Looking at this post in my draft folder, I forgot that I had named it “Third Grade Marijuana.” That name paints an entirely different impression than the story underneath it.
I’m going to tell a truncated version of this story. The full version contained a couple of names and where I think the barn was located. I spent quite a bit of time going through property records and digging through the lists of people with influence and authority in the area.
I was in 3rd grade. My family lived in the Brinkley area again, for a year, so that my Dad could run the gas station on Highway 49 a few miles from Brinkley. I was in the bed of Dad’s truck with Duke, one of a long line of German Shepherds with the same name. We drove for miles. Dad turned off the main highway and then drove a series of increasingly narrow dirt roads. The last one was long and straight and ended in front of an unusually bright barn. As we neared, the large doors opened and Dad drove directly inside, which surprised me. Around the perimeter were large bags of hay. It smelled like silage or something pungent. I had been given orders to stay in the bed of the pickup truck. It wasn’t until later than I realized that Dad took me to a way station of sorts for marijuana. The barn was accessible only by one road. Deep irrigation ditches rimmed the entire arc of the farmland.
I didn’t stay in the bed of the truck. Someone offererd me a bottle of Pepsi from a machine along the wall.
Despite what people might say, this is a true story. Because the gas station in Rich is Monroe County, but close to a couple of other counties, I can’t be certain we stayed in Monroe County. I don’t know why we went to the holding barn in the middle of nowhere. I don’t remember if Dad took anything. I mainly remember him to talking to several people. All of them were laughing and talking loudly. It wasn’t menacing at all. Dad told me many years later that no one was worried because things have always been done that way.
Years later, it surprised me to know that Mom and Dad had marijuana in the house. (Or trailer, I should say.) I was oblivious to it before. They were lucky I was addicted to grape Bubble Yum and didn’t have an interest in pot. I would have had the entire school baked otherwise.
I started with the best of intentions: I stopped at Aldi to buy my mother-in-law another loaf of Apple Strudel Breakfast Bread. I first bought it for her as a whim. As such things go, the bread is pretty fabulous. It is with a begrudging spirit that I give any compliments to Aldi. I’m still very cautious about what I buy there. I will admit, however, that they offer a few things that aren’t available in other places. (Other than typhoid and a persistent rash, I mean.) I blame my friend Marjay for reminding me of Aldi. She shared a social media post yesterday about the dynamics of returning one’s cart.
Given that my job has a work limit allegedly due to the COVID crisis, I ran from my job with glee a little while ago. I should have paid more attention to the forecast. If not the forecast, I should have looked behind me as I drove across Springdale. There was a massive dark cell approaching. Had I noticed it, I would have driven directly home. I definitely would not have parked at the furthest part of the lot, either, something I almost always do when the executive committee chairwoman isn’t with me. (That would be my wife.)
I entered Aldi’s to buy three or four things besides the aforementioned delicious Apple Strudel bread. I ended up with a couple of dozen items and had to retrieve a shopping cart to carry them. It was at that point I noted the massive black wall almost on top of the store. Ignoring my instincts, I put my items in the cart and finished shopping. By the time the helpful cashier was throwing my items in my cart like it was an Olympic qualifying event, we could see the sheets of rain, as well as hear them strike the store’s roof.
I bought some bags, piled my stuff in them, and waited by the long window at the front of the store. My three or four items had blossomed into three large bags of food. Anyone looking at me would have thought I might be a huge fan of Aldi. It was a strange coincidence that today was my biggest Aldi haul in years.
There were several customers congregated along the bank of windows, all staring at the massive storm that greeted us. One woman with a full cart didn’t hesitate. She walked into the rain without wincing, unloaded her cart, and walked back to the front to return it to the corral. She resembled an otter that had just emerged from an overflowing creek. I’m assuming she is the mother of several children; only such unavoidable training could result in that kind of resigned demeanor. Additionally, she owned a minivan. It’s common knowledge that driving a minivan is tantamount to tacit approval to get drenched while doing the weekly shopping.
We watched one brave soul exit Aldi with a bag of groceries. In horror, we watched as he ran across 412. Anyone familiar with the danger would understand. Running across through rain so thick we could barely see across the street was an added element of lunacy.
After several minutes, I decided that the storm wasn’t going to abate. Pushing my cart ahead of me, I exited. As I crossed the main door, an unattended cart rolled by at a very fast speed, heading across the lot and destined to crush someone’s car. An employee cursed and then darted to get it. He was drenched by the time he came back. I half-ran, knowing it was futile. The sheets of rain hit me and surprised me by how cold it was.
At this point, I’d like to mention I hadn’t done my work laundry in a few days. As a result, I wore a pair of my old pants, ones with a much larger stretchy waste. I used my belt to tighten it drastically while I worked. Even so, my pants threatened to drop once or twice.
Because of the heavy rain, my pants drooped as I shuffled across the parking lot. As I half-ran, my pants, belt and all, slipped down past my gray underwear. I didn’t hear a round of applause from any of those employees or customers hiding from the rain at the front of the store. I stopped and got my pants to stay more or less and up and continued on to the car.
I crossed a river between the last rows of cars. The water reached my ankles as I crossed. As I opened the rear door of my car, I realized at the last second that the paper bags had become ornamental at that point. By sheer luck, I didn’t drop any of my groceries. I picked the other bags up like cannonballs and dropped them in the back.
Because why not, I walked my cart back up to the store. I told the employee, “My pants fell off on the way. My apologies for the unsolicited reminder to always wear underwear.”
Driving across Springdale on 412 was another adventure. Several vehicles decided to avoid the overflowing storm drains along the edge by driving in both lanes. I didn’t witness any accidents. While driving, I could feel the water puddling in my seat and on the floor.
When I arrived home, my wife had opened the garage door for me. I don’t park in the garage. I had to carry each of the three soaked bags to the inside of the garage one at a time, placing them on the concrete near the inner door. The rain was cascading across the roof of the car and hitting me in the face each time I opened the car door. Afterward, I wasn’t sure the garage door would close against the wind gusts and blowing rain. I had to strip out of my clothes while standing in the garage, surrounded by my valuable groceries.
Note: despite what you’d think, it is not romantic or sexy to watch your drenched husband bring in the groceries. I base this knowledge on the rapidity with which my wife exited the scene.
I could feel the loaf of Apple Strudel bread chuckling at me while I did. “Was I worth all that,” I’m sure it was asking me.
The cat’s been staring at the dryer strangely ever since I put my soaked shoes in there. He was so startled earlier when the shoes knocked the dryer door open that he bolted across the narrow entrance hallway at supersonic speed, smashing directly into the wall. His only comment was a strange, “Meowwwwwww,” even as he weirdly plopped down on the floor.
I can identify with the cat. Whether my greater error was in going to Aldi or doing so during a monsoon is up to you to decide.
Around me, the world continued, its billions of inhabitants each contributing their parts to the melee of the planet.
In the passenger seat sat an unusual amount of Mexican food I’d picked up from Acambaro, certainly more than two people should safely eat. In the bag, among other things, were five full orders of pico de gallo. Anyone who dislikes the smell of onions should assume my breath to be worse than normal after lunch. For anyone who doesn’t know: an order of pico de gallo at Acambaro is not your typical meager serving. Five such orders contain and order of magnitude of onions, cilantro, and chopped tomatoes. While you may challenge me to do ten pushups, I challenge you to eat five servings of this with a full meal without questioning your own sanity.
The car smelled like a restaurant as I drove east on Huntsville. Around me, several drivers seemed intent on reaching warp speed. For several, it was obvious they needed to be more concerned about the condition of their vehicles, their personal hygiene, and their ability to confine themselves to at least two lanes. Were in not before noon, I would have assumed several had attended a “Drink-All-You-Want” wine tasting.
As I slowly stopped at the intersection of 265 near the packed Kum & Go, I lowered my driver’s window. All the cars who’d been training for the Indy 500 for the half-mile were in the left lane. I turned my car volume to “19,” a volume that could potentially launch a satellite into orbit. My USB was playing “Automatica” by Nigel Stanford. If you’ve never heard it, you’re in for a treat. (And not the kind of treat that’s covered in lint in the bottom of the candy jar at your Grandma’s, either.)
