Last Saturday morning a group of Mary Sue Price's family members who had come to Oklahoma for a family celebration arrived. They had come from around the country and since they were interested in environmental justice I suggested they should make every effort to attend LEAD Agency's upcoming Tar Creek Conference since Charles Lee the primary author of the United Church of Christ's Toxic Race and Waste report would be our keynote speaker. And dad-gum-it they were active in that church! One of 3 churches over a decade ago that approved resolutions for Tar Creek, her superfund site and for the people living within it.
The group arrived at the front door of our office and when they came in I discovered a handwritten envelop in the mail, quickly opened it after seeing it was from Gladys Keeton, peaked inside and got carried away with the group for hours, giving deep background of this place, passing around documents and drawings, and viewing maps before we headed out to see the sites. All the while keeping the yet unread letter from Gladys handy.
A real Toxic Tour must contain yes, the problems we have, but also our endearing places, historic treasures and our stories. We see the Miami Post Office containing the Eagle-Picher Central Mill mural painted by Nick Calcagno and the dialysis center where so many of my friends and former students receive life sustaining care for damaged kidneys. Cadmium and lead found locally in our legacy mining dust can be linked to kidney damage. They learned about George Mayer and his horses and the brick factory in Commerce with the passive water treatment system established by University of Oklahoma to deal with his mine water discharges. (I did as usual infer they Google the site because the shape of the treatment system looks like it sort of spells out the word Jesus, in my opinion).
From there we could see the amazing statue of Mickey Mantle designed by our Nick Calcagno in front of the Commerce High School athletic fields. That led us to Mickey's boyhood home on "C" street. We stopped before turning onto old Route 66 to discuss the cave-ins that threatened that piece of the historic ribbon road before proceeding to the classic gas station on the corner opposite of the still open for business Dairy King in Commerce, OK. Just down the street we stopped at the very spot that would have had a GREAT DEAL more significance if I had actually read Gladys' letter.
Sophia the youngest and Maryn the elder joined me standing in the street in front of a lawn with a lone ore can filled with beautiful summer flowers. We stood facing outward as our triad demonstrated how men stood while lowered into the mines in ore cans as elevators for work each day. But in the letter I didn't read was Gladys' story about her own ride down the mine in an ore can! Just who is Gladys Keeton? She is a local poet LEAD Agency honored four years ago at the annual Tar Creek Conference, or more honestly, she honored us with her poetry and art. She is now 94 and demonstrates with the writing that follows, also a fine story teller:
The Coming Storm: This is about an experience I had when I was twelve years old. My family consisted of my father, mother, brother and baby sister and myself. At this particular time my mother's sister was staying with us. We lived right across the road from the Benalair Mine. There was a big derrick that stood above the mine shaft. My dad was ground Boss and worked underground five days a week. On this particular day it was very cloudy with dark ominous clouds hanging over head and the wind was beginning to blow. My dad was very concerned and decided to get us to safety and away from the coming storm. He told us to get into one of the big ore cans that would take us down into the mine. These ore cans would hold three men so my mother, her sister and me + baby all got into the cans and that was our way of transportation We weren't very happy about going but dad thought it best so down, down into the big well we went. You could hear water dripping all the way down, it was very creepy. My dad operated the hoist machine and he would ring a bell when it was time to take us back up. We finally landed and the first thing we saw was a corral where they keep the mules that were used to pull the ore cans when they were full of dirt and rocks which were encrusted with lead and zinc.
There were electric light bulbs strung in various places. We walked a little way but the farther we walked the darker it got and where there were no more light bulbs it was so dark you couldn't see anything.
Finally we heard the bell ring that informed us to get ready to be lifted up. We were so happy to see daylight again. and the storm had passed. I knew I was never going to go underground again. I would rather face the storm.
We finished the tour with a drive through the remnants of Picher, a quick over the line so they could say the most used line from the Wizard of Oz, "we are not in Kansas anymore," as our return trip gathered speed. We experienced "agazement" as we gazed over Tar Creek at the confluence of Lytle Creek and the mine water discharge after being up-close to the chat piles once used to great abandon by 4-wheelers and picnicking families. Then off to join their wider families for their joyous reunion.
Hopefully you and all who come won't have to face the storm Gladys faced with her family to attend our conference where we will put our minds together as one to discuss and learn how environmental justice weaves into our lives.
We have had many amazing artists featured at our National Tar Creek Conferences over these 20 years.
We invite each to our Opening Reception Sept. 24 at 6:30 p.m. at the NEO College Commons Hall to reflect on their work and celebrate the arts they create. There have been hundreds of students who have touched us with their art. All are invited to be celebrated as part of the environmental justice movement each has been part of creating, as art became activism.
Respectfully Submitted ~ Rebecca Jim
Toxic Toured: Leon and Maryn Goodson, Bethesda, MD; Sue Hughbanks, Chattanooga, TN; Tony Goodson and Sophia Goodson, Seattle, WA