Oklahoma City: November 5-12, 2010

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We had plans to visit more than one location in Oklahoma. One of our goals was to seek out and visit the multiple Indian Nations who had established homes in the territory when driven there by the onrush of Euro-Americans. But we were behind schedule, and we were still a long way from solving the problems with my computer. So we settled for OKC at this time, vowing to cover more of the state on our way back east in 2012. The Wichita Bandit drove all the way down to bring me a “new” one to me, but it proved to be fraught with more problems than my original and was missing expensive applications.

One of our reasons for picking the capital was the fact that a Schipperke couple that was one of Dot’s most prolific pen pals lived there, and we were both dying to meet them. What a hoot. They do a lot of cross-country RVing with a pair of great Schips. We immensely enjoyed our times together.

We also met another Schip couple, Dr. John and Wynn Walker from Amarillo. They pulled into our campground the day after we arrived and soon brought over their little Raven, an elderly beauty, almost blind, and suffering from serious enough diabetes to require insulin twice daily. We immediately relayed our similar experiences with Serena, and the bond was made. We enjoyed good times and never expected to see them again when they left three days later.

The Stockyards

No trip to OKC would be complete without a visit to the stockyards. Actually, we dreaded it. But we obviously picked either the right day or the right time of day, because there wasn’t a steer in sight, except for the statue that marks the entrance to Stockyard City. We drove up and down the yards, and while there were many trucks and corals and sheds, no four legged critters were to be seen. So we moseyed up and down the main street, encountering venues like the Rodeo Opry and Langston’s Western Wear, which has to be the largest retailer of western hats, jeans, belts, shirts, jackets and boots in the world.

American Banjo Museum

Every city has its “hidden gem” attraction, and the ABM filled that bill for us in Oklahoma City. Fit into the 21,000 square foot space of a hundred year old building in the Bricktown section of OKC, the museum, which also incorporates the Four String Banjo Hall of Fame, tells a comprehensive story of the evolution of this indigenous instrument and exhibits over 350 samples of same. It was founded in 1998 in Guthrie, OK by Indiana industrialist/strummer Jack Canine, and it was limited then to the four stringed version. Canine put up the money to purchase and restore the current building in 2005; it opened in 2008 with a vastly expanded collection.

The first floor is devoted to the history of the banjo and many examples of all models. The story begins, of course, with the impressed slave, who brought the concept of stretching strings and an animal skin across a gourd with him from Africa. It was solely a black man’s instrument that dates back in the western hemisphere to the 16th century. And it was his prerogative until the first third of the 19th. One Joel Walker Sweeney is often identified as the first white person to play a banjo on stage; his Sweeney Minstrels were extremely popular in the 1830’s. There is documentation, however, of whites in black face performing in minstrel shows as much as fifty years earlier. The popularity of the instrument rose through the Civil War, then ebbed for a time before a comeback around the end of the 19th century. It became an immensely popular part of the Jazz Era and then evolved into bluegrass and country music as the 2oth century matured.

Throughout this entire period, the banjo evolved more than any other instrument. There are so many variables: structure, drumhead, neck material and length, fretting, number of strings, tunability of the head, open vs. closed back….they go on. The major exhibits beyond the origins are a look at the Jazz Age and the banjo in Hollywood.

One also finds a comprehensive presentation of the history of Orville H. Gibson of Michigan – best known, of course, for his guitars. Yet this impresario of stringed and fretted instruments actually started producing mandolins. In 1919, Gibson hired a brilliant mandolinist and engineer, Lloyd Loar, whose major contributions to his boss’s body of banjo knowledge led to the company’s production of their first Mastertone banjo line. The proliferation of popularity through this and subsequent decades assured the company’s continued production and innovation of banjos.

One distinction between four-stringed and more-stringed banjos is very pronounced. The four string banjo is strummed with fingers or a pick; this was the play style through the Jazz Age. As it morphed to the later era, an additional string was added and the instrument was picked with two or three finger picks.

The second floor emphasis focuses on the four string. One entire wall encases a collection of some of the most beautiful instruments ever made. Others are in walkaround showcases.

Inductees into the Four String Banjo Hall of Fame fall into four categories: performers, promoters, designers/manufacturers and instructors/educators. Few names are familiar except to aficionados of the genre; pickers from the more-stringed era like Scruggs, Seeger, Hartford and Donegan are nowhere to be found. But the Hall exhibit included wonderful stories about numerous honorees in all categories.

