Near McAlester

by Rilla Askew


When folks ask me where in Oklahoma I live, I say “near McAlester,” because this is where I go to shop, use the library, eat out, get my oil changed. It has the post office I visit most often, the courthouse I’ve been inside more than any other. I’ve set portions of two novels and a short story here. The town is seated deep in my consciousness, its history wedded to my own in ways that are difficult to tease out. The stories blend—fiction I’ve written, history, current reality, my family’s old connections.

My Papaw Allie died here—at McAlester Regional Hospital. In his prime he worked here, at the munitions depot southwest of town. His first cousin Hughie Askew worked as a guard at the prison in the 1930s and was kidnapped by two inmates, shot in the neck, driven in the prison mail truck six miles west of the penitentiary, and let go when the escapees commandeered another car. Cousin Hughie survived. I don’t know what happened to the prisoners. My daddy first worked here when he was 16, just as World War II was starting. He and Papaw would rise in the pre-dawn hours and drive 50 miles from Red Oak to work at the munitions plant.

These days, at 11:30 most mornings, my rock house a dozen miles east of McAlester will shake suddenly with the sound of distant booms. The windows rattle. Framed photographs slip sideways on the walls. The trembling is like an earthquake, except for the ordered rhythm of the low, thunderous booms that precede the vibrations. When my husband and I first heard them, we thought drilling companies were exploding dynamite deep in the earth, fracking for natural gas. It turns out fracking doesn’t make that kind of a noise. The booms are, in fact, explosions: old ordnance being destroyed at the same munitions plant where my father and grandfather worked 70 years ago.

Around the time of statehood, I’m told, McAlester’s civic leaders had a choice—would they rather have a land grant college located here or the state penitentiary? They chose the prison because they believed it meant more jobs. Today the prison is one of the area’s main employers, along with the munitions plant, which was brought here through political pull and the promise of good available labor—out-of-work coal miners with strong backs, excellent work habits, and hungry families to feed. McAlester has long had a politically powerful history. It was the stomping grounds of Speaker of the House Carl Albert, who, in 1963, was a heartbeat away from the presidency, and the birthplace of former governor, lieutenant governor, and favored namesake to countless public buildings and thoroughfares all over Oklahoma, George Nigh. It was also the home of the longest serving state senator in U.S. history, Gene Stipe.

I like the looks of the town, and the character of its people, a smooth amalgam of Southern and Western—that signature Oklahoma blend that shows up in their accents, their attitude, their friendliness and style. They’re good people, honest, hard working. In fact, the strong work ethic here is one of the area’s calling cards. At a ceremony at the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant recently, the departing commander praised the civilian workers, how effective they are at loading and filling warheads, their speed at shipping large amounts of munitions quickly, their efficiency and safety record. When I take my car to my mechanic here, I knowthe work will be good, the price fair, the assessment honest.

I like the beautiful old Scottish Rite Consistory rising majestic on the town’s highest hill: You can see it for miles at night, glowing a lovely amber-rose color. I like the Western style of the buildings, the rectangular eminence of the old Aldridge Hotel. I like how close to now the town’s history remains. McAlester is one of the oldest towns in the state, founded, like so many Indian Territory towns, by an entrepreneurial white man who married an Indian woman. The first opera house west of the Mississippi was located here, but it was torn down to make way for the First Baptist Church parking lot.

Still, much of the original Old West feel remains. You can see it in Old Town on North Main Street, where J.J. McAlester’s store still stands with its roofed porch and painted brick sides. The store and its owner make their literary appearance in Charles Portis’ novel True Grit. McAlester, in fact, has multiple literary connections.

John Berryman, one of America’s most influential poets, was born here, spent his childhood here. I like to ponder how the Pulitzer Prize-winning author ofDream Songs was shaped by this town. He left at the age of 10, never to return, but maybe McAlester’s memory lingered in his sudden moves through rhetorical styles—the elevated language cutting quickly to plain diction, an uncouth tone. Or with Father Boniface, the adored priest under whom he served Mass here six days a week, who appears in Berryman’s fiction, his conversation, his poems.

The great African American novelist Ralph Ellison never forgot a journey he took to McAlester as a boy—in a Jim Crow railcar with his mother and younger brother because she’d been promised a job of work in the town. The job never materialized and they returned to Oklahoma City, but that ride never left him; it’s enshrined in his story “Boy on a Train,” where the mother says: “Things are hard for us colored folks, son, and we have to stick together. Things is hard and we have to fight… O Lord, we have to fight!”

