And, oh, did the winds sweep across the plain as we made our way from West Memphis, Arkansas – across the entire state and into Sallisaw, Oklahoma and the next day on to Oklahoma City. West Arkansas provided some beautiful rolling hills and a rather benign day of travel. But, then, the winds came as we headed west to Oklahoma City. We started early (as we almost always do) to get into our campsite early, as the winds were forecast to build significantly in the afternoon. And – this time the forecasters were correct!
In addition to avoiding the worst of the winds, it gave us the afternoon to begin our exploration of Oklahoma City. Our first stop was the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum commemorating the horrific act of terrorism and loss of life at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building explosion on April 19, 1995. The memorial is very well done, with a significant focus on the individuals – those that lost their lives, those that survived the horror and the American spirit of coming together in times of great sorrow and tragedy with selflessness, courage and compassion. In total, 168 people, including 19 children, lost their lives at the hands of Timothy McVeigh. His use of a Ryder truck loaded with explosives to “avenge” the Federal Government’s siege on the Branch Davidian compound carried out two years before near Waco, TX was beyond comprehension in our world of 1995.
The Federal Building housed US Customs Service, US Secret Service, Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, VA, Department of Health & Human Services, DEA, GAO, Department of Agriculture, Department of Labor, ATF, Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation, US Army & Marine Recruiting, Defense Investigative Service, US Postal Service, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and, horrifically, America’s Kids Day Care.
The force of the explosion collapsed one-half of the 9 story building; the children were located on the second floor. Additionally, nine other buildings were destroyed and 25 were seriously damaged. Miraculously, only one first responder, a 29 year old nurse, lost her life from injuries sustained in the rescue efforts.
After several emotional hours, we headed for some light-hearted learning at the American Banjo Museum, located in the Bricktown area of downtown OKC. Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the banjo, the museum focuses on expanding both the appreciation and the understanding of the banjo’s history and its music. On display are over 400 banjos from very early examples of strings stretched across a drum head to amazing works of art from manufacturers around the world. There are piccolo banjos that are pitched an octave above a standard banjo that perform as the soprano in a Banjo Orchestra. There are three-string, four-string, five-string and eight-string banjos and some beautiful ukuleles (originally pronounced ohh-koo-lay-lee).
There were several connections we felt as we toured the museum. There was the highlighting of Steve Martin and his contributions to the recognition and renewed respect for the banjo – and a bit of a glow from the docents that he had made an “unannounced visit” in June of this year. After his visit, he tweeted “Only problem with visiting the American Banjo Museum: not enough banjos. Har”
Bela Fleck, a world renowned banjo player who holds a Banjo Camp at our Brevard Music Center each August, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016 in the Performance Category. And, not the least for us, was the 2019 Hall of Fame induction of John Hartford in the Historical Category. Known by most for penning “Gentle on My Mind,” John was a close and dear friend of our special friend, Wade Barber (best man at our wedding 30 years ago).
A very special “Special Exhibit” that will close the end of the month was a Salute to Jim Henson. Jim’s life passion for the banjo and his insatiable desire to leave the world a better place because he was here were certainly evident in his character development of Kermit and the entire array of Muppets. No one of our era can forget the “Rainbow Connection” in the 1979 film The Muppet Movie. It reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100, remained in the Top 40 for 7 weeks, and nominated for Best Original Song at the 52nd Academy Awards – a Green Frog singing and playing a banjo!
Without a distillery to visit (tasting rooms not legal in Oklahoma), we chose to “wet our whistles” at the Bricktown Brewery – and a delight time we had!
Early Saturday morning, we headed for the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. We arrived 25 minutes after opening, the parking lot was completely full and we were directed to remote parking. Thinking the draw to this museum was overwhelming, we learned that there were fall graduation ceremonies for several colleges of University of Oklahoma occurring at the museum! We reaped the benefit with a marvelous bagpipe production – and an almost empty museum to tour.
Founded in 1955, this is an amazing collection of historical artifacts and artwork of every facet depicting the impact the vaqueros, as they were first known. It tells a fascinating story of how the western movies, originally written and produced by eastern filmmakers, shaped the perspective of the frontier as well as the men and women that attempted to “tame” the vast area simply identified as “the west”. More recent productions, such as Lonesome Dove, present a more historically accurate picture of what life was truly like.
While the movie industry and folklore represented a gun-slinging, crusty man with a withering and helpless female, the reality of the early west was much different. The 1900 Federal census of Payne County, Oklahoma revealed its diverse and immigrant origins. Birthplaces included 44 of the then 45 states, and at least 19 countries: England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Holland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Russia, Mexico and Canada.
The bronze works of many artists were breathtaking, but the true Remington’s were beyond words. While most of Remington’s work was duplicated multiple times with the art of lost wax molds, the Museum has the only single unique cast, Buffalo Signal.
We retraced our steps to the American Banjo Museum, with the call of a “Celtic Jam Session”. We enjoyed an hour of local musicians in what appeared to be a “workshop” with gifted fiddle, banjo, guitar and percussion artists.
Our delightful adventure that was Oklahoma City culminated in dinner at the Cattlemen’s Steakhouse in the Stockyard District. Founded in 1910 as a dining establishment for workers in the District, it has a warm environment, amazing service and out-of-this world food. It has, as well, a bit of history that truly aligns with the “aura of the west”. On Christmas Eve, 1945, a gentleman by the name of Gene Wade was enjoying the gambling tables at the Biltmore Hotel (don’t miss the irony of this name!). At the table was Hank Frey, the owner of Cattlemen’s Steakhouse. The story goes that Hank ran out of money – and as a last, desperate move, he wagered the Steakhouse against Gene Wade’s lifetime savings. The bet was that Gene could NOT roll a “Hard Six” – two dice with 3s on each. The brand of Cattlemen’s is a vivid reminder of the results of Gene’s roll!
So, we depart Oklahoma City in the morning – with great memories of delightful experiences. And, with the yearning to return for more of both places we want to re-investigate and places yet to be experienced. We are off to “seek and find” parts of Route 66 as we head west on Interstate 40.