Category Archives: Brinkley

There’s Always Time For Underwear

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Note: this anecdote is from my favorite cousin Lynette. She grew up in Brinkley, Arkansas, a quintessential small agricultural town in the South, one preoccupied with tornados.
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A bad weather post a friend made earlier reminded me of a tornado experience from my youth.

We lived a block from a tornado siren. If you have never experienced one of these at that range, you should. A resident of my hometown likened it to the sound of the angel Gabriel blowing the final trumpet.

Anyway, one evening I was in the shower, and the alarm sounded. The sudden firing up of the siren alone was enough to cause cardiac arrest even for a teenager. Add to that the thought of being hit by a tornado nude, and the panic was real.

My mother runs into the bathroom throwing clothes at me. I catch the underwear and throw it to the floor.
She yells, “Put on your underwear!”
I scream, “There’s no time for underwear!”
She shouts back, “If the house is destroyed by a tornado, that is the only pair of underwear you will have!”

It’s Mom for the win!
Remember – There’s always time for underwear.

Another Nostalgic Surprise

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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.
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An Imperfect Expression of Memory

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It’s strange that jadeite glass and kitchenware was created to brighten people’s day in the early part of the 20th century. The idea that the glassware was made without any real focus toward consistency of color and defects makes it more interesting to me. If I were in charge of the world, every cup, plate, spoon, and fork would be distinct, both in style and color. Consistency for appearance is one of the biggest constrictive forces in our lives.

When I was young, my grandpa often drank from a jadeite coffee mug. There’s so much I don’t remember or remembered wrong. A few years ago, I thought I had it figured out but as if often the case, my certainty evaporated into 100% confusion. I find it hard to reconcile that I remember so many distinct moments so vividly, but yet somehow have lost 99% of the memories around them. My grandparents were magical to me, in part to their living at the edge of a cotton field, and in part to my youth, one punctuated by upheaval and anger. If I had to define an anchor point of my young childhood, it would be the simple house along highway 39, where I learned to love salt pork, mustard sandwiches, and coffee. I once tried to enumerate the number of places I had lived in my youth and it exceeds 20 and almost certainly reaches 30. I would consider the place in City View to be another defining place for me, one completely dissimilar in geography and content than the one in Monroe County, but one which shared the connection of people.

I had my first cup of coffee when I was very young. I remember my grandpa shushing my grandma Nellie. He was a big proponent of letting people try things, even if they shouted in surprise or pain as they did so. It’s part of the reason I learned to wince when I hit my fingers with a hammer, instead of screaming in pain. I sat at the table, trying not to burn my fingers on the hot glass of the coffee cup. Grandpa made me that cup of coffee in a green jadeite coffee cup. He put a dollop of evaporated milk in mine, mainly because he thought I’d like it better that way. Given that I once loved eating ashes and cinders, he should have assumed that I would prefer it black and bitter. (I still prefer coffee to be black – and I still can’t resist the taste of a burned match tip and the much-maligned flavor of a lot of burned foods.)

It’s very likely that grandma and grandpa got their jadeite with promotional items. It was included in sacks of flour, at giveaways at grocery stores and with ‘green stamp’ promotions. Grandma always had several glasses that were, in reality, empty snuff jars. Most were W.E. Garrett snuff jars. Like most people of her time, she also had an extensive collection of butter bowls and other assorted kitchen items which served other purposes in their previous lives. Grandma also saved anything interesting so that I could bury it in my ongoing excavation project next to highway 39. Both grandparents lived through the Great Depression and it molded much of their attitudes about things. Because of nostalgia, mason jars for drinking are in vogue. I’m waiting for snuff jars to get their turn in the sun again. Jadeite made a resurgence a few years ago thanks to Martha Stewart and a few ardent aficionados. It’s also weird to think that jadeite was widely used in diners and cafeterias, an almost valueless item back then.

I also know that my grandparent’s glassware was by Fire-King because grandpa would often set his coffee cup directly on the wood stove in the living room. I learned to read a few words ahead of my time, as life was slower in that part of Monroe County. Sitting on the floor, idly tracing words and letters was a great way to pass the simmering days, or poking myself with a sewing needle as grandma patiently showed me to sew without a thimble. I’ve never used one, despite discovering that I could stick one into my finger fairly deeply when distracted.

