Norman, Oklahoma: Beginning to Explore My Roots

August 26, 2013

Tonight I write from Hot Springs, Arkansas, a busy town in which President Bill Clinton grew up in and one that attracts many tourists for it national park attraction: the hot springs, of course.  If my writing style sounds a bit different than all the posts up until now, that’s because I have been listening to Atlas Shrugged for the past few days, and listening to different authors has a way of changing the way I sound when writing.

The last time I wrote, I was in Stillwater, Oklahoma.  After cooking a dinner of homemade enchiladas on Saturday night, I went to bed reasonably early.  I had hoped to leave by 10am on Sunday morning, but I had a bit of a late start and left around 11.

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I spy a tractor… at a gas station…

I arrived in Norman, Oklahoma around 1pm or so and was joyfully welcomed by my great-aunt Jo Ellen (my father’s aunt) and her husband, my great-uncle Russell.  What a riot those two are, and I couldn’t be happier that I took the detour south to visit them.  They were amazing tour guides and gracious hosts.  The first thing we did after I had the chance to clean up and change was go to lunch at a sit-down restaurant called Cheddars.  Uncle Russell recommended the fried catfish, so I gave that a try.  I don’t think I’ve ever had fried catfish, but it was pretty good.

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Remnants of fried catfish and peach tea, yum!

Over lunch I learned about their children and their grandchildren and several things going on with various parts of that side of my family.  I didn’t know there was a university in Norman, Oklahoma University, or OU, which many members of our family have attended, at least if they didn’t attend Oklahoma State University instead.  I learned that many of the ladies on that side of the family are Chi Omegas, and had been long before I was ever born.  I laughed to think that I was technically a Chi O legacy many times over, but I never knew it.  I guess that helps prove that some things are really just meant to be.

After lunch, I wanted to fulfill a very special request for my recruiting Sergeant back home.  He had asked me, if I made it to Norman, would I visit a friend of his.  Not knowing who his friend might be, I said sure.  After getting the gentleman’s address and seeing that it was at a cemetery, Sgt. Baker filled me in on his friend.  Specialist James Dean Hunt had been my Sgt.’s Bradley driver and close friend a few years ago.  On November 5, 2009 a man opened fire in the Army processing center of Fort Hood, Texas, killing thirteen people.  I’m sure you’ve all heard this story by now, as it was a big deal when it happened, and as we’re all hearing about it lately with the shooter’s trial coming to a close.  SPC Hunt was one of the thirteen, and I was dumbfounded – in a good way – to have Sgt. Baker ask this of me.   Not even two months ago, I read up on the Fort Hood shootings, just trying to get a better understanding of what happened.  I remember reading SPC Hunt’s name (since I’m starting as a SPC in the Army, I was just trying to relate to each SPC killed that day) and seeing that he was so young; he had just turned 22 years old and had been married all of two months.  He died shielding two nurses from live fire, both of whom walked away unharmed.  Sergeant Baker says that is just the kind of man SPC Hunt was.

Aunt Jo Ellen and Uncle Russell took me to a supermarket to pick up some flowers before heading to the cemetery.  I picked out a bouquet with primarily yellow flowers since yellow ribbons are a symbol of supporting our troops.  Once we arrived at the cemetery, we drove around for a just a few minutes before finding the right section; the cemetery was very small and my aunt and uncle have reserved plots for themselves there, not too far from SPC Hunt, actually.  Weird concept, but smart to do in advance so their children won’t have to pay for much.  It wasn’t difficult to spot exactly which plot was SPC Hunt’s, only three plots had small American flags in their flower pots, but his had a small, patriotic bouquet as well.  I considered this very thoughtful given the recent events surrounding his killer.  My aunt and uncle waited for me in the car as I took my time paying my respects.  I was already teary-eyed thinking about his self-sacrifice, but when I remembered how young he was, it made me sadder.  He would be six months younger than me if he were still alive.  I was able to smile a bit when I realized I was visiting him on his birthday, completely by chance, not intentionally, but serendipitously; August 25, 1987.  I will always be honored that Sergeant Baker respected me enough to ask this very personal favor of me.

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Happy birthday to Specialist Jason Dean Hunt. Thank you for your sacrifices to our nation.

After leaving my bouquet for Specialist Hunt, my aunt and uncle showed me where they will be buried.  They also decided it was a good idea to drive me to the other cemetery in town to show me where my great grandmother was buried.

