WILBUR AND ARLENE |
It was a privilege for me to have met Wilbur and Arlene Dixon. They were loving people who'd welcome you into their home and onto their ranch. They made you feel like a part of their family. Knowing them made me appreciate my life more. Despite the odds of living through the dust bowl and the Great Depression they had survived many of life's trials and struggles. Although they weren't wealthy in a monetary sense, they were rich in all other areas of their lives. The couple were extremely proud, loving Christian people. It was an honor to have known them. I visited them often on their ranch in Northwest Oklahoma in the late 1990's.
I was there on a dry windy day in the early spring when local television and country radio stations continuously interrupted broadcasts with warnings of high winds and extreme fire danger. That day Wilbur nearly set the world on fire. I'd spent the morning in the neighboring town of Woodward and as I drove back to the ranch going north on highway 50 towards Freedom I saw dark black smoke billowing high in the sky. Approaching the Dixon ranch I saw the cause of the billowing smoke. Wilbur, the ninety-year-old, hard of hearing, partially blind determined farmer was riding his riding lawn mower along the dirt road leading to his ranch. As he drove he lit the prairie grass on fire not looking back to see the damage he'd caused. Screaming, "This is insane!" I tried calling his son Marvin to warn him of the situation. When I couldn't reach him I called the fire department. I helplessly watched the destruction Wilbur was causing with his torch.
Moving slowly on the riding lawnmower toward his ranch, Wilbur continued lighting fires. The wheat fields surrounding his range were ablaze, power and telephone poles burned and fell down behind him. The site looked like a war zone. Wilbur had recently given up driving because of his failing eyesight. He used the riding lawn mower to get around the ranch. He was unaware of the destruction the fire caused as he rolled toward the ranch. He continued burning weeds believing that he was doing something useful to help out on the farm. I was relieved to hear the sirens and see the fire trucks descend upon the scene. Wilbur appeared embarrassed and shocked as the firemen approached and screamed at him to stop lighting fires.
Several weeks later Wilbur received invoices from the power company asking him to pay for the cost of replacing the burned poles.
The day Wilbur gave up his car keys was a tormenting day of discovery for him. He'd spent the day driving through the farm fields checking to see that the tractors were rolling and the harvesting was getting done. He drove straight into the rear-end of a stopped farm truck sitting in the field. The incident took a toll on Wilbur's pride. He appeared defeated that evening when he handed the truck keys to his son Marvin. It was devastating for Wilbur to give up his truck keys and independence.
Wilbur encouraged his wife to haul him around the ranch. The elderly couple took evening drives to see the progress being made on a new oil well being drilled in their pasture across the highway from the ranch. They were excited about the oil and gas wells being drilled on their land and looked forward to the financial gain they expected from the wells.
Wilbur was not a wealthy man, but he had a generous side. He'd write checks to his children, grandchildren and foster kids for birthdays and at Christmas. Although the foster kids rarely visited the ranch any time other than Christmas, they loved Wilbur and Arlene. The couple raised four children and several foster kids on a meager farm income over the years. Wilbur or Arlene loved them all equally. That was the way they were.
Before her illness, Arlene and Wilbur would sit outside on warm summer evenings on the wooden swing on the front porch of their ranch house. They appeared to be in love and content with their lot in life. Occasionally, when a car would pull into the driveway Wilbur would ask, "Who is it, Mom?" and Arlene would let him know who was there and what was going on. She was his eyes and after she was diagnosed with dementia, he was her brain. They were inseparable during those final years.
Arlene was a nice-looking, strong farm woman before the disease took over her mind and soul. As the disease progressed Arlene roamed aimlessly around the farm when the men folk were out in the fields or otherwise gone for the day. She constantly picked up sticks that had fallen from the broken trees for firewood. One day when she was left alone Arlene drove to Freedom in her old Taurus station wagon. She came upon a hitchhiker who flagged her down. She picked up the rough-looking character who said he needed to get to Kansas. Without giving it a second thought Arlene drove him thirty-five miles to Kansas. She dropped him off at a border town and called home from a pay phone saying she was on her way home. Shortly thereafter the family decided it wasn't safe for Arlene to drive the car.
One day Marvin found his mom in the bullpen with several bulls. She realized she was in trouble when she heard Marvin yell, "Get out of there!" Arlene calmly walked away muttering under her breath, "Those darn steers won't get out of here!" < Marvin called from the wheat field one day and asked me to bring him a shovel. Arlene insisted she ride along. We headed out and about five miles down the road we ran out of gas. I asked Arlene to stay there while I walked back to the ranch for gas and she insisted she'd walk with me.
