Small Town USA, Part 1
About halfway through my trip, I received an invitation to visit a little town in southwestern Oklahoma. I was hesitant, having already made plans to stay a few days in Oklahoma City before heading south to Texas. It definitely wasn’t the economic route, but something about this particular invitation was compelling.
This couple had almost 150 reviews, all (from what I could tell) were glowing with praise. They boasted a pool (during the 110 degree summer), game room, and private air-conditioned room. Despite taking me off my original path, I went for it. It’s not as if I wasn’t entirely off my original path simply being on this trip in the first place, what was one more detour?
I got into town earlier than expected, so before heading straight to their house, I searched for something to eat. I had to go back to the town about a half hour back on my route to find anything. This small town had zero restaurants or cafes of any kind. I looked around at Olustee, Oklahoma and realized the small town I came from was not quite as small as I thought it was.
The nearby town of Altus was the epitome of an old school town. It had one of the greatest examples of a Main Street, including an old brick theater, several locally owned shops, and every kind of restaurant you can imagine. The one that called my name was the old school drive-in that seemed to have every car in town surrounding it. Robert’s was the whole package, uncomfortable booths and tall tables with red stools, a two-sided laminated menu, and brown cafeteria trays to boot.
It seemed to me that everyone inside knew each other, people exchanged hello’s, chatted amongst tables, asked the waitress how her family was. It put a smile on my face, reminded suddenly of walking through the local grocery store at home where I was bound to see more familiar faces than not.
After a juicy double burger and fries paired with a classic root beer, I was headed back toward my final destination. The tiny blip on the map was only about six streets wide. I was the only car on the road, though I did go by someone on a lawn mower.
Pulling into my hosts driveway, which in all reality was simply his yard. I surveyed the lay of the land. The outdoor pool seemed to have a few children in it. He had said that the local kids used it sometimes. Stepping out of the driver’s door, I walked under the volleyball net and onto the small concrete porch at the side of the house. I stood for a moment, looking around at the decaying houses, and scorched lawns. This was sure to be interesting. As I noticed a rather large, black blob skitter atop the porch roof above me, a few raps on the door brought a tall, white-haired man to the door.
Pleasantries were exchanged. The usual, “so what brings you here?” was answered by both parties. The mid-life man had come to this small town from Queens, NY. A change of pace, the cliché he used as way of explanation. A quiet place for his Russian wife to conduct her business, though she was often on trips elsewhere in the country and world at large; they visited her hometown regularly. An off-the-beaten-path location for his exchange students to explore. A way to introduce hundreds of ethnicities and religions to the isolated town.
His favorite way to make these introductions, was to bring his guests to the local church service and dinner, when their trip coincided. In this stretch of the country, the devout Baptists hold service not only on Sunday, but entertain a mid-week reminder. Naturally, I had arrived on a Wednesday. When asked, I was a bit thrown, but after some assurance that it was a very relaxed, quaint group, I agreed. The free dinner may have had something to do with it.
After rounding up everyone in the short school bus that my host owned, we headed first to the only thing that might be considered a store in town; a small building which I learned did not currently have air conditioning and it may not ever be fixed. After the co-pastor came back bearing ice, we were on our way.
We walked in to see two rows of foldable tables the length of the room, at least until the half wall before a small kitchen. A crock pot sat in the kitchen with water and soda set beside it. A serving line soon assembled. Once everyone had a full plate, I instinctively began to eat, and soon saw everyone else bowing their heads for grace. I stopped, allowed myself to be quiet, and dealt with the stabbing looks through deep breaths and a smile.
The chit-chat soon ensued. My host starting us off by letting them know that my father shoots a gun, something they apparently would appreciate about me. The thoughts in my head screaming. My father, my family, they don’t define me. I kept quiet, not wanting to be the intruder that wreaked havoc on the church.
Discussions devolved into politics, insults thrown toward Democrats, toward millennials, toward gays, incredulous untruths laid forward as facts. My mind was spinning. I had come face to face with the people who I didn’t want to believe existed. I stayed quiet.
Once plates were cleared we moved into the main sanctuary through a door by the kitchen. Shoes had to be removed.
I sat about five pews back, in the middle of the congregants. The co-pastor sat on a stool beside the lectern, thumbing through his ruling book. As the last of the group found a seat, he slid eye glasses on, steadied midway down his nose. Looking up over their rim, he directed everyone to a particular verse and the shhh of pages being turned could be heard. I slowly, reluctantly, joined the murmur, having to be directed to the correct page by my neighbor.
A volunteer began to read the scripture, a passage about obedience. My eyes squinted in attempt to figure out where this might end up going. Still, the place it came to was shocking.
“See, what I think this is saying is that women really need to listen to their husbands,” the exact words of the co-pastor. My eyes enlarged, my mouth almost dropped open. What century were we in?
The next minute he diverged into talking about helping others in the community, the necessity of everyone going through life together. That sentiment I could get behind. Within the next breath, though, he circled back to women following their man; apparently a woman’s version of helping is trusting what the man tells them with blind faith, without question.
I would divert into discussion of the number of levels this was wrong on, but I won’t. I can only hope they are obvious.
My head spun to take in the room, confirm I wasn’t dreaming. It was as real as the nodding heads surrounding me. I noticed that my host’s chin touched his chest, eyes drooped in sleep. I stayed quiet.
Back at the house, we sat in discussion. “You have to understand,” he said. And I tried…
Tune in next week for the continuation of my Oklahoma experience.