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The Letter Jacket: A Cancer Survivor

Steve Russell shares his grandmother’s fight with cancer, and the one thing they shared with the cancer diagnosis that hasn’t changed.

I had no father and then no mother, and I would not have chosen that, but it did not take me long to understand that not everybody who had parents was better off. I can’t say I never got beaten bloody but that never happened at home, the home provided by my grandparents, Bessie and Jud Russell. Mostly Bessie, because Jud was older, sicker and disabled.

Granma kept her composure in the face of broken bones, gunshot wounds, snakes, electrical fires, spiders larger than my young fist and scorpions likewise. Even missionaries did not scare her. Having lived her life close to the bone, she did not scare easily.

I’d like to think I don’t scare easily, either, but the truth of it is more complicated. When the doc brought my cancer diagnosis in early 2017, my external reaction was to turn to my wife (who had been watching my health go downhill for months with no idea of why) and say, “You know, we had a helluva run, didn’t we?”


That remark—a genuine sentiment delivered with a genuine grin—brushed back her tears. While my external reaction was real and heartfelt, I was having a no-less-real internal reaction. My memories pulled me back to the day in the ’50s when my grandmother got the very same diagnosis.

Granma was coming home from downtown Bristow, a city founded in the Muscogee Creek Nation. By then, the federal government had trampled all the Indian removal treaties that promised Indian Territory would never be part of a state without tribal consent. Bristow was in Oklahoma.

Walks to town involved no hills and no great distances. Route 66 (Main St.) and 6th was the center, but now Granma came tottering up the alley behind our house at 210 W. 12th.

She always used the alley because 12th Street was one border of N*ggertown. There were white families on the same side of the street as us and they, too, came and went by the alley when on foot. Some had plenty of money to live elsewhere but they were bootleggers, and had professional needs for not just speedy ingress and egress but also access to both communities.

Granma had gone to the doctor for a stomachache that had me thinking she was incredibly brave to have waited so long, but I was still learning about being poor. She carried an x-ray, the address of the University of Oklahoma charity hospital in Oklahoma City, and a bill that would be paid the way the cat ate the grindstone. Because I knew Granma didn’t scare easily, one look at her face told me all I needed to know about cancer and how my elders judged the danger of it.


Steve Russell in first grade.

There was no Medicare and no Medicaid back then, and if Franklin D. Roosevelt had not passed Social Security, she would have had no money at all. Impecunious white elders died under bridges and Social Security was FDR’s attempt to institutionalize people taking care of each other. Granma might have gotten quicker help (if not more help) if she and her husband had stayed near the Sac & Fox Agency, where they met.

Sac & Fox wound up in what is now Stroud, Oklahoma, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs split Sac & Fox off a collective federal administration with some other small tribes (Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Shawnee, Iowa). Indian agencies were distribution points for commodities, post offices, and usually a trading post. The agency was the center of commerce on most reservations and the first stop for honest visitors. Agency sites picked by the government became centers of Indian communities.

Those Indians who had stayed in Indian communities in defiance of termination and relocation policies were immeasurably better off in hard times because most Indians consider not caring for relatives—nuclear, collateral, adoptive—to be immoral.
My grandparents owned the house where we lived, bought by a settlement for injuries that ended Grampa’s work in the oil fields, a settlement generous enough to fund two water faucets, a flush toilet, and one electrical outlet in the middle of the ceiling of each of the seven rooms. I know now that two circuits were not enough for that load.

Grampa got a pension for having followed Theodore Roosevelt to Cuba to steal an empire from Spain, and both of my grandparents got small checks from Social Security. Granma washed dishes in restaurants on Route 66 and she cleaned the swell folks’ houses and minded their children.

Both Russell grandparents were pure settler stock with typical settler stories of grit in the service of greed. Granma’s father, a Dutchman named Samuel Van Hooser, was by all accounts not a pleasant man. It was rumored in the family that he had killed his wife. Indians considered Van Hooser to be typical of white people lured to Indian Territory by the promise of “free land.”

