This Brooklyn Boy has always had a strong affinity for Oklahoma – the Broadway musical, the college football team and the Okie cowboy in the movie Mighty Joe Young. As a wee tot, I would rise at dawn to watch the Oklahoma televangelist Oral Roberts sweat, shout and heal hillbilly hernias – “In the name of Jesus, HEAL!” My soft spot for all things Okie may have a genetic component. My great Uncle Ugo had fallen in love with the promise of Oklahoma and moved there in the 1920s. How’s this for a coincidence – I discovered that Ben Johnson who played the Okie cowboy in Mighty Joe Young was from the town where Uncle Ugo settled – Pawhuska. In family photos, there is tiny Ugo, right out of Dago Central Casting, standing on Main Street amongst the Oklahoma cowboys and Osage Indians. And, he is smiling. He is home.
I’d been ridiculed for my Brooklyn accent at a summer camp in nearby New Jersey. What must those cowboys and Indians have made of a greaseball barber & fiddle-maker from far-off Brooklyn? But, maybe his fiddle making bought Ugo acceptance and, I hope, friendship. Yup, Uncle Ugo made violins for country musicians. Then he caught some disease that my mother was sure was syphilis but wasn’t. My man-hating mother was convinced that any and every male illness was due to illicit and even licit sexual intercourse and the only solution was prolonged, painful punishment for said intercourse. She actually liked Ugo but even he could not escape her censure. Poor Ugo returned to Brooklyn to die. I like to think that his fiddles are still being played and that I’ve heard them. Maybe one of his instruments was used by my favorite Western Swing band – Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. It’s possible because despite their name they were based in Oklahoma.