Still Loyal, Still True

Proud and immortal
Bright Shines Your Name
Oklahoma State
We Herald Your Fame
Ever You’ll Find Us
Loyal and True
To Our Alma Mater
O – S – U

I love this time of year. Once the calendar shifts from early September to late September and then into October, I begin to feel the weight of summer slough off. Not only does the weather change and the leaves fall, but also my body starts to crave the late afternoon sunshine, the dead grass, the pumpkin spice everything and long scarves. Often times, my thoughts drift back in time to when things were easier and simpler. They inevitably drift back to my childhood, like most melancholy thoughts do. I loved my childhood. I had my own kingdom. Multiple kingdoms, in fact, that I viewed as my domain. My safe place where my mind came alive with stories and characters and transformed simple things like a stone wall into a hedgerow in a field.

One of my safe places was the campus of Oklahoma State University. Like so many people in that region, I grew up bleeding black and orange. Both parents, my brother, and I all have degrees from OSU. My father worked for the university until I graduated from high school, and my mother worked at the university for 10-15 years, as well. I spent many, many hours roaming the halls of Life Sciences East, where my dad worked in a lab. I would later work in the same building as a student, and I remember walking those halls again, as an adult, and seeing ghosts everywhere I turned. The kind old ladies who worked in the main office. My dad’s colleagues in the lab, most of whom were much older than him. They were my honorary uncles and grandfathers.

Because I often accompanied my parents to work during the summer, I spent a lot of time trekking back and forth between their offices, cutting through buildings and trembling in fear at the size of the classrooms and the booming voices of the professors. Life Sciences West had terrariums that held snakes, right there on the first floor, I would stare at them, transfixed and terrified, until I would tear myself away, shivering with excitement and fear.

I got donuts and little cartons of milk at the Dairy Barn, which is exactly what it sounds like: an old dairy barn. Like so many of the old buildings on campus, the Dairy Barn had been transformed into something more useful to humans, and I actually spent some time in the attic of the building as a student, running inventory on things that no one used.

But my favorite place on campus? The entire reason I always wanted to go to work with my parents? The Duck Pond, or as it’s more formally known, Theta Pond. I loved the Duck Pond because there we ducks, lots of them, and also fish and lots of exciting little bridges to explore and dream about.

Theta Pond - Flickr

Theta Pond – Flickr

It was my own little space, a place I allowed other people to enter simply because I was nine and couldn’t possibly keep an entire town and university from crossing through. The trees were my forest and the bridges carried me across rivers too large to wade across by foot. In reality, the water was stagnant and often reeked of…I don’t even know what that smell was. It was and is uniquely Duck Pond-y.

Another chunk of my childhood was taken up by football. Most notably, attending football games with my family and their friends. We’d hang out at a dive bar near campus, back when it wasn’t unheard of to allow children in a bar with their parents. The bathroom was dingy and terrifying and as I grew older, would become the setting for several emotional breakdowns by female characters in stories I wrote because the bathroom was the perfect setting for the dashing of dreams and hopes. It also boasted a pair of paper mache legs that disappeared up into the ceiling. I, of course, was convinced it was a witch who would get me if I went to the bathroom alone so thanks for coming with me all those times, Mom!

The marching band doing marching band things

Marching band, 2002

Football games in Stillwater are a day-long event. Tailgating starts early and goes hard until game time. And then it continues to go hard for those without tickets, those who willingly hang out and listen to the game on the radio and cheer along with the fans in the stadium. Those stoking the fires. We didn’t do a lot of tailgating when I was little. Tailgating for us was the bar and friends and then a happy, loud walk a few blocks to the stadium.

Lewis Field, 2002

Lewis Field, 2002

As a little girl, I watched Thurman Thomas, Barry Sanders, Mike Gundy, and countless others bring fans to their feet. At that age, I didn’t like football but I certainly liked the energy and excitement and stadium food and HORSES. A perk of growing up a fan of the Cowboys? Horses. So many horses! We have Bullet, our official horse. Bullet runs the field before games and after touchdowns and is as beloved and revered as other live mascots across the country. Bullet is always solid black with light hooves and he’s a special horse — how many horses do you know that can enter a stadium of 50,000 screaming people and maintain calm and precision? He does, however, poop everywhere. He IS a horse, after all.