It turns out that cups made from original jadeite glass aren’t supposed to go in a microwave. (I also find it incredible to think that residential countertop microwaves first appeared in 1967, the year I was born.) One of the things I learned is that a couple of the companies making jadeite glass used glass that contained uranium. They did so up until WWII. Like all things, jadeite has a wider history than I would initially believe. To learn one thing without learning a spider web of interconnected details is impossible.

Even though I’m a minimalist, I ordered a green jadeite coffee mug from a collector on Etsy. The one I ordered is similar than the one I recall. As a nostalgia item, it serves its purpose despite not being quite right. If my grandpa could see that I had not only figured out what type of cup it was but also buy one online, he would shake his head in wonder at the crazy things that people do, especially for dishes. Like me, he would think anyone wanting matching plates and cups had lost his or her mind.

After years of wondering and searching for the green coffee cup I remembered so well, a friend of mine on social media unexpectedly posted a link to the exact brand I was looking for. I can’t completely explain why figuring out the origin of the green coffee cup was so satisfying for me, but it was. A few years ago, I asked my mom about the green coffee cup. She remembered a couple of them but since her memory wasn’t tied to anything personal, it didn’t have the same power of imagination and recollection attached to it. Grandma had some blue cups made by the same company, too.

Holding this touchstone from decades ago, I can imagine my grandpa, sitting in his chair, watching me as I sat on the wooden floor in front of the stove. He gave me the gift of coffee and the effervescent joy of running carelessly in the mud which inevitably curves its way around the fields.

 

Family History is Literally What I Choose To Make It

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.

Springdale & Brinkley Hold Lessons

This post evolved from a simple comparison of my geographical past. It grew to encompass parts of me and as such, is very personal. If you will pardon my generalizations and laziness toward exact writing, you might find something interesting.

I didn’t come to Springdale until the early 70s. My dad dragged our recently reconstituted family up here for the promise of a steady job, away from the geography which took the blame for so much of my dad’s heartache. His time in prison in Indiana and his involvement in the death of one of my cousins (unrelated to prison) had broken him of some of his desperate need to remain in his hometown. My dad had a brother here, my Uncle Buck, as well as a few cousins. Our move was prior to the miracle of the interstate reaching its tentacles up to Northwest Arkansas, so all trips to NWA were long, winding escapades. It seemed like we drove for days to reach the mountains of Springdale. I didn’t understand what a ‘hillbilly’ was. All I knew were the fields of Monroe County and the places my grandma and grandpa called home. Being with my dad was the last thing on my wish list.

Years take on a different meaning when I stop to consider that soon enough I will be exactly halfway between 1970 and 2070. Springdale and I both have changed immeasurably since I was young. The area of the Delta from which I came has continued a generally languid, shuffled march toward annihilation while NWA has become a beacon for commerce and lifestyle. It was sheer luck that my dad’s terrible fortune planted my feet here. And while the Delta was once the powerhouse of agriculture but found no clear footing to advance, Springdale and surrounding areas used agriculture as a springboard from which to dive into a diversified future. So many of us here live in houses situated on plots once adorned with grapes, apples, strawberries and all manner of other foods.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that the interstate running through Brinkley wasn’t always there, a fact which should have been immediately obvious. In Brinkley’s case, though, the interstate seems to have provided a convenient escape for the younger generation, as they ventured out and realized that the state had more to offer in other places. In Arkansas’ early history, roads were intensely local, often built to connect small town agricultural markets. For the affluent parts of the state, the interstate gave people and commerce alike the way to merge interests. While lifelong residents of Brinkley might wish to disagree, it is obvious that good roads shone a beacon toward better opportunities in other parts of the state. Brinkley could have been one of the jewels of this state, given its location. Even as I sometimes forget that I once loved the flatlands there, I will admit to its austere beauty.