As the young Latino in the first car looked over at me, I smiled like a lunatic, showing him all my teeth. I put the window up, even as I looked at him. I like to imagine how weird it must have looked to him to see me continue to smile like a hyena while the window went up in front of my face. “Inspired By Hannibal Lecter” probably approximates his discomfort. I had to laugh.
The light changed, and the left lane’s performance drivers rocketed off – but not before a small dark Honda vehicle sitting on 265 turned right and went across into their lane. As you would expect, the dark Honda immediately slowed to 25 mph. The fast drivers all hit their brakes as I went past them. I was amused.
As Huntsville curves south lazily, the throng of traffic began jockeying for position as the drivers neared Emma. At that point, Huntsville magically transforms into Butterfield Coach Road, a name so ridiculously preposterous that no one willingly wants to call it that. When Latinos ask me what it means or what the translation for “Butterfield” might be, I sometimes tell them that it is a medical condition characterized by high volume diarrhea. Sometimes I let them continue to think it’s true.
To the south and east, the sky was darkening rapidly.
The City of Springdale changed the roads a few years back to make them safer. I assume that was the reasoning. The stretch of road from Emma to the next huge curve has been beautiful for walking since the road deviated. Now, however, a spur is being built on the inside of the curve on the right side. Frequently, cones suddenly appear from the proverbial mist and force the right lane to suddenly merge with the left. That’s the theory, anyway. What it actually does is weed out those who are under the influence of marijuana and/or using their phones as they drive.
Because I drive it frequently, I tend to assume that someone’s going to do something stupid. Today, as the music blared, I watched a black Grand Cherokee Laredo approach from the rear going at least 70 mph. (Contrary to popular belief, and even though there are a lot of people who want to get out of Springdale as quickly as possible, we don’t have 70 mph zones. Note: the police allow you to drive 90 on 412 if you’ve eaten at Taco Bell – and do so for obvious gastrointestinal reasons.) As the Laredo neared me on the right and then passed, I noticed that their tag was a paper one. I had a sudden insight that it was their turn to be an idiot. There was no sign on their car to indicate this. I just knew. As they came into the cones pushing them left, I saw the Laredo eat one under the bumper. I assume the driver woke up at that point because the brake lights lit up vividly. I could almost feel the driver’s butt clench up from inside my own car. The Laredo lurched left, like a drunk who’d hit his head on the chandelier. The Laredo then went back and forth quickly. I was convinced I was going to see the driver go off into the large dirt valley that had been recently excavated for what appears to be a new access road. It’s right on the inside of the curve, too, where it will probably inspire more accidents.
Luckily, the Laredo didn’t do a Dukes of Hazzard. We stopped at the next light at Parsons Road. I noticed a black Escalade in front. On each side of the vehicle was a group of yellow balloons. On the rear, there was a sign wishing someone a happy 2020 graduation. The “O” of 2020 was a roll of toilet paper. I didn’t catch the name on the vehicle. The emergency lights were flashing. I couldn’t see inside the vehicle due to the near-total tint on the windows.
In 2020, maybe it’s a good thing to not see where one might be going.
103 seconds had elapsed since I noticed the time on the usb device on my car stereo.
In a way that you might understand, those 103 seconds felt almost accordion-like in my mind.
When I had time a little later, after writing this, I visited Google Maps and went back in time to 2008 to travel these same roads virtually. What a strange thing memory is, wrapping itself in blankets of time in an unending crescendo.
Since people kept saying, “What does a GOOD near-drowning story sound like?” I thought I should tell one which amuses me. It also highlights a few anecdotes about my Dad. I have some terrible stories about drowning, but this is the furthest thing from that.
My Dad had a propensity for outlandish humor. He wasn’t safe about it, either. I have a library of pranks my Dad was involved in, some of which border on pathological. For example, one year during one of the excursions to the “Deer Woods,” he and his drinking companions tied one of the other hunters to the top of a large stump and set it on fire. I’m not sure they had a contingency plan if he failed to be freed in time, although I wouldn’t put it past them to announce that he was part of the BBQ and break out the sauce. More than once, some fool would throw a box of ammunition in the fireplace or in the campfire. When we lived in Tontitown on old 68, Dad threw a box of ammunition in the fireplace inside the house. It went as you would imagine.
Although this is a tangent, when I was very young, I couldn’t figure out which state the “Deer Woods” was in, or why so much alcohol had to be taken for the trip. It perplexed me to think that a handful of grown men needed 30 cases of beer and a dozen bottles of whiskey.
Even if bears wanted a drink, a lot would get wasted, no pun intended.
Dad was mercurial, a word often used to disguise the fact that someone is a moody, temperamental asshole. Other days, the fog would lift from his brain and he’d decide to enjoy life, or at least be carefree. Had he had more of those days, life would have been markedly different for him – and for all of us. On one such day, Dad insisted that I go with him fishing. Inviting me to fish was akin to bringing a framed picture of Satan to your first prayer meeting.
While I had hoped for a trip to Lake Elmdale on a smaller boat, instead, I found out we were going with Uncle Buck and their friend Jerry, who I’ve written about in another story, the one in which Dad sneaked into his house and poured a pitcher of water down his rear while he was bent over and washing his hair. Going to “the” lake, Beaver Lake, meant we’d likely take Uncle Buck’s bass boat. I wasn’t a boat aficionado. It wasn’t simply because I couldn’t swim well. It required me to be in close proximity to my Dad. Such circumstances often yielded the opposite of whatever a child experiences during a visit to Disneyland.
I wasn’t a good fisherman, but I did well. That annoyed my Dad. I loved watching the water and the complex machinations of those who enjoyed fishing. Most of it seemed to be entirely arbitrary. Watching Saturday afternoon fishing shows proved this to me. It amused me to think that grown men would ridicule their wives for watching soap operas, but would sit in front of a TV and watch other people fish. Additionally, like my Uncle Buck, a lot of men I knew bought fishing magazines. I used to joke I was going to do a fishing show and magazine. The magazine would just be a picture of a man casting a line into the water, followed by a page that said both “Reel in” and “Repeat.” Shockingly, no one in my family appreciated my well-aimed commentary at their expense.
If I felt really funny, I’d mock them for feeling proud that they could spend thousands of dollars just to outsmart a bunch of fish. Uncle Buck tolerated my quips. With Dad, I had to guess his mood before any such contemplation.
We went to Uncle Buck’s house. He lived in one of the first bigger subdivisions in Springdale on Ann Street. I jumped into the bed of the truck hauling the boat. It had a camper on it. Dad, Jerry, and Uncle Buck sat in front. Despite Dad’s morning sullen demeanor, he was beginning to pick at both of the other occupants of the truck. How Dad had done it is beyond me, but when Uncle Buck pulled away from the side of the house, the truck bounced crazily. When Uncle Buck exited the cab of his truck, he discovered Dad had put holding blocks a few feet from the rear wheels. “Damnit, Bobby Dean!” This would be the first of many “Damnit Bobby Dean!” utterances for the day. If Uncle Buck were particularly chagrined, he’d invoke the name of God with the phrase for special emphasis. While Dad pranked Uncle Buck less often than other people, he’d been known to lift up the rear axle a few inches off the ground, put an ignition firecracker on his truck (these things actually existed and Dad LOVED them, or do a variety of clever and interesting things to amuse himself.
Though it’s not relevant to the story, it was around that year that Uncle Buck had been pulled over in Springdale. “How’s your day, officer?” He asked the policeman who pulled him over. Uncle Buck was generally good-natured and loved to ‘jaw.’ “Did I leave an arm hanging out of my camper again?” The officer said, “No sir, but can you explain your license plate? Can I see the slip for your truck?” Uncle Buck dug the paper out of the glove box. In such matters, he was meticulous. At times he was so meticulous that I doubted he and my Dad could actually be related. The officer asked Uncle Buck to come around back. In place of his license plate, there was an antique plate from another state, one that looked to be fifty years old and shot with a .22. Uncle Buck knew immediately that my Dad had switched his plates. By the time he got to Dad, he realized that it was funny and couldn’t stay mad. He’d been driving for over a week with the old plates. For quite a while, Uncle Buck made a point to see if anything was amiss on his vehicles.
