Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

(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.)

A week has passed now and I can begin to reflect on my first
impressions of my new home. In this week as much rain has fallen on
Lawton, Oklahoma, as would fall in a month in Coventry. This was
mainly during the course of a huge thunderstorm we had a couple of
nights ago, but there have been days of overcast and drizzle too. It
is hot today and the moisture of the previous days was sucked up in a
cloud of heavy humidity during the morning. And still the crickets
saw away at their song…

It is possible to go to the other end of Lawton (the east, I think)
and look back from the ridge that, more or less, demarcates the end of
the town and the beginning of the prairie. On the horizon the Wichita
Mountains shimmer in the distance and all the space between is filled
with the orderly streets and buildings of Lawton.

Well, they call them mountains. In reality they are hills - big
enough to be remarkable in such a flat landscape. The prairie is not
as flat as we imagine it. The horizon is as flat as a pancake but in
between there are ups and downs and creeks that make the country quite
interesting. And in the creek beds there are trees. It's like
looking across an old wooden table - get down low and it looks flat
but as you move across it you realise there are bumps and ridges and
dips. In Kansas the creeks have cut quite deeply into the landscape
and they form secret winding and wooded valleys that you don't see
until you're almost on top of them. But the overall impression of the
country is one of space. The grass that covers most of the prairie is
short, much shorter than in Africa (where the grass can be higher than
your head) and this makes the open vistas even more impressive. You
feel as if it could go on forever (and it nearly does).

Lawton is a small town but still about the fourth biggest in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma City is the only really big city, Tulsa is about half that
size and Lawton is much smaller than either of them. But remember I'm
talking population here. In area, all of them are huge, much bigger
than English cities and towns. Every house has its "yard", back and
front and anything from half an acre to two acres in extent. So the
suburbs stretch for miles. Then there are the stores - they all have
their parking lots around them and so are like islands in a tarmac
sea. And there are usually only a few stores on each block. There
are empty blocks too where no-one has bothered to build yet. The
impression of these prairie towns is the same as for the prairie -
they're flat and stretch forever. There is a small centre to the town
where the blocks are filled by buildings but none of these is more
than three storeys high, so there is no sudden leap in height at the
centre that you get in larger American cities. That's really what
makes Lawton a "small town". It hasn't reached the size where land
prices have soared and therefore it's not worth building upwards. You
wanna expand your business? Hey, just buy the empty lot next door and
build over onto that.

We needed a break this week and to have a look at our new home. I had
noticed signs for the Museum of the Great Plains in our house-hunting,
so we decided to have a look at it. In England a name like that would
result in a run-down, dusty exhibition in a private house but not
here; this is America after all and they know how to do museums. We
found it to be a series of huge, imposing buildings set in acres of
parkland, beautifully kept.

The car park is extensive but occupied by only three cars – we add
ours and proceed to the entrance. Inside all is quiet. There is a
large reception room with a circular desk where we can pay, the
inevitable gift shop in the background and exhibits scattered around
to whet the appetite. And all is deserted.

I suppose we could have wandered through the museum and escaped
without paying but, being well-trained and conscientious citizens, we
manage to find a staff member (an impossibly diminutive and cheerful
lady) and establish our legal and paid-for right to inspect the

Everything starts with an exhibition of local mosaics. I am sure
there were some worthy artistic efforts amongst the exhibits but what
stays in my memory is the work of one artist in particular. She
specialises in constructing faces from broken crockery and, without
exception, each face has ears made from cup handles. There is
something so ridiculous in this that it pushes everything else from my

Moving on, we come to the museum itself. In the centre is a massive
reconstruction of a saber tooth cat (yes, we used to call them tigers
but the modern world has decided to step back from such an easy
assertion and now they are portrayed as resembling mountain lions)
attacking a monstrous mammal of some kind. I want to call it a giant
sloth (knowing that such creatures existed in the Americas until
fairly recent times) but the head seems more like that of an overgrown
guinea pig. We read the information scattered around the exhibit but
can find no reference to the saber tooth's prey apart from a brief
mention of giant bison. I'm sorry, but that's no bison!

Around the huge room there are exhibits set into the walls and these I
find very interesting. They show the development of arrow- and
spearheads from the earliest times in North America. All of the
examples shown were found in Oklahoma so that we have a truly local
history here. I spend a lot of time reading everything about these
exhibits while Kathy finds a bench upon which to wait.

