I’M DRIVING EAST from Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the Cherokee Turnpike, listening to Reba McEntire on the radio. It’s late May and the fields are lush. The tall grasses come right up to the edge of U.S. Highway 412, and from the crest of a hill, the countryside feels timeless. I turn onto a two-lane road, the scenic route to the town of Locust Grove, and pass a roadhouse, a taxidermy shop, and a church called the Lighthouse, “Where Jesus Is Real.” The road curves left and I can see a Sinclair gas station and a faded yellow stoplight swinging overhead. Locust Grove is a few long blocks from end to end. There’s a convenience store, a restaurant, a Laundromat, and on the far end, another convenience store: Greg’s Git ’n Split. I turn toward the highway, a new Holiday Inn Express, and see Greg’s other competitor, the “Git ’n Go.” I’m here to visit 103-year-old R. L. Stamper at the Stamper Quarter Horse Ranch. I call up Claude Stamper, R. L.’ s son. As has been the case the other times I’ve called, he’s in his truck when he answers. “You wanna come by tonight?” he offers. But I decline, thinking I’ll go to bed early. He gives me directions to the ranch for tomorrow. I’m about fifteen minutes away. But I’m restless and the mattress is rock hard and the room is so new that everything smells of chemicals, so I decide to drive by the ranch and scope it out. I stop in town to buy a local paper, then drive toward the ranch. I pass very few cars on the narrow roads and the mailboxes are far apart. I head north, the setting sun on my left, and cross a wide river meandering through the countryside. I drive until dusk and never find the ranch, so I cross many sets of parallel railroad tracks and turn south again, passing a huge industrial site rising out of green fields, no sign identifying it. It’s many stories tall, with a high chain-link fence all around. It’s well-lighted, but not a soul is visible. I can’t tell what it is and I think of Karen Silkwood. No one knows where I am but me. Back at the hotel, I let CNN blast at me until well after I fall asleep. I get up at 2: 12 to shut it off and sleep with a vague dread.
THE NEXT MORNING is gloriously clear and fresh. I find the Stamper Quarter HorseRanch easily this time and pull over onto the grassy shoulder to see it spread along the south side of the road. Green fields are sprinkled with reddish horses and colts and the land sweeps away toward wooded hills a mile back. There’s a barn, a long horse trailer, and a cluster of low buildings under trees. I can make out two houses from here. A hot west wind comes over the treetops, turning the leaves over until their pale undersides flash and ripple. WHEN I WAS growing up, my brother and I were outdoor kids. We lived in the woods near the Little Calumet River, just a couple miles south of Lake Michigan in northern Indiana. Our parents were from Chicago, born on the South Side, the children of Croatian immigrants. When they got married in 1950, they couldn’t wait to get out of the city. They bought land and built a house. My mother was always chasing us out to “get fresh air.” My brother, Leigh, was a serious fisherman before he was ten years old, and I liked to go along and play with the worms and bobbers. He had a BB gun and I had a knife. We rode our bikes everywhere—through grassyfields, on gravel roads, and through the mud. In winter we skated on the thin river ice and sledded with devotion. We had a treehouse enclosed with screens all around and a trapdoor to the roof. We had dogs, of course, and we brought home baby rabbits, snapping turtles, snakes, tadpoles, butterflies, and lightning bugs we kept in jars. We had countless baby chicks and ducklings we got at the feed stores that never made it to adulthood: they’d escape or get killed by weasels. I was sure that one day I would have a raccoon. Our house was on a clifftop with a long, open view of the woods and swampy riverbottom. I always imagined I could see Indians out there, running on our paths, jumping over logs, plants slapping their legs. We knew about the Chippewa who had lived here before us—just a few years before us, I thought—and I half-expected to come upon a Chippewa campfire. To me, they were superhuman: strong and brave and silent. They knew how to live in the woods, what to eat, how to make everything they needed. As young Hoosiers, we learned in school that our state had been the frontier just a hundred years before and we knew thatAbraham Lincoln was ours, raised in Indiana in a log cabin, learning to read by firelight. As a child, I could respect that. I think it’s part of why I fell so hard for 103-year-old Roy Larkin Stamper.