As we were leaving, I heard Dad ask Jerry, “Do you think it will work?” Jerry, who momentarily lost his sense of reason, said, “What, Bobby Dean?” Dad cackled, ready to fire off one of his favorite punchlines: “Windshield wipers on a duck’s ass.” Dad’s glee at being able to repeat this joke more than once on the same person was legendary.
We stopped at the bait shop near the old bridge by Beaver Lake, before the road was improved. Dad had a couple of containers of worms as he walked out. He wasn’t drinking, so I knew this would be a great day. My goal was to not annoy him. Because he had an audience, he walked up to the boat where Uncle Buck was talking to Jerry and someone Jerry knew. Dad took the top off the container and fished out a worm. He popped it into his mouth and swallowed it. I knew his secret: swallowing it quickly resulted in almost no taste. Before you ask, yes, I did have to eat a couple of worms in my life. I had to eat a whole lot of disgusting things growing up. None of them resulted in “making me a man,” as Dad hoped.
Dad held the white plastic container out for Jerry’s friend. “Want one?” The other man made a terrible face. Dad responded with one of his favorites Southern sayings: “Boy, you sure don’t know what’s good!” (You can still hear this today in the South. It’s the classic point made after someone declines to eat something, usually with an unreasonable amount of mayonnaise in it.) My Mom often said this, even if she eating something that smelled like it had been discovered in an abandoned fridge under a bridge.
Jerry was usually a good sport. While I don’t remember who else was present when he did it all those years ago, Dad grabbed Jerry’s face and kissed him on the mouth to flabbergast him. (Dad was drinking heavily.) “Could you put on some lipstick or something,” he asked him when he pulled away. “And I don’t like my women to have mustaches.” It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever witnessed. Technically, it was assault. But yes, still funny.
As they got back in the truck, Jerry got in the middle. He started to yawn for some reason and Dad ‘yawn raped’ him. While there are other names for sticking your fingers into the open mouth of another person as a surprise, ‘yawn rape’ best describes the enthusiasm with which Dad would do it. He would almost choke you at times. Though you might not agree with it, sticking one’s fingers in an open mouth is almost a right in most Southern states, especially for dads. In this particular instance, you should remember that Dad’s fingers had just been in the worm bucket. Jerry just nodded his head. This was one of the ways he’d let you know you had drawn his attention.
Note: it’s never a good idea to draw the attention of someone who loves those 80s Charles Bronson revenge movies. Like Charles Bronson, Jerry was often silent. I grew to appreciate his ability to think about ways to strangle you while smiling.
We arrived at the lake and Uncle Buck swiveled the truck to back in toward the boat ramp. Dad made me help get the boat into the water. I was more likely to contribute to the boat sinking, truth be told. I was wearing cutoff shorts and no shoes, so I didn’t care how wet I got in the process. Dad was wearing his plain work boots, which in reality were just simple cowboy boots of some type. I never understood going to fish in boots. What did I know, though? Like the trick with Charlie Brown, Dad loved signaling to Uncle Buck that the boat was loose. As soon as Uncle Buck gassed it, Dad would yell “Ho! Wait.” He could do this repeatedly and not tire of it. It amused me, too. Uncle Buck was the perfect straight man in a comedy routine. When Dad was in a great mood, he would offer to pay me to help him pull a prank on Uncle Buck. We often succeeded. While he didn’t say, “Et tu, Brute” to me after finding out I was involved, Uncle Buck did enjoy picking on me when I helped his brother torment him.
Uncle Buck parked the boat while Dad bothered with the boat. It gave him the chance to disconnect the spark plug wire from the outboard motor. We used the trolling motor to pull away from the bank. Jerry took a moment to carefully check the cooler for the fish. On more than one occasion, Dad had packed the cooler with a snake so that the first person to open it would be greeted by a snake looking back at him. Dad was also not above grabbing a snake out of the water or the trees and throwing it in the boot at someone’s feet, either. If Dad had been drinking, you’d have to be a fool or filming a documentary about the lives of crazy people to get into a boat with him.
Dad had thrown snakes into a person’s lap before, too, as they sat in their car or truck. Often, just to alarm them more, he’d say, “You mean to tell that some snakes are poisonous? I had no idea!”
Uncle Buck repeatedly tried starting the engine of the boat. “I’ll take a look.” Dad leaned over the motor housing and connected whatever he had disconnected. “Look here, I found it,” he said, in a serious tone of voice. As Jerry and Uncle Buck looked, Dad raised his hand away from the motor. He was giving them the bird. He laughed. When Dad was in a humorous spirit, his laugh was infectious. I can’t imagine what life would have been like for him if that laugh had been his predominant characteristic.
As we sat in a cove, the three adults fished. I made it my mission to be silent and watch the treeline and water. Out of the blue, Dad asked, “Do you want to take a swim?” He was talking to me. I calculated how best to respond. Jerry intervened on my behalf. “No one wants to swim here. There’s probably snakes everywhere, Bobby Dean.” Dad thought about it. “How else is he going to make friends?” He laughed. I realized I had been holding my breath. For a second, I really considered hurling myself into the water just to be done with it. Waiting for a madman to decide one’s fate is worse than voluntarily jumping off the mountain.
If you don’t understand the above logic, congratulations; you’re normal.
Later, we pulled in another nearby cove. Jerry took over the boat because he knew the cove very well. Uncle Buck could trust him, whereas letting Dad drive the boat ran the risk of answering the question, “Can someone actually jump a boat over land like they did in that Burt Reynolds movie?” Jerry eased in closer to the overhanging trees, though still quite a safe distance away. He was a genius with anything mechanical and was the best fisherman of the group.
Dad started singing one of his favorite songs, one which he usually performed while drinking: “Lord, It’s Hard To Be Humble,” by Mac Davis. It’s no accident that Dad looked a lot like Mac in his prime. “You’re going to scare the fish,” Uncle Buck told him for no apparent reason. Jerry piped in. “You’re going to scare ME with that voice. You should be singing, “Lord, It’s Hard Not To Stumble,” Bobby Dean.”
One of my best fishing observations happened one day I was out on the boat with Dad. “When the fishing isn’t going well, silence is mandatory. When the fishing is going well, most of the adult men chatter like startled magpies – and no one complains.” Fish magically knew which scenario was occurring in the boat above them.
Jerry slowly turned the boat away from the trees.
As Dad sang, he stood up in the boat and went to one side. When Dad got his fishing pole in both hands to cast it near the trees, it happened.
In a perfect alignment of opportunity, vengeance, and humor, Jerry gunned the powerful boat. The front end rose as the boat lurched. Dad surprisingly did not see it coming, which made it much more comical.
He went off the side as he fell, while holding his fishing pole. Jerry gunned the boat more. Despite the engine, I could hear Dad’s indistinguishable yell of surprise. He hit the water and went under. Those cowboys boots were probably less than ideal at this point.
Jerry let off the throttle and began howling with laughter and pride. It was a rarity to catch Dad that far off guard. He was sputtering water, trying to stay above water while holding his pole. Despite his bravado, he didn’t look like he could stay afloat.
“I think he might need a hand, Jerry,” Uncle Buck said calmly. His voice was surprisingly calm. I think he could have said, “I see a shark” with the same calm. “Seriously.”
Jerry eased the boat around and throttled it momentarily. The boat eased into the cove near Dad. Dad was still spitting water and struggling. He put a hand on the side of the boat and reached a tie-off on the side.
Jerry knew better than to attempt to help Dad get out of the water. Uncle Buck tried to help hoist him in. The water made him much heavier. I took his fishing pole.
