Forgotten Days in Tontitown

 

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This picture is of my brother, me, mom, and dad. I’ve written before how ambivalent I am about this picture. On the one hand, I’m glad that the picture exists. On the other, it is horribly misleading because it might convince bystanders that we were a happy family.

Before highway 412 modernized us, we intimately knew highway 68. Before its expansion and encroachment all along the yards lining it, it was a typical narrow road passing through NWA. It was a vital artery connecting the small towns that dominated our corner of the state. It’s “Old 68” now, truncated and lost to failed bridges that isolate it from its replacement. I once knew parts of the old 68 with precision. There were many times I would ride back to our home with my drunken dad, praying to the silent god who presumably watched over idiots like him. On the other hand, I knew such hopes were truly childish because Dad had killed a cousin of mine in a DWI accident. This knowledge invalidated the whispers of hope I had. Sometimes I’d pray for a horrible crash to engulf us and put an end to the uncertainty; other times I’d wish to just get home in one piece.

The land over on the far side of Tontitown was simply beautiful. I find myself forgetting this at times. Rolling hills, thick trees, creeks crisscrossing where the land permitted, and open expanses of fields filled the area. For the most part, property owners weren’t aware of kids traversing their land. As long as we respected their property, those that were aware simply chose to ignore us as we did what kids do best. There were times where we’d set off walking and have no idea where we were heading. Chiggers, mosquitoes, and snakes often accompanied us. When you’re young, you assume that such things are a required tariff in order to enjoy life.

Because my family moved more often than a pack of unwanted nomads, I lived in Tontitown more than once in my youth. The first long stretch followed our trailer in City View Trailer Park in Springdale burning down, rendering both at least 100,000 cockroaches and us homeless. We moved to the western fringe of Tontitown, near the bend where the new 412 first veers away from the original 68. When 68 was rerouted and renamed 412, it cut across Road 852. Technically, it wasn’t and isn’t Tontitown – but everyone considered it to be so. It was not too far from the infamous and now-defunct Blue Hole swimming spot, home of the coldest water imaginable. When I was young, I didn’t even realize that Blue Hole Road was a real name.

We moved to Washington County Road 852 to stay with Leta, the widow of a paternal cousin. Dad had a penchant for sleeping with a variety of people, and choosing from the woodpile didn’t deter him. It took me several years to pinpoint precisely how Leta fit in the family tree. Her husband, my dad’s distant cousin, had died a few years prior. Leta had an interesting life, and despite all the other surrounding confusion, I now know that I would be fascinated if I could go back in time and have an adult conversation with her. She wasn’t a warm person; on the other hand, I didn’t understand how much of an interruption we might have been to her life.

I’ve written before about the place being the perfect alignment of isolation, anger, and addiction. Highway 68 ran across the north, leaving the land below it pristine and only accessible through a complex series of dirt roads. I was in 7th grade, and because of the fire, I had lost everything. The house was small, and even the so-called bedrooms were nothing more than imaginary boundaries inside the old house. We all shared one bathroom and a clawfoot bathtub. Ancient box fans provided most of the airflow into the house. The outside of the house was covered in tan brick-theme tar paper, similar to what was commonly found in the area where I was born. While we lived at Leta’s, Dad spent time filling the inside of the house with dark paneling. We shared one console television in the living, very close to the front door, connected to an old tv antenna outside.

My parents often fought, as they were prone to do regardless of the impermanence of their residence. My dad had several affairs, including the notorious relationship with Leta who owned the house. The adults around me drank more per capita than any household in Tontitown. The alcohol-fueled many days and nights of violence and terror. It also sometimes granted us too much freedom. At times, I forget that because Leta worked at the Venetian Inn at night and Mom worked split shifts and unusual hours at Southwestern Bell, our presence at the house overlapped in a crazy Venn diagram.

As much as I vilify the players in the drama in that period of my life, I am the first to admit that there were some spectacular adventures. The geography allowed for us to trek miles in several directions, to explode a ton of fireworks with a total disregard for human safety, fire a variety of pistols, rifles, and shotguns, and to escape the lunacy the adults brought to the table. I could go outside and climb on top of the barn past the gated fence, or if I was really ambitious, crawl up onto the roof of the house or clamber up one of the ten million trees. The house also had a simple covered front porch, bordered on one side by a massive pile of firewood. We dreaded the surprise announcements that we were going to have to help our Dad cut firewood. I have an entire book of stories about some of those mornings. I could sneak away across the barbed wire and read, as long as I could suffer the bugs and snakes inhabiting the area. It was at Leta’s that I found her copy of “Your Erroneous Zones” by self-help guru Wayne Dyer. It was a revelation and seemed to describe an attitude and life that seemed impossible. I could take my french horn down into a dense valley and sound like I was summoning the Valkyries. It was possible to walk and fill oneself with many grapes picked off the vines or find patches of blackberries thick with both briars and berries.

