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Serendipity and the Writer

Time for serendipity during journeys is always good. Sometimes one experiences some of the best things during serendipitous, spur-of-the-moment stops along the way. Such unexpected occasions are especially important for writers. Such was my experience during a recent trek my wife, youngest daughter, her husband, and I took to the Southwest.

A few miles west of Oklahoma City, my son-in-law Daniel pointed out a sign for the Fort Reno Cavalry Museum. Being an avid military history buff, I had my curiosity piqued. Although we could see nothing across the flat expanse of the landscape, we stopped to satisfy that curiosity.

No cars sat in the parking lot in front of the plastered-and-whitewashed visitor’s center, which sat forlornly on the flat prairie. A sign on the door read, “Closed.” Disappointed, we nevertheless got out of the car to stretch and explore the various structures scattered widely across the otherwise bare grassland.

As we roamed outside the numerous buildings, reading the interpretive plaques in front of each, a stiff wind buffeted us, disheveling our hair, whipping our jackets, and making a clear, focused photo next to impossible. But we began to realize that the unassuming place hid both enormous interesting history and copious possibilities for the attentive writer.

Fort Reno was a cavalry base responsible for training and housing troops during the “pacification” of Indians, preserving the subsequent Indian Territory for the Indians against white squatters, and enforcing the rules for several land rushes. It was home to several units of the “Buffalo Soldiers,” black cavalrymen who were so named by Native Americans out of respect for their skills.

Among the famous personages later associated with Fort Reno were Will Rogers, who attended horse shows on the base and whose homespun philosophical statements I often quote in my writings, and Amelia Earhart, who flew an experimental forerunner of the helicopter at the base airfield. But the name that most startled me was that of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, commander of the famed Afrika Korps.

Fort Reno was one of several camps used to house prisoners of war during World War II. Its prisoners were members of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, whom American troops had captured during the North Africa campaign. Seventy of them, 68 Germans and 2 Italians, are buried in the base cemetery, separated by a stone wall from the plots in which American soldiers and Indian scouts Chalk and White Elk lie buried. One of the Germans buried there is Johannes Kunze, who was beaten to death by five of his countrymen and fellow POWs, hard-line Nazis who perceived him to be a traitor. (His killers were tried, found guilty, and executed by hanging.)

That Fort Reno affords ample fodder for writers’ story mills is evidenced by a novel about Kunze’s murder, Extreme Justice by Vince Greene. A nonfiction book about Fort Reno’s and other bases’ involvement in the housing of POWs is Behind Barbed Wire: WW II POW Camps in Oklahoma by various authors. I, too, am cogitating what use I might find among the various facts and features I witnessed during my serendipitous stop at Fort Reno.

If you are a writer, never underestimate the value of interruptions to your schedule, detours along your trek, or unplanned stops as you proceed on your itinerary. Sometimes your best ideas will come from such serendipitous byways along your writing journey.

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