A LONG, TREE-LINED lane welcomes me to the Stamper ranch. There’s a pickup in the driveway of the first house I come to, and close by, a sun-bleached seventies Cadillac is slumped in front of another house. I figure the first vehicle belongs to Claude, the second to his father, R. L. Claude Stamper talks in a soft, sweet voice. His eyes are black, he’s tanned and looks strong, though he limps. He quickly brings out a scrapbook to tell me about the family. His son DeWayne runs the quarter-horse business, and his other sons live nearby. Claude has a house-moving business now; it keeps him driving the hundred-mile round-trip daily from Tulsa, which would seem to be why I always reach him by cell phone in his truck. He tries to give me coffee and breakfast, opens the freezer door to show me a pile of frozen sausage biscuits in cellophane wrappers. “Just need to throw one in the microwave,”microwave,” he says. “Daddy likes these. I make breakfast for him sometimes.” Claude lives alone in this house. His wife died last year. We walk across the driveway and up a wooden ramp to the house next door. We pass through a large living room with shag carpeting and brocade furniture. There’s a spinet piano along one wall and a grandfather clock taller than I am against another. In the kitchen there’s dark paneling, some dishes drying on a rack, a bottle of blue Aqua Velva aftershave on the counter. In a small room off the kitchen sits a thin, pale man wearing a cowboy hat and seated on a motorized scooter, facing us. “Daddy, this is the lady I told you about who’s come to interview you.” Roy Larkin Stamper flashes a toothy, gold, sparkly smile. “Well, aren’t you nice to come all this way to see me?” His face is moist and pink from just having shaved. He’s wearing a plaid shirt, polyester pants, and orange ostrich cowboy boots that look as if they’re right out of the box. He sweet-talks me. “Well, aren’t you the prettiest little thing?” I grin.Claude leaves us and I suggest that we do the interview in the living room. R. L. motors into the room on his three-wheeled scooter and turns the swivel seat to face me. I reach up and clip the microphone onto his shirt. His breath is sweet. “How’s your hearing, Mr. Stamper?” “Pretty good,” he says. “How’s your vision?” “Well, not so good.” He’s leaning down and toward me. His blue eyes are clear and focused. “I need to get a level on your voice,” I begin. “What did you have for breakfast?” “I had a sausage biscuit and some oatmeal.” “What can I call you?” “I go by R. L. My name’s Roy Larkin but most everybody calls me R. L.” And very soon we are far away in time and place. “I was raised in the eastern part of Kentucky. Lee County, Wolfe County, and Powell County. That’s where the feud was,” he says, referring to the infamous Hatfield and McCoy dispute of the late 1800’ s. My husband’s family is from Kentucky but not the eastern part. That’s the notoriousmountain region where the isolation and the Scots-Irish clannishness of the settlers combined to create a culture that many outsiders believe is still dangerous. When R. L. was growing up, it was violent. He was born in 1896. “The times were real rough,” he says. “We lived hand-to-mouth. And there was lots of killin’ and murderin’ and feudin’ all the time. But you know, them robbers was good, moral men. They didn’t rob the poor, I remember. And my daddy, he wouldn’t know how to lie. He was a good, honest man. He got into some trouble, however.” “The trouble” was what R. L. calls “shootin’ scrapes.” His daddy lent a gun to a man who didn’t want to return it, he says, and they dueled over it in front of the Stamper cabin one day. His father beat the man to the draw and “shot him twice about the heart.” The man fell in the yard, “mort’ly wounded.” They put R. L.’ s father under house arrest, so he made a plan to leave, to go west. He came to R. L. one night and asked if he wanted to go with him to Indian Territory. We are less than half an hour into our interview and I am already completely sucked in, my mind reeling. R. L. is just warming up,smiling and laughing. I’m sure my eyes must have been wide, and no doubt that fed his fire. “Did you go to school in Kentucky, R. L.?” “Oh, I guess for about a week. We lived in a place called Hall Holler and I had to walk three mile. My lunch was a piece of cornbread. We set on split logs. They built a new school and called it Omega. I went there a little while and got up to the fourth grade. But I got ashamed because I got big, so I quit. I couldn’t write and couldn’t read.” “When your daddy decided to go west, why did he bring you?” “He just hated to leave me, I guess. Him and me was real partners. I’d hold his pant leg on the wagon. I was a pretty good-size kid, nine years old.” R. L.’ s father had twenty-one children to care for. He had been married twice before marrying R. L.’ s mother, and she brought two kids to the marriage. R. L. was among the youngest. “I trusted him. He was the Lord to me and he was really good to me. My other brothers and him didn’t get along. They was more of a criminal element than I was. They fought and killed till they died.”R. L. and his father went to Lexington, Kentucky, and caught a train, heading for what is now Tulsa. There they switched to a freight train going toward Dawson, where his father had a brother. “He told me there was a grade just outside Dawson and the train might slow up for that. Well, we musta went over the grade and the train’s a-flyin’ and he was gonna show me how to get down off the train. He stepped down there off the train, just end over appetite, and