Collectively Struggling

On a Wednesday at 3 p.m., Collected Thread, a small boutique gift shop, is devoid of customers. Lindsay Zodrow, the store owner with round glasses, a fern-colored fleece and a beaming smile, has just left to retrieve her toddler from daycare. Past the shelves of soft pink and blue scarfs, past the quirky cards that read “Happy Birfday,” and past the mid-century room divider is Collected Thread’s backroom. The backroom acts partially as a storage room and a personal office for Zodrow. Above Zodrow’s desk in the backroom hangs a postcard on a corkboard which reads:

“Lindsay, you are always a creative inspiration for me. Your passion and vision is shaping OKC for the better. Hang in there! 🙂 Happy Valentines Day! – Morgan.”

The postcard was from the owner of the Green Bambino, a baby clothing boutique in Oklahoma City. The last line reading “hang in there” is appropriate given the fact that locally-owned businesses like Collected Thread have been financially struggling for over a year and a half due to successful online retail shopping models employed by Amazon and other sites.

Last summer, after another frustratingly slow season for the local Oklahoma City business scene, Zodrow attempted to challenge that model.

On June 28, 2017, Lindsay Zodrow took a chance. She believed that, in order to gain the attention of local consumers, pleading to her customers through her online blog would help the metro public realize the hardships of running a small business. Although a blog post wouldn’t solve any problems on its own, Zodrow sought to unveil the affliction behind the inner workings of small businesses.

“It is a huge fight right now,” Zodrow said. “Most of the local businesses here don’t have loans, don’t have investors, and are doing it all on their own. You can’t sustain that.”

On average, Zodrow receives about 30 to 40 visitors to her website on a daily basis. On June 28 and the following day, over 4,000 people clicked on Collected Thread’s website to read her blog post.

Titled “Fight For Us!” the post cited the online shopping model of Amazon as the main cause for local business woes. Zodrow went on to list some local Oklahoma City businesses such as Chirps and Cheers, a stationary store in Midtown, Cuppies and Joe, a small coffee shop on 23rd Street, and The Social Club, a card store and salon in Norman, as having unique shopping experiences but also being affected by the slow local shopping season.

Since November 2014, NewsOK reported that since oil prices spiraled downward, the local economy also suffered if looking at the sales tax for retail over the past two years. In November 2014, Oklahoma received $35.7 million in sales tax, but that price dropped during the next consecutive three Novembers to $34 million, $33.4 million, and fortunately, $35.1 million. That upsurge indicates a rebound for retail, but is still $800,000 short of 2014’s sales tax mark.

However, this trend is not exclusive to Oklahoma City. According to a CNN report, more than 300 retailers have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2017 in the United States. RadioShack closed most of its stores in March of this year due to high rates of electronic sales online. Payless closed 525 out of 4,400 stores in April. Most prominently, Toys ‘R’ Us recently filed bankruptcy in September, but has yet to close any of its stores as of late.

With online retail and immediate digital shopping that allows a user to order an entire wardrobe without stepping foot over a front door threshold, the existence of small, local businesses is threatened.

Several businesses in the metro are actually pushing forward, and doing so successfully. Chirps and Cheers, the stationary store in Midtown owned by Sami Ready and Susan Kropp, a mother-daughter duo, haven’t experienced a decline as many other shops around the area have. Sami believes it has to do with their location

“With all of the hotels and apartment complexes…people are always popping in for a greeting card, and we get to help people with invitations to weddings,” Ready said. “We love our sweet friends that come into the shop and support us, and we just love the community.”

Chirps and Cheers opened in 2009 in an Edmond location for the first five years of business, but has since moved to Midtown. Besides selling stationary, the small business helps sorority hopefuls build their packets and resumes for submission before entering college, sells school supplies and hosts crafting workshops. Their utilization of different fields within stationary along with having a strong community following seems to attract a loyal a sufficient amount of customers to comfortably keep operations up and running.

Dana Scott and Erica Smith, owners of the Social Club in downtown Norman, were best friends when they decided to combine their talents—business wit and salon styling—to bring those concepts together to create their half salon/half gift shop. Regarding Zodrow’s blog post, Smith agrees that Amazon has altered the model of small, local business shopping.

It has never been more convenient to shop from the comfort of your own home,” Smith said. “But the thing you miss out on when you do that is the experience.”

Scott and Smith continue to operate The Social Club in Norman despite the shortfall of local business in Oklahoma. However, when comparing The Social Club and Chirps and Cheers, both have similar models of success: the stores are co-owned by friends or family and offer specialty services, such as haircuts at The Social Club and workshops and stationary services at Chirps and Cheers. This consolidation of ownership and variety of amenities may be the ticket to combating Amazon’s online shopping model.