I also forget that many parts of my early life are inexplicably entwined with those people who I deeply loved and those who were violent caricatures of real people. Geography mixes in my head and sometimes paints an unfair picture of those places, simply because the people walking across my stage were broken people. As we all do, I carry pieces of these broken people in my head, as such slivers are difficult to excise. I can hold the image of standing near a rice field near Brinkley, up to my ankles in mud, laughing; I can also imagine walking alongside a pungent Tontitown grape vine in August, my fingers cleverly stealing unwashed grapes and eating them like candies. I’m not sure which place or memory is more valid, but I do know that being surrounded by people with love in their hearts can make any geography welcoming, while immersion in the minds of lesser people will reduce the world’s brilliance regardless of where one’s feet might be. It’s how City View might have been a place of low resort for many, and a welcome mat for others.

Because of the reduced crucible I survived as a kid, on the one hand, there was so much about this town which remained unknown to me. My life was incredibly small. I could sense that it was an interesting place, though. My family moved over twenty times by the time I had reached adulthood. So many places around Springdale became familiar to me. In many ways, I feel as if this was advantageous to me, giving me a different perspective than someone who was lucky enough to remain fairly rooted in the same place growing up. In my family’s case, our ongoing moves concealed the array of abuse and violence camouflaged inside each respective new residence.

When I was in 2nd grade, I remember asking Mom what it was like attending school with black children in Monroe County. She looked at me like I had been hit with a shovel and said, “I didn’t. We were segregated.” (It was probably a lucky thing for them, though.) I wondered why Springdale was segregated, too, given that there were no black kids in class with me. How was I supposed to know that there were so few minorities living here? I was so naive. Even trying to understand that one of schoolyard buddies Danny was actually from Chile was beyond my comprehension. That’s how reduced my life was without education. Had I been born 100 years ago and remained in Monroe County, I could easily see myself in the role of unapologetic racist. My family would have raised me to believe that it was a certainty.

It’s funny now, my ignorance. In my early youth, I had never heard the word “segregated” except as a muttered curse. For most of the whites in the Delta, segregation was a word equated with government distrust. When I started learning history, it astonished me that there was such a short jump between our Civil War and WWII.

My dad took us back to Brinkley for my 3rd-grade year, to attempt to run a gas station in the no-man’s land on Highway 49 outside of Brinkley. While my home life was a slow-moving mess, school was fascinating. Just as I got acclimated to flat lands again, Dad’s failed business drove us back to Northwest Arkansas.

I remember my Uncle ___ saying that he was jealous of my dad, Bobby Dean because Springdale didn’t have ‘the plague’ of so many blacks. Other family members said the same and I only share this memory reluctantly. Perhaps it’s not wise or fair to generalize about my recollections of prejudice. On the other hand, they are my stories and as a sage once reminded us, perhaps people would behave more appropriately if they knew an observant writer was living amongst them. Truth be told, racism took a back seat when contrasted to the casual violence of my dad. I had a couple of god-fearing aunts and uncles who remind me that we should never be surprised by the sheer hatred some racists harbor in their hearts. One of the prevailing lessons they taught me was that religion could easily be twisted to justify and condone all manner of hate, all the while sitting behind a pearly-white smile and opened Bible. When I was young, I endured many a comment from them regarding my views on homosexuality, race, and language. When I grew up and realized that they were simply unadorned racists, their arguments dried up. The revisionists in life will insist they were great people and in many ways, they were the product of their times; in another way, though, they deliberately refused to change their minds, even as they paid pretense to the societal demands that they keep their boring and unimaginative racism mostly closeted.

Even though so much became second-hand to me, Springdale itself began to break away from its parochial roots; languages and color slowly entered and once inside sufficiently, kicked the door in and changed the fundamental nature of everything here. Even as I learned the town’s geography, it was already changing rapidly around me. In 1970, Springdale’s population was around 17,000. In 2015, it was on the high end of 77,000. (My hometown lost 1/2 of its population in the same time period, by comparison.) No road escaped the necessity of bulging outside of its small borders, and many signs became incomprehensible to the earlier residents. I was lucky enough to be present during many fits and tirades from Springdale residents insisting that hating the presence of another language wasn’t a sign of prejudice. They seem ignorant to almost everyone now, but the angry spew of their spittle was a sight to behold back in the day.

Springdale was akin to a debutante sent away to school in some exotic location; upon her return, she was unrecognizable as the same person. But almost everyone could look upon her and admire the changes. It’s almost impossible to turn back once someone or somewhere has caught a glimpse of the vastness of the world.

