Holy City of the Wichitas
Selected by William T. Vollmann for Best American Travel Writing 2012
An omphalos is an ancient religious stone, hollow and often beehive-shaped, its surface intricately carved. The most famous one was discovered at the temple of the oracle at Delphi in Greece, but similar objects have been found in Rome, Iraq, Egypt. According to the Greeks, Zeus sent two eagles across the earth to meet at the center of the world, and there the Greeks erected a stone, perhaps the world’s first omphalos, which they believed allowed them direct communication with the gods. The word means “navel.”
In the Middle Ages, they called Jerusalem the omphalos. To signify this designation, medieval cartographers placed the Holy Land at the center of their maps of the world, where all the continents and rivers and seas met. These mappae mundi, while often adorned with precise geographic details, were attempts to represent an idea of God’s orderly creation more than they were depictions of the world as it actually existed. At the center of their picture of the idealized world—and the center of spiritual existence—was the place of the birth and death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The United States also has a navel. It’s called Oklahoma, located, one might be tempted to say, at the buckle of the Bible Belt. But what I didn’t know, until I lived in Oklahoma the first two years of my married life, is that America has a holy city as well. Ours is the Holy City of the Wichitas, a rusty red granite replica of ancient Jerusalem. It rises from the scrub-covered foothills of the Wichita Mountains, which are named, according to Native tradition, for the tribe whose ancestors were born from the rugged rocks.
In the Wichita story of the first creation, Kinnekasus, “Man Never Known on Earth,” created all things. In the beginning, land hovered upon the water, and darkness was everywhere. Kinnekasus made a man and a woman, and afterward they dreamed of things, and when they woke, they had those things of which they had dreamed. The woman was given an ear of corn, and in her heart she knew that it was to be her food. But they were still in darkness. Then the man dreamed he should travel east and so he did, and in the East he found another man and together they made a bow and an arrow, which they used to shoot and wound a deer. A voice told them that they had done well, and now the darkenss could move on, and time began. Later, the man and the woman themselves became the light. Woman the moon. Man, the morning star. The man they had met in the East became Kinnihequidikidahis, “Star That Is Always Moving,” and set off to follow the wounded deer and all the others of the herd, a chase that would last until the end of days.
When we married, my husband, Terry, was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. We were stationed at Fort Sill, near the base of these same mountains in southwestern Oklahoma, just north of the Red River and Texas. From time to time, his unit would practice artillery warfare out in the desolate hills. They’d be gone for a week, no showers, eating pre-packaged Meals-Ready-to-Eat, sleeping in their cramped humvees when they could. Terry would come back with red dust ground into the lines of his palms, into the creases of his neck.
One restless February, years after we had left Oklahoma and the army for Houston and civilian life, Terry and I returned to Fort Sill for the weekend with our daughters. We didn’t have enough money to go anywhere more exotic or enough vacation time to travel anywhere farther away. So we packed up our station wagon and drove north out of the Piney Woods of east Texas across the flat bottoms of the Red River. Gray skies, bitter winter. Cows in the fields bearing the brunt of the cold wind, unbroken by any tree. Barbed wire fences anchored by cedar posts stretching off into the endless distance. Telephone poles like barren crucifixes lining our way.
We stayed in Medicine Park in a small stone cabin overlooking Medicine Creek, believed by the Wichitas as well as the other Plains Indians who came later—Kiowa, Comanche, Apache—to have healing powers. Not far from our cabin was Medicine Bluff loomed over the stream. This sheer precipice of rock is cleft from top to bottom by a jagged tear. In his 1875 account, The Life and Adventures of a Quaker Among the Indians, Thomas C. Battey, a schoolteacher stationed at the Wichita Agency in present-day Anadarko, Oklahoma, recorded “the old Indian legend of Medicine Bluffs.” Man years before, a group of Comanche traveling by horseback had arrived at the edge of the precipice and been forced to halt, unsure of how to proceed. But their medicine man, “uttering some words of Indian magic,” rode his horse over the cliff and was borne across the creek to the opposite bank. He turned back toward his companions, but they were too frightened to follow, and too arrogant to go around. “To relieve them from their unpleasant position,” Battey’s chronicle notes, the medicine man “crossed the creek, and rode directly up to the perpendicular wall of rock, which rent at his approach, dividing the bluff into two parts by forming a chasm through the cliff several feet in width, through and up which he rode, rejoining his companions at the top, who then followed him down through the pass thus made, now known as Medicine-man’s Pass.”
According to Edward Charles Ellenbrook—lifelong resident of nearby Lawton, Oklahoma, adventurer, hiker, amateur historian, and author of Outdoor and Trail Guide to the Wichita Mountains of Southwest Oklahoma—native medicine men of various Plains tribes once climbed that escarpment for vigils. War parties came to the bluffs to fast and meditate before raids. Sometimes the sick or afflicted were carried to the top and laid within a circle of stones to be healed. How the sacred becomes the profane: we used to picnic beneath it.
Our cabin had a sleeping loft and at night the girls giggled and whispered up there after we turned off the lamps. I lay with Terry on the foldout couch downstairs and thought of the Wichitas’story of the first man and woman, dreaming things into being which they would need. The moonlight illuminated the painting on the wall above our bed—a landscape in gaudy oils with buffalo on the horizon and, against a setting sun, a quotation from Genesis: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”
Jerusalem has long been two cities, one literal, and one metaphorical. It was the City of David, conquered by that poet-king, who brought the Ark of the Covenant there, and whose son, Solomon, built a temple for it. When that temple was destroyed by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 BCE and the Israelites were exiled, Jerusalem became a symbol of all that had been lost. It was the homeland to which the Jews longed one day to return. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy,” laments Psalm 137, dating from the time of Babylonian captivity.
