I only spent a day in Lebanon, Oklahoma. It was a small town of about 300 people, on the shores of Lake Texoma, where Texas peeked at the southern tip of the lake. My photographer friend Richard Hill drove from Dallas to join me, and we spent some time at the fire station, talking with Fire Chief Terry Hewitt and then grabbing burgers at the gas station, the only food joint around. After Richard left in the afternoon, I walked around the sleepy town, but there was little to do other than avoiding the pit bulls standing guard in front of some of the dispersed houses there.
I got back to the fire station where I had parked my RV and thought about leaving. Then I figured I could check the tornado shelter in the field by the station. I had wondered if it was as large as the shelters I was used to, but it was a small concrete room with a few benches. It was peaceful, but then again the whole town seemed peaceful. As I walked back up into the daylight, an older man was waiting by my RV, leaning on the hood of his pickup truck. A tall, heavyset man, bald, white moustache, big gold rings on both his ring fingers, and he wore black and yellow snakeskin boots.
"I'm Bob," he said. "Is this camper for sale?"
"No sir, it's a rental."
"Where are you from?", he asked.
"I'm from Lebanon." The phrase didn't register with him. I added: "The country, that is."
"Well, obviously. So what brings you here?"
I tell him my story and about the trip I was taking, and he says: "Come on, hop into my truck. Let's take a ride and I'll show you the town. I'm the pastor for the Baptist church here."
I hesitated at first, but then figured I'd just take the chance. As I sat down in my seat he pulled a small soft leather case and tells me: "this is my sword." I put my hand on the door handle in case I needed to open and jump out. "That's a small sword", I said naively. "Yes, small but powerful. That's my bible... Are you Muslim, son?", he asked. "No, much worse, sir. I'm Catholic", I said; a mischievous joke on some Evangelicals' disdain for the 'papists', especially the Southern Baptists. He laughed and said: "Well you came from Lebanon a bead-puller and you'll be leaving Lebanon, Oklahoma a Baptist." It was my turn to laugh, a bead-puller being a pejorative of Catholics for pulling the beads on the rosary while praying.
We drove around slowly, with him pointing at each house we passed by and telling me the family's story. He was a Texan, but he came to town twice a week for church services. I asked if everybody in town was a Baptist and he answered: "We have some Baptists and a whole lot of Nothings." I was curious as to what a Nothing is.
"Do you see these houses on that side of the road? Do you see the pit bulls? Drug dealers live in all these houses. Regular dogs are for regular people. But pit bulls here are for those who don't want you to come close. This whole place was a drug town two years ago. That's what a Nothing is. When I came here I started working on bringing them to my church. I converted the son of the biggest dealer and his father is fighting me. But look, this isn't about church. If going to church makes you a Christian, then going into a garage makes you a car. I want all these people to quit dealing drugs and join me."
We then drove to the lake, and he stopped the car there and asked me: "How about I baptize you in this Lake?" I didn't want to offend him but I couldn't help myself from laughing. "It's alright, sir. I'm good. Plus I'm not a Nothing", I answered.
We kept driving around, at first introducing me to his wife over the phone, and then to his deacon Truman over coffee, a 79-year-old man who looks to be 60, who can't read or write because he started driving a tractor when he was 8, then worked on oil rigs all his life, and who had fallen off a ladder sawing a branch the week before, broke 4 ribs, got bit by a rattlesnake, and was still able to stand up and shake my hand so hard he almost broke it.
As we were leaving Truman's house, I asked Bob why he took me there. "I wanted you to meet good people. Any time we meet decent folks, it makes us less cynical about the rest."
It was time for me to leave town, but Bob insisted on saying a prayer first. "Just give me your hands and learn how a real prayer is said." I obliged. He closed his eyes and said: "Dear Lord, I put this young man in your care; make his travels safe." He then gave me his card and wrote his address on the back. "When you return home, remember to write to me and tell me how it all went."