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  • Wes

Introduction

The movie Cars was released in 2006. An animated feature length story of a rookie race car driver that gets stuck in Radiator Springs, Arizona while making a cross-country trip to the final "Piston Cup" race of the season in California. Getting past the gags and silliness, albeit cleverly paced with just enough adult humor to keep Mom and Dad interested, the story eventually settles into being a statement about the decline of small town life in America. Radiator Springs sits astride the old Route 66, cue Bobby Troup and Chuck Berry. The message: "you are missing what is, or perhaps what was, America by traveling across, and not through, the landscape on interstate highways."


Cars evolved into a family classic, although now only watched occasionally for nostalgic remembering as the kids have grown older. When we were watching it weekly (if you have kids, you get it), it stirred prominent pillars of our families fabric: history and traveling. Vacations in my family are routed (I have numerous kids, we always drive) so that National Parks or Civil War battlegrounds are never missed. No vacation feels right until we are watching our first visitors center video introducing us to the flora and fauna of the natural beauty of our surroundings or learning about the tenacious pursuit of General So-and-So in reclaiming lost ground from the previous day. My oldest son is so comforted by these narrated documentary-style videos, usually shown in darkened rooms, that he always manages to fall asleep about 10 minutes in.


For Spring Break each year, we always try to take a quick three of four day road trip, just to get out of town for a bit, and maybe catch some warmer weather if we're lucky. A recent favorite, influenced by our remembered Cars addicion, has been traveling the old pavement of our reachable stretches of Route 66 here in the central plains. There remains surviving relics all along the old road, from old gas stations now housing local BBQ joints to neon-clad "motor inns" offering cheap rooms, dripping with Americana. It was on one of these Spring Break trips a few years ago, tackling the Route between Oklahoma City and Tucumcari, that I received a surprise visit from the spirit of my deceased grandfather.


My grandfather, William Sloan Paxton, died in 1986 when I was in the 7th grade. I'm not sure a young boy can express what "adoration" means, not like you might feel as an adult towards a treasured mentor or a dear friend, but I remember my love for my grandfather to be absolute.

Me with Grandmommy & Granddaddy - 1972

He was always open and kind, and interested. I still have the occasional dream in which he's somehow still alive, frozen in time at the age of 70, the age of my most vivid memories of him. Not a big talker, he thrived at quality time, taking me to McDonald's on every visit, or to this-or-that attraction. I remember going to vote with him once, and being his guest at Rotary lunch while visiting. He helped me build my first Cub Scout Pinewood Derby car.


My family and I had just spent an enjoyable night in Elk City, finding Fred's Steakhouse and finishing off a $4.99 Chicken Fried Steak dinner, and we were heading west along I-40 to Sayre for our first Route 66 stop of the day. The highway sign for exit 32 jolted me in my seat, "Carter...Mangum". Mangum?? Both my grandparents had grown up, graduated high school and gotten married in Mangum; spending the first 30 years of their lives there. I was shocked at how close we were. I had never visited Mangum, so I only had a vague thought as to where it was: somewhere in southwestern Oklahoma. Settling in to the drive, my grandfather and I shared a bit of windshield time that day.

Sloan - 1934

That exit sign to Mangum had left me with a desire to exit and go see it. With that thought percolating in my head while we were driving further and further away from it, my mind continued to churn. "Lived here until they were 30" replayed in my mind. I had never even been shown a photo of my grandfather as a young man. I was well past 30, and had compiled a standard collection of failures, disappointments, moments of ecstasy and mundane habits. It was hard for me to imagine my grandfather failing at anything. He must have struggled with defeat? Wept at a time of frustration? Shouted for joy? That afternoon, given the gift of having nothing else to do but drive west, I made a promise to myself that I would somehow get to KNOW my grandfather better.


Looking back on that year, I feel like I didn't make much progress on my promise. I learned a little about Mangum, and Greer County, mostly centered on the little known Supreme Court case between the State of Texas and the U.S. government on where the true boundary between Texas and Indian Territory lay. Life has a way of pulling us from our idle pursuits, and ideas hatched during times of leisure are often derailed upon returned to real life.


