With a Capital “H”
by Ashley Kay Emmert
My Spanish teacher once corrected me when I said people in our town spoke Panamanian. In Panama, Oklahoma we speak Tote-A-Poke: named after the largest standing landmark, the local gas station. I’m driving down I-540 with my eyes centered on my rearview mirror at the barren fading acres. I can still see the I.G.A. and Tote-A-Poke. I imagine them crying out for me to turn around and come back. No way, I laugh, turn up the radio, and press the accelerator. No more chicken houses on windy afternoons. No more loose cows after a storm roughing up our yard with hoof prints and cow patties.
I grew up in a singlewide tan trailer on a thirteen acre strip. Before childhood ended, it was Home with a capital “H.” Home smelled like biscuits and gravy, puppies, dry dog food, and sweet oats. Home was where Dad called me “Little Booger,” and Jerimy threatened to lock me outside after dark if I told Mom he drove her El Camino into the ditch. (Everyone knows grizzly bears stalked our trailer, drooling for tattle-tale little sisters). Home was where Mom taught us to train German Shepherd puppies to be guard dogs, to ride horses twice our height, and to be happy with what we had.
I remember yelling at the TV, “I want that!” whether it was a commercial for steak knives or remote control cars. I never got a remote control car or a set of steak knives, but I did get my nickname “Ashley Kay Want-Want Emmert.” Back then, I could occupy myself for hours while Mom worked at the school cafeteria. She never really noticed, until her boss mentioned that when I quietly colored at the end of a lunch table or played make-believe by myself, it was the sign of a happy child, and that made her proud.
One summer, Jerimy and I built a tree house in the backyard with wood steps that were too tall for me and a floor big enough for three people to sit on. Jerimy, or “Kermit,” so called because of his imitations of the frog puppet and the way he climbed trees, must have been adopted from a family of monkeys. He could swing down branches, perform a somersault back-flip, and artfully land on his feet while black pea-pods showered around him like roses from adoring fans. He was also “The Human Garbage Disposal,” because he ate everyone else’s leftovers. Once, I even caught him eating a bologna sandwich in his sleep.
Sometimes we had a hard time getting to school. Buck Creek Road flooded yearly, so the bus had to take the route through Bokoshe to pick up everyone on my street, causing us to miss first and part of second hour. We also lived in tornado alley. Fortunately, Great-grandma Mimi’s house had a storm cellar next door. We couldn’t hear the sirens so far out of town. When Channel 40/29 posted a tornado warning rolling into LeFlore County, we all congregated with a radio, blankets, flashlights, emergency snacks, and the family pets down in the dank dark. I imagined the leathery skin of snakes slithering around my ankles and the squeak of ravenous rats staring at me with red eyes. Eventually, the tornado would pass without touching down, and we could go back to the light.
But our valley has changed since then. What was once a vast forest is now a field for cattle and a barren railroad track. Jerimy and I would take our friends and the dogs exploring this area and then end the day eating bologna sandwiches or roasting hot dogs by the creek. We declared the funny seashell bend our special spot for spying on rabbits and storing large animal bones we joked were human. The woods seemed endless and often impassable.
One afternoon, I got stuck in a wall of bramble bushes while the German Shepherds sat on their haunches laughing at me. Another time, while avoiding a similar prickly situation, I slipped between the twine of an old barbwire fence, hung with a half-rusted “No Trespassing” sign and discovered a little cottage with a tree swing and an old Ford, but no road leading to it. I knew there weren’t any children from my school there. I wondered why someone would have a tree swing without any children. I imagined a little girl with red freckles who must have been homeschooled. At the end of the day, Mom lodged her fingers between her lips and released a whiplash whistle. The dogs raced back through the woods ahead of me. Their barks told Mom we were coming Home.
Adventuring wasn’t always safe. One year, a mountain lion hiding in the woods across the street kept me inside for days. It had wandered down from the mountain, its healthy roars much too close. This made the shortest or quickest errand too risky, so I would sit with my forehead glued to the front window looking for an ear or tail of this mysterious creature. I kept imagining the fur, teeth, and claws crashing through the window to snag me. Some time after that, a bull escaped his owner and took up residence in our little neck of the woods. Rumor was, a boy happened upon the bull and was either killed or badly maimed. As far as Mom knew, for two years we never went into the woods until the owner retrieved the bull.
