BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
The fact that Ron Padgett's latest book was published recently is, well, a nice bonus. When he was writing it, however, Padgett wasn't at all worried about whether or not anyone would get to read it.
That's what they all say, surely, but this non-fiction manuscript by the Tulsa-native poet clearly was a labor of love — real love, familial love, the kind that reminds a man that blood is thicker than ink. Oklahoma Tough is, as its subtitle explains, the intricate story of My Father, King of the Tulsa Bootleggers.
It's also about murder, suicide, betrayal and hard drink, but the core of this book is the story of a son getting to know his father, Wayne Padgett, a good ol' boy who hung out with shady types at Admiral Place and Peoria Avenue and who ran liquor during the dry days in order to feed his family.
It's also about myths, mystique and this unromantic, sometimes hard fact that flies in the face of countless American narratives: Criminals are usually just plain folks.
What Ron Padgett tried to do here was bring his dad down to earth, if for no one's benefit but his own.
"The first draft I finished was 580 pages, and when I finished it, I sat back and looked at it and thought, 'Well, maybe this is publishable, and maybe it isn't,' " Padgett said during a recent interview from his Manhattan apartment. "If editors said 'Nah!' and it never saw the light of day, I was already happy. I'd done what I set out to do, which was to write a book about my father — not to publish one. Having it published, even in the slimmer form, is just icing on the cake."
That doesn't mean, of course, that Oklahoma Tough is a mere vanity project. Instead, it's a probing investigation of a local giant, a hero to some, who — because of laws, not deeds — often went misunderstood.
To unearth the real man underneath the mystique, Ron Padgett — noted poet and translator of French literature — became a journalist for this particular project. Through dozens of interviews with ex-bootleggers, family members, police officers and a few old enemies, plus numerous documents (Wayne's FBI files run to 1,300 pages), he uncovers the sometimes harsh, sometimes hilarious details of his father's life — as well as the distinct mid-20th century Midwestern milieu that made Wayne Padgett's life story possible.
The tale features colorful descriptions of Tulsa life in the '40s and '50s, including some amusing recollections of the Saturday night dances at Cain's Academy, now the Cain's Ballroom, downtown. Family friend Howard Donahue recalled, "Back in the men's room, they had shoeshine boys. We even paid 'em to polish the bottoms, so we could dance a little better, ha ha!"
But the story of the Padgetts also is infused with a darker undercurrent. While the family lived a remarkably normal suburban existence, at least on the surface, the clandestine liquor business kept everyone on edge, to some degree. The lines between right and wrong, good and evil, were not so clear here — in this family, sure, but in the city, the era. Early on, young Ron Padgett was part of the family business, his mother recalling a funny story about the day some cops raided the house, whereupon a grade-school-aged Ron jumped on top of the cases of gin, shouting, "You can't have my daddy's hooch!"
"We never used the word outlaw, you know," Padgett said. "Dad was a bootlegger. Our family didn't think anything was wrong with that from a moral point of view. We knew it was illegal, of course, but since our customers included ministers, policemen and public officials, how bad could it be?"
Padgett's family connections gave him access to information and interviews that another biographer might not have been able to illuminate. Again, this project started as a personal one, not necessarily intended for public consumption.
But getting to know your dad — especially after his death and particularly considering he was an outlaw — was a dicey proposition. Puncturing the veil of secrecy about many of Wayne's exploits was difficult and daunting. Padgett faltered.
"I kept going, though," he said. "My initial reason (for writing the book) was something like I felt when he died, that something incredible had left the earth. I didn't want that to disappear entirely. Later, as I wrote, I began to feel that what I was doing was telling the world that my father was not only the king of the Tulsa bootleggers, but he was a real person. I felt like I'd turned into an elementary school version of myself trying to explain to my classmates that my daddy wasn't really a bad guy. I began as biographer and ended up as child."
The Wayne Padgett described in the book is hardly a mythical outlaw. He's a working stiff; his work was simply outside the law, selling illegal liquor in an era of prohibition. He worked a few jobs above board, mostly selling cars, but he was a restless sort, part Woody Guthrie, part Willie Loman.
Above all, he took care of his family. But that dark side pervaded even this most basic function.
"I say in the book that Wayne made us all feel protected, but that actually had a dark side to it. If you have to feel protected, that means there is a menace, something to be protected from," Padgett said. "We were aware unconsciously of the threats out in the world."
Ron Padgett is himself a character in his own book: Wayne's young son who heads off to Columbia University in the '60s and becomes a respected poet. With Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard and Dick Gallup, they were sometimes referred to as the Tulsa School of Poetry. Wayne was proud, chuckling midway through the book, "Imagine. I have a son who lives in New York and is a poet!"
By the end of the book, Ron Padgett discovered what could have been the ultimate link between father and son. After Wayne's own father died, Wayne himself — the rough-and-tumble bootlegger — wrote a poem.
"But it's embarrassing! It's a terrible poem," Padgett said. "But that's just the crappy editor in my head, making literary value judgments, which is a preposterous thing to do in this case. It's commendable that he felt so strongly, but I thought it so odd that he resorted to doing that. I know of no other instances of him expressing himself like that."
It was, though, a minor revelation for Padgett — one of many in the process of chronicling the life of his own father. Each such eureka brought him closer to the man.
It's an experience Padgett hopes everyone will attempt — publishing be damned.
"The one thing about this book — I hoped that not only would it be interesting and entertaining for someone to read but would start them thinking about their own parents and inspire them to go talk to them. Go to them and talk, sit down and ask them questions about their childhoods and where they grew up. It's amazing the number of people who say to me, 'How did you find out all this stuff?' Well, I did some research and what-not, but mainly I sat down and asked questions or my mother and grandmother and other relatives, all of whom told me all kinds of amazing things simply because I asked."
Meet the Author
What Ron Padgett is a scheduled participant at Nimrod International Journal’s annual Hardman Awards dinner and writing conference. The conference theme is “How We Make and Are Made by History.” Padgett will join award-winning writers and poets at the Saturday workshops, reading from his work and participating in a masterclass on “Making History through Poetry.”
When Oct. 25
Where University of Tulsa
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.