"It's good sand this year, yeah," said 15-year-old Elizabeth Stanley, who, in a white cowboy hat, beaded cornrows and rainbow-colored bathing suit, was in a crouch, working on her Pegasus. "Free Flight," as she called it, would later win first prize in her category: Sand Hoppers, ages nine to 15. "Some people don't understand how sand can be nice one day and not the next, but it can. When the sun's out, it dries up the sand fast and everything blows away. Last year it was so hot [107°] the sand fell right apart; we had to put wet towels down on the finished parts."
But for last month's sixth annual Arkansas River Sand Castle Contest overcast skies, a mercifully steady breeze from upriver and a fine bluegrass band named Country Jam helped to temper the 90° day; banjo and fiddle notes shot holes through the heat. Five thousand people turned out for the event, 1,000 competing in the contest—all ages, all backgrounds (there was even a family from France), some in teams, some solo—and the other 4,000 partaking of the sand, the breeze, the music. Many of them spent the afternoon knee-deep in the channel of water separating the riverbank from the sandbar on which the contest was held.
"Elizabeth has artistic flair," whispered her mother, Lorraine, from the blanket where she was cheering her daughter on. "Look! That's the leg of the horse coming up right there." Sure enough, there was the horse's leg, the muscle flexed and ready to kick up a faceful of sand. "Last year she made false teeth. They was right on top of each other; called them Jaws. Two years before that she made a basketball sneaker, shoelaces and all. Had it up on a little pedestal."
Although the event is called a sand castle contest, any form made with natural materials—sand, grass, twigs—qualfiies.
"You'll see a little bit of everything before the day's over," said Sid Anderson, a retired glazier from Broken Arrow, Okla. "Oh, they build animals, alligators, you name it. They'll have a fish out there and all the details. Some of 'em are good and some of 'em are not so good. Few years ago a lady built a big sea turtle, six feet in diameter, all different colors. You'd be afraid to walk by that turtle, afraid what you might git your leg bit off."
All up and down the sandbar—from one end, where the Sand Pros, architects and landscape architects, were calculating with slide rules, to the other end, where Sand Fleas, ages one to eight, were using spit for glue—sand was beaten, molded, packed, flung, sprayed, sung to, cursed at and caressed. The results: a flying dragon; a whale with a bush for a spout; a swimmer clinging to a raft; an octopus on the back of a dinghy; alligators hatching out huge eggs in a work entitled Birth of a Preppie; a plane with the message DON'T DESERT TULSA; a basset hound with suckling puppies. There was an enormous head created by Ellen Owen, a sculptor from Bartlesville, Okla. ("My only problem was I couldn't make the nose work," she said. "It kept sliding off. In sand sculpture, you have trouble with protrusions.") Miss Piggy was there, as was Snoopy on top of a doghouse, surrounded by a fort wall built by Meana Penairo, a lively, middle-aged woman who sang while she worked, "I'll never get rich...digging a ditch, ha!"
"If we lose, I'm gonna come back and jump on it," said one youth, who was wearing a KISS hat, and building an Egyptian tomb with a partner.
"Manley, you do, I'll kill you," retorted his partner.
"I'm trying to make some people drinking wine," said T.C. Kirby, a little girl visibly exasperated with her supposed teammates, Jerome and Kelly, who were off in separate corners of their allotted 10 x 10-foot plot, each working on private projects—an anchor and an oasis.
A blond, tanned little boy named Michael was industriously applying pebbles to the side of a fast-eroding mound of wet sand. Little pools of water surrounded the mound.
"I call it The Great Arkansas River" he said proudly, standing up. "Last year me and Jason won first prize. It was called The Three Wonderful Castles of the World and a Couple Little Bitty Ones. That's my friend Jason, there."
Jason's work was even more abstract—several piles of wet sand, a few bent aluminum pie plates and a blue sneaker rising like a whale out of a pool. "What are you making?"
"Well...the prehistoric...thing. What is it, Michael?" He turned to his friend. "Time? The Prehistoric Time? Yeah, that's it. See, we have a sandpile at home, we make stuff, practice. I drawed that," he said, pointing to The Prehistoric Time. "Well, no, I didn't really draw it, I saw it. I saw it in a movie called Alien."
"Hey! What happened?" A heavy man, panting and sweating in wet madras shorts, was addressing a small team of near-naked children. "I walked across the river to get you all T shirts. When I left, there was a castle. Now, when I come back, there's a bull's head." He was crosseyed over the transformation. "That's the problem with sand," said Michael. "You got to constantly decide what it is. See, sand can be...anything."
"Yeah," said Jason, scooping up a large fistful of The Prehistoric Time and throwing it out over the river. It broke and scattered in the air. Off in the distance, behind the foreground of poplars, cottonwoods and elms, rose the concrete, glass and steel skyline of downtown Tulsa, of modern times. "That's why I like it," said Jason, beaming as he studied the tiny grains of quartz that were clinging to his open hand.