I’ve heard many people refer to Springdale as once being a Sundown Town. I don’t remember seeing such signage. On the other hand, I didn’t need to. My family provided all the exclusionary language anyone would ever need. Their distrust for minorities was amplified by our move to a white community. As strange as it is, I remember when my mom started working for Southwestern Bell (AT&T) in Fayetteville as an operator. She often came home, angrily ranting about blacks in her workplace. It was the same language she used in Monroe County except now she had a home base to retreat to, one which seemed to encourage her racism. Mom was an angry person most of her life, so the language was a symptom of her defect more than any commentary on her surroundings. Both my mom and dad fled back to Monroe County in the late 80s, after a long succession of disappointments.

Before I forget to mention it, my mom’s last job was as a custodian for Brinkley schools. The person who treated her the most kindly there was one of the black teachers there, proving that truth is stranger than fiction. Like so many racists, Mom’s racism tended to intensely situational. She couldn’t understand why I, as a white person, would ever stoop so low as to learn another language, much less love its differences. Her life was reduced by her prejudices.

The differences between the racism of Springdale and Brinkley were striking. It wasn’t until I was much older I surmised that Springdale didn’t need to be overtly racist. The whiteness of the faces walking the streets communicated a clear message as to the population. Springdale was a town waiting to be changed both monumentally and one person at a time, whether it saw the tidal wave approaching or not. It confused me how two places in the same state could be so markedly different, yet both have residents generally fixated on differences based on skin color. I’m generalizing of course, but I know that you understand the distinction I’m drawing. Most of Springdale’s residents weren’t prejudiced, of course, just unsure as to how to accommodate the changes to their towns. Racism tends to discolor a disproportionate number of people around it, giving it a larger circle than reality warrants. This circle of influence sometimes gives the wrong impression of tolerance toward prejudice and many of those practicing it become adept at hiding under its umbrella.

It’s strange to me that both Springdale and Brinkley had so much to build upon. Frankly, Brinkley had the advantage when I was young, and if a few visionaries had the temerity to act upon it, it would be flourishing now. Instead, Northwest Arkansas seized these opportunities.

Against the backdrop of economy and money, Springdale acquired deep populations of Latinos, Marshallese, and other minorities. Most of us who were paying attention and curious were amazed at the changes brought to us by different cultures. Since I’m naturally curious, I loved the overlap of cultures and couldn’t wait for it to become entrenched. Others, though, peered at it through narrowly-turned blinds, wondering if the small town they grew up in was gone forever. Thankfully, the answer was ‘yes.’ Change brought a greater viability to our town. The overlaps of other culture became so large that in many cases people felt conflicted about which culture was their primary one. That is the ‘melting’ we claim to honor as a country. The melting works much better when it is in both directions, with those who were here first welcoming the inevitable changes brought by new faces.

The same didn’t happen for Brinkley, despite it attempting a few rebrandings. The remaining base shifted out from under when it lost its Wal-Mart. People continued to flee, even if meant they’d be exposed to a greater variety of cultures elsewhere. For those who left, many have an idealized memory of what it once was. The truth, though, is that it was never really that place. People voted with their feet and the results are the only conclusion which needs no clarification. One day, hopefully, Brinkley will discern a path toward revitalization but all such paths are dead ends without new faces and new opportunities.

Springdale, albeit with a few hiccups still to come, is a place which can be a foundation for everyone to look back upon and feel a sense of community. It defies an easy definition, precisely because other groups came here to stay.

 

 

 

 

Aunt Barbara

 

She was always her voice, a timeless southern drawl that caught your attention, rarely raised in anger but often seeped in laughter or surprise. I should have more easily forgotten that she witnessed the part of my life I consider to be the most base. It was a perplexing part of my life to know someone so kind in all the ways people should be good could be capable of looking sideways; only as an older person did I even begin to see how foolish much of my insistence toward oversimplification stripped her of her own individuality. She, like me, lived her life with the gifts she had available; unlike me, she did it with more openness.

It is without rancor that I say that she mounted an offensive for family, always being the cohesion against the twin foils of her siblings who provided either raucous debauchery or aloof superciliousness. When I changed my name almost 3 decades ago, it was she who demonstrated one of the deepest wounds, though she of all people knew in her compassion-filled heart that my motivation was one of self-preservation.