At night, the area seemed to revert to a time centuries ago. Dark was genuinely dark, and animals of all kinds inhabited every nook and cranny of the fields and forests. There was a couple of times that my Dad forced us to walk across the darkened fields and leave proof of our visits inside an abandoned house, once part of a now-forgotten community. My cousin Jimmy was unnaturally afraid of the dark and everything it might contain. We were more afraid of my Dad, though. One of those forced walks in the dark is now one of my most cherished memories. The house stands epically in my memory and its silhouette is still etched in my mind and often used as a comparison to measure foreboding. Had my parents been more normal, it could have been a paradise. My appreciation for the land of that area has only grown as I’ve aged. The land owes me no apology for the people who stained its beauty.

As much as I knew about the area, I knew much less than my brother who had more friends and didn’t hesitate to go out and work in the grapevines or tomato farms. When the trailer burned, it burned my connections to the friends I had at City View. Sometimes, though, old friends, especially my brother’s friends, would visit and the shenanigans would commence. There’s a reason we universally look back and hold dear those memories of such adventures. They encapsulate so much of the joy of being a boy and having the freedom to experience small pieces of the world.

We often had mega-barbeques, fish fries, and feasts. They were raucous affairs, of course, and many ended with fisticuffs, shouts, and blood-soaked shirts. On one occasion, the party ended because my dad threw an entire box of ammunition in the wood fireplace in the living room. I took advantage of those times by eating barrels of salad soaked in Viva Italian dressing, or bag after endless bag of Venetian Inn salad and rolls. Leta worked at the Venetian Inn and brought home a treasure of food from there each day she worked. I, of course, loved pasta. After eating several miles of it, though, I usually opted for endless salads. We would walk the long dirt road home, rain or shine, from the nearest school bus stop up near Mitchell’s service station. (Those walks home after school would dissuade anyone from choosing a large band instrument to learn.) I’d often eat a king’s meal of rolls, salad and sometimes 2 or more chicken breasts. I could make a pot of coffee and drink it all. I sampled a variety of wines, too. Leta didn’t mind. She knew that we were going to be unable to overcome our curiosity. Don’t be too concerned about the bit of wine. I had access to unlimited alcohol and a few drugs, which didn’t interest me.

I’m only reminiscing because one day not too long ago, someone online answered a comment about that area and Brush Creek, which lies not too far away. Another commenter mentioned the massage parlors in the area. It made me laugh, reading the comments of those who claimed they were all fables and made-up urban legends. Where men walk, you can be assured that vice follows.

For those who don’t know, Tontitown once harbored several houses of ill repute, stills for moonshine, and a bit of weed for those wishing to find them. It’s topography made it ideal for concealment while also not being so far out of the way that it was prohibitive to find it. The hills and hollers made intrusion unlikely. Not too far from where I lived out on the dirt road, one of the residents had a decent plot for marijuana growing, with a water well off the road, powered by an illegal electric connection that was off the grid. He resembled the actor Brett Gelman if he never shaved. He also looked exactly like Leta’s son, who was the personification of an ex-Vietnam hippie. Leta’s son struck me as crazy, but he was always kind to me and talked to me like an adult. I remember once when we drove to Timbuktu to visit him, and he was in the front yard, totally naked, taking a shower under a hand-made system of water hoses. It was hilarious.

Even though the accusation will make some people defensive, many of these unsavory places were known to law enforcement. I’m not alleging conspiracy, of course. People do crazy things often enough with the necessity of making outrageous claims. Someone I know very well loves telling the story of her dad, who was a Springdale policeman at the time, giving protection to someone involved. My dad was known to payoff DWIs under the table, not to mention bribing people to look the other way. It was common. I’m not telling the story to paint someone negatively; it was just the way many things were done. Monroe County, the place where I was born, was a significant conduit for all manner of vice, too. Everyone knew it. Dad had a temperament and way of finding the most clever places to get into trouble. “Friends in low places” would describe his circle. Regardless, though involved in the shady businesses never interfered in other people’s business and expected reciprocity in return. Minding your own business granted every mutual safety.

