Then I Veered East and Went to Stillwater

I veered east and headed towards Stillwater.

I never lived in Stillwater.

When I was in high school in northeastern Oklahoma, Stillwater was the hip town where you always wished you were. Texas has Austin. Louisiana has New Orleans. Oklahoma has Stillwater.

I went to an Oklahoma high school in the mid-80s, when everything that mattered was football (and sometimes wrestling).

1988 was my junior year and every other day brought another college solicitation in the mailbox. OU and OSU both sent football tickets.

Barry Sanders was at OSU. Barry Switzer was coaching OU. We were hearing rumors of a scandal, but Switzer was still revered. The full story and resignation would come later.

Even then, I don’t know that many Oklahomans understood what Switzer was resigning over, other than the stress from all the pressure from the NCAA. Special favors for high school players as part of recruitment efforts? Why wouldn’t OU do everything they could to convince the best players to come play for them?

Turning a blind eye when college players dealt drugs or shot each other or (even, horribly) gang raped a woman? The high school and college football system was practically designed around turning a blind eye from what I could see of Oklahoma sports. Anything to win. Get the best players and make sure they can play.

My sophomore year of high school, my boyfriend was a senior and an all-star wrestler. The coach needed him on the team and needed him to win (looking back, this was likely to preserve the coach’s winning record). My boyfriend couldn’t do homework because he had to be at practice. The teachers knew that as a wrestler who won matches, he couldn’t be on academic probation so they passed him.

I’m sure everyone had the best of intentions. School pride, hometown pride, and a certainty that a wrestling scholarship was the only way these high school kids would get into college. (My boyfriend did get an athletic scholarship. Which he lost when he never went to class, having had no experience being required to go to class, and failed his classes.)

Anyway, the point is that Stillwater was hallowed ground. I figured my college choices were OU and OSU. OU was in Norman, just outside of Oklahoma City, home of dust. Stillwater was home of Eskimo Joe’s. OSU was definitely the frontrunner.

I took my friend Nancy with me to both football games (she was older than me and had a car). It was an amazing blur of beer in red plastic cups on fraternity house lawns, Bobby Brown blasting from the stereo, and Barry Sanders spinning away from the defense.

Of course, I moved away from Oklahoma my senior year of high school, and my perception of the college options available to me shifted.

Now, after veering east, I was back.

The first thing I saw was the conglomerate of Barry Sanders car dealerships.

barry sanders car dealership

Everything old is new again.

Since Stillwater is a college town, coffee and wifi aren’t hard to find. I camped out at Aspen Coffee Company.

I stayed at a nearby lake, bunnies and deer everywhere.

To overgeneralize, different types of campgrounds tend to have different crowds. Upscale RV parks tend to be an older crowd, with $350k+ class As. State campgrounds skew younger: parents with young kids. And national parks are full of international travelers who fly into the United States, rent an RV, and set out to see America.

Oklahoma lakes are full of pipeliners. Pipeliners work on oil or natural gas pipelines. Their offices are wherever the pipes are, and this changes every 4-6 months. Some people (mostly men) who do this work have a home base where the family lives and are away from home for weeks or months at a time. Others pack up the whole family in an RV and live wherever the job is. (We tried both ways, plus lots of other variations, when I was growing up.)

In Stillwater, the guy working the campground put me with the pipeliners. They’re mostly at work and even when they’re not, things are pretty quiet (unlike the section of the campground full of guys there to fish and party for the weekend).

I talked to my neighbor, originally from eastern Arkansas (with a cajun accent so thick, I could barely understand him). He was there with his “boys”, each with their own RV, all in a row.  (Pipeliners often are freelance and work in teams; my stepdad had a “helper” – usually a young kid who worked as a kind of apprentice.)

My neighbor said they’d been there 7 months so far. He took a swig of the Busch beer in his hand. The air was hot and sticky and full of mosquitoes.

Apparently he’d noticed me earlier, working outside on my picnic table. One of his “boys” had come over to say hi and they were talking about me later. And so then he felt like a jerk for not coming over to say hi too. (I’m often the talk of the RV park, simply by nature of being a woman by myself in an RV model not generally seen.)

He told me his daughter was in college and he’d told her that he’d pay her way. Only now she was working on her third degree, and he hadn’t realized he’d signed on for that. She had moved to California (“why would anyone want to move to California?!!” he said).

He regaled me with tales of his speedboat and trucks back home until I had to escape the heat and head into the air conditioning. Although I bet I could have finagled a beer with him and his boys had I  been able to hold out against the humidity a bit longer.

And Then I Drove to Oklahoma

Some people live in the same town their whole lives. On their way to work, they pass the movie theatre where they had their first date. While waiting in traffic, they glance over at the football stadium bleachers they used to huddle under, smoking cigarettes and listening to the Violent Femmes.

Maybe all those signposts serve as a reminder of how far one has come. Maybe they bring a smile of nostalgia.

I wouldn’t know.

I mostly never lived anywhere longer than a year. Many of those anywheres were in Oklahoma. Go down by the river and grab a handful of small, smooth rocks. Throw them across the dirt path like you’re playing craps and see where they land. Those were the places I lived.

I haven’t been back to any of them in 25 years.

So as I drive by the movie theatre and the football stadium bleachers and walk down the stairs to the children’s room of the library, it’s like I’m remembering someone else’s life.

My drive started in the middle. Driving south on I-35 from Kansas, you’ll be tempted to veer east towards Stillwater. Stillwater is a town some people have heard of, home to Oklahoma State University. Alma mater of Heisman trophy winner Barry Sanders and country singer Garth Brooks. You may have even seen an Eskimo Joe’s t-shirt or two in your travels around the world.

I saw Sanders play at OSU’s stadium in 1988 – the greatest individual season in college football history. But I’m getting ahead of the story. As I said, I started in the middle.

If you don’t veer east towards Stillwater, you end up in Perry (population 5,126), which is where I ended up after leaving the truck stop in Newton, Kansas. It’s also where I ended up in the middle of the fourth grade.

What I remember most is the library. My memory holds this picture of a basement room, full of books. I would pile the books high in my arms, a book tower as tall as I could carry. And I’d come back the next week for the next stack, until I had read through them all.

My favorite was Nancy Drew. I tried Hardy Boys when I had no more Nancy Drew to read but it just wasn’t the same.

Was that room even real? Or has my mind constructed it over the years, a composite of libraries and schools and books in towns as scattered as stones?

I walked in and saw the stairs. And went down into the basement room. Sure, it’s been remodeled, but it’s got those same basement windows, that same boxy shape. Still with nowhere near enough Nancy Drew mysteries.

perry library

So maybe that’s what one feels when one sees signposts from years gone by: confirmation that one’s memories aren’t artificial constructs, but real life.

The library (only open until noon on Saturday; wifi password is the phone number) isn’t all that Perry has to offer. Perry also has Timothy McVeigh.

The local diner’s wall of photos has a section with a peculiar focus:

timothy mcveigh

The photo on the left is the Oklahoma State trooper (standing in this very cafe) who arrested McVeigh. The photo on the right reads “Tim McVeigh moves from Noble County to Okla City jail”. (The chummy “Tim” as though he and Perry were friends; they were not. He simply had to drive past Perry (where he was stopped) on his way from Oklahoma City, an hour to the south).

Anyway, all of that was after my time. I left Perry in 1983.

Here’s what I found in Perry: once the library closed at noon, no place in town had wifi. My RV app claimed there was a state campground nearby, but it was nowhere to be found. There were no coffee shops. The town square gathered together buildings that had once held stores, but now held nothing.

I had lunch at the diner and kept driving.