(By Bob Dotson, NBC News National Correspondent)
I'm heading out to Oklahoma this week. Going home. No. I wasn't born there. I grew up in St. Louis. But I did my first reporting in the Sooner state, the story that got me my job at NBC.
I was just 26. Sitting in a small cafe one day. At the other end of the counter was a man who looked like Lincoln. He was big and rawboned and about 80. His voice pierced and rattled like an old bugle. I couldn't help overhearing. He was holding forth about a fellow named Paul Sykes, who arrived in Oklahoma with 600 former slaves from Alabama the year before one of those big land runs that offered up free homesteads out west.
His wagon rolled in with very little food. It was November. Too late to plant. They had no money. But Sykes had an idea. He went down to the Rock Island Railroad station and started singing to the passing trains. It was already a busy line. There were seven trains going north to Wichita each day and seven trains heading south to Dallas.
A lot of salesmen passed through. And they would throw money: sometimes a nickel, quarter, whatever they had. Paul Sykes took that money and bought food, not only for his group, but for all the immigrants waiting for free land. Some of the salesmen heard what he did and began to leave chickens and cattle. Sykes set out a table every day and fed that tiny community throughout that long winter.
"And do you know the amazing thing?" said the old man at the end of the counter. Years later I was wounded while fighting in France during World War I. While waiting for the ship that would take me home, I met a French officer who asked me where I was from. I said, 'Oklahoma.'
"'What part of Oklahoma?'
"The Frenchman's eyes widened and he said, 'Ahhhh, the Black man. He sings. He dances.' I looked at him in amazement and said, 'Yes.'"
That Frenchman's father had been an international salesman, working in America the year of the Oklahoma Land Run. He had taken his son with him to see the United States. Of all the sights and all the sounds, the little boy remembered an elderly man in a derby hat and a long black coat singing on a railroad platform. Paul Sykes spent 27 years on the platform of the Rock Island Railroad Station greeting every passing train with song. Until he died, he fed folks who were waiting for better times.
That story, from a documentary called "Through the Looking Glass Darkly," is still being shown on OETA, the Public Broadcasting system in Oklahoma. Part of the state's 100th birthday celebration. That's where my story in this business began.
Your story can begin here. If you know someone like Paul Sykes, drop me a note in the new American Story with Bob Dotson mailbox.