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My grandmother, Josephine Santone; this was the first time I ever ‘met’ her.

On the way, we passed through the still devastated area of Moore, Oklahoma that experienced a very powerful tornado this last May.  I know you heard about it because I don’t have cable and I heard about it!  Houses no longer stand, many neighboring houses that weren’t demolished are still suffering from much needed roof repairs, and the trees that are still standing look ridiculous, almost naked.  There was even a little shopping center that was just ripped up.

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Ruins of a shopping center, still not torn down after the big tornado through Moore, OK this past May.

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This used to be a housing development, before the tornado in May.

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What’s left of a few trees after the May tornado ripped them up.

I can’t imagine living in an area where such natural disasters happen every single year; the last five years having been some of the most destructive.  When I asked a couple in Stillwater how they are okay with it they said, “The science these days is sound.  Meteorologists can tell us within a quarter of a mile where a tornado is going to be.  We would not want to live where you’re from – earthquakes are not that predictable.”  They had a good point, but I can’t think of an earthquake that was even a little devastating in Oregon.

Following the tornado tour, I was given a thorough tour of the OU campus; I think my aunt was most excited to show me the Chi O house, which was at least twice the size of the Chi O house I lived in at Oregon State.  also, the house was so big, I couldn’t fit the whole thing into an instagram! I love all my sisters, but man, it would have been insane to live with twice as many of them!

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The Chi Omega house at Oklahoma University. The whole house didn’t fit in my instagram photo.

The conclusion of our tour was dinner at a great BBQ place where I had a double order of ribs (that I could not finish) and fried okra; sounds gross, but it was good!

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The name of the BBQ joint I went to in Norman. I’m too lazy to change the picture to landscape.

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My enormous dinner. I ate all but two ribs and some fried okra!

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Fried Okra!

When we got back to the house, Aunt Jo Ellen pulled out a small wooden box filled with pictures, articles, and various other keepsakes from our family.  My favorite item was a photograph of my great great great great grandfather, James Taylor, who survived the trail of tears to where the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma currently resides; he also was numbered on the Dawes Commission Roll, #13386.

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My great great great great grandfather on my father’s side of the family. James Taylor of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Dawes Commission Roll number 13386.

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What the back of James Taylor’s photograph says: “This is a photo of James Taylor JAMES TAYLOR, Dawes Commission Roll of Choctaws, #13386, age 48, fullblood, Gaines County in the Choctaw Nation, postoffice of Damon, name of father is Ea-ho-Nubbee, name of mother is Pis-ta-hoke. Both parents dead. SUSAN TAYLOR, his wife, age 39, half blood, daughter of John Cass and Elisa Cass. Susan’s Roll #13387
Emeline Anderson, their daughter, age 15, three quarter blood, wife of Reason Anderson. Emeline’s roll # is 13389
Photo from original photo in home of Joseph Green Anderson at Tuskahoma Oklahoma by [sic] will t nelson”

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A photographed copy of my ancestors on the Dawes Commission Roll; last name Anderson.

Aunt Jo Ellen had a couple of things for me to take with me: a picture of her father when he was in high school, a related news article, and a pamphlet for the Choctaw Nation’s capital building.

After winding down, it was time for bed.  I woke up early the next morning to my hosts making a feast of a breakfast for me.  Uncle Russell was most excited to get a picture of his bike and mine together.  Recently, he had purchased a three-wheeled Schwinn, cherry red.  At first when he told me he had a bike, I pictured a Honda Goldwing or maybe even a Harley of some sort.  Nope, this guy is one for the classics, a real bicycle to get him around town and save gas; which, by the way, is something Uncle Russell and Aunt Jo Ellen detest: buying gas.  We drove around between our several destinations on Sunday trying to find a place that had cheap enough, no ethanol, gas.  I have never had to stifle so many laughs in an afternoon.

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Myself, Aunt Jo Ellen, and Uncle Russell, gathered with our sweet “bikes.”

At 10:30am I was on my way.  Choctaw Nation, here I come, then on to Arkansas!

