Seven Things You Might Not Know About Me

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I’m finally going to respond to my millions of adoring fans who have been clamoring for more information about me. As much as I despise celebrity worship, I think those of us who have lived fascinating lives have an obligation to share some of the oddball highlights with the common people.

  1. When I was a reporter, I broke to the whole world the story of Mr. Ed’s death. I was living in Tahlequah, Oklahoma at the time and I knew Mr. Ed had retired there (literally put out to pasture) and I contacted his owner to do a feature on how his golden years were going and I learned that Mr. Ed had died just a few days before. The story went national, and Saturday Night Live interviewed Mr. Ed’s widow.

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  1. My middle name is Reo, and it was also my dad’s middle name, and I have no idea where it came from. I published a shape shifter novel under the pen name Ronald Reo.

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  1. One of my Pruitt ancestors was a spy during the Revolutionary War for Gen. George Washington.

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  1. I had polio when I was twelve and it stunted the growth of my legs. I think I would have been several inches taller without the polio.

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  1. I was the class poet at my high school. There was a competition to write the class poem and my ditty won. The school held a baccalaureate ceremony and I got to read my poem to the assembled senior class. However, just before I went on, the sound system failed and when I read my poem, I don’t think anyone heard it. Looking back on it now, it was a sappy, crappy poem and I don’t think it was much of a loss for my classmates.

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  1. One of my short stories was published in Portugal as part of a program to teach English to high school students, so I’m also famous in Portugal.

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  1. I’ve hung out with Gary Busey (Teddy Jack Eddie) and Gailard Sartain (Mazeppa Poppazoidi). This will probably only make sense to you if you were living in Tulsa in the 60s or 70s.
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The Day JFK Died

John, Jackie and Caroline

John, Jackie and Caroline

The Day JFK Died

I was in advanced chemistry class at Will Rogers High School in Tulsa where I was a senior. It was the next to last period of the day on a Friday. I can’t remember what my plans were for that weekend, but it doesn’t matter what they were. Everyone’s plans for that weekend would be changed.

Me in high school. I'm the nerd on the left.

Me in high school. I’m the nerd on the left.

For some forgotten reason, another senior named Michael Browne was summoned to the office. In retrospect, it was auspicious that he was the one who left class that day. You could say that Michael Browne was our class clown. His specialty was doing an imitation of President John Kennedy and the Massachusetts accent that seemed so different from the Oklahoma drawl we were used to. Michael had developed a comedy routine around his dead-on impersonation of the President, and he was regularly performing his act in front of civic groups and men’s clubs, a pretty impressive feat for a kid who hadn’t yet graduated from high school.

Michael Browne, who brought the news the President was shot.

Michael Browne, who brought the news the President was shot.

When Michael Browne got back from his trip to the office, he brought a bombshell into our classroom, the news that President John Kennedy had been shot.

It’s hard now to understand how shocking that message was. Truly, it was a more innocent time. Assassinations didn’t happen in America. This was before the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and Malcolm X, before George Wallace was shot and crippled, before the protests over Viet Nam, before the Chicago police riot, before Watergate, and  before Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and drowned a young woman.

The idea that someone would shoot and kill the President was incomprehensible. Things like that just didn’t happen back then. You have to try to imagine a time before school shootings, airplane hijackings, suicide bombers, poisoned Tylenol, AIDS, or drug cartels.

Before John Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas that day, the last President who had been assassinated was William McKinley, and that was in 1901. Few people living in 1963 had any memory of that event. Nobody thought about it happening again. It was a time in our history when we were still riding the glorious wave of winning World War II, of being the richest and most powerful nation on earth. It was a golden age, but it ended on that November day.

Mostly what I remember of that day is having difficulty processing the news that the President had been shot and killed. I couldn’t make any sense out of it. My brain refused to be able to put it into any kind of scheme of rational thinking.

I went on to physics class, the last period of the day. Before class started I sat stunned at my desk, my mind churning with thoughts. In the brief 34 months that John Kennedy had been President, I had grown to like him.

