Monday, July 18, 2005

Oklahoma Vacation

First I would like to thank Kenju for having such confidence in my storytelling ability. I can usually get it OK on paper but it is the delivery that I worry about. My brother is the comedian in our family and he is in Germany, singing Tannehauser at Bayreuth right now, so no help at all. I guess the best way is to just jump right in.

It was the summer of 1969, that summer before the senior year in high school, when parents take children on the proverbial college trips. I had researched our church colleges and had already visited the one near Boston. In my mind a college should have a good science program and straight streets. I pictured a college campus as having buildings separated by straight, grid-like streets. I know this is bizarre and probably another reflection of some underlying obsessive compulsive type of behavior or control issues, but there it is. I thought a college should have straight streets. The one in Boston did not. Never mind that it was four blocks from the beach.

So for the family vacation we decided to visit the other colleges, working our way west. We would hit Mt. Vernon Nazarene College in Ohio; Olivet in Kankakee, Illinois; Trevecca in Nashville and then Bethany Nazarene College in Oklahoma. I know the trip included a stop at the farm in Illinois.

We could not stay at four star hotels on a preacher’s budget, so my dad decided we would camp out on this trip. Camping out for us had been a small camper pulled behind the car, always a difficult thing to get up and down and not very pleasant to sleep in with the musty smell and all. This time he decided on a tent and very nice sleeping bags. All would fit into the back of our station wagon. We had the cooking gear already. So we loaded up and took out. I don’t remember any major problem at first, so maybe we stayed with people they knew along the way until we left the farm in Illinois. We did visit the Ohio and Illinois school, but alas, no straight streets.

You must remember that my mother is a city girl. Except for the “camping” with the little pop up camper, she had never slept in an actual tent. Even the little pop-up camper wasn’t her thing. For Mom, camping means staying at a Motel 6. Keep this in mind as we get to Oklahoma.

Bethany Nazarene College is in a suburb of Oklahoma City. It had a great science department and “glory of all glories” there were straight streets running between the dorm and the science building and between the buildings on the other side of campus. They were building a new girls dorm and the science building was new. To me it was settled, this was it, this was where I wanted to go, this was home.

On the return trip we stayed several days in eastern Oklahoma at Lake TenKiller in Talhequah, Oklahoma. We were going to camp in the national forest and visit the sights, swim in the lake, take in a rodeo and see “The Trail of Tears” outdoor drama. We found a good campsite and my dad set up the big tent, we loaded the sleeping bags inside with the extra pillows and blankets. We had our coolers and charcoal next to the cooking pit outside and all was going well.

We took our long blow-up lounge floats to the lake’s little beach. Stephen was seven and got on one, Mom got on another and I got on the third. Dad was just swimming around. We floated on the water and it was so nice, hot but with a gentle breeze, and Mom fell asleep. None of us paid much attention to the breeze, maybe we were all asleep. Dad looked around and the three of us on our floats had drifted out towards the middle of the lake. I was the closest in and could swim so together we went after them. He got to Stephen first and when Stephen realized how far out we were and sat up too fast, his float came out from under him and the wind picked it up and started taking it across the lake. Dad got Stephen up on my float and I headed back to shore pulling it along. He then had to go get Mom. She can’t swim. She gets hysterical. He had to talk to her in a low quiet voice, make her keep her eyes shut and stay still. Somehow he managed this and eventually got her back to shore even with all her “Ew! Loren I’m going to fall off!” and “Oh! It’s rocking, it’s rocking too much!” Back on shore, Stephen just stood their sadly pointing to his float that by this time was two-thirds the way across the lake. Never one to give up, Dad found someone with a small boat and spent a good forty five minutes retrieving the errant item. So, OK the beach was kind of a bust. But we still had the rodeo to look forward to.

It had been really dry in Oklahoma; in fact it had not rained for almost three months. We camped in Oklahoma for five days. It rained four of those five days; not an all day drizzle type of thing but the gully washers that come up on sunny afternoons with rain so dense and hard you can’t see the road through windshield wipers that are going all out. The rain that takes the dusty red Oklahoma dirt and turns it into deep red clay that sticks to anything it touches.