Just as I considered tying her to the steering wheel and locking her in the pickup, a friendly neighbor showed up and poured gas into the tank from a gas can he kept in the back of his truck. The neighbor drove away and I turned the truck around to return to the ranch Arlene went ballistic. She screamed, "We need to get to Marvin. We're not going back to the ranch!" Arlene was eighty-years-old and as strong as an ox. Ignoring her threats I drove back to the ranch. I parked the red farm truck in front of the farmhouse and helped Arline out of the truck. Seeing her sprint toward the Taurus I moved swiftly and was two steps ahead of her. I opened the car door and yanked out the car keys. When I took off in a dead run for the bunk house Arlene was right behind me switch in hand swearing loudly and insisting I drop the keys. I ran down the hill with Arlene close behind. When I reached the bunk house I opened the door and jumped inside. Slamming the door closed behind me I locked it and pulled down the window shades.
Arlene reacted like a mad cow cussing and screaming as she pounded on the bunk house door. Picking up the telephone I tried to call Marvin but he didn't answer. I hunkered down and waited it out. Knowing she'd seen me run in there I walked on tiptoes trying not to make a sound. I learned that day that the last person I wanted mad at me was Arlene Dixon. Her son was right when he'd said, "Mom has quite a temper. Don't piss her off." It seemed like an hour passed before Arlene gave up. I was relieved when she walked upstairs to the farmhouse. I spent the rest of the day with the doors locked tight keeping the television low and the lights turned off for fear she'd return with ammunition.
Such was life on the Freedom ranch. I'd sometimes watch Arlene go up and down the stairs from the ranch house to the bunk house several times a day. If the bunk house door was locked she'd pound on the door and peer into the windows screaming, "Are you in there? Let me in! Who's in there? What are you kids doing in there?" When she spotted anyone walking towards the bunk house she'd scurry down the stairs and come through the front door right behind them.
Arlene's actions were the direct result of her worsening disease. Alzheimer's quickly destroyed her life causing her to eventually reside in a nursing home in Mooreland, Oklahoma. She existed at the care center for several years. The life Arlene had known as a farmer's wife was gone forever. Despite the circumstance it took a long time for Arlene to lose her spunk. She'd occasionally escape from the nursing home by sneaking out any door left unlocked. She'd be found wandering around on the lawn outside baffling the nurses to learn how she got out. Arlene got a kick out of not letting them in on her secret. She'd wander up and down the halls occasionally creeping into an old man's room to swipe a piece of chocolate. It became a game with her, she'd sneak in and he'd yell at her to get out.
During one visit with Arlene I was grabbed and held in a death grip by a mentally disabled patient confined to a wheelchair. He held me by the legs loudly professing his love and begging me not to leave. The nurses pried his grip loose. It upset me that I couldn't do anything to stop the suffering and unhappiness that prevailed there. Many nursing home residents never had visitors.
The poor people no one seemed to care if they lived or died.
Arlene managed to hold on for several years after she was confined to the home. Sadly, by the time she passed she'd become a mere vegetable not knowing where she was or who was there with her. There was no life left in her once-beautiful blue eyes. When I'd visit I sometimes see bruises and cuts on her extremities. It bothered me that she couldn't tell anyone what happened. When I questioned the nurses they'd say Arlene had fallen out of bed or fallen from her chair. I suspected abuse but couldn't prove it.
Arlene's funeral was held at the Freedom Christian Church. It was a fitting ceremony for the strong-willed Christian woman. It was a huge funeral with many giving testimony and expressing the love they'd felt for her. She had many friends who acknowledged the world had lost a terrific woman. Arlene had spent much of her young childhood growing up in oil field work camps across Oklahoma. She never knew a stranger.
It was no big deal for Arlene and Wilbur to share what little food they had with complete strangers. One day a horse trader stopped by the ranch to trade some horses and Arlene invited him for supper. The cowboy was thankful for the hot meal and he continuously complimented Arlene on her good cooking. Wilbur didn't like that the stranger was flirting with his wife. Before the horse trader could finish his meal Wilbur ran him off. Escorting him to the front door, he threw him off the porch, Wilbur yelled, "I don't have any horses I want to part with. Pick up your saddle and get your skinny ass off my ranch!"
You can read more about life in Freedom in my novel Farewell to Freedom.
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