Cuppies and Joe, once an urban house but now a converted coffee shop known for handmade cupcakes and Oklahoma-sourced coffee, sits on 23rd Street. The shop’s owner, Elizabeth Fleming, believes that the strength of small businesses in Oklahoma City can be found within the connection they share with each other.

“It’s nice because it is not cut throat. I feel like we are all rooting each other on and want each other to succeed because we know how hard it is,” Fleming said. “We have each other’s backs too; if someone is out of cups or lids, we can call on each other until our order gets in.”

Zodrow’s Collected Thread has now been open for nine years in the Plaza District. The shop itself is tucked in a cozy nook right across from some of the district’s biggest eateries like The Mule and Aurora Cafe, which is a plus. A case can be made for the variety of products Zodrow offers, which range from infant clothing to garments and accessories for fully clothed women. As a mother, Zodrow annually offers events for mothers and children alike during Mother’s Day, which acts as a catalyst for community building and an incentive for sales.

“I think I thought about [starting the shop] for two months, and then did it, which is crazy,” Zodrow said. “I’m still figuring it out.”

As Zodrow’s post said, many businesses may not be around the metro come January 2018. Several business owners and professionals have different opinions on how to stress the importance of keeping community businesses alive. Within these examples of local metro shops, it appears that tailored, curated services for the customer is the best advantage local businesses have over online retailers.

“To me, small businesses that create experiences for their customers put themselves in a position where they can’t possibly be replaced by online retailers,” said Dr. Jeremy Short, professor and Rath Chair in strategic management at the University of Oklahoma. “There are no online festivals with local food carts, for example. This kind of experience is communal, personal, tactile and can’t be replicated online.”

Bryce Bandy, co-founder of Keep It Local, a business that incentivizes metro dwellers to shop at local businesses by allowing exclusive discounts with a purchase of a Keep It Local card, affirms the experience aspect of small businesses. “I think you’re going to find a lot more creativity popping up and people trying to build it around experiences,” Bandy said.

The gap between local and corporate seems to widen as time passes. Either individuals are fiercely passionate about sustaining local businesses and their one-of-a-kind, handmade brands, or they resort to cheaper options on the web. However, the relationships that owners build with their customers and the experiences they provide will hopefully keep these hyperlocal staples afloat.

The essence of a community is its people. Without the distinct eateries and shops that reside in Oklahoma City’s many districts, areas could potentially face an identity crisis and, in turn, residents could lose touch with their surrounding neighbors.

“When you can put a face and a name to a local business and what they provide and you know the care that went into their product you want them to succeed,” Fleming said. “People don’t realize all that small business owners sacrifice and pour into their businesses.”

For Zodrow, the future is uncertain. “I go back and forth between being really hopeful and really concerned,” Zodrow said. “Everyone I know is on a budget, no one I know has money to shop. If it gets to the point where we’re just an online store, I don’t want to do it anymore. The community is too important to me.”

Human Interest: A Mother’s Understanding of Her Son’s Legacy

On Thanksgiving 2012, the Foley family sat down at their dinner table in New Hampshire to a traditional meal of turkey, mashed potatoes and the usual holiday conversations about jobs and life.

Yet Diane Foley, the matriarch of the family, couldn’t help but feel uneasy. Through all of the laughter and familial harmony, she couldn’t get one thought out of her mind: her fifth and oldest son, James Foley, had yet to call the house.

And he always managed to call the family to wish them happy holidays.

James, or “Jim” as his friends and colleagues called him, had left an internet cafe earlier that day with his translator, John Cantlie, in northwestern Syria. They had just uploaded their coverage on the ongoing Syrian Civil War to their respective employers and were on their way to the Turkish border to meet up with Nicole Tung, a friend and photojournalist.

Jim traveled to Syria a month earlier to cover the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government regime. He had previously been reporting on the Libyan Civil War in 2011 when he was abducted by government forces and held for 44 days. After his return, his family was dismayed when he said he was going back. They even threatened to burn his passport to prevent him from returning to the Middle East, but they couldn’t stop the 38-year-old freelance journalist. He felt the need to report on human rights issues. He needed to cover the destruction of innocent people in times of war.

He needed closure.

As the day progressed, the family went along with celebrating the holiday. Diane kept her composure as she always had and discussed what was going on in everyone’s lives. Day turned to night, and as Diane kept waiting to hear the phone ring, she and the rest of the family became increasingly disheartened. The first time Jim was kidnapped, a writer for the New York Times witnessed his capture by pro-Gaddafi forces and confirmed this with the Foleys. Updates about their son were bountiful and constant.

