It was an hour before dusk when we pulled into Idabel. The late summer heat yellowed the rim of the southern Oklahoma town to the color of a dirty diaper. I rode with Joyce Petersen, a young blonde reporter who’d set up an interview with three Klan leaders representing Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas.
A big rally, complete with cross burning, was planned for later that month, and the Daily Oklahoman was invited to witness it. But the interview came first. I was driving, and Joyce directed me to the town’s Dairy Queen. When I pulled into the parking lot she pointed to an old Ford pickup, faded blue, tucked into the rear of the lot. “That’s him,” she said, “our contact.”
A stout man wearing a short-sleeved checked shirt and a ball cap advertising large yellow farm implements hopped from the truck and shook our hands. His were as large as a catcher’s mitt.
“Let’s go—we have a long ride ahead,” he said tersely.
In the truck, the man squirted a fresh stream of chewing tobacco into a white Styrofoam cup and then wedged it between the truck’s dust-encrusted dash and the windshield. He smiled at Joyce and said without inflection, “Nasty habit.”
We cleared the city limits, and I settled in for a long ride. But the man abruptly pulled over on the graveled shoulder and cut the engine. He took a deep breath and looked over at us. “Sorry I have to do this, but you gotta be blindfolded. We meet secret. No one knows where. They would bust in on us. Need to blindfold you and drive around for an hour so you can’t find us later. Okay?”
Joyce and I looked at each other and nodded, because we didn’t want to drive three hours and not come away with a story. He gave us each a white handkerchief and instructed us to tie it tightly around our eyes. We did as instructed, and the man leaned over and checked each with his thick index finger.
It briefly occurred to me that this could all be an elaborate ruse, and this guy was really a demented serial killer whisking us to a remote location, first to rape Joyce and then to murder us both.
Within minutes the man turned onto a dusty gravel road and rattled over loose wooden bridges, kicking up enough dust to fill the stuffy cab. Joyce sneezed. I tried not to listen to the hellish squeaking of the Styrofoam cup against the glass. I felt the truck level out occasionally. I knew when we swooped into creek bottomland because it got cooler and I could smell honeysuckle vine and the peculiar mustiness of damp sycamore. Once I caught a whiff, however faint, of skunk musk drifting with the evening air.
Neither of us knew this far southeastern quadrant of Oklahoma very well, so the movie-script subterfuge wasn’t necessary. But the stout man played his role admirably and turned and twisted his way over the hills and hollers, no doubt where he’d killed deer, turkeys and squirrels since his youth.
Then, suddenly, the rattling and crunching stopped, the old pickup’s groans were dampened, and it seemed to glide over close-cropped carpet. Occasionally we dipped gently and the shocks squeaked, but again we leveled off. The air grew sweet with the smell of alfalfa, and I realized we were riding over a vast hay pasture, probably in rich bottomland not far from a river.
After we stopped, the man guided us, still blindfolded, into a shack, probably an old abandoned farmhouse. Inside he took off my blindfold and I saw one large room with a low ceiling and no windows. Standing in front were three hooded Klansmen, each holding a rifle or machine gun.
The man fumbled with Joyce’s blindfold, but before he got it off, I asked if I could photograph her with them before it was removed. They grunted approval, but there was no response from Joyce. I quickly positioned her between two of the Klansmen and made the shot before she said no; I felt her anger and resistance seeping through her blindfold.
The windowless room was stifling, the musty air barely moved by a small oscillating fan that often got stuck in the left arc.
Although young and inexperienced, Joyce was a thorough and intelligent reporter, and the interview droned on for an hour. All the while our guide sat silently in a corner. Suddenly one of the Klansmen rose and stretched and said he had to go to work.
“Oh, where do you work?” I asked.
“Police chief, over in Arkansas,” he said casually.
From Shooting From the Hip: Photographs and Essays by J. Don Cook. Cook, an Oklahoma City resident, is a Pulitzer Prize nominee and seven time Oklahoma Press Association News Photographer of the Year. Published by permission of University of Oklahoma Press