By Michael Shook
Last year, 2023, marked 25 years since my father died. I did nothing in particular to mark the occasion, other than noting it was that accumulation of years whereby things are thought about, or spoken about because, well, because a certain amount of time has passed. And it seemed like not that long ago.
Then, a long postponed visit to relatives on my wife’s side came into view. Off we went, in October, to north-east Arkansas. We had a lovely time, and I enjoyed seeing the rolling countryside, with its assortment of beautiful trees, so different from our tall, slender firs, and stately broad-crowned maples.
A highlight for me was a side trip we made to Oklahoma, where Pa was born and raised. It’s about two and a half hours to Tulsa from C’s family in Arkansas. Pa spent some of his childhood in Tulsa, but grew up mostly on a ranch outside of a town called Avant, about 30 miles north. I’d wanted to visit for some time, and here was my opportunity.
Oklahoma! Where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain!
So we sang as we crossed the border from Arkansas into Oklahoma, followed by as many other tunes from the musical that we could remember.
Our first stop was Tulsa. Pa’s parents divorced when he was about 10 – hence, the move from Avant – and we found where he had lived, thanks to the address on a letter he wrote home to his mom from summer camp. It was only about eight blocks from central downtown, decidedly on the “wrong side” of the main rail line, and only a block away from that.
The house was long gone, and a small, brick one-story commercial building, from 1942, is in its place. I got out of the car, and walked a bit, up and down, trying to imagine my dad as a young boy, transplanted from the country where he helped care for livestock, split kindling for the woodstove, and did all the other things kids do out on farms and ranches. Then it was back on the road, north to Avant.
I don’t know what I expected. I guess I mostly just wanted to see the place. And now, trying to recall what I felt when we arrived, it’s difficult to say. There’s barely even a town there anymore. Never very big, Avant was part of the oil boom in Osage County, but that particular field went dry pretty fast. And when the boom was over, a familiar scenario played out. The population dropped from just over one thousand, and has continued to decline to its current population of a few hundred or less. There were no stores that I could see, not even a gas station.
What’s left of the town is tiny, only about 8 by 13 city blocks. It is nestled in a valley – more like a very large swale – between gently sloping hills to the north, west, and east. To the south, the main road comes in off of old Oklahoma Highway 11. The west border is defined by a healthy-sized creek – Bird Creek – while another creek, Tucker, runs across the north of town and joins Bird at the northwest corner of the valley. During the record floods of 2019 that devastated many areas of Oklahoma, Avant was not spared. Bird Creek crested at 34 feet above flood level, and most of the town became a shallow lake. More than 70 homes were destroyed.
We drove around, slowly, trying not to draw attention, while I looked for … what? I felt like I was trying to find something familiar, something I knew, but in a place I’d never been, and had only heard a handful of stories about. I tried to imagine it as it was when my dad was there, from sometime around 1916-1917, to when he graduated from high school in 1932, along with 18 classmates.
The old high school, a three-story brick affair, burned in 1938. I was hoping to find some pictures or documents, but everything had gone up in flames. What I do have regarding the school is the story of the time Pa and his best friend got a cow up the stairs to the third floor and left it there over the weekend (with plenty of water and hay, of course). Those farm boys.
We drove around again, one last time. I scoured the area, wanting to connect Pa to the place, and maybe, somehow, myself. Among the surrounding hills and ridges, he hunted deer, and birds – pheasant, quail, grouse? He must have run down these streets, to a friend’s house, or maybe to the house of a girl he liked. He must have played baseball somewhere nearby. He loved the game, and was good at it, a steady glove at third, light-hitting, but quick and could get on base. We looked at the old bridge over Bird Creek that he had told me about – blocked off now and ready to collapse – where he and friends would swim, after jumping from the lower section, then take turns on the bank keeping watch for cottonmouth snakes.
Then it was back to Arkansas, and we flew home the next day. Avant has stuck with me, adding more detail to my remembrance of Pa. To see the places where he lived, worked, and loved as a boy, and then as a young man, and the challenges he faced, then and later in life – his parent’s divorce, the Great Depression and loss of the ranch, the Dust Bowl, the Pacific Theater in WWII, and all the rest life throws one’s way in 83 years – I am filled again with gratitude. He was a man, flawed (as are we all) but capable of wonderful things (as are we all). Most wonderfully, there has never been a moment in my life that I doubted his deep love for me.