I loaded the three boys into the car. We headed to Dallas the four of us, that perfectly symmetrical number that Mr. Blandings had always encouraged; the number of perfect seating be it plane or cab or cafe. We set off to see my hometown and then further south to Dallas, a sort of growing up annex, to see my father and step-mother.
The drive to Tulsa is the drive of all jolly, light-hearted car trips. Four hours. A straight shot. About the time you are ready to get out of the car you are there. The boys had not been to Tulsa before. I only go back for reunions or funerals and these occasions had seemed easier alone, “You didn’t know them; I’ll go by myself and come right back. It will be easier.” I wanted them to see it, though I was filled with trepidation. My childhood resembled my children’s in no way. I did not grow up on a leafy street, playing in the front yard, riding my bike to get ice cream. My neighborhood wasn’t dangerous, just ugly. And empty, though the houses were occupied.
We traveled south, though Spring had yet to show, and it was a drive that can only be described as brown. Oklahoma can be a funny place. I took note of the series of “Marriage Matters” billboards. They seemed to have replaced the pro-life billboards and I wondered if they were sponsored by the same people. Often the signs were close to either another billboard advertising a casino, or close to a casino itself. Oklahoma, as I’m sure you know, means “Land of the Red Man.” I know this because of a semester of Oklahoma history in high school with the slimmest text book I have ever held. Smaller than a Nancy Drew mystery. As we passed the first casino, maybe it was Choctaw Casino, I began to try to recall the five civilized tribes, one of the staples of Oklahoma history.
Maybe Sioux. Was it three “C”s and then two something elses? Or four “C”s? There was something disconcerting about my knowledge of Native American history and the preponderance of casinos. The same feeling you get when you see the lottery winner with his big, fake check, knowing that he will now be invited to every Sunday dinner where before his phone calls had gone straight to voice mail.
That seemed right. Coming in to Tulsa from the North is not all that welcoming. It’s a lot of construction and junky strip malls. I did not call the boys’ attention to the fact that we were there. As we neared my old neighborhood I was stunned. It was achingly sad, horribly depressed and ugly. It’s worse, surely. Isn’t it worse? It could not have been quite this bad when I lived there. I was often oblivious to such things, but I think I would have noticed this.
They were silent. Searching. They’ve been raised to be polite and even though they put that aside to discuss gas often and much, they could not find words to put to what they were seeing. The youngest finally said, “I think that looks like a nice place to grow up. I like the basketball goal.” The middle added, “It doesn’t look much like Kansas City.”
Then I drove them down the winding green and leafy streets that look like home. We ate at my favorite hamburger joint from growing up and when they declared it better than Mr. Blandings’s favorite hamburger joint from growing up I did not defend his haunt; I let this stand as something good.
We stopped to get gas and the boys trolled the aisles for candy for the second leg of the trip. As I paid I looked down to see the headlines of the Tulsa World, “6,000 Cheer Palin, Beck,” and tried to remember why I came.
As we turned onto Peoria, a street I’d traveled a million times, I remembered. Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole.