“And where did you say you’re from, again?” Ugh, the dreaded question. As I learned in a high school psychology course, stereotypes actually facilitate faster learning because they provide a basic structure upon which new thoughts and ideas can be constructed— but I don’t care.
I just don’t want to hear it again. “Um… Oklahoma,” I say quietly. Hopefully. Pleadingly, but it’s no use; the consequence of such a sentence is undeniable, unstoppable, unending.
Seriously. I just want to put my hands on both sides of their head and scream, “Actually, I had to sing that song exactly two-hundred-and-fifty-nine times in the third grade by law. By LAW!" or I would say, "As a matter of fact, I know all the words and verses—even the ones you thought were part of American the Beautiful—so well that they occasionally enter into my dreams!" or I would retort, "ACTUALLY, do you even know WHERE Oklahoma IS?!” but instead I just smile kindly, laugh gently and ask, “Did you think of that all by yourself?”
Tulsa is a large city in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma. It’s quirky, beautiful, and so much more than an over sung Rogers n’ Hammerstein tune or even a Don Williams crooner. My hometown is unique—it breathes, it grows and it hangs behind my eyelids, always waiting for a visit.
My family’s original roots are in Salt Lake City. I was only eight when we were violently replanted to the foreign land of Oklahoma, and I have never felt more out of place. Nothing in our arid, mountainous homeland could compare with the sheer volume of green that overpowered us as we stepped out of the packed pickup truck at our new home on a sultry August day. It was the amount of green—the grass was chartreuse, the trees verdant, the ferns and vines and elephant ears (the what?!) vividly emerald and jade and olive.
It was also the amount of VOLUME. The entire landscape buzzed with the sounds of a thousand wings, a million mouths, a billion busy legs crawling over luscious leaves. The green canopy filtered the squabbling and chirping sounds of huge, fluffy squirrels. Even the huge, waving ferns and brilliant redolent flowers seemed to be rejoicing noisily in the chaotic din. The whole scene was punctuated by the dependable pulse of the cicada (whatever that was).
The next thing that hit us, I’m sure, was the heat. The term “wave” received new meaning as we drowned in the high tide of humidity. We gulped for breath, the saturated air trying to enter our desiccated lungs like a sumo wrestler trying to get through the turnstile for Splash Mountain.
Our bodies somehow did not protest the change; rather, skin exulted in the wonderfully wet and unbearably boiling climate and began to relax, unwind and decompose, back to its natural state. The skin’s natural state is a large pool of sweat.
Though the first impression on these delicate desert blooms was drippy, my family surmounted the challenge. Instead of wilting, we flourished. We put down new roots and feelers and shoots; we learned all we could in order to survive, even enjoy, our new surroundings. We observed the behavioral patterns of the fox in our front yard and learned how to sneak up on the red hawk in the big hackberry.
Life filled our pool on steamy summer nights, and we learned how to pinpoint a tiny peeping frog in the dark by the sound of his pipes. We also learned to never reach into the pool skimmer without checking it first (snakes like chlorine), and shaking out shoes and boots (use your imagination). We learned how to distinguish a deadly brown recluse from a harmless wolf spider (the recluse is the one that lives in your BED) and the basic guidelines for approaching a stranded turtle (if it’s smaller than you and doesn’t bite the scout, your younger brother, you’re golden. Go ahead and throw it in the trunk). Curiosity and courage overcame the family’s original worries and we soon dove right in and tried things that make other families shudder: raising a scorpion, ducks, a couple red-eared sliders, two or three blue-tailed skinks and four beautiful tarantulas.
On one heavy twilight when even the stars were enveloped in the sticky, smothering blanket of heat, another alien aspect of Oklahoma came pouring into our lives. Oh, that first rainstorm! Warm drops of jubilant life released the landscape from its agonizing heat, bathed the blistering driveways and houses and baptized the horizon anew. We were sent out in our swimsuits, appreciative Martians ogling and splashing in the everyday miracle that the natives didn't seem to notice.
In the winter, rain came in a frozen and much less gentle form. Even before the television’s pronouncement of “school’s out,” the gunshot sounds of collapsing trees in the yard announced the ice storm and rendered sleep impossible. Similar to our familiar snowfall, ice fell in a sheet. It covered the lawn and streets and cars and maybe even the cat if you left her out last night, but a closer look revealed that this too was a completely new experience. Every tree limb, every leaf, every delicate tendril of life was encapsulated, caught in time, captured inside a perfect layer of shimmering ice.
The most infamous and ominous feature of Tulsa crept in occasionally on Tuesday afternoons and Sunday nights—odd and anxious spring days when the rain had a dangerous roar and the clouds looked a little funny. The family huddled inside around a tiny television as the merciless hail started tormenting the roof. Natives told us you didn’t really have to worry until the sky turned green and since that occurrence was surely too foreign to even comprehend, our fears were assuaged. But we were wrong—I can tell you. It does turn green.
Tornadoes haunted my nightmares for weeks that first winter. Too many classmates had shared the stories of destruction, and someone (why???) somewhere had let me watch Twister. My fears were realized that first spring night when the rain began. The rest of the family geared up halfheartedly—shoes in the bathroom, mirror off the wall, emergency radio and flashlight charged and wound: the bare essentials. I moved stuffed animals, studied emergency plans and searched for the outside pets with feverish intensity that resulted from absolute fear. When the hail finally stopped that night and an eerie silence began echoing over the lawn, up the driveway and into the house—the truly dangerous sign of a twister—I’m sure I was beyond anxiety. My mother noticed my anguish as we all piled into the bathroom “just in case,” and she pulled the kids close and grinned.
“No matter what happens to the house or car or our things,” she told us, “We’ll be just fine. We’re together. Now let’s count how many times Dad asks if he can go outside and get some pictures.”
By the next spring, we had shed our frightened outsider tendencies and the bathroom sanctuary. When the weather report sounded doomsday this time, we all rushed outside with the real natives to watch. Now, hail in April is a miracle, not an indicator of destruction, and tornadoes are an adventure.
Outside on the front porch, sweltering and freezing air intermitently rush around us as we revel in the beauty and power of God’s hand at work in Tulsa, Oklahoma.