SEILING — The bread truck came roaring down the narrow street. Leslie England was at the helm.
He whipped the swaying wagon into the driveway of a rent house near the Methodist church. The stocky, 5-foot-8 man bolted through the door and proclaimed, "We've got to go to Earl's Hardware, there's something you've got to see!”
Leslie gathered his wife, daughter and one of his sons into the cab of the truck. The bread salesman and his brood arrived at the hardware store about 7 p.m.
The son, 12 at the time, remembers, "We walked in there, and there were all these boxes and, of course, if you looked at the screen it looked like a snowstorm.”
The boy was Gary England, long-time chief meteorologist at KWTV News 9. That evening marked his first look at a television.
England recently returned to his hometown of Seiling as part of The Oklahoman's "Going Home” series. In Seiling, U.S. Highway 281 splits the east and west awning-covered sidewalks of downtown. But neither it, nor the 18-wheel trucks or motorcycles or pickups on the road could block the memories England pulled out of those store fronts.
He stood outside the now-closed business bearing the name "England Grocery & Market.” He spoke not only of television and weather, but of community and family. As he went home, home came back to him.A Brownie Hawkeye
"Right over there was and still is Bivens Drug,” he said.
The drugstore was a hub of activity. The boards gently creak as customers walk the floor but they only add a bit of background music to the memories. England and buddies would rush in after the Seiling Wildcats' football practice because Bivens had a soda fountain. The owner would allow them to read the old magazines as well as the comic books. But England's best story about Bivens centered on a Brownie Hawkeye camera he eyed one day in a case.
The 14-year-old listened to his heart as opposed to his head, buying the $16 camera and charging it to his father's name. He quickly loaded it with film and took some pictures, knowing the store wouldn't take it back after it had been used."I took pictures of my pigs and clouds,” he said. "It might have taken dad a week to figure out what I'd done. And I never charged anything after that without permission.”
Even though his dad was "upset” — slight understatement — about the purchase, the camera was a link to England's future. On May 25, 1955, a tornado struck near Camargo about 30 miles from Seiling. The National Weather Service Forecast Office listed no deaths.
"One day after Dad was finished with his bread route he drove me around and let me take pictures of the tornado damage,” England said. Although some may not remember that particular tornado, there were others in Oklahoma and Kansas that day, including a tornado that killed 19 people in Blackwell in north central Oklahoma and one person to the northeast of Blackwell, according to the National Weather Service Forecast Office.
Also on that same day, another tornado formed north of Peckham in Oklahoma and then moved into southern Kansas, eventually killing 80 people. His grandmother, Stella Stong, owned a television , and on Sunday afternoons he would go over and watch an Oklahoma City television meteorologist named Harry Volkman. "Harry would talk for 15 minutes about the jet stream and his family,” he said. "He made it so fascinating, and it was back then I decided I wanted to do what I've done most of my life and a lot of that was due to Harry Volkman.
"Storms frightened me, but I loved it.” And so he pointed down the east side stretch of sidewalk to what was the location of the Tower Theater. Storms would build on a Spring night while England and buddies were inside watching a movie. "Mrs. Cates would walk down to the front of the theater and announce something along the lines of ‘A tornado has just been spotted near Taloga moving directly toward Seiling,'” England said of Rhoda Cates, who ran the movie house.
"The theater was always full in those days, and I can remember people just pouring out of the place." And if you had a car you ran and jumped in the car and everybody roared home and everyone would get in the cellar, and we would wait for the tornado that never came. It was the ultimate in crying wolf, but it was exciting.
”Tornado? No. Straight winds? Yes. One time while living on a farm, England and his father were cleaning the concrete floor inside the building where they kept chickens.
"The straight winds hit, and it ripped the tin roof off,” he said. "There was a lot of noise and feathered bullets going everywhere.”
Not all his memories are linked to weather. Some lean more toward entertainment. Gary England Boulevard stops just across from what was Pop's Pool Hall. The town's teens were not supposed to be in there, so that's probably why they were — that and the desire to play snooker. But sometimes doing what they weren't supposed to do grew old, so other forms of entertainment were needed.