Here’s an example. Helen Baker (1909-2008) entered the Cleveland Institute of Music at age 13 to study guitar and mandolin. But the most popular string of the day also attracted her attention. She began her professional career in 1928. In 1934, she was hired by Ina May Hutton as guitarist in her all female orchestra, the Mellowdears, but she switched to the banjo very quickly. She followed this with a decade playing swank hotels with a trio called the Sophisticates. Over the next fifty years, Helen played in dozens of settings, many of her own organization. She was still at it into her late eighties. Her election to the Hall came in 2010.

Finally, the second floor includes a reproduced Shakey’s Pizza Shop that will hold 60 at tables or 100 for a concert. We were honored to hear the museum’s executive director, Johnny Baier, regale us with song and story. Johnny remembers receiving his earliest musical education in such a shop during his teens. His enthusiasm is contagious!

The Museum at the Oklahoma History Center

The official history museum of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma History Center (OHC) is located across the street from the Governor’s mansion. It opened in 2005 and chronicles the state from prehistoric Native American tribes to today.

The open area is dominated by a three story atrium in which is hung a full size replica of Winnie Mae, the airplane in which Wiley Post carried out most of his exploits. Like Amelia from Atchison and Lindy from Little Falls, his story is one of daring the skies in pioneer aviation.

Born in 1898, Post had something of a checkered early life. His first flying adventure began in 1924, when he joined a flying circus, the Texas Topnotch Fliers, as a parachutist. He injured his left eye in an oil field accident in 1926, and fearing the infection would deprive him of total vision, had it removed and covered the glass implant with his trademark eye patch. He bought his first plane with part of the workman’s comp money. The following year, he became private pilot for oilman F.C. Hall, who sent him to Lockheed to buy the best plane they made. Post picked the Vega, and Hall named it after his daughter. When Hall suffered a business slump, he sold the Vega and furloughed Post, who went to work for Lockheed. When fortunes returned in 1930; Hall rehired Post and bought a new Vega, which Post souped up with a 500 hp engine for air racing.

Post was miffed that the around-the-world flight record was held not by an airplane but by the Graf Zeppelin. Teaming up with navigator Harold Gatty, he took off on June 23, 1931 and returned to Roosevelt Field just over 8 ½ days, trouncing the Graf’s record by 13 days. They were assisted by two navigational aids, one of which, a combined ground speed/wind drift indicator significantly compensated for Wiley’s lack of depth perception.

Not resting on his laurels, Post geared up for a solo attempt. It came in 1933, and he was aided by offering to be the test platform for two new devices: an autopilot from Sperry Gyroscope and a radio direction finder from the U.S. Army. While the autopilot was buggy through most of the flight, these two devices, accompanied by Wiley’s ability to make rapid calculations in his head to compensate for his impaired vision – and less than 24 hours of sleep throughout the ordeal – put him back in Floyd Bennett Field twenty one hours faster than his record flight of 1931.

His thirst for speed was consuming. Knowing that man could fly faster in the higher winds at higher altitudes, he had B. F. Goodrich build his pioneering space suit that raised his ceiling to 40,000 feet. Post’s suit was clearly an enabling step toward today’s space flight.

He and Will Rogers met in 1932 and quickly developed a close friendship. In 1935, Rogers asked his friend to fly him to Alaska. By now the Winnie Mae was obsolete, and Wiley had Lockheed build him a hybrid plane combining the best of the Orion and the Electra. He had even more modifications made for the trip, but when Lockheed refused his request to add pontoons, he had it done elsewhere. Unfortunately, that final alteration cost both Post and Rogers their lives when the plane failed to get airborne in Point Barrow.

Wow! We haven’t left the atrium yet. There are multiple galleries off the Great Hall on each floor. The Inasmuch Foundation Gallery focuses on the arts and the cultural diversity in the state. The OneOK Gallery traces the history of Native Americans, and it is separately maintained by an association of Oklahoma tribes. The second floor contains no galleries, just research and administration. The third floor has two galleries. The Kerr McGee Gallery, covers a number of subjects, including business, African-Americans, military and natural resources. The Sam Noble Gallery is the primary source of the evolution of life in the territory/state. The breadth of subject matter leaves little to the imagination. Some select images:

Indians:

Invention:

Rock-n- Roll: Prohibition:

Outdoor exhibits are equally comprehensive. There’s a journey along the Red River. There’s an Oil and Gas Park. There are monuments to Native Americans, CCC workers, Civil War participants and times gone by. And there is Great Spirit, a larger than life bronze bison.