Driving home for the Holidays is an exhausting, freeing experience. It’s just under eight hours, about six if I haul ass. Hotwire needs to last me until I pay off my student loans, so on this trip I set a goal of not surpassing 75. Okay, maybe 85? I have a few choice papers to work on over break, but that’s it. No 0600 brain washing seminars with the U.S. Government, no drowning at swim practice, and no 3 a.m. large pepperoni pizza pig-a-thons over the latest 10-15 page research paper. Daydreaming helps me cope with driving long distances, and I can’t help thinking about my life in Missouri.
I’m walking back to my dorm, and it’s starting to freeze again in Missouri. I don’t like it. Sure, I enjoy bundling up with some hot cocoa, but it doesn’t just get cold in Missouri, it gets below 30 without snowing, and it’s bipolar. One minute it is bright and perky, then the wind is beating Hotwire in the flanks and lightning fury is raining down. Some damage is done, and then it’s all kiss and make up. By comparison, Oklahoma weather is slow and lazy, and I feel when a storm is coming. Storms rarely visit Panama. Once a month, one glides in, stays a few days then waves goodbye. In the summer, everything is washed in a golden pixie-dust shimmer. My skin, with its olive undertone, feels and smells like golden sunshine.
I stop at the last rest area for another 39 miles and punch the Dr. Pepper button on the soda machine. Even after long breaks, it’s difficult not to sit straight up in bed and go right into body builders at 0530, because of some Physical Training flashback.
It’s bright and early on a Tuesday morning; actually, the sun still hasn’t come up. A hundred faceless men and women stand in perfect rows. The males have the same buzzed haircut and the females the same swooped bun. The black hole of individuality is the Physical Training Uniforms. Matching gray sweats were made by penitentiary inmates serving at least one life sentence. Each one of this vast legion looks like they were hauled by their shirts out of bed in the middle of the night. Their eyes are vacantly dull, but there isn’t a single stray hair or unshaven face. They stare blankly ahead as the twilight blinks above the darkened field lights. The weekly ritual begins.
“At my command!” echoes far beyond Stankowski Field. “Left Hace!” Colony turns left. “At double-arm interval, dress right, dress!” and 244 arms go up, fingers touching with heads popped at a 45-degree angle to the right.
The Wing is dressed. After stretching our limbs, the commands become more difficult. The leanest and meanest soak his/her PTUs in sweat. No one utters a word, nothing more than “Permission to recover,” and some recovery seems necessary for those throwing up in the grass or grabbing their knees to catch some air. I lean against the fence with one hand and take short drinks from a blue Air Force water bottle with the other. The fact that we do this at 0600, when it’s still dark and my body should still be sleeping, is the only reason it works. The commands just don’t register as my body mechanically performs them. I imagine prostitutes and suicide cults experience similar fidelity.
After my first semester, I learned very quickly that yes, I still want out of Oklahoma. It’s still rejuvenating to go home for a backward glance now and then. Panama is an ideal place to be from or maybe retire to, but I think I might try Ireland instead. It’s my third year, and I know I’m benefiting from both worlds. The crazy, hectic life of a college student is character-building and all that jazz, but Home is simple. Home is where people work all day then go home and grill, tossing the hotdogs that fell in the charcoal to the neighbor’s dogs.
After a visit to the place Panama has turned into, I take another look in my rearview mirror. Most of the trees are gone now, replaced by chicken houses, pig farms, or unused cattle pastures. The tree branches form a cathedral overhead as I swing Hotwire around the three miles of twists and turns that make up Buck Creek. Glass-stained murals of fall yellow, orange, red, and brown shelter me. Oklahoma is still a simple quartz crystal in my coal-bedded, hectic life. When I drive through Columbia, the mix of city and woodland keeps me centered. A little bit of Home for a little bit of success. Home keeps me going, even as I keep driving away from it.