In August of 2011, we moved to Lawton, Oklahoma for what we knew would be an 8 month stay. My husband had orders to attend a course at Fort Sill, originally a cavalry fort dating back to 1869, and where you can now hear artillery fire booming across the southern plains at all hours. Our hotel didn’t allow dogs, so our 120 pound Labrador Retriever got to stay on a sprawling farm for a few days that served as a dog boarding facility.
As the woman checked us in and took the leash, she asked the typical questions. She was a fellow military spouse, her husband had retired and they decided to stay on the prairie farmland they had made their home.
I showed her my map, which was on the back of a brochure from the hotel. “We are looking at houses today,” I told her. She nodded importantly and took the map from my hands. “We have been here for 25 years. Let me show you where you DON’T want to live,” and she began to circle areas on the map while making a don’t-even-think-about-it face.
Later, when I asked for directions to sign the lease for house, the woman on the phone said it was behind Starbucks and started to hang up the phone. I said, “Wait, wait I don’t know which Starbucks you’re talking about.”
“Oh honey,” she said in a sympathetic tone. “We only have one Starbucks here in Lawton.”
Another woman I met in Lawton wanted to tell me about the selection of Walmarts in the town. “There are two,” she said. “The Black Walmart, and the White Walmart.” I cringed and made a mental note to try and forget which was which. How was I going to fit into this town with its one Starbucks and lingering racism?
I recently listened to a TED talk by Devdutt Pattanaik who spoke of the differences in cultures that seem to be always at odds, never understanding the other’s point of view. “They are cultural creations, not natural phenomena. And so the next time you meet someone, a stranger, one request: Understand that you live in the subjective truth, and so does he. Understand it. And when you understand it you will discover something spectacular. You will discover that within infinite myths lies the eternal truth.”
There’s a beautiful park in Lawton where hundreds of prairie dogs have been relocated to enjoy the acres of hills and the pond. They have become accustomed to the presence of humans and pop up every few feet along the mile long loop through the park, only ducking their heads down into their holes just as you pass by. I spent many Autumn afternoons walking that loop under the watchful eyes of the prairie dogs – their cool gaze unmoved by mine. According to David Spurr, there exists a strong sense of entitlement for the one that is overseeing, because he alone has the whole picture, especially when he himself has the ability to be hidden from view. “For the observer, sight confers power; for the observed, visibility is a trap” (16).
Because Fort Sill is a training post, many of the people I know have been stationed there for a time, especially among the Artillery community. Many will go back. Friends who are about to move there often ask me how I liked it. How do you sum up a town? That’s where we were when we found out that Kris, a close friend of my husband’s, was killed in Afghanistan, and our spirits were crushed. That’s where we had to pack up and leave after 8 short months of making it our home, leaving me with a feeling of complete emptiness.
Casey Blanton says, “As every travel writer knows, maps and books can tell only part of the truth. By what process, using what models, does the traveler presume to describe, to interpret, to represent people and places who are other to him? What encounter included, what person omitted?”
And so I tell them about the prairie dog park and the nearby buffalo at the wildlife refuge. I explain what part of town we lived in and how the local grocery store doubles coupons up to a dollar. I share the parts that became synonymous with the town in my eyes: making my first batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies, driving up and down the main road with my 4 month old baby in the car while he slept, and hanging cloth diapers to dry on a clothes line under that big Oklahoma sky.