So I am winding my way through the far west Oklahoma Panhandle (on my Dust Bowl location scout) and I happen on Kenton - the furthest-most community in the sooner state and also the highest, elevation 4,350 ft MSL.
A friendly border-collie wags his tail and greets everyone who stops at "The Merc" - the only place to get food or gas or groceries this side of Boise City.
I have plenty of gas - but I could use a meal - and I smell the sweet odor of bacon and burgers wafting out over Kenton, plus - I need information for my location scout.
I discovered a long time ago from my newspaper days if you want to know anything about anything in a small town - stop - buy a meal and talk to the proprietor or wait staff.
Never ask a county cop or anyone in an official capacity. They are naturally suspicious of outsiders - especially city boys with cameras.
If you want the inside info about anything? Ask a waitress.They love to talk.
So I order the special and strike up a conversation with the friendly and attractive woman who cooked up my burger. I tell her who I am and what I'm doing - scouting for a PBS documentary on the Dust Bowl. I ask her if she knew of any "Dust Bowl" looking locations and (or) survivors.
"You need to talk to Ina (pronounced Eye-Nah) - Ina K Labrier at the Hitching Post Ranch just outside of town. She's like a million years old or something and lived through it - as an adult."
"A million years old?" I quipped skeptical.
"Closer to a hundred." she said winking. "But I think she was here before Kenton was." she replied.
I tell myself she sounds like a good lead, but if she's close to a century, I worry she may be an invalid and won't be a very good subject for an interview. I'm also thinking that she probably wouldn't appreciate a no-advanced-warning drop-in from a nosy photographer.
I try and broach the subject- tactfully.
"Is she - um lucid?" I ask.
"Boy is she!" she replied. "I hope I'm half as sharp as Ina is at her age - heck, and that would put me twice as sharp as I am now."
I smile at the remark and before I can ask - she offers.
"Tell ya what - buy a trinket from the store and I'll give Ina a call and warn her you are coming. You passed her place on the way in."
I agree, thank her and begin looking for something to buy.
I wondered how much I should spend for a burger, a trinket and a referral?
The woman (sorry I can't recall her name) picks up a (wired) phone (there is no cell service in Kenton) and steps in the back room to talk in private, the curled cord trailing after her.
I shop for ten minutes and find three items of interest - two photo postcards of Kenton in the Dust Bowl days and a refrigerator magnet from Black Mesa State Park.
Total - including my lunch is just under $20 and that's including a $5 tip. It was a much better burger (real buffalo) than I'd get in Amarillo, and that didn't include the skinny on Ina K Labrier.
After a few minute she returns.
"It's all set. Just give her thirty minutes to get cleaned up for company. Take a tour of the town - maybe three. It's that small."
I like her sense of humor and I laugh. I add a bottled water to my items, pay her and thank her profusely. It was interesting to note that the water cost almost as much as my meal. Water (like everything else in Kenton) has to be trucked in.
I step outside and the town dog greets me, again. I pat him on the head - he licks my hand - undoubtedly smelling the buffalo burger - but he finds no treat and saunters away and plunks down under a shade tree.
I decide to take the advice and tour the town. I have time to kill and it's kind of a cool little burg.
I explore the ruins of an old stone building across the street - shoot several photos then I spot a small church down the road.
Kenton is picturesque - quaint - a throwback of a Western town.
If it wasn't for the modern cars and satellite dishes on the roofs of the houses, it could easily serve as a set from a 1950s movie, such as To Kill A Mockingbird - except there is no courthouse.
I learn later the county seat is in Boise City and is still a bone of contention between Kenton and the Sooner city to the east. Kenton used to be the county seat - but it was moved to Boise City shortly after statehood. Some "Kentonites?" think the town suffered for it and as a result it never really grew beyond its' present size.
From a photographers' perspective - I think it's a blessing.
I look at my watch and I've surprised I've spent almost an hour taking photos.
It strikes me that (as opposed to Amarillo) nobody seems to worry about this stranger and his camera shooting photos of their town.
No one calls the constable and in fact the people I encountered were quite friendly - and helpful.
Although there is no cell phone service in Kenton, apparently the grapevine is working well and several citizens come out to ask me if I was the man from the "Weather Channel" who was working on a Dust Bowl story. They were so nice I decided not to correct them.