Finally, Jerry came over the side. Instead of reaching out to help Dad into the boat, he jumped into the lake. The look of surprise on Uncle Buck’s face was complete shock. How was he going to get two fools back into the boat? And did he really want them in the boat anyway?
As Jerry came up, he said what I was thinking. “I might as well jump in. Bobby Dean won’t be satisfied until either I’m in the water or the boat is on fire.”
Dad managed to get onto the boat. Jerry swam a bit and reached up for the boat. Uncle Buck and Dad grabbed him to help. Just as Jerry started to say, “Don’t let go, you asshole,” Dad let go and Jerry went back into the water.
Finally, we ended up back in the boat. They were all laughing, even Uncle Buck, who said, “I’m not jumping in.” At the risk of being proven wrong, I said, “Me either.”
I don’t remember what kind of fishing was done that day. I didn’t care, either. As long as it was rolled in cornmeal and fried like Uncle Buck fried it, I didn’t care if they caught a used pair of leather gloves. I tended to observe the fishing process with disinterest.
Fishing, after all, could easily be ‘drowning adjacent.’
Given the choice between hush puppies or fish, I’d opt to skip the drownings on the lake and sit at home and fry up a bucket of hush puppies. Fishing was a lot of work for no greater enjoyment in eating.
That day, though… It was golden-fried, too. I see that now.
Those days help mask the others, the ones hidden in shadows.
I’ve had this story for a long time, waiting until the fulcrum of my ability to share it flipped over. If you feel I’m being unjust or harsh, I apologize. It’s a true story, one of a few that I’ve guarded. A few people have heard the sanitized version of it. Years ago, I told Mom the story. She became enraged and denied it. “It’s true, Mom and you know it. It’s my story to tell and not yours to deny.” I take no pride in this story – nor shame. I can’t alter the past sequence of events. None were my fault. Failing to share it simply because it strips my parents of their humanity, at least in these moments, is not my responsibility. I had several such conversations with my Mom as the years rolled past.
My cousin built a house in Elm Springs in the early 70s. He moved from an incredible house near the mall. He needed a place where he could build a shop and have a great deal of flexibility with the property. We assumed he was incredibly rich because he built an in-ground pool in the back, one with a slide. For me, an in-ground pool was as unimaginable as anything on the planet. I was accustomed to going to the dirty lakes, streams, and ponds of NWA with my cousin Jimmy. Jimmy was deathly afraid of the water, and his fear was amplified after “Jaws” came out.
All these years later, the house still stands. The pool was filled in by a previous owner. Years ago, I walked through the long yard and around back. The rear of the house seems odd to me now. The patio isn’t as large as I remembered it. Its roof length was held up by 4 vertical posts that expand into a “Y” at each point the posts touch the roof. A large sliding glass door led inside, with the fireplace being to the right and on the rear of the house. I was able to hide in the crevice of the fireplace on the outside sometimes.
I loved the adventure of the water, even I couldn’t swim. Swimming meant ‘somewhere else,’ and that was a place I always wished to be. My biggest issue was that it was impossible for me to relax and enjoy it if my Dad were within ten miles of me when I tried to enjoy it. Those times when I went with Jimmy and my Aunt Ardith and Uncle Buck were glorious. They had issues but they tried to give Jimmy an opportunity to enjoy himself. If my Mom went along, too, I was constantly uncomfortable. Her volatility made enjoying things difficult. I didn’t fear being taught a lesson and drowning with her, though. Thankfully, Aunt Ardith and Uncle Buck gave me a chance to experience something close to normal time at the lake. I wouldn’t have known one if it weren’t for them.
My parents never took us to swim. We only went when accompanying others. It’s a strange observation for me because one of my earliest memories was of me standing up in the back of a black car, as Dad drove. In the passenger seat was the widow of a cousin with whom my dad was having an affair. We were probably headed to Clarendon Beach in Monroe County during that drive.
With Dad, it was always a risk. The incongruity of him telling a 7-year-old, “I’m going to teach you to be a man” still rings alien in my ears. I heard it ten thousand times growing up. Whatever a man might be, his example taught me that I didn’t want anything to do with it. When I grew older and discovered the depth of cruelty he subjected those around him to, I knew my instincts as a child were right.
Mom and Dad generally tried to behave when they were at my cousin’s house in Elm Springs. The cousin’s family was considered superior to us in every meaningful way. My cousin was also Dad’s boss, which made things awkward. He tolerated an incredible amount of shenanigans from my Dad.
One summer night, we were all at my cousin’s house and enjoying the pool, even as the sky darkened. The nights when everyone behaved were typical summer memories: food, overly-sweetened drinks, and all manner of pool games. While every visit had its problems, many nights miraculously avoided the stupidity which characterized my childhood. I think this is true because some of those people who had lives intersecting with my parents had a more reasonable mix of fun, love, and joy. To be sure, they had problems, but not so many that the arc of their lives would fall outside the normal range. For those times in the summer, I’m thankful. I can separate them in my mind from those which would otherwise discolor my memories. For each night punctuated by violence or anger, there were three good ones. The possibility of any given night ending horribly, however, made it difficult to relax and enjoy the otherwise good nights.
Night brought the tendency to drink to excess. This particular night was one of those. At one point, my Dad managed to climb on top of the house in the back, several feet from the pool. He stood over the covered concrete patio and urinated. Someone shouted, “Bobby Dean! Damn it. Don’t piss in the pool.” Whether he was trying to before the shout is anyone’s guess. After hearing it though, he felt a compulsion to try. When he was done, he prepared to try to jump from the roof to the pool. Several people shouted at him not to. At the last second, he tried to get his footing down the side and then jumped from the roof down to the ground. The only thing saving him from serious injury was the fact that he was drunk. It’s relevant to note that several people shouted at Dad to convince him not to attempt to jump from the roof to the pool.
Within seconds, Mom and Dad were screaming at one another incoherently. Luckily, Dad didn’t punch her. He shoved her as hard as he could. She tumbled to the ground. Mom continued to shout while splayed in the grass. It took her a long time to stand up. Each time she’d attempt to get up, she’d lose her balance and fall again. She yelled every curse worse that can be imagined during this process. I’d seen it on repeat throughout my entire young life. Everyone, including the kids, heard every word. In the fantasy version of my memories, I sometimes laugh at the image of one of us kids using a steno notebook to take notes of all the especially memorable curse words as Mom spewed them. They’d watched in fascination and horror as Dad stood on top of the patio roof trying to urinate into the pool, too.
We resumed splashing around and trying to salvage some fun. I never dropped my guard when my parents were around, though. It was certain death.
I don’t remember what I said to one of the cousin’s kids. Whatever it was, I called one of them “Stupid” after one of them had done something unimpressive. It was a harmless comment. He got out of the pool. I probably assumed he went for a drink or some chips under the patio.
I heard Mom screaming from the other side of the pool. I ignored her because I attributed it to her fighting with Dad. Their fights could subside and resume like rolling waves. Whatever happened that night, I knew that we’d experience broken furniture and bruises upon our arrival home.
“Get out of the pool, you little fat fu#$er! Right now.” Mom was screaming from the steps of the pool. I could see her cigarette glowing as hot as she probably was.
My cousin Jimmy said, “I think she’s screaming to you!”
I took steps in the water to meet her and get out of the pool. My feet were as heavy as bricks. Before I even got out of the pool, my Mom was hitting me violently in the face and head. “Did you call him ‘Stupid.’ You don’t call people stupid! I’m tired of telling you, so help me God.” With her shouted amen, she resumed hitting me as everyone watched. “We don’t behave like that.” She sounded completely irrational and her words were slurred into a river of mixed syllables. The only reason she stopped striking me was her arm got tired enough for her to drop her cigarette. Her other hand held a paper-towel covered can of Budweiser. I could see the kid who had told his Mom I’d called him stupid standing there in the dim patio light with a look of horror on his face. At his house, such transgressions were probably met with a stern word and nothing more. That violence could result was now a horrible reality to him. No one shouted for Mom to stop.
When Mom bent to pick up her cigarette, she fell face-first into the ground. She dropped her beer, too. Someone laughed. Mom focused on the fact that someone laughed at her. She again did the dance of attempting to struggle to her feet. She was cursing again and screaming something incoherent about being laughed at. I moved away from her and went to the far side of the house where it was much darker.
I could hear Mom screaming and ranting still.
Not too long before, she’d been screaming and fighting with Dad. Her anger and beer-fogged brain shifted to shouting that I’d pushed her down. She was horribly embarrassed that someone had laughed at her for falling while beating me. Several times during my childhood my Mom told my Dad some crazy stories and lies. Regardless of who wants to hear it or not, there was something violently broken in my Mom and she at times reveled in the misery of people around her. As her anger peaked, her appetite for others to suffer rose commensurately. Although I’ve implied it before, this desire to see the world burn literally resulted in her burning down places she lived.
That both she and my Dad had engaged in public fighting, child abuse, cursing, drunkenness, not to mention urinating in front of a group of children, none of that seemed relevant. The hypocrisy should have struck her dead where she stood.
Within seconds, my Dad was hollering for me. I knew better than to continue to hide so I walked around the corner of the house. He staggered toward me and struck me backhanded. For whatever reason, I didn’t fall or shout. He hit me again. I felt my ear pop. Dad grabbed me and dragged me toward the pool. I welcomed being thrown in the deep end even if it resulted in me drowning. Instead, he screamed at me for me to go up the ladder of the slide. I didn’t mind using the slide if I wasn’t hurried. I could get to the edge of the pool quickly, even though I couldn’t swim. Mom shouted drunken encouragement. When it suited her, she loved Dad’s violence. It was part of the incredible duality of my Mom that very few people understood about her.
Still, no one shouted for it to stop. Whether they were frozen in disbelief, the adults knew that Dad’s misbehavior could easily result in someone’s death. It happened before.
My Dad had a long relationship with attempting to drown me. I have several such stories and I’ll share some of them in the next couple of months. Not all of them were horror stories or terrible, as contradictory as that may seem. It might be hard for you to imagine humorous near-drowning stories – but I do have a couple. I climbed the stairs of the slide. My Dad surprisingly went up the steps drunkenly behind me. As I reached the top and was about to put a leg over to position myself, Dad punched me ferociously between the shoulder blades. The breath whooshed from me. I fell face-first into the hard plastic surface of the decline of the slide and my body flipped over. I somersaulted and hit my head near the bottom as I bounced in the pool. I went under and didn’t try to get back above the water. I don’t remember who pulled me out of the pool. I drank a lot of water.
Dad wasn’t finished with me. No one had intervened yet. He shouted at me to get up. I tried to get up. I couldn’t breathe, my ear felt pierced, and my back ached from being punched. I didn’t know I was bleeding a little on my forehead from the impact of the fall onto the slide. “I’ll teach you to be a man!” He pushed me into the pool, where another quart of pool water went down my throat. For those with curious minds, “Pool Water” isn’t a flavor. There was a bit more cruelty from my Dad afterward but I’ll hold back the whip.
Even though my cousin Jimmy was a couple of years younger than me, we talked about this night years later. His dad, my Uncle Buck, had recently died. “I thought I dreamed that, X,” he told me. We both sat, thinking. We shared several stories that night. Even while sharing the harsh ones, we laughed. Our ancestors were dead and much of their power died with them. They wasted great chunks of their lives.
Like the pool at the house in Elm Springs, maybe it would have been better for my memory to have been filled in, too. Whatever scar I earned as a result of that night has long faded into obscurity. I can hear time calling my name, echoing for the day when my feet won’t walk the earth.
These words will remain.
In them, I truly find comfort. In a way that few understand, my sharing them transforms the hate of the moment into a lesser curse.
These words will remain, as shall I, for a moment.
Given that it is likely going to be an issue in the future…
In addition to having a weird name, I’m also a notary. When I had just one name, I signed my name with a pictograph next to my ‘X.’ This pissed people off. People get pissed off about everything, as you probably know. For many, it irritated them to see my have fun with my signature. Additionally, having a short name made signing amazingly easy. When I had just one legal name, it annoyed some folks that I could technically NOT ‘initial’ anything – because people with large sticks up their butts insisted that ‘to initial’ meant one had to sign two initials. Obviously, that was both incorrect and stupid. Pointing out that someone is wrong, obstinate, and probably stupid isn’t a good course of action. Fun, but not necessarily useful. Note: most of us have learned that last part the hard way on the internet. Can I get an amen?
For generations, people who couldn’t read or write could legally ‘make their mark’ using an ‘X.’ These signatures were as legally binding as if one had signed Josephus Antonio Freebird, Jr. on the contract to buy 10,000 pig bellies. They still are, if you are wondering.
In the same way that you can use whatever name you want, you can also spell it (and say it) however you want, thanks to the majesty of our strange English language.
As a notary, I got a stern warning from an autocrat that my signature absolutely had to be consistent each and every time. In her case, I went to the courthouse and found records with her name on it. Guess what? She’d changed her signature style several times – and often in the same year. Shockingly, she did not greet me with a smile when I proved that she was a hypocrite.
Once, when I went to vote, the elderly poll worker scrutinized my ID with a critical eye. I almost always took my birth certificate and every imaginable form of ID. “What’s this little doodle on there? Where’s your name on this license.” She had a large “Gotcha!” waiting to scream at me. I smiled. “My name is in the blank where everyone else’s name always is. The doodle is part of my legal signature.” She scowled. Her pointed finger scanned the book. When she realized my voter registration had the same nonsensical doodle face on it, she looked at me like I had swallowed a live snake in front of her. “Is it legal to have just one name,” she asked as she processed my ballot. “Absolutely not!” I told her, winked, and moved on.
Now, I try to make my signature more or less the same on legal documents. Let’s face it: I like the weirdness of it. I change it up for a while. It’s kind of weird to worry a lot about my signature when just about anyone can get a copy of my credit report for a few dollars, hack my wi-fi traffic, or spoof my phone.
Because there are people out there who watch a lot of Fox News, there’s a growing argument that one principal detriment to mail-in voting is signature matching. It’s a dumb argument. The incidence of fraud aside, we can eradicate all the potential ‘issues’ with both logic and a bit of technology. In my case, I would love for my vote to be publicly recorded. It would be very difficult to use my identity to vote under such a scenario. I know that many are not comfortable with this. For whatever reason, they don’t want people to know how they voted. The red hat is a dead giveaway for conservatives, and the drooling is a giveaway for the liberals; we don’t need to see your vote to know who you voted for most of the time. I’m a liberal, so I’m obviously going to vote for whoever can spend the most tax money as quickly as possible.
Here’s a simple trick if you’re worried about your signature matching: for your license or state ID, use it as your “official” signature. When you sign a ballot, use your license as a template. If we all switch to mail-in voting, all possible objections can be overcome with a bit of preparation.
Demanding a perfect system when we don’t have one now is an admission that you’re not thinking logically.
It’s not true that your signature must match your name letter for letter, just as it is untrue that your signature must be legible. Equally true is that your signature does not need to be in cursive. Your signature, legally speaking, is whatever you make it, and the intent with which you do so.
Take it from someone with a weird name: for almost all of us, it is no burden to use a similar signature for most legal purposes. Pick something, even if it is weird, and stick to it. For everything else, it is not as pressing of a concern, especially in the age of digital signing.
Personally, if it were me, I’d like to have all the voting rolls published for all to see. Anyone voting dead, in the wrong precinct, or otherwise up to shenanigans could be easily spotted. Also, I would ask each of you to use better names, such as Squirrel Aficionado, Buffoon Jackson, and names Key & Peele used in their famous “East/West College Bowl” skit, especially names such as “T.J.A.J.R.J. Backslashinfourth V.”
I’ll note too that an awful lot of y’all aren’t using the names which are clearly spelled out on your birth certificates. If your name is Beauregard, don’t call yourself Bo unless you’re willing to change that messy moniker.
