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How It Should Be

I am not sure why I ever started to think of the place as empty. My parents certainly never thought of it this way. In fact, my Dad even sort of takes offense at the notion of it. I guess it always seemed lonesome to me because, without the benefit of the memories my parents had of it, without the knowledge of what the town and countryside around it had been, Shidler could have only been what it actually appeared to be. Gone, for the most part.

To the west of my grandfolks' house, where my cousin Lori lives part-time now, there was nothing but a long stretch of horizon. The only lines between the house and that soft curving horizon were a couple of barbed wire fences. The land between the swayed wooden back porch and the sunset was also dotted with pump jacks (some still pumping and some not) and trash fires. Here and there were a few herds of quiet livestock. Further yet, beyond that horizon, the prairie went on, unaware of itself. In the mid-80's this marvelous, blank vastness was intimidating to most people, who were by now mostly urban, and especially to kids like me. I grew up in the suburbs Oklahoma City. I was accustomed to seeing space filled up with buildings and advertisements, cars and roadways, lights and more lights. I was used to a constant background of sound.

When I was small, around eight or so, my granddad, around 82 or so, used to sit on a faded metal lawn chair on his porch and I'd sit with him in the other one. I'd bounce around a little bit, and flick the flaking green paint off the chair with my thumb, but we'd spend a long time just sitting in silence mostly, listening to the pumping jacks, and watching the orange sun inch downward through red twilight into the violet shades of the evening sky. Grandad usually had a toothpick with him, picking and sucking between his teeth at a slow pace until they were clean from the last meal. Eventually he'd remark with a subtle pride and a certain comfort that it was "put near" 30 miles to the horizon from where we sat with each other, gazing at the nothingness between us and "over yonder." As I got older, growing up right in the middle of mass culture, I couldn't help but wonder why anyone would have wanted to stay there - why he liked it. But when I was small and sitting contented with my grandad, nothing else was necessary. His liking the place made me like it.

But Grandpa Vann was born in 1900, and I was born when he was 74. I came along after the oil companies, who came in a mad rush of money-hungry panic, took what they could, merged and grew bigger, and then eventually abandoned the place for greater profit elsewhere. I was born after the families that had depended on the oil economy packed up and moved away in pursuit of another source of income. I was born after the drive-in and the cafes, the dress shops and farm supply businesses, the barbershops and the dance halls - that depended on those families - closed up and disappeared. All that was left when I was a child, in the town and around it, was in fact mostly empty space. Or at least it seemed that way to me, having been born in a city to parents who had long left the rural town they grew up in.

As a small child, I didn't mind the emptiness so much. I don't remember even really noticing it as strange until about the age of 12 or so - when everything tends to get strange for most kids. Then I began to wonder why the old buildings were abandoned. I wondered what had been in the old buildings to begin with. I wondered about the empty four-story hotel at the north end of the main street through town. Why had there ever been a need for one? I wondered why the roof of the train depot was left to rot. And why had the train stopped coming? Even more curious - why had the train ever came through the town at all? It just didn't add up to me, given what I saw as the evidence around the place. I was still too young to understand the way some things come only to pass - that the train, the folks on the train, the train depot and hotel, and the train tracks themselves had only been passing through. The country, however, still remained.

Then in 1985 when my big brother went off to school at O.S.U., and O.U. won the national championship, I came to understand that in the minds of most people "aggies," which I took to mean "countryfolks," were a subject suitable for punchlines. They were backward and stupid and maybe even dirty. Their ways were the ways of the past, just like that old town - good for nothing anymore but laughing at. By this time I was smart enough to make a few connections, and I started to feel sort of ashamed I guess, and then sort of angry. My whole family was made up "aggies," of one kind or another. Even though in my heart I was willing to defend them to the end and I did so on a regular basis, it didn't change the fact that people clearly had opinions about who was better and who was worse. I didn't have to look far to see the sophistication that the world said my folks lacked, and I could see that we lacked it. It must have been around then that I really began to see my parents' hometown as a dying thing. Then it became hard to look at without feeling sort of sad, and sort of mad.

The emptiness of the Shidler townscape and landscape became uncomfortable, like restlessness and grief. In the years while I was a teenager, we lost my grandparents. And all the while the urban life and culture imported from the coasts seemed to grow and thrive and thump around me, as though the loss of towns like Shidler, Oklahoma, was a good and necessary thing. It was an odd sort of Darwinian triumph, like bedlam football. All the little towns like my parents' hometown were the losers in the competition. Cities swallowed up the town's children and grandchildren, their vision and talent, their traditions and values, their hearts and loyalties, their whole histories, until kids like me - who were only a generation removed from the community of their parents and grandparents - were complete strangers to it all. Even as my parents took my brothers and I for regular visits, what was commonplace to them as children was a bizarre sort of mystery to us - ancient and rudimentary just like the world said it was. The natural thing for me to do, maybe the only thing a child could do, was to disregard it all and cleave to this suburban surrogate I was told to embrace. I guess it was a given that I would try. And I guess it was a given that I wouldn't entirely take to it.