When the Jews finally did return to Jerusalem, seventy years later, they rebuilt their temple on the same site where it had formerly stood. The site of this temple, now known as the Temple Mount, encompasses some of the most contested real estate in the world today: the Western Wall, sole architectural remnant of the Second Jewish Temple; the Dome of the Rock, from which, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad ascended to heaven, accompanied by the angel Gabriel; and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher—the tomb in the middle of the city in the middle of the world. That omphalos: the center of the center of the center.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher had been only recently erected under the orders of Emperor Constantine when, in 333 CE, an anonymous pilgrim made his way from Bordeaux to Jerusalem and wrote the earliest extant record of a Holy City pilgrimage. Like the sites he traveled so far to see, this brief Itinerarium itself became a precious relic worth preserving, a record of the beginnings of the great age of faith. Copied out by monks, three manuscripts remain, one each from the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. Much later, the manuscript was translated into English by Aubrey Stewart, Esq., for the Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society in Victorian England. In his Itinerarium, the unknown author merely notes the towns and cities he passes through, the distances in leagues between them on his overland route across what was then the vast Roman Empire. In Jerusalem, he does little more than list the sacred sites he visited: the house of the high priest Caiaphas with its scourging column “against which Christ was beaten with rods”; the Mount of Olives where Jesus taught the disciples and where he prayed; a vault in which Lazarus, raised by the Lord, was laid. Over the centuries, more sites and their associated relics would emerge, miraculously, it seems. By the Middle Ages, Christian pilgrims to Judea could visit countless places associated with Jesus’ birth and life and death and Resurrection: the field where the shepherds kept watch over their flocks; the manger, encased in white marble; the house of Simon the Leper and of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha; the muddy waters of the Jordan; the place near Mount Zion where Jesus broke bread during the Last Supper; the Rock of Calvary; the Stone of Unction; the empty Tomb. Pilgrims appeared to have required “some visible and tangible evidence of our Lord’s Passion to confirm their faith,” writes Stewart, without irony. “These aids to faith were provided in gradually increasing numbers.”
Because this was February and because there was snow on the ground and because my daughters did not share my fascination for replicas of ancient sacred shrines in the middle of what most people might agree is nowhere, my husband stayed with them and built snowmen and drank hot cocoa, while I headed over to the nearby Holy City of the Wichitas. The Holy City sits on land in the fifty-nine-thousand-acre Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, which was itself set aside from the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Indian Reservation and declared a national forest on July 4, 1901. The refuge shelters American bison, Rocky Mountain elk, Texas longhorn cattle, and white-tailed deer, and a remnant of native prairie that escaped the plows of pioneers because the ground beneath was too full of stones. Fort Sill was originally a frontier fort, established to protect the settlements of those same pioneers from Native tribes in the border states of Kansas and Texas. It was here, in June of 1875, that Quanah Parker and his Quahadi Comanche tribe surrendered, ending the Indian Wars on the southern plains. And in 1804, Geronimo and nearly three hundred other Chiricahua Apache were brought here as prisoners of war, eight years after having surrendered in Skeleton Canyon, in the Peloncillo Mountains of northern Arizona. At Fort Sill, the Apaches were held in scattered villages, where they raised crops and cattle, adapting, because they had no other choice, to this new, sedentary existence. Geronimo would spend the last fifteen years of his life at Fort Sill, dying of pneumonia in 1909, still a prisoner of the United States. Three years before his death, he dictated his autobiography to Steven Melvil Barret, superintendent of education in Lawton. In the final chapter, he makes a plaintive appeal that he and his remnant Apaches be allowed to return to the mountains surrounding the headwaters of the Gila River, in Arizona. “It is my land, my home, my fathers’ land, to which I now ask to be allowed to return,” Geronimo entreats. “I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among those mountains. If this could be I might die in peace, feeling that my people, placed in their native homes, would increase in numbers, rather than diminish as at present, and that our name would not become extinct.” His cairn, surmounted by an eagle, lies in the Apache cemetery at Fort Sill.
The thing about the Holy City of the Wichitas is that, replica though it may be, it’s strangely beautiful, laid out along a low rise of scraggy terrain, where jagged rocks erupt from the soil, and grasses and stunted oaks and cypress claw through the spaces in between. Beyond, further hills and abraded mountains. Nothing—except a few telephone poles and the road that brings you here—man-made. The Holy City itself consists of a quarter-mile swath of crenellated structures made of the same native red granite that juts from the earth. It is anchored on one end by a sturdy chapel with two square towers, and at the other end by three wooden crosses. In between, a temple, an arched gateway, courts, a stable, the tomb. The Christ of the Wichitas, a white marble statue, stands twenty-three feet, palms open at his sides. Encased in the red granite base of the statue is a rock from the Mount of Olives.
Though the surrounding topography does resemble pictures I’ve seen of the Judean Hills, the Holy City itself strikes me as the vision of what someone who has never been to ancient Jerusalem, which I have not, might imagine it to look like. To be fair, this re-creation was built not to replicate in exact detail the real Jerusalem, but, rather, to stage an Easter Pageant—“The Longest Running Outdoor Passion Play Drama in America,” as the cover of the program likes to remind its audience. Against a backdrop, then, of cedar and stone, the Holy City of the Wichitas is a place where the devout come to see the story of their Savior reenacted before them, as the devout have been doing since the Middle Ages, when passion plays first began to be performed. Through the visual representation of Scripture, a largely illiterate faithful could feel the palpable presence of God. Similarly, the Holy City itself and the pageant that takes place there represent an attempt to give body to a symbolic landscape the way Christ, as viewed by Christians, became the Word made flesh. The place is aligned with those Judean sites and relics that the translator Aubrey Stewart had noted—a visible and tangible aid to faith.
When I drove up that winter morning, the cast was practicing for the upcoming performance. Teenagers leaned against what appeared to be the walls of the temple. Children in puffy, brightly-colored coats chased each other around. Middle-aged men carried ladders from building to building. Women in ear muffs bustled about. During a break in rehearsals, I was lucky enough to get a tour from Richard Matthys, a retired printer from Lawton and that year’s pageant director, and to meet some of the devoted cast and crew.
Matthys wore crisply pressed blue jeans and a flannel shirt under a hunter’s camouflage jacket. His hands were those of a man who had worked them hard for the seventy or more years he’d been using them. When he spoke to me, he looked more at my chin than into my eyes. He explained that the narrative of the Holy City Easter pageant is composed of scenes plucked from the Four gospels and arranged to tell the story of Christ. “We have the whole life, from birth to Resurrection,” he told me. “In South Dakota,” he continued, referring to the Black Hills passion play, “they only focus on the last seven days. And Mel Gibson, he just shows only right there at the end.” We walked across the grounds of the Holy City and arrived at a low-lying stone structure with a timbered roof, one long side open to us so that we could see in—more like the plastic crèches in suburban front yards at Christmastime than an actual stable. Matthys explained that this was the stable where the Christ Child was born because there was no room in the inn. Inside, there was a manger filled with hay, and hovering over the roof, on a pole, was a blue neon star.
“We do use a donkey and a live baby Jesus,” Matthys told me. “We’ve never had to use a doll.” In past productions, there have also been live cows and sheep. A riding club from the nearby community of Meers provides horses for the Roman soldiers. The Lions Club in Elgin loans camels, perhaps descendants of the U.S. Camel Corps, imported from Smyrna in the mid-nineteenth century to help the army during surveying missions in the West. And Jesus rides into Jerusalem on an honest to goodness ass. “We try to make it as back to the natural as we can,” Matthys emphasized. Sweeping his arm out over a small field just below the stable on the hillside, he pointed out where the shepherds and the wise men come. “We used to have a cable with a star attached that would light up,” he said. “Someone would be walking with the cord in the dark and all you could see was the Wise Men following the star to the stable. But we had to give that up. You would always hear it squeak.” They also had to give up the possibility, during the Resurrection scene, of lifting Jesus up into the clouds on a cable. The Department of Interior, which manages the refuge, said no way.
But this insistence on authenticity was something a number of the cast members would reiterate to me that February day. Bob Burgher, who, at seventy-two, was the oldest cast member and who began participating in the pageant in 1946, recalled that one year, the temperature was one degree below zero. Someone bought the cast flesh-colored long johns to wear during the performance. “They said no,” Burgher told me. “They wanted to be authentic. That’s the kind of dedication you get here. It gets in your blood.” Burgher himself seems to be a model of that dedication. As a young man in the service, he took a three-day pass just to participate in the pageant. “I flew out of Korea. Took a hop to Tinker [the nearby Air Force base]. Got into costume. As soon as the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus was over, I headed back to Tinker.” Another year, he had three heart attacks while on set. “One guy had to hold me up. But I wouldn’t leave to go to the hospital. I wasn’t about to louse it up.”
Before this city was built, the Easter service took place on a mountaintop, beginning in 1926, as Florence Guild Bruce records in her 1940 local history, He Is Risen: A History of the Wichita Mountains Easter Pageant. In the pre-dawn hours of Easter morning that first year, the Reverend Anthony Mark Wallock, an Austrian immigrant and Minister of the First Congregational Church of Lawton, led his flock to a mountainside just outside Medicine Park, near the bluff sacred to the Native people, where the Comanche medicine man had rent the stones. At the summit, verses of scripture were read, interspersed with songs accompanied by violin—“In the Garden,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Christ Arose.” As the sun began to ascend, five women presented a tableau of the Resurrection: the three Marys (Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary, the mother of James and Joses, and Mary Magdalene) and two angels stood by a whitewashed spot on the rocks—the door of the tomb.
Reverend Mark Anthony Wallock was born on April 25, 1890 in Schildberg, Austria, a small village south of Vienna. In an article on the 1941 Pageant, the Daily Oklahoman delighted in pointing out, with perhaps an outsize sense of Wallock’s realm of influence, that Hitler, too, had been born in Austria, in a town not far away, and only a year earlier, and that “in each was to swell a singleness of purpose to dominate his life—but the purposes were direct opposites.” The hagiography of Wallock’s life, recounted in Bruce’s He Is Risen and reprinted year after year in pageant programs, records that Wallock’s parents immigrated to the United States when he was only two. He grew up in Chicago, was reared a Catholic, and would often spend his days cutting out stage settings and biblical figures from cardboard boxes, perhaps laying the early foundation for the religious drama that came to define his life.