just rolled down through there with dust a-flyin’!” R. L. is grinning. He knows it’s a great story. “And I clumb down the step, just about four feet to the ground, and the first place I hit, the top of my head! And I rolled down—I was just a kid, you see? Now, wasn’t that a deal?” Yes, I admit that it was. “And then he left me there, with his brother, till he got located, and then he brought me to Choteau and left me at a hotel for a week.” His father left a nine-year-old child at a hotel alone for a week while he went on horseback from Choteau to Locust Grove, tenmiles away, and made a deal for some land. R. L.’ s father bought the land we are sitting on, nearly one hundred years ago. The very acres I saw this morning, he must have seen from the same high spot where I parked my car. He would have been on horseback with a land broker who would have pointed south and said, “It goes up into those hills there, back to the river….” And they would’ve talked of water and timber and markets and how to clear the hilly, rocky land. Mr. Stamper paid ten dollars an acre. It would need a lot of hands to make it pay. The next spring, in 1906, the rest of the family came out from Kentucky. I ask R. L., “When you first came here, what was it like? Who lived in this country?” “Nobody. Nobody but the Indians. There wasn’t a white man in the country. I had to learn to talk Cherokee before I could spark.” He means go courting. Stamper speaks a line of Cherokee and grins widely. I fall for this. “What does that mean?” “You sure enough are a pretty girl!” We both laugh. “How did the Indians live at that time?” I ask.“They just lived off the land. And they had a stomp ground a mile from here where they’d dance around. There was an ash hopper where they kept a fire that never went out. It was there for years. And they would dance around it till midnight. They had a pole and they’d dance.” He sings a few lines for me in Cherokee. “They might have been celebrating burning a white man, I don’t know!” “You went to see that?” “Oh, I went to that regular, yeah, once a month or so. I got along good with the Indians. They treated me real good. And I was good to them. I never did have no run-ins with them.” The Stamper family cleared their ranch land and did a little bit of everything to survive. They planted peaches and apples and strawberries for cash. They got some cows for milk and R. L.’ s mother made butter. They’d hang the milk in the well or in the spring to keep it cool. “We raised a little cotton, not too much. We’d pick cotton and take it and buy groceries. In the fall, we’d kill hogs, render the meat out, and the lard would last over the winter. It was fat with a lot of salt. We’deat that. Now it would kill you, I guess. We worked all the time. All the time. Work me to death.” “You did everything yourselves.” “I don’t know how. I don’t know how in the world Daddy ever took care of us. That’s been a mystery to me. We used a sled and oxen called Buck and Darb. The sled had runners. They’d wear this sled out, the runners, then get another timber, take the bark off—I guess it was a willow or something. We didn’t see a wagon till later.”
WE’VE BEEN TALKING a couple of hours by now and R. L. Stamper is still right in front of my face, the rim of his cowboy hat nearly touching my forehead. I can smell his Aqua Velva. It’s getting warm in the room and I’m riveted by these stories. He’s not slowing down, but he is starting to ramble. I have to keep bringing him back to the family story, even though the digressions are fascinating, too. “Do you remember the dust storms and the Depression in the thirties?” I ask. “That storm was awful. We tied blankets over the windows. In Kansas it was real bad, it was worse than here. But many people justpacked up and left. Some went to California if they could.” The government brought flour and fruit to the Stamper ranch. They had a garage, R. L. says, where the food could be stored for distribution to the neighbors. “They come here with apples and oranges and all kind of fruit, and my children stood and watched and their mouths watered, but we have never taken a dime of relief. No way.” It was during this time that a number of outlaws were making names for themselves, including Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde. Stamper remembers Floyd especially. “They come here, located right here in this community. They’d come over here on horseback.” He points south toward the cliffs on his land and says someone stashed their loot up there in a cave. “But they was good fellows,” he insists, “they’s just robbers.” He understands their motivation. People were desperate, he says. “One night I looked at my little wife and my little girl—she was six years old. They didn’t have a coat. No sweater. And I couldn’t take that. I said, ‘Honey, I’m leaving here tonight.’ I caught a freight train and when I got off I didn’t haveanything. I was cold. I told that boss, ‘I want to go to work. I got a wife and a little girl and I’m broke. I got to work.’ And I went to work in a coal mine. I had a light on the bill of my cap and there were little mules down there. I stayed there that winter. Well, I got this little girl a red coat and for my wife a big plaid sweater, and I paid the grocery bill. I come home and they was having a revival. And I got to thinking about the Lord and the future. I just decided to straighten out, quit drinking, quit carousing, quit moonshining.” And R. L. Stamper started preaching. “I guess I was about thirty-two. I was praying here under a walnut tree. I had a bunch of chickens, my horses, cattle, and home, and something said, ‘Can you leave all that, everything, and go with me?