No. 7 – winter solstice
The Heavener Runestone
Every now and then my thrill a minute life gets a little boring and I ponder how I should spend the welcomed 48-hour reprieve from work that Saturday and Sunday bring. A few weeks ago I was able to spend a Saturday in the company of two important REH fans: Paul Herman, the publisher of several Howard books, and Frank Coffman, former editor of The Dark Man.
Nothing earth shattering regarding Robert E. Howard was settled then but the time spent with these two fellows was entertaining and worthwhile. Sometime between the drinking and laughing, Paul mentioned “The Heavener Runestone.” Apparently there is a good chance that a band of Vikings settled for a short while in Oklahoma. Of course Frank and I immediately followed Paul’s segue into the Howard story, “Marchers of Valhalla.”
Weeks afterward I kept thinking about “The Heavener Runestone” and decided to see it for myself. Believe it or not I couldn’t get anybody to accompany me for a Sunday morning ten-hour round trip drive on a cold wintry day to see a rock in Heavener, Oklahoma. I thought this was exciting stuff. But since I couldn’t guarantee any nearby antique stores, large shopping malls, or Indian casinos, no one was interested. Their loss.
The trip was uneventful until I crossed the Texas-Oklahoma border. The National Public Radio channel I was listening to had long since faded out and I was searching the dial for something interesting. I found it on 1500 AM. I heard a white guy doing an over the top impersonation of a black guy. “Well, Helloooo dere, Andy!” Cool, they were playing an old “Amos and Andy” radio show. The Kingfish had a lonely-hearts club scam going on. He was charging Andy $5 to deliver letters to a beautiful nightclub singer that Andy was enamored with. The Kingfish delivered Andy’s love letters to an unattractive fat woman and she enthusiastically replied to Andy’s affections. The Kingfish set up the eventual meeting with the usual comedic subterfuge and Andy backed off. The Kingfish appeared to have successfully scammed Andy out of $75. Of course, the tables were turned later and Andy recouped his money plus interest. It was funny but not new to me. I had heard other “Amos and Andy” episodes before and saw several of the TV episodes as well.
But the next show was new to me. I never heard of “The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show” until that day. I later learned the show ran from 1948 – 1954. Phil Harris was a bandleader for the Jack Benny show, who had married movie star Alice Faye. The show featured Phil as a loud obnoxious sort with a long-suffering wife who loved him despite his flaws. Further comedy was provided by Alice’s live in brother, Willie, who gave Phil a hard time. This particular episode was about giving blood and it was hilarious!
Phil (talking to Willie): Come with me down to the veteran’s hospital to give them a pint.
Willie: Oh sure, I’ll give them a pint of bourbon.
Phil: No, you idiot. I’m talking about giving a pint of blood.
Willie: Blood, eh. I didn’t think of that! That would be cheaper than bourbon.
Eventually the duo broke into a song called “You can’t do wrong, doing right.” This was great stuff and this alone made the trip worthwhile for me. But even more new experiences awaited.
About an hour after the Oklahoma border this radio station faded out and I couldn’t find anything at all decent on AM or FM. The way to Heavener had turned from highway to backroad and I started to leadfoot it. A policeman stopped me and I instantly set into a funk. I didn’t want to pay the possibly $100 or more fine. I was visibly upset and chagrined. Maybe even a little tearful.
The policeman asked me where I was going. I showed him my Mapquest printout. I explained I thought I was a little lost and was driving too fast to get to the next big landmark on the map to get a bearing on my whereabouts. He asked me if I was single or married, had family in the area, where I worked and a few other personal type questions. I answered them. I’m single, no family except in West Virginia, currently doing seasonal work, etc. It seemed friendly.
The policeman said, “You seem too nervous. I’m only going to give you a warning but I want your permission to search the car.”
I was elated and weirded out at the same time. He had profiled me! I’m a marginally employed single white guy with no real reason to be in the area. He thinks I could be a serial killer!
I replied, “Oh yeah, go ahead. I was just upset about getting a ticket I really couldn’t afford. Go ahead search the car. I’ll open the trunk.”
The policeman got a little huffy, “If you’re worried about money, why are you spending it travelling and taking pictures.” I had an expensive camera around my neck.
“Well,” I replied, sheepishly, “no one wants a ticket.”
Of course no body parts or corpses were found. He left with a smile and I left going the speed limit for the rest of the trip, or at least for the next hour.
I finally arrived in Heavener. Heavener is a nice little town. Most of the homes were modest in size but well taken care of. There were a few that weren’t. Plastic Joseph’s and Mary’s co-mingled with plastic Snowmen and Santa’s. Heavener State Park is just a little bit beyond the main part of the city. A steep road takes you to the top of Poteau Mountain for a panoramic view of the valley. A brief walk into a natural three-sided enclave takes you the display area for the stone.
