Friday, January 18, 2008

The Oklahomans

I love this essay - absolutely one of my favorite pieces. I first wrote it in 1992. Every once in awhile I go back and update "the list," most recently this week.

©1995 by LeeZard

Most Americans don’t realize it but there’s a lot more to Oklahoma than tornadoes, oil wells, cattle and amber waves of grain. From the eerie white salt flats in the panhandle to its dramatic tall grass prairie, endless wheat fields and rolling green hills, the Sooner State is unique not only for its violent weather and physical qualities but also for its remarkable people.

From 1991-1994, I made almost 100 business trips to America’s “Tornado Alley” to help the U.S. Department Of Energy establish a ten year multi-million dollar global warming research program. One of my tasks was to explain the project to people near our central research facility in rural Grant County, Oklahoma, just south of the Kansas State line. Sitting in cafes, general stores and ranch houses of many new found friends, I learned an incredible lesson about that fascinating, sparsely populated and sometimes desolate state.

In fact, from its very birth Oklahoma drew the unique, the strong and the independent. Even its nickname, “The Sooner State,” pays homage to the spirit of the Oklahomans.

“My grandfather was a Sooner,” explained one rancher as we slathered up gravy from our chicken-fried steaks at the local Kwik Stop. I was visiting a small town of 500 people surrounded by sprawling wheat fields, chugging oil wells and deeply manured cattle pasture.

("Sooners" get a head start on the Oklahoma land Rush)

“They got that name at the first land rush, which was supposed to kick off at dawn. The army had shooters at the start line to stop anyone trying to sneak past before the official start. Seems some folks wanted to stake their claims SOONER than anyone else.”

Adjusting his work-dirty green and yellow John Deere cap and loosening the suspenders on his denim coveralls, his hand made a broad sweeping motion. With no little pride he confessed, “lots of folks got by early; all this land around us was settled by Sooners.”

As I visited with these honest, hard-working, plain-talking folks, I became aware of an intriguing result of this Oklahoma spirit. In addition to its reputation for the Earth’s most violent weather, and the fact that Oklahomans are amongst the world’s hardiest survivors, the state has produced an astounding number of people who have surpassed mere fame to become an integral part of our collective consciousness. For Oklahoma's place in time (the first land rush was in 1889) and, for its population base (just over 3,000,000 people), the state seems to have spawned an amazing roster of Americans. So, I began collecting names and, before I knew it, I had an impressive list of people who were either born in Oklahoma or spent much of their lives there.

As my research continued, the list grew to almost 100 names and, there were many surprises. One surprise was the number of entertainers, writers and journalists:
• Brad Pitt, no kidding, from Shawnee, OK
• Blake Edwards, film director
• James Garner, Maverick/Rockford
• Paul Harvey, America’s most popular radio personality
• Dale Robertson, actor
• Tony Randall, “The Odd Couple”
• Tony Hillerman, best-selling author
• Ron Howard, Opie; Richie Cunningham, Oscar-winning film-maker
• Jennifer Jones, actress
• James J. Kilpatrick, columnist
• Cleavon Little, actor
• Rue McClanahan, “Golden Girls”
• Vera Miles, actress
• Bill Moyers, broadcast journalist; documentarian
• Dan Rowan, “Laugh-in”
• Leon Russell, rock star
• Chuck Norris, “Walker: Texas Ranger”
• Ralph Ellison, author, “The Invisible man”
• Judy Woodruff, broadcast journalist
• Tom Mix, early western film star
• Gene Autry, western film/TV legend; former owner of the California Angels
• William Boyd, “Hopalong” Cassidy on TV
• Lon Chaney, Jr., “The Man of a Thousand Faces”
• Kay Starr, pop singer
• Gretchen Wyler, actress
• Jimmy Webb, songwriter
• Douglas Edwards, broadcast journalist
• Reba Mcintire, country megadiva
• Garth Brooks, country megastar
• Toby Keith, country megastar
• Vince Gill, country megastar
• Roger Miller, “King of the Road”
• Barney Kessel, jazz guitarist
• Michael Hedges, guitar virtuoso
• Mary Kay Place, actress
• Patti Page, pop singer
• Anita Bryant, 1950’s-60’s pop singer
• Maria Tallchief, ballerina
• Van Heflin, actor
• Hoyt Axton, country/rock star
• Iron Eyes Cody, actor
• Eddie Cochran, 1950’s rock star
• Hanson, 90’s teenage heartthrobs.

