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‘It’s a Tulsa kind of day’
I say that to the pups when several things coincide and magically mesh. It’s a sunny day of moderate temperature and the sky is blue and cloudless. It can be spring, summer, any time of year, really, but usually green and budding. The synaptical ingredient that brings this together is a piston aircraft, the sound, then the sight of a small, silvery light airplane against the blue, making its way across that limitless canopy. And I am pleasantly warmed as though by a drug. Every time.
“It’s a Tulsa kind of day, guys.” I say this to Cash and Millie, as I’ve said it to Rocket and Lucy before them, and Jack and Mickey before them. They look at me and smile, continue what they were about, nose-reading trails of animals, trying to catch a butterfly, ranging here and there in their home pastures.
I am transported back to Tulsa in the best years of its life, the late forties, the fifties. School is out and I am anticipating being sent to Kansas City to spend the summer with my paternal grandmother, my aunt and my father. These KC summers were a balm, low stress, good food, plenty of RC Cola, fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, lemonade on the screened-in porch, freedom of movement such as I’d never known. But Tulsa was the point of departure, the gateway, the sunrise. It was a boomtown back then, exciting and full of promises. A scene comes to mind, it is dusk, and some sort of activity animates the neighborhood, a party, a barbecue, maybe a nearby block party, I don’t quite remember. But I do recall some older kids my sister’s age making their kinetic kind of commotion, always exciting to me. And there is an old jalopy, a 1937 Ford I think, I was into automobiles back then as now, and it careens around the corner near our house, and it turns over. Slides along on its bulbous fenders throwing sparks in the early evening.
Two boys extricate themselves, boys with t-shirts and ducktail haircuts, short on top in a flat top, like all my teen heroes. They are laughing and talking excitedly as they climb out the doorway of the side that is up. They apply themselves to the top of the car and begin lifting and rocking it. A curious group is forming, and some of them help, and then the car is upright again. The starter grinds, catches, a small cheer goes up, and the car speeds away as night descends. The group of onlookers dissipates, devolves back to the party or previous activity.
That was Tulsa, then, to me. It typified an attitude, an air of recklessness without consequence, fun. I couldn’t have put it in words then, except to say, that’s Tulsa. That right there, what just happened.
Tulsa was also an open pink Jeep with “CADIJAH” stencilled on the hood in black capital letters. It stopped at our house one day. I watched from the top of our terraced lawn, girls, contemporaries of my sister, classmates at Holland Hall, the school she attended, spilled out, Emmylu hurried down to meet them. Cadijah Helmerich was the driver. Her brother, Walter, was to marry that summer, marry Peggy Dow a Hollywood starlet. The elder Helmerichs were drilling tool millionaires. The movie magazines stated that Peggy Dow was marrying an “Oklahoma oil driller.” This was Tulsa. Glamour. Excitement. Buzz. Here I was on the periphery of all this. infected by that feeling,
That day, or soon after, an open light aircraft flew low over the neighborhoods dropping clouds of leaflets. I followed on my bicycle, skidding to stop and pick up some of the magical papers from the sky. Other kids were doing the same. So were adults on lawns, in the streets, in parking lots. They were advertisements, of course, but serially numbered for prizes like a car, lawnmowers, items at stores in Utica Square. Free services at cleaners, where I hauled wagons full of hangers collected door to door to sell at two for a penny, back to the cleaners who had spawned them. Garden tools at the hardware store. Trips from the travel agent. Utica Square was a Helmerich enterprise, and one of my favorite places to go on my bicycle. A Tulsa day often included Utica Square, and a friend of mine and I would go there to make money. We shined shoes there, boots of oil men. The tips were good and we spent them at the drugstore on chocolate root beers and comic books.
My collection of leaflets won nothing that I recall, but the fact they came from the sky, from a low-flying light aircraft buzzing our neighborhood, that was part of the magic carpet fabric of a Tulsa Day.
Sometimes two or three of us would hike over to the rose gardens at Woodward Park and play among the statuary, fountains, mazes. Those were days when being gone all day, morning to dusk, caused no alarm to parents. Especially mine, who were relieved to have me out of sight and mind. Saturdays and summer days were all like that to my memory. Traipsing in a group to the Philbrook Museum to look at the cowboy regalia, climb the rocks on the hills below it, try to catch frogs in the small waterfalls and natural creeks.
Saturdays were serial days at the small movie house nearby, cowboy cliff hangers to get you back the following weekend. After the film we’d swagger out into the sunshine, slit-eyed and tough, conjecturing how the ranger was going to escape from torture and death at the hands of the maddog killer, Slade. This might be it for the ranger this time.