But this time was different. Just silence. No phone call. Nothing.

As the night came to a close, and the family hadn’t heard anything from their son, a sense of dread engulfed their holiday festivities. His younger brother, Michael, thought if he had been taken, the family would simply go through 50 to 100 days of hell to get him back, but they would eventually, someway or somehow, get him back. Just like last time.

It wouldn’t be that easy.

For the next three weeks after Jim was taken in 2012,  only rumors and dead ends circulated about his whereabouts. Diane and the rest of the Foleys could only sit and speculate.

“We were told not to tell anyone he was captured, and we chose to go to the media about two months into his captivity because we had no idea where he was,” Diane said.

Phil Balboni, the former CEO of GlobalPost who employed Jim as a freelance reporter, was sitting in his home around noon days after Thanksgiving in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he found out about his employee’s disappearance. Without hesitation, Balboni picked up the phone and immediately enlisted the help of Kroll Inc., a private security firm who had aided in the rescue of Jim from Libyan detention in 2011.

“There’s very few people who have had experience with this in media,” Balboni said. “I’m the CEO of GlobalPost, I was responsible for everything, and there was no one that could do this job but me, so I took it on.”

After a year, both the Foleys and GlobalPost started receiving emails from the terror group that would eventually call themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant requesting a ransom of $132 million (100 million euros) for Jim’s release. However, due to American foreign policy that believes “democracies must never give in to violence, and terrorists must never be rewarded for using it,” according to a Foreign Affairs article, the American government refused to talk to the group directly.

“We couldn’t believe it happened a second time,” Diane said of his kidnapping. “You feel very powerless and rather terrorized because you don’t know what to do.”

The family tried many methods to find and bring Jim back. According to Balboni, GlobalPost spent millions in their hiring of Kroll Inc., and the Foley family raised over $1 million to pay the kidnappers the ransom. Both instances of Jim’s abductions are examples of why working as a freelancer in the Middle East is increasingly hazardous for media professionals.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Impunity Index, there have been 1,260 journalists killed since 1992. Syria is ranked as the second-worst country for journalist impunity, or where individuals harm or murder journalists without any consequence. Additionally, two other countries were categorized along with Syria as the areas with the highest death count of journalists: Iraq (3) and Pakistan (7).  Out of the 74 journalists killed in 2012, the year Jim was kidnapped a second time, 37 of those deaths occurred in Syria, totaling 50 percent of the world’s journalist impunity that year.

Freelance journalists face much greater danger than journalists working for a large media outlet, according to a 2014 NBC News report that shows nearly two-thirds of journalists killed in 2013 during combat or crossfire were freelancers.

“In 2009, I left NBC News to work as a freelancer in Iraq and Afghanistan…and suddenly I realized how exposed I was and how exposed these freelancers were around the globe that I had worked around all those years, ” said Mike Boettcher, a venerable broadcast journalist and one of the first live reporters for CNN who is now a visiting professor at the University of Oklahoma. “I really didn’t get it.”

When Jim traveled back to Syria a second time, all that really protected him from incoming gunfire and threats against his life were his combat helmet and a small, khaki tactical vest. In several of his videos that were broadcasted by his employer, the Boston-based GlobalPost, Jim videos bombs going off right above him, rocking the foundations of buildings, or rebels shooting rocket propelled grenades at their enemy. Jim was as vulnerable as the people he was covering.

More than two years after Jim was taken, his family and the rest of the world saw his face for the first time as he was broadcast on every major news network.

Aug. 19, 2014. A video titled “A Message to America” was posted on YouTube. The video opens with President Obama announcing airstrikes in Iraq. The video then cuts to a skinny, pale Jim with his head shaven, kneeling in the desert and clad in a flowy, orange jumpsuit. Beside him stands a man completely covered in black jihadi robes. Jim reads from a script, and after the masked man justifies the Islamic State’s actions, the terrorist wields a knife.

The militant walks quickly behind Jim and puts his left hand on his forehead. Jim’s lower jaw becomes tense and veins jut out from his neck.

The militant then puts the gleaming blade to Jim’s neck.

The video of the murder was broadcast internationally and shown by almost every major media outlet in the world. Jim was the first American to be killed by ISIS. Following Jim’s death, the terrorist known as “Jihadi John” showed an Israeli-American named Steven Sotloff in a similar orange jumpsuit. Jihadi John threatened to behead Sotloff if more airstrikes occurred.

On Sept. 2, 2014, Jihadi John followed through with his threat to Sotloff in yet another circulated video. Steven and Jim were two of the 61 journalists killed around the world in 2014, and two of the 17 killed in Syria, the country with the highest number of journalist deaths in the world according to CPJ.

