September 15, 2017No Comments

Robber’s Cave social experiments hold lessons for us today

Summer camp is not just a rite of passage, but also a fine social experiment in making friends, overcoming homesickness and trying new things. A week at summer camp in Robber's Cave State Park in Oklahoma's Sans Bois Mountains when I was 12 brought me a fascination with Belle Starr the Bandit Queen, a fear of archery and a first kiss from a boy named Shane.

But 60 years ago, a group of 12-year-old boy campers at that same spot found themselves in the middle of a now-famous and quite grand inter-group conflict experiment -- a real life Lord of the Flies conflict that mercifully stopped short of killing. The study of inter-group conflict and cooperation was led by Muzafer Sherif, the founding father of present-day social psychology, and conducted with University of Oklahoma researchers.

The boys, selected for their similar backgrounds and the fact that none knew each other before, thought they were at a typical summer camp. So did their parents, who paid $25 for them to go. But the boys were lab rats in a maze, placed into engineered situations and conflicts to see how they would behave.

Sherif's research objective was to watch how tribes and prejudices could be formed and then overcome. His study took place in three distinct phases. First, the boys were broken into two separate, distinct groups that had no knowledge of each other at the beginning. A week was spent building esprit de corps among the group through camping, swimming and sports.

During the second week, the two groups were brought into conflict with one another through a multi-day tournament comprised of games of tug-of-war, baseball and tent pitching competitions. Antagonism between the groups peaked. They refused to eat together in the same dining hall. They organized raids of one another's cabins. Name-calling and trash talk morphed into flag burning, property theft and fistfights.

With hostility at its height, Sherif and his team now created extreme situations, like the water supply being shut off and the food truck breaking down. The two groups were forced to work together for things as simple as water and food. Their collective success sowed the seeds of peace between the groups. By the end of the third week, the two groups were sharing food and playing together.

Sherif demonstrated in this study our very human tendency to form groups, and within those groups, to succumb to hostility toward those outside the group. Each human group tends to develop its own culture, find its own leaders and develop its own rules for behavior. The groups become like little countries, forming mini-governments and legal systems and boundaries to differentiate it from others. These miniature systems form the root of conflicts between small groups.

The Robber's Cave experiment is famous because it seems to have the prescription for reconciling warring groups and bringing them to peace. But 60 years later, we're still struggling with the same painful issues of division and hostility.

Just a glance through my Facebook or Twitter feeds shows me that the dynamics at play among those campers are alive and well in our adult groups (political, religious, or economic). We're still inclined to be hostile to or judgmental of those who are not in our immediate group.

But we can do better. This kind of groupthink is a construct that we can break down by understanding our tendencies and then focusing on larger goals together.

Social harmony is hard to come by. An Okie girl living in California is very aware of how differently people view red states and blue states and the people within. All of us tend to think our group's views are the best, truest and most virtuous. But so did those 12-year-old boys in Robber's Cave.

September 9, 2017No Comments

The Oklahoma Girl Scout murders

The summer of my eighth birthday was overshadowed by a grisly crime made all the more harrowing because of its child victims. On a humid and rainy Sunday in June 1977, the idyllic memories of summer camp I had shared with my friends shattered into shards of horror when three Girl Scouts, two from Tulsa and one from Broken Arrow, were brutally murdered on their first night at sleep away camp.

Not only was I the same age as one of the victims, but like most of my friends, I was a Tulsa Girl Scout. My troop had just returned from a day camp near Tulsa, where we’d made seat cushions called sit-upons, sang songs about friendship to the fast drumbeat of cicadas and roasted marshmallows at a campfire, all in blissful ignorance.

Our parents kept most of the heinous details of the Camp Scott murders from us, but I overheard the news enough to know that one girl had been strangled and the other two hit on the head in a place called Locust Grove. Only as an adult still questioning how something so awful could have happened did I learn the more gruesome details about rape, blood, and bodies zipped in sleeping bags. True crime stories have since held a fascination for me, because I still try to reconcile how humans – who I believe are naturally good – can do such terrible things to one another. Like these murders.

Until that summer, I’d had no experience with death. Not even the childhood rite of passage of losing a pet. Yet here were these doomed girls who were my own age, staying at a camp like one I went to. I didn’t have to use any imagination to put myself in their places. This crime could have easily happened to any of my third or fourth grade classmates.

Eight-year-old Lori Farmer, 10-year-old Michelle Guse and nine-year-old Denise Milner had written letters home that night before going to sleep in the tent they shared at Camp Scott. Lori and Michelle had penned upbeat, excited notes about friends they had made, while Denise’s missive home reflected her deep homesickness. “Mom, I don’t want to stay at camp for two weeks,” she had written. “I want to come home…”

The next morning, a camp counselor out for a sunrise jog came upon two sleeping bags and the body of one of the girls under a tree. County sheriffs would later discover the other two girls’ bodies in the sleeping bags. Camp Scott closed down immediately, packing every camper on a bus for home. The campground never opened again.

