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On August 10th, 2002,
I returned to my home town,
Blackwell, Oklahoma,
for the first time in twenty years.
Here are a few words and recollections
on the three days I spent there.


"...and, gee, it's great
to be back home again."
         -- John Denver
There are barely 6,000 people left in Blackwell.
It was close to 11,000 when I left there in 1973.
That was the year the big zinc smelter closed,
and the town's been dying by inches ever since.
That incrimental sort of destruction feels familiar
to me -- that's what it felt like growing up there,
every day feeling another piece of myself torn
away and lost, in that place that calls itself
America's Hometown.
This is the Chikaskia River bridge that leads into town. I always associated it in my mind with the Tallahatchie Bridge that Billy Joe McAllister jumped off of, and I look back with some wonder that I did not end up with the same sort of death. Legend is that there was a sign across the bridge that said The sun doesn't set on a nigger in Blackwell.  I think I remember seeing that sign when I was little. I know I remember the message. Blackwell defined itself in three ways: the home of the world's largest zinc smelter, the town with no niggers, and a fine place to raise children. Now the smelter's gone, one Black family has inexplicably taken up residence, and the children have all left. Blackwell, America's Hometown, is dead to itself.


This is where I think of myself
as having grown up... [left]
But in fact, this is where 
I lived from ages 7 to 12...


... ... ...810 S. 12th was the last house on the west
side of town, and beyond it was miles of  flat
nothingness, broken by the zinc smelter's
towering smoke stack. Across the street 
was the hospital where my mother died in
1966, and it was after that we moved to the
house at 431 East Blackwell Avenue  [below]


This is where I lived out my teenage years.
When I returned in 2002, two old ladies were
living there together in a happy state of irony.
I left this house, and Blackwell, when I went
off to college. I saw it only twice more; when
my father died in 1977 and when my brother
Jonty died in 1983. The old ladies welcomed
me in, and I felt like I had entered the crypt
of my own youth. The hardest years of my
life passed in that house.

There were a few fine people in Blackwell,
and I found one of them on my return: my
mother's best friend, Bonnie. She took me to
the cemetary, and as I stood there, I realized
that it was my father's birthday --he would
have been 100 years old that day.

     Dorothy                         Glen
     06-22-1917                     08-12-1902
     02-23-1966                     01-09-1977
I hoped that while I was there, I'd see one of
the few things I really miss about Oklahoma:
an insanely violent thunderstorm with wild
lightning and a little gale-force destruction.
Sho' nuff -- one of the best electrical storms
I've ever seen, and many trees down all over
town.  It lasted all night on the 11th, ushering
in my father's own centennial with a little taste
of hell. Much more fun than an earthquake.

I missed the Blackwell Centennial!
I found this artistic record of the event writ
crude on the wall of a local business. all too
predictable -- wheat, oil, noble Red Man...
No imagination, no honesty, no insight, no fun.
I'm sure there was a big parade -- I picture
a team of dead horses pulling a driverless
covered wagon full of Cherokee corpses,
as overhead a crepe-paper tornado twirls
down from a cloud of smelter smog and
the holy smoke of a burning cross.

more about Blackwell High School below...

 Welcome to my nightmare...


I wish I could show you pictures of the dank old delapidated building where my daily hell of attending Blackwell high School was practiced in the years 1968 - 1971, but the fact is, the place looks now as it looked then -- like every other 60's-built middle class high school, all glass and grass and sprawling one-story modernity. It's pleasant looking place -- uninspired and utilitarian, but "nice"...further evidence of the mundane nature of evil.

with Carla in front of BHS

I spent most of my time in Blackwell with CARLA [see my High School Years page] who lives in Ames, Iowa now. She still has family in Blackwell, so she visits often enough to have developed no particular mythology about the place. Her view of Blackwell, as with many things, is pragmatic: it's a crummy little town; you grow up and leave and get over it.

Carla and Launa, all grown up

LAUNA met me at the airport in Oklahoma City, making her the first Blackwellite I had seen in over twenty years. She lives in the city and works in the legal epartment at Sonic, Inc. [more about the Sonic later] Her recollection of the town is nowhere nearly as bleak as mine. I can see why: Launa had then, and has now, a wonderful capacity for acceptance and fun.