After Aug. 19, 2014, Diane, John and the rest of the family were broadcast around the world as they processed the news of their son’s death. Media professionals started to criticize media organizations who used freelance journalists but didn’t provide them with sufficient protection in conflict areas.

“There are two key issues. One is: should a freelance journalist go to a conflict area without proper training, equipment, or support?” Balboni said, “And the answer is ‘no.’ Second, should a news organization accept the work of a freelancer who is in a conflict zone without ascertaining that the previous criteria have been met? And the answer to that is definitely ‘no.’”  

The landscape of freelance journalism came under great debate after the video of Jim surfaced, and GlobalPost was a media outlet that led the discussion by discontinuing the acceptance of freelance coverage from conflict zones. However, they stated they would continue to send foreign correspondents, or staff employees who had contracts with the company, to conflict areas. Agence France-Presse, a Parisian news agency that Jim had freelanced for, released a statement saying they would not accept work from freelance journalists “who travel to place where we do not venture,” according to an article by the Huffington Post.

Inevitably, after Jim’s passing, people started to question who Jim was as a journalist and a person. The world turned to Diane for answers.

The Foley house was one of busyness and motion while Jim was growing up. Although he was born in Evanston, Illinois, the Foley family moved to the quiet, tiny town of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire to raise their five children, of which Jim was the oldest. Diane recalls Jim’s affection toward others starting at an early age.

“Very curious,” Diane said while reminiscing about his youth,  “I think that’s why he became interested in journalism because he loved to meet people and was a very friendly guy. He just liked people.”

His family and peers seem to all agree on Jim’s sense of purpose in life: to tell the story of the underreported. His mother remembers his passion for people beginning in college, as he worked in the inner city of Phoenix, Massachusetts and a prison in Illinois, working for Teach For America, a program that employs recent college graduates to teach in public schools. Jim finally found his calling with journalism in 2008 while working to rebuild infrastructure in Baghdad for the USAID-funded “Tatweer Project.” Two years later, in 2010, he would apply for military embed-journalist accommodation status in Afghanistan, kicking off his career as a freelance reporter.

“Jim became very passionate about what the people in the Middle East were yearning for,” Diane said. “When you are an independent journalist, you live among the people…and he became very close friends with a lot of people in the country and could feel their yearning for freedom.”

The idea of exposing the truth and telling the stories no one else was telling drove Jim to the Middle East, where he would go on to report on the stories of rebels in both the Libyan and Syrian civil wars.

“He had caught the war correspondent disease,” Balboni said of Jim’s motivation. “He felt that that’s where he wanted to be, that’s where he need to be and these are the stories he wanted to tell.”

Jim was famously quoted saying, “If I don’t have the moral courage to challenge authority, we don’t have journalism.” He took this to heart as he lived with the people of Libya and Syria, made friends and gave a voice to the voiceless.

Through Jim’s Syrian conflict coverage, he strongly advocated for the common people by not only covering the rebels’ fight against the al-Assad regime, but also the conditions that the Syrian people lived in. One month in 2012, Jim spent his days in a hospital covering the laborious, frantic work of doctors who were extremely short on supplies. Jim and Tung, a photojournalist who Jim had been working with for several months, raised enough money to buy a shabby van converted to an ambulance for the hospital, which traveled across Europe and eventually arrived in Syria.

His reputation became something of Middle East folklore, according to Boettcher and the documentary “Jim: The James Foley Story.” His signature aviator-glasses and lanky stature were key in describing what many referred to as a “war hero.”

When the family saw the video of Jim’s death, they were obviously devastated. Over time, however, the family refused to allow Jim’s sense of purpose be forgotten. Particularly, Diane’s grief transformed into something unexpected.

Determination.

October 25, 2017. Diane, dressed in a silky, vibrant-orange dress, sits elegantly and upright in a panel discussion with Boettcher and author Michael Scott Moore at the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Directly behind her, a video describing Jim’s principal ethical code, “moral courage,” plays. The video includes Jim’s own frontline work and testimonies from his peers. Diane physically struggles to turn and see the screen directly behind her, so she remains with her back turned away from the video as it plays. At the sound of Jim’s voice, Diane unconsciously clasps her hands. Her posture becomes more rigid and her eyes stare at the floor. She intently listens to her son’s voice, perhaps hoping he was with her on stage, discussing the values he fiercely defended. Although her gaze has a miniscule trace of pain, other attributes are apparently visible: strength, endurance and warmth.  

The panel discussion is part of Boettcher and Professor John Schmeltzer’s presidential dream course “Journalism Under Siege.” The class features weekly speakers who discuss the threats journalists encounter while working in the field.

