That Tranquil Period

by John Joseph Mathews


The University of Oklahoma is built on the Permian Redbed Plains. When I arrived, there were only a few buildings of bastard Gothic, in red brick; the law “barn” in white limestone; and the Fine Arts building in bastard Gothic in red brick. The Science Hall and the Library facing each other across the Oval were small and modest and tinted by the winds that blew across the Redbeds. Besides these there was an engineering building and it seems that here were some shacks, for overflow from the classrooms in the Administration building and the Science Hall.

The students were deadly serious; that is, most of them certainly were, especially those who came from the prairie-plains. Their parents had made “The Run” onto the Unassigned Lands in 1889, and onto the Cherokee Outlet in 1893, and they had fought against drought and grasshoppers and blizzards and watched the horizon for tornadoes. At times they had to pick up the weathered bones of buffalo and send them to market for the making of fertilizer, and they had often to depend on the indulgence of small trading posts in the nascent villages for credit.

These settlers who had run onto the Plains to stake homesteads, experienced the “buddy” spirit of soldiers, since like soldiers they faced a common enemy, and since they were all in the ranks, no one was superior to another, and if one family went under, this inspired in the others much more than simple sympathy, but vicarious fear and empathy. The acrid, smoldering ugliness left by prairie fires, the sun-tortured gardens and fields, the de-feathered chickens and the dead cattle, and the barns and lean-tos that had been swirled to the northeast by a tornado (the settlers were quite often safe in dugouts) made them much more than their brother’s keeper, but their brother’s comrade in the presence of the ever-present, relentless enemy.

And they were not only attacked by the elements but by disease, and in their hopes for their children’s survival they must take into consideration percentages. The children of these settlers who were sent to the University, were eager and serious and staunchly believed in Christian brotherhood, but there was no test facing them at the University, since no Negro was allowed to stay in the town of Norman overnight.

The parents and grandparents of the students from the eastern part of the state, which before statehood had been called Indian Territory, had come into the Territory, and had resided in the territory which had later become the state, since the early part of the 19th century. These were members of the Five Civilized Tribes, mixed-blood members of these tribes, and other settlers. Their part of the state was wooded and mountainous, and musical with mountain streams. They too had had their hardships; many of the Cherokees had come to the state over the Trail of Tears, and when they arrived in their new homes, they found the Osages: “buffalo Indians” from the Woodland-Plains, dedicated to hunting and war; and they themselves had brought along with them the dreaded disease cholera.

They had to consider percentages in the matter of their children’s survival as well, and the prairie chickens devoured their grain and the panthers took their hogs. The prairie chickens had known only acorns, ants, grasshoppers, buds, leaves, berries and wild grains, and the panther had known only deer, wapiti, colts of range mares and wild turkeys. The domestic grains were concentrated, conspicuous and plentiful and there was no necessity to hunt for them. The swine of the settlers knew nothing of protective immobility in order to take advantage of protective background; they could only squeal and couldn’t run away.

Here was manna, and these two eagerly made the most of it.

Some of these mixed-bloods and a few of the others who had been forced to leave their plantations in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Mississippi by the United States government, and settle in the area which became western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, carried across the Mississippi much of the Southern culture with them into the wilderness, and tried to nourish the plantation culture there, despite cholera, smallpox, typhoid fever, malaria, prairie chickens, panthers and Osage Indians. Some of them had brought their slaves with them, and this meant they also brought their caste. This might have died out in their struggle with the wilderness, where Christians might be expected to stand shoulder to shoulder in their struggle with the earth, Osages, drought, disease, panthers, and prairie chickens, if there had not been an infiltration during the 19th century into the hills and woods of the Indian Territory, low-livers, and criminal refugees from the laws east of the Mississippi; driven out of the states east of the river through the progress of culture and law development. Their presence and savage depredations, and way of life, alone, would have been sufficient incentive for the settlers to yield to the ancient, inherent necessity in man to create caste, even though the imported caste from the South might have grown feeble under the new conditions.

However there was no evidence of this among the students of the university from that part of the state. There was only a certain nonchalance, which might not have been noticeable if it had not come face-to-face with Plains earth-struggle seriousness.

* * *

 I made the freshman football team, but when we scrimmaged against the varsity, it was revealed to me that I was not a college football player. I was put into the line as a tackle (of all places for a sandhill crane [1] ) by the freshman coach, and the varsity tackle opposing me was one of the Hott brothers, and he must have been the deciding factor in my football career. The Hotts were both linemen and built like tanks, ham-handed and dedicated.

I don’t believe Benny Owen and his assistants were concerned about my inadequacy at tackle, since they had a line with the Hotts, Red Phillips and others, and the backfield was full of real football players, and the next year the varsity was all-victorious without me.

But I stayed on the freshman team, and the next year I made the “Yanigans,” the name for the un-lettered football pariahs. But during my freshman year, when the game with an outstanding rival was played someone got the idea of reproducing The Run of 1889 at halftime. There were covered wagons driven around the cinder path that circled the playing field, and of course two students on horses circling in opposite directions, carrying staking flags.

Members of the freshman team were given this duty, and I borrowed a horse from Neil Johnson, who played half back on the varsity and was a member of a prominent ranch family who had their home in Norman.

When all was ready Tom Hill and I rode in a dead run, he down one side of the cinder path and I the other, and at the end of the run we reined in our horses, causing them to hook brake with their hind feet, then jumped off and planted our symbolical claim flags.

It all seemed rather silly to me, even at that age, but my father was present at this all-important game, still with burnished hope, realizing that his future All-  American couldn’t play with the varsity as a freshman. He didn’t know anything about the Hotts and about the coaches trying a sandhill crane out at tackle, a fact that might indicate that Benny Owen, head coach, hadn’t been reading The Osage Journal.

I saw my father in the stands with a striped tie and his Stetson hat, and there was the old look of approbation lighting his face. Even though the princeling was only a freshman yet, and not suited up on this thrilling day, his attitude, when he came to the fraternity house after the game, seemed to say that anyway there was a hoss in the affair, and son had ridden him well: in a dead run standing in the stirrups with his staking flag waving. His attitude indicated that he would have liked to discuss this particular phase of the game, but none of the young men seemed to think the incident worthy of mention.

His face was lighted during the few hours he remained at the house; people naturally deferred to him. Looking back on that tranquil period, one experiences an indefinite nostalgia, and despite the conscious maleness among the young men and the careful propriety of the young women, there was freshness and hope and a fascinating naïveté that puerile pride tried to dissemble.

Conscious maleness covered the practice of greeting each other on the walks of the campus, with “Hi, men” and shaking hands with a vise-like, sometimes painful grip. Wristwatches were considered effeminate; not even transfers from Rutgers or Princeton or Yale wore wristwatches. As far as I know, before the war of 1914–1918, no “he-man” dared to wear one. Even the girls might have felt uncomfortable with wristwatch-wearers, as they might have been with a “queer” or a Lesbian.

These were the prewar days of tranquility and naïveté.


From Twenty Thousand Mornings by John Joseph Mathews, courtesy of the University of Oklahoma Press. Reprinted with permission.


1.Mathews’ assessment of his own physique, as referenced earlier in the memoir.