In Oklahoma, when you pop out of your mama, the doctors give you the once-over. They check your eyes, because they know you’re going to have to stare down EF4 tornadoes and not flinch. They check the gravel in your guts, because true grit is making a living from hard, dry land, molding a life from red clay. And they check your heart, because to be an Oklahoman is to be the heartbeat of the Heartland.
Then you grow up saying “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir” and “Ranch, please” and you learn how to drive in a place where you reserve one hand for waving to the neighbors you know and the neighbors you don’t know just quite yet.
Your sentences are peppered with words like “hook echo,” “vortex,” “Pushmataha,” “biscuitsngravy” and “might could.”
You go to school and learn the history of your state, from the Trail of Tears to the Land Run to the Dust Bowl to the Tulsa Race Riot to April 19, 1995, to May 3, 1999. You understand that you come from misfits and mistakes and pain. A lot of pain. You realize you come from underdog stock. You listen to a lot of Woody Guthrie, and you really get what it means.
At some point, life punches you in the gut. You watch the hand of God come down, and an entire town disappears from the map.
You fall to your knees, and you cry and you spit and you cuss the day and night. Then you get up.
You don’t waste your time asking the heavens why. There’s work to be done.
You see someone else shaking their fists at the sky, so you reach your hand down. Then they get up.
That’s what being an Oklahoman is — a resilience, a perseverance so strong that ain’t nothing or nobody can keep you down. There are beautiful people all across this country, but Oklahomans are their own breed.
When you’re a little guy used to getting kicked, you not only learn to pop back up, but you become the first one to reach out to others.
Oklahoma isn’t a place. It’s something in your blood.
As we watched the wreckage from this latest prizefight with nature, several people asked me if I had people there — in Moore, in Shawnee.
Every ever-loving, bless-your-heart mumbler in that grand land is My People. And My People don’t give up, and they don’t give in.
I thank my lucky stars that I’m one of yours, Oklahoma. But if you don’t start installing storm shelters in your public buildings, new or not, I’m fixin’ to raise some hell. My People depend on it.
Hill, an alumna of the University of Oklahoma, is an editor at The New York Times Editing Center in Gainesville, Fla.