The various versions of the Homestead Act were giveaways of Indian property, but the terms were not for the lazy or timid. To claim land that didn’t belong to you, you had to first fight off competitors and then live on the empty land for years, breaking soil and making crops and dealing with the occasional Indian rendered “hostile” by his eviction, who came back armed either to reclaim property or simply visit the graves of ancestors.


Sam Van Hooser got himself 80 acres of “free” land in McDonald County, Missouri. It was hilly and rocky soil hard by the Indian Territory border, but it had a sweet spring bubbling clear and cold out of a limestone aquifer. From the people I knew in the area, I came to understand that the last Indian owners were probably Old Settler Cherokees, as we called those who came west before the bogus removal treaty.

I later came to own that 80 acres, 40 clear. I had unlimited use and first refusal to buy on the other 40, until a few years ago, when the descendants of my mother’s sister swindled family in favor of a real estate developer. I deeded the remaining 40 acres to my youngest son.

After perfecting the Missouri title, Van Hooser turned his attention to the great land rushes that led to the Oklahoma mascot becoming the thief who did not get the memo about why thieves needed honor. Sam was a Sooner but not sooner enough, part of the aggregate of thousands of itinerant thieves lured by pre-stolen “free” land that collectively made Indian Territory what we would call in our time “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

This villain abandoned my grandmother and her mentally challenged little sister, Mabel, at the Sac & Fox Agency. Those who scoff at incremental change should note that if Bessie Van Hooser’s colon cancer had gone totally untreated, like Mabel Van Hooser’s scarlet fever, my life would have been very different as a ward of the government.

Bessie took whatever work she could find among the Sac & Fox. Cleaning up after a drilling crew at a boarding house near Prague, she met Judson George Russell, a man as worldly as she was unsophisticated.

I’m not sure if Jud Russell was a driller by then or still roughnecking. He was from a big family of Scots and English Russells in Sandusky, Ohio. While Granma was practically Sac & Fox, Grampa had merely come to work in the oil patch. Neither had come to Indian Territory to lord it over Indians. In the Cherokee Nation, both would have been “white intruders,” but very low on the Cherokee government’s priority list for deportation... if they had one.

The Ohioan oil worker and the rural housekeeper did not have any assets other than grit. They clung together through the Great Depression squatting in a condemned building, raised two daughters, acquired a home, and just when it appeared that the hardest times were over, along came another mouth to feed, the child of their youngest daughter’s marriage to a Cherokee named Teehee.

Wanda Russell had gone on the run, convinced that Clifford Teehee intended to kill her. That gave the Russells the choice to put me off on the government or have their only grandchild couch-surfing Muscogee-Creek, Sac & Fox, Osage and Cherokee.

My grandmother’s decision to take me in made her strength and duty personified to me, more likely to charge than to totter. The pain would break her later, as it has broken me, but the wild fear on her face was nothing I’d ever seen. Whatever cancer was, it had to be horrible.

That fearsome x-ray set up the first of many excursions to The City. The docs wanted her accompanied but Grampa was not able, so Granma and I would rise before the sun and walk across town to the Greyhound station. I was not qualified to be her escort for many reasons, but what were we going to do? Big for my age got to be an advantage, and the med students showed me how to maximize leverage if I had to try to pick her up. In an age before 911 and free long distance calls, they gave me a list of numbers I could call in case of emergency that covered all of Route 66 between The City and Bristow.

I was scared for her but happy to go to Oklahoma City, both for adventure’s sake and because Bristow was not particularly safe for me at the time.

I was, as I said, big for my age—my grandmother said “husky” and the kids said “fat”—and ordering clothes out of the Sears wish book had become difficult. The many categories and possible ways to measure were daunting when my body transgressed age-brackets but I had to wear the mistakes. At one of the two second-hand clothing stores in town, my grandfather bought me a jacket. I was pleased to be wearing the purple and gold colors of the local high school while I was still in grammar school—it seemed much more fashionable than my other clothes. I did not understand what a “letter jacket” was. I soon found out.

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“Hey, Chief Ha-Ha, where’d you get the letter jacket?”

The high school kids congregated across the street from the school near some trashcans where they could toss their cigarettes if any teachers decided to notice they were smoking. I was too young to normally attract their attention.

“I’m talking to you, fat boy.”

“My Grampa gave it to me.”