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ The Lord just impressed me, not with an audible voice. ‘I want you to go and preach.’ I couldn’t read and write. It was hard to say I would, but I said I would and the thought come, ‘When?’ And I said, ‘Wednesday night.’ I went to the schoolhouse and I preached on Revelation. I didn’t know any more than a hog knows a sidesaddle, but God honored it. He just done it. I just furnishedthe men and He furnished the grace.” Looking back on those first few hours of talking about his life, I realize that Stamper had been talking about the Lord since we started, but I was not focused on it. I was more interested in hearing about pioneer life in Oklahoma. I’ve met plenty of preachers, and people who’ve been saved, but none who could describe what was essentially a frontier existence. I was amazed at what he and his family went through, and I wondered if I could endure a life like that. As he recounted the stories, he seemed amazed, too, and credited God with his survival. At some point he decides to really lay into me. Maybe he thinks that I am not sufficiently impressed with his relationship with the Lord. I ask him a vague, sweeping question: “A child born today, will he see the kinds of changes you’ve seen?” “No, and I’ll tell you why. We’re at the end time. Our land is wore out, the population increases, water is contaminated, all the food, your grass, and everything. And right now, I’m a-talkin’ to you, who’s hearing some of the last words of this age. You may not get back to Tulsa. The Lord is coming without a doubt. He said, ‘I will be back’ … but I’m gettinggetting off the subject.” He leans back in his scooter and pauses, dramatically, I think, waiting for me to respond. Well. I can feel the hair on the back of my neck standing up and that surprises me. He leans forward. “We’re at the end time and the next message I preach, it may be the last. That’s not to say He’s coming tonight or tomorrow, but I say He could.” “So you don’t think the world is gonna last another hundred years?” I say. “Oh, no! I don’t think it’s gonna last another year. I didn’t think I’d see another birthday. No, no. It can’t.” “But people have been saying that for a long time and it hasn’t happened.” He’s revved up, talking fast. “Jesus said … well, maybe you want to hear something else….” But he goes on with something about matrimony and the days of Noah that I don’t quite follow.
- L. HAS BEEN preaching for about seventy years now. In the thirties, he traveled the region, preaching wherever he could, mostly in rural communities, like the onehe’s from. And he says he often got in trouble for it, got beat up because some people didn’t like him preaching what’s known as “holiness,” meaning conservative, moralistic lessons. He tells me over and over that he never took any money for preaching, always gave the collection back, often to a parishioner going through hard times. He takes long detours into what I call “What the Bible Says About That” stories that mostly don’t engage me, but instead give me long stretches of time to think about him or watch him. So this moment when my hair stands on end surprises me. I don’t believe the end of the world is coming, but he does, and I can feel the fire that’s burning him up. He wants to save souls. He wants to save me. But more important, he wants to get out in the world and, as he says, be a fisherman for souls. But he can’t. He’s stuck here on the ranch. He has family around—his son and his grandson and his daughter and many grandchildren all live nearby—but he’s lonely for work. And he has no wife to look after him and help him. His third wife died last year. “My little wife, she was Indian. She was one of the best women that ever lived in theworld. Real sweet lady. She spoilt me. A real dandy. She waited on me like I was a baby. And when she died, they carried a hundred and fifty dresses out of here. That’s the kind of husband I am.” And then comes the big pitch. “I need a companion, real bad. But I don’t mix and I don’t see nobody and the one I’d have probably wouldn’t have me. What would a woman want with an old man?” He answers his own question. “I’ve got income I could give a woman. Fifty dollars a day. I’ve got property. I’ve got a Cadillac worth fifteen, twenty thousand dollars. I’ve got a home. I’ve got a lot to offer a woman yet, but I sit here, and it’s real boresome. If you didn’t have the Lord, you’d crack up.” He means this. He’s thought it out. “I can preach from a wheelchair and I don’t have to have the Bible. I couldn’t take a woman my age, I’d have to have a younger woman. It would have to be a miracle from God. Somebody who’d have a missionary spirit and a love for the Lord to come and drive me. Because if I’m able to talk to you, I’m able to preach. The Bible said, ‘When you’re old you can still bear fruit and be fatand flourishing.’ Well, I like that. That’s me.” This talk of a new wife seems outlandish to me. He’s 103 years old. But he is not kidding. He says he has a burden for lost souls. We’ve been talking for four hours and I’m exhausted. He is still right in front of my face and he says he could keep going, but I can’t listen anymore. I’ve got to go and think about all this. I return to my hotel and lie down on the cool, slick bedspread as if steam were rising from my body. That night, in my journal I write, “Roy Larkin Stamper is a wild man, a little frightening.” I’d had that falling feeling again and this time it was stronger.
