Oh, Oklahoma – An Irishman’s Diary on Tulsa
Tulsa, Oklahoma: the weather was quite a challenge, at least for someone used to the moderate Irish climate
The decision by U2 to open a world concert tour at Tulsa, Oklahoma, in May 2018 may have surprised some people who would expect a rock band to choose a location more widely identified as cool and hip, such as New York or San Francisco. In fact, it wasn’t the first time Bono and his friends played in “The Oil Capital of the World”: I have found reports of previous performances in 1981 and 1983.
Despite complaining that Americans know so little about this island of ours, we Irish are generally ill-informed regarding US geography, except for high-profile cities. I had hardly ever heard of Tulsa, Oklahoma, until Gene Pitney made it famous with his soaring rendition of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David song, Twenty-four Hours from Tulsa.
However, I ended up spending about eight months there in the 1970s, including a semester as a postgraduate student at the University of Tulsa.
I was coming on a scholarship and did not belong to the category that Donald Trump would nowadays like to build a wall to keep out
Despite being a great distance from Ireland, “TU” had become a central location for studying the work of our most-famous prose-writer and literary exile, with the James Joyce Quarterly being published there under the dynamic editorship of Dr Thomas F Staley (the current editor is Sean Latham.) So when the opportunity arose to go and study in the place, I took it without hesitation.
Getting there was rather stressful, since it involved flying to Chicago and staying overnight before taking a second plane next day.
There was also a heart-stopping moment at the immigration desk where it took a while to clarify that I was coming on a scholarship and did not belong to the category that Donald Trump would nowadays like to build a wall to keep out. On arrival at Tulsa, however, I had the good fortune to be hosted initially at their home by Everett and Kay Smith, whose son Braden was a friend and fellow-student of mine at University College Dublin.
In due course, I moved into my own place close by the university. I soon discovered the truth of the saying, variously attributed to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and even Winston Churchill, that Britain (Ireland can be included in this context) and the US are “divided by a common language”. For example, there was a problem with what we would call “hawkers”, or more respectfully door-to-door salespeople, ringing the bell to offer some product or service you didn’t necessarily want.
However, in the US, or at least Tulsa, they were known as “solicitors” and you put up a sign: “No Solicitors Please”. There was an amusing incident, for someone with an Irish mindset, where two “boyos” still insisted on knocking at the door. When their attention was drawn to the notice, they reacted in tones of mock outrage: “We’re not solicitors!”
Another interesting experience was that, when you bought something in a shop – sorry, store – the assistant would say 'Thank you!' followed by 'Come back!'
More seriously, I was completely unprepared for the phenomenon known as “urban sprawl”. The population of Tulsa was about 340,000 or less than two-thirds the level in Dublin at the time but it was spread over a much wider expanse of land. I didn’t have a car and ended up requesting lifts even to go grocery-shopping.
However, virtually everyone was friendly and welcoming: it is the only city I have been in where almost anyone you met on the street gave you a warm “Hello!” Mind you, pedestrians were as scarce as hen’s teeth, because the automobile ruled the roost.
Another interesting experience was that, when you bought something in a shop – sorry, store – the assistant would say “Thank you!” followed by “Come back!” The first time it happened, I was halfway out the door and, thinking I had underpaid, returned to the counter, only to discover that this was a shortened version of “Come back and see us sometime!”
The weather was quite a challenge, at least for someone used to the generally-moderate Irish climate. I arrived at the start of January when the temperature can be as low as minus four degrees Celsius, whereas in July and August it could rise to the high thirties. The worst day came on June 8th, 1974, when I experienced my first-ever tornado, best described as a raging whirlwind that covers a wide area and can destroy buildings in its path. Described as the worst such storm in the city’s history, it left 15 people dead in Oklahoma and 10 more in neighbouring Kansas and Arkansas.
You might say that my sojourn in Tulsa was more than just an experience in third-level education, it amounted to a course in the University of Life.