My name is Amanda Whitten. I’m from a small-to-medium town found in northeastern Oklahoma in the USA. I currently live in Madrid, Spain. I don’t meet many people from Oklahoma, or even from the midwest, around here, and I couldn’t tell you why that is. Maybe it’s resources that many Oklahomans lack, or maybe it’s a matter of mindset, but I don’t think that many of us feel like we will ever get to leave unless it’s via the military. Some of us don’t even have the desire to ever do so. Sometimes, I wish I felt that way. Being far from family and friends is not easy, and the part of Oklahoma that my family and I call home is gorgeous.
I think what allows me to be an exception is that I have a little thing called a Travel Bug (having an emotionally supportive family and a safety net helps, too, of course). It’s a condition that I believe I caught from my paternal grandfather. His name was Jack Whitten. My papa was an exceptional man. I recognize that I say this looking through the lens of familial love and adoration. I really think it’s the truth, though.
Jack Whitten Origins
When he was young, before he met my grandmother, he had an experience that left an impression on him. He upped and left with his family to Oregon to become a logger for the summer. His family left early to go back to Oklahoma, but he stayed on the condition that he would come back when school started. When his dad, my Grandpapa, wrote him a letter telling him come home and finish school, he totally ignored it. Being a young teen, he became accustomed to making money and having freedom. It took a second letter that probably included some strong language and a few threats to get him to return home. He might have hitchhiked all the way back. I’m not sure. The specifics may be fuzzy, but his stories live on inside of me.
His dream was that when he retired, he and my grandmother would take their camper and travel through Canada and Alaska, stopping to fish here and there. It didn’t happen for various reasons. He wanted to go out in style. He wanted to die fighting a grizzly bear. My grandfather died in a nursing home.
He called me “kid” and “squirt”. He had a very specific dry sense of humor that coincided with mine very well. It was strange, though. I rarely understand other people’s dry senses of humor, but I got his perfectly. He was the wisest person I’ve ever known. He pulled himself and my grandmother out of terrible poverty, and together, they made a comfortable life for themselves. Papa told me that in one of the first places he and Mama lived, the lack of heating and insulation was so terrible that during the winter, a diaper actually froze to the floor. He was smart financially and had a knack for making the right investments at the right time.
Who He Was
Jack Whitten was honest. When I asked difficult questions, he didn’t shy away from the truth. I asked him about segregation. He told me that at the time he thought it was the natural order of things and that he didn’t want change. I asked him what he had thought about Martin Luther King. He told me that at the time he had thought he was making trouble. My Papa wasn’t a perfect man. In fact, sometimes, he could be downright difficult. He couldn’t be swayed, let alone manipulated. He was a man’s man which came with most of the wonderful pros and cons thereof.
Despite all that, during a time when the majority of people, specifically older people, conservatives and even a lot of progressives, were actively against gay rights, he wasn’t. When I asked him what he thought about gay rights, he said that he didn’t care what people did and that it was their business. I can’t say that he was an ally, but he wasn’t an enemy. Not like the others. He had no poison or vitriol. He was open-minded about the universe and the possibilities concerning religion. I asked him once if he thought that it was possible that humans could have “extra” abilities like clairvoyance. He told me about the time that he had shot his bow and lost an arrow. He had no idea where it went so he closed his eyes and just followed his instinct, and walked right up to his lost arrow.
His Quest for Gathering and Sharing Knowledge
When I had questions, he had advice. He knew the real history and was always wanting to learn. He told me what the Great Depression was like since his dad lived through it. Papa grew up during its after-effects. I remember a story he told about a young boy who stole a handful of flour. I asked if he the child got into trouble for it and thankfully he hadn’t because everyone knew his family was starving.
When the internet became available, most older folks shied away from computer technology. Papa dived in. He learned all he could. He saw it for what it was: a miracle and a gold mine. Later, when he got Netflix at home and saw all the available documentaries, I’m told that his eyes lit up. I didn’t feel surprised in the least.
In the summer before my 10th grade, he and Mama took my cousin and me with them on vacation for two weeks. We went to Maine and a few surrounding states. That trip gave me a big taste of travel. I was surprised to see that the countryside in Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee, and the Virginias was so beautiful.
The first thing that I remember when I stepped out of the camper in Maine was the smell of pine trees. We got to see Niagara Falls and ride in the Maiden of the Mist boat. We stopped on the way and spent the night in a park in Salisbury, Massachusetts. I made a point of remembering the name because I liked the place so much. The sound of the wind and the smell of the sea at night made an impact on young-me for sure.
Shaping Who I Became
My grandmother and I got up at 5:00 AM many times to look for seashells when the tide went out at a few of the beaches we visited. One time, my Mama, my cousin and I tried to catch the little crabs, but they kept pinching us so we tossed them back and forth between us, trying to catch them in the folds of our clothes. I feel a little bad for them now, but I also remember our peals of laughter and shrieks of joy.
There was no real plan. Papa just drove and where we ended up is where we ended up. It was one of the best times of my life. During this trip, I feel Papa made a definitive impact on my personality. When Mama asked me to cut a cantaloupe, I must have been feeling a little lazy, selfish, or even afraid of using a large knife. I told them that I’d do it when I was twenty. I don’t know what kind of logic that was. Papa said, “If you won’t do it now, you won’t do it when you’re twenty.” I felt unbelievably embarrassed and, of course, I cut it up for everyone. He didn’t slap me or get angry. He just used his logic and words to make an impact.
Dealing With the Loss of Jack Whitten
Papa died about three months after I arrived in Spain. After that, I imagined him with me in spirit. I wondered if he would get to experience my travels through me. I think he would have made the perfect traveling companion. There is a part of me, perhaps a selfish, egocentric part, that believes that he died because I left. I don’t mean that my leaving had an overwhelmingly negative effect on him. Quite the opposite.
I told him something that we aren’t supposed to tell people. I told him that I wasn’t ready for him to die — that I needed him in my life. This was when his cancer was starting to get a little more serious. There’s this part of me that believes that he let go because he knew that I was finally going to accomplish my dreams and carry on for him in a way. It’s more likely that the timing was a coincidence. He was a survivor until the end, and he fought tooth and nail for every scrap of life that he had. There were times at my lowest that I wished that I could have gifted him the remaining years of my life. He wanted to live so badly.
Jack Whitten Lives On
His love of travel and adventure lives on through me and many others in the family. Also inside of me is a quality that I’m not quite sure how to name. I have, in my opinion, the ability to see any avenue, no matter how minuscule, that may lead to any given goal of mine. I have the urge and wherewithal to follow it, full steam ahead (with the exception of giving up chocolate and cheese. Luckily, I got that from him, too. Thanks, Papa! Haha!). And one time, he told me that what he liked about me was my curiosity and my desire to learn about history, for example. I definitely think that we shared that trait.
Jack Whitten left his intelligence and knack for survival instincts to my uncle. My sister joined the Navy when she was seventeen. I think he gave her boldness and inner strength that I may never quite possess. He left his talent for good advice and honesty in my father. I see him everywhere I go. When I see tobacco pipes in the Madrid shops, I remember the smell and I feel a twinge of regret for not having bought him one when I had the chance.
When the sun rises and I feel the cool morning air, I think of when I was a little girl. After staying the night at my grandparents’ house, I would get up to sit in his lap and we would watch the sunrise together. When someone tells a dry joke that I don’t get, I can’t help but think that he was funnier and would have delivered it better. When I’m traveling to a new place, I know that even though it may not have been his preferred destination, I still think he would approve. Jack Whitten wasn’t a perfect person, but he was a perfect grandfather.