The area is really pretty. Who would have thought the Vikings were into aesthetics? The park attracted a lot of children who gleefully ran up and down the stone walkways. I don’t think any of them were pretending to be Vikings though. A hand painted sign in a corner cul-de-sac told of a hidden cave where a dog disappeared. Town gossips at the time talked of a hidden cave full of Viking relics. The sign went on to say that geologists say the area isn’t right for caves.
I stopped to read all the display information and let my skepticism leave me for a few minutes. I tried to imagine being a Viking and defending the area against hostile Indians. My back against the runestone, muscles taut, one step away from a beserker rage. Viking sword against stone tomahawks. (As Paul Herman said at the bar that day, weeks back, “it wouldn’t be a good defensive position against bow and arrow.”) I imagined Howard could have written a great story around this runestone.
The park headquarters had a pamphlet about the runestone written by Gloria Stewart Farley, a local researcher who was been instrumental in the history of the runestone. The stone was first noticed by the area’s Choctaw Indians. Whites came into the area around the 1870’s. The stone’s markings were curious indeed and a Mr. Carl Kemmerer sent copies of the markings to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. They said the characters were runic. Kemmerer took Gloria Stewart to see the runic symbols and she was so fascinated by the runestone that she spent over 3 decades researching it.
Her research uncovered mentions of other runestones in the area. Most were destroyed but at least two smaller stones were discovered. It is surmised that Vikings reached the area via the Gulf of Mexico and going north on the Mississippi. Nothing about this is certain, of course. The biggest hurdle is the rune markings. Quoting from the pamphlet, “Scholars in America and abroad had been stumped because the runes seemed to be a mixture of two ancient runic alphabets: six from the oldest Germanic (Old Norse) Futhark which came into use about 300 AD, and the second and last runes from a later Scandinavian Futhork used about 800 AD.”
Because of the problems of translation, some scholars called the stone a fake. In 1986, Dr. Richard Nielsen worked out a translation that is currently the accepted one. Nielsen is an authority who worked on the famous Kensington Runestone of Minnesota. Again, quoting from the pamphlet: “The Heavener stone says GLOME DAL, which means “Valley owned by GLOME.” The markings are believed to have been made anywhere from 600 AD to 900 AD.
After taking some photographs I reluctantly left the area. After driving 5 hours to get here it seemed a shame to leave after less than an hour. I went into the town to eat. The city center doesn’t appear too old. The oldest building marker I noticed was on a building labeled “Rice Furniture, Since 1950.” The town had a Mexican restaurant but I decided to eat at a local diner.
All eyes turned toward me as I entered. I swear every single person in the restaurant (about 15 people) stared at me. I guess I looked harmless enough as I meekly sat down at a table and smiled and rubbed my belly to indicate hunger. They all went back to eating, talking, or watching the overhead TV.
A very friendly waitress gave me the menu and asked what I wanted to drink. Coke. As I was reading the menu a pretty Indian girl selling wind chimes approached me. The wind chimes were a multicultural piece of artwork combining dyed red, white, and blue feathers, a web design at the top (a soul catcher, I believe) and small metal tubes painted with stars and stripes. Before I even had a chance to say no, and I’m pretty sure I would have said no, the (presumably) owner of the place chased her out telling her to quit bothering the customers. This all seemed like a ritual that both parties acted out quite often and after she left I overheard bits of conversation that confirmed this.
I ordered the “Country Burger” out of curiosity. It was the most expensive sandwich on the menu. I wanted to help out the local economy and I figured I was pretty hungry. While waiting for the burger to arrive I heard snippets of conversation: stuff about kids, lot of discussion about illnesses (it was an elderly crowd), and a mention of boys getting shot at in Iraq. The burger arrived and it was HUGE. Two ½ pound patties, ham, cheese, pickles, onions, lettuce, and tomatoes. I took 3 bites and was full. Less than half eaten I felt myself getting too full and thinking my stomach will pay for this later. I took one more bite and had to quit. The waitress saw me leave about one half the burger and asked was everything OK. I said it was a great burger, it was, but that I was full. She laughed and told me about a 12-year-old kid who ate the whole thing. It took him an hour.
I drove home thinking about the day. It was now 3 PM. I figured I should get home about 8 PM. After driving two hours I had to stop to relieve myself of the “Country Burger.” I stopped at a gas station/convenience store. I rushed inside. The burger came out violently. I didn’t need gas but I felt I should buy something to thank them for the use of their bathroom. I bought some bottled water. Upon leaving the store I noticed a three-legged kitten. His stump looked professionally mended. The kitten welcomed the attention and after I finished petting him, he sauntered into the store. I wasn’t sure if he belonged to the store or was just hoping for a home. I didn’t inquire. Hopefully the kitten either found a new home or already had one.
Traffic became crazy around the Indian casinos. There was an hour or more backup. I knew now I wouldn’t be getting home until 10 PM. I imagined the bitching I would have heard had any of the people I invited along had accepted. Nothing more illustrated just how un-Viking my life really is. Still, I’d say I had a good adventure.