In March of 1935, local coal miners and their wives took over the county courthouse here for three days, demanding aid from the government: food and jobs and clothes. I based the climactic scene of my novel Harpsong on that siege, which happened, in reality, in the very courthouse where, in 2004, Terry Nichols was tried on state charges for his role in the bombing of Oklahoma City. I sat in on those proceedings. Nichols wasn’t sentenced to death, as the state’s law-and-order predilections would suggest, but to life in prison—which he was already serving at the federal facility at Leavenworth, Kansas, where he was returned to finish out his sentence. I supposed if he’s ever paroled, Oklahoma will get him back and send him to die of old age at Big Mac.

If you come to McAlester by way of the Indian Nations Turnpike, you’ll pass a statue of a cowboy in prison stripes arched high in the air on the back of a bucking bronco in honor of the annual prison rodeo, for decades the town’s biggest tourist draw, although the prison rodeo hasn’t been held since 2009—due to cost, is the official word, though I suspect there may be more to it than that. If you look north you’ll see the penitentiary itself, a white shimmer on the horizon as you drive into town on a boulevard named for that U.S. congressman who was a heartbeat away from the presidency. You’ll pass the red-brick courthouse with its u-shaped wings where Terry Nichols was tried, plus a ubiquity of buffaloes: handsome bronzed statues on most every corner honoring the local high school team mascot. If you keep going, you’ll bisect George Nigh Expressway.

Don’t trouble yourself to look for Gene Stipe Boulevard though. That street’s name was changed back to Electric Avenue after the senator’s political demise. Stipe was known to friend and foe alike as the Prince of Darkness, and he was powerful in this state almost beyond reckoning—until he wasn’t any more. He was related to my family by marriage and helped us out in troubling times. Senator Stipe always showed up for funerals and pie suppers, that important Southeastern Oklahoma custom where local Masons auction off pies for thousands of dollars to help families in need due to medical bills and lack of health insurance. I have good memories of the Prince of Darkness. He was a marvelous storyteller and could be extremely charming. A power broker he may have been, but he always showed up for his people. He showed up for my family.

Every few months a quiet vigil takes place in McAlester, outside the prison walls, as another man or woman is executed. The anti-death penalty activists, the Quakers and Christians and committed believers all stand about with their homemade signs and their silence. We only hear about such things when the execution is botched, as it was in the 45-minute torturous death of Clayton Lockett. Otherwise the vigils do not draw much attention.

The prison rodeo drew plenty of attention in its day. Crowds came from all over the country. I remember going as a child and wondering at how the guards and the prisoners seemed to get along so well. I had thought they would be enemies, like the enemies we drop our bombs on, but they acted like friends. There, inside the prison walls, in the billowing dust beneath the tall prison lights, midst the shouts and smells and the announcer’s loud metallic voice and the great thundering excitement, they did anyway.

Today, all of the conventional bombs our country drops on other countries are made in McAlester, at the same plant where the old bombs and ammunition that haven’t been used to destroy enemies are themselves destroyed, to make way for fresh new ones.

In some ways the prison and the munitions plant represent McAlester to me, as McAlester represents Oklahoma, as Oklahoma represents the rest of the nation—each an exquisite distillation of the American character. I love this place, though sometimes not its politics. I love how the past remains alive here, though sometimes I hate our true history. I love the people and the landscapes and the buildings and this state and this little town itself, though sometimes they break my heart.

I used to believe that my dad and granddad made bombs and ammunition to kill enemies during World War II. When I asked Daddy about it, though, he said, no, they worked in construction: They didn’t build bombs but built the buildings where the bombs would be built. My friends and neighbors who work at the munitions plant today probably don’t see an Iraqi boy with his arms blown off by one of our bombs, or the slaughtered Afghan wedding party, bride and groom and guests in shreds and bloody pieces, from a U.S. drone strike’s mistake.

In some ways the prison and the munitions plant represent McAlester to me, as McAlester represents Oklahoma, as Oklahoma represents the rest of the nation

I don’t expect them to. These are good people working good jobs, the best jobs to be had in the area, with decent salaries, benefits, child care—things people need to take care of their families. I see them, though. The armless boy. The slaughtered bride. Most mornings around 11:30, when I hear the powerful, muted boom in the distance, and my house begins to quake.

Just as, when local news tells me it’s time, I see, in my mind’s eye, a living, breathing man led in manacles along a blank cinder block hall into a small room with curtained windows and clinical looking IV lines and, there in the center beneath bright florescent lights, a clean, white-sheeted gurney, surrounded by good people working good jobs.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 15, August 1, 2014.