Diane was invited to speak about Jim’s frontline experiences and the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which supports protection of journalists and freedom for international hostages. Back in New Hampshire, after Jim’s death in 2014, Diane refused to let her son’s legacy be forgotten and decided to create a foundation that advocates for “the safe return of all Americans detained abroad” as well as the protection of freelance journalists and safety education for media professionals, according to the foundation’s website.

“I was a nurse practitioner before all this happened. It’s definitely changed what I’ve done with my life,” Diane said. “It’s been very challenging to run a nonprofit because I don’t have a business background.”

“Diane is an extremely strong individual,” Balboni said. “This is one of those things that comes along once in a lifetime, and how you deal with it can define who you are and how you feel about yourself.”

Jim’s legacy lives on not just through Diane. Many organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit media organization that specializes in global crises, dedicated annual fellowships to Jim following his death. Jahd Khalil, a freelance journalist working out of Cairo, won the GroundTruth 2016 Middle East Fellowship and reminisced about how the fellowship’s dedication affected his work and Jim’s legacy.

It underlined how there should be diligence and planning at every step of reporting,” Khalil said. “Jim Foley’s biggest legacy is being carried on by his parents and the Foley Foundation – they are working to make sure that journalism is safer and that editors are aware of the situation that freelancers are put in (or sometimes put themselves in).”

Additionally, Ramy Ghaly, the winner of CPJ’s 2015 James W. Foley Fellowship, shared his thoughts on what Jim’s legacy personally meant to him.

“Jim’s legacy is a constant reminder of the ongoing risks that journalists face as part of their profession. And because of this, I believe that assistance and support for journalists is as crucial as free speech itself.”

Both of these young media professionals share crucial common ground: journalists covering the frontline in conflict areas undoubtedly face daily peril. Diane wishes to bring this to the forefront of journalism ethics and safety discussions through the expansion of the the foundation and nationwide safety training for beginning and veteran journalists.

When Diane speaks about her son, she does so without remorse. A swelling pride and confidence accompanies every word describing Jim. Although she’ll always miss his lanky figure, his gap-tooth grin and his genuine kindness towards other human beings, she refuses to allow his story go untold.

“It makes me feel good,” Diane said, “and it’s been healing in many ways to feel like I can do something good. That Jim’s life wasn’t sacrificed for nothing.”

Big Mike: A man of work

BY GARRETT DAVIS

Around sundown on September 29, 2017, just hours after signing a five year, $205 million contract extension—the richest in NBA history—with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook cruises up to the back gate of a lavish community known as Gaillardia. Ironically, the 2016-2017 KIA NBA MVP stops at the north Gaillardia gate in a pristine white KIA SUV. Westbrook beams with his famous gapped-tooth grin toward the tiny guard house, waiting to pass through. After a moment, the door to the house opens and out steps “Big Mike.”

Mike waddles closer to Westbrook’s car with a resemblance to a 1965 Ford pickup truck: every step is slow, and perhaps rustic, but reliable and strong. The 75-year-old African American man, dressed in a cliche white button-down adorned with a gold, gleaming pin reading “Mike Wilson,” rumbles his way to Westbrook’s vehicle, pushes his aviator reading glasses closer to his face, and takes a good look at the NBA superstar.

“Hey, big guy,” Mike says.

“Wassup, Mike. Wanna open the gate?” Westbrook retorts.

“And who are you?” Mike says back.

Westbrook, possibly the biggest Oklahoma City celebrity, is slightly taken aback. A scowl that only appears when referees call a foul on him slowly creeps over his face.

“You serious, man?” Westbrook says.

“Yeah, I’m gonna need a name,” Mike responds.

Westbrook half grins and lets out a chuckle. “Just open the gate, Mike.”

“Play better ball,” Mike jokes as he hits the button, allowing Westbrook into his safely-guarded domain. He watches as one of the hottest commodities in professional basketball drives off into the neighborhood.

This is just one of the few conversations Mike Wilson has while solely manning the back gate of Gaillardia, which he has since 2009. The venerable senior drives to work every weekend, Friday through Tuesday, from a traditional red-brick house that he built with his wife of 38 years. One would be correct in assuming Mike looks forward to the brief banter with Gaillardia residents and visitors as he is not only isolated in his tiny guard house, but also returns to an empty home at night.

Mike’s wife passed in March of 2016 after a long fight with lung cancer that spread to her brain. His brother passed away in January 2016 after he wandered outside and froze to death due to confusion brought on by Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, Mike was also diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier this year. Regardless, Mike joyfully drives to work every weekend, enlivened by the conversations with those who stop by his small outpost.