There were two places at the high school that I wanted to revisit...


This is the High School Auditorium 
where I did my one and only high 
school play as an actor: playing 
Teresa's boyfriend in a typically 
dreadful production of "Cheaper 
by the Dozen"... how tired is that? 


And this -- first room on the right, B-wing --
was my sanctuary for my first two years at
BHS, Pam Priboth's room.  [see my High School
Years page] There's a work room just off the
class room where Priboth did her smoking
and where I was -- for the first time --
discovered to be a gifted human being
with talent and a heart... and whereI was
slipped a contraband copy of The Catcher in
the Rye. Holy ground, buddy. Holy ground.

For all of us --teenagers in Blackwell Oklahoma,
back in the 60's and 70's -- the main activity was
the main drag: the endless dragging Main that
always began and ended circling the Sonic
drive-in... a classic, park-and-order-and-they-bring
-it-out-on-a-tray drive-in like the one you saw in 
American Graffiti. Every damn night we were out
in our cars, restless, bored, roaming, wishing we
were driving not in circles but in a long, straight
line, into the night and away from Blackwell forever. 
I remember Twila working there, 
I remember sitting at the Sonic for hours with
Launa, I remember the diagonal parking slot on the
north west side that Carla and I preferred...
...and I remember climbing into someone's
car there to talk to Rebecca on the Friday night
before she was killed. Home was where we slept,
school was where we spent our days, but the Sonic
was where we lived in the closing years of the 60's
when we were young in Blackwell, Oklahoma.
When I planned to go back to Blackwell, this was
one of my favorite images -- sitting, once again, at
the Sonic with Carla and Launa, seeing kids driving
through, kids watching each other, to see who was
out and available, who was riding with
creating their own dramas as they dragged Main,
thirty years later, wondering who the old folks were,
the ones laughing. Kids as restless as we were, and
maybe angrier and more hopeless, because it's that
kind of town.
Here's the Sonic that greeted me when I went back
to Blackwell, when I dragged that main street again,
thirty years after my time was up...

"... used to be my playground"

The building was gone, and only the skeleton of the sign remained. The parking spaces were all that was left, overgrown now with grass and weeds. When was it destroyed and replaced with a new, fake Sonic down the street? The new fake Sonic without a history -- without my history.

"This used to be my playground ...used to be
This used to be my childhood dream
This used to be the place I ran to
Whenever I was in need
Of a friend
Why did it have to end
And why do they always say

Don't look back
Keep your head held high
Don't ask them why
Because life is short
And before you know
You're feeling old
And your heart is breaking
Don't hold on to the past

Well that's too much to ask"

and damn Blackwell for making me quote Madonna

There's not much left in Blackwell.
Bob's Grill still has the best chicken-fried steak in the world, but Bob is
in his nineties now. The old Carnegie Library is still open, but only six
people have checked out "A Streetcar Named Desire" since I read it
when I was thirteen years old. The town has seen its Last Picture
Show. Both movie theaters are gone, the one where "Funny Girl"
changed my life, and the one where I went every Friday night with
the only Best Friend I ever had in that town.The dime stores where I
bought Christmas presents for my little brother have all gone. A big
Walmart opened on the edge of town a few years ago, and pretty much
closed the downtown. The little grocery store where I bought  Fantastic
Four #1 is gone, replaced by a double-wide trailer. The tree I used to
climb up onto my roof was in someone's way, I guess, and had to go.
I couldn't find Teresa's house, and the Monkey Park has no more monkeys.
A few storefronts remain as antique stores -- junk shops, really, just getting
rid of the things Blackwell doesn't need anymore, the way a dying old man
might give away those old things he has no reason to hold on to...


But Twila is still there.
And it was in seeing Twila again
that I realized why I went back,
and discovered what I already knew: 
that in one inescapable way
I had never left.
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child's
     Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother 
      Through the parables
Of sunlight
        And the legends of the green chapels
        And the twice told fields of infancy
     That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
And the true
        Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.

Dylan Thomas
Poem in October

Blackwell: Morning, Country Road