Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

Oklahoma Nights
(This article forms part of the Journal that I am writing to describe my impressions of America since arrival in September, 2004. To begin reading this Journal from the beginning, click here.)

Being a smoker has its compensations. Larry and Tracey run a smoke-free house and Kathy and I must visit the back porch whenever we need to top up the nicotine levels. Apart from the smoker's most closely-guarded secret, that this need to withdraw oneself from society at regular intervals can be the perfect excuse to escape for a time to the peaceful and sanity-retaining pleasure of one's own company, this has also allowed me to become intimate with the glories of Oklahoma nights and the great outdoors.

As a confirmed and unrepentant nicotine addict, my first thought upon awaking is always the need for that first cigarette. I have remained on European time since my arrival (this is convenient since it adjusts my time schedule more nearly to Kathy's - she has always been a very early riser) and generally I am awake by two or three in the morning these days. It is necessary to sneak down the stairs and out of the back door to avoid waking the rest of the household before I can light up.

And here, puffing away on the porch, I have come to know the night and its charms. The crickets are incessant (in fact, they continue in the daytime), although not as loud and concerted as the African variety. The dogs bark their canine conversations and the occasional car hums by on the distant highway. Otherwise, the nights are silent and still, made for contemplation and reflection.

The stars, so rarely glimpsed in England's moist and clouded atmosphere, are here sharp and distinct. Some of the constellations I recognise, Orion and Cassiopeia, the Ursas, Major and Minor, their shapes learned in the similarly clear skies of Africa. I remember reading somewhere that the stars are different in the Southern hemisphere; how is it that I can see these same constellations here? Perhaps these are the ones low down on the horizon and therefore visible on both sides of the equator.

The evenings, too, are good times to be outside. Lawton never fails to put on spectacular sunsets such as I have not seen the like of since I left Africa. One, in particular, comes close to being the most amazing I have seen, approaching the glowing, golden extravaganza that Bulawayo once honoured me with.

This was a similar set of circumstances. Huge rain clouds covered the Western sky leaving a narrow gap right on the horizon. As the sun appeared in this gap, it set the underside of the clouds afire and the earth glowed in this reflection. To the east, the sky deepened to a dark purple and a rainbow appeared, perfect in its symmetry and stretching full semicircle from earth to earth. Beyond its arc a faint repetition could be seen, another rainbow encompassing the first.

I called the others out to witness the magical sight and Larry took photographs that could not hope to convey the magnificence of the scene in which we were immersed. As I said, smoking has its compensations...

Being outside so often has also re-introduced me to the weather. Oklahoma seems to have excelled itself in this, sending me heat, cold, rain, drizzle, storms, lightning, fog and clear skies in quick succession. I can only presume that this is normal for the autumn in this area. But it does prepare me for the immensity of weather in America. Geographers assure me that our soggy British Isles have a "temperate climate" and so it is, upon reflection. In contrast, North America has a climate that often seems to lose its temper...

I am well aware that we have chosen to settle in Tornado Alley. In my previous exploration of the plains of Kansas, we came close to a couple of these destructive monsters, once being only a few miles away from a small town that was devastated by one. That was an exciting time for a storm bird such as me. To stand at the window and watch the wind tearing at the trees, the rain falling sideways and everything kicking and bucking in the grip of the storm, that set the blood racing through the veins, the awareness of life given new impetus by this proximity to real danger.

But I know, too, that life is not so entertaining when a tornado chooses your house to rip through. I peer into the future and wonder whether we might be on the agenda of one of these in the spring of next year. In the end, however, I can do little more than shrug and adopt the usual human answer to such fears - if it happens, it happens. And besides, there is always that core of certainty we all have; that it couldn't happen to me, oh no, not to me.

In the meantime, the constant changes in the weather continue to entertain my visits to the back porch. In the last few days the wind has changed and brought us strong winds and squalls from the north. The cold became so biting that Kathy and I were forced to move to the front door where we were more sheltered from the blast. And there we stood, slaves to our addiction, wrapped up like Michelin men, sharing our solitude and smoke with the pumpkins piled in the corner.

The pumpkins are there, of course, to remind me to consider my first real Halloween. This was a new experience for me that exceeded all expectations. Oh, I knew the basics - the carving pumpkins, the trick or treaters, the candy and so on. But the reality is much more of an interesting phenomenon than I'd imagined.

It began the night before with the carving of the pumpkins. Kathy had thoughtfully provided me with one, determined that I should try my hand at carving. She showed me how the top is cut off and the insides scraped out (a messy business - everything in there is sloppy and connected to everything else by long, tough strings). I decided upon a scary jack o' lantern face and set to work.

