Getting our kicks on Route 66

Bristow, Okla., Oct. 16.

Sunday afternoon, and we’re still looking for the escape hatch from Oklahoma. We’re moving forward.
Moving like a turtle on tryptophan.
Looking for electricity and easy Internet access, we stumble into Stroud, where the hometown Tigers walloped the Holdenville High Wolverines, 60-6 on Friday night. A faded, ancient-seeming McDonald’s sits adjacent to the interstate, a half mile west of Route 66. I jump from the behemoth and quickly survey the setting.
Empirically speaking, the score is: 2-1-0: Two patrons, both excellent candidates for membership in the Obese Ladies of Oklahoma, one TV tuned to Fair and Balanced Fox News, and zero electrical outlets for the convenience of power-sucking parasites.
Driving Route 66 from Oklahoma City to Tulsa, you find it hard to work up much love for Oklahoma. Not that you were trying.
I can see for miles and miles, and everything I see is flat, rusted and forlorn. Bleak as my soul, dreary as my conscience.
Speaking of the latter, it sure is easy to be glib and derisive when it comes to places like Oklahoma. Guess I’m just another one of those blue-state elitists Fox News loves to lampoon.
All of which makes me think of something the late, great George Carlin liked to say about needing to see past groups in order to appreciate the unique wonder of individuals, no matter where you are. Even in Oklahoma.
In his wisdom I just might find the overarching theme of this journal:
“I hate people with a common purpose. Because pretty soon they have little hats and armbands and fight songs and a list of people they’re going to visit at 3 a.m. I dislike and despise groups of people, but I love individuals. Every person you look at you can see the universe in their eyes if you’re really looking.”
If Stroud looks distressed and depressed, it has reason. A tornado ripped through town on May 3, 1999, leveling a Tanger outlet mall and Sygma Foods’ distribution center and devastating the local hospital.  In the process, the twister claimed 600 jobs and over $1 million in sales-tax revenues.
The hospital eventually reopened, but the shopping center and distribution center were gone for good.
Now we’re gone, too, without even spending a few dollars on coffee.
Next stop: Bristow, 17 miles northeast Stroud on Route 66, which runs parallel to and just south of I-44 the whole way. 
Bristow’s doing better than Stroud, if the snapshot sample of the local McDonald’s means anything. It’s bigger, cleaner, brighter. And two televisions, both featuring religious programming.
It’s Sunday in the heartland, after all.
And it has outlets.
That’s all that really matters. Lost on the road, it’s amazing the compromises you’ll make for an outlet and free wifi.
Bristow also has a little historical cachet. Gene Autry once worked here as a railroad telegraph operator. That was long before “Back in the Saddle,” “Here Comes Santa Claus” and the California Angels. Back even before he began his recording career, sounding like a Jimmie Rodgers knockoff with a social conscience. Here’s the old cowboy singing “The Death of Mother Jones”:

Just when you think your days as a magnet for eccentrics, lunatics and fringe dwellers of all types are over, your faith in the infeffable ways of the universe is restored.
I’m typing something banal, and Bill McKinney wants to know about my machine. He was born and raised in Sapulpa, 25 miles up Route 66 from here. He says he has an engineering background but nonetheless grapples with irrational fears about getting on the Web. An age thing.
He’s 60, though he looks like he could be in his mid-70s. The left side of his body is withered, ravaged by a stroke, and it seems not much more than an encumbrance at this point. He’s got a scar on his forehead from a fall, a bruise on his left temple.
He’s got an irreverant twinkle in his eye, and he’s an articulate, bright fellow. Something, however, seems a little off.
His body language is, in a word, conspiratorial. When he has something to impart he likes to cup his right hand at the side of his mouth. You’d think J. Edgar Hoover himself were sitting at the next table, dressed in bloomers and wolfing down a Big Mac. 
He lets it slip that he once worked as security for President Clinton, whom he sardonically calls “Billy.” Not surprisingly, he also lets it slip that he has no use for Billy. He never really explains exactly why he hates Clinton, but his jumbled amalgam of reasons probably can be summed up in a word:
“If he walked in that door, I would not, I mean I would not, get up and shake his hand,” he says. 
He backs off for a time, saying he’s not going to talk about his brush with fame. I’m willing to call his bluff. He begins to crack, allowing that it was a “monumental” moment in his life. Not that he’s proud of it.
Eventually a disjointed anecdote spills out about Clinton and his entourage playing a round at Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers, Ark. There’s trouble brewing in the form of a beat-up purple van, with yellow doors, which swerves into the picture suspiciously just as the president is almost ready to depart.
Bill (McKinney) stops the van and accosts the driver and passenger, a couple of long-hairs (and this, he avers, is not a story with any particular animus against “long-hairs.” Even long-hairs, I suppose, are preferable to Billy). And that’s the sum of the story. Nothing happens.
The story, I suppose, lies in what might’ve happened had he not acted with prejudice and dispatch.
Bill says it’s funny that a man, a Republican, named William McKinney drew the task of protecting a reviled Democratic president, a “neer-do-well” like Billy. It’s almost as if he thinks he’s somehow kin to turn-of-the-century president William McKinley, because the ill-fated McKinley was a Republican and, well, their names are quite similar.
Musical aside No. 2: I can’t hear of McKinley without thinking of the great old folk song “White House Blues,” which offers a stomping take on the president’s 1901 assassination in Buffalo. Charlie Poole, Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs all did classic versions of the song. Here is a nice little blog post about White House Blues. And here’s a rough, nay awful, recording of my personal favorite, done by the one and only Scott H. Biram:

