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Toxic Town USA - Part Seven


The final day of the documentary shoot, we woke up to a horrible stink in the house. Southwestern Oklahoma was dealing with a severe skunk population explosion that dry, hot summer. Apparently one of them had just sprayed close to or right beneath the house sometime in the wee hours of the morning. The stink was so bad, Annabelle was up first and came into the living room looking around to see if there might actually be a skunk somewhere in there. From beneath my covers I shook my head to indicate to her I hadn't seen one as I lay in bed, very reluctant to get up and face what might come next.

"It must be in the basement," she whispered with a grimace and went back into her bedroom.

Harley was up next and promptly went down into the basement to assess the situation while I was dressing. I staggered, bleary eyed, through the kitchen and out the back door just as he was coming up the basement steps with news there were four skunks hiding down there in some big, long-neck ceramic planters.

"What do you think I should do?" he asked us. Annabelle and I looked at each other then back at Harley and stated the obvious, almost in unison: "Get them out."

With an expression of deep disgust, Harley shook his head and went back into the house. We weren't sure if he was more disgusted with the skunks or with us for not volunteering to chase them out of the basement, but we didn't really care much which.

Fetching his old 22 calibre rifle, he went back down into the basement and shot them all where they were hiding inside the vases. Thankfully, the gunshots were muffled below ground and didn't ring out across the still calm, cool neighborhood to wake others. He dumped the stinky skunks out of the heavy vases and hauled them out to the dump. As soon as he returned, he and Annabelle opened all the windows in the house and waved at me to follow them outside.

"Let's get out of here while it airs out," Harley suggested. That sounded like a stellar idea to me so we all piled into my SUV and headed out for a road trip west on Route 66 with plans to visit antique shops along the way. Crossing into Texas within minutes and turning south into Shamrock as we jabbered happily at each other about this and that, we stopped at one shop there for a few minutes, then headed down highway 83 to Childress before turning back east toward Quanah. On that leg of the trip, I noticed battery voltage dropping and surmised my SUV's alternator was failing and began sweating over having to deal with vehicle breakdown on the road.


Making it into Quanah without losing electrical power, we waited a short time while it was handily replaced at a friendly tire and auto repair shop before heading back into Oklahoma north on highway 6. We stopped briefly in Eldorado at another antique shop. Needing a little nap, I stayed in the SUV to catch a few winks and woke a few minutes later to the sounds of a small group of children–a young, dark-headed girl of about nine and three younger boys–emerging from the town grocery store in high spirits. They all sat together on a bench outside the store to enjoy ice cream on a stick. That scene struck me deeply as memories of summers spent with my sister and two brothers doing the very same thing in Sayre as a child bubbled up in my mind. My mother had spent summers just outside Eldorado staying with her grandmother on a cattle ranch and I wondered if she might have sat on that very same bench eating ice cream purchased from that very same grocery store too. It got me thinking about how timeless small towns in that area seemed to be and transition from carefree youth into ever-mounting responsibilities and pressures of adulthood.

By then I had a firm grasp of what Harley and Annabelle were accomplishing at the Sandhills Curiosity Shop while facing steadily mounting odds imposed upon them by hostile parties in Erick. I still didn't fully understand how hateful those parties were behaving toward them but I had an inkling it was pretty bad and I knew it was having a negative effect on both of them, especially Annabelle. I wanted to discuss the subject with them at length but we were out and about relaxing after some pretty intense work at their shop, so I held my curiosity at bay.

It was almost noon by then and already getting hot, so we set out north again, stopping in Mangum for burgers and cold drinks before driving over to the Granite Mountains were we stopped to visit with a friend of Harley and Annabelle's who dealt in antiques. While visiting with Joe, we had watched several skunks boldly waddling about his neighborhood under scorching afternoon sunlight. Not something skunks are normally prone to do.

"The sheriff has lifted the shooting ban in town," Joe told us, "encouraging everyone to shoot them on sight to maybe help keep rabies from spreading." We all thought that was a wise and grand town policy.

From Granite, we cut across to Hobart then north through Cordell and Corn where we ran into Harley's brother at an antiques and crafts cooperative in Weatherford. I hadn't met Steven yet so we talked a bit while Harley and Annabelle scoured the cooperative for old treasures. As we talked, he asked me to please not cast Harley and Annabelle in a poor light in the documentary I was making. That request surprised me a bit, considering how positively I personally felt about them both from my own occasional visits with them over a mere decade and a half. I wondered what worried Steven so much as to make him think I would even think of doing such an underhanded thing. And that worry stayed with me as we left the cooperative and started back west on Route 66. So I mentioned it to Harley and Annabelle, telling them what Steven had said. They began telling me more details of how badly they had been treated by some of the people in Erick, including how someone had reported them to state agencies for suspicions of violating crimes they never had committed including tax evasion and child molestation. Appalled, I asked what was driving these people to be so hateful.

"Because we're a success," Annabelle replied. "They don't want anyone succeeding unless it's someone in their gang."

"Gang?" I asked. "Gang of what?"

"Bigots," Harley replied without hesitation. "We're too different. Too smart. Too on top of the tourism business in Erick. We're so on top of it, we're the only real attraction in town. But we don't fit the profile their gang likes to maintain in town."

"What about the museums?" I asked.

"Nobody goes to them," they both answered at once. "They hardly ever get any visitors and they sure as hell don't get any tour groups," Harley added. "None at all. They all come to the Sandhills Curiosity Shop."

Astounded that Harley and Annabelle had cornered the tourism market in Erick, I wondered about this gang of bigots they spoke of and how dangerous they might be as we sped past Foss where my father's aunt and uncle used to live and then Canute where I used to go as a teenager for a hearty meal of mountain oysters. Fond memories of times when small town politics and bigotry didn't matter to me one little bit. Now I looked at the exit signs for those little towns and wondered what kinds of bigotry might be going on in them and understood why Harley's brother had asked me not to paint them in a bad light. Steven knew what they were up against and feared I might just exacerbate their difficulties.

To top off our road trip, we stopped at a buffet restaurant in Elk City and chowed down before returning to the house in Erick for my last night there. Everyone at the restaurant was extremely kind and understanding about our stinky presence there. We could all still smell the skunk on us, so we surely must have smelled particularly rank to all of the other diners, but no one in the buffet lines or adjacent tables and booths said a word about it. I suspect, most rural Okies have encountered skunks in their lives and could totally relate to our embarrassing situation, deciding to exercise patience and understanding rather than angrily chasing us out of the restaurant.

We were pretty hungry and the food was tasty. Unfortunately, we picked up a nasty dose of food poisoning there and all fell dreadfully ill shortly after midnight. We took turns heaving into the toilet all night long. To top that off, the next morning as I was packing to leave, my two dogs managed to trip the latch on the alley gate of Harley and Annabelle's back yard and were merrily pursuing other skunks roaming about the neighborhood that morning. They both were thoroughly sprayed at point blank range. By the time I managed to get them loaded into the back of the SUV and was settling into the driver's seat, the stench of skunk filled every cubic inch of the vehicle. I wondered what the trip home was going to be like. Nausea from the food poisoning was being especially persistent. After saying our goodbyes, I slowly drove out of Erick on Route 66, looking at the town wondering how such a quiet little place had become so rife with bigotry and petty tendencies of hatred.

I was sick for a full week from food poisoning after arriving back home following that miserable six hour drive from Erick, stopping to vomit wherever I could along the way. Lingering stink of skunks and churning stomach tortured by food poisoning had been bad enough to deal with, but emerging reality of stench and poison of bigoted attacks directed at the Russells would prove to be something much worse.

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