The Murrah Building

One of the main goals of this trip has been to visit sites that until now have only been visible to us on paper and celluloid. To walk on the grounds of Lewis and Clark’s winter quarters. To be in Herbert Hoover’s boyhood home. To stand next to the bed that Charles Lindbergh slept in on an open porch in sub-zero temperature. To stand next to Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. To stand in the control room of the Apollo flights.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum was a destination not to be missed – and to be approached with appropriate awe.

We haven’t been to Ground Zero after 9-11/o1, though on the day before, I viewed the Twin Towers from the Jersey Turnpike. We’ve been to the Flight 93 site in Shanksville, PA twice. We’ve been to Gettysburg, to the Concord Bridge, to Fredericksburg Battlefield, and to and many other battle sites. None, however, has given us more chills.

Most will remember the 168 chairs occupying the actual building site . . . standing in 9 rows by the floors on which the dead were working or visiting . . . sized for children and adults . . . dramatically lighted at night. You can view them close up, then go up to the Murrah Plaza above for a panoramic view — the slope of the land actually put the 4th street entrance on the second floor. At the east end and along the 4th street side lie the only surviving brick walls; they contain the names of over 600 humans who survived the debacle. At the west end stands a 200 foot section of the original cyclone fence that guarded the site. Over 60,000 mementos were attached to the full fence by the public — many still are. After a period of display for a month or so, each is catalogued and archived.

Next to the site, on the now-extinct block of Northwest Fifth Street, on which McVeigh parked his rental truck, is the Reflecting Pool, Only 3/4 inches deep, it is like a slow moving, horizontal waterfall with calming sounds and a gentle soothing flow.

Framing the pool are the Gates. huge edifices that bracket the minute that changed OKC forever. At the Robinson Avenue (east) end, the gate reads 9:01. At the Harvey Avenue (west) end, the gate reads 9:03.

On the other side of the pool, in the area that housed the Water Resources Building, Athenian Building and a parking lot, is the Survivor Tree, an American Elm that miraculously withstood the blast. Its south side was blackened and imbedded with debris of all kinds, but within several weeks it began its own rejuvenation. It is surrounded by a tiered Rescuers’ Orchard of fruit trees, a tribute to the thousands who arrived to help. That side of the memorial is completed by a Children’s Area. It displays a series of tiles designed by children around the country, and it has giant chalkboards on the ground where the young continue to reveal their thoughts.

Bordering the north side of the site is the Journal Record Building, still scarred by the blast. It is home to the Memorial Museum. The full scope of the incident, from the days before through the entire subsequent experience, is narrated through a wide range of graphic presentations.

  • You are provided a primer on the history of terrorism.
  • In a darkened room, you attend the meeting of the Water Resources Board via the original transcription, interrupted by the terrifying blast.
  • You leave this room to the chaos of the street, including the first helicopter footage at 9:13.
  • You watch as pandemonium very slowly yields to the beginnings of action, accompanied by hearing survivors tell their experiences.
  • You learn of the disaster through the eyes of people around the world as the media coverage takes hold.
  • You learn in detail about the initial search and rescue efforts including the discovery of the first “smoking gun.”
  • You watch and wait as the rescue efforts get into full swing, after early efforts are curtailed until the remaining structure is shored up for safety. (Only one rescuer, a nurse, died.)
  • You then enter the Gallery of Honor, an astounding exhibit containing a small cubicle, replete with photos and mementoes, for each one of the 168 victims.
  • Detailed coverage of the funerals, the mourning and the impact on all of the people involved is next.
  • The behind-the-scenes investigation, and a chronological Wall of Justice follow. Among the largest ever investigation in the history of the U.S., over a billion pieces of evidence weighing 3.5 tons were collected.
  • One has an opportunity to see a preserved section of the Journal Building, showing what a microcosm of the discussion, over a block away, looked like.
  • Finally, one reaches Hope, where OKC rebuilds itself and you restore your sanity. On the ceiling are 1,000 brass cranes, a reflection on the tale of Sadako Sasaki. Sadako was 2 years old when then Hiroshima bomb exploded close to her home. At age 10, she was diagnosed with leukemia. In hospital, she folded origami cranes, hoping at first that this prayerful work would save her, but after eventually losing hope, she changed to a prayer for peace. She died at age 12.

There were 347 buildings damaged by the blast, of which 16 were razed. Diagonally across from the Harvey Avenue Gate, at the corner where the rectory of St Joseph’s Church once stood, is a statue entitled And Jesus Wept. It is a larger than life rendition of Christ turning his back on the horror and holding his head in his hands. I wept constantly as Jesus did. But I could not turn my back on the heroism.

The Museum at the Oklahoma History Center was the first and the last thing we visited in Oklahoma City.

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