“So where’d he steal it? He ain’t no letterman.”

“My Grampa doesn’t steal!”

“Then it musta been you….” The speaking went on as a foot contacted my backside, sending me up on my toes. As I collapsed, a set of hands grabbed me from each side and I was being bum-rushed into the empty alley. One more heave and they let go.

Now I was on my knees in the gravel, surrounded by high school boys. I knew several by sight but none by name.

“OK, Chief Ha-Ha, do you want to be whipped for it or do you want to pay for it?”

I was crying. “I didn’t steal anything!” I wailed.

One said, “I’m sure he wants to pay for it,” as he unbuttoned his jeans. Several others had already removed their belts. “Indians always pay up. You just gotta catch um young and make sure they understand why we let a few live...

“C’mere and show us your place, Chief. Pay your bills.”

I always thought that feet could probably hit harder than hands and I learned it for sure.

I felt something warm and wet running down my neck. I was being pissed on and it was soon coming from all sides and all of it aimed at my face. I was crying and yelling for help and at some point one of my tormentors said, “Here comes Fusco.” Joe Fusco, I learned later, was the high school band director. They all took off, but one grabbed me by the collar of my letter jacket and started dragging me. There was a loud rip and then he gave up, and dropped me.

Before that lesson in the gravel alley, I hadn’t given much thought to “our place” or even “Indians.” I knew about the Trail of Tears, but I did not know any of the tribes with which I was not involved nor how they came to Oklahoma.

I was not critically injured in the physical sense and neither was the letter jacket—the rip turned out to be in the lining—and so I wore it on my grandmother’s next excursion to the University of Oklahoma teaching hospital in Oklahoma City.

Most of the Oklahoma City adventures were after she got her surgery, the same one I just had. For the record, yes, it hurts. She was an iron woman.

The first of our many cancer pilgrimages was my second encounter with a magical device called an elevator. I had seen one in the Roland Hotel in Bristow change locations at a glacial pace but the one in the University Hospital was so speedy that I could sit in the general waiting area on the first floor and if they announced Bessie Russell on the crackly loudspeaker, I could jump on that sucker and be to the fourth floor before Granma got her wheelchair ride to the front.

We had quickly learned that they preferred the smaller waiting rooms on the treatment floors be reserved for family members of patients in dire and immediate danger. We (myself, my mother, my aunt and even Grampa) waited in one of those rooms the day of her surgery.

The general waiting area was louder and looser and where most of the kids got stashed. I would normally stash myself there when I had escort duty. The last time I expected to have that duty, she was not to return for three months and I would not be coming on account of school. I left the letter jacket folded neatly on a chair in the back of the waiting room.

What started this recollection was the look on my grandmother’s face when she got her diagnosis with the weapons she had to fight back—that is, none. Her stricken look was the first image that would sit still in my head when I got my diagnosis.

My health had been on a slide for a good long time. I can’t say the diagnosis made me want to throw a cancer party, but it gave me some place to direct what is, compared to my grandmother’s, substantial firepower. With my disability rating, I’m entitled to any kind of care the V.A. offers. I have Medicare. I am eligible for Indian Health Service, although living outside a service area. And I have the group health insurance from my first career as a judge. I also have a family situation as warm as hers was cold, and concentric circles of dear friends all over the world.


We both got one thing with the cancer diagnosis that has not changed in the intervening 60 years. A list of foods we ought to eat and others we ought to leave alone. The difference? I shop where I please but her choices were limited to the government commodities run.

She always spoke highly of the medical students, interns, and faculty supervisors who team-managed her care. I never heard anyone belittle her for not knowing medicalese, and one day, when some jerk started a public oration in the indigent care waiting room about what “bums” our relatives were, the OU guys showed him the door tout suite.

The kind and decent Okies frosted a cake different than what they planned when Granma returned from that three-month appointment carrying a package she had not had when she left. She was “cured,” meaning that appointments were down to only one a year and she could do whatever she felt good enough to do.

Smiling broadly after that good medical report, she pulled out the mystery package. “You will never guess what those medical students found that they knew belonged to you.”

Unfortunately, I could guess. At least, it no longer smelled like urine.