***

The ride from Norman, OK to the tiny township of Tuskahoma, OK was very beautiful.  I saw more armadillo (dead, of course) but had no time to stop and take pictures per my friend Jordan’s request.  Frankly, I’m kind of scared to… the smell is bad enough just riding past them!  At one point, I saw what I thought was another dead creature on the center yellow lines, but as I passed noticed it tucking his head in quickly.  It was a flat turtle, not run over, just naturally flat, that was about the size of a dinner plate.  I was ecstatic.  It’s the little things that have made this adventure so enjoyable up to this point, and the creatures and scenery are certainly included in all that.

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Straight, smooth roads of eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas, surrounded by beautiful green landscape… and the occasional turtle.

Tuskahoma is so small that, when I got turned around at one point and stopped at a gas station for clarification, the guy at the counter literally scratched his head.

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Pausing to watch workers assemble tires so a bulldozer can safely cross the road without ruining the pavement.

I figured it out without having to back track too much.  Tuskahoma is the location of the old council house of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, my Native American tribe.  The old council house is now used as a museum and gift shop.  When one first pulls into the village area, a large entrance sign is visible displaying the location, the chief’s name, and the assistant chief’s name.

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The official entrance to Tuskahoma, the capital of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

I enjoyed seeing the seal of my tribe all over everything; it is a big point of pride for me.  In fact, I hope to get a tattoo of it someday, but I have to wait until my service in the Army is over.

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The museum is a building with a gaudy red roof and has a lawn adorned with statues, plaques, and a war memorial dedicated to fallen soldiers of the Choctaw Nation in all of the wars of the last century, including the current war on terrorism.

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The former council house of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Now a museum.

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Lacrosse, much?

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If you haven’t heard of the Trail of Tears, then you slept through too much of your high school history class.

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A statue in the foreground and a water tower in the background that says “Choctaw.”

My favorite memorial was that to the codetalkers of World War I and World War II.

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Each branch of the armed services is honored here.

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I was excited to visit the museum and hoped to pick up some postcards to send home, but was disappointed to discover that they were closed for the entire day due to repairs.  Really?  The one day I make it there in my entire life and they’re closed?  I wouldn’t be able to come back the next day, but maybe I’ll make it back some day and hopefully bring my sister.

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Rude.

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“Tvshka Homma Red Warrior” The plaque on the opposite side of this rotunda reads, “Chahta Tvshkahomma” The Choctaw Red Warrior represents who the Choctaw people are: Choctaw people are proud; we have the wisdom to teach, the courage to fight, the strength to survive and the determination to persevere. “Chahta Sia,” I am Choctaw.

Leaving Tuskahoma, I was less than 50 miles away from Arkansas.  Winding roads took me through a national forest and to my final destination of Hot Springs, Arkansas.  This town is pretty lively.  And it’s fairly large!  There is a big lake, many old buildings in the downtown area to look at, and very friendly people!

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Taking a small wrong turn in Arkansas led me to this beauty, an abandoned airplane sitting in a field.

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The cute little country store in Joplin, Arkansas that I stopped at for dinner. They also rent out movies!

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View of the creek right behind my campsite.

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My campsite in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

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Giant, dead grasshopper caught in my grill. Maybe that’s why it always smells so funny when I’m riding down the road… Wasps were trying to eat him, so I removed him from my grill.

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So many wasps trying to eat the dead bugs off of my bike… ew and awesome. They’re hard to see in this photo.

This morning I have stopped at Starbucks to update this thing – my roommate keeps sending me texts to make sure I’m still alive, he says I haven’t posted recently enough.  I have to stop by a motorcycle shop to get my chain fixed, and then I’ll be on to Counce, Tennessee to visit my friend and former coworker, Jack.

Until then,

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A little parting gift for you all. My aunt and uncle had these at their house. I guess they’re back in business, but on this side of the country this time!

-H

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One thought on “Norman, Oklahoma: Beginning to Explore My Roots

  1. Sean Clark

    What an HONOR !!!!! To pay respects to a fallen soldier that has paid the ultimate sacrifice serving his country, (us) , protecting all of our rights and freedoms. Not just as a friend ,(for a friend) , but as a comrade, a fellow soldier on the ultimate team (force) USA ! USA ! I am so proud of you ! I’d shed tears of pride right now were it not for my “hard shell” GO ARMY ! GO HEATHER !!!!
    Oh yeah, thanks for visiting Grandma Josephine too ! I sure wish you’d have met her, she was such a life force. You would have very much enjoyed her company and she yours. Love , Sean

    Reply

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