In the years that followed that first simple tableau on the mountainside above Medicine Park, the production became more and more elaborate. Wallock wrote a script based on the Gospels, that alternated hymns and chapters of Scripture. It remains largely intact to this day. Over time he added more tableaux to the repertoire: Jesus healing the lepers, Jesus praying in the garden, the march to Calvary. One year an organ was carried up the hillside. He had electric lights strung along the pathway, and at intervals, small stone shrines installed with glass-encased pictures showing the last days in the life of Christ. The Knights Templar, a Masonic group that takes its name from a medieval monastic military order whose mandate it was to protect Christian pilgrims en route to the Holy Land, began forming an enormous human cross at the beginning of each year’s services. Though the pageant now takes place on the Saturday evening before Easter, in the early years it began in the wee hours of Easter morning, ending three or more hours later, at sunrise, with the Resurrection.
Every Easter, the cast and congregation grew as well. According to Bruce and to various newspaper accounts, already by 1928, the audience was 1,000 people strong and the cast was 45. In 1932, 150 congregants took part in nine tableaux; 15,000 people attended. And by 1934, just eight years after the pageant’s first performance, the cast of 500 actors performed for a crowd of 40,000 from all over the Southwest. Word seems to have spread first through the local Lawton Constitution, then the Daily Oklahoman, out of Oklahoma City. In 1932, the American News Reel Company shot footage of the pageant and released it to theaters throughout the country. The Columbia Broadcasting System began airing the entire pageant over the radio beginning in 1939. The following year, Ernie Pyle, a Scripps Howard roving reporter, attended the performance and wrote, “In Lawton is a master showman. He wouldn’t call himself a showman, and probably wouldn’t even like being called one. But he is...His creation is an Easter morning pageant. There are hundreds of them over the world. But Lawton’s seems to have risen above the others.”
Searching for a suitable site to which the growing pageant could be moved, Wallock stood in the Wichita Mountains gazing down upon what appeared to be a large natural amphitheater of granite. In the stones he saw the shape of a cross formed by the sunlight. In He Is Risen, he recalled of that moment, “This was God’s garden first. When we discovered it, we were inspired by the majestic granite walls of Mt Sheridan in the background. The only inhabitants were the deer and the birds. A lone eagle flew over our heads. Like the Greeks, we believed it must have been a divine benediction.” And as with the Greeks and the medieval keepers of Jerusalem, for Wallock these mountains seem to have been another omphalos, a place where God speaks directly to men who listen.
In 1934, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a permit for the use of approximately 160 acres of land, part of what was then still called the Wichita National Forest, but which just one year later would become the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. President Franklin D. Roosevelt eventually approved a grant of ninety-four thousand dollars (a little less than four million in today’s dollars) from the Works Progress Administration for public improvements, which in this case meant building “the Holy City,” as it was referred to in the WPA files. Among other smaller structures, the WPA constructed watchtowers, the gateway to Jerusalem, the temple, Pilate’s judgment hall, Herod’s court, the Lord’s Supper building, the garden of Gethsemane, the tomb, Calvary’s mount, and the crenellated World Chapel, with murals and wood carvings inside by Irene Malcolm, who is remembered by Ellenbrook in his Outdoor and Trail Guide as “the Michaelangelo of the Wichitas.” In the midst of the Great Depression, publicity for the 1936 pageant, the tenth anniversary, was nationwide: announcements were made over radio stations across the country; feature stories and maps showing the way appeared in the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. According to the April 13 Daily Oklahoman from that year, some of the congregation of a hundred thousand lit fires to stay warm and camped in tents all over the hills surrounding the Holy City. Three years later, the same paper would report of these crowds that they resembled “the march of the refugee Spanish Loyalists lugging blankets, cots, mattresses, baskets of food, and portable cookstoves; they were dressed in warm old clothes, many of the women with their heads swathed against the chill of the night.” On the tenth anniversary, as dawn broke over the mountains and the pageant came to an end, Wallock read a telegram from President Roosevelt read over the public address system: “To all of sincere Faith the dawn of this Easter day in the Wichita Mountains will bring the same message of hope that the Angel of the Resurrection brought to the Holy Women at the tomb of the Master in the Hills of Judea. The message of that first Easter: ‘He is risen’ has ever since symbolized faith and hope and newness of life and still has power to strengthen and sustain.”
Colonel Arthur C. Goebel, famed airplane stuntman and speed flyer, wrote he is risen with smoke letters across the sky.
“This is the boat where Jesus starts calling his first disciples, Peter, James, John, and Andrew. They were fishing here and Jesus said to them, ‘Put away your nets and come follow me,’ ” Matthys was explaining as we stood in the cold light beneath an inconceivably blue sky. Wallock had originally envisioned a Sea of Galilee as part of the Holy City. A dry creek ran through the grounds of the Holy City, and Wallock tried to expand this creek and then pump water from a well with a windmill, but what with the hard-paced earth and the scorching Oklahoma summers, they could never, as Matthys told me, “resurrect the river.” As for the boat, weathered gray, it now lay amid the winter grasses. On its starboard side, in hand-painted block letters were the words “S. S. Holy City.”
Both the grandiosity of Wallock’s vision for the Holy City Easter pageant and his desire for authenticity link this contemporary passion play not only with those of the Middle Ages, but also with those of the Renaissance, that time of the flowering of modern theater. Some productions employed music and scenery and hundreds of actors in elaborate costumes. Often they lasted too long to be performed in one sitting. In some, the scene of the crucifixion took as long as it would have in reality. It is said that in the 1437 production in Metz, the curé who was playing Christ nearly died on the cross. During that same performance, another priest, playing the part of Judas, was left on the cross so long that he collapsed and had to be lowered down and carried away. Prefigurations of the Holy City’s Bob Burgher.