I GO BACK the next day and spend a few hours in the horse barn with R. L.’ s grandson DeWayne, who runs the horse business now. The Stampers are famous for their cutting horses, specially trained to “cut” individual cattle from a herd. It’s a big sport in this part of the country. People travel far to attend competitions for thousands of dollars in cash prizes. People come here to have DeWayne Stamper train their horses and to buy horses from him. He is tall and soft-spokenspoken and polite. He’s wearing cowboy boots and spurs, chaps and a cowboy hat. Hanging from his belt is a cell phone. He lets me look around the horse barn and the indoor arena, then we call over to the house to find R. L. He seems hurt that I didn’t come and see him first. He wants to be part of the action. I go to the house and get him. He’s sitting in a motorized wheelchair instead of his three-wheeled scooter, and he buzzes across the gravel driveway toward the barn, followed closely by a Border collie that wants him to stop and throw a tennis ball. He does. At the barn he brags about DeWayne elaborately, calls him “bulletproof in every way” and “tops in his business,” and asks him to show me Sweeping Cow, their current champion cutting horse. Cutting horses are new to me, but I can tell Sweeping Cow is well cared for, muscular and alert. We drink Mountain Dews in the barn office and then R. L. and I head back to the house, stopping in the grass to catch a breeze from across an open field to the west. It’s a hot, clear morning and R. L. is suddenly wistful. He says he really doesn’t care much about the horse business anymore. Says the kids don’treally appreciate what he’s done for them, how much he’s given them, and he says the horses aren’t tough like they used to be. One winter night eighty years ago, he says, he rode a horse all night to Pryor—about thirty miles away—just to go “sparkin’.” He says he about froze his ears, but “the horse loped every step of the way.” A horse couldn’t do that today, he says, they’re too soft and pampered from living in barns. He stops short of saying that about the people around him, too. Both Claude and DeWayne seem respectful and proud of R. L., what he’s done for them and what he’s accomplished. But what the power dynamics of this family are, I have no idea. I do know that a family business is a complicated thing. We go back to the house and spend a few more hours talking, mostly about the end of the world, which doesn’t scare me the way it did yesterday. Now I realize it’s a theme R. L. has playing in his head over and over. And today he’s not sitting close to my face, staring into my eyes. The spell is broken. We’re in his den, a long, masculine room with a fire-place and a wall that’s covered floor to ceiling with brass horse trophies, glinting in the late afternoon light like individualflames. It’s impressive and I take some pictures of him there. He looks solemnly toward the camera, but he can’t see exactly where the lens is, so his gaze is a little off. Suddenly he reaches up and takes a small statuette off a shelf, a brass pony on a pedestal. The plaque says 1959. TOPEKA HORSE SHOW. He thrusts it into my hands. “Here, I want you to have this,” he says. He’s not playful and funny today. He seems distracted and tired and lonely. I accept his gift as a farewell, and soon I say, “Well, I think I’ll be leaving now,” and he doesn’t protest but says he wants to pray for me. R. L.’ s hands are crooked and scarred from 103 years of working with shovels and hammers and barbed wire. He crumples them together, closes his eyes, and prays out loud: “Lord, protect her as she drives her little car back to Tulsa.” Just as I did yesterday, I feel a cool breeze on my neck and I know again the depth of his belief. As I head down the driveway and onto the blacktopped road, I recall R. L. telling me that he remembers when there was just one fence between here and Tulsa. Now I have seenthis land through his eyes—as it was a hundred years ago, in its wild state—and I’m sad now, as he is, about the changes.
THERE WAS A time in my life when I might have agreed to drive R. L. around the countryside in his old Cadillac so he could save souls at revivals. Twenty-five years ago I had just graduated from college and spent the summer at the Minnesota Outward Bound School in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. For a month we lived in the wilderness, cooking over fires, sleeping through thunderstorms, carrying canvas packs and aluminum canoes in swampy muck up to our thighs, rappeling down cliffs. When that month was over, I was strong and fearless. I cut off my hair with a pair of borrowed scissors and drove my Toyota west, across the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, following the trail of Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. I went to Vancouver Island, down to San Francisco, and then to Yosemite, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, and back across the Rockies and Kansas and home to Indiana. If, on that trip, I had found myself in Locust Grove at the Stamper ranch and R. L. had been looking for someone todrive him around, I might have done it. I had nothing to lose at twenty-two, and, even then, I think I would have known that men like R. L. Stamper would soon be gone from this world.