Several teenagers in my hometown struggled with alcohol when I was growing up, but I only knew one: Fielden Poolaw, a classmate of mine at Anadarko High School.
Fielden was a Kiowa with a copper complexion and elongated earlobes that looked like someone had stretched them. He wore his hair short and went around in a rumpled, grey trench coat, which he rarely took off. The trench coat gave him a vaguely sinister appearance, which is probably the look Fielden was going for.
About one out of five kids at my high school were Natives, but the white kids and the Indian kids lived on different planets. Fielden, however, had a couple of things going for him that bridged the gap between the white world and his Kiowa world.
For one thing, Fielden had an evening job taking tickets and popping popcorn at the Redskin Theater. Fielden sometimes let a few of his friends slip into the theater without paying, and he occasionally gave out free bags of fresh, hot popcorn—heavily seasoned with orange popcorn salt.
And Fielden had another thing going for him. He was the leader of a gang of Indian kids who hung out at the Redskin. These Indian boys--probably popcorn addicts--swore an unspoken oath of fealty to Fielden. He could dispatch them on a moment’s notice to rescue any friend who was getting harassed or bullied—and there was a lot of harassment and bullying going on in Anadarko when I was young.
So Fielden was a handy guy to know. But he only dispensed his favors (protection and free popcorn) to his friends. So how did someone become Fielden’s friend? By providing him with something he desperately needed—transportation.
Fielden was too poor to own a vehicle, and he depended on white kids to drive him around in their parents’ cars on the weekends. I was one of Fielden’s chauffeurs, and I often drove him around the drag—the endless loop between the Tastee Freeze Drive-in on the east side of town and the Powwow Drive-in on the west side.
As I said, Fielden drank way too much. He was generally stewed when I drove him around on the weekends. I don’t think he ever carried a gun, but he pulled a claw hammer out of his trench coat once, telling me cryptically that he was expecting trouble.
I liked Fielden, and I wasn’t afraid of him. When I was with him, I felt like I was on the precipice of a great adventure; and in fact, Fielden and I experienced an adventure together—at least a minor adventure.
One Friday night I was driving Fielden around in my father’s 1950 Chevrolet pickup—a death trap that constantly leaked brake fluid. The truck had once been black but had turned an orange-gray color. The undercarriage was so rusted that there was a hole in the floor, and I could actually see the road beneath me when I drove. It had a faulty alternator that I had to pound with a pair of pliers to get the engine to crank. Oh yeah, it was a dreamboat—a real chick magnet!
On this particular night, Fielden collared me to drive him to the teen hop at the Caddo County Fairgrounds. This was an easy assignment because I was going to the teen hop anyway—the King's Men were playing.
But Fielden had a stop to make before the teen hop. By a series of grunts, he guided me down an alley behind Broadway Street and told me to stop at the back door of the town’s most notorious bar—the Merchants Club!
Yes, the Merchants Club—the seediest of Anadarko’s seedy bars. The Merchants Club—a bar with an attitude-- which kept its double front doors flung wide open so that all of Protestant Anadarko could peer into its dark and smoky maw in the hope of seeing a neighbor sucking down a Coors, a Jax, or a Stag, accompanied—we hoped--by a woman other than his wife.
But, of course, our neighbors didn’t hang out in the Merchants Club. It was a bar for Indian men, and a middle-class white guy would be nuts to go inside.
Perfect place for Fielden, however. And I knew when we drove up to the Merchants Club’s back door where he had been getting his booze. Fielden mumbled a stern order to wait and then slid silently into the back door of Hell itself.
I waited and I waited. And then, through the pickup’s rear window, I saw an Anadarko cop walking down the alley, checking for unlocked doors. He was carrying one of those long, heavy flashlights that double as a nightstick. Uh oh!
The officer tapped the window glass with his flashlight. “What are you doing here, kid?”
I was terrified. What in the hell did he think I was doing behind the Merchant Club? Buying booze? Cocaine? Soliciting a prostitute? Planning a burglary?
My mind reeled with the shock of adrenalin, and for once in my otherwise dull-witted life, I did some fast thinking.
“Officer,” I said, “my truck won’t start.”
Then I explained how beating on the alternator would sometimes get the engine to turn over. The cop said he had seen that problem before and offered to help. I raised the hood on the most dangerous and ugly truck in America and started beating on the alternator with a crescent wrench, while the cop shined his light into the engine compartment.
Then I quickly scrambled back in the truck, turned the key, and the engine cranked right up. “Thanks for your help, officer!”
And in fact, he had been helpful, and I felt bad about deceiving him.
But where was Fielden? To hell with Fielden, I thought. I’m getting out of here.
And then, with almost perfect timing, Fielden came out of the backdoor of the Merchants Club with two quarts of Coors Banquet Beer, bottle tops peeking coyly out of brown paper bags. My heart stopped beating
If Fielden was surprised to see the cop, he didn’t show it, and the cop didn’t seem surprised either. The cop didn’t say anything. Fielden didn’t say anything. And I didn’t say anything. Fielden climbed in the truck, and off we went.
About five minutes later, Fielden and I were at the teen hop. I parked the truck, and we bought our admission tickets—a buck apiece. I had had enough excitement for the night, and I began drifting away from Fielden, hoping to lose myself in a crowd of dancing Oklahomans.
But Fielden followed me—lurching across the dance floor with a quart bottle of Coors squeezed under each armpit and concealed beneath his trench coat.
Then, when he was only about two feet from me, an enthusiastic girl doing the Twist—I think she was from Fort Cobb—bumped him.
Fielden’s arms flew up and two quarts of Coors crashed on the concrete floor. Flying glass went everywhere. The bottom of Fielden’s trench coat was drenched in beer.
Fielden had been trying to tell me something just before the beer bottles broke. What was it he wanted to say? I’ll never know because a squad of Rotarians, the teen hop’s zealous chaperones, hustled him out into the darkness.
A few months after that memorable evening, I went away to Oklahoma State University, where I wasted four more years of my life. Fielden stayed in Anadarko and slipped deeper and deeper into alcohol. He died in Florida at the age of 33. I think he was in rehab at the time.
I learned that Fielden was buried in the cemetery next to the Redstone Church, situated below a bluff that overlooks the Washita river.
Did Fielden die a Christian? I do not know, and I do not care. And, at this stage of my life, I feel sure God doesn’t care either.
But what the hell do I know? Fielden and I spent hundreds of hours driving around Anadarko together, and I don’t think I ever asked him a single question.
Nevertheless, if there is a heaven, I’m sure Fielden will be there. After all, paradise would not be paradise without fresh, hot popcorn, seasoned with orange popcorn salt. And nobody popped popcorn better than Fielden.