In 1927, only the second year of Wallock’s Easter Tableaux, The Lawton Constitution dubbed the presentation an “Oklahoma ‘Oberammergau’” after perhaps the world’s most famous passion play. For much of its history, Oberammergau had been merely an obscure village in a small valley in the Bavarian Alps. But in 1632, the plague arrived in southern Germany, brought there, Vernon Heaton surmises in The Oberammergau Passion Play, by the Thirty Years’ War. Great swaths of Germany had been ravaged by the contending armies. Waves of refugees washed over the countryside, fleeing marauding bands of mercenaries, abandoning the injured, the sick, and the dead as they went. In the forsaken villages, looted and pillaged, the dead lay rotting in their beds or in the streets. Rivers and wells filled with filth of the slaughter and became contaminated. Garbage decayed in the alleys. Vermin flourished in the fly-infested heaps of dung. The plague was born, Heaton argues, “from this pestiferous charnel house.”
When news of the arrival of the plague in Bavaria reached Oberammergau in late September 1632, the town fathers, otherwise known as the Council of Six and Twelve, closed off the city gates to anyone entering or leaving. This included Kaspar Schisler, a day laborer who had been working beyond the walls of the village, at nearby Eschenlohe, and who found himself banned upon his return. He retreated to the mountains, surviving as best he could for a time, but one night he managed to evade the watchmen and sneak back inside, reuniting with his family. Three days later he died of the plague. Disease then swept through the entire village, killing eighty souls, half of the village’s population at the time, as Heaton estimates.
Eventually, in a strange sort of wager with the Almighty, every living member, sick and well, met in the parish church and, again under the Council of Six and Twelve, made a solemn vow to God that they and their descendants would enact a passion play every tenth year, forever, in return for his intercession in eradicating the plague from their midst. Though the plague continued to decimate the countryside around them, not another citizen of Oberammergau died of the plague from that hour on.
Or so the legend goes. And the production continues to this day. In a vow ceremony every tenth September before the spring play, the villagers repeat this story to themselves and then formally renew their pledge to each other and to God. Origin stories, too, can be omphali, connecting what is made with what engendered it. But this story derives from an old handwritten chronicle which was not set down until 1733, a century after the events it records.
There are problems with it. As the Shakespeare scholar and theater historian James Shapiro observes in Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World’s Most Famous Passion Play, the death rate in Oberammergau rose steadily from October 1632 (where there was one recorded death) to March 1633 (twenty deaths), before declining steadily back to normal by July (one death again). However, as Shapiro acknowledges, if the parish priest, who enters the deaths into the ledgers himself, dies and is not immediately replaced, as was the case in Oberammergau, these records can be frustratingly incomplete. Still, the records show no abrupt end to the dying. Further, Kaspar Schisler’s name doesn’t appear in Oberammergau’s death register from the time, though it does in a commemorative album bound together with it.
Regardless, the story the villagers have told themselves over the centuries is that the deaths stopped immediately after the vow. The townspeople’s original devotional exercise has evolved into a massive production of more than two thousand volunteers and hundreds of thousands of spectators. Only residents of Oberammergau, and only those of impeccable character, have been eligible for parts. Here, too, authenticity is prized. In the past, Shapiro points out, young women delayed marriage for years on the off chance that they might be given the role of Mary or Magdalene. In 1990, when a wife and mother of two played the Virgin Mary, one angry theatergoer complained to the directors that “a woman who had sex at night had no business playing the mother of God by day.” In addition to virginal authenticity, no wigs or false beards are permitted. Many of the men must begin growing their hair and their beards one year before the play. No makeup is used. Many of the participants spend their lifetimes on the village stage, starting as child actors and progressing over the decades to leading roles.
As Matthys and I were walking the grounds of the Holy City, we ran into Anita Brockwell, a wholesomely pretty middle-aged woman with a blond bob, who raises pygmy goats and miniature donkeys and sells ceramic figurines, and is both director of wardrobe and the Virgin Mary for the pageant. She attaches a good-natured little laugh to the end of nearly every sentence, and she offered to show me the Angel House—which, on pageant night, doubles as the palce of the temptation of Christ—where the angels’ wings and gowns are sewn and stored. “This is the hierarchy of angels,” she said by way of introducing the five or six mothers and daughters, all outfitted with gloves and earmuffs, who were inventorying the wings inside this unheated structure. “I call it typecasting, myself,” joked one of the women. “Hells Angels,” added another. Some of the old sets of wings are elaborately embellished with interleaved layers of white feathers. The newer ones have fence-wire frames covered with parachute fabric that has been cut into shreds. “To be an angel it’s hard,” said one woman of Comanche descent. The wings are heavy. The wind at the top of the hillside where the women must appear is stiff. “To be an angel, you have to be tough.”
Matthys and I wandered over to Pilate’s Court and climbed up onto a sort of parapet between two towers. “Now this is where Jesus is brought before Pilate,” he told me as we looked out over the rugged hills beyond, and to the grassy prairie and the buffalo. “The crowd is down below and some are saying, ‘Crucify him!’ and one or two are saying ‘Save him!’” We walked along the parapet as Matthys described how Pilate washes his hands and throws the cloth down to the crowd and says, “His blood shall be on you,” freeing Barabbas instead of Jesus.