Carving a pumpkin is not as easy as it sounds. The skin is extremely thick and one has to be forceful enough to get the knife to go through, yet careful to keep the cut within the limits of the design as well. Towards the end I was beginning to get the hang of it, however, and quite proud of my efforts. Then I looked at what Larry was doing.

With Emma's assistance, he had chosen off the internet an intricate design of Herman Munster's face. He was working at an incredible pace, carefully and accurately following the complex lines; I could see he'd done this before. When he finished, we tried them with lights inside. The effect was amazing - far more lifelike than anything I'd seen in comics and cartoons. The face in Larry's offering now leapt forward, released at last from its design in negative. The detail was intricate, hair clearly marked out above the forehead, pupils visible in the eyes. Even my meagre effort was much more frightening than I'd intended. I understand now why they usually put smiles on the faces of jack o' lanterns....

We carried the pumpkins through and made a display of them by the front door. Then we tested the ensemble, lighting the candle inside each one, turning off the light and photographing the result. It was very impressive and I began to look forward to the next evening, Halloween itself.

For the occasion, we assembled a small contingent of tiny revellers - two dressed as candycorns (a popular and tasty delicacy, I was informed), a princess, Buzz Lightyear and a lion with the most ridiculous tail I've seen in a long time. Armed with bags and containers and accompanied by the adults, they sallied forth in the early evening. Kathy and I stayed behind to guard the fort.

Within seconds, our first visitors arrived, little voices announcing the option, trick or treat. Kathy handed out the treats - one each is the rule, she explained. I looked at the mountain of candy made ready for the event. Oh well, rules are rules, I thought.

We went back inside, only to be called back to the door immediately. More little visitors, again with bags for the expected candies. We handed out the regulation one candy each and then there were more, some shy, some eager, and all dressed in costumes varying from the most simple to the intricate and very effective.

And they kept coming. After a quarter of an hour, Kathy exclaimed that she'd never seen a Halloween like this. The street was crammed with cars, there were kids everywhere, at every house, we were besieged. The candies in the basket began to get low and we opened another bag to replenish the supply.

And still they kept coming. We had Spidermen, Buzz Lightyears, princesses, angels, fairies, vampires, ghouls aplenty. The most impressive costumes were the home-made ones. My delight at seeing the Great Pumpkin can only be imagined. And Kathy particularly appreciated one ashen-faced girl who staggered towards us, a pencil firmly embedded in her forehead.

My favourite however, has to be the tiny fellow with the green face. It was a few moments before I noticed the ragged clothing and realised that here, in miniature, we had the Incredible Hulk.

And they kept coming. After an hour we were getting low on candies and Kathy was protesting that she'd never run out of candy on Halloween night, never. But the flow never slackened. Big ones, little ones and in-betweenies, they kept us there on the doorstep without a break. There were so many Spidermen that I began to suspect they were running around the block and coming back for more. Yet still there were so many original and inventive costumes that it was clear we were witnessing a phenomenon.

After an hour and twenty minutes of unbroken duty at the door, we ran out of candy. We blew the candles out in the pumpkins and retreated hastily behind the front door, turning the lights off as we went. Outside the cavalcade continued and it was long after eight o'clock that the last cars disappeared from the street.

Well before then our own little band of marauders returned, very happy with their efforts. They told tales of the numbers out there in the night. At the big mansion down the street, the trick-or-treaters were lined up thirty deep. At that house they were giving out full size candy bars, apparently. And in that bit of information I think we have the clue to just what happened that Halloween night.

Lawton is not a rich town. A large part of the population is a transient military one, here for their training at Fort Sill and soon to move on again. The base is the reason for Lawton's existence and there are few businesses that can offer above average pay scales. So the great majority of the town is not well off in American terms.

Larry and Tracey live in one of the few richer suburbs of Lawton. I believe that what we witnessed was the poorer sections invading for the richer pickings of our neighbourhood. And who can blame them? What impressed me most was the good humour of the event, the way everyone had fun, the open-handedness of the residents, the cheerful disposition of the visitors. I am honoured to have been allowed to be a part of the community that celebrated itself that night.

And is this not what has been lost in England? Halloween was forgotten at least a century ago and carol singing at Christmas has become a seedy affair of a few older teenagers trying to extract money for nothing. Easter has become a family thing centred mainly on the consumption of too much chocolate. Our times of community have been cut back until we have no community anymore. Is it possible that this is one of the ways in which American society has been held together so much more effectively than Britain's?

It seems incredible that so small a thing could cause so much. Yet there is a goodwill amongst Americans that I fear is dead in England. I look for answers, some way to understand...

(to go directly to the next entry in the Journal, click here)


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