“He’s just really sweet,” Heidi Zerby, a Gaillardia resident, said. “Generally, most of [the guards] don’t take time to come out and say hello…but we’ll chat about the Thunder or OSU.”

When Mrs. Zerby learned about some of Mike’s personal tragedies in the past year, she was understandably surprised by his positive, uplifting attitude.

“It wasn’t that long ago that we were chatting and he mentioned he had radiation treatment,” Mrs. Zerby said.  “He was telling me he had 40 to do…but he was just like, ‘I’m gonna beat it. I’ve made up my mind and I’m gonna beat it.’”

The Gaillardia residents and visitors often talk to the man, but never see inside of his post. He sits in a 9-by-4 foot room in a faded-green rolling chair propped up by another four legged chair. Cracks navigate the shoddily tiled space like a river system and lead to gaps where a few tiles are missing. Commentary from a local news station that runs on a 24 inch flat screen is interrupted every few minutes by a wailing warning alarm heard on submarines and navy vessels, indicating a car outside attempting to enter the neighborhood.

His tiny residence sits outside the country club neighborhood where homes, some nice one-story cottages and others sprawling, multiple story estates with tennis and basketball courts, usually sell for more than $1 million. But Mike simply turns his focus to the cars awaiting his gate-opening permission, and usually won’t let any cars pass without a friendly greeting.

“When I stop and look at it, this is the best job I’ve ever had in my life,” Mike said. “The people are so nice and have always treated me well. I don’t care about their money. I want friendship.”

One aspect of Mike’s life is certain: he’s always on the move. Whether it’s constantly standing up to let cars past the gate or traveling the world, immobility has never seemed to be a variable in Mike’s endeavors. His sense of wanderlust was first fulfilled at the age of 19 by the United States Army.

Mike was deployed to Munich, Germany, after basic training and spent 26 months exploring the city. That is, until he learned how to throw a punch. With training and several matches, the young Mike Wilson became the Army’s amatuer light heavyweight champion, which acted as a vehicle for Mike’s ultimate dream: to see the world. From Munich, Mike saw Japan, Hawai’i, Greece and Turkey. Throughout his boxing career, his Army comrades gave him his signature nickname: Big Mike. Finally, in the mid 1960s, Mike returned to Oklahoma City. But settling down was never an option.

For Mike, with labor comes contentment. After returning to Oklahoma City, he enjoyed employment from various proprietors, including being one of the first paramedics in Oklahoma City, serving Henry Bellmon, the 18th Governor of Oklahoma, as a cook, and even working a short stint at the Walmart on north Penn Avenue in Oklahoma City. His resume goes on and on, and will continue to do so, according to him.

“I tried a little bit of everything,” Mike said. “I just like to work. I’ve been pretty lucky to keep a job no matter what the status, and I’ve always said as long as the job is respectable and I can make a decent living, I’m gonna keep it.”

Although Mike has stopped globetrotting, the companionship he amasses with the Gaillardia community more than makes up for it.

One of Mike’s co-workers, another guard named Doug Bittner, has keenly observed Mike’s relationship with the Gaillardia community. “He’s quite an outright individual,” Doug said. “He’s had a lot of personal tragedy…in the last seven or eight months. [But], he is so courteous to…the residents. And they make it very worthwhile to come to work.”

Mike’s contract with Alliance Security Services is up for renewal on December 11. As of now, he is unsure if he will re-sign to keep working at the guard post. Even though the average age of retirement in America is 63, according to a 2017 CNBC report, Big Mike won’t hesitate to strap on his gloves, throw haymakers at any internal or external obstacles, and soldier on for years to come.

“Once I leave here, I don’t know what I’ll do, but I’m not going to quit working,” Mike said. “You might see me at Walmart again, but I don’t like to backtrack.”

Q&A – Three Mission Trips to Africa Later by Garrett Davis

Mission trips to foreign countries, whether to aid the local populace with infrastructure, supplies or anything else, usually share a commonality: religion. According to a story by the “Huffington Post,” around 1.5 million Christians annually go around the world to build schools, churches, and homes for individuals who lack what most Americans would think of as everyday conventions. Compare this statistic to 1965, when only 540 religious missionaries would annually travel abroad. This billion dollar industry has many questioning whether short-term mission trips are an effective measure, or only confirm religious beliefs previously held by traveling missionaries.

Ali Klima, a senior political science major at the University of Oklahoma, conducted several trips to Kenya, Africa, during high school in order to build an orphanage for local village children. Her experience through Juja, Nairobi and other parts of Africa helped her garner impactful relationships, but also exposed her to brutal poverty and violence. Klima sat down with me and discussed how, ironically, these trips made her contest her sense of faith and humanity in the world.

