Midwest City history remembered in new book by native Oklahoman who grew up there

The U.S Navy Blue Angels fly over the crowd during a performance at the 2023 Tinker Airshow at the Tinker Air Force Base in Midwest City.
The U.S Navy Blue Angels fly over the crowd during a performance at the 2023 Tinker Airshow at the Tinker Air Force Base in Midwest City.
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"Tinkertown: A Wheatfield, an Airbase, and Us: The Story of Midwest City & Tinker AFB" by Jim Willis (ArtStrings, LLC, 457 pages, in stores)

At an early age, author Jim Willis demonstrated remarkable talent for writing and storytelling.

Growing up in Midwest City after World War II, Willis was having a tough time as a ninth grader at the now defunct Jarman Junior High School.

Forging his mother's signature on a typewritten note, he concocted a story about his family moving to Florida. He asked school officials to withdraw him from all classes and to provide him with the necessary papers to enroll in another school in Florida.

To Willis' shock and amazement, that's what they did.

Several weeks later, eventually bored and lonely, he finally confessed to his horrified parents and instead of punishing Willis, his parents and school officials helped him pass algebra so he could go on to high school.

Nearly 65 years later, Willis, a 1964 graduate of Midwest City High School and now a resident of Kentucky, never forgot that kindness, nor the town in which he grew up.

This story and others like it are included in Willis' recently published memoir, "Tinkertown: A Wheatfield, an Airbase, and Us."

Willis, who believes that “Tinkertown” is the first book published about Midwest City's earliest history, explains the unique synergy that existed between the town and Tinker Air Force Base, which has a $3.5 billion economic impact and is the largest of three Air Force maintenance depots in the country.

Tinker started out as the Midwest Air Depot in 1941 and in 1948 was designated as Tinker Air Force Base.

The air base was named in honor of Clarence L. Tinker, the first Native American to achieve the rank of general in the U.S Army, who was born near Pawhuska on the Osage reservation.

Tinker was also the first U.S. Army general to be killed in World War II when his plane developed engine problems and crashed in the Pacific in the Battle for Midway. The military facility bearing his name is dedicated to maintaining a plane's ability to fly safely.

In the '40s, thousands of workers were needed to ramp up the nation's defense efforts, including production of C-47s, the transport and cargo plane that dropped paratroopers behind enemy lines on the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France and later delivered food and fuel during the Berlin Air Lift.

As many as 38,000 Oklahomans worked at the Douglas Aircraft company plant, and more than half were women. Workers assembling these war planes needed houses in which to live.

Initially, the land wasn’t much more than wheat fields and mud. But there was talk of an airfield.

Early on, W.P. "Bill" Atkinson — an audacious home builder who was good with maps and worked as a journalist — used his reporting skills to snoop around and talk with area farmers on where that airfield might end up.

On speculation, his first land purchase was 160 acres of wheat field from Frank Trosper for what would become a portion of the town's first square mile; Atkinson would eventually own 320 acres total that would host the city’s first housing. Ground was broken for the first five homes on Turnbull Drive in 1942, about 11 months before Midwest City was incorporated in 1943.

But before the first house was ever built in 1942, Midwest City was a planned community, touted as a lifestyle, complete with a school, churches, and a shopping center, all designed to serve the needs of a family, rather than houses in isolated neighborhoods.

Built essentially at ground zero, right across the street from the base rather than miles away for safety, this proximity was unusual. But people working and living here felt safe and were optimistic for the future and grateful for a job.

Memories from growing up in Midwest City

Born in Ohio, Willis moved to Midwest City from Ohio with his family in 1949 when he was 3 years old. Willis' earliest memories include daily stops at the local library on his walk home from school, which he credits for instilling his love of books and writing. An OU journalism graduate, he's the author of 19 books. His first jobs as a journalist included being a nighttime copy editor and state desk reporter for the Daily Oklahoman newspaper.

What the town might have lacked in natural beauty, it compensated for with a rich sensory experience, perhaps even an overload at times.

Jets emitted deafening noise as they followed their final glide path and landed on one of Tinker's runways, skimming the tops of houses by only several hundred feet, Willis writes. One of those houses on Babb was Willis' first home, a modest duplex rented by his parents.

Sometimes the jets crashed into houses and fields, and people died. Sonic boom testing — during one period as often as eight times a day — broke windows, shook houses and rattled nerves for miles.

But for Willis, this cacophony of noise — especially from engines — was soothing.

"I came to feel the sound of airplanes was just another voice of nature, as much as the birds and crickets in the back yard, and frogs in a nearby creek," Willis writes.

Early streets and schools were named after defense contractors, generals, and politicians.

In keeping with a military theme, the town's only entertainment venue — a walk-in movie theater, also across from Tinker — was named the Skytrain, in honor of the C-47 Skytrain transport plane. At one time, 13 Skytrains were produced per day.

Thousands of workers poured into town with their families in the early '40s and 50s. Educating their children became a financial issue for the new school district, since the airfield occupied federal land tax exempt from property and sales taxes, which traditionally generate revenue for schools.

The 1943-44 school year started out with one single school, the Midwest City School, as it was known then, with 413 students in nursery through grade 12, but grew to about a thousand students by year's end. The amount of federal aid that first year was $192,406. Only seven years later, with more than 2,500 students, federal aid had grown to $2,304,344.

Current, former Tinker employees share experiences

Especially compelling in Willis’ book are interviews with current and former Tinker employees.

"Work... needs to be done properly. Because if it breaks down, you can't just pull over on the side of the road," says Clifton Chenevert, a mechanic on the B-1.

Three shifts work twenty-four hours a day. The pay in private aviation would be much more lucrative. Some leave and pursue that, while others stay.

It's stories like these that make “Tinkertown” an important book, and a reminder of what was achieved in the past by people collaborating together to work for a common goal.

Willis' classmate, retired four-star general Roger Brady, also a '64 MCHS alum who quarterbacked the Bombers football team, wrote “Tinkertown's” foreword.

A former commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe with nearly 4,000 hours as a command pilot in various aircraft, Brady writes that since fewer Americans than ever are serving in the military, "we're becoming less connected to, or not even aware of, the community that protects our way of life."

Communities like Tinkertown, Brady writes, "give us models that provide hope for preserving an important heritage."

“Tinkertown” is a rich, exciting history which deserves to be read, and remembered, not for just the planes and their dramatic missions, but for the hearty men and women who came here to build them, and along the way, created a community which still flourishes today.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: 'Tinkertown' gives inside look at growing up in Midwest City, Oklahoma