It is not the most pressing of presidential questions, but Jimmy Carter has asked it more than once.
"How are all our firends in Elk City?"
Here, in November 1975, during a four-city Oklahoma campaign trip, a then-obscure presidential hopeful named Carter drew 400 people to a $7.50 dinner at the Ramada Inn. He shook every hand in the place and called it his warmest greeting to date.
He promised to come back if elected.
So next Saturday President Carter plans to keep his promise.
And though it is, perhaps, in the eyes of the people around here the only promise he has kept -- his policies on energy and agriculture, the life blood of the area, are not exactly what he said they would be -- he can expect to find a continuing warmth and respect, as well as support.
In fact, feelings here are little changed from the ones that helped him carry Elk City and surrounding Beckham County by 2 to 1 when the state was voting for President Ford.
That is because many people here continue to regard Carter as an honest, courageous and religious man with deep roots in the soil of rural talues.
On his policies, there is a feeling that no president can please everybody, and every president is subjected to a Congress that does what it wants to do.
And despite or because of those policies, Elk City is booming. A gritty little town of two-story plain prairie architecture, it has grown by some 3,000 people -- to 10,000 -- since 1970. Most of those have arrived in the past three or four years to explore one of the nation's most promising natural gas fields.
Mobile homes and subdivisions so new they still lack lawns form a buffer between the town and the surrounding wheat and cotton fields.This time of year you can see from the road the lush green winter wheat crop as well as fluffs of cotton lost to the wind when farmers took their harvest to the co-op gin.
In places like the Rib Ranch or the Frontier House, farmers eat and talk among the oil and gas workers from companies bearing names like Schlumberger, Magcober, Imco and Armco, household words in the energy business.
Elk City is almost midway between Oklahoma City and Amarillo, and besides the president's coming visit the big news here is the guy who allegedly drove a couple to Elk City from Amarillo, bound their hands, taped their eyes and mouths and then shot them in the head in a roadside culvert.
An accountant who moved hare from Dallas to escape the big city wonders what he has gotten into.
Amid this, and other symptoms of what people here see as fractious times, the president gets no small degree of sympathy.
"My biggest complaint is that he's a good guy but he's got too big a job," says Dennis Haggard, a 78-year-old famer who came to this area before Oklahoma was even a state and who the other day was paying a visit to the Broadway Barber Shop. "After he went over there [the Middle East], he's got some leadership. He's going to be criticized, but nobody's perfect.
"He said, 'God answered our prayers' [on Middle East peace]. That's what we've got to get back to -- the Lord.
"I'm gonna stay with him."
"I was kind of angry at him a little while," adds Verline Chervenka, an Elk City jeweler with ranching and natural gas interests.
But now cattle prices to producers are up 42 percent over last year, and the deep drilling for natural gas, the most common here, is being taken out from under federal price controls.
So Chervenka can say with a smile, "things in the best they've ever been."
But the question that Willis Berry, 32, a truck driver with Kelley Farms dairy, wants to ask the presient reflects a broader sentiment here: -- concern over inflation.
Berry's is not so much a question as a statement. He says: "It's nothing he's doing that bothers me. It's inflation -- it's about to eat my lunch. I want him to fix it so the working man doesn't have to spend half his paycheck for groceries and half for taxes. I want to know he's going to help the working man."
Berry went to the airport to see Carter in 1975, and a year later voted for him. But now he is waiting to see what happens with inflation, and if Carter doesn't come through, Berry says he will look elsewhere in 1980.
Still, he likes Carter: "He seems to be an easy-going, open president -- a country boy in the White House." And then Berry is off on an afternoon fishing trip.
"Inflation, agriculture and energy are the three biggest issues here," says Larry R. Wade, the mayor of Elk City and the publisher of the Elk City Daily News. Wade coordinated Carter's visit here in 1975, and is doing so againg for Saturday's trip.
Wade says he believes that Carter could carry this area again today, but, while sipping a diet Dr. Pepper, Wade concedes that it would not be by the same 2-to-1 ratio.
After all, the American Agriculture Movement has taken out papers for a demonstration permit for a protest against low farm prices during the president's visit. It would be the first permit issued under a March 5 ordinance enacted by the City Council in the face of farm protests and the presidential visit.
With White House staff people here many of the details of the president's visit are just being settled. He is due to arrive at the de-activiated Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base at 6:30 p.m. and then ride to the Elk City High school gymnasium for a 7:30 town meeting.
The gym won't seat more than 1,200 or so, and, as a result, Wade's Daily News is running coupons for a lottery drawing to see who gets in to visit with the president of the United States in Elk City.
Carter is scheduled to saty here overnight, probably with a local resident. The betting is on Wade's house. There are many Baptist churches along the brick streets of Elk City, should the president opt for worship the next day.
He will then fly to Dallas to address the National Association of Broadcasters before returning to Washington.
The White House says the trip is designed to fulfill Carter's promise to return as president, and the trip to Dallas presented the opportunity to stop in Elk City.
"I'm glad to see he's keeping one of his campaign promises, anyway," said R. W. McCaslin, a drilling and well completion consultant who voted for Ford in 1976. "I don't intend to do anything to try to see him."
"He's the pits," says Joan Keen, a farmer's wife who voted for Carter in 1976, when the candidate said farmers should get enough for their crops to cover their costs. "He sure hasn't done that," said Kenn, secretary for the 45-member American Agriculture Movement in three counties of southwest Oklahoma.
Her husband, Glyn, spent the past week in Washington lobbying Congress for increased farm aid.
Keen, lkie other farmers, says that Carter will not get their vote again. The American Agriculture group has yet to decide its protest strategy, but there may be tractors and pickup trucks and signs. "It's nice he's coming," Keen said.
"We want him to know how we feel."