John Kennedy

John Kennedy

When he was elected in 1960, I wasn’t  sure about a Catholic from Massachusetts. My uncle, a hell-and-brimstone preacher, had told me that if Kennedy became president, all the Protestants would be forced to ride at the back of the bus. Viewed now, it was a ridiculous statement, but it shows the tenor of the times.

So when the magic of Camelot happened, and John Kennedy turned out to be a young, charismatic, handsome leader who gave impassioned, idealistic speeches, I was completely won over. And I just assumed America’s golden age would continue under his shining presidency. But all that came crashing down in one day.

I’m still embarrassed to this day about something that happened just before physics class got started. I was so confounded by the events of that day, I was trying desperately to understand how something so horrific had happened. In my limited comprehension, I saw one group that was Kennedy’s enemy and would benefit from his death.

So I mumbled something incredibly stupid.

“God damned Republicans.”

Apparently, I said it a little louder than I intended because we had a student teacher in physics class, a college student, and as soon as these words slipped out of my mouth, he rushed over and was shouting in my face, “What did you say? What did you say?”

I guess he was a Republican.

I refused to answer him or even look at him. Thankfully, my physics teacher ignored the whole thing. Class began and dragged on, though I doubt anybody heard what was taught that day. And then we went home for the weekend, changed forever.

Everything was canceled that weekend, football games, social gatherings, everything. Regular programming was taken off television and replaced with a picture of the President’s casket lying in state and a long line of people filing past.

Unforgettable images were burned into our memories. John Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s funeral procession, the blood on Jackie’s pink outfit, Lyndon Johnson hastily taking the oath of office on an airplane, Walter Cronkite choking up as he delivered the fatal bulletin.

We found out more details, that the assassin was a loner named Lee Harvey Oswald with Communist ties. That he had shot the President from the window of a state school textbook depository building.

Ugly events followed. Oswald was arrested and murdered while in custody, Jackie Kennedy would later marry an ancient Greek shipping tycoon, President Lyndon Johnson escalated the war in Viet Nam (Kennedy had planned to end U.S. involvement in his second term), and the dogs and fire hoses were turned on civil rights demonstrators. Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison died from drug overdoses. President Nixon resigned for being a crook.

November 22, 1963, is the day our country began to lose its gleam and shine and slowly tarnish, and the day people began to lose faith in the goodness of things

And Michael Browne, the senior who carried the terrible news to us that day 50 years ago, vowed he would never again do his Kennedy impersonation. We all lost something important that day. We lost trust. It was the beginning of a long decline in trusting our government, our institutions and each other. It was a day I will never forget.

J.J. Cale Dead at 74

J.J. Cale

J.J. Cale

In the early 1970s, I was living in Tulsa and hanging out with a neighbor who played  in a band. One day I was at his house and another musician came by with a newly recorded and unreleased song by J.J. Cale. We sat around and listened to the song, Cajun Moon, and I  remember thinking how lucky I was to get to be one of the first people to hear it.

In the mid-80s, I was  living in Kansas and I went to hear J.J. Cale play at the Cotillion in Wichita. It was nothing special, a barn-sized venue and there were probably less than a hundred people there. The band started playing and after a while, a skinny guy came out, stood in the shadows and started playing his guitar. No intro, no fanfare, no spotlight. That was J.J. Cale, low key, low profile, never seeking the limelight.

Maybe that’s one reason why he never became a big name rocker, though he was a legend in the music world. (His biggest hit, Crazy Mama, peaked at 22 on the charts in 1972.)

Neil Young considered him, along with Hendrix, one of the two greatest guitarists of all time.

But he’s probably more famous as a songwriter, creating hits like Eric Clapton’s After Midnight and Cocaine and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Call Me The Breeze.

It was not until late in life that he won the grammy for his collaborative album with Clapton, Road to Escondido.

J.J. Cale died at 74 largely unheralded Friday in La Jolla, California, following a heart attack. When I heard of his death, I couldn’t help but think of some prophetic lines from his song Last Will and Testament from the recent album:

“You know I’m going over 60,

I’m older than most,

It won’t be long now I’ll be nothing but a ghost.”