Then we’d gather around the Phillipine yo-yo champion (champ of the Phillipines? The world, maybe?) who waited outside the theater, and watch him do impossible tricks with wooden Duncan yo-yos. If we had enough money left over from the movies we’d buy a yo-yo and he, the champion, would flick a small knife open and carve a bird on it for an extra few cents. He wore a jean jacket with yo-yo brands on it and a jewelled “CHAMPION” in an arch on the back. He was a virtuoso, a true master, magician of string and wood sleight-of-hand. We’d forget about the ranger’s plight and work at walk-the-dog. A kid would warn me not to do that on the sidewalk or I’d ruin the bird the champ had carved on the side. I saw his point, this kid with a wiser mind than mine, and I’d practice on the grass.
With whirring yo-yos shooting out in front of us, returning with a stinging slap to the hand, we’d mosey ranger-like along the sidewalk, until a window display would catch our eye. “Loud as a cap gun, but uses plain paper rolls instead of expensive caps!” Our mouths would drop open, yo-yos bobbing forgotten, as we eyed the savage-looking squared-off paper popper, with its large trigger that conformed to the grip of what might be a ray gun. Cold gray with red accents, it glittered in the window of the dime store. “Only $1.50!” We vowed to somehow have scraped up an extra dollar and a half the following Saturday, if we could even wait that long.
Caddying at Southern Hills Country Club would do it. But the bus ride cost money and the older kids all got the first golfers and best tippers. Chancey. Hangers were too slow. Too low-paying. Setting pins at the bowling alley was good but dangerous, and you had to know someone and pay an older kid vigorish. Shining shoes and boots at Utica Square, but it was spotty–you could go hours without a taker.
Shagging golf balls at the driving range! A quarter a bucket. Walking distance through the woods from my house, and there were always golf balls in the woods on the way. Six buckets would get me the paper popper ray gun. I would start today.
The Studebaker sat in the driveway, the car that detractors claimed they couldn’t tell if it was coming or going. Someone was home. Should I risk getting snared into a no-pay leaf raking type of chore that would consume an hour? I wanted a sandwich but would just do without in order to get to the driving range unimpeded. I stopped in the detached garage for a receptacle for collecting balls in the woods on the way. I found a cardboard box full of brass plumbing parts, dumped them and hurried to the woods.
Hawk-eyed and Indian-like I moved silently through the woods, scaring up a rabbit, a small covey of quail. I fired an imaginary ray gun at them bringing down several for dinner that night.
I found three golf balls, two of which were so scarred and weathered, Mr. Bradley would never accept them in a bucket. He dumped buckets out to make sure you hadn’t salted them with dirt clods. I found more as I neared the sound of clubs whipping through the air, the smack of the ball.
“Go out beyond the 200-yard marker, get them balls way out in the weeds and boonies where the machine picker don’t go,” Mr. Bradley said. “You get hit, it ain’t my fault, hear?”
I took four buckets and my box.
Two hours and sixty-five cents later (three buckets, one of which was not full) I gave up and headed home, thirsty and discouraged. I could spend a dime or so at the drugstore for a chocolate root beer. I’d still be fifty cents up on my ray gun quota. But I couldn’t just ride over there and get the gun tomorrow as I’d planned. Maybe an advance on my allowance. Or did I already have one? Or two?
I borrowed against a future allowance and got the gun the next day. It didn’t keep my interest for long and joined other abandoned toys in a corner of my room. We are an acquisitional culture. But the must-haves don’t fulfill. Maybe a Lamborghini does, but I’ll never know. Besides I was on the cusp of teenhood and beginning to feel that cap guns and paper popper ray guns were for younger boys. This feeling would come and go but fewer of us were exhibiting the full suspension of disbelief it took to be cops and robbers, cowboys and indians. We took that to the movies with us and hid it well.
I was still a Boy Scout but not for long. The scoutmaster’s kid was magically achieving a full complement of badges and plateaus while I was languishing behind. I had some merit badges for woodwork and a couple of inconsequentials. We went on a twenty-mile hike, and I had my regulation canteen and an apple, a Baby Ruth and a sandwich in my pack but wasn’t very prepared. My hiking shoes were the battered penny loafers I wore to school. The scoutmaster said, “You’ll never make it in those,” and shook his head ruefully. He was outfitted, like his kid, in full regalia; hiking shorts, combat boots, a sash with many badges sewn on. I fell behind them and walked with a couple of my friends who wore jeans and PF Flyers, school stuff. We passed the scoutmaster twelve miles later, sitting and waiting for the car patrol to notify his wife to come pick him up. His boots and socks sat beside him while he nursed some ugly blisters on his heels. That was a Tulsa kind of day. Clear blue sky, a piston plane buzzing somewhere. The twenty miles were full of pastures, creeks, woods, but mostly hard surfaced roads marked with flags and numbers. Pretty boring actually. We stopped and ate when we felt like it and had some laughs at the scoutmaster’s expense.