I gladly and hastily jotted down directions they give me to abandoned 1930s-era sod homes, barns and windmills - all highly sought after locations on Florentine Films' shooting list.
I take the road east out of town a find Ina's place - right where the gal at the Merc told me it would be. I slowly turn into the gravel drive and pull up to a tidy painted stone and stucco house sporting a new metal roof and what looks like a CB antenna.
Out front is Ina Labrier - pretty in pink and waiting for me - standing on the sidewalk leading to her home - assisted by a walker. I hope she hasn't been waiting long.
This woman is in her 90s? I ask myself.
There's got to be something said for country living. I couldn't help but wonder.
"You must be that young man from the Weather Channel." she says.
I smile at her words. I'm in my early 50s and she thinks I'm a young man. My grand kids think I'm oh so old and yet - by her perspective I'm only a few years past half her age.
I shake her hand and introduce myself and tell her who I am, where I'm from and what I am doing.
"They told me at the Merc you were the one to talk to about the Dust Bowl days?"
"The Merc?" Did you see my dog?" she asks.
"Black and white border collie?" I reply.
"Yes - he's supposed to be here but he's a mooch - always hanging around the store - begging. I was worried he had been hit."
"He's there holding down the shade under a tree." I assure her.
"Oh - he's okay." she replies. "I feed him but he prefers to beg." she says.
She glances up at the blue sky for a second. It's a rare windless day in March and quite warm.
"Let me get us a chair and we'll sit out here and talk." she says. "It's such a pretty day and my parlor is kind of - not set up for company right now."
A parlor - I smile again as I contemplate a word that clearly defines the age Ina grew up in.
I hadn't heard the word used since my Mom's grandmother passed away some 30-odd years ago.
She motions me over to two plastic Walmart chairs like she's shooing flies. I set them up side by side.
She lowers herself into one and lets out a slight grunt.
I do that too. I wanted to say but don't.
For the next ninety minutes we talk about the Dust Bowl - which she recalls with amazing clarity. I scramble to keep up with her as I jot down notes. I find out she's 97 - and she's as sharp as a razor.
She remembers everything - as if it happened yesterday - places, dates, people who have long passed from this world and refers to them like I know them as well.
"Well you know how stubborn John was. He wanted to watch the storms roll in and there was nothing I could do about it."
It turns out she was in her twenties during the Dirty 30s - lived in Western Colorado not far from Kenton and taught in a little one room school house. She described the "black blizzards" and the mother of all dusters on April, 14, 1935 - now known as Black Sunday.
I take out my Nikon from my camera bag. I feel compelled to take some shots of her for the record.
"Can I take a few photos?" I ask her hesitantly.
"Is this going to be on TV? she asks. "I wish I could have had my hair done - but I guess it's all right." she trails off.
"No, I'm not the TV crew - they'll call in a few weeks and set up a proper appointment." I assure her. "These are just for my notes."
I try and be discrete - asking before each shot. Ina doesn't seem to mind and she seems to think it's a movie camera.
When we get back to talking about the Dust Bowl - she seems to forget I'm photographing her and gets this far-off look in her still sparkling eyes.
She describes the dusty-blackness, farm animals killed "outright" by the dirt and friends who died years later from ingesting silica into their lungs - much like Black Lung disease killed miners in the coal mines in Appalachia.
"We thought it was the end of the world." she says. "It was so black ..."
And to my surprise she softly sings:
"So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-getting’ my home,
And I got to be driftin’ along.”
I study her face - her hard life is written on it like a map. She gets wistful at times, her words catching in her throat as she recalls, husbands, family and friends long gone.
She looks up - and I'm holding my Nikon to my eye. I take the shot - she doesn't react.
The sun is starting to sink behind the mesa and I have to go.
I thank her, give her my card and tell her she'll be contacted by the production company. She takes it and shakes my hand.
"Do you know when this will be on The Weather Channel?" she asks.
"I think in in 2012 - but not exactly sure when." I reply.
"Well, I hope I'm alive to see it- young man." she says. "I'm not getting any younger."
Her half-serious comment takes me off-guard as the meaning sinks in.
I hope she lives to see it too.
PS: As I write this (March, 2012) I couldn't help but check the Cimmaron County records to see if Ina Labrier was still with us - and as it turns out she is.
She's now 99 years young and probably still wondering where her dog is and watching The Weather Channel for her story.