Garrett: How many times did you go to Africa for mission trips?

Ali: I went three times.

 

G: You went three times?

A: So, three separate summers, two weeks each time. The first time I went was right after my freshman year.

 

G: So after your first trip, you were like, “That was awesome, I’m going to do this two more times?”

A: Yeah. The first time we went, we got the land to build this orphanage, and the second time we went, the orphanage was built. So that second time we were there, we were just setting up the orphanage. And the third time we went, we had twice as many kids as we would ever thought we would have.

 

G: Oh, so it kept building on itself year after year?

A: It kept getting bigger and bigger. We have kids right now that go to six different schools across Juja. Juja is this little village about 40 miles north of Nairobi in Kenya.

 

G: Was the mission trip was in Kenya each time?

A: Same place, same organization every time. And the organization was “Upendo Kids International.” Upendo means “love” in Swahili.

 

G: Some mission trips are faith-based. Were you religious going into these mission trips?

A: I was. I wasn’t “in-your-face, read-the-bible” religious, but I did used to believe in God. And ironic as it sounds, going to Africa made me not believe in God anymore. You see all of these people who are just subject to poverty and they pray to God and nothing happens. These are the most strictly religious people in the world, and they think God is going to intervene and save them. But, you see people getting shot right in front of you. There can’t be any divine intervention. But that’s just my personal opinion. But when I went there the last two times, it wasn’t because of some religious drive. I just got to know the people really well.

 

G: What even made you question your faith?

A: Two really specific situations. The first time we went there, we went to the shopping mall in Nairobi, which is a huge metropolis area. Anyway, two weeks after we got back to America, that same shopping mall got shot up and like 300 people were killed.

 

G: By who?

A: Just by Kenyan militant groups. Kenya has only had it’s independence for like 50 years, and their government is super unstable, so you have all of these outlying groups who are competing for political control. They do these mass shootings to garner attention like any terrorist group would. There’s no divine power intervening on that one. There’s no reason those people died. There’s no reason to explain that. And the second situation was driving past the largest slum in Kenya, which is the largest slum in Africa, and we literally saw children kneeling on the ground, and they were shot in the head with machine guns. The bus driver was just like “Not look, we keep go.” They were completely innocent civilians and were just killed.

 

G: So what was the main takeaway from these mission trips besides losing a sense of faith?

A: I wouldn’t say that’s even the main takeaway. I would say it just opened my eyes to a different way of life because that’s the farthest I’ve ever traveled. The biggest thing I took from going to Africa was definitely helping the children, getting to know them and learning a little bit of Swahili, walking them to class everyday. It’s the little, simple things that really make their life. You’re only there for like two weeks doing your white intervention, social justice thing. I’m not pretending I made a huge, lasting impact on their lives, but walking them to school, going to classes, giving them supplies. It’s rewarding.

 

G: What measure do you think would be most effective at combating poverty and violent situations in foreign countries?

A: They would have to have a serious, sweeping, democratic reform, starting at the very highest level. You see a lot of infrastructure issues, and that’s coming from a very corrupt government. So, until that gets fixed, I don’t think there’s a lot of hope for a lot of Kenyans, and that sounds really pessimistic, but that’s just the truth of the matter.

 

G: Would you ever do another mission trip somewhere else?

A: I would, but I don’t think I would like to do it under a religious environment. Let’s not try to go over there and spread some sort of Western Christianity, but let’s give the people what they actually need, which are resources. Not religion. That’s what’s going to save them at the end of the day.

Essay: Jawbone — a story from under to over

BY GARRETT DAVIS, JMC3023

When I was a sophomore in college, an oral surgeon made four incisions behind each of my bottom and top molars, ripped both upper and lower jaws from my head, repositioned them and painfully screwed the two sets back into my skull.

And I asked him to do it.

I had lived with a 1 ½ inch underbite for 10 years. However, in a matter of merely four hours, I would have closure on a decade’s worth of using miniscule brushes to excavate food out of my braces, dodging rubber bands which, while connected to each bracket, would catapult out of my mouth if I smiled too big, and much more.

Regardless, minutes before the operation, the only thing I could focus on while laying in my warm, comforting hospital bed purposefully equipped with a half dozen blankets for consolation was the small faucet in the prepping room intended for hand washing. It beckoned me to leave my hospital bed and run my mouth under it. Drip-drip-drip it sang, taunting me more with every single dribble.