I’ve always felt a special connection to J.J. Cale because we’re both from Tulsa. J.J. Cale was born in Oklahoma City but grew up in Tulsa and graduated from high school there in 1956. He came of age just as the rock era was beginning

In the early 1960s, he moved to California and became a sound engineer. Discouraged by his inability to break into the music business, he almost gave up music, but hung on after Clapton recorded a cover of After Midnight in 1970.

Returning to this hometown, he would be an important element in creating what came to be called the Tulsa sound, a sort of rockabilly shuffle infused with bluesy guitar licks. By then Tulsa’s own Leon Russell had also returned to Oklahoma from California and the two got together and formed a close musical partnership.

It was Leon who first signed J.J. Cale to Shelter Records, despite the fact that co-owner of the label Denny Cordell was less than enthused about Cale’s music. And so J.J. Cale began recording his music at the Shelter Records studio in Tulsa.

His first album Naturally was an underground, if not a commercial, hit. It’s hard to understand why a beautifully melodic song like Magnolia did not become a top hit, while a song like America’s Ventura Highway, which uses an almost identical chord structure, is widely known. Maybe it’s because J.J. Cale was more artist than showman. It’s sometimes hard to understand why the American entertainment  industry rewards the artists it does and fails to recognize the ascendant talent of others like J.J. Cale.

For the next four decades he cranked out music in relative obscurity, performing with many famous musicians but never becoming a big star himself.

But his music speaks for itself. and you only have to listen to it to know that the world is lessened by the loss of J.J. Cale.

100 Years Ago

Claude R. Pruitt

Claude R. Pruitt

One hundred years ago today, July 18, 1913, my dad was born in a sharecropper shack near Spiro, Oklahoma. Claude Reo Pruitt was born into a dirt poor family who survived through subsistence farming, hunting, fishing, berry picking, and any other way they could figure out to get by.

My grandfather Sid was a drinker, a gambler and had a quick temper, none of which helped his family. My grandmother Mae was a good-hearted part Cherokee who gave birth to six children who survived, my dad being the second born.

So my dad grew up in poverty in the country in eastern Oklahoma and the family made a hardscrabble life in the bottomlands of the Arkansas River. The hardships of their life forced my dad to drop out of school in the eighth grade. This was a shame because he was an intelligent person. I remember he could do complicated math calculations in his head and read the newspaper every day while I was growing up.

He was a young teenager when he started riding freight trains to Texas to pick cotton to support the family. He told vivid stories about riding freight trains during the depression and there would be hundreds of people riding the train. One story he often told was once when he and his brother were riding the trains home from the cotton fields and they were bringing their mother a red peanut butter bucket they’d saved for her. They were staying in a hobo jungle along the tracks when a knife fight broke out and they got scared and ran off and forgot to grab the peanut butter bucket.

When the Great Depression came along, Claude joined the Civil Conservation Corps and was stationed first at Pine Valley, Oklahoma and later at Douglas, Wyoming. He was paid $18 a month, and  $13 was sent home and  he had $5 a month spending money. He supplemented this tiny income by selling merchandise to his fellow corpsmen, including men’s dress suits. In Wyoming, he strung wire on telephone poles and built trails. While carrying a log, he slipped and injured his back severely, leaving him with an injury which left him bent over for the remainder of his life.

After his time in the CCC was over, he did what many Okies did to escape hard times back home. He journeyed to California where he found work in the fields and later as a gardener. He saved his money and bought his first car, which I believe may have been a 1933 Chevy. He drove it back home to Oklahoma.DSC_0221

In the 1940s, the Pruitt clan relocated to the outskirts of Tulsa and Claude found work at Spartan Aircraft and was making 75 cents an hour. In 1943, he accepted a job at Boeing Aircraft in Wichita, where he would meet my mother, Irene Brock. The back injury had made him unfit to serve in World  War II but he did his part building B-29  bombers and making more money than he ever had before.

Irene grew up on a farm in Arkansas. When they war ended in August 1945, they moved to her home valley. I was born there and my first home had no electricity or running water. Dad raised cotton in 1946, and in 1947 my sister Patricia was born.

Two big events demarked the late 40s. Claude and Irene moved to Tulsa and settled near dad’s family, and my sister died at only 18 months.  Her death was a dark cloud that hung over the family for  years.