The massage parlor sat near 68, hidden in plain sight in a nondescript tan trailer. There were, of course, no signs or indications that nefarious goings-on could be experienced within. I used to amuse myself by imagining that some industrious and brazen entrepreneur would put up a huge flashing neon sign indicating “Sex Shop” near the place. Google Streetview hasn’t visited the road in over ten years. I know that many people got lost looking for the massage parlor because I remember Leta and others telling stories about the faraway neighbors getting late-night knocks on their doors, demanding to be let in.

Because Dad would drink to excess, he would mouth off, often without realizing he was spilling the beans. One evening, he had driven by the trailer with his bottle of Evan Williams between his knees. “That place will make a man out of you,” he said, as he punched me on the side of the head. I don’t remember why I was in the cab of the truck with him. I would choose the bed of the pickup even during a lava storm to stay away from Dad when his mood could shift.

Sometime after, Dad had pulled in to the small driveway next to the trailer. I was surprised because I was in the back of the truck. Dad’s dog Duke and I remained in the back of the pickup. A little bit later, Dad came out and proudly drank some of his whiskey and coke and drove home. I overheard him talking about the place to more than a couple of people.

It took me a bit to connect the dots. There was a cookout at Leta’s one Sunday, and someone said something about the convenience of having a massage parlor up the road. Mom threw her cigarette at the person joking about it and then hurled her half-finished beer into dad’s face. She shouted her favorite “MoFo” curse repeatedly as she left. (Many get-togethers ended that way.) Dad didn’t rush after her as everyone expected. He drank until the sun descended into the valley before reminding Mom of how dangerous he was. I don’t remember whether I cowered out of sight or managed to escape outside and down the road or through the surrounding landscape.

There were times when Mom would drink and then decide to go hunt for my Dad. She’d drive by the Red Door and all the other usual places that might contain him. I think after finding out about Dad’s presence at the massage parlor that she always took a moment to look over the area around it in hopes of seeing his truck. I’m not sure how many times I was forced to prowl with Mom. I do know that she had no business driving most of the time.

Or being married, now that I think about it.

I’m not sure how long this particular massage parlor stayed in business. (Long enough to increase Dad’s chances of getting his head caved in, though.)

If you missed it in a previous post, we moved after Mom discovered that Dad and Leta had been having an affair for a long time. I found them together one night, which is why I can state with such certainty this isn’t a figment of my mom’s fabled anger and imagination. Weirdly enough, we moved to a place very close to where I now live, to a tiny trailer on the road that would one day become part of the Don Tyson Parkway. That place was indeed a crucible of violence. Mom knew that Dad was unfaithful. Proof of it, though, inevitably started a predetermined sequence of weekend tirades.

Now that I know so much more about Dad’s inability to behave like a normal husband, it would be interesting to know whether Mom would kill my Dad after learning the new information. The breadth of my Dad’s infidelity goes much deeper and further than I suspected – and that’s quite a feat.

I have several stories that I’ve never told. Some of my reluctance arises from the involvement of other people who still walk the earth. While it is my right to share these stories, I’ve not done so because some of the unflattering biographies aren’t entirely in my control.

I don’t have a great record of our time out there on the western edge of Tontitown. I’ve mentioned before that my family simply didn’t own a camera. We relied on others to document our lives. There are pictures of our time there, but very few.
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P.S. I wrote this story without stressing the storyline. I didn’t know how to create a central theme, so I didn’t. The story and words stand ‘as is;’ take from it that which you will.

 

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The picture is one I took in 2006 after the house in Tontitown burned. I haven’t lived there for almost 40 years. It’s an unimaginable and detached amount of time. The inset picture is of me from around the time I lived in the house.

 

 

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This picture is of Uncle Beb and my cousin Jimmy doing the Hambone dance. This picture shows the corner of the house that’s also in the picture of the house after it burned. You can see the wilderness near the road in the background.

 

 

 

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This picture captures a common activity: everyone armed and shooting. My Uncle Bed, Uncle Buck, dad, and my cousin Jimmy. In the right circumstances, these gatherings were joyous.

 

 

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The picture in the first comment is a picture one of my dad. He’s three sheets to the wind. He’d just rolled his beloved truck down into one of the deep hollers near our house late at night. He was oblivious that night. The aftermath and days after were violently unpleasant.

 

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