But I couldn’t. And I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in nearly 12 hours as I waited for surgeons to reconstruct my face. If the anesthesia made me sick for some reason after the surgery, I could possibly start to vomit, which would destroy what my oral surgeon would do in the next half hour.

So, water was out of the question. All I could do was stare at the sink.

And then stare as a nurse came into my small prepping area at Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City and slowly shoved a needle the length of an adult index finger into my left hand.

And then stare at my parents, both teary-eyed, as the nurse wheeled me into the operating room.

And then stare at the crowd of medical practitioners, completely disguised in blue scrubs and latex, as they cheered my name when I finally arrived before them.

I thought back to the third grade right before they put me under, when I first heard the term braces. At the time, I never thought my physical appearance and personality would travel  such a dramatic, transformative 10-year arc. Back in my orthodontist’s waiting room in 2004, all I thought about was how “cool” it was to be the first kid in the third grade to get some colorful, showy hardware.

“You have an underbite,” assessed Dr. David Birdwell after fitting together plaster molds of my top and bottom teeth he had taken from my last appointment. I was 9 and, surprisingly, incredibly enthusiastic to choose what color bands the doc was about to painfully stretch over each bracket.

Upon my return to class, my classmates were enamored by my now vibrant teeth. Colored brackets started popping up on everyone’s smiles during the next two years of elementary school. Although wiring would stab my lips and gums causing sores from time to time and I had been told to wear “headgear” every night—a contraption resembling a catcher’s mask, only hollowed and fit with rubber bands attached to my top jaw—I loved the temporary attention. By the sixth grade, my orthodontist took off my braces, and my teeth were fairly straight.

What I didn’t know was that braces wouldn’t fix my underbite. They had aggressively lined my pearly whites into an orderly formation a drill sergeant would have been proud of, but I wasn’t done growing by a longshot. My facial composition began resembling a person sucking on tobacco dip. A lisp started to slowly creep into my daily speech. Eating certain foods became such a challenge that by my senior year of high school, I couldn’t take a bite of pizza and was forced to eat many things with a fork and knife. During a visit to my orthodontist in my senior year, he advised me that surgery would be the only way to completely correct my underbite. What he failed to tell me was that my underbite would be one of the biggest corrections he had ever been confronted with.

Going into college, I believed appearances were extremely significant. Looking back on it, if a semi-dorky freshman with a weird looking smile (check), a lisp (check) and braces (check) walked into a fraternity house during rush or walked up to a girl, he would immediately strike out.

So I was a little apprehensive. My orthodontist and I made a deal throughout my freshman year, however: I would only have to wear bottom braces during my first year of college. Yes, I was and still am a little vain. But what adolescent guy isn’t?

The surgery went better than expected. My surgeon casually greeted me as soon as I woke up and assured me recovery would be easy. Although I was a little pessimistic about the healing process when blood seeped out of both my mouth and nose like a bath faucet as I sat up for the first time hours after, I made myself think positively. If I sulked around and complained about my situation, I was only hurting myself. The next day, I demanded to take a stroll around the hospital. I clutched onto my rolling IV like an old man holds a walker. Wide-eyed nurses and recovering patients were greeted with a muffled “What’s up” and a high-five as I strolled down the hallway, desperate to recuperate.

In the coming weeks, I would start to undergo various physical changes. The swelling in my cheeks (which resembled a mobster’s from “The Sopranos”) would go down significantly. I would lose 20 pounds in about two months due to my inability to eat solid food. My mouth would open only enough to fit a pill of Advil between my bottom jaw and the splint the doctors had installed to allow proper healing. For the first two weeks, the only path to a meal was through a plastic, hospital-grade syringe. The lowest point was when I drank pizza by blending two pieces in a blender.  It tasted as bad as you can imagine, but the grueling hunger that clawed at my stomach day and night was enough incentive.

Looking back on it, the process doesn’t seem that bad. My chin is still slightly numb, a characteristic the surgeon says is permanent. But, my facial design is much better than it was. I can enunciate every spoken word, and I can even eat pizza, which is obviously the best part.

But most situations, whether bad or good, are temporary. Optimism acts as a hefty tool as it can alter any situation for the better. Having my face completely reconfigured led me to one definitive conclusion: If that was the worst thing I ever had to go through, I can get through about any daunting task or situation.

Sitting on my couch while high on Vicodin days after the procedure, transcribing my barely-understandable thoughts to whoever visited me, I kept feeling this nagging sense of clarity. Even though I had just undergone a painfully transformative process, I was extremely happy and almost in a euphoric state. Because, for once in my life, I was looking forward and not back. I couldn’t wait to get off that couch, let the orthodontist rip the second round of braces out of my mouth and genuinely smile for once in my life.

Now, I smile all of the time.