The fallout

This was before the Friday the 13th movies were in theatres. Before the fictional Camp Crystal Lake made gory, over-the-top murder mainstream. Our parents had surely heard of terrible crimes against children like the Chowchilla kidnappings or the Babysitter Killer the year before, but we kids had been living in a bubble. We had always walked to school alone or with other others our own age. We had ridden our bikes around the neighborhood for most of our summer days, hardly ever checking in at home except to ask for money to buy ice cream.

After those murders, all that freedom evaporated. My mother didn’t let me out of her sight that summer. Outdoor games of freeze tag and hide-and-seek turned into board game marathons around the kitchen table. No more casual popping in and out of friends’ houses and backyard pools. Now, every mother scheduled play dates instead. The search for the killer went on for 10 months at a total estimated cost of $2 million, with progress reported daily on television and in the newspaper. The Camp Scott murders and the maniac responsible for them never left anyone’s mind.

Nearly 40 years later, the enormity of the evil of those murders and those poor, doomed girls still has a nightmarish hold on those who lived through it, particularly as the crime lacks a clear resolution. Though most people who followed the case will remember Gene Leroy Hart as the main suspect, he was acquitted after trial due to a lack of conclusive evidence. He died of a heart attack in 1979 at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester where he was serving time for unrelated charges. Though the autopsy had found he died of a heart attack, the sheriff had been quick to tell anyone who would listen that other inmates killed him out of a “code of honor.”

Today, a quick Internet search turns up stories about mysterious happenings at his grave in Mayes County and rumors that he had studied shapeshifting with a Cherokee medicine man and had the power to change his physical shape at will.

The suspect

Understanding evil requires looking closely at the suspected perpetrator. So what do we know about Hart? Known to friends and family as Sonny, Hart was a Cherokee and a star high school football player raised by a single mother. He had married young and had a son, but his wife left him when he first got into trouble with the law in 1966. That year, he pled guilty to charges of kidnapping and raping two pregnant women in Tulsa. His family members and community supporters claimed that Hart had only confessed to the charges because he had thought he would have been given suspended sentence, since the two women were with him willingly and hid in his trunk from their husbands.

He served three years before being released on parole. Soon after he was caught burglarizing Tulsa apartments. He went back to jail and then escaped in 1973, supposedly living in the wooded Ozark hills around Camp Scott, close to where his mother lived.

Books such as “Tent Number Eight” by Gloyd McCoy and “Oklahoma’s Most Notorious Cases” by Kent Frates describe more fully the lack of evidence against Hart for the Camp Scott murders. But months of daily news attention created a lot of pressure on Mayes County Sheriff Pete Weaver, who quickly settled on Hart as suspect number one. Hart was eventually caught at a tarpaper shack owned by a Cherokee named Sam Pigeon deep in the Cookson Hills about 50 miles away from Camp Scott. He had been living there, in the bosom of his hometown friends who believed he was innocent, for eight months.

Though some would say that Hart was a convenient scapegoat for the Camp Scott murders, most of Oklahoma outside of the tight knit Locust Grove community breathed a collective sigh of relief at his arrest in April 1978.

His trial lasted a month, and the jury deliberated over two days. Juror Lela Ramsey spoke on the 25th anniversary of the murders about the experience for an OETA documentary. “We didn’t have any choice but to acquit him,” she said. “Things just didn’t add up.”

Even after his acquittal, the district attorney and Sheriff Weaver held resolute in their opinions that Hart was the Camp Scott killer. Demands to find the real killer from Hart’s supporters were largely ignored, in the same manner that folks would later scoff at football player O.J. Simpson’s claims he would find his ex-wife’s real killer. Hart’s death meant it was time to return to normal life. Even if now, Oklahomans were more likely to lock their doors at night and keep their children close.

Why? The elusive answer

The murders on that rainy June 1977 day hollowed out the hearts of Oklahomans and robbed them of the conviction that nothing like the Chowchilla kidnappings or the Oakland County child killings could happen in the heartland. For me, it led me through fear and sadness to question how and why such a crime could happen. The closest I have come to an answer is within this excerpt from “Tent Number Eight” that recaps a 1977 speech given by clinical psychologist Robert Phillips to the Associated Press Oklahoma news executives:

Whoever committed the murders, according to Dr. Phillips, did so because he hated happiness, innocence and decency. The best way to degrade those things was to violate the young girls.

“Something happened in this man’s life to make him feel inferior and built up a passionate hatred in him. He hates being alive, and in killing, he is taking revenge on a world he believes has mistreated him.”

Phillips said the murderer probably did not plan on killing all three girls. He got caught up in the savage emotion, and the beast in him emerged. Then the man, who had no order in his life, tried to put things back in order by cleaning up the blood and putting two of the girls in sleeping bags.

We just cannot know for sure what happened that night. A broken person, three vulnerable girls, a terrible instinct, followed by terrible acts, driven by a force of evil. That all of these things came together on one rainy June night is all we know. And that makes me continue to ask why.

