Norman Rockwell could not have invented the characters who lived in Jenks, Oklahoma when I was a boy. This small community just south of Tulsa was an idyllic place to grow up in the 1940s and 50s. A town of about 1500 to 2000 people and my dog Pooch, Jenks was established in Indian Territory a few years before Oklahoma became a state in 1907. It lies on the western bank of the Arkansas River and straddles the railroad running south out of Tulsa.
While there was no apparent outstanding feature of the town, perhaps its strength and place in life were best evidenced by the sign which stood for years on the east side of town at the entrance to the bridge crossing the Arkansas. It was visible to those coming off the bridge and entering town. It read simply, “Jenks, America”.
Perhaps the times made the town what it was when I was growing up there. But mostly, as evidenced by the sign, it was the spirit of the people who lived there.
Not the least of these was a cast of town characters, each so unique in his own right that, at least by some, they are still remembered. One could find any or all of them at any given time standing on the street downtown, sitting on a bench in the small vacant lot by Wilson’s store spittin’ and whittlin’, or walking to and from town to their homes.
Old Pegleg Smith was a wonder to me. I suppose there was no subtlety in those days. Pegleg had the name because he had a wooden leg, which as far as I could tell, started at his hip. He never wore his pants over the wooden leg. The round wooden thing was always there in plain view for anyone to see.
Pegleg spent much of his time downtown (which consisted of two blocks on Main Street) standing around and talking to his buddies. When he walked home he always walked on the edge of the pavement—not on the sidewalk and not beside the edge of the pavement, but on the pavement. We thought that was so peculiar.
One night about 8 pm, Pegleg was walking home from town. He had just crossed the railroad track on Main Street heading west. The railroad bed is built up about five or six feet so that visibility from one side of the track to the other is limited. That night the star halfback on the Jenks High School championship football team of 1948 crossed the track in his car and struck old Pegleg from behind. Poor Pegleg was killed. There was a huge commotion in town. Had the young man been drinking? Was he driving too fast? The one thing known for sure was that old Pegleg, true to form, was walking on the edge of the pavement. As I recall, no charges were filed. Old Pegleg was mourned for weeks. What a beautiful character.
And then there was Jody. Jody was maybe 35 or 40 years old and lived with his parents about a half mile out of town. Jody had the mind of a child and an artist’s genius. He was a cowboy and wanted everyone to know it. He dressed in jeans, shirt, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. And always there was the gun belt with two holsters and two real-looking but toy pistols.
He had a marvelous talent for drawing. He drew mostly cowboys and horses and western scenes. He was always drawing pictures and giving them away. Jody never talked much. But he would always talk a little and grin and show you his pictures. He was a familiar sight around town, sitting on a curb or bench, drawing cowboys and horses.
One day we noticed we weren’t seeing Jody any more. It seems someone claimed he had threatened a girl. The state authorities took him to an institution and locked him up. We never saw Jody again.
Had poor, sweet Jody become a threat? We never knew. In our short lives Jody had always been a pleasure. But new people were moving into town. We figured some new parent was overly zealous and had Jody put away when he should not have been. What I know is that every time I ever saw him, he was gentle and kind. And he surely could draw a great horse and cowboy.
Another of the club was Hoover. Hoover was about 35 or 40 years old also and, like Jody, lived with his parents. I don’t know how he would have been classified, but he at least appeared to be somewhat mentally deficient. Plus, he was an epileptic—which was a source of wonder to us boys. As far as I know, Hoover never worked. He just hung around town with the other town characters. Every so often we would hear that he had had a seizure somewhere on the street. There would be mesmerizing descriptions of what those seizures were like. None of us boys had ever seen anything like that. And we wanted to. We followed Hoover for days hoping he would have a “fit” so we could watch. He never obliged us.
Someone said that if one surprised him and scared him that he would indeed go into a “fit.” So some of us took to knocking on his door and jumping up and down and flailing our arms and legs and screaming when he answered the door. We thought maybe we could scare him into a seizure and then we could watch. That never worked either.
Poor Hoover. He was a kind heart and never deserved the torment we boys gave him from time to time. Had my parents known of our activities, I would never have reached my teen years.
And who could forget Fat Phillips? Fat was a short, pudgy little man with a big fat beer belly that stuck straight out. I’m pretty sure Fat lived with his parents also, but he did hold a job. When Fat wasn’t working, he was at the town’s only beer joint, Friend’s Bar, on Main Street in the middle of town. Fat seemed always to be beered up, but seldom if ever sloppy drunk. One would see Fat standing on the street in town or walking to or from his home and the beer joint. He was most remarkable for his prominent and protruding beer belly, and that name, Fat Phillips.
Perhaps the most remarkable of all was Elisha B. Smith. Certainly he was my favorite. Elisha B. was a small, stocky man who worked in the oil fields south of town. And I swear he lived with his parents too. Elisha B.’s face had more creases than Grand Canyon. As well it should have as it seemed that he was seldom sober. It was just two blocks from his house to the beer joint. His trips walking home usually took considerably longer than those from home to the bar.
Elisha B. was most entertaining on Sunday afternoons. Every town in our part of the state in the 40s and 50s had a sandlot baseball team composed of adult players. In Jenks it was called the “town team” to distinguish it from the various boys’ teams in town. Games were played at 2:30 on Sunday afternoons. The level of play was quite good as the team was usually sprinkled with the town’s top athletes and occasionally a former or budding professional player.
The baseball field was my favorite place. Behind home plate was a mesh wire screen and a small grandstand with wooden bench-style seats and a tin roof. It seated maybe 75 people. The infield was dirt and the outfield was mown weeds and sand burrs. Right field ended at the railroad track about 350 feet away. With no outfield fences, left and center fields just went on forever. Cars would be parked down the third base and first base sides. The small grandstand was always filled. For five cents apiece, Roger King, the town barber, sold bottled soft drinks. They were pulled from two #2 wash tubs filled with ice chipped from 25 pound blocks brought from the ice house at Harper’s Service Station. It would be 100 or 105 degrees in the shade, and no one seemed to care.
Elisha B. was the town umpire. He always worked behind the plate calling balls and strikes. It was said that Elisha B. had real talent as an umpire, and that if it had not been for his drinking, he might have had a professional career in baseball.
He was quite a good umpire. Trouble was, sometimes he would get to nipping the jug during the game. The more tipsy he got the lower the strike zone became. When he got roaring drunk, which was often, any pitch above the ankle was a strike. I can still see old Elisha B. as the Jenks catcher dug one out of the dirt. This short, little man would turn to the right, bend way over, extend his right arm nearly to the ground, and point with his fore finger. Then up from the ground he would come, taking forever to call out “steeeeeerrrrike!” And then the cat-calls would begin.
Elisha B. was a kind soul, a great umpire when sober and an entertaining one when not. He was one of a kind. Jenks, America. What a place.
Ray Kenneth Clark