Juggling Fire

The cornerstone

There’s an old Indian legend that says my hometown of Cherokee, Oklahoma, is built in a valley so it can never be destroyed by a tornado. My husband says I should use the term Native American here – because Indians come from India – and someone might get offended.

But where I grew up, even the Natives called themselves Indians. Heck, a Mexican guy called himself Beaner, and the only black guy who lived in town told everyone he was made of chocolate.

As for the legend, well, it’s technically true as well. While Cherokee has been hit with fire and death and flood – and even a Super Wal-Mart 20 miles up the road, it has never, not one time ever, been hit by a tornado. And, even if it had been, all the Indians, Mexicans, white folks and one black guy would have just built it right back up again, together.

It’s hard to explain that kind of community to a guy from Preston, England. Though I do persist, he’ll tell you. I give equal opportunities for him, however, by asking him question after question about his life growing up. So far, I’ve learned that England is too cold in winter, too rainy in spring, and Preston was an uneventful, small place to grow up. (I’ve also learned it’s true what they say about the Brits: they just get on with it. No hiraeth for them.)

A small place? A population of 300,000 is not small. Though, compared to Bangkok, where we live now, I guess Preston is small. But compared to the 1,500 or so people, two stop lights and one plumber, Preston is not small.

If my calculations – and Google maps – are correct, Cherokee would fit inside our little pocket of Phra Khanong, Bangkok, 3.84 times and the population would be 60 times as dense!

Russ can’t fathom, but Google does help. Way more than my reminiscent tales over morning coffee. He would love to see for himself one day, but due to marriage and kids and work and life, we haven’t made the trip to the US or to England.

We have, however, taken a virtual tour of both.

We buzzed through Preston and saw the flat where Russ grew up. I have to call it a flat instead of a townhouse because it’s in England. We whisked by The Unicorn, the pub where he used to work, and we looked for the apartment he shared with some Skinheads. But it was gone, so we moved onto Cherokee.

I showed Russ my hometown bank first – because he had just transferred his life savings there and wanted to see where his British pounds had been magically converted to US dollars.

“Our money’s in there?” he questioned, staring a bit dumbfounded at the small brown brick building on the corner of 4th and Grand.

“Yep. It’s in there, honey.”

“You sure?” I knew that was coming.

“Yes. I got an email from Dayna yesterday, and I checked the balance today. All good.”

“Who’s Martha Royster?” he asked.

“Huh?”

“Martha Royster,” he said. “The bank clock says it’s her birthday.”

I hadn’t even noticed.

“I babysat for her three kids one summer,” I said. “Well, I babysat them for one week one summer.”

I let them lay around in their pajamas all day, so Martha politely fired me after a week. Russ gave me the face he normally reserves for our irresponsible teenagers. I responded with a lame excuse like our teenagers normally reserve for him.

“I had to get there on my bike by 7 o’clock in the morning, ok? And they lived on the other side of Grand.”

“What do you mean ‘on the other side of Grand?'” he asked.

I clicked out of satellite to show him how Grand divides the town in two.

“Grand is the main road, the highway,” I pointed to the north end of town. “When we cruised Grand, we did a u-turn here at City Hall.”

His face told me I needed to translate the words “cruised Grand.”

“When we took a cruise, rode around with our friends – that’s cruising Grand,” I said.

I moved the cursor south, passed the two stop lights, then swooped around the curve where dad’s gas station used to be and went past United Supermarket.

“When you get to Pizza Hut, you make another u-turn and do it all again,” I said.

I could tell he wasn’t impressed. The English aren’t fans of wasting fuel, or petrol, perhaps I should say.

“Sometimes we would park at Ritter’s,” I moved back down Grand, past the bank, to 3rd Street. Ritter’s was a body shop by day and a local hangout by night. The parking lot could fit only four or five cars, but the flat roof of the building could fit millions of beer cans. Everyone loved it because with one toss, any evidence of underage drinking magically disappeared.

That happened mostly when the cops pulled up. Heaven knows Ritter didn’t mind kids drinking there. He was a bit of a rebel himself. Plus, I heard once that he used to clean off his rooftop once a year and cash in a pretty penny at the recycling center in Enid.

“You know, one time he grabbed my boob,” I said. It hadn’t occurred to me how offensive that was until that very moment. I had been working as an editor at the Cherokee Messenger & Republican, and our publisher, Steve Booher, asked me to run next door to see if Ritter wanted an ad on the upcoming basketball booster page.

He said he wanted the ad, then he backed me up against a wall and grabbed my left boob. Full on. I can still feel his grimy hands on my tit.

“What did you do?” Russ asked.

“I told him to get his hand off my boob, went back to work and told Steve. And he told me to never go there again, so I didn’t.”

That’s the other thing about Cherokee, people can be real douchebags one minute and go out of the way to help you the next. I would have never made an issue out it because I loved his wife too much. Fay was one of my mom’s best friends, and she worked at the beauty shop with my cousin Eldora.

I changed the subject and moved the satellite view across the street from Ritter’s to the Great Salt Plains Health Center.

“Want to see where I committed my one act of rebellion?” I said.

While Russ had been living in England with Skinheads in the midst of the actual Anarchist movement, I was reading about Nancy Spungeon and the Sex Pistols and daydreaming of dating British boys who wore combat boots. I settled for my best friend Claudia’s ex-boyfriend. I know it was wrong. You don’t need to say anything. He wasn’t British, but he did wear combat boots. Plus, he liked Monty Python and was one heck of a debater. Just to clarify, I didn’t like Monty Python, and I didn’t debate. I just thought those were attractive qualities in boys at the time. Don’t ask me why. It was the ’80s. He turned out to be as big of a douchebag as Ritter, but thank goodness, Claudia and I’s friendship survived.

I set out to impress him by shoe polishing an anarchy symbol, along with the words “You Fashist Bastards,” on the window of the Great Salt Plains Health Center, which actually was just an abandoned IGA grocery store building at the time.

The shame of what I’d done – or tried to do but hadn’t done – was almost too embarrassing to admit. My one act of rebellion consisted of painting a misspelled word with washable shoe white on the window of a vacant building!

The graffiti was gone by noon, and no one ever said a word to me about it. Maybe no one knew who did it. Maybe no one cared. Maybe someone knew but figured I’d been through enough for one year. Either way, the only person who saw it – that I know of to this day – was my friend Ron, who picked me up the next morning to go cruise Grand.

He pulled into Ritter’s to view my handiwork.

“You spelled fascist wrong!” he screamed, and man, we laughed ’til it hurt.

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