One of the things I miss most about Oklahoma is the rich red dirt. I didn’t appreciate it when I lived there. In fact, I probably didn’t like it much because it stains everything. As a child, I remember having brand new, sparkling white, tennis shoes and — the first time I wore them outside — they were irrevocably stained by the red dirt. With a little elbow grease and good stain releasers, you can get most dirt and mud out of clothing in the wash cycle, but not so in Oklahoma. The red dirt stains everything it touches.
What I wouldn’t give today to be irritated at the red dirt stains in my children’s clothing. I miss it as much as I miss the people. When I go home for a visit, my eyes tear up at the overturned dirt at construction sites and the piles of rust-colored clay as far as the eye can see. I’m tempted to pull over to the side of the road and scoop up as much of it as I can to bring home with me. Something about the soil seems to give me strength.
I’m not alone in this feeling. The Oklahoma soil gives many people strength. Raised in Mustang, Oklahoma — located roughly twenty miles away and in the same county as El Reno, Oklahoma — former New York Jets football player, Dennis Byrd, also felt strengthened by the soil of our shared homeland. When Byrd left Oklahoma to begin his NFL career, he wore around his neck a small leather pouch he’d been given as a gift by his father. The inside of the pouch was carefully filled with the red dirt he’d extracted from his back yard in Mustang, Oklahoma. In an interview with Mike D’Orso of Oklahoma Today, Bryd explains:
“I filled it with some of the dirt from our yard in Mustang and brought it with me to minicamp in May. My teammates constantly asked me, ‘What’s with the bag?’ They wanted to know what kind of voodoo I was working. I’d just tell them it was a memory bag. ‘It’s where I’ve been,’ I’d say. ‘It’s who I am.’ I didn’t tell anyone what was in it. In later years I told a few close friends, but most of the guys never knew.”
Byrd goes on to explain that, before every NFL game he ever played, he’d take a small fistful of that red Oklahoma dirt and sprinkle it on the field as he stepped foot onto the turf.
It’s a ritual I would repeat on every NFL field I ever played on. Anaheim. Seattle. Indianapolis. Cleveland. Chicago. Tampa. Philadelphia. Pittsburgh. Foxboro. Miami. Denver. New Orleans. San Diego. Cincinnati. Buffalo. Houston. Detroit. Artificial turf or natural grass, every one of those stadiums has some Oklahoma soil on it.
Today, Byrd lives near Tulsa where the dirt lacks the rich color of that in the Oklahoma City-area, but he tells Oklahoma Today that he keeps a small jar of that Oklahoma clay on his mantle in the living room. Interestingly, I do the same; only on the dresser in my bedroom.
There’s just something about that rich Oklahoma dirt that gives us strength, and I have no doubt that it has provided strength to Oklahomans through the decades. As I think about the rich dirt and relate it to the Dust Bowl-era and the characters in my book, The Edge of Nowhere, I have no doubt that the tug and pull of a love-hate relationship was strong in the 1930s. The soil is so unique to the area, and yet it was relentless and overtook everything. If, as a child, I was frustrated by my pristine white tennis shoes becoming stained by the soil, what must it have been like for those in the 1930s when that soil blew everywhere? Everything must’ve been stained…clothing, homes, even your skin. And yet our people stayed and waited for better days because the pull of the soil was so strong. Nearly one hundred years later, it’s still the soil that gives us strength.
What about your home gives you strength? I’d love to hear! Is it the mountains or the oceans? The soil? Maybe it’s endless miles of farmland, or the high rise buildings in the heart of a busy city. I’d love to hear about your home and what make it both unique and gives you strength. Leave me a comment below!
Note: Dennis Byrd’s football career was cut short by a spinal injury that left him paralyzed. Doctors never thought he’d walk again, but his will to overcome was stronger than modern medicine. His story is fascinating and definitely worth the reading. While this book appears to be out of print, limited copies are available through Amazon and BN.com. Also check with your local libraries. It’s one of the most inspirational stories ever, and is another true testament to the Oklahoma Spirit.