She lived a great life, even when tempered by my strangely fluid definitions. Laughter, family, and even tragedies came and went; and yet, her sense of humor tempered every peak and valley. She stayed in the small hometown that both defined her and amplified her. Such a small place of diminishing returns certainly will be less bright without her.

If this world were to have more of her, there would be more happiness and more hands on shoulders, and even more glasses of iced tea in the summer. (Because while iced tea wouldn’t cure your ills, it would always give you something to enjoy in life, if someone were there to accompany you as you drank it.)

The video was taken in her yard on a July day some 21 years ago, out on the edge of Monroe County, in a place almost everyone speeds through to get from one place to another.

Not her.

She was always where she needed to be, just as she is now.

Her voice lingers on the edge of highway 49, though, evoking the gentlest reminder that so many great moments can be found where you are.

I can hear her voice now, drawling out a slow and welcome ‘hey, y’all.’ .

A Personal Story About Guns

This story is intensely personal, one involving guns, domestic abuse, and biography. It’s not what I started to write and it certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s honest and reflects much of who I am. Apologies for any errors and I tried to avoid the mention of real people; however, it is just as much my story to tell as theirs.

In 1970, I lived near Rich, Arkansas, near the nexus of Highways 39 and 49. It was a swampy place, surrounded by farms and mosquitoes. My family lived for a brief time slightly up the hill to the East, on the south side of the road. It’s easy to remember, because in March of that year, my dad killed a cousin of mine while drunk driving. Growing up, I thought my cousin Donald Wayne Morris was an uncle, as we called his wife Aunt Elizabeth. Like most family lore, it wasn’t accurate and caused confused conversations. After my dad was released from prison for, among other things, armed robbery, he came back to Monroe County, Arkansas to continue his wild ways. One of the ways he chose to do this was to have an affair with my “Aunt Elizabeth,” the widow of the cousin he had killed in a drunken driving episode. I was at home in the little white house near Rich the day my dad killed Donald Wayne. As I remember it, his wife was with us at the house, too.

But this story isn’t about Aunt Elizabeth, drunk driving, or armed robbery.

Despite having an extensive criminal record, my dad always had firearms around the house. Being a quintessential redneck, he believed that all guns should always be loaded. He would brag, “You’ll be careful if you know that all guns are always loaded.” Had Bill Engvall been around back then, he would have paid for a “Here’s your sign” tattoo to be emblazoned on my dad’s forehead. My dad also didn’t believe in keeping guns hidden or under lock and key, even if toddlers or small children were around. After extensive research, the word that best describes him in this regard is “moron.”

Growing up, there were a couple of notable deaths resulting from children getting their hands on guns and shooting themselves or each other. Some family members wanted to scream and get angry about such easy access to guns – but were silenced by the withering collective stare of the culture that considered any questions about gun access to be a treasonous breach of their rights. There were angry shouts about it sometimes, but they were rare and quickly subdued. In pockets of society all around this country, men will grow angry at any mention of responsible gun ownership. They are not likely to understand nuance and the greater collective good. The words evoke a threatening aura of loss, or make them feel like they are quite wrong about the idea that not all guns and gun owners are created equal. It is an ‘all or nothing,’ scenario, without regard to a safer middle ground.

I’m not certain how old I was, but somewhere before my fifth birthday. One early Saturday afternoon, my mom and dad were screaming at one another, planning to escalate to blows at any moment. It was a familiar and constant ritual – and they knew the steps as well as any dance. I went into their bedroom and the longest rifle I had ever seen lay across the bed. It was sleekly black, with a surprisingly long silver barrel. There were others guns in the room; there were a couple of shotguns and pistols under the bed, a few in the closet, and one leaning in the corner for quick access. It was the black one on the bed calling my name, though. Without hesitation, I went up to it, put my hand across the trigger guard, and squeezed the trigger. The gun leaped from the bed, thundering like an exploding gas tank in the bedroom. I felt my ears pop inward.

I’m sure I started crying – and not just because of the painful gunshot inside the room. I knew my enraged dad would be coming in to exact his revenge. I wasn’t disappointed. I suppose he forgot his mission to scream at my mom in the kitchen when the gun fired, because he backhanded me so hard I thought the back of my head was going to touch my shoulder blades. Although mom denied it, dad kicked me more than once as I curled against the dresser near the bedroom door. Mom would find it hard to believe I could recall an event from such an early age. I used to point out that it was more traumatic than a typical memory, as it involved firearms in closed spaces and being kicked like a coffee can along the sidewalk.