Another surprise was the athletes and coaches, especially from baseball:
• Mickey Mantle, “The Commerce Comet”
• Bobby Murcer, Mantle’s replacement in the Yankees’ centerfield
• Johnny Bench, all time catching great on the“Big Red Machine”
• Allie Reynolds, Yankee pitching great known as “The Chief”
• Loyd & Paul Waner, “Big Poison” and “Little Poison” in baseball’s Hall of Fame
• Dale Mitchell, Major League Baseball star
• Willie Stargell, “Pops,” on the World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates of the 70’s
• Alvin Dark, New York (baseball) Giants star
• Joe Carter, Major League Baseball superstar
• Jim Thorpe, “the best athlete ever”
• Buddy Ryan, NFL coach
• Darrell Royal, college football coaching legend
• Bobby Cox, Major League Baseball player/manager
• Steve Largent, NFL hall-of-famer, member of Congress
• Troy Aikman, NFL superstar.

Then, you’ve got the religious leaders, philosophers, politicians, rascals, bandits, felons and fools:
• Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd, dapper bank robber
• Bill Doolin, The Doolin Gang—better known as the outlaw “Wild Bunch,” virtually wiped out one bloody 19th Century afternoon in Coffeyville, KS
• Will Rogers, America’s most famous philosopher
• Oral Roberts, evangelist
• Jeane Kirkpatrick, former ambassador to the U.N.
• Reubin Askew, maverick governor of Florida
• Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York Senator
• Belle Starr, bad girl of the old American West.

There are those on the list whose names you won’t recognize but whose accomplishments transcend their identities:
• Edmond Ralph Haggar, apparel manufacturing company executive
• Frank Philips, founder of Philips 66 Petroleum
• S. I. Goldman, inventor of the shopping cart
• Joseph Oklahombi, Choctaw Indian whose World War I exploits (and medals) were second only to those of Sgt. Alvin York
• Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck
• Wanda Jackson, one of the first female rock singers
• Carl McGee, inventor of the parking meter
• Chet Gould, creator of Dick Tracy
• Rosa Lee Hall, the original model for "Aunt Jemima.”

And, there are the pioneers in flight/space, industry and Native American history:
• L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., astronaut
• Wiley Post, aviation pioneer and pilot in fatal plane crash with Will Rogers
• William Braniff, founder of the airline that bears his name
• T. Boone Pickens, corporate takeover specialist
• Sam Walton, Wal-Mart
• Geronimo, legendary Chief
• Sequoyah, developed the Cherokee alphabet.

As a former journalist, the question “why?” kept popping into my mind. Mike Elder, Program Director for KTOK Radio in Oklahoma City, provided a fairly simple answer. Mike grew up in Guthrie, a small, neat city of early American homes and, Oklahoma’s first capitol.

We were pondering the question one night over a pair of thick porterhouse steaks at the Cattleman's Cafe in the historic Oklahoma City stockyards. The Cattleman’s has been feeding beef and potatoes to cowboys since the turn of the century. It is a time-warp of a restaurant with the bar separated from the rest of the cafe by a wall that makes it seem almost like another establishment. I prefer the bar with its cigar smoking, sodbusting, working crowd.

Between forkfuls of greasy, luxurious steak and ketchup-laden French Fries, Mike Elder looked at me across the well-worn Formica table and ventured, "growing up in Oklahoma isn't that much different from growing up in New York City. If you can survive the weather and the economy, you can make it anywhere."

"The thing is,” he went on, “to be successful and be from Oklahoma, you've generally got to leave." And leave they did, to forge their ways into American history.


If you look at this amazing list, you can see there are many stories. Here’s one I call:

“In Search of the Commerce Comet”

"Mickey wasn't known as a baseball player when he was growin' up here."

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in the cramped storefront office that serves as the Commerce, Oklahoma, Police Department. The sergeant on duty was a precious link to my boyhood hero's past. "Mick was really a great football player in junior high school."

(Mickey Mantle's boyhood home in Commerce, OK)

I had driven to this small, dusty town in the northeast corner of Oklahoma to just experience the place where Mickey Mantle grew up. I don't know what I expected to find, but I was quite surprised at what I didn't find.

The only business open on this lazy winter church-going Sunday was the 7-11. I was looking for anything that proclaimed this as, "Commerce, Oklahoma: Boyhood Home of Mickey Mantle!" To my shock, dismay and disappointment I could find no such treasure. In fact, except for the name "Mickey Mantle Boulevard" on State Route 69 that skirts “downtown” Commerce, there was no recognition that this was, indeed, the hometown of one of America's beloved baseball icons. I became determined to find out why.

