Sunday, July 26, 2009

Kentucky: The Oakton Mafia


I keep to myself much of the time while I'm in Clinton, rambling around the Emma House, enjoying an airy space that's not available in San Francisco. But Saturday night's sunset brings me to the window, to the back porch, and out to the car.

A left at Clinton's one stoplight and in a matter of minutes I'm on highway 123, windows down, jetting toward Hailwell Corner. The sun is drifting lower and as it falls the light of the sky becomes even more intense; it separates into layers of silver and gold, crimson, purple and blue. An artist's palette.

Another ten minutes and my car is parked at the edge of our soybean field and I am looking across 140 years of family history--rows that vanish into hills. I want to still the sinking sun but in a matter of seconds the field turns from green to indigo, the puddles of water from Wednesday's rain turn dark, and it is time to move on.

The only wide spot in the road between and Clinton and Hailwell is the community of Oakton. It's emblematic of what has become of the rural South-- the railroad crossing is a rise of asphalt. Goldenrod and Queen Anne's Lace wave lazily along the tracks. The abandoned post office is a one room structure on a foundation of concrete blocks, its cashier's desk and pigeon holes for mail are masked by boarded windows. But there are still a couple of churches in Oakton, plus a cluster of homes with carefully tended yards. On this Saturday night there are lights in windows, and a short line of trucks is parked outside what once was once Oakton's general store.

Against the store is a sign that reads "Oakton Mafia." The nearly-empty building is brightly lit and there's a small congregation outside on benches that have been there longer than my lifetime. I slow down. I see a lifted hand....the all-inclusive country greeting that indicates, "Hello, whoever you are." I'm not ready to go home so I slow to a crawl and think about pulling in.

The first to recognize me is Bobby Kelly. Known as the mayor of Oakton, he's a man about my age with a contagious smile and off-beat sense of humor. He may well be the creative force behind the Oakton Mafia sign. It's beyond twilight now but I edge over.

"Looks like the boy's club to me," I say.
"Come on, get out," he replies, and I comply, swinging my rental car into the gravel.

I get out, hug Bobby and then realize I know everybody. It's Bobby and his brother Ricky, Mary Ann and Lucas Deweese, mother and brother of Caleb, our farm manager, and Tracy Workman, whose parents are family friends.

The Kellys are known for their good humor and nonstop conversation and I'm promptly drawn into the mix. In the thirty minutes that follow, the sun completely vanishes and mosquitoes start making a meal of us, but I don't leave. We're all looking at a book of photographs--old school houses in Hickman County-- as we pass around the Oakton Mafia's one pair of shared reading glasses. We talk about family and farm matters with an irreverence that keeps the laughter flowing.

Ricky Kelly asks me how I like San Francisco and I tell him it's too cold this time of year for me. He asks what I do in California and for a moment I grapple for an answer. I tell him I walk the dog, go to the park, handle Kentucky farm business on my computer. I don't think to tell him that I try to write every day, and that I have a love-hate relationship with my tubes of watercolor. In context of this Saturday night these things don't come to mind.

There's a bit of a pause and I look around at Mary Ann and Lucas, Tracy, and the Kelly brothers, getting a handle on what matters most. "I really get homesick for Kentucky in the summer."

Bobby Kelly offers me a popsicle from the cooler inside, but I say I should get going. By that time swatting bugs has become a full-time job. It's been fun, and we say goodbyes all around.

I pull out into the two-lane road and look into my rear-view mirror. There's only blackness where the sunset has been. The Oakton Mafia sign recedes from view. I slowly drive through Oakton keeping an eye out for the scruffy brown-furred dog that often lopes along the center line. Passing through farmland I scan the shoulder for the flash of deer's eyes.

It's a rarity for me to drive this way in darkness, but I'm no stranger to the route. On the road from Oakton I know where I am, what's in front of me and what's been left behind.
"Sunday in the Shop"
photo by Earl Warren, Jr


  1. Liz, thanks for capturing Oakton so well. We haven't met, but I know Hailwell Corner and Oakton well. It's been a treat to read your blog posts about living in SF and traveling back to Clinton. It's fun to remember a place where the an instant message is written on the back of an IGA receipt and slipped under a windshield wiper.

    -James Long
    Chicago IL

  2. Hello, I just want to say thanks for the Oakton Mafia reference, though I'm still not sure what it means. My name is Steve Laskey and I went through your sweet hometown in 2008 on Day 105 of 117 on my solo bicycle tour frome Alaska to Florida. I am now still writing about it, translating from my journals and pictures. The finish line is almost in sight. I just wish I could write as beautifully as you. Steve - Foxborough, MA