Friday, May 27, 2011

Losing and Finding Our Way

Coalgate, OK Police & Fire Dept.
Journeys are not planned. Journeys don’t follow schedules. Discovery is not a matter of knowing where to go. And road maps? Well, they do help.

I-40 East turned out to be I-35 North – which led to 33 East, which introduced us to 99 South before we met up, finally, with 3 Sort-of-Southeast – and in the long run things could not have gone better.

It was half past lunch when we found the road narrowing to accommodate the Anytown, USA intimacy of Coalgate, Oklahoma. The diner still advertised on the billboard at the edge of town turned out to be nothing more than a slab of concrete on the way to being consumed by weeds and time, but it only took a minute for Leona, our waitress at the Ole Coaly Café, to make us feel at home. ‘This place used to be a bank, built sometime in the 1800’s,’ she said. ‘That room back there was the vault.’
 In a cramped brick hole in the back wall was a long oval table, bare except for an iron and a pair of jeans. ‘Going to a concert tonight. Jared Orr is opening up for Trace Atkins.’ Jared, we’d learn, was the town’s biggest star since Miss Teen USA 2002.

Up the road was the fire department – housed in the same building as the police department and City Hall; we were so enamored with the town we just had to stop in. Roger Wilson was off duty but still around, and welcomed the odd intrusion with the kind of warmth you just can’t fake. ‘The guys are just down the road, come on, let’s go!’ And in the parking lot of the Family Health Center of Southern Oklahoma we met with as good a bunch of guys as you could possibly imagine.

‘After 9-11, you know, all across the country and all across the world, we were brothers.’ On paper such a statement can come across as contrived, but when a guy like Berney Blue speaks you know it’s coming from the heart. ‘It means so much to us that you guys are here,’ said Assistant Chief Aaron Blue, Berney’s brother. ‘I’m just so proud to be a part of what you guys are doing.’ All of us, to a man, standing under that hot bright sun, could say the same thing. Because it seemed, at this moment, we finally understood just why we were making this journey.

Further, deeper into southern Oklahoma we were again blessed by misfortune. ‘Make a left at the light and you’ll see us waiting by the side of the road,’ Jon told the film crew we’d somehow lost. ‘Right in front of…wow, the Durant Central Fire Station.’ Moments later we were shaking hands with Captain Marc Hill, along with firefighters Jake Carr, Chad Stanley and Kyle Layton, our newest honorees. They placed both old and new versions of the Durant FD patch in the cross, along with an Oklahoma State Firemen’s Association sticker and an American flag patch.

At a gas station in Fort Towson and again at the Front Street Junction Café in DeKalb, Texas we met more wonderful people - folks so good at making you feel at home you almost start to believe it. Frank Houchens was, or appeared to be, in charge of the entire girls' softball team that materialized in the cafe parking lot to check out the cross along with a host of others who either left their dinner and ca,e outside or maybe in some cases never even made it to the front door from the car at all. So many good people, out here on this dark, quiet stretch of road, making us feel like we were the special ones.

No schedule we could ever dream up would put us in any of the places we stopped. No GPS would ever point us this way. Yet at the end of the day it seemed there was no other way it could have happened.

‘An ambulance flying by is big news for us,’ said Ted Prather, owner of the FSJ Café. ‘We’re so isolated here.’

Not today, Mr. Prather. None of us are.