Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Okies, part 2

Being an Army brat, I never really had a hometown. Even today, when I meet new people, they’ll inevitably ask me, “Where are you from?” I’ll struggle to answer. Until I graduated from college, I’d never lived anywhere more than three years, and never really knew a hometown. But in all that moving, all those changes, there was always one place that never changed, one place we’d always come back to. That place was Ponca City, Oklahoma. This was the hometown of my parents and is the closest thing to a hometown I’ll ever know. Every time we’d end a tour in Germany, start a road trip out west, or just when it’d been too long since our last visit, we’d always head back to Ponca. I even went to second grade there for a few months between Dad’s assignments. And despite the fact that I probably never lived there more than 100 days total, it still feels like home to me.

Like many Oklahoma towns, Ponca City was named after an Indian tribe, the Ponca, who where forcibly settled into the Oklahoma Territories from Nebraska. Ponca City was a true frontier town. Settlers in the Oklahoma Land Rush established what would become the city, and their efforts are commemorated today at the Pioneer Woman Museum in town. The museum hosts Ponca’s favorite and most famous landmark: The Pioneer Woman. This is a large statue, totally of bronze, standing over 20 feet high, of a frontier woman and presumably her son, hand in hand, clothes whipping in the strong Oklahoma wind, confidently striding out West. (Although the statue actually faces southeast!)

Then oil hit Oklahoma. And in the late forties, Ponca City was enjoying its prime as an industrial oil town in the post World War II boom economy. Ponca has never before, and never since, enjoyed a greater success or social existence as it did in the few decades after World War II.

Ponca even had its own royalty, complete with palace. Marland Mansion, still there today as a historical landmark, served as the primary residence of one of Oklahoma's biggest oil tycoons, E.W. Marland, who once owned 10% of the world’s oil reserves. He also served terms as a congressman and governor of Oklahoma.

The mansion is a massive limestone structure that compares admirably with the Biltmore estate (home of the Vanderbilt money) and many of the palaces one might visit in Europe. And yet, it never struck me as odd that such a building could exist in a flyspeck of a town like Ponca City.

But the good oil times wouldn’t last. As Ponca started to decline, so too did Marland’s success. The mansion was sold first to the Catholic Church, which used it as a convent for many years. Today, it's a museum/gift shop, a second-rate hotel and favorite spot for wedding receptions and proms.

Ponca's only significant industry has always been Continental Oil Company (Conoco, today), and both of my parents father's worked there. The refinery in Ponca still holds the distinction as the fourth largest oil refinery in the U.S., and this is a point that is made abundantly clear by any resident of Ponca City over the age of seventy, for most of these people have worked in this refinery. Ponca grew up around Conoco, and to this day, still depends almost completely upon it.

Ponca City is in many ways a very typical Midwest small town. It has around 25,000 residents today, a slowly growing commercial district on the northern outskirts of 14th street, a decaying downtown district, and a couple of key anchor businesses. Yet, Ponca has some elements that make it totally unique among any city in the U.S.

For example, to this day, around fifty percent of its streets are still brick. This adds an "old world" charm to the city and sets it apart from any I have ever visited. The bricks were put in back in the thirties and forties, and to this day remain on most of the streets. Even on the asphalt-paved streets, they’re just a few inches down below the blacktop. The bricks are torture for the cars that drive there; most are rattled apart well before their prime. But people in Ponca like their brick streets, and so the bricks have stayed.

Another interesting aspect of life in Ponca is the smell. It hits you the minute you cross the town line, this odd petroleum tinge that never goes away. The town reeks of oil. As you enter the town from the south side, you see exactly why this is. The refinery unfolds in its vast complexity. It’s a twisting mass of pipe, running in and out of odd tanks and buildings, and every now and then, one of the pipes shoots hundreds of feet straight up into the air and is topped by an enormous yellow flame burning in open air. I’m told this is burning off the excess gas from the refining process. This is the furnace that cooks up daily air in Ponca City.

Every time we'd visit the city with my parents, we’d always arrive by car. When crossing the town limits, we'd know we were in town by the smell alone. If we were napping, we’d wake up and take a whiff. Though the smell is an awful carcinogenic stench that permeates every square foot, my brother, Michael, and I always regarded it nostalgically. As boys, we knew that the oil meant grandparents—grandparents and family that we hadn’t seen in months or years. We were soon to be in Ponca. All of our kin lived in this one genealogical Mecca, and we loved to see them all.

Another interesting feature of Ponca City is a peculiar meteorological phenomenon. Ponca City lies in the northern central part of Oklahoma, right in the heart of "Tornado Alley." Every spring, vicious black storms roll through the prairies and flatten houses, neighborhoods, and whole towns. Millions of dollars in property are destroyed each year by these spring storms. Yet in over fifty years, Ponca has never been hit by a single tornado. Neighboring towns only a few miles away, like Tonkawa, get hit over and over. And Ponca never gets hit.

My father's personal theory lies in Ponca’s geography. The town sits snuggled in around the Arkansas River and Bois d’Arc Creek. The rivers flow to either side of the town, one on the west, the other on the east, and both form a U at the south. As his theory goes, the tornados that always come from the southwest, reach the rivers before reaching the town. They get entrenched in the rivers like a bowling ball in a gutter lane, and follow the river around the town.

It's a decent theory. It’s better than anything else I’ve heard, and seems plausible. It’s only slightly more scientific than the common town wisdom, shared by my mother, Grandpa Guier, and most other people in town. That is, that Conoco's smoke-stacks, also lying on the south side of town, produce enough heat to provide a "heat-shield" from tornados. This I find much more unlikely. But, either way, the residents of Ponca City have been pretty darn lucky.

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