A beautiful little college town named Tahlequah sits in northeastern
OK in the southwestern Ozarks as they flatten out to prairie
and desert that doesn’t end for fifteen hundred miles
at the base of the eastern Rockies. I spent most summers there
between the ages of three and fourteen.
There’s a lot of the old Tahlequah still around, thank
god. A lot of the old buildings and old trees still exist, thank
god. Some of the buildings were new when I was little, but they’re
older now. Some of the newer new may not age as well, but people
will build what they want.
Luckily, the college of Northeastern OK State is still gracious
with age. A creek winding onto the oldest part of the campus
has crawdads in it. Nearby houses constructed of blonde flagstone
look like square palominos. Long ago some eccentric OK resident
built a blonde flagstone turret on that creek; an old rock stairway
still goes right by it if you’re walking to and from campus.
I walked that way almost every day one summer, and I touched
the turret every time I passed.
My parent’s friends, Jack and Zula Belle Dobbins, grilled
us at least a thousand meals over all those Junes, Julys and
Augusts, while my brother and I played with their three sons.
Zula Belle had a glorious and powerful voice; she actually had
her own show on early OK television. Jack was a coach for Northeastern;
he and my dad met playing basketball there in the late 1940’s,
Today the college gym is named for Jack, our three playmates
are judges and golf pros, and Zula Belle has passed on and now
knows more than all of us together. My brother is a very successful
litigator, and I? I am as I am partly because of one particular
summer we went to live in Tahlequah.
That year I was probably twelve, gangly and unenlightened and
athletic. Even in the Ozark’s sultry weather I was so
active that I wore sweat rings around my neck and wrists like
jewelry. We rented a house off campus up past that flagstone
turret. It had a badminton net up in the back yard, and I became
badminton champ, mostly because no one else was motivated to
put in hours practicing serves on hot OK days. Just me.
That was the summer I contracted some kind of meningitis and
was so sick I wanted to die, but I couldn’t quite manage
it. I was just swimming like usual in the campus indoor pool
when I was attacked by a skull-crushing headache. Because I’d
been playing normally and had displayed no signs of illness,
no one paid much attention until I dragged myself out of the
shallow end and hurled blood in the locker room and couldn’t
They tell me I was different after that summer, more different
than after other OK summers of growth and change. It’s
likely true. I do know my head hurt so bad when I was sick,
part of my brain up and died. The part that took over had a
Even then I could tell I wasn’t the same. I kept thinking
I knew things I’d never learned. I began to have reoccurring
dreams that I still don’t understand. I wasn’t athletic
after that headache, that’s for sure, and I’m not
sure I was ever again as likable.
We went back to OK sporadicaly after that summer. By then, both
my parents had earned their masters from years of summer sessions
at Northeastern. We moved to California and settled between
the only two east-west running mountain ranges in North America.
The few quick visits I’ve made to Tahlequah since then,
I’ve made time to walk the old part of campus. It’s
usually humid, no matter what time of year. I wipe sweat from
my face and neck as I walk, and I wonder who I would have been