazon: