In the early evening of Saturday, October 23rd, 1993, Bobby Dean stood by the tan surface of Highway 49, in a community sometimes called Rich. He watched as the last glimmers of the sun reflected from one of the windows of the fellowship hall of the Lutheran church across the state highway. The church itself had no front-facing windows, something that always drew his attention. Due to Bobby Dean’s connection to farming in the Delta of Arkansas, he knew that the official sunset was technically 15 minutes ago, slightly before 6:30. Like so many from that part of the state, he didn’t need a calendar or weatherman to predict the weather for him.
It was a warm day for eastern Arkansas. Not that Bobby Dean typically wore a jacket, but on this day, he had left his grease-stained jacket on the hook in the garage all day. The day had turned out to be perfect, rising to the upper 60s. The gas pumps were busy for most of the day, then activity tapered substantially as people headed home to eat before either venturing out again of staying home to watch the world series or Hee Haw. In the last ten minutes, only two cars had passed. Neither had stopped, probably on their way to Helena or Tunica. The casinos had recently put their footprint on the area and Highway 49 was quickly becoming a rapid corridor to find them. Locals argued relentlessly about whether they’d bring life back to their area or further drain it.
As the last car passed, Bobby Dean had been inside the station, closing the old register, the kind featuring mechanical rolling numbers. For no particular reason, he looked out one of the two wide front windows and saw the Reverend from Our Savior Church pull out on to the highway and point his vehicle toward Brinkley. As was his custom, Bobby Dean instinctively waved at toward the departing pastor, unsure whether the preacher could see his silhouette inside the station. Much to the surprise of many, the preacher and Bobby Dean had become well-acquainted. He performed Bobby Dean’s remarriage, as well as his funeral. One of Bobby Dean’s jokes was that remarriage technically could be considered to be a funeral, depending on one’s perspective.
As Bobby Dean looked to the north and south, the highway lay silent, its straight strip of asphalt pointing the way to wide expanses of farmland and house dotted along its perimeter. The tilled-under fields now waited, dormant and marching toward winter lifelessness. For those who admire such austere landscapes, it was meditative. Bobby Dean was certainly no one to ascribe to such silly words. To him, it was simply peaceful.
A younger Bobby Dean had lived in Northwest Arkansas and a short time in Indiana. He resided in Pendleton Correctional facility in Indiana as well, for his part in a robbery of a truck stop off of U.S. Highway 20. His heart always beat strongest in Monroe County. He was anchored to his wild youth, his family, the soil, and the freedom that such wide open spaces always presented to those willing to live inside them. Unfettered freedom and wide stages often led people like Bobby Dean to run wild.
He took an unfiltered Camel from his front shirt pocket and lit it. The smoke filled his lungs. As he exhaled, it formed a small cloud near him. The day’s light breeze had weakened. Bobby Dean always smelled like a blend of one or more of gasoline, oil, cigarettes, dirt, mints, and whiskey. Those who knew him could often read his potential behavior based on the prevalence of one scent over the other.
Looking back at the small church across the highway, he recalled that he had remarried there only 8 months prior. Strangely, it reaffirmed where he’d started: married to Carolyn and living in the small farming community. Carolyn would undoubtedly be at home just a bit up the road, near Cypress Road. The last time Bobby Dean ran this service station, the United States was celebrating its bicentennial and he and Carolyn had lived in a trailer almost touching the rear of the gas station. For a second, Bobby Dean wished they still lived behind the station. He could imagine the scent of freshly fried catfish in hot oil, the shouts of people congregating, and time before family began succumbing to inevitable biological frailty. His weariness enveloped him. His dream of coming back here to live and to work was realized but his bones were weary. Bobby Dean’s idea of a metaphor was the type found in Louis L’Amour westerns or demonstrated in the slitted, watchful eyes of Clint Eastwood.
Tonight, his demon fed by whiskey would not rear its head. Lately, Bobby Dean could not sustain its aftermath. His hard life was dealing out hard consequences. His namesake son, X, had surprised him last weekend with a visit. Bobby Dean had been driving his pickup along Highway 39, heading toward Monroe. His son had pulled alongside him in his roommate’s borrowed car, hogging the entire road. Carolyn was in the passenger seat, smiling like an idiot and shouting. “What’s up, #$%#$%#$%$@#$ ?” Bobby Dean had shouted back, laughing. He pulled over so everyone could exchange greetings and cleverly-worded obscenities as they laughed. Bobby Dean managed to salvage a few normal moments with his son during that visit until the urge to drink overwhelmed him. Like so many, he had no way of knowing that it would be his last chance to build a narrow bridge back toward his son.
