Growing up in Guymon, OK, I always longed to be someplace else. Since the town rested in the remote northwest corner of the state, there was already a sense of displacement there. When I taught high school English years later, in Tulsa and other cities, I noticed that most teenagers seemed restless to escape, to leave where they grew up.
For me, however, it wasn’t just about restlessness. I not only wanted to be someplace else; I wanted to be from someplace else. It began with an obsession to be a cowboy. I’m not sure about the exact origin of this obsession. Maybe it was because my grandfather, whom I admired a great deal, raised cattle. Of course his world had little to do with the Old West I imagined. Mine was a composite of The Rifleman, Bonanza and an edited-for-TV version of The Outlaw Josey Wales. I remember one afternoon in particular when my friend Warren had to stop playing because his sister was having her 12th birthday party. Warren had a small log cabin in his backyard that acted as a fort or a jail or a ranch house–any place where we needed to break out of, or break into. That particular day, when our play was cut short, his cabin was located on the southeast corner of The Alamo. I remember walking home and longing to leave, to actually go to the Wild West. For some reason, I couldn’t fathom that I was actually in the Wild West. I was too young to fully comprehend the concept of time. History was not something that had already happened, but something happening simultaneously some place else.
This longing to escape lasted well into my thirties. I not only left Oklahoma after college; each summer after I finished teaching, I took an extended vacation. One summer, a friend and I drove up the coast of California on Highway 1 to Portland, Oregon. I spent another summer living in Chicago, and then another in Hong Kong. I’ll never forget, however, the summer I decided to visit the East Coast for the first time.
I convinced three college friends to take a road trip from Phoenix to Maine. We crammed into a Nissan Sentra and stopped in several major cities along the way. We spent three days in Washington D.C., the highlight of which was visiting the Smithsonian Institute. I remember walking through the halls, not sure where to start, and then turning the corner and seeing a giant American Flag. Not a flag but the flag: The Star Spangled Banner. “The rockets red glare/ The bombs bursting in air/ Gave proof through the night/ that the flag was still there.” This flag.
It was just as you would expect: enormous, war-torn. I froze for a minute, thinking about all of the times I sang our national anthem and the millions of people who had done the same. All of it was inspired by this relic before me. As I stood there, a group of junior-high kids rushed past me. They stopped and all looked at the pieces of paper they held in their hands. Each then looked at the inscription next to the exhibit and back down to the paper. This is it, #9! They check-marked their pages as they passed a pen around, and then scurried away with their Social Studies teacher in tow.
It’s been over 15 years since that trip, and now that I’ve officially “escaped” from Oklahoma, I wonder about the effect growing up there had on me. My grandfather often said, “Bread tastes better if you stare at it through the window first.” In Guymon, you were forced to look at everything through a window. Occasionally, I think about the kids who were on that scavenger hunt in the Smithsonian that day. Will any of them be able to walk past the Star Spangled Banner as adults and have the same moment I did? Maybe they’re the ones at a disadvantage. Seeing something too soon can keep you from seeing it at all.