His name is Rick, and he was actually a very nice guy. Yeah sure, there were a few screws in Rick's head that might need to be tightened a bit, but he is certainly not a threat to himself or anyone else. Twenty-one years ago, Rick quit drinking and went from being Newkirk's town drunk (information from the locals) to one of the most interesting residents of Newkirk (my own observation.) He said that he is working for the Lord now and has turned his home on Highway 77 into a roadside chapel. Signs fill his front yard with things like "A place for healing," "Beware of the Anti-Christ," "Good cops go to heaven," and "Hell is for liars," painted on them.
He invited me inside to see his ozone machine, which is pretty much a hair dryer that is rigged to blow through some flickering blue electrical volts. He then told me that if a person is a true believer, they can be healed by these "ozone treatments," and claimed that it could cure anything from drug addiction to cancer to AIDS. Rick said he hadn't been to a doctor in over twenty years.
Rick on his front porch in Newkirk, OK
I began to feel dizzy in Rick's house, and I told him that I needed to go outside. He said that the ozone was fighting off the cold that I was starting to get and went back outside with me. We talked some more, said goodbye, and I started walking towards Ponca City.
I walked about five miles out of Newkirk on a dirt road when a car pulled over and a man named Doug asked me if I needed a ride. I told him that I needed a place to camp for the evening, and he said, "You don't have to set up your tent, my house is down the road and you can stay there." Now here is a perfect example of someone who doesn't have much, but who is completely willing to share what they do have with a complete stranger. Doug and his wife Alice let me take a shower, fed me dinner, and most importantly kept me out of the cold tonight. I am definitely getting sick now.
Wednesday December 30, 1998: Ponca City
I left this morning, because I wanted to walk to Ponca City while the weather was stable. After about seven miles of dirt roads, I reached the northern outskirts of Ponca City and looked in a phone book. All that I knew was that a woman I had met at Calvary Chapel in Arkansas City (Dotty) had called Roger and told him that I was on my way to Ponca City. There was no street address listed, it just read S.E. Ponca City. So I decided to walk to the south east part of town before I made the call. I reached what seemed to be the edge of town and the last place of business, Dixie Dog, one of those old time drive-ins where girls actually come up to your car to take your order. I called Roger, and he picked me up at Dixie Dog, and took me back to his home.
One of the first things that I noticed about this family was their interest in the Civil War and their enthusiasm for reenacting. In the family room there were collectable GI Joe's dressed in Confederate and Yankee uniforms, and the bookshelves were filled with titles like Stonewall Jackson, The Battle Fields of the Civil War, and The Life of Johnny Reb. Within hours upon entering their home, they had me dressed up in a Confederate soldier's uniform and holding a musket.
Monday, December 28, 1998: between Arkansas City and Newkirk
I walked south towards Newkirk until the sun was going down and stopped at a farm house to ask about a small piece of land for the evening. The farmer that I talked to was a bit suspicious of me. He was talking to me through the kitchen window until the words, "I'm walking across America, I just need a place to set up my tent for the night, and I'll be gone in the morning" finally sunk in, and he came to the door. We actually had a nice little conversation once he came outside. He showed me where I could camp and even told me that I could build a fire to stay warm. I can still hear him say, "Good luck with whatever you are doing" as I walked away. He didn't understand.
Tuesday, December 29, 1998: four miles south of Newkirk
Oklahoma, and the wind is sure sweepin' down the plain. Packing up my gear was next to impossible this morning, because everything I had wanted to blow away. I managed to get everything together and started walking the two miles into Newkirk.
On the way, a sheriff stopped and asked me what I was doing. I told him what I was doing, and of course his reply was, "You got some ID?" It seems that someone had seen a blue tent next to a wheat field that morning and thought that the sheriff ought to go check it out. When he asked me if it was my tent, I wanted so badly to say to him, "Duh, who else would have set up a blue tent next to a wheat field out here in late December?" Unfortunately, all I could say was, "Yes, that was me, and I had permission from a farmer to set it up there." I'm such a wimp. After he found out that my ID was clean, he gave me a really nice map of Kay County, which was much appreciated, and left. He wasn't much for conversation, and I had better things to do anyway. I needed to walk into Newkirk and meet the guy people had told me about with all the signs in his front yard about Jesus, God, sinners, and hell. I found him.
Friday, January 8, 1999: Ponca City
The family that I am currently staying with consists of Roger, his wife, Lila, their daughter, Mandy, and son, Jaron. Roger works in the research and development division of Conoco. When he is not working, he is usually busy keeping the family fleet of four vehicles running, writing articles for two reenacting newsletters, being involved in state and local homeschooling meetings and issues, or reading books about the Civil War. Lila stays at home and oversees Jaron's homeschooling and does an enormous amount of sewing. She is currently working on a gown that she will wear at an 1862 period ball that they will attend in February. Mandy is a freshman at a local community college, and plans on attending OSU for apparel design next year. Besides her ability to sew, she is also an excellent hammered dulcimer player, and I have enjoyed accompanying her on piano.