February 28, 2011No Comments

Oklahoma clay takes beautiful form in Frankoma Pottery

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There's nothing particularly fancy about a piece of satin-finished Frankoma pottery, made of creamy beige clay from the Arbuckle Mountains or reddish clay from Sugar Loaf Hill. But something about its blend of Western inspired lines and practicality appeal to me, and I'm proud to have more than a few pieces around my home. And its humble beauty is now in demand by collectors, heavily traded on eBay and other auction websites, was featured on television as part of Martha Stewart's personal pottery collection and in a promotion with Paula Dean.

John Frank opened his pottery studio in 1933 in Norman, where he was a ceramics professor at the University of Oklahoma. Frank's inspiration came from the images of Native American and Western life and some of the most sought-after items included teapots, pitchers and dinner plates shaped like wagon wheels, slouchy cowboy boot vases and sculptures of deer and colts. 

The muted, earthy glazes like Prairie Green and Desert Gold were chosen to reflect the beauty in nature and the world around us. Frank took a spiritual view of the pottery he made -- he is quoted as saying that "the clay carries a piece of each person who touches it" and legend has it he refused to hire anyone who did not love their job. An old Frankoma Pottery leaflet said its products were "inspired by its unique Oklahoma background, created by Oklahoma artists and produced in Oklahoma clay."

The pottery plant was moved and built in the hills of northwest Sapulpa in 1938, where it became a regular stop for tourists and travelers along the newly completed Route 66. Over the years, Frankoma Pottery created many custom and collectible objects, including ashtrays for the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado, election day mugs for Democrats and Republicans, and items commemorating Oklahoma institutions such as the Cherokee Nation and Oral Roberts University. Frankoma Pottery has changed hands twice since the Frank family initially sold it to a Maryland investor in 1991. The current owner is Joe Ragosta, a longtime Frankoma collector and fan, who bought the company in 2008. The best way to acquire pieces today is probably through the collectibles market. As of this writing, Frankoma Pottery is not currently in full production, its website states that it is on hiatus, and the phone number has been disconnected.

Want to glimpse the breadth of Frankoma pottery created over the past 78 years? Check out this gorgeous Flickr gallery of Frankoma collections:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/eleamckee/galleries/72157622285836783/#photo_183...

January 26, 2011No Comments

Even the ghosts have left this Oklahoma town

It was the opposite of an Oklahoma land rush in Picher this week, as giant yellow CATs started knocking down abandoned homes and businesses in this town scarred by eight decades of mineral mining.

 

Most of the town, including its multiple piles of discarded rock, zinc and lead the size of office buildings and its poisoned ground water, is the federal government’s now, due to a $50 million buyout after years headlining the EPA’s Superfund list. The killing blow for Picher was a study released in 2007 that found the entire town to be at imminent risk of collapse without warning due to the abandoned mines. A sobering reminder that some environmental damage cannot be undone.

 

Learn more about six-month demolition process that started in late January 2011 through this Tulsa World article; and see the impact firsthand in Matt Myer’s stirring and sad film TAR CREEK.

 

 

 

October 29, 2010No Comments

Tulsa’s giant man

I'll admit it -- growing up in Tulsa, I was always scared of the 76-foot Golden Driller statue.

Goldendriller

We had to walk under his widespread legs to get into the main entrance of Expo Square, home to gun shows, the county fair, rodeos, circuses and high school graduations. And each time, I would rush through, afraid he would come to life, crushing houses, cars and even little kids like me with his size 393-DDD work boots. His stance and his clothing is that old time ideal of masculinity -- granite jawed, bare chested to reveal cut abs, tight jeans with a massive belt buckle reading Tulsa. Think James Dean in the film Giant or young John Wayne in War of the Wildcats.

Giant

Built of plaster and concrete on an iron frame, the Golden Driller rests his massive arm on an oil derrick and looks out over the intersection of 21st Street and Pittsburg onto a neighborhood of mid-century ranch style houses. He was originally built for display at the 1959 International Petroleum Exposition and permanently installed at the Tulsa County Fairgrounds in 1966, where he represented IPE and Expo Square. The Oklahoma Legislature made him the national state monument in 1979, and he remains an enduring symbol of the city's pre-1980 oil boom days.

Today, he's become a quirky rather than fearsome landmark, eschewed by art critics but embraced by kitsch lovers, making it onto offbeat tourist attraction lists like RoadsideAmerica.com. He's worn t-shirts to promote radio stations and events, and even an huge orange necktie in honor of OSU graduation.

My fear for the Golden Driller today would be his survival in one of Tulsa's frequent tornados, but experts tell me he was built to withstand 200 mile-per-hour winds. Long live the Golden Driller!

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The Golden Driller statue even appeared in a Zippy the Pinhead comic strip in 2005:http://zippythepinhead.com/Merchant2/merchant.mv?Screen=PROD&Product_Code=24-May-05&Category_Code=ma2005&Product_Count=20