Ian McMillan: Where exactly is 24 hours from Tulsa?

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The other day, for no reason at all, I began to whistle that old Gene Pitney classic 24 Hours from Tulsa. It just sauntered into my head from nowhere and, like a long lost relative who pops in for a cuppa and stays for a month, it just wouldn’t leave. All day I whistled it, sang it and tapped out its rhythm with my spoon while I was having my rice pudding.

And as I whistled and sang and tapped, I contemplated the eternal mystery of the lyrics. You’ll remember them, they’re like a classic American short story, a road trip, a film that might star James Dean or Montgomery Clift. The song’s about a man on a journey. He was only 24 hours from Tulsa. He was only one day away from her arms. He saw a welcoming light, he had to rest for the night.

Well, so far, so good. I can imagine our protagonist returning home to his wife from a business trip driving one of those big old American cars with fins and bucket seats. He’s still got a 24-hour drive ahead of him, so when he sees the vacancy sign at a small motel he decides to check in. But then, in the words of the song, “she was there and I walked up to her, asked her where I could get something to eat and she showed me where…” and one thing led to another, as they say, and now he’s not going home. Indeed, he told his new girlfriend that he’d die before he let her out of his arms, which does seem a bit strong on a first date, but then I’m from Barnsley.

For me, the eternal question is, where was he? Where was this place that was only 24 hours from Tulsa, only one day away from her arms? That’s his wife’s arms, of course, not his new special friend’s. There seem to be a lot of arms in this song.

I used to think the town that was 24-hours from Tulsa was, because of the vastness of the USA, somewhere on the East or West coast, given that Tulsa is in the middle, but then, as I continued to tap out the song’s rhythm on my now-empty rice-pudding bowl, I had a brilliant idea.

Imagine that you set off from Tulsa and you fly to New York; that’ll be about four hours. You have to wait three hours for your connecting flight. You fly from New York to London Heathrow, another seven and a half hours. You catch the tube to King’s Cross, allowing for getting your baggage and getting a bit lost, that can be another hour and a half.

You get the train from King’s Cross to Doncaster and because it’s a Sunday and there are engineering works near Hitchin and then again near Retford you have to keep getting off the train and onto a bus and back onto a train, so a trip that should take under two hours takes nearer four. In Doncaster you get the X19 bus to Darfield but it breaks down near Marr. You decide to walk to Barnsley and, after four hours, you arrive in Darfield, a whole 24 hours after you set off. Now, reverse the journey: Yes, you’re right. Darfield is 24 Hours from Tulsa. Amazing. And a fantastic marketing opportunity. I’ll order the blue plaque now, and wait for the coach parties to rumble in…