Pressed to clarify his Clinton story, Bill fails. He does say he saw a similar van a week before the incident, and questioned the driver, who turned out to be … Timothy McVeigh. The reasons he recognized and remembered the name, which had yet to cement itself in the popular imagination, are too convoluted to get into here. 
I’m not 100 percent sure what the story is, other than he once guarded Billy. But he swears it’s all true, every word of it. 
“If you had an English version (of the Bible) out in your car, I’d swear on it,” he says. “When it’s all over and we meet up there at the gates, I’ll be whistling, and you’ll know everything I said was the God’s honest truth.”
At least I have that to look forward to.
We part ways, and I agree to be careful. I ask if I might take a snapshot of him. Absolutely not, he says. I beg and plead and inveigle, to no avail. 
Of course not. Why, there’s no telling where that photograph might end up. Possibly in the hands of his enemies in the left-wing media, who no doubt are legion.

An unauthorized, less-than-ethical, Zapruder-esque shot of William McKinney

He ambles away awkwardly, with the help of his cane. Or as he calls it, his shillelagh. I type madly and rack my addled brain in an effort to recall what I can of his rant.
A few minutes later, he limps in my direction. He thanks me again for chatting, and again admonishes me to be safe. A couple times. 
Be safe. The way his blue eyes bore into mine make me worry he’s delivering a message. Despite my friendly countenance, he surely recognizes me as an out-of-town liberal, some not-to-be-trusted agitator meandering down Route 66 with trouble on his mind.
He alludes to his powerful friends, real right-wing puppet masters. I ask what he thinks of the Wal-Mart model. He says you can’t beat it. Advises me to pick up a copy of Sam Walton’s autobiography at the nearest B. Dalton. I don’t have the heart to tell him B. Dalton has gone the way of the buzzard.
Back to Billy.
“They hate him over there,” he says. “I mean hate him. Then he makes a strange reference to Texarkana, Ark., being home to lots of “Sicilians and Eye-talians.”
“That’s where Billy spent a lot of time,” he says, closing the circle of the wild innuendo connecting Bill Clinton to La Cosa Nostra. “Spent a lot of time. He’s as crooked as a dog’s hind leg.”
He reprises his vow that he wouldn’t shake Bill Clinton’s hand if he were to walk into this very McDonald’s in Bristow-goddamn Oklahoma.
He apologizes for “getting up on his soapbox,” then immediately clambers right back on it for one last salvo:
“He’s a crook. Big time. He and his brother rented an apartment from me in downtown Fayetteville. When they left the maid went in to clean the place up and there was coke on the coffee table. Not Coca-Cola, but cocaine.”
He says he intends to write a detailed book chronicling all the half-stories and murky anecdotes and twisted innuendos he’s shared today, including the one where Billy C. gave Billy M.’s wife a kiss on the cheek. And a hug, I think. Though that’s not why he hates him.
Before we part, he offers a thought on his home state.
“I was born and raised in this state, and we’re still backward,” he says. “It’s pathetic.”
You said it, Bill, not me.
Maybe he’s not so crazy after all.


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One Response to Getting our kicks on Route 66

  1. EDF says:

    Are you ever going to escape Oklahoma or are you in some kind of Twilight Zone?

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