The implication is deicide: the Jews killed Jesus. A number of historians, including Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer in Antisemitism: Myth and Hate from Antiquity to the Present, call into question the historicity of particular details of the Gospels’ story of the passion of Christ. For one thing, they claim, in the Roman-ruled province of Judea, the notion of a frenzied Jewish mob holding sway over a prefect from Rome is improbable. For another, the act of Pilate’s washing his hands of the blood of an innocent man is “a Jewish gesture and symbolic act,” stemming from the Book of Deuteronomy, not a Roman one. And how would Pilate have rationalized the release of any prisoner to Emperor Tiberius? The story of the passion, they argue, is not history. It is kerygma—preaching.
As such, passion plays regularly sparked violence against Jews because of the accusation of murder inherent in this scene and others. Jewish characters often were costumed in outlandish hats with horns. They appeared bloodthirsty, allied with the devil, that other denier of God. In History of Antisemitism, Léon Poliakov gives an example of one particularly gruesome scene from a late-fifteenth-century passion play by Jehan Michel, bishop of Angers, where the Jews in Pilate’s palace torture Christ:
Bruyant: Let us play at pulling out his beard
That is too long anyway.
Dentart: He will be the bravest
Who gets the biggest handful.
Griffon: I have torn at him so hard
That the flesh has come away too.
Dillart: I would take my turn at tearing
So as to have my share as well.
Dragon: See what a clump this is
That I pull away as if it were lard.
“In a total identificiation,” Poliakov writes of this scene and others like it, “the crowds lived Christ’s agony intensely, transferring all their rage to his tormentors, with a real massacre often following the depicted one.” The carnage was acute enough to require the attention of the cities. In 1338, for example, Freiburg forbade the performance of anti-Jewish scenes. In 1469, Frankfurt ordered special measures for the protection of the Jewish quarter during their passion play. And in 1539, Rome banned its passion play altogether in an effort to prevent the sacking of the Jewish ghetto there.
Hitler famously attended the passion play at Oberammergau in 1934 during the jubilee season marking the three hundred-year anniversary of the original vow. After the performance, he was given a gift from the villagers, a set of mounted photographs of the play that was inscribed: To our Führer, the protector of the cultural treasures of Germany, from the Passion village of Oberammergau. Years after viewing the performance, at a dinner on July 5, 1942, Hitler is recorded by Shapiro as having said, “It is vital that the Passion play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the time of the Romans.” In a perverse and self-serving interpretation of scripture, he added: “There one sees Pontius Pilate, a Roman racially and intellectually so superior that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry.” As Shapiro also notes, a significant number of the Oberammergau cast members had joined the Nazi party. Jesus was a Nazi, as were eight of the twelve disciples. So was the Virgin Mary. Somewhat ironically, according to the Nazi party enrollment records only Judas was categorized as a “strong anti-Nazi.”
“In each was to swell a singleness of purpose to dominate his life—but the purposes were direct opposites,” the newspaper had said of Anthony Mark Wallock and Adolf Hitler. From the beginning, Wallock did insist that the Holy City Easter Service be open to all races and all creeds—especially remarkable given that this was Oklahoma in the era of jim crow. When the cast of the Oberammergau passion play was busy joining the Nazi party and handing souvenir plaques to Hitler, Wallock was dedicating the theme of the 1936 service to the “Brotherhood of Men and Peace.” His final tableau that year, the April 5 issue of the Daily Oklahoman reported, would be shrines of worship for the various races: a pagoda for the Chinese, a Japanese Shinto shrine, tepees for the American Indian. “Negroes and the brown race” would also have their place in the scene, though their shrines of worship were not specified. Behind these representative figures: lights which would represent the rising sun. At a signal, the groups representing the five races would move into formation, marching in a single column toward the rising sun, followed by the rest of the cast, “while the glare of the artificial sun flashe[d] into the eyes of spectators.”
Still, one wonders what to do with a passage from the exact same article proudly crediting Ron Stephens, district WPA director from Chickasha and a former army engineer, with “seeking out Ku Klux Klan members, who resurrected four hundred abandoned robes to be used by members of the cast in the Easter Service.” And while Brockwell reminded me that Indians have roles in the pageant—I had met the Comanche angel—and that the Lord’s Prayer is performed in sign language at the opening of the play, she also felt it necessary to protest some accusation of prejudice against African Americans of which, until then, I had not been aware. “We’re not prejudiced,” she told me. “We’ve had a colored baby Jesus. But you can’t put them in a costume because they disappear in the dark. Philip Muse,” she went on of one of the few participating black actors, “was put in as an angel. You could see this white suit with angel wings floating down the pathway, but no head. He’s a disciple now.”
Whether there is prejudice or not at work in the Holy City Easter Pageant, the fact is that while this place and this play once expressed a deeply sensed and widely shared worldview, each year it draws fewer and fewer participants and observers. All through World War II, attendance for the Holy City Easter Pageant still neared a hundred thosand. The Easter after the war ended, in 1946, the audience actually reached nearly two hundred thousand, according to the Daily Oklahoman and the Lawton Constitution.