"On summer nights there were all kinds of kids around and those 18-wheelers were rolling through all the time,” he said. "At times we'd get 10 kids on one side and 10 on the other and we'd do this routine like we were holding something.” They wanted the truck driver to think they had a rope or something stretched across the street. "They'd see that and they'd slam on their brakes,” he said. "And after they'd realized what we'd done they'd blow those darn diesel horns.”Homes, plural
The term "Going Home” became a little humorous as England returned to Seiling. It's true that with the exception of living a few years in Enid, Seiling is where the Englands raised their four children. Those children are Richard England, who now lives in Denver; Darla Chain, who along with husband Ralph Chain lives on their ranch west of Canton; Gary, who lives in Oklahoma City and Phil England who lives in Seiling.
Their father, Leslie, died about 40 years ago, but mother Hazel is still alive. The humorous twist was the word "home.”
"My sister said that by the time she was 18 we had lived in 17 houses,” said Gary, who is four years younger than his sister. "Dad was always looking, and if he found a house that was $1 less a week, we boxed things up and moved." Every one knew the England family because that was us walking down the street with our furniture.”
The place they landed the longest was the Clyde Cogswell's farm close to the tri-county border of Dewey, Major and Woodward counties. "We were there to keep the weeds down and mend fences,” he said. "But every harvest we'd move back into town for four weeks and the harvest crew would come in.”
When asked what his parents did for a living, England said, "Anything they could.” Leslie worked at a creamery, drove a truck delivering ice, drove a shuttle bus route in Enid giving rides to pilots from the air base to town, drove the bread truck, ran a gas station and also worked at an auto parts store before going in with someone else on a grocery store and then eventually operating England Grocery & Market.
Although not tall, he was strong and usually wore a uniform — whether it was when he was driving the bus or working for the bread company. And he was talkative.
"My goal was to get the bread route done on Saturday and be out of there by 2 o'clock so I could go meet the kids at the matinee,” Gary England said. "But he talked to everyone, everyone.
"He was a good guy, but he worked my butt off. But it was fun, too. I'd go around and get in the back of the truck and I'd eat some of the cherry filled donuts, but I had to eat either six or a dozen or he would know.”
But England said he was loyal to his dad. England explained there were competing bread companies for the grocery store and cafe business in Seiling. Those driving the trucks would park on the main street in town and then get in the back to sort the bread. Working for the competition was a man named Oliver Sample.
"I caught Oliver Sample, who I later found out was a good guy, in the back of his truck and I locked him in there,” Gary England said. "I ran into him years later, and I won't say exactly what he said but he was rather unhappy with me.”
England's mother worked hard as well. She came from a big family and had helped raise some brothers and sisters before she had her own family. She is a woman who could mix sternness and compassion — in layman's terms that means she could threaten with a flyswatter but also make a child feel good.
"She always made you feel like the special one,” he said. "Plus she worked at the grocery store and was a great employee, always dressed nice and she always worked hard.”
He also remembers the night Seiling was playing Buffalo in football and he tried to make a one-arm tackle. England's arm gave and he went down."I'm on the ground and I look over and this little woman is scaling an 8-foot fence to get to me,” he said.
"That's what she would do.”Family and community
In a town like Seiling, "family” and "community” can become as tangled as strands of Christmas lights thrown in a box. The reason was simple: The people were often together. On a certain night of the week, England said he and some other boys would go to the Boy Scouts meeting and then go the Blue Moon Cafe to watch the fights on television. And then there were Saturdays when people would come to town to shop.
"On a Saturday you saw everyone you knew,” he said. "Right around the corner over there they had a drawing Saturday afternoons at 4 p.m. And literally, hundreds and hundreds of people would come to that drawing.”
A person would put their number in and if that number was chosen they might win $100 or $400. On Saturdays people were in town to shop for groceries, get their hair cut, pick up feed from the feed store or maybe they just wanted to stop by the variety store, which had buttons over here and lamp stands over there.
England went on to be a pioneer meteorologist living in the largest metro area in the state. But the importance of the rural communities never dropped off his radar, he said. "All the little towns in Oklahoma basically had everything you needed whether you wanted a watermelon or a tractor,” he said. "The entertainment was here, the food was here and the necessities for farming and ranching were here.”
And don't forget they had televisions — including those watched in a hardware store by a boy who had never seen one but would one day make his living through it.