P.S. For all of y’all freaking out about your legal signature, I’d like to remind you that your signature is everywhere. If you own a house, it is likely that the deed is online, saving you the trouble of going to the courthouse. Your signature is all over those documents. I included an example in the picture to use randomly. If I know your birthday, I can look up your voter registration. That’s why I refer to all of this privacy stuff as either “The Unicorn of Privacy” or “The Leprechaun of Privacy.” (One is imaginary and the other is almost impossible to get.)
Before starting this story, I’d like to mention that a friend wrote to me two days ago to tell me about her memories of the area over by old Highway 68 and where the interstate now crosses 412. Because I didn’t get to see pictures of the area as I’d hoped, I had to rely mostly on my memory. I know that photo collections exist, but they aren’t publicly shared, which is a terrible fact to me. I’m the first to admit that I sometimes get a detail spectacularly wrong. My friend remembered the duplexes across the street, mainly because one of her best friend’s father owned them. I don’t remember the Afghan Hound breeder who lived nearby either, even though it sounds very familiar, like a half-forgotten dream. I enjoy the idea of my interconnectedness with people. We shared memories and places without realizing it. For her, the place I write about was full of interest and friendship. Truthfully, were I with other adults who cared for me, I would have discovered the same carefree love of the place. It was a beautiful area and one perfect for children with a bit of freedom and adventure on their minds.
This story isn’t exactly how I wanted it. Instead of worrying about the tone, mixed messages, or errors, I’m sharing it, just as I’ve shared anything else.
In one of my recent stories, I wrote about living where the interstate crosses Highway 412 now. We moved to Springdale after my 5th birthday; I don’t recall exactly when. I skipped kindergarten, though. Grandma made a cake for me for that birthday and my cousin Michael Wayne helped me demolish it. Had I known it would mark the end of my childhood, I would have escaped through the empty fields around us. We had lived in several places in Brinkley after Dad reunited with Mom. We lived in Wheatley because I remember being very sick on Xmas day. We lived past S. Grand until the house caught on fire. We also lived somewhere near the intersection of Pine and the main drag through Brinkley, as well off Highway 39 near the intersection of Highway 49. I’ve written before that we lived in more than a couple of dozen places as a family. I don’t count the other places or otherwise, the count would be up to forty.
After a couple of intervening places in Johnson and Springdale, we moved to a very small house owned by my cousin. As my Dad got a job at his shop, we lived close to where he would work.
48th street was a narrow pasture road to nowhere. Along the street were a couple of huge oak trees. Having spent a bit of time considering the details, the tallest one was definitely 70-80 feet tall. I could use the edge of a protruding gas pipe to lift myself up to the first horizontal branch. I loved that tree. Its branches were spaced almost perfectly for a reckless boy to climb them. Around 50 feet up, it took a bit of actual deathwish to get past a couple of the branches. I often used the tree as a refuge. The apple and pear trees were much thicker and harder to climb. The oak tree near the road also provided me with a bird’s eye view of a great deal of land. I was a better climber than my siblings, despite being more rotund at times and certainly less agile.
One evening, my family was at Goldie and Ellis’ house a bit further up the road toward the highway. By way of preface, my immediate family never played games together, unless you count hide-and-seek due to fear of actual death. We did not have “Family Nights.” Most of our social lives revolved around my Uncle Buck and his wife, Aunt Ardith. Uncle Buck was my Dad’s older brother. A few nights through the years, we went up to Goldie’s house and played board games at their table. I was completely out of my element. I didn’t know how to react. I certainly failed to understand how the two people playing the role of Mom and Dad could behave so shockingly different around other people. Because Goldie was the mother of my Dad’s boss and otherwise regarded as superior, expectations were different for her and her house. Given that these were never spelled out until after the fact, there were often misunderstandings. Misunderstandings involving children in my immediate family always resulted in physical violence while being shouted at incoherently; there was no discernible lesson nor clear tea leaves to read.
Though it might strike you an incongruous, Dad loved Goldie in a way he couldn’t express to his own family. Goldie had experience with alcoholism due to her husband Ellis. Dad, even when not drinking, could demonstrate affection for Goldie in a way that confused me. In the case of his immediate family, familiarity did indeed breed contempt.
One of my favorite memories was one Friday or Saturday night when we were at Goldie’s playing Sorry!. It’s hard to believe that actually happened – that members of my family engaged in playing a board game. Our supper had been cut short due to Mom and Dad needing a drink before they went to Goldie’s house next door. Mom made some kind of horrible meat that night and nothing to go with it except bread. Since mustard sandwiches were a favorite of mine, I ignored the meat and made myself a mustard sandwich. For a reason that will never be known, this enraged my Dad. He back-handed me across the face and I fell to the floor. Everyone pretended I hadn’t just been smacked in the face. I waited a minute to determine if Dad was finished with his tirade. It was impossible to know. I ran outside and sat under one of the trees near the front of the trailer.
While we sat around Goldie’s kitchen table, Goldie asked me if I would like a bite of something. Goldie, being older, loved feeding children. I smiled and said, “Yes ma’am. Thanks!” She pointed toward the fridge and said, “Get yourself all you want.” I stood up and walked over to the fridge to open it.
I heard my mom say “Bobby Dean! Look at him!”
I knew my life was about to end but couldn’t determine why. I recognized that horrible and vengeful tone of my Mom’s voice. That tone was as hateful as any Nazi in WWII.
Without understanding specifically, I was about to be punished for daring to open the fridge at someone’s house, even after being invited to do so. The truth is that my only real crime was having survived to that point and to be available for my parents to use me as a vessel on which to pour their enigmatic wrath.
Goldie said something I don’t remember. I’m sure it was similar to, “Bobby Dean, leave that boy alone. He’s just hungry and I invited him.” The tone of her voice as she spoke was filled with kindness and with the opposite of my Mom when she invoked Dad’s attention to me.
Behind me, I heard a chair scoot back and boots hit the floor. Just as I was about to wince, Dad grabbed me by the neck and pushed/dragged me outside. Since it was dark outside, I couldn’t imagine what I would be hit with. The answer was nothing. My dad grabbed me by the neck and top of my pants and picked me up and threw me off the end of the porch into the gravel of the driveway. It stunned me as I hit the gravel. I didn’t move. Dad threw me several feet into the air and across a decent distance. Even in pain, I knew that to play dead was my best option. Dad pulled a Camel from his shirt and lit it. He paced as he smoked. When he was done, he flicked the cigarette out into the dark without saying a word to me and went back inside. For all he knew, my neck had snapped when he threw me like a bag of trash.
I considered running and climbing the tree but knew the subsequent beating would only be worsened by my doing so.
I waited and sat on the bottom riser of the porch steps. A few minutes later, Goldie opened the door and said, “Come here, I have something for you.” I went to the door as she handed me a glass of tea and a piece of what turned out to be some kind of delicious cake. “Leave the glass out here when you’re done.” She smiled at me and went back inside.
I’m still at odds over how my parents handled our presence at other’s houses. Not that we had the opportunity very often, of course, but we were scared children who assumed that imaginary rules dictated our behavior. Regardless of how well-behaved we were, we still remained incredulous at some of the behavior of our parents. They could literally break the front door in anger on Friday night, while threatening to kill the host in a fit of anger, yet act as if wanting a soda was the same as defecating on the living room floor in front of all the guests. No matter what we did, punishment was likely. Growing older, it was a shock to realize that all of this resulted from a character flaw in both of my parents and actually had nothing to do with me as a child.
A few days later, I was in the machine shop where Dad worked, waiting to see if he would assign some random and horrible work for me to try to do. With his mumbling, instructions were scarce at best. I’d take a furtive look around and steal a couple of sugar cubes from the coffee area. My cousin exited the shop floor where Dad was restoring another Chevy Cheyenne pickup. “Hey, how are you doing? Get you some sugar cubes if you want them.” He laughed. He knew I’d been pilfering the sugar cubes. He wouldn’t mind if ate one hundred of them provided he had some for his next cup of coffee.
Dad came into the office and lit a cigarette. “You can sweep the chat off the floor.” Miraculously, I understand his mumble. I went into the machine shop and grabbed a floor broom and starting pushing it. My right arm was killing me. The broom was a bit long for someone my height and the fact that my arm hurt made it cumbersome.
Dad and my cousin exited the office area and entered the expansive shop area where I was sweeping. My cousin good-naturedly said, “What’s the matter, did a girl whip your butt?” Because he was speaking to me in humor and kindness, I must have dropped my guard and lost all sense. “Nah, I got thrown off a porch.” I said it as a joke without any intent to bring up the incident at Goldie’s house.
Dad said something in anger. I knew he was coming for me and despite the fact that another adult was witness, I wasn’t sure I would survive. Acknowledging Dad’s violence, even in front of people who’d witnessed it a dozen times, was a crime punishable by excessive violence. When I watch shows wherein the villain threatens to kill all the hostages if the person says anything to the police, I find instant credibility in the storyline; it echoes perfectly the atmosphere of my Dad’s outlook.
I ran through the painting area in the back and out the back access where cars could be driven in and out to be sand-blasted, sanded, and painted. I never ran from Dad. Running always accelerated Dad’s timeline for violence. I didn’t look back. I ran to the left, turning where the walnut or pecan tree stood. (I can’t remember which it was. I should remember: it’s where I almost died and had an injury so bad I had almost 200 stitches in my head. That’s a story for another day) I ran across the expanse of yard and field, past the long garden toward the add-on attached to the back of the trailer. I turned to see Dad angrily striding across the grass. I ran around the end of the trailer and bee-lined it to my favorite tree. I climbed as high as I could possibly go. As comical as it sounds, I probably could have jumped and the top of my head would have popped through the top of that 70-80 foot tall tree.
A few minutes later, Dad stood at the bottom of the tree, screaming angrily at me. I pretended I couldn’t hear him. I wasn’t worried about him climbing as high as I was. I should have been. But that part comes later. Dad walked over toward the gravel to find rocks. He picked up a few larger ones and began to throw them as hard and high as he could in an attempt to hit me. To be honest, I know he was hoping to hit me. If I had fallen, he would have justified it easily as a case of a disobedient son. None hit me but several crashed through the foliage near me and below me.
I waited for at least an hour after Dad left. I climbed down a few feet every so often until I was sitting on the bottom limb. Scarily, Dad did not say anything to me for the rest of the day. I had no choice except to go inside and face the wrath. It did not come. That day.
The next afternoon, Dad said, “Go outside.” Knowing he was going to beat me to death, I went outside the trailer and down the steps. I followed him to the road and stood near the tree. “I put one of your toys at the top of the tree. Climb up there and get it down.”
I couldn’t imagine saying “No.” If Dad said a beating would be worse if I cried or objected, he felt it was his manly duty to literally flay skin strips from me to prove he was not to be trifled with. Anger that was slowly boiled always was more dangerous. To be clear, I cried, ragged tears of fear. There was no right course of action. I knew Dad was going to throw rocks at me as soon as I climbed the first branch.
Barely able to see and shaking like a leaf in the tree above me, I grabbed the branch and tried to climb as quickly as possible. After the first limb, I moved partly around the trunk to make the angle of Dad’s aim more difficult. As predicted, Dad started throwing rocks when I reached about twenty feet from the ground. I kept climbing. At about thirty, one of the rocks hit my leg. It didn’t hurt much. It gave Dad more motivation to throw the rocks harder and begin to scream at me. From across the street, a man walked out on to his driveway. I have another story about him later.
“What the hell is going on here?” He shouted at Dad. I knew two things: he knew Dad was throwing rocks at me and he also knew Dad was violent. There’s no way he hadn’t witnessed many of the domestic violence episodes at our house and then two subsequent trailers there. I kept climbing.
Dad turned toward the man across the street: “Mind your f%%ing business if you know what’s good for you.” Dad turned back and ignored him. Somehow, he knew the man would go no further.
He kept throwing rocks. I looked up and could see that Dad had placed an empty whiskey bottle way up in the tree. I couldn’t imagine him climbing that high. Had I watched him while he did so, I would have caught myself praying that gravity would take him down to his death. No matter who is reading this, I can’t apologize for the certainty of the fact that our lives would have significantly improved by his absence. I would have mourned his inability to see another path in life, yet also simultaneously recognized the possibilities created by his absence. When he was in prison in Indiana when I was very young, I experienced life free from his volatility.
As I reached a point about ten feet from the highest point I’d ever climbed and grabbed the bottle. I threw it out of the tree. “I said to bring that f#$ing thing down!” Dad screamed. Without realizing it, I knew he was going to beat me regardless when I made my way down. For a second, I thought about throwing myself out of the tree the way I had thrown the bottle. It wasn’t a suicidal thought; it was the type of perverted self-preservation that abused children consider to be logical. It’s difficult to train oneself out of it as an adult.
However long it took me to get down from the tree, Dad’s anger built. Dad dragged me into the trailer, a sign he needed privacy to teach me a lesson. For his worse beatings, rarely did someone outside the immediate group of family hostages witness them.
It wasn’t the last time he tortured me with trees or even visits to abandoned houses and barns in the dead of night. Often, his whimsy was self-attributed to humor and prank. A few times, it was. Others, though, were dark indicators of the vast well of illness and unhappiness he suffered from.
As horribly as Dad beat me, he never beat the love of that tree out of me. In it, I could see above, beyond, and through the places around me, just as the cedar tree at Grandpa’s had done on a smaller scale.
Though it may be unfair, it is my turn to throw different rocks all these years later. My Dad is deceased and unable to defend himself. I’m older now by a few years than he ever was. The little boy I was held no grudges. Just fear, and confusion. Those have been replaced by an appreciation for the absurdity and frequency of what I lived through. My story is one of thousands of children, even today. I try to focus on the humor my Dad could sometimes display. If he sat beside me today as I write this, he would call me a co#$su#$ker and laugh. He ran out of road before he could make amends. I like to imagine that my Dad could have been able to climb the beautiful oak tree with me and share the view of the world above Springdale in 1974.
I started out writing another story but was pleasantly sidetracked by discoveries I made about little pieces of family history today.
Over the years, as I’ve laboriously uncovered pieces of evidence, a fuller picture of some of my life has emerged. After a childhood filled with constant shushing and shouts of “Don’t talk about that!” I’m relieved to know that the historical record left breadcrumbs in the world. Some of them aren’t the smoking guns I would have hoped, but as circumstantial evidence, they provide an undeniable trajectory for some of my stories.
Not too long ago, by accidental fortune, I discovered newspaper articles regarding my Dad’s imprisonment in Indiana when I was younger. Before that, I finally found a mention of the accident in which my drunk Dad killed a maternal cousin of mine. Not only did they fill in the blanks for several unanswered questions I had growing up, but they told me part of the story in an impartial voice. So much of what I was told was a lie or misdirected.
On Father’s Day last year, I found out that I have a half-black sister. Her color is only mentioned because of the irony of her existence, given the racism of many of my family. I’ll take a DNA revelation over a document or historical piece of evidence any day. I’ll take my corroboration anywhere I can get it, though.
This accident happened after Mom and Dad had a huge fight at my Uncle Buck’s house. Mom left in the car. She was drinking heavily, of course. We were very close to turning left onto our road from Highway 68 (412). What fascinates me about this article I found today is that if you were a historian or researcher, you would mistakenly think Mom wasn’t at fault in the accident, especially because Mom was hit from the rear. There are a lot of assumptions at play here. You’d have to know that it’s possible Mom could have forgotten to turn on her lights – or that she thought the car behind was following too closely and slammed on her brakes – or that she was so drunk she was about to miss her turn off the highway – and so on. I don’t know what was in the report of the accident. I do remember clearly that everyone at the scene knew that Mom was drunk and that she was shouting in anger at everyone, especially the police. She took the time to use her specialty curse words, too. I don’t remember whose name Mom invoked, but whoever it was resulted in no ticket for her or questions about the open Budweiser can in her lap at the time of the accident. Mom had several accidents at this intersection, two or three of which involved other vehicles. Because part of Dad’s job at the time involved a car and body repair, he fixed the vehicles at no charge. He knew how to game the system to extract a bit of extra cash from the process, too. Northwest Arkansas had places one could go for stolen parts.