Our very next Spring Break trip took us back to Oklahoma to travel Route 66 between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Spending four days in Oklahoma brought back my windshield conversations with my grandfather, and the promise I had made to him, and myself.

Sloan - 1943

One of our stops was the Oklahoma National Memorial, the somber and very heavy commemoration of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in April, 1995. The site is special to me since I was in my last semester at the University of Oklahoma at the time, and actually saw the smoke rising well to the north of Norman from the 12th floor of the Energy Center at the far northeastern corner of the OU campus, after finishing a Mesoscale Meteorology exam minutes after the bombing. I gave blood that afternoon with dozens of others that wanted nothing more than to help just a little. My dorm organized a bottled water and masking tape drive (they used the tape to help protect the search dogs' paws due to all the broken glass at the bombing site), and made delivery downtown amongst the many others that gave rise to the phrase "Oklahoma Standard."


After our time at the Memorial, we hit a Stella Nova coffee shop to sit down for a bit. I was in a good mood, it felt good to be there with my family; I was proud to have been able to tour the Memorial with them. In a quite moment at the coffee shop, I glanced up towards the wall to my left and noticed they had a set of about 12 "dolls" decorating the wall. After a bit of inspection, I realized they represented famous Oklahoman's. There was a Will Rogers and a Garth Brooks of course. I believe there was a red-headed Reba too. One of the dolls was a fellow in a three-piece suit. I couldn't place him...but "politician" popped into my mind. Suddenly, my great-grandfather came to mind. Still staring at the little guy on the wall in the three-piece, I said to my wife, "have I ever told you that my great-grandfather served in the Oklahoma legislature?" Having said it out loud, I felt...proud.


My mothers parents had grown up in Oklahoma, my great-grandfather served in the Legislature, I had spent almost five years attending OU...I had a story here.


That was the moment I made the decision to start writing. I felt like there was a story here. I do not know if it was just my grandfather, or his generation...but I've heard my mother state on several occasions since I started deeply looking into this story that "daddy just really didn't talk about any of this." I quickly realized one of the reasons I didn't know a lot about my grandfather was that there was little to no oral tradition in the family. Remember, my grandfather was not a talker. Evidently, he really didn't share much of anything about his childhood and growing up. As I started making some progress, surprise after surprise met me at every turn, and kept pushing me deeper into the story. My grandfather was an all-district football player in high school! My grandparents were in a play together at school! My great-grandfather got into a fight on the floor of the Oklahoma House! My mother and her brother didn't know any of this. I had a story to tell.


My great-grandfather, Wheeler William Paxton, moved to Greer Co., Texas with his father in the fall of 1888, settling on the banks of Deer Creek in what became known as Jester Township.

Wheeler about 1940 with a grandchild that I just cannot identify!

After traveling to Greer Co. on horseback, Wheeler lived most of his teen years in a dugout with a packed dirt floor and a combination sod/timber roof. Through his lifetime, Wheeler witnessed the slow transition from hoof to engine, farm mechanization, indoor kitchens and heat, and even emerging ownership of TV's in every home.


Wheeler's life mirrored that of his community, arriving in what was very much considered a virgin frontier region in his youth, with free-range cattle and first generation reservation Indians as close neighbors. His community achieved statehood, developed a school system, roads and an agricultural economy dominated by cotton. The population swelled and there was a neighbor on every section by the 1920's. Then a depression, a famous drought and a war brought challenges never considered, and the country began to empty. As Wheeler's health declined and ultimately led to his death in 1951, so too was his community starting to die. Losing half its population between 1930 and 1950, Greer Co., once known as "The Empire of Greer" during its free-wheeling cattle kingdom days as a part of Texas, bled population for 30 years before stabilizing around 7,000 residents in the 1960's.


You're damn right I have a story to tell...

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Tres Paxton
Tres Paxton
Apr 03, 2023

In this first segment, I learned at least five things I didn't know before about our ancestors, and I had a 10 year head start on you. Great job, and I hope there's more. I will see if we have any other photos you may want.

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Ann Etheredge
Ann Etheredge
Apr 02, 2023

Wes, we are so proud of you for going through with your idea to create a website. You have done a wonderful job and we have enjoyed it all. Hope you continue to enjoy your

journey and thanks for including us!

Mom & 'Dad😍

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