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March 15, 2009 - Ray Hall (Archive)
Is Something Missing In Politics?
I began my political life as a “yellow dog” Democrat at the age of seven or eight by handing out flyers of a list of people running for office. It didn’t matter that I hardly knew anyone on the list or what office they were seeking. Roy J. Turner was Governor. I knew Oklahoma’s Governors—nearly every school kid did. Robert S. Kerr had been Governor before Turner and was now a United States Senator. Ray Fine was on the list. He was our neighbor and a State Senator. Elmer Standfill was on the list. I didn’t really know what he did, but he was our neighbor and a county commissioner. I knew E. W. Floyd. I knew he was a candidate for County Sheriff. What I remembered most about Sheriff Floyd was that he was the brother of a famous, hometown outlaw; Charles Arthur Floyd aka; Pretty Boy Floyd.
I didn’t go door to door. I didn’t need too—everyone came to town on Saturday and especially on the Saturday before the election. Most people drove a car or pickup—some came in horse drawn wagons—one man—“Ole Man” McCracken drove a span of red mules and hitched them under a tree near the pool hall. Ray Fine sent me to the Gore Mercantile Store to see Reynolds Looper, the store manager. I always thought he owned the store, but later found out the owner lived thirty miles away in Muskogee. I was disappointed about that for some reason or another, but Mr. Looper would hand me a bundle of brochures, a few crisp one dollar bills and promised me fifty cents when I was done.
All day long—from seven to four or five o’clock—I was in and out of the store for more brochures and expressions of gratitude. My first stop was always across the tracks at Churny Cherry’s beer joint. The place had two pool tables and a snooker table but no one called it a “pool hall”, because there was not room enough for domino tables and the popular card game of pitch. My next stop was a small diner across the street—believe it or not—Mel’s Diner—before I ran out of brochures and expressions of gratitude.
After restocking brochures and expressions I would stop at Charlie Thompson’s Drug Store—he dispensed medicines and had a genuine ice cream parlor where people would congregate to cool off with ice cream—three flavors, vanilla, strawberry and chocolate, one scoop for a nickel. Next came Cawhorn’s grocery store and after that, the Post Office. Across the street was a café where two tables were reserved for pitch players who did not want to be seen in a pool hall. I visited and revisited each location until it was time to go home.
Each encounter was different. James McCoy, a full-blood Cherokee, was always at the bar at Cherry’s beer joint. I’d hand him a brochure with a dollar bill. He would study the brochure, grunt several times and jam the money into the bib pocket on his overalls. I don’t think he could read, but beer was not much more than a dime or fifteen cents. “Uncle Dan” Mays—he wasn’t my Uncle, everyone called him that—probably looked older than what he was and had a peculiar way of chewing snuff. He’d take a small, green elm twig, chew one end until it was slippery and frayed. He’d dip the frayed end into a small, metal snuff box then insert it inside his jaw. I gave him a brochure, one dollar and a tall glass of Strong Garrett Snuff. Mr. Covington, a man with a large family, received a carton of Phillip Morris cigarettes with his dollar. Howard Bluebird got a dollar and a small, tin box of Sweet Garret snuff. That went on all day, a bottle of rose colored hair oil, a long, twist of chewing tobacco and several plugs of Days Work chewing tobacco.
By the end of the day I had probably been entrusted with one hundred dollars, a few dollars at a time, and an assortment of other expressions of gratitude. The recipients were always men, women I was told were excluded, and the message was always the same. “Mr. Fine said to say thanks to you (and your family) and to be sure and stamp the rooster on Tuesday.” The “rooster” was the symbol of the Democratic Party. I do not remember the Republican symbol, but a single stamp of the rooster was a vote for the entire slate of Democratic candidates.
Years later someone told me that I had been part of a corrupt political system that bought votes from the poor and ignorant with trinkets. I felt bad about that for a long time, but later felt bad about feeling bad about it in the first place. The dollar bills and the odd gifts might have encouraged voters to go to the polls and vote for the entire slate, but I doubt it. The outcome of the election was never in doubt. Democrats won—they always won. Although the state has tilted radically Republican and hard right in recent years, Oklahoma in its 102 year history has only had four Republican Governors. Two Democrats have been impeached.
There was absolutely no reason to cater to those voters, but Ray Fine did in small but important ways. Senator Fine never had an opponent. Today, candidates from both parties strive to impress big donors from both sides of the political fence, rely on tracking polls, target voting blocs and largely ignore those who do nothing except vote. By comparison those former campaigns were honest, straightforward and a sincere expression of political gratitude.
As for me, I haven’t felt as proud as when I finally had delivered all of my brochures and expressions of gratitude. I grasped the big, round, shiny fifty cent piece in my hand and felt like I had done something grand for my country, or at least for the Democrats. I can remember that warm feeling and a sense of empowerment when Senator Fine patted me on the head and told me I’d better stay in school.
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Charles A. "Pretty Boy" Floyd.