He finished his cigarette, dropped it to the pavement, and smashed it out with his boot. Bobby Dean turned and walked over to the three gas pumps. He leaned against the outside pump, watching.
The October sun had disappeared entirely. The edge of the highway and all that surrounded it now lay in a blanket of time and silence. Waiting.
38 days later, Bobby Dean walked his last step.
His bones now rest in Upper Cemetery along the same highway, near one of the areas where Cypress Creek and its thick, muddy waters crest near the road. If you drive by at night, you can hear Bobby Dean’s shouts trailing behind you. You’ll fight the urge to floor it without knowing why. Instead, you’ll roll down the window and listen more closely. Tilled earth, smoke, and whiskey will greet you. It’s my hope that you’ll find only the wild, enthusiastic side of Bobby Dean as you pass; may his violent undercurrent forever be at rest.
If you drive the highway to visit the area where the station once stood, you’ll find the small church still patiently marking the days of its members. The station, though, is long gone. In April of 2009, someone removed the subterranean gas tanks. Not long after, the building was gone. Now, as you pass, you’ll note almost no remaining footprint for the gas station. The two telephone poles which once aligned with either end of the property still stand, along with a very narrow strip of pavement. The rest, however, has surrendered to the relentless fertile soil of the Monroe County landscape. The last couple of times that I passed where the station once stood, I resisted the urge to stop and stand in the field there. I couldn’t be sure that time itself wouldn’t grab me and whisk me back to a distant decade, trapping me in nostalgia.
I fear that the entire area might be slipping into non-existence, reverting to a time before railroads, lumber, and commerce; one inhabited by natives.
I fear that Bobby Dean might be dissipating, too. He’s been dead for over half of my life and I’ve survived this place longer than he did.
Each of us only survives in actuality as long as a living soul still remembers us.
Somehow, I received the curse of being the historian of the family. Despite my untrustworthy memory, the only honor I can bring to the history of those who preceded me is to hold my hand aloft and swear to tell the unflinching truth. Some facts slightly disjoin in my retelling, without a doubt.
The mood and temperament though? These are my promises kept.
Recently, I wrote a story about finally discovering exactly what type of coffee cup I had used to drink my first cup of coffee with, back when people like my grandpa Willie believed that such things should simply just happen regardless of one’s age. I ordered a jadeite Fire-king cup from Etsy, more as a tribute than a keepsake.
A cousin of mine read my post and reached out to me. It turns out that she had a blue Fire-King cup, a cup my grandpa used to hold his razor and shaving cream brush. He was a minimalist, too, but for totally different reasons than mine.
My grandpa died on a Saturday back in October 1977. The cup he used most days sat dormant, waiting for me to wind my way through decades of intervening years. My cousin graciously offered to send it to me. I received it today. With the piece of ‘art’ I already posted about, this was a day for both something old and something new.
As sentimental as it may sound to say it aloud, holding the cup has already peeled back the foggy curtains of my youth.
The half-broken nail in front of the ‘shaving kit’ is the infamous nail that I wrote about in another blog post. This is the shortened version: A Rusty Nail…
P.S. My post about the jadeite green coffee mug on my blog and public figure Facebook page opened many doors for other people, people whose memories were triggered by the same recollections of family and home.
This post has no point, no moral or objective. It’s just a fact.
My paternal grandmother had just turned 14 when she was married. When she married, my grandfather was much older than her. Grandmother had just turned 14 and although she needed a signatory to marry, even the marriage license states she was older than was true.
Even in Arkansas, it seems, people were always concerned about a scandal. When I was very young, I knew my dad wasn’t in Alaska, even though he told me this more as a drunken joke than an explanation. He was in prison in Indiana, for what amounted to a minor crime compared to a few things he had done, one of which resulted in someone’s premature demise. The amusing thing is that my Grandmother Terry was petrified of gossip about her and her family.
I’ve written from time to time about it and other family stories. Like so much of the family lore, I learned of the existence of hidden secrets via hushed silences, sideways glances, and anger when direct questions were asked.
As I grew older, I knew that one day research and DNA would ‘out’ much of the stories some family members didn’t to be revealed. Most of those family members have died, leaving a tantalizing list of questions that might never be answered.
But I do know this: much of what made them nervous under scrutiny were legitimately embarrassing stories and behavior. Their refusal to be honest is a much bigger problem than anything they tried to conceal.