Claude got a job sanding and finishing floors, and that was his occupation while I grew up. We lived in a series of rent houses in an area of northeast Tulsa. In the early 1950s, mom and dad bought six acres and a small house on the prairie east of Tulsa. I went to kindergarten and part of first grade while we lived there. Mom hated living out on the prairie. Dad loved it. It was a conflict they couldn’t resolve. Mom wanted to live in town in a house built by a professional builder. Dad wanted to live out and grow a big garden and have livestock. Mostly, we lived in town.

Dad, mom and me at the prairie house, early 50s

Dad, mom and me at the prairie house, early 50s

So in 1951 (I think) we moved back to town into a shotgun house my parents bought for $2,000. It had no bathroom, an outhouse in the backyard, but dad added a bathroom and a bedroom for me.

In 1953, we were living in the shotgun house, my grandma and grandpa living right across the street and I stayed with them when my brother Leland was born. Dad was 40 that year.

In probably 1956, we moved into a rent house at 1936 N. Oxford in Tulsa. It was the first time we’d ever lived in a housing addition and it was only two blocks from Bryant Elementary where I was in the sixth grade.

We only lived there about a year and then we moved back to the house on the prairie and I attended seventh grade at East Central School. I hated it and mom didn’t like living in the country so we moved back to the shotgun house after one year.

Dad never got to live in the country after that, but he did garden almost obsessively. While we lived in the shotgun house, he had a huge garden on the vacant lot next  door and when that wasn’t enough, he started gardening a vacant lot a few blocks away. Later, he added a third garden. The garden produce was delicious all summer, mom canned as much as she could and we gave lots away to relatives and neighbors and sold some of it at rock bottom prices. I believe our price for homegrown tomatoes was ten cents a pound.

Dad had his own floor sanding and finishing business by then. There was a post-war building boom in Tulsa, and dad would sand and finish the floors for nine cents a square foot. It took two days to sand and finish a house, and he’d charge about eighty to ninety dollars. In the early 1960s, builders began installing wall-to-wall carpet in new houses and there was no more floor sanding work. Dad sold his equipment, got a job at a machine shop and worked there until he retired.

When I was in high school, we moved again, to a house my uncle had built. Dad built a greenhouse in the backyard and raised his own vegetable plants. We were living there when he helped me buy my first car for $50, a black 1952 Ford with a cracked engine block.

I got married at 20. Because I was underage (the age of majority was 21 back then) dad had to go with me to the Tulsa County Courthouse and sign for me to be able to get a marriage license.

Mom got pregnant again. She was 43 and it was a high risk baby. The child died trying to be born. Mom and dad faced the tragic loss of a baby for the second time in their lives.

I soon had two children of my own, the only grandchildren my mom and dad would have. My dad used to raise and slaughter rabbits at his house, which horrified my children when they were little. Dad gave up raising rabbits because of how his grandchildren felt.

I think it was the early seventies when mom and dad moved to their final house, a two-bedroom brick house on a corner lot in a standard housing addition. Mom finally had what she’d wanted, a house built by a professional builder. Dad turned over the grassy ground in the backyard and made it into one large garden. He built a small greenhouse on the back of the lot. He had a small vegetable stand in the front yard in the summer. The city bus line ran right by their house, and the bus driver would stop the bus to buy veggies from dad.

I moved out of Tulsa in 1976 and never moved back and I saw less of mom and dad, though we’d go back for holiday visits. Mom and dad lived out their retirement in their tract house. Dad gardened and in the evening they watched Atlanta Braves baseball.

In the late eighties, dad developed dementia and it became difficult for mom to manage his care. He spent the last years of his life in a nursing home in Tulsa. He died in June 1990 about a month before his seventy-seventh birthday. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone for 23 years. Leland died in 2003. Mom lived until 2008 and moved to the town where I live in Arkansas the last couple of years of her life.

Dad lived through an interesting time in American history, the Great Depression, the CCC, riding the freight trains, World War II, the boom days of the 1950s, the era of the flower children, the Viet Nam War, the moon landing, and the beginning of the computer age. He rose from poverty, suffered tragic losses, was afflicted with a disfiguring injury, and ended his life in a nursing facility. He had a hard road, but he walked it with determination and dignity.