The Lawton Story, a movie version of the pageant, was even produced by Kroger Babb, the godfather of exploitation film, a genre which was, according to Felicia Feaster and Bret Wood in Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film, “a bizarre mixture of … saccharine morality tales interrupted by moments of raw, ugly truth.” Babb’s 1944 film, Mom and Dad, for example, follows the story of a young woman charmed into sex by a dashing pilot. After the pilot dies in a plane crash, she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. The Story of a Birth, a movie within the movie of Mom and Dad, then presents detailed drawings of the female reproductive system followed by a graphic documentary of a woman giving birth, first vaginally, then by cesarean section. Given Babb’s background with Mom and Dad, perhaps it’s not so strange that The Lawton Story contains its own embedded nativity scene. The film premiered on Friday, April 1, 1949, in Lawton. President Harry Truman and his wife, Bess, were invited, though they did not attend. The Lawton Story, later recut and retitled The Prince of Peace after a dismal critical reception, is about a six-year-old girl, played by the relentlessly cheerful Ginger Prince, who persuades her great-uncle, a heartless banker, to see the performance of the Holy City passion play, after which, of course, he changes his greedy and iniquitous ways. Inside this frame story is lengthy footage from a daytime reenactment of the actual Holy City pageant.
The Lawton Story may have been the high point. In the 1950s the Holy City Easter Pageant began to see a slow but steady decline. Now, in a good year, the audience might number a couple of thousand. The cast has also shrunk—to two hundred or so, “including animals,” Anita Brockwell said. Brockwell, Burgher, Matthys—they have all mourned this falling off, as well as the waning participation in the passion play. They blame television and other creature comforts, soccer games and t-ball practice and ballet, the laziness and greed of youth. As the older generation dies, the young people are not coming up to replace them. “It’s the trend of the whole world—the change in times,” Matthys told me. “I’d like to see that hillside covered again. But it’ll never be.”
In 1882, the Wichita Indians were removed from their village on the north fork of the Red River to a reservation twenty-five miles east of Fort Sill. From there the Wichita Mountains were just barely in sight. In 1900, reservation lands that had been held in common during the intervening eighteen years were divided into allotments of 160 acres per person, with the remainder declared “surplus lands” and opened up to non-Indian settlement. Wichita elders knew the end was approaching because their ancient stories foretold the time of Dakawaitsakakide, “When Everything Begins To Run Out.” They knew that the things which they had needed and which had been given to them in dreams would disappear. That children of the same families would intermarry and cease to have offspring, or that they birth not human children but animals. Then the animals, even the flowing water, would begin to speak to men. The morning star and the moon would be human again, and the man would had been chasing the deer he’d shot, an act which had set the universe in motion, would finally overtake it and recover his arrow. “Furthering this belief [in the coming end],” writes George Dorsey, who recorded the stories of the Wichita in 1904, “is the frequency with which the people in their dreams converse with stars.”
Medicine Bluff for the Plains Indians, the Holy City of the Wichitas for generations of Lawtonians, the Holy City of Jerusalem for Christians and Muslims and Jews—why do we need these omphali, visible and tangible evidence of the longed for and imagined? Is it because, like all the old mythologies say in one way or another, we’ve been split umbilically from the divine? The cord’s been cut, we’ve been cast out from our native land, and we yearn to reclaim that place where we can be connected again, however briefly, to what we no longer possess. We’re all exiles, longing for home.
In Genesis, which begins the Bible, we have what scholars believe are some of the oldest references to what became the actual Jerusalem; Revelation, and thus the Bible, ends with John’s inspired and imaginative vision of the otherworldly New Jerusalem to which those who believe will one day return. “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea,” begins Chapter 21. “And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Then, from “a great and high mountain,” an angel shows John this New Jerusalem of precious stones—jasper, sapphire, emerald, topaz, amethyst. The streets are gold, the gates are pearl, the river of the water of life clear as crystal. Growing in the center, the tree of life, laden with fruit.
St. Augustine saw human existence as a kind of exile from the divine, and the journey of the soul as a pilgrimage to God. In On Christian Doctrine, he describes a world permeated with signs which we must learn to read so that we can use them to reach God, who is our home. “Thus in this mortal life, wandering from God,” he declares, “if we wish to return to our native country where we can be blessed we should use this world and not enjoy it, so that the ‘invisible things’ of God ‘being understood by the things that are made’ may be seen, that is, so that by means of corporal and temporal things we may comprehend the eternal and spiritual.” That last bit—so that by means of corporal and temporal things we may comprehend the eternal and spiritual—is what Jerusalem, both the real one, with its Calvary Mount and Stone of Unction and empty tomb, and the Holy City of the Wichitas with its earnest facsimiles, tries to give those who come, seeking their spiritual homeland: a passing connection, through the things that are made, with the divine.
That April I convinced Terry to leave the girls with their grandparents and drive back up to Oklahoma so we could witness for ourselves the country’s longest run outdoor passion play. We arrived in Lawton late in the afternoon on Saturday and checked into the Best Western near the Comanche Nation Casino and Smoke Shop along the highway, then drove out to the Holy City. The sky was overcast and a cold, damp wind had begun to blow. In the refuge, low-lying wildflowers were starting to show though the russet winter grasses. Above us, hawks circled as if on pendulum strings.
When we arrived at the Holy City, the Christ of the Wichitas welcomed us with his open arms and the Gloryland Band was singing old-time gospel music out of a shiny blue trailer in the parking lot. Terry and I wandered into the gift shop—run by the nonprofit Wallock Foundation—to get presents for the girls in order to assuage our guilt over leaving them. Inside, we found Holy City spoons and thimbles and embroidered patches; Indian dream catchers; snow globes with Native warriors on horseback; granite chips from the Holy City in small glass vials; bookmarks with cheerful, upbeat religious messages on them: Prayer is a deposit in heaven, read one. Even on the darkest day, His light shines through to show the way, read another.