Lately, I’ve seen so many stories which skirt the edges of my grandmother’s story. Some of the same people who seem shocked by the revelations in the public realm are the very same who worked so tirelessly to conceal the truth in my family’s foggy past. They “cluck” at others, all the while knowing their own past is littered with much worse.
Isn’t that the way it always seems to be?
The danger some of my departed family seems to not understand is that by failing to divulge some of the family secrets, they have left their legacy in the hands of someone like me.
If I don’t get answers, I’ll make it up, based on what most likely happened. Given the trajectory of what I do know, that gives me license to go in any direction, no matter how dire, without possible complaint from those who constantly shouted, “Hush!” at me.
Family history, it seems, is literally what I choose to make it.
I’m not sure how meaningful my words might be, coming from someone who loathes the idea of burial but loves cemeteries and their connections to history. It’s a cliché to point out they serve as reminders to us, in part because we so seldom feel the urgency they offer. When we do, it is usually because we feel the icy fingers of oblivion as subtle symptoms in our bodies or when it reaches out to visit someone in our private circle.
On rare occasions, people we’ve never even met get a moment of remembrance, as is the case with this story.
As is frequently the case of late I found myself with a few stolen moments and chose to walk a long serpentine path along Huntsville in Springdale. As I walked along, I looked up and noticed I was approaching a cemetery that I had not visited in probably 20 years and certainly not since the road had been widened. The last time I had been there, almost everything about Huntsville was awaiting transformation into a multicultural artery on that side of town. Normally I would have walked past, my eyes gauging the sights as I moved on. Perhaps in part to the relative chill in the September air and the declining sunlight, I instead turned and opened the latch to enter the shady cemetery grounds. It then it occurred to me that I had just researched someone laid to rest there. So with a little more anticipation, I walked the outside perimeter and without even searching happened upon the graves I had seen in my genealogy searches.
I found Daniel Lemke’s headstone. He was born on the eastern edge of Poland, in a small place named Chelm, almost into Ukraine. He came to the U.S. in 1901 and chose Wisconsin as his first home here. His son Martin Julius was born there and moved to Northwest Arkansas 70 years ago. Daniel died 72 years ago, or 27,317 days ago. His son passed 14 years ago, some 5,455 days ago.
I find it difficult to put myself in the place of someone who would travel so far around the world to land in an unknown place, with new exotic words to learn. It’s fitting that Daniel’s great-grandson would find himself in a similar situation, on another part of the planet, forging an entirely new life for himself. I imagine, though, that these places here in Northwest Arkansas have a pull on his heart. He can always return here and sit by the fire, remembering his life on the other side of the world.
While it’s likely that my path crossed with Martin in the way that almost all proximate lives do, a complex intertwining mesh of ‘almost,’ I don’t have any claim to knowing his presence. But thanks to the prism of time, I can see where his path led and look back through the footprints of those who came after him. Because of him, I learned of a place called Chelm and its part in history. I wonder how much our footprint will be memorable and not simply because of our safe choices.
I think that sometimes history’s bell rings more deeply when the hour grows later and the air turns chill. The grass inside the cemetery grounds was bright green, still waiting for the arrival of frost mornings. There’s something about these times and these moments.
It was a pleasant sensation to be standing in such a contemplative place, thinking back to the lives of people unknown to me. As the busy avenue continued unabated behind me, I alone possessed the refuge of that cemetery, even as it possessed me.
When some of us were younger, we watched a TV commercial hawking Time-Life books. In the ad, it would say, “John Wesley Hardin, so mean he once shot a man for snoring.” In my context, I want you to renew your memory of that ad and consider it a consummate and fair assessment of what could have easily been said about my mother. In any comparison involving her, the other person would be just a novice in the game of unexpected words of reprimand. If my mom’s words could have been loaded into a pistol, Monroe County would have looked like a Wild West shootout. She didn’t need a concealed carry permit because the proclivity to give verbal lashes negated the want or necessity of a firearm.
A smart man once said that part of getting old consists of recognizing the influence of your parents that drove you bonkers coming to roost in your own mirror. My mom of course would have told that man to “Sit down and shut up with your highfalutin nonsense,” but I think it’s true that some of our legacy is to be startled by the overlap between the essential “me” in the mirror and our parents.