Jaron, Lila, Roger, and Mandy
Jaron, like I said, is homeschooled, and most of his free time is dedicated to talking with friends on the phone, surfing the web, going to youth groups at two different churches, and of course, Star Trek. He would like very much for his parents to buy a telephone headset so he can talk on the phone, be on the internet, and listen to a Star Trek episode all at one time. I have become an adopted son and big brother in their family, and I am most grateful to be here.
Roger and Lila have been extremely kind to me the past week. Although they didn't have much room in their house for another family member, they opened their home to a stranger, and have made me feel very welcome to be here. Lila and Mandy cleared an area big enough to fit a wooden army cot on their enclosed porch that they use for storage, and now I have my own room--well, it is actually shared with the family's pet rabbit, Buffy.
The cold that I was beginning to feel in Newkirk didn't go away and has transformed into a full-blown sinus infection. I knew that I needed to see a doctor for antibiotics, but I really didn't have the money to do so. Lila called a friend of the family who is a doctor. He saw me, told me that I did indeed have a sinus infection, and gave me a prescription for antibiotics, all at no charge. He was only sorry that he didn't have any antibiotic samples on hand that he could give me so that I wouldn't have to buy them. Can you believe that things like that happen today? I am glad to report that they happened to me in Oklahoma.
Tuesday, January 12, 1999:
I am still in Ponca City and feeling much better. Let's look at the facts:
1. It is January in Oklahoma.
2. The weather is unstable but for the most part very cold.
3. I live in a tent.
4. The present money situation is not good at all.
5. I need to work.
6. I met a very nice family that have invited me to stay with them in Ponca City and work for the winter.
7. They have given me the use of a 1980 Suburban that they don't drive much anymore.
I feel that God is telling me to winter here in Ponca City, Oklahoma, and I have been out applying for jobs the last two days. The job that I really want is working as a house parent at an American Legion home for kids that either don't have parents or don't have competent parents. It would include my own two-bedroom apartment, all my meals, and thirteen teenage boys to whom I will be their dad, big brother, and mentor all rolled into one. I should find out if I get the job tomorrow. The interview went well, and the interviewer told me that if I didn't get the job, I could stay with him until something else comes up. I also applied for an assistant teaching position in the Ponca City public school system. There is also a possibility of substitute teaching or mentoring for the Oklahoma Youth Services. I never in a million years thought that I would live in Oklahoma. I really like it here in what seems to be the buckle of the Bible Belt, and there is a very high concentration of friendly people.
Here are a few Oklahoma vocabulary tips in case you visit someday:
1. "Do what now?" can be used instead of "What?" or "Pardon? I did not hear what you said."
2. If one of your friends hasn't contacted you in quite some time, you can say, "They haven't
holler'd at me for awhile."
3. And "fixin'-ta" can always be used as a substitution for "going to" as in, "I'm fixin'-ta go to
Monday, January 25, 1999: Ponca City
I didn't get the job that I wanted. They gave it to someone who would be living in Ponca City longer than I plan to live here. I understand their concern. They don't want the kids to become attached to someone who they know will be leaving to walk again.
At this point, I decided to abandon the strategy of telling potential employers that I am walking across America. I applied for the position of a waiter at the two restaurants in Ponca City that looked as if they could provide a decent income that will be based entirely on tips. Restaurants usually expect their employees to be somewhat temporary, and I really needed to work.
I was hired on the spot at one of the restaurants, a Tex-Mex place called El Chico, and I started the following day. Fortunately, I was moved through the training process quickly, and I thank employee trainer and waiter extraordinaire, Brad Hall, for that. After a few shifts of learning where everything is kept, entering orders on their computer system, and identifying various plates of Tex-Mex, I was put "on the floor" and waiting tables again after a 2 ½ year vacation from that particular occupation.
I will now try to explain my perception of what it is like to serve people food for a living. I would hope that it will be educational for those of you who have never done it, and maybe something that you can relate to for those of you who have.
The bottom line is that the only things that make waiting tables for a living enjoyable are the people that you work with, serving someone that is nice to you, and fat tips. There is a job satisfaction that comes with giving someone an enjoyable dining experience and helping to make their day a little more pleasant. Some people want to have an enjoyable dining experience, and they might even let you be a part of it, but some people just want to be fed quickly and return to whatever they were doing before they felt the need to be fed.
