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When It Counted
One of my duties as lieutenant governor of Oklahoma was to watch the news on national television. The governor asked me to do it for the good of the state.
"We need to know how we're doing out there, Mack," he said. "Keep that good right eye of yours looking at the television for the sights and sounds of our Sooner State."
It seemed kind of stupid at the time he said it, which was at the inaugural ball at the Park Plaza Hotel in Oklahoma City just after we had both been sworn in. I already knew how Oklahoma was doing out there. Which was great. People everywhere were humming like they were Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones in an Oklahoma where the wind came sweeping down the plains and the corn was as high as an elephant's eye. We also had the O.U. Sooner football team, oil, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and memories of the great Will Rogers to keep the Sooner State doing just fine out there, thank you.
But it turned out not to be stupid at all. Already nothing but blessings had come to my life since I lost my left eye, became The One-Eyed Mack and left Kansas. Watching TV in Oklahoma ended up being another of those blessings. A very huge blessing. Because if I had not seen those first stories on the CBS Evening News with Roger Mudd Substituting for the Vacationing Walter Cronkite, the whole Okies business could have turned out very differently.
I don't mean to sound like a hero, because that is not what I am. But it is straight and safe to say there's no telling what might have happened to Oklahoma and its people if I had not been there in front of my TV when it counted.
Enough did as it was.
* * *
Jackie and I were in the den. We were sitting on the leather couch I bought the year before from a furniture wholesaler in Guthrie. Our dinner was on individual TV trays in front of us. Jackie had brought home my favorite meal, a tunafish sandwich on toasted wheat bread with a sack of the little narrow Fritos and a Grapette. She had a ham-and-cheese sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise and a Sugar Free Dr Pepper for herself.
The children, all except for Tommy Walt, were out. Tommy Walt told us to call him if anything important was said on the news. He was up in his room dreaming and praying about how to get his curve over. It would take plenty of both, sorry to say. He was pitching for the Oklahoma Blue Arrow Motorcoaches team, the Buses, in the North Central Oklahoma B-Level Semi-Pro League. He was due to start that night against the Holdenville Lantern Manufacturing Company Green Hornets. Unfortunately, he was not an all-star pitcher. The problem was his fingers. They were too small to get a good grip on the ball.
Jackie had had another tough day in her drive-thru grocery business. A thug-type kid in a red Ford pickup with Arkansas plates ran over one of the ordering stations at JackieMart-Eastside and drove off without even offering to pay for it. The senior morning stock boy at JackieMart-Westend had called in sick. And she was still in the middle of training the people at JackieMart-South Western, due for its grand opening in just three days, with me as the main speaker.
Most of my day was taken up by an oilman from Ponca City with more money and time than sense. Our governor was pushing an effort to finally get a dome built on top of our flat-topped state capitol building. The original building plans had one but the money ran out in 1915 before it got on. Ideas on how and what to do about a dome were coming in from everybody. The Ponca City oilman wanted to put a state-operated gambling casino up there to raise revenue for education and welfare. Every preacher from Assembly of God evangelists to the Catholic bishop of Tulsa was on our case about it, of course, and the idea was going nowhere. The oilman kept asking everybody when we were going to let somebody besides the preachers run things around here. When they take the vote away from the Christians, everybody replied.
I alternated night to night among the three network news programs. By a lucky chance it happened to be CBS's night.
It was July and Walter Cronkite was gone. The sound of the ticker machines came up and a deep man's voice said:
"This is the CBS Evening News with Roger Mudd substituting for the vacationing Walter Cronkite."
Mudd, one of my longtime favorites, appeared in a gray suit, blue shirt and red tie and said:
"Good evening. The activities of Organized Crime in this country are among the most difficult for lawman and journalist alike to penetrate. People who could talk don't because those who do often do not live long after they do. But CBS Justice Department correspondent Archibald Tyler has opened a significant crack into this lawless underbelly of American life ... and tonight he has an exclusive report on a startling new development he found."
I took a bite of my sandwich as Archibald Tyler came up standing in front of a Washington building with a microphone in his hand. Tyler was not one of the big TV news stars people stood around Conocos and Rexalls arguing about loving or hating. If I had run into him on the corner it would probably have taken a minute or two to place even who he was and where I had seen him. But I had remembered reading something somewhere that Tyler had gone to law school.
He was puffy. His black hair was long and puffed up on his head like Elvis Presley's. His face was puffy like he didn't sleep very well at night.
But the main thing about him was his tin squeak of a voice. It sounded like a porch screen door opening.
He said there was a whole new organized crime group alive in the land. Over pictures of official-looking buildings, Italian mobsters, submachine guns and other things he said:
"Investigators believe the operations of this new Mafia competitor may be much more extensive than originally thought. In some areas, particularly in and around Kansas City, the new mob is already getting nearly thirty percent of the hard-line narcotics trade. They have also made serious inroads into the area's unions, particularly Teamster locals which had previously been the exclusive domain of the old-line Mafia. Federal agents say the reason the existence of the new group has been unknown to most Mafia leaders at the top may be that the new group has co-opted key Mafia lieutenants with payoffs — a kind of in-house organized crime brand of bribery. Officials now fear this could lead to some internal warfare within the Mafia. 'Look for some blood in barber chairs and pizza palaces,' one top investigator told CBS News. The exact nature of the new mob remains pretty much a mystery. CBS News' own sources say it is definitely an all-American group, however, with no Italian or other decided ethnic ties. It apparently has its roots in one particular section of the United States, reportedly in one specific southwestern state. Archibald Tyler, CBS News, Washington."
Mudd said: "At the White House today, President Nixon again told congressional leaders no one on his White House staff or in his administration had anything to do with or knew anything about the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington. Robert Pierpoint has more.
Pierpoint, who reminded me of the rural route postmen we had back in Kansas, went on and on about how nobody at the White House did or knew anything wrong. It was the same story he had done the week before and a couple of times before that.
Hey, Tommy Walt, get in here! Pierpoint says Nixon says nobody did or knew anything wrong!
Pierpoint finished and they went to a commercial.
"Wonder what southwestern state that other guy was talking about?" I said to Jackie as I took a sip of my Grapette.
"Are we a southwestern state?" she asked.
"Sure we're not a midwestern?"
"Sure I'm sure. I'm the lieutenant governor, please let's all remember."
"Kansas is midwestern, right?"
"Texas is southwestern?"
"Why do we go with Texas instead of Kansas then? You're from Kansas. Why do you, as lieutenant governor, stand for Oklahoma not going with Kansas?"
Mudd was back with the news that the Dow Jones industrial average was off six-point-four-seven points. He did not say if that was good or bad, if we should panic or clap. They never did because we were all supposed to just know that ourselves.
Hey, Tommy Walt, get in here! Mudd says the Dow Jones closed off six-point-four-seven points! Should we sell our AT&T?
"Is it Oklahoma?" Jackie asked. She was serious.
"A Mafia in Oklahoma? No way it could be Oklahoma," I replied.
"Well, you better look into it and find out for sure," said my wonderful wife. "You really are the lieutenant governor of this state and that's your job."
It wasn't really my job to find out if there was an Oklahoma Mafia taking over from the real other one in Kansas City and the rest of the country. But it had come up as part of my watching television. So the very least I had to do was inform the governor. That was my job. But that could wait until morning. The governor wasn't around anyhow. He was out in El Reno making another speech about the need to put a dome on top of the capitol.
For me tonight there was baseball. Our son was on the mound for the Buses against the Green Hornets.
Excerpted from Crown Oklahoma by Jim Lehrer. Copyright © 1989 by Jim Lehrer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.