The evening of the rodeo was after one such storm. The tent needed airing out, the storm had passed and so Mom decided to leave the window flaps up while we were gone. It wasn’t a fancy rodeo, just the local kind held on a regular basis in Oklahoma. The cowboys still wore their white shirts with colorful trim and the leather belts with oversized ornate buckles and blue denim jeans. There was barrel racing and a little bull riding and calf roping and the main event was the bronco riding. The venue was a moderate sized corral with wooden bleachers at one end. Straw had been strewn in the center to soak up some of the rain water but the ground near the fence was muddy. It was exciting. People were watching from the bleachers and many were just gathered around the outside of the fence. So I decided to try and get the picture of a cowboy and a bronco in action, up close, by the fence. I had this cute little Kodak snapshot camera with the 126 mm cartridge film and a very bright flashcube to stop the action.

So, I got up next to the fence and waited for a good shot. I didn’t notice the sky getting darker or the clouds coming up from the west. Suddenly, there he was. A handsome cowpoke on board a bucking bronco, one hand held high in the air, his gleaming white shirt, his shiny belt buckle, the frenzied look of the horse and he was right by the fence. I SNAPPED MY PICTURE! I never knew if it was the blinding flash of my camera right in his eyes, the sudden clap of thunder frightening the horse or if the horse just simply slipped but my handsome cowboy at that exact moment came flying off the horse and landed face down in a large red clay mud puddle, next to the fence, spraying flecks of red mud on those by the fence, on me. It occurred to me that perhaps I should not stay there with the offending camera in my hand. Besides, it was starting to rain again. So I ran and never looked back, although I thought I felt his angry stare boring a hole in my back.

Back with the family, Mom is hysterically saying over and over, “Why did I leave the flaps up? Why did I leave the flaps up?” and Dad in his usual optimistic way saying, “Maybe it won’t rain in.” We were in rain all the way back to the campsite. On arrival it was plain that pessimism won out over optimism this time. The sleeping bags were wet, the floor of the tent was wet and the pillows were wet. As always, Dad says, “Two of them are just damp and we can make out ok, let’s try to sleep.” Rain on the tent was sort of relaxing and we went to sleep.

Sometime in the middle of the night, I heard a retching sound. I knew it wasn’t me. I don’t do retching sounds, not even with stomach flu. Oh! But Stephen, now he did. He got sick. Before they could do anything he had thrown up on the driest of the sleeping bags and if someone did not open the tent flaps at once there was going to be another problem inside the tent. It was no use. Now all the towels were either wet or reeked of stomach contents and the sleeping bags were wet. We needed to wash one and dry all the others.

So, what does the average ordinary family do at this time? I bet it doesn’t involve everyone piling in the car with said wet and dirty items and going in search of a launderette in the middle of the night. We are in a national forest and we had an idea that there should be one somewhere. Men don’t ask for directions or information so we drove around for a good while until Mom insisted that Dad ask for directions. He finally found the launderette and it was locked. So he went back to try to find someone to help. What he found was a fellow who had imbibed too much whiskey or moonshine, who knows. He was drunk, completely and totally, barely standing up. Dad asked him if he knew where the keys to the laundry were. “Why I sure do!” he slurred. “Who has them?” Dad asked. “I suppose the keeper of the keys has them”, he replied. This was going to go nowhere. How my dad manages to find more than his fair share of drunks in the middle of the night is beyond me, but he does. By this time I was almost out, asleep in the car so I don’t remember how he finally got the keys, cleaned the dirty items and dried them all but he did.

We were much more careful after that, with tent flaps, cameras, what Stephen ate and where we put him to sleep in the tent. Mom may have insisted that we cut the camping short and get back to somewhere with a decent motel. We did make it back to Pennsylvania in one piece. Of course that was our one and only family camping trip. The tent and three sleeping bags went up for sale immediately. I did keep mine, but other stories involving that sleeping bag are for another time.

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