Now when I look at the world, it seems emptier to me sometimes than Shidler ever did, and when I look at Shidler, I see a story as rich as any other there is to tell.

The people there are simple because the land is simple. The colors and the shape of it is subtle, like the people's hearts. It's not a beauty that jumps at you. It's the beauty of sagging barbed wire, overgrown blackberry patches, rusted-out trash barrels, and corrugated tin - rough and purposeful. In fact being accustomed to more obvious beauty spoils you for it. You can't be too timid or too demanding when you look at the Osage Hills rolling northward into Kansas. You have to feel secure in the middle of nowhere.

There is more space up there than most folks are used to. There are no mountains to nestle in. There's no ocean to lull and lap at you. And there's not much in the way of architecture. Here, people truly confront themselves and learn what they are made of, because here there is no pretense. The emptiness of the prairie makes for the feeling of a silent sanctuary, where nothing is exactly what calls to you - and yet there is a presence still.

Nothing calls you to move deeper into a patch of black jacks and post oaks where everything looks like it scratches. There's nothing grand or shiny here, and nothing that's particularly obvious to point to or raise a shout about. It's much more sublime than that, just a hair this side of subliminal. If you can see it, it's satisfying because it's so secretive - a strange combination of graceful and sneaky. There is no glorious scenery, only hide-out creek banks made of red clay bedrock, old as the Osage, eroded into prehistoric puzzle pieces by the passage of time. The creek beds and oak trees are the only raggedness in these hills and prairies. Otherwise, swaying tallgrass covers the land, bending quietly in brushstroke patterns, like a buffalo's coat in the wind. Once you get past the startling simpleness of it, you start to find a strange assurance in the bare truth of it. A challenging peace permeates these prairies, like that moment after looking long and hard for the face of God, right before the veil lifts.

The people of Shidler put on no false airs. When you look at them, you know you are looking at something solid. Even if you don't like what you see, you know you can trust it to be what it seems. And they carry themselves with a good deal of dignity and calm. There is no frenzy in them, because to them nothing much is worth frenzying over. They are the kind of folks that are kind and loyal even when they are tired and mean.

Shidler was an oil town in 1941, as stubborn as they come. The community had a sense of itself - an identity that appeared in the men coming off the oilfields in the middle of the night, and in the loudmouthed women keeping the grill warm for them in the café. Everyone understood that the only way folks make it in this world is together, and that each person has a place. Situated like it was in the middle of the broad horizon of northern Oklahoma, the people kept everything local. Their happiness and freedom was in their own hands, and they worked to keep it there.

That's why Susuko Yamamoto made it her home. Having come from Japan, she knew the feeling of being obligated to the ruling power in exchange for freedom. At the age of 16, Emperor Mutsuhito had asked her to be a spy in exchange for her passage to the United States in 1903, but when she got settled in and lived a little, she knew she couldn't do it. Ms. Yamamoto saw no reason to do it, and endanger this place that gave her so much more than obligation. She could have anything she wanted here with an honest effort, and she could do for herself without debt to others. She enjoyed this liberty.

Ms. Yamamoto opened the Tokyo Café in Shidler, ran it well and raised her children there. She made a pot of rice in the café kitchen every morning for her family, and generally they were the only ones who ate it except for the occasional order of chop suey from a curious townsperson. Mostly Susuko cooked American fare, and people enjoyed it as they sat and talked with each other about the day's news.

On the back of the café was a wooden porch - the kind that decorated small town main street alleyways of Oklahoma, before they were given to rot. And many pinochle games were won and lost there, as the Yamamoto's children and other children looked on. Ichiro, the eldest of her children, was at home there. Late nights when business was slow between oilfield shifts, or after his boxing matches in the local golden glove tournaments, he would rest there on the steps and listen to the pump jacks out in the field beating like life itself, and smell the brushfires and trash fires, and the food on the stove fires in the café kitchen. That made him mindful of his very own blood, and he knew that he was made of these things. Everyone at the Shidler high school always called him "Ikie." That was his nickname - and he took it with him when he entered the 442nd Infantry Battalion - the all Asian-American battalion - in WW II. They said he went "for broke" with the rest of the boys, fighting fascism in Europe.

Across Main Street in Shidler, the barbershop stayed open late too. Mr. Vol Parker kept the four chair stalls clean and ready for the oilfield hands in need of a shave after a long haul in the fields. He enjoyed their stories and their pride in their work. He appreciated their company and their business, and he treated them like friends and talked with them like fellow countrymen. They were a lively crowd in the barbershop in the black of night. Opinions and stories flew like the hair to the floor, and everyone felt the better for it.