A few of my friends at El Chico
The key to the job is keeping a million things organized in your mind at once, having a thick layer of skin to protect you from the occasionally rude customer who may decide to treat you like something less than a human being, and having the ability to pleasantly smile at someone whom you would like to strangle. These are the necessities for providing good service. However, you can do it without thick skin. It just requires more trips back to the kitchen to curse the day that a particular customer was born and to blow off steam in the company of people who understand.
There is job diversity that comes with serving different people, but the repetition of doing and saying the same things over and over, fifty to a hundred times a day, is sometimes enough to drive me mad. "Hi, my name is Tom, and I'll be your server. Can I get you something to drink or perhaps an appetizer while you look at the menu?" "Would you like some more iced tea, sir?" "How is everything?" "Would you care for any dessert?" "I'll just drop off your check, and I will be your cashier when you are ready." Doing it all with a smile on your faceis sometimes difficult. In brief moments of clarity, I have said to myself, "What am I doing?" The answer is that I am earning money to finance a walk across America.
I am making it sound worse than it really is; I really do like my job. The reason that I like it is because everyone I work with is enjoyable to be around. I guess it comes down to that. If you don't particularly enjoy what you do to make your living, then it must be done with people that you like to spend time with. Conclusion: If you don't like your job or the people you work with, you are left with only misery eight to ten hours a day, five days a week and a paycheck. If you like your job and the people you work with, then do you think you could get me a job there?
There is a disadvantage of having money when I am walking. It allows me to be more self-reliant rather than depending on my Creator to provide as promised. Instead of praying, "God, there is an enormous hail storm heading this way, and I need a safe place to be tonight when it hits," I can say, "There is a town five miles away that is large enough to have a motel, and I have enough money to provide myself with a safe place to be tonight." Self-reliance hinders faith and alters the walk and my life.
Tuesday, February 9, 1999: Ponca City
Ponca City has a population of about 26,000 people, and around 2,000 of them work for Conoco. Gas prices have dropped to 80 cents a gallon, and what might be seen as a good thing for you and me is not a good thing when you depend on an income from Conoco to provide for the monetary needs of your family. It seems the folks in the Middle East decided to lower the price of their oil to put the hurt on American oil companies. I don't know exactly how much hurt Conoco the corporation is feeling. The fact that Roger, who has worked there for eighteen years, and many of his co-workers go to work each day hoping that they still have a job, proves that there was hurt put on the Conoco employees and their families.
The land in this part of Oklahoma was settled in the Cherokee Strip Land Run of 1893. In the early 1800's, America decided that they wanted the land inhabited by the Cherokee Indians in the east and forced them to leave. After being held in concentration camps while their homes and property were taken from them, the Indians embarked on the Trail of Tears and moved west to land set aside for them in Oklahoma. As many as 4,000 people died on that trip from pneumonia, tuberculosis, and starvation.
In the late 1800's, as America continued to grow and move west, they decided that now they wanted the land in Oklahoma they had set aside for the Indians, too. Only this time they took it in a much more civilized mannerthe government bought it. We had come a long way in fifty years. So in 1891, a bill was introduced in Congress to pay the Cherokee tribe $1.25 per acre for their land, and then take it from them without further negotiation.
One of Conoco's refineries in Ponca City
It was then decided that this newly acquired land known as the Cherokee Outlet would be settled by the American people in a race. Before the land was opened, counties were designated and townsites established with lots marked out for those who wanted to live and/or have a business in town, while rural land was divided into 160 acre claims. The land was free, and over 100,000 people flocked to the borders of the outlet ready to run the race to their desired claim. Some people, called "sooners," went into the outlet early to stake their claim without running the race, and they were encouraged to be shot. At high noon on September 16, 1893, the starting gun was fired. By sunset the population of the outlet was estimated to be as high as 150,000.
The start of the Cherokee Strip Land Run
Saturday February 20, 1999: Ponca City
Last week, I saw where the Murrah Federal Building used to be until the building as well as the lives of 168 people were taken away by the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City. It was a powerful experience. There is a chain link fence that surrounds the area that they are now turning into a memorial, and hundreds of people have attached flowers, cards and letters to the deceased, children's stuffed animals and toys, and other items that had meaning to them. It became so much more real to me than when I watched it on the news almost four years ago.
The fence around the Murrah Federal Building site
When I was a thousand miles away and seeing it on television, I thought to myself, "What a tragedy," but it wasn't until I stood in front of this fence that has now become a shrine, that I truly felt the tragedy that occurred that day. I began to understand the incredible amount of grief and pain that so many people have suffered because someone that they loved did not survive the bombing. Standing in front of the fence caused me to feel an intense sympathy, and then anger because someone did such a horrible thing. I am left still questioning, "How could someone do that?"