In case you didn’t read it in my other posts, my Mom and Dad paid off several DWIs illegally. It was a common practice, as most residents in Springdale should remember. Money could make problems go away. My family was strikingly poor at times yet when necessity demanded it, money miraculously appeared to be used as kickbacks, bribes, or payoffs.
For the picture above, I remember the fire only because it happened around Xmas. I’m not convinced it was started by heating tape. Mom and Dad both smoked. Dad often did things shoddily. I’ve written before about the number of houses and trailers that burned during Mom’s lifetime. I do remember that my Mom and Dad fought like hornets after this fire. Anytime people with authority intersected with our lives, mayhem ensued.
This is the first residence we lived in on the same long corner of 48th Street and Highway 68, now 412. The house was very small and green and sat the south end of the property just a few feet away from the pasture behind it. The next two residences were trailers placed in the same general place perpendicular to the narrow road. I know too much about this fire. My family was the last one to live in it. My died burned it down on purpose. He used the water heater to ignite the rest of the house.
I found these tidbits accidentally today while looking for a picture of the frontage along highway 68 in the early 70s.
I’ve been trying to write or finish several interconnected stories regarding the time my family lived in the area where Denny’s, La Quinta, and the Springdale Convention Center now sit.
The common thread to these is the increasing and overwhelming certainty that the story I’ve tried to tell in increments is true. It’s a story that no one else would have ever told.
Years before the interstate crossed western Springdale, my cousin owned a big chunk of land where the Springdale Convention Center, Denny’s, and La Quinta now stand. (Little did he know how valuable his land would one day become.) He had one of the region’s largest machine shops there. (If such things matter for the story, he technically was ‘the husband of a 1st cousin 1x removed.’)
Along the road, his parents, Goldie and Ellis, owned a house, followed by a trailer and another little house further down. Pasture framed the property in a large “L.” Like much of the area, it was rural and Highway 412 was a slender ribbon known as 68. 48th Street cut across the highway, uninterrupted by the interstate like it is now. It’s interesting that Springdale is now reconnecting across that area with Gene George Blvd. On our side of the highway, 48th Street was a narrow road to almost nowhere. Close to the road stood several massive oak trees, a couple of them towering high about the landscape. There were pear and apple trees dotted all over the property, as well as a couple of walnut and pecan trees, one of which almost literally killed me, but not for the reason you might imagine. That’s a story for another day. My cousin Jimmy and I both narrowly avoided being blinded near there, which is also a story for another day. My family lived in two trailers and a very small house on the property.
I don’t remember how we ended up in the jon boat sitting in the grass near the trees in front of Goldie’s garage building. It was there for a while, so you had to careful about jumping into it without inspection. Otherwise, you might find yourself jumping right back out with a snake or other critter attached to you.
My cousin Jimmy found a few large darts somewhere. Time has stolen the details about where they originated. While they weren’t the infamous lawn darts that came later, they were larger than standard throwing darts that we’ve all tossed and hit the wall accidentally with, even as we tried to conceal our errant misses.
More than once, I said, “Watch out with those darts, Jimmy!” He was younger than me. He was also was protected by a strange force field of superiority. He was almost Kevin Costner untouchable. Jimmy laughed and threw another one with even more recklessness. It thudded into the wood bottom of the boat. “Darn it, Jimmy, you better not hit me!”
Jimmy stepped several steps further back and, without pausing, launched the heavy dart high into the air, in a long parabola of unknown destination. Naturally, I did the only thing possible: I covered my head and winced. I doubt Jimmy expected me to duck.
It turns out I didn’t need to concern myself with being hit in the head with the dart.
It landed directly on the top of my foot, impaling my left foot almost all the way through. I had a Jim Carrey moment, one in which I stared at the heavy dart impaled in my foot. My brain was taking a bit of a break to process this.
Suddenly, my foot cramped.
Jimmy’s face made an absurdly round “O” as his mouth fell open, as I writed a little bit in agony.
For once, I believed he didn’t intentionally do the thing that just happened. That is what happens when you indiscriminately toss heavy darts above people’s heads, though. That’s a helpful note if you find yourself indiscriminately tossing darts high into the air around other people.
All at once, the pain of the large dart being stuck through my foot reached my brain and I screamed like someone put a firecracker in my open mouth.
Jimmy ran away, already hollering that I was beating him, when in reality I was sitting in the boat with a dart stuck in my foot. I pulled it out without thinking very long about it. It took several seconds for the hole to begin oozing blood. I did not run after him. For the time being, I didn’t care if he had season passes to Dogpatch and free ice cream for me.
After several minutes, I hobbled around the trailer on the backside and tried to go inside. “You better not get blood in here, you little sh!t,” Mom told me between puffs on her cigarette. I went back outside and around to the front of the trailer. Dad was sitting there with Uncle Buck.
My Dad, often the comedian, yelled “Bullseye!” at me. I assumed Jimmy finally admitted he threw a dart into my foot. I still didn’t see Jimmy.
Uncle Buck, in the role of a caring human being, told me to wash the wound out.
“Nonsense,” Dad opined. “Put some ash on it.” Dad unsteadily stood up and with his drunken swagger approached me. He grabbed charcoal out of the burn pile and motioned for me to approach. He smashed it in his fist and rubbed it on top of my foot. I stood perfectly still, hoping his attention would shift so that I could get away. I knew better than to flinch or cry. “Bullseye,” Dad repeated and laughed.
I hobbled away. I found Jimmy a few minutes later sitting on a low branch of one of the apple trees between Goldie’s house and the rear of the machine shop. I didn’t hit him. He was Jimmy – and Jimmy did only what Jimmy did best. I think he found it difficult to relax if I had a dart in my hand, though.
Dawn wanted to take pictures using her phone; her camera is significantly better than mine. She handed me the phone as she said, “Here, you can take them better.” She said that despite the years of insurmountable proof that the opposite was true. ” Thus, two of the best photos are obscured by my inexpert fingers. They are my favorites, of course.
After painting a couple of rocks, something Dawn said that triggered a thought in my head, which is usually a dangerous sign. We were outside the cabin admiring the rocks that had surprisingly survived months (and even years) exposed to the elements. One of our previously ambitiously executed projects was somewhat intact but missing a couple of elements.
Because I had exhausted the obscenely bright neon color as the base of the two large rocks, I had an inspiration. Because I had a surplus of gloves, I opted to collect 5 medium rocks and approximately 50 small rocks. I sprayed a huge glob of several colors on aluminum foil and used my hands to roll the rocks around in my hands and paint them that way. Luckily for me, my unreplenished grab bag of paints contained about three dozen bottles of varying paints. It was a bit of overkill. Once we painted the large number of rocks, it looked quite striking against the backdrop of the surrounding forest and subdued colors nearby.
I made the png cutout version to better see the first two rocks we did. Not wanting to be outdone, I completed mine a nod toward my two favorite cousins, Beth and Lynette. I added a face on the bottom that was supposed to register surprise. I hope they don’t mind that I might exposed their secret identities again. Visitors to the cabins will drive up and see the two neon rocks and undoubtedly question what “X, Cheetah, Falcon, and Rojo” have to do with a getaway cabin. I challenge them to exceed my creativity and/or weirdness.
I took one from over the top of our heads, in case anyone needed to see such a picture.
When we arrived back to our normal lives here in Springdale, we went to see my in-laws. While the adults talked, I took the time to build a little town from what I could find in the yard. (Plus my invaluable index cards, of course.) You have to find your fun wherever it may be found.
This picture is when Hell broke loose, pun intended. It was implied that I couldn’t leave my creation standing. For that reason, I had to pretend a tornado hit Hell and demolished it. I hope everyone is okay.