Friday, March 5, 2010

Her Name was Tulsa (1/5)

My uncle Hezekiah in Norman once gave me a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten: “Boy, if you want to find contentment in life, find an agreeable woman, handsome in the face but not too handsome, able to cook sauerkraut on demand, with the Holstadt secret recipe…and, o yeah, she should have a religious devotion to laundry and not gripe about extended periods of time out with the guys.”

My uncle did not endear himself to the family when he sold off the old farmstead back in ‘78. Located outside Weatherford, the place had been in the family since the 1890s. That didn’t matter to Uncle Hez, however, for he needed capital to start up a gentlemen’s club, his lifelong dream. The Comfort Wagon was really just another one of those backwoods nudie joints whose clientele, to put it mildly, strained the definition of gentleman.

I took my uncle’s words to heart at the time, though now that I think about it in retrospect it seems as though he was just pulling crap out of his arse. It doesn’t take much to get my mom drunk, but to hear her curse is a rare occasion indeed. One of those occasions was the election of Jimmy Carter as president. But when Uncle Hez sold the family plot, a good 160 acres of sand lovegrass and unfulfilled dreams, she lost it completely, spewing a colorful array of bawdy and aggressive words that, frankly, I had either not realized she knew or wished she didn’t so brazenly reveal that she knew. In her defense it was probably the alcohol doing most of the talking. The mere mention of my uncle’s name thereafter would bring forth yet more torrents of obscenities from her tongue. If she knew how I spent my days with Uncle Hez when years ago the courts forced her to go through rehab, she’d be livid.

That summer—the same summer the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album came out, I fondly recall—he taught me how to skin a rabbit and pick my nose with a fork; both endeavors left me with permanent scars, one mental, and the other physical. I told my mom Ray Blackmore, the notorious school bully, socked me in the face because he wanted my seat on the bus. I knew my mom wouldn’t press the matter, because she was seeing Ray’s dad, an abusive person himself, in those non-halcyon days of my youth. Besides, I could always rely on her inebriated state to deceive her. My first wife and I firmly believed that becoming a grandmother would stay her hand from the bottle, a desired objective that rehab failed to achieve; but we were naïve on that score.

Don’t ask about my father. I was born nine months after his return from Korea. I think he considered the procreative act that produced me the extent of his fatherly duty. His Purple Heart, for that matter, seemed to be the beginning and end of any achievement in life. He didn’t share his brother’s proclivity for whoring and he never touched alcohol, or at least I never some him intoxicated—my mother could drink for the both of them. But he smoked like a fiend, and to this day I take odd comfort whenever I see a Marlboro pack, the only memorable connection to my father, well, excluding the painful image of him hooked up to an oxygen tank, tucked away in the guesthouse, his eyes evincing horrific agony. He died from emphysema when I was eleven.

I still think my mother overreacted about the farmstead. The old Holstadt place and adjacent cemetery, after all, is and always has been a worthless piece of real estate, situated on rocky soil and surrounded by tar pits. Uncle Hez once took me out there with my brother Carl and friend Josh to shoot prairie dogs with our bb guns and his 22 rifle. How our family got the homestead is an interesting story in and of itself.

My great-grandfather, Jake the Squatter, who had came from Cincinnati to build a better future for himself and his family of eight, earned his nickname at the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1892, and not for the reason you might expect. Turns out he squatted down to relieve himself with a bowel movement about a hundred yards from a creek-fed field, any farmer’s dream. As an Irish family passed by in horse and buggy to stake their claim to it, so the story goes, he just sat there looking sheepish, grimacing and mumbling like a lunatic in his native Low German, the most unpleasant gaseous sounds barely drowned out by the clippity clop of horse hooves. According to my aunt’s genealogy work, they could hear him screaming Scheiss! as they drove their stake into the fertile soil ten minutes or so later. Even the damn Leprechauns who stole our land knew this word.

To this day no-one knows for sure if Jake was matter-of-factly describing the business he was engaged in at that particular moment—defecation, to be clear—or whether he was uttering a curse in exasperation at paradise lost. A large man with a sweet tooth, Jake had downed a couple of sarsaparilla floats with corn toppings at McGillicutty’s General Store an hour before the sounding of the cavalry bugle that would start the “Run.” When you gotta go, you gotta go, I guess. But his descendents have been smarting over his failure to get some choice land ever since. I’m not sure you can blame my great-grandfather for succumbing to Montezuma’s revenge, or maybe I should call it Arapaho’s revenge, since those land rushers, Jakob Holstadt included, were giving the Arapaho the boot—the boot off our God-given land. (I harbor no hard feelings for those Indians, especially considering the fact that they employed my son-in-law as a janitor at their casino back in the 1990s, a job he held until they caught him stealing smokes and chew from their convenience store.)

Jake’s grandfather, or his great-grandfather, settled in Ohio before the Civil War. What did they come here looking for? Why did they leave their homeland? I don’t really know and I don’t care. My aunt Anneliese in Columbus, now pushing ninety-three, is the family genealogist, not me. All I know is that the Holstadts came from a cold, flat region called East Frisia. We’re of Dutch-German descent, which is a strange combination and probably explains the schizophrenic relationship my family had with our next door neighbors: a retired English couple who moved to the states to be near their stenographer son. During the week we’d go over there cordially asking for sugar or flour, while on weekends my brother and I would toss beer bottles over the backyard fence and watch them explode on their patio.