Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

24 Hours from Tulsa
(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.)

Well, only three actually. But I couldn't resist it. We went to Tulsa over the weekend to see Kathy's son, Randy, daughter-in-law, Janae, and grandson, Jeremy.

Tulsa is the big city when compared to Lawton. It spreads for mile upon mile of orderly blocks, housing estates and bright new stores. It swallows nearby towns like Owasso where Randy and Janae live. And, in the centre, the city rises to the heights, shining skyscrapers towering above the plain to declare the ambition and energy that drove their creation.

There are clear signs that this is a more prosperous place than Lawton. The stores are bigger and seem newer, the roads better, the lawns greener. And the pawn shops are nowhere to be seen. Trees, too, are much more in evidence. This is Eastern Oklahoma which is quite thickly wooded, as I learned in my previous travels between Kansas and Texas.

Randy has connections in the world of the Shelby Cobra enthusiasts and, when he visited us in England, he contacted a friend who lives nearby and who owns one of these almost mythical beasts. The fellow drove it all the way from Leicester to meet us and Randy and I were duly impressed with the perfect state of its restoration and its fierce looks. Oh, and the guy was very nice, too.

We were treated to rides in the Cobra that day and I found out what it is to do 140mph down a Warwickshire country lane. It was, if I may resort to classic English understatement, interesting.

Randy has been unable to afford one of these fabled monsters of the sixties as yet but has consoled himself with the purchase of a modern Ford Mustang. This is a pretty mean-looking beast itself, still easily identifiable as a descendant of the original (which is more than can be said for "the other" American sports car, the Chevy Corvette).

We fabricated an errand to allow us a brief drive in the Mustang. There is nowhere in Tulsa that one could do 140mph and not be interviewed by the law as a result, but Randy did donate a few millimetres of tyre rubber to the road surface to show that his baby has acceleration. The throaty burble of a full-blooded American V8 was just as much entertainment, however.

This seems as good a place as any to ponder upon the phenomenon of the American car. I shall be as brief as possible and then never return to the subject, I promise.

From the outset I should point out that most of the cars in Oklahoma (and all the other states I've seen) aren't cars at all - they're pick-up trucks. It appears that the pick-up truck is the dream of all red-blooded American males and the numbers of them on the road reflects this. As they all look the same to me, however, I have little to say on the matter.

The cars (sedans, saloons, whatever you want to call them) do interest me, particularly as I remember the American automobile (wonderful word) from my days in Africa. They were as numerous there as European cars, their owners expounding upon their reliability and cavernous carrying space. We did have corners in Africa, however, and those of us who had discovered the delights of hurling a sure-footed and nimble European car through a series of difficult bends would laugh at the ponderous and awkward trans-Atlantic offerings.

The American car has come a long way since those days. They are smaller now and have adopted the curvaceous lines of the current European fashion. Many of them are quite pretty, indeed (I'd mention that I particularly like the work of the Dodge designers but Randy, being a Ford man, would never forgive me). Somewhere along the way they acquired disc brakes and so are able to stop just as well as any foreign car. The mighty V8 has almost been killed off by energy crises of the past and the engines have shrunk to the point where we can no longer call them gas guzzlers. Suspensions have stiffened, too, and it is now possible to feel the bumps in the road.

Yet, somehow, they still remain American. In spite of all the changes, the American car has retained its ability to wallow. Ask it to take a corner and it immediately becomes nervous and tiptoes around in a most uncertain manner. How the designers have managed to achieve this I have no idea, yet the evidence that they have done so is before me every day. I watch the poor creatures lurching through those few corners provided by American cities and can only feel sorry for them.

On the open road and in a straight line, the American car is king, a wonderful thing of grace and poise, swooping along without a care in the world. Just don't show it a corner, is my advice.

But I should return to the Tulsa visit. We had a look at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum while we were there. I had no idea who he was until Kathy educated me on one of my previous visits. Since then I have learned that he was a cowboy philosopher, humorist, movie actor, skilled horseman and lasso artist, broadcaster, writer, political commentator and Oklahoma's favourite son, a fount of simple home-grown wisdom in the twenties and early thirties.

(I really must make a decision about spelling. I have been bumbling along, usually deciding on the British version but occasionally opting for the American variant where it seemed appropriate. But I know that this will not do. In deference to my new homeland, and to practice for the future, I shall use the American spelling from now on.)
The museum is actually in Will's home town, Claremore, a few miles from Owasso, and to get there we drove through the wooded and beautiful gorge of a river that had cut its way down from the plains above. This seemed a world away from the Indian Territory of my imagination.

As I am beginning to expect, Will's museum is set in well-tended parkland and the buildings are imposing and suitably respectful. Inside, statues of the great man abound as well as paintings that make it seem that Will went nowhere without a glorious sunset erupting behind him.

I had come for his sayings more than anything but, to be honest, there was not enough emphasis on this aspect of his life for my liking. There was much on his movie career, his horsemanship and final demise in an airplane crash in Alaska. There were a few quotations displayed upon one wall. But some recorded radio commentaries were the only real pointers to the wisdom and wit that made the man great.

An unexpected surprise was an old film of his rope tricks. These were shown at normal speed and then in slow motion and it was these that demonstrated the true brilliance of the man. He did impossible things with that lasso, some of them never repeated by any other performer. I watched in awe.

We visited the gift shop and I bought a book on Will's life, making sure that it contained plenty of his sayings. I shall limit myself to quoting just one, his most famous: "I joked about every prominent man of my time but I never met a man I didn't like." He was like that.

It came time to return. We drove for two hours through hilly, forested country and then through Oklahoma City. This, the state capital, is much like Tulsa only more so. It stretches much further and the buildings at the center are taller and more numerous. It is, indeed, a typical modern American city.

Beyond Oklahoma City the horizon opens out, the land becomes flat and the trees thin out and become little more than bushes. Suddenly the sky becomes huge and important again. I experience a feeling of relief and realize, with surprise, that I am glad to be back on the prairie. Here, I find it easy to be at home and I can only presume that Africa had a much deeper impact on me than I ever suspected through all those years in England.

From a ridge still many miles from Lawton, we see the distant bulk of Mount Scott, proud against the flat horizon and beckoning us home. The evening comes on apace and the day ends in a typical prairie sunset, golden light setting the plains ablaze, fiery plumes of cloud etched across the pale sky and deepening twilight looming behind us. It is good to be home.

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


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