In the early ’60s when I was going to high school in Tulsa, Okla., the city had its own musical lore. Songs like “24 Hours from Tulsa” for example, or “Take Me Back to Tulsa, I’m Too Young to Marry.”
That’s not to say that the songs were particularly good, or that I even listened to them much. Our music was rock ’n’ roll, which in those days was still as young as we were. There was no such thing as FM on the car radio. Just Top 40. We drove the Chevy to the levee years before the song made a myth out of it.
As I flew there recently, I realized just about anyplace is 24 hours from Tulsa now. Swimming the channel from Lanai to Maui, you’re 24 hours from Tulsa. The song was written before the world got shrink-wrapped by jets, cell phones and franchise commerce, before everywhere got turned into a different version of the same place.
It takes most of a day to get there from here; half that long to get back, thanks to the magic of time zones. I went back to visit my sister and my 91-year-old daddy, who lives by himself in a rambling brick house and still cuts his own huge yard with a mower that’s not even self-propelled.
Tough, those Okies. In a lean, stringy, weather-beaten sort of way. My dad wasn’t born there, but has logged enough decades now to have assimilated the place’s Bible Belt zen: You look up at that big sky that’s liable to throw any sort of weather your way. Then you deal with it.
I hadn’t been back to Tulsa since moving to Maui 17 years ago. The place has grown. The broad interchangeable avenues with their malls, car lots and new box stores extend miles past the city limits of my youth. They reach out to engulf the nearby towns of Bixby, Jenks and Broken Arrow.
Between the boulevards are miles of big brick houses on large lots. Stately trees are everywhere, oaks, elms and maples just starting to bud during my stay. Spring was tentatively trying to begin in the city that was still not quite recovered from The Storm that hit last December.
It made the national news, bringing not snow, rain, sleet or hail, but ice. It didn’t affect the roads so much as the trees, encasing the branches and limbs with a gnarly coating. The limbs didn’t sparkle like crystal as in past ice storms, but sagged, weighed down until they snapped, by the ton, taking power lines down with them, leaving the place ripped and torn like a war zone.
It was eight days before some houses got their power back. Which in freezing temperatures became a life-and-death situation for some, a pushed-to-the-limits situation for all.
The cherry pickers and gigantic trucks were finally completing the clean-up when I got there. I never saw, but only heard about the towers of broken branches they collected, many stories high.
The weather, like the football fortunes of the University of Oklahoma or the latest basketball coach at Oklahoma State, is drama. That dome of sky over the plains holds Old Testament fury.
During my week there, there were tornado alerts, lightning that turned midnight white, rumbling thunder that felt like it was in bed with you, winds that ripped the roofs off warehouses and floods that put Broken Arrow roads under enough water to summon Noah.
The weather is also a good reminder that folks in these parts are still right neighborly. You can’t help getting drawn into conversation, running the risk you’re liable to start sounding like a good ’ol boy yourself before you’re through.
I flew back to Maui on United Flight 3, nonstop from Chicago. That was long enough for two movies, two episodes of “30 Rock” and all the Sudokus in the in-flight magazine. There was still time left over to realize the visit had put me in touch with my inner cowboy as a different song of the region played in my mind.
It was Bruce Springsteen backed by fiddle, banjo, accordion and rollicking choir, singing “My Oklahoma Home” on the Grammy-winning Seeger Sessions CD, “We Shall Overcome.”
The Dust Bowl lament describes the misfortunes of an early Okie, whose homestead, not to mention his hopes and dreams, all got “blowed away.” Not even his Oklahoma woman is spared — “Mister, when I bent to kiss her, she was picked up by a twister.”
The singer of the song winds up a “roam’n Oklahoman.” But he takes heart from the fact that he’s never far from the dust of home — “it’s always near, it’s up in the atmosphere.”
It was a strangely comforting thought as United Flight 3 broke through the clouds before touching down softly on the Kahului runway.
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