Early evening, in January 1942, Mr. Parker and Lawrence Diehl sat in the Tokyo Café drinking coffee and exchanging ideas. The sky was filling with the first orange speckles of a red winter sunset. The United States was newly at war. Ms. Yamamoto came to their table for a fill-up, and returned the coffee pot to the electric plate on the counter. She returned to the men's table once more with her hands in her front apron pockets. She was holding onto some sort of official letter from a government agency. The men began to understand before she even said she was worried. Susuko and Ichiro had been detained in Dallas when they were there on a café supply run on the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. She didn't have to say much more after reminding them of that. The letter, which she handed to Mr. Diehl without a word, said her family was to be interned at the Dodge City camp.

Everything went on as normal for a few weeks. The kids played "Americans-and- Germans" instead of "cops-and-robbers" or "cowboys-and-indians." Mr. Parker told them not to play Americans-and-Japanese. It didn't make much sense to him because he knew what the real enemy was. He could respect the United States for fighting for freedom, but he didn't respect fascists for fighting for control. He understood sometimes folks have to act when push comes to shove. What he didn't take a shine to was shoving.

Eventually one mid-morning, a townsman stuck his head in the barbershop and let Vol Parker know there was a couple of military men up at the café. Lawrence Diehl was there in the barbershop too, of course. He watched Vol grab his pistol from his stall drawer, hitch up his pants, and put the gun in his belt. The two of them walked outside and locked up the shop.

Main Street was alive with commerce. When Vol and Lawrence walked into the café, it was full. Only it was considerable quiet. Not a soul in the place was speaking a word, or even stirring their coffee. The Yamamotos and the military men were obviously back in the kitchen trying to be polite about the situation. Mr. Parker and Mr. Diehl continued that direction.

Once through the kitchen doorway, they stopped shoulder-to-shoulder without being especially threatening. Mr. Parker gave Susuko a sturdy nod and a kind of "Good Morning," and then asked the visitors a question.

"What's your business here, soldiers?"

One of the soldiers assured him, no doubt respectfully,

"Government business, Sir. We're here to make sure these folks are preparing for the internment process."

With no hesitation, Mr. Parker added,

"The government's got no business here. These people are members of this community. I can vouch for them, and so will Mr. Diehl here."

Mr. Diehl rocked back on his heels and brought his chin down toward his chest, but held his eyes steady on the soldiers. The hollows of his temples pulsed in and out as he clinched and unclenched his jaws.

"We're not here to collect opinion on the matter, Sir."

The soldier made the effort to be firm, but he came off sounding smart. Mr. Parker was quiet for a beat, and said,

"Well I don't imagine you did, but it's not my opinion, Officer. Opinion is what you have when you don't see the facts. The fact is you won't take these people anywhere - not now nor never - and everybody in this café feels the same way."

Mr. Diehl stood to the side and opened passage for the soldiers through to the kitchen doorway, and leaned himself in toward the boys in uniform.

"You heard the man," he said.

The soldier spoke up to say,

"We're not authorized to use force, but we'll be back."

Mr. Diehl couldn't contain himself any longer as the officers walked out of the kitchen and into the dining room of the Tokyo Café. Everyone heard him, even up and down the alleyway, as he shouted,

"And I don't give a good Goddamn if Mussolini shows up with you, that Son-of-a-Bitch!" - the implication being that the officers were acting just like him - "You're not taking anybody anywhere!"

As the young men exited, the noise of the establishment resumed as though the whole entire town was pleased with itself. Mr. Parker and Mr. Diehl left the café through the back porch and into the alleyway. They were shook up, and needed the air and the privacy.

Once he had his wits about him, Mr. Parker sent Mr. Diehl back to the barbershop while he headed to the telephone office a few doors down. He walked in and asked the operator to connect him to the office of J.W. Elmer Thomas, United States Senator. And he took a seat in one of the booths. Once on the phone, he reminded the Senator's secretary that he had campaigned tirelessly for Senator Thomas because he believed in the man. He told her that if the Senator wasn't available immediately it was a shame, but that he was to call the Shidler Telephone Office as soon as he returned. Mr. Parker made it clear he would be waiting there until the Senator called.

Two hours later the phone rang and the Senator was on the line. Mr. Parker was ready with an earful. By this time the whole town had come by to see him. He told the Senator that if there was trouble in Shidler, the people of Shidler would take care of it, and he didn't approve of the federal government intruding. He told him that furthermore there was no trouble in Shidler, and there would be no trouble in Shidler. And Senator Thomas naturally agreed with how his constituents saw the matter. For several weeks the town waited, but the Officers never returned.

Ms. Yamamoto and her family remained in Shidler until 1949, when she sold the café to Agnes Jackson, my Dad's mother. Susuko moved to Oklahoma City so she could be near Ichiro, who planned to stay there and find a good job in industry after he returned from the service.

My Dad was 16 years old when his mom opened the Shidler Café. And to him, though the building may fall into ruin and the whole town around it, the prairie open up and swallow it whole, the tallgrass grow over it like it was never there at all, it will never, ever be empty.

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