Topeka Capital Journal
November 29, 1996
SOUTHLAKE, Tex. – We are spending the holiday with daughter Amy and her husband, Duff Nelson, and three granddaughters who were glad to see their grandma. They spoke to me too, to say 1) I parked in the wrong place, 2) I can’t smoke cigars in the house, and 3) would I pump up their bicycle tires?
Daughter Mary flew in Thanksgiving Day, so we had a small family reunion. Duff did well cooking the turkey, and it’s a good thing. He is still on probation for having messed up this chore three years ago. The turkey was on Duffs outdoor cooker for about three hours before he discovered the machine was out of fuel. We had microwaved bird for dinner.
We drove to Texas, and along the way I thought of the many times we had traveled south from Kansas for a family gathering. It started in the early 1950s when my parents lived in Oklahoma City, and there was no Kansas Turnpike or interstate between here and there.
We’d take the back roads down through Emporia and Sedan into Oklahoma, then through Pawhuska, Cleveland and Stroud, where we hit the new Turner Turnpike connecting Tulsa and Oklahoma City. It didn’t take long, because on those roads you could make Turnpike time.
We were doing just that one Christmas Eve night when we were stopped by an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper. He gave us a warning ticket, but said if we had been drinking he would have thrown the book at us. I’ve often wondered what he would have said if he’d known the bottle hidden in the baby’s basket on the back seat wasn’t formula.
Going or returning, we usually stop in Cleveland, because it was sort of a special place for a dedicated Oklahoma football fan. It was the home of Billy Vessels, and what made him special was not just that he won the Heisman Trophy, but that he came from a background that included a town drunk and two brothers who went to prison.
There were times we wouldn’t leave Topeka until I had finished work at the newspaper, but no matter when we arrived my dad would be up and ready to take care of however many children we had at the time. For awhile, there was a new one almost every time we showed up.
During every visit the time came when my dad and I would slip away and take a little drive. It was the same drive every time, and it was a trip back in time to the days when he owned a drug store in Britton and my two brothers and I were growing up.
The drugstore was long gone, my dad was working for the Oklahoma State Health Dept., and he and my mom lived in Oklahoma City. Britton, however, was the place none of us would ever forget.
My dad and I would start our drive and, though neither of us said anything, our first stop was at 42nd and Western, where an old friend of his owned a friendly neighborhood rest stop. We’d have a cold one, and then be on our way.
We go up Western, past Nichols Hills, and into Britton, by then part of Oklahoma City, but in our day a town of about 2,000. We’d cruise down Main Street, look at the boarded-up side of the drug store, and we wouldn’t say much. There were too many memories…
My grade school days, when I was a carhop at 10-cents an hour … The World Series, and Notre Dame football games, when my dad would turn on the radio’s outdoor speaker, and men would sit on the curb, and on car fenders, to listen …
The Braniff airline pilots who lived in Britton and who would come into the store in uniform, and I would stare at them in awe … The high school football heroes, like Ben and George Checotah, Indian brothers who made it out of the orphanage north of town … And like brothers Pat and Mike Magrew, who later owned the Texaco station. Yeah, Texaco …
Britton was a two-doctor, four-minister, no-lawyer town, which means that good prevailed over evil, and most of those good people were regulars at Doc Snider’s store. I could name a few hundred more if there was space, and I had the time to think of them.
My dad and I would drive from Main Street to 200 E. Stewart, where the family home was all those years. With little effort, I could see my mom’s washing on the line and hear the revival meeting at the Nazarene church across the street.
We’d cruise other streets slowly, then drive east of town to what we called the Two-Mile Corner. Often in the old days my dad and I would drive there after we closed the store, and he’d have a cold one, but now we both have one.
Then we drive back through town, West to old Wiley Post Airport, where Braniff serviced its planes and where my brother Al, who would become a Navy and a Pan Am Airline pilot, and my Uncle Bill Garthoeffner, both learned to fly. Then, we’d go ‘home’ to Oklahoma City, but it didn’t seem like home.
When we’d leave to return to Topeka, everyone’s eyes would get a little misty, because we knew the day would come when they wouldn’t be there. It came, all too soon, and it will come again.