Outside, the wind had picked up and there was a light mist. Silhouettes of cypress trees rose up against the gray sky. Back behind the gift shop, concealed from view, were the riding club’s trailers. Horses stood outside them, their red Roman blankets trimmed in gold and thrown casually over their backs like dressing gowns. The disciples of Jesus flirted with the girls of Jerusalem. Angels in white robes and wings walked among us along the stony ground.
I confess that we spent nearly the entire pageant inside our station wagon, drinking coffee and eating peanut M&Ms, trying to keep warm. The temperature had dropped into the low forties after the sun went down, and the wind across the open valley was piercing. We’d brought a quilt from home, which we awkwardly wrapped around us. Terry fell asleep. From time to time, I would leave the car and nestle myself into the red stones, trying to find a spot protected from the wind where I could watch the pageant. From the loudspeaker across the hills, the disembodied voices of the narrators carried the story, and the actors gesticulated to the words while floodlights illuminated one scene after another and then went dark. It was all just as Richard Matthys had told me it would be—the blue neon star over the stable, the magi leading the camels, Mary and Joseph and the real baby Jesus, who had come, as all infants do, to save the world. “Glory to God in the highest,” the narrator with the voice of God reminded the shepherds, and the choir sang “Angels We Have Heard on High” as the hills lit up the angels of the Wichitas who had been lodging unseen in the rocks all along, but now were visible to everyone, for there is nothing covered that shall not one day be revealed. There were the miracles, too—the wedding at Cana, the cripple healed—which told us that if we asked, we would receive, and if we sought we would find. There was the woman saved from stoning. Later, when Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and upset the tables of the money changers, the high priest, perhaps sensing some new dispensation, proclaimed this man from Nazareth had simply gone too far. Then Judas betrayed the Lord for thirty pieces of silver, and Pilate washed his hands of the whole affair. On the rooftop of the temple that would soon be destroyed, all except for the Western Wall, the risen Jesus appeared to poor, doubting Thomas, “Blessed are those,” the narrator intoned, “how haven’t seen and who believe.”
Just before the pageant had begun, while Terry was getting hotdogs for us at the concession stand, I’d gone into the Holy City’s World Chapel. Here, beginning in 1940, Irene Malcolm, a local portrait artist and WPA muralist, spent nearly a decade of her life, unpaid, creating ceiling and wall murals, carving the wooden pews. In “The Impish Angel of the Wichitas,” a 1952 article from the Daily Oklahoman, Malcolm is called a disciple of Reverend Wallock, and her work “an embodiment of the dreams he bared to her.”
But this work seems utterly her own. In the vestibule, the walls are covered with tiles she shaped and fired from native clay, their green glaze the color of cedar needles. Sculpted into those tiles, which number nearly four thousand, is the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace,” it begins. “There is so much selfishness,” Malcolm explained to the reporter. “I was searching for something to combat it and found this.” Inside the chapel proper, a mural of Gabriel blowing a trumpet covers the entire ceiling. Behind the lectern, two other angels hold a painted scroll of the Lord’s Prayer. Old iron sconces line the white plaster walls. Between them hang portraits of the disciples, also done by Malcolm. Even Judas Iscariot is here. “I painted Judas as a weak character, not as a wicked one,” Malcolm told the Daily Oklahoman, a little subversively. “Judas was almost as bad as the rest of us.”
I decided that my favorite works of Malcolm’s were the two murals on either side of the pulpit: the Crucifixion scene and the Resurrection. The Wichita Mountains supply the background for both paintings. In the foreground of each, there is no Christ on the Cross, no Savior dressed in white. Instead, you see only the feet of Jesus: in the one, they are bloodied, the nail driven through; in the other, they are free of wounds, lifting into the air. Around his feet, the faithful stare, wide-eyed, unbelieving. Dashing past the crucifixion is Malcolm’s white dog, Emily, seemingly chasing some creature that has caught her attention, not at all aware of the man who happens to be nailed to the cross. She’s completely missed the sign. In that newspaper article, Malcolm, seated for a photo on the top steps of a ladder near Gabriel in the fleecy clouds, said, “Up here in Heaven, it’s not as nice a place as they said it was.”
Malcom on the ladder, looking down on her earthly homeland, recalls the Wichita myth of “The Woman Who Married a Star,” which George Dorsey recorded more than a century ago, as the Native people of the region began more and more in their dreams to converse with the stars, and the world of the Wichitas seemed to be coming to an end. A woman was watching the night sky, the story goes. She imagined the stars might have once been people, dim stars the old ones, bright stars the young. There was an especially brilliant star that she was sure must have been a fine-looking young man and she wished to have him for her husband. That night she dreamed she was with the man who had been a star, and when she woke, she was sitting by a fire with an old man. She had been mistaken. He was the star she had seen from the earth and he claimed her for his wife. Time passed. There was a large rock which the man forbade her to move. But one day, she disobeyed, and when she moved the rock, she could see the earth down below, through the chasm. Longing for her home, she made a rope of soapweed bunches braided together and climbed down to her native country, the land that had borne her.
When we’d come here with our daughters, in February, before the long drive back home to Houston, we’d brought them out to the refuge to show them the buffalo and where we used to hike when Terry was stationed at Fort Sill. Back then, we would often head to an area called Charon Gardens, which the guidebook describes as “an untamed garden of Eden, a pristine, primeval wilderness.” There, massive oval boulders of red granite balance precariously on ridges and a sheer cliff drops down to a pool of deep water. But that wintry day, we stood with our daughters at the edge of the precipice and looked out upon everything from a great and high mountain and beheld that it was very good. Above us was blue sky. Below, the cold, dark water. Like angels, we hovered somewhere in between.