I turned down Main Street, looking for anyone who might shed some light on this historic omission. As I drove through town I was overcome by something more than Sunday quiet and solitude. I knew from reading about Mantle's life of the nearby copper mines in which he vowed never to work and die. And now, driving past the sun bleached, sandblasted stores of Commerce, I understood why he fled.

The only thing open on Main Street was the police station and, in my quest for ANYTHING that said Commerce, OK, on it, I entered and asked for a blank sheet of letterhead. I ended up spending almost an hour talking with the desk sergeant and it was here I learned of the long-standing grudge Mickey Charles Mantle held against the city fathers of Commerce.

It's funny how something simple—a mere misunderstanding—can have Life-long implications. It seems the town of Commerce was planning to build a new Little League baseball field and the idea was to name it for Mickey Mantle. "The Mick" had other ideas; he wanted it named for his father, Mutt Mantle.

(Mickey with his family in 1951. That's "Mutt" on the far left)

Mutt was the reason Mickey became a ballplayer. After working the copper mines everyday Mutt would take Mickey out after dinner and throw grounder after grounder at the young man (Mickey actually began his baseball career as an infielder). Mutt, like most of the Mantle men, died relatively young of Hodgekins Disease and, according to my new friend at the Commerce Police Department, Mickey wanted the town to honor his dad.

It's not clear whether the powers-that-be first agreed and then reneged, or if they flat out refused. The bottom line: there was to be no Mutt Mantle Field and, when Mickey was invited back "home" for the ground breaking ceremony his reply reportedly was, "I left nothin' in Commerce, Oklahoma, and have no reason to go back there." The town fathers, in return, took down the big fundraising billboard with Mickey's name on it. Mickey, in apparent retaliation, settled across the state line in nearby Joplin, Missouri, and that was that.

After my visit to Commerce, and up until the time Mickey became fatally ill, I called my hero’s agent regularly to try and get Mantle’s side of the story. He never returned my calls and I never learned if “The Commerce Comet” made peace with his boyhood home.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Young Fashionistas

©2008 by LeeZard

Have you been to a shopping mall lately? I try to avoid it but sometimes it’s unavoidable. I have to tell you; I am absolutely amazed at what I see. I’m talking about pre-pubescent feminine come-hither.

I know I'm starting to sound like a curmudgeon but this rant goes back to when I was parenting my kids as teens. It bothered me then and it bothers me now. There are limits, ya know.

Now, I’m no prude - far from it - but I am often appalled by the way these young girls – and I mean YOUNG – are dressing. Barely to their teens, they are in tight, belly exposing tank tops. They squeeze into micro-mini skirts or very tight low-riding jeans – riding so low that their thong underwear is exposed when they lean forward to take a bite out of their Big Mac Happy Meals. I have sweatbands that cover more than those thongs do.

Then there are all those thumbtacks in their noses, their ears and their bellybuttons. We are talking about our very young daughters dressing like Times Square hookers. I'm sure (at least I hope) these tweens don't know what those tongue studs are for. One would hope, though, their parents do and would prevent their daughters from advertising fellatio.

And, do the moms and dads of these girls think it’s only teen-aged boys gaping at this tweener peep show? Puleeeze. I remember when my daughter was THE Teen Queen and, I sure as hell didn't want geezers my age ogling her. Thank goodness her mom kept the fashion radar going.

While we’re on the subject, what’s up with the boys? I was hoping this would just be a fad when it showed up in the 80’s-90’s – but our eyes are still assailed with the so-called “urban style.” These young fashionistas are wearing their pants with the waistband down to the middle of their butts. Hell, it wasn't pretty on Dan Akroyd in the famous SNL Plumber's Butt Skit.

I was in a store last week (not voluntarily) and there was this couple at the cash register – she was stylishly dressed in tailored jeans, nice sweater and pointy-toed boots.

The guy looked like he had grabbed someone else’s clothing out of the laundromat – oversized shirt with the tails hanging, an unmatched sweater, a too-large baseball cap with the bill pointing east and the pants – what can I say about the pants? I didn’t know if I should walk up behind him and pull them up or, just for the fun of it, pull ‘em down. The waistband was floating somewhere between his hips and his knees and his exposed boxer shorts were, shall we say, “butt ugly.”

Listen, I grew up in the 60’s. I get rebellion and freedom of expression but, I also understand the need for parents placing limits on their kids.

I just read somewhere that the fashion pendulum is starting to swing the other way for our young women, that they are starting to dress more conservatively. Thank Gawd.

I am against political and government cover-ups but I think it is time for a different kind of national cover-up. Tweener cover up thy navel, Dude cover up thy butt!