Today would have been my mom’s 70th birthday. As hard as she lived, all of us are still in collective and mutual wonder that she survived as long as she did. I’m not one to revel in these milestone dates. I fight the tendency to succumb to some of her personality proclivities often – and often fail. But I should have channeled her more fully today because one thing she unabashedly did without reflection was to tell a SOB that he was an SOB – even if said SOB was standing on the pulpit for Sunday service. If she was in the mood, she might even throw her beer at him, after using a hurled cigarette to gauge wind trajectory. (Because wasting beer was one of the few Southern sins that everyone joked about – but seemed to be very serious when they repeated it.)
My mom had flaws. Looking back, I now romanticize some of those moments where she witnessed an SOB in action and without warning served him a walloping dose of universal surprised justice. It made for great comedy and/or horrific drama at the time, and it served as a safety valve for the rest of us as we both laughed and recoiled, all the while promising to NEVER do or say the things she did. Bearing witness to her creative use of shocking reprisal allowed us to forego the weakness in our own lives. We might fantasize about it, but giving those loony ideas life would usually be unimaginable. I have an arsenal of stories about her ferocity.
The majesty of the past so often develops more fully as we age because we can forget the intense immediate pain that once joined with memories. It is almost a beckoning call, soothing.
The events of recent weeks have exposed my mortal flaw to want to dish out a heaping pile of burning crow with greater frequency. Usually, I might note ahead or behind her birthday that it is approaching or receding from me for another year. In this year of apparent great tribulation, each day that I laugh and remember my mom’s example, it allows me to walk away without flicking a cigarette, followed by a beer, into the tumultuous melee of unmitigated plates of crow, faces unwillingly smashed into large avian chunks of unwanted deliciousness. If I am not diligent and careful, I will be the old man on the porch with a satchel of small rocks ready to be hurled at uncooperative and misfit kids in my yard.
Were mom alive, she would roll her eyes and say “Use shorter words, you ain’t impressing anyone.” She might cuss at me a bit, but in time, she would laugh and repeat the very things she had previously sworn weren’t true.
PS: I am not sure there is a moral to this story. But it certainly gets supplanted by the admission of my shortcoming.
(The picture is of my 3rd great grandfather David Blackshear.)
After doing a few dozen ancestry trees, adding thousands of people to world tree projects, as well as DNA authentication, it is more apparent than ever how intertwined most of us really are. Farmers, royalty, singers, presidents and poets – all of us have them in our past. And no matter what you think you know about your family, it is probably both full of myth and stories infinitely more fascinating than you might imagine. Even at 5,000 years into the past, 200+ generations survived long enough to have a family. Without a doubt, you are related to both the violinist in the orchestra and the child playing the banjo in Deliverance.
Ancestry has taught me some strange lessons – in math, history, genetics and personal stories. It has defined the word “serendipity” for me. I’ve learned so many things that have nothing to do with who my great-grandparents might have been.
An example: 80% of all marriages in history have been between 2nd cousins or closer. This is because of the lack of suitable mates outside the 5-mile zone of a typical person’s reach for most of history. Without war or some similar disaster, people stayed put in their little worlds.
I’ve found a lot of fascinating things along the way, including people’s missing birth fathers, birth certificates, and even ties to royalty. (For what it is worth, you are connected to royalty. It’s a certainty. Wealth contributed greatly to lineage and it also afforded people’s connections to be recorded, unlike most commoners.)
Of all my accomplishments with research, I am most proud to have been able to locate one of my previous manager’s birth certificates. He had infrequently tried in vain to locate his birth record.
He was born overseas due to his father being in the military. I knew that some sort of record had to exist, even if a series of unfortunate errors had transpired.
After 4 + decades, he still didn’t have his birth certificate and wasn’t certain that one existed. That he made it so many years avoiding the necessity of showing a birth certificate is quite a surprise. In this modern age, it is nigh on impossible to obtain a passport without one, even when trying to use the alternate route to obtain a passport. The fact that he had been a military brat was both the cause and the reason he could move around in society without a birth certificate.
As is often the case, I had a eureka moment on ancestry.com after making an error researching something else entirely. Like so many errors, it occurred to me that the error was actually a useful way to look at my manager’s problem differently. From there, it was absurdly easy. I learned a lot of things on during this process. Without the initial error, though, the process would have taken much longer.
After locating the record, I was certain that it would be difficult beyond measure to actually order an original birth certificate from overseas. I registered on the United Kingdom website with my crazy name and paid for the document.
Within a couple of weeks, I had a strange, exotic envelope in it with someone else’s birth certificate.
The look of surprise on my manager’s face when I handed him his own birth certificate was priceless.
…and it reminded me yet again that sometimes errors are the only way to look at problems in such as a way as to see them differently enough to solve them.