October 2002, after ending a 40+ year win drought against Nebraska

October 2002, after ending a 40+ year win drought against Nebraska

October 2002, after ending a 40+ year win drought against Nebraska

(A quick aside: as a little girl, my obsession with horses was like, ridiculous, and my favorite horse was the Clydesdale. One year for Homecoming, the Budweiser crew marched in the parade, complete with their team of six clydesdales. My dad worked his ~inside connections~ to the university and got me an up-close and personal meet-n-greet with those horses. I don’t remember much aside from being lifted onto the top of a barrel so I could actually pet them. They were beautiful and docile and I still want one.)

The old west end zone, 2002

The old west end zone, 2002

As I grew older and began to think about college, I had the usual rebellion against what my parents had done. I wanted to go to school far away, where I thought I could find…something. I looked at Colorado and Oregon but never applied. I knew, deep down, I’d go to OSU. And I did, willingly. I loved every second of that experience, as miserable as parts of the non-college experience were. As a student, my relationship with the university changed. It became a place where I invested in myself and where I learned about other people and cultures and became a better person.

OSU is my home.

As the news of the tragedy began to unfold through various app alerts on Saturday morning, the first tears I cried were tears of disbelief. Is this Stillwater? Did this happen? Why? How? At the parade? What on EARTH? It was incomprehensible. It shouldn’t have been; tragedy strikes OSU at odd times and with much force: the basketball team’s second plane crashing in 2001, two women’s coaches and two alums/donors killed in another crash in 2011. Ten years span these two events but for the OSU family, that span is much, much smaller. We find ourselves wondering why we’re going through all of this again.

I posted on Facebook and as the likes and comments started rolling in, I silently crossed off names on my list. This person is okay. This person is okay. Oh thank god this person is okay. I texted my brother, who lives a few blocks from the site of the accident. He wasn’t there and was fine. I messaged my bestie and waited, checking my phone every 30 seconds to see if she had responded. As more time stretched, I became more and more fearful. But then the message came. She was fine. Not there. Fine. Her son and his marching band crossed through the intersection with the first responders behind them in the parade. Several minutes later, the car tore through the intersection. Her son was safe. So many others were not. As the day wore on, one of my friends got the call from her boss. I immediately thought of my own work family and wept.

The thing about OSU and the Cowboy family is that we know about perseverance. Whether we gain it from having a really bad football team for duration of my brother’s years at school (do NOT get him started on that because he still holds a grudge) or from a horrible tragedy like this, we know about the strength of the heartland and pulling together. We know about putting rivalries behind us for the good of the state. And this just isn’t a State characteristic. Our biggest rivals, the University of Oklahoma, has been nothing but a class act all weekend. Their band flew our flag during pregame ceremonies and the OU chorus started their performance this weekend with OSU’s alma mater.

We lost four members of our family this weekend. A beautiful little boy named Nash. His mom is a student at OSU, practically a baby herself. A young woman named Nikita, a student from India. I cannot imagine the pain her family must feel, being so far away from their daughter. And an older couple, taken together, perhaps mercifully. They were my parents’ age.

It makes no sense. Tragedy’s defining characteristic is the senselessness. We all struggle to find some sort of meaning or reason when these things happen. She was mentally ill. She was drunk. She was on drugs. She was an untreated diabetic. In the end, those details really don’t matter now. Whatever happened behind the wheel that morning, the consequences are set and permanent. Calling her ‘crazy’ won’t place Nash warm and safe in his mother’s arms. Not allowing women to drive solves nothing. (Yes, people actually said that.) It isn’t a conspiracy theory involving black and orange and the media. (Again, yes.) It’s a tragedy. Someone either made a bad choice or suffered a medical crisis that took four lives with a fifth hanging on and 45 other people injured, many of them children under 13.

Stillwater is a beautiful town. When I fly home to visit my family, we go home to Stillwater. Sometimes I’m sad because the town has moved on without me, just like I’ve moved on without it. But then I’ll see a familiar landmark, a street called Duck. We’ll drive by my old apartment, which doesn’t exist anymore, and I’ll miss my friend, who has moved on just like me. I’ll marvel at the remodels on campus, the new buildings. I’ll head over to Morrill, my home away from home during my four and a half years, and I’ll sit on the steps in the sun with my bestie and reminisce about claiming that spot for our brainstorming sessions in upper level courses. We’ll eat too much food at Joe’s and laugh until our sides ache.

And then I’ll remember that this is Stillwater. This is home.