I grew up in the small town of Locust Grove in Northeast Oklahoma. Last time I checked, the population was around 1,500 people and I doubt that has increased much over the years. When you picture in your mind a small rural community, you’ll likely envision a narrow main street lined with some barber shops and beauty salons, a burger joint that serves some of the world’s best ice cream, a bank, an insurance agent and probably an auto mechanic’s shop or two. If so, you’ve pretty much just described Locust Grove to a tee. Quaint, friendly, nosy, helpful, caring, supportive. You like how I snuck nosy in there?
I love my hometown. Most of my favorite memories in life go back to that little town. From the annual Founder’s Day Parade where the whole town showed up to celebrate with live music, old cars, and Indian tacos. To Charlie’s In-N-Out store, where I would walk to buy candy, or a Dr Pepper in a real glass bottle. Charlie knew the name of every person in town, and watching him expertly flip the coins into the air from the cash register to give you your change made him epically cool. On to Twin Bridges that crossed Spring Creek, where the water was so painfully cold that you couldn’t breathe for nearly ten minutes after jumping in. And then Low Water Dam where we’d steal away as teenagers to sneak a few beers. And farther on to Phillip’s Lounge, where we’d go on occasion to pick up one of our friend’s dad, who’d had a few too many drinks. Even though I haven’t lived there in more than ten years, when someone asks me where I’m from, I inevitably tell them I’m from Locust Grove, Oklahoma. No matter if I’m currently living in Florida, Virginia, or Texas, Locust Grove is my home. Home of the mighty Pirates!
Looking back on my childhood, there are so many great things about growing up in a small community. But as a kid, especially as a teenager, it didn’t always feel like a good thing. Especially if you were a kid who tended to get into mischief, which I just happened to be. Secrets in small towns tend to spread like wildfire. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone is usually kin to everyone, either by blood or by marriage. If you want to do something that you don’t want your mama to know about, you’d best go out of town to do it. Even better, completely out of the county – and even then there are no guarantees that your secret is safe. I once got a little out of control in Oolagah, Oklahoma, over an hour away from home, and my mama knew about it before I got back to the house.
My second grade teacher was my dad’s high school girlfriend. My FFA instructor was my dad’s best friend since childhood. This was way back when a teacher could paddle you without giving it a second thought. And I certainly got my fair share of them. There was an unwritten understanding between my parents and the school. If a Stamper kid needs some licks, spank his butt. My FFA Instructor took this very literally. And he enjoyed it. He would call my Dad in the evenings at home, and they would laugh about it. It’s hard to imagine this happening these days, even at a small school like Locust Grove.
When I graduated high school, I headed to Miami, Oklahoma to attend Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College. After two years there, I moved on to Stillwater, Oklahoma so I could fulfill my dream of becoming an Oklahoma State Cowboy. After college, I begrudgingly came back to the ranch for a couple of years, but I wanted something different. Something bigger. Something more exciting than what little old Locust Grove could provide. I wanted to get out of the town that only had Ranch House Pizza, Cook’s Restaurant, Country Cottage, or Jerry’s Dari-Ette as eating options. I didn’t want to have to drive an hour to go to a real city where I could shop in real stores, eat at nice restaurants, or watch a movie. I wanted MORE. I knew something more important, more fulfilling was waiting for me out there somewhere.
In 2004 I got my chance. A friend of mine had just bought a new manufacturing company in Milton, Florida. He called and asked to meet up to discuss my working for him. I had discussed it with my dad, who wasn’t very excited at the prospect of my moving that far away from him, so we decided to price myself high. If he wanted me bad enough to pay some big bucks, then I’d gladly take them. So I sat down with my friend, told him what it would take to get me to move everything I owned, and my dog, to Navarre Beach, Florida. After I had given him my price, he quickly asked when I could start. He wanted me there the next week.
Hot dang, I thought. It’s really going to happen. I’m leaving Locust Grove. I’m packing everything I own into a stock trailer. This is it. My parents, brother, sister and her family were there to wish me well. Remember in the opening scene of Perfect Strangers when Balki Bartokomus gets on the wagon headed for New York? It was kind of like that. Except I was in a truck and not a horse-drawn wagon. And I’m not from Mepos. But like Balki, I was setting out on my journey. I was going out to find whatever it was that had been calling to me for all those years. So I pointed that Dodge truck east and headed towards Florida.
It was a very surreal feeling, leaving everything that I have ever known, every comfort, headed towards a town in the Panhandle of Florida where I quite literally did not know a single solitary person. I felt excited by the prospect of living somewhere new, seeing new things, meeting new people. But I also felt something else.
Something I didn’t expect. I had a definite cloud of melancholy hanging over me. Even though I was so excited about the adventure that lay ahead of me, I also felt an unexpected hint of sadness, although I wasn’t exactly sure why. I was where I wanted to be. I was doing what I wanted to do. My life was in my hands. It was up to me to make it work. And I did it.
Fast forward about ten years and I still haven’t made it back home to Locust Grove, although I’m certainly closer now than I was when I lived in Florida. I’ve got a wife and three daughters now, and I’m responsible for the girls’ upbringing. They go to a good school in Texas, but it’s big. Instead of forty to sixty kids in their grade, they have four hundred. It’s minutes away from the nicest restaurants, the best shopping, and a half dozen movie theaters. There are a lot of people in town that I don’t know. Heck, I don’t know most of them. And even though the convenience of living in a bigger city is definitely a plus, I find myself wanting for my girls the small town life that my wife April and I had the privilege of growing up with. That’s right, I said privilege.
It’s taken me all these years to truly understand how wonderful it was to grow up in a small community like Locust Grove, and so many other small towns just like it, that pepper the South and Midwest. I want my girls to be a part of a close-knit family that small town life provides. I want them to grow up in a place where they know most everyone’s name, and everyone knows theirs. Where we can all go to church together on Sunday morning and once service is over, the whole congregation can head over to the Country Cottage for lunch. And when you look around the room at all the familiar faces, you’ll see most of them bow their heads to pray before they eat. See them stop to shake hands with people at each table, and ask about their family, or talk about the high school football game from Friday night. And it’s not out of obligation, but sincerity. They truly care about how you and your family are doing. Because they are good people with good hearts. In a way, they are like family.
Life has taken me many places. Some good, and some bad. We have found a good place to raise our family in Texas. We like it here. It’s a good town with good people, and it’s where I currently make my living, so it’s necessary. But it’s no Locust Grove. I spent so many years of my youth just wanting to get out of there to find the life that I thought I wanted, but as it turns out, a small town life is really what I wanted all along.