“You’ll never make it in those,” I barked, pointing at my friends’ sneakers.
I made the twenty-mile marker along with my sneaker shod friends and made plans to drop scouts from my activities. I didn’t announce it to my parents, I just quit going. Nothing was ever said about it. I’d never be an eagle scout, but some things simply have to be jettisoned in the hard decision-making process. It was just too damned hard to get all those merit badges.
As for confirmation in the Episcopal Church, just quitting wasn’t an option. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, The Acts became Matthew Mark, Look John, The Axe! in order to memorize, and other such mnemonic devices barely got me through it, though I suspect anyone got confirmed in order to become an upstanding dues-paying adult member putting their kids through the same thing.
Sometimes we’d take the bus downtown, for a movie, Orange Julius, donuts. I didn’t know it then, but I was at ground zero of some of the most infectious art deco in the United States. Oil tycoons had latched onto the style at the height of its popularity and incorporated it into the prairie skyscrapers and every corner of the city. To this day I carry the germ. It has crept into my art direction in advertising, and when I gaze around our cluttered farmhouse, I see radios, seltzers, statuary, stained glass, paintings, framed pieces, even a bumper car, doorknobs, pens—all art deco, some moderne and other movements of the period. Sometimes it’s a Tulsa kind of day when my eye lights on an old deco movie camera gathering dust on the kitchen island. Or a period fan atop the refrigerator. Or a red hand-cranked juicer affixed to the wall near a faded Grapette mirror. But there’s probably an airplane just within my hearing, and sun slanting in through venetian blinds. Certain things must aggregate, cluster together, to make a Tulsa day.
It can be an elevator door in the music hall downtown Kansas City, one of those very ornate, gold leaf deco doors. But other things must occur. Sun on the marble floor. The buzz of a plane outside. I am afflicted, but specifically so. The plane brings it on, or brings it together, like the onset of an epileptic seizure being caused by flashing lights or musical sounds.
The low-buzzing leaflet plane figures into it, of course. I built model planes after that, and as I grew older and more adept, the planes became larger and more sophisticated. Then they stopped. Motorcycles and cars replaced the planes. But the Tulsa Days never forsook. And the plane remains a symbol, I might suppose, of freedom, of discovery, of wonder.
I kissed my first girl in Tulsa. Her name was Diane. It was a clumsy moment as such moments often are, but it worked out well. She didn’t run screaming or rebuff me. She liked me well enough to wear my I.D. bracelet as was the fashion then and may still have it today. It was a heavy piece, silver, with “GVINOTTE” engraved in capital letters. When I pointed out to the jeweller that it should be a U, not a V, he said the V was an old Roman usage of U. I wished then that I had used my nickname, Butch, but so many years later I realize that with my way of printing then, it would have read BVTCH. And I knew adults were always right. No use arguing. I lived with the GVINOTTE I.D. but it was always a bit lacking to me. Never quite right. Diane never questioned it, not that I recall.
The movie “TULSA” had its premiere in Tulsa about this time. Just as I felt the town couldn’t get any more exciting, it did. The day of the premiere there was a parade and I was there. I never missed filling station openings, how could I miss this? Susan Hayward, Robert Preston, Chill Wills, rode by in separate convertibles and Chill Wills handed me a studio 8 by 10 black and white publicity photo as I ran alongside. It was inscribed, “Hi, Cuz!” He called everyone ‘cousin’ and somehow, in my mind, this became familial, and he a blood relative. Chill Wills and I were cousins. I also thought it never rained on Easter.
Today, in Kansas, it’s a gray windy February day. The bare trees are moving at their tops. Colors are muted. No planes fly. Don’t get me wrong—good to great things can occur on such a day, just not the added blithe transport of Tulsa-ness. That’s reserved for special times.
Guinotte Wise writes and welds steel sculpture on a farm in Resume Speed, Kansas. His short story collection (Night Train, Cold Beer) won publication by a university press and enough money to fix the soffits. Four more books since. A four-time Pushcart nominee, his fiction and poetry have been published in numerous literary journals including Atticus, The MacGuffin, Santa Fe Writers Project, Rattle and The American Journal of Poetry. His wife has an honest job in the city and drives 100 miles a day to keep it. Some work is at wisesculpture.com
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