In the next room we come upon more recent history. The settlement of
Oklahoma spreads before us in a reconstruction of a western town with
stores, tents and vehicles just as they were in the bad old days.

I confess to being an historical snob. To me, the older it is, the
more interesting. These wooden houses, these clumsy implements and
yellowed news sheets seem too close to yesterday and, perhaps, a
little unsettling in that they demonstrate too clearly how far we have
come in just 150 years. In the bank I see office tools that were
still in use in Zimbabwe's High Court when I worked there in the

I am saved by a little side room containing Native American artifacts.
Their beadwork is outrageously beautiful, their clothing so, well
yes, I have to admit it, romantic. No race or tribe, not even the
mighty Zulu or giant Watutsi, was ever so magnificently arrayed. Even
their tribal names are evocative – my favourites, the Comanche, their
allies, the Kiowa and the Arikawa.

Of course, I know that my love of the Plains Indians is romantic and
silly, that I would feel very differently if confronted by them at the
height of their rage at the injustices of the white man and they were
bent upon the lifting of my own scalp. But this wistful nostalgia for
the glory of their past does no-one any harm, I think, and besides, I
enjoy it.

I have conveyed little of the supreme ability of the Americans in
presenting the contents of their museums. As well as the
architect-drawn and imposing nature of the buildings they erect to
house these things, they are gifted in their presentation of even the
most meager items. There is none of the dust that seems to settle on
any exhibit in a British museum, everything is carefully thought out
and given its proper place in the order of all and due care is taken
for the comfort of any that might view these hallowed halls. I am
reminded of my previous visits to Presidential Libraries. Here there
is the same sense of peace and learning, the same respect, reverence
indeed, for the past. What a wonderful and, at times, surprising
people they are.

We finish our tour with the obligatory inspection of the gift shop.
And here, I'm afraid, I am ambushed – they have books! I see a
history of the Arapaho and want it desperately. Yet here is a similar
book dealing with the Kiowa which I must have. And over here, an
account of the Cheyenne escape from Indian Territory to return to
their homeland in the North. I want them all but know I must limit
myself to one. The Cheyenne book wins because it has been reduced in
price. I hug my purchase, savouring the delight that it holds in
store for me.

On the way out we meet another member of the staff and, in the course
of our chatter, it transpires that she lives just across the street
from Larry and Tracey – we are neighbours. A small incident, but one
that demonstrates the friendliness of Americans (in Britain we would
not have said enough to each other to become aware of the coincidence
of our homes) and the fact that this is, indeed, a small town.

Outside the building we have what seems to me a quintessentially
American experience. In driving through the acres of car park, I
notice a small animal at the side of the road. It is a rodent of some
description, about the size of a hare. Suddenly I realize that it is
a prairie dog, a gopher, a groundhog, indeed. Even Kathy is surprised
to see one here in a park surrounded by the town and we stop and watch
the little fellow for a while.

Then we become aware of two more watching us from nearby. And there
are three moving around in the field. As our eyes become adjusted to
the sight of these amusing little animals, we realize that there are
lots of them, perhaps even hundreds, all going about their prairie dog
business in the wide parkland that stretches beyond the museum
buildings. They have been very busy too, for the characteristic
mounds that they build when digging their holes are scattered over the
grassland. How did this isolated community come to be here? We have
no idea.

Continuing on our way, we pass a building separate from the main
museum. In large letters it proclaims itself the "Museum of the
Percussive Arts". Now there is a title to conjure with, a feast for
the imagination!

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


You surely would be intersted to journey just outside of St. Louis to a place called Cohokia Mounds. It's the site of what's thought to be the oldest civilization in North America. Truly wonderful museum, but more impressive are the actual ruins. It's worth noting here, that you would have to drive right past my front door in Springfield to get there :). I would be pleased to have scones and tea waiting (and I must say I make a mean scone).
Date Added: 09/01/2005

Gone Away
I have seen the Cohokia Mounds on television, Actress and I agree - they are fascinating. Who knows, one day I just might be able to take you up on your kind offer of scones and tea!
Date Added: 09/01/2005

- Quote - We finish our tour with the obligatory inspection of the gift shop. And here, I'm afraid, I am ambushed – they have books! - end quote - Haha! They sure did see you coming. Lovely post Clive - I need sleep so I'll travel on through your past in the future.
Date Added: 17/05/2005

Gone Away
Thanks, Paul. I'm a sucker for a bookshop - let me in there and you can guarantee I'll come out laden with purchases. ;)
Date Added: 17/05/2005

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