Later, I looked through the round hole in the bedroom wall to see that the line of fire went straight to the next house along the road. It turned out that the bullet had pierced through the siding on that house, too, although no one was hurt. I often wonder if anyone from the other house still tells this story.

At the time, I couldn’t understand how stupid my dad sounded, screaming at me that I could have shot someone – and that I should never touch guns. Part of it was that he was constantly handing them to me or doing ridiculously stupid things with them as he drank. Often, he pointed them in anger at other people, including his own family. He shot at several people when I was growing up. He fired guns from inside moving vehicles, shot propane tanks, poured ammunition into both open campfires and fireplaces, and did just about every idiotic and unreasonable thing possible with a gun.

But this story isn’t about how I could have killed someone when I was very young.

All through my youth, my dad had guns everywhere. Guns, knives, crossbows – of all kinds. He had a violent temper and a lengthy history of domestic violence and criminal behavior. Anyone who knows me also knows that while I came to terms with my dad before he died, the truth is that he had no business being allowed to touch guns or own them. Police in Northwest Arkansas and in Monroe County knew dad’s criminal history and love of hitting people in anger. They also knew he had an arsenal pretty much his entire adult life. Dad had more than one gun given to him by members of law enforcement. Is it hard to see that he felt somehow empowered to continue the same wayward behavior?

Part of the reason I’m telling this story is to shake my head that people seem surprised that just about anyone can get guns and commit horrible acts of violence. I acknowledge that it was a different time even a couple of decades ago. The truth, though? People haven’t changed. Right now, in places that might surprise you, there are people are thinking of doing crazy things. Many of them are surrounded by people that don’t think their friend or family member is going to be the one who loses it and goes on a rampage. The gun buffet is at their disposal, if they want it. It’s true that a person so motivated isn’t going to be limited by a lack of easy access to guns. Don’t try to weaken my story by implying otherwise. If the guns are military grade automatic weapons, though, we are treading into the less reasonable realm of gun ownership. As I might have mentioned, my dad had access to explosives, too, despite his criminal record.

On more than one occasion, I fantasized about taking one of the guns and killing my dad. He deserved it on several different nights. For those unfamiliar with anger and alcohol, the nightfall has always brought with it a greater likelihood of violence. For all of you who’ve never been put in the position of wishing you could kill your own father to protect yourself, I can only say “you’re lucky.” People around us and certainly some family members knew how likely it would be to get a call informing them that my dad had killed one or all of us, finally. There would have been tears and the usual, “We could have done something”nonsense. Yes, they could have done something – they could have knocked my dad silly and taken all of his guns. There were a couple of times I regretted not killing my dad because the lesson of not doing so was followed by him beating my mom so violently that it was difficult to get the sound of her head bouncing off the metal bed support frame from my mind. It would not have been the gun’s fault had I grabbed a pistol from under the table and shot my dad. It would have been his fault.

It is true that it’s not the gun’s fault. People commit crimes.

It’s also true that the gun crowd is a little too zealous; playing the role of society that surrounded me while I was growing up. We can all be reasonable without resorting to exaggeration. Our collective future society is not going to look like it does today. It’s inevitable, because the problems we are dealing with are complicated.

It might be an easy thing to say that my dad was an aberration from the normal; he was aberrant, that is true. He also was representative of many in our society, those who secretly know that having access to any gun they want is probably a bad thing for most of the rest of us. We blithely wander through our lives, hoping that anger or mental illness doesn’t propel someone to kill us or someone we love, all the while uneasily thinking of the millions of complex firearms sitting in closets, under beds, in attics, within reach.

As I walk the streets, I don’t worry about getting shot or protecting myself. It’s a fools errand. There is no guarantee of safety, no matter how many guns I carry or how many take up space in my home. From my experience, if everyone is carrying around sticks, the likelihood of someone getting clobbered is 100%.

I don’t own any guns but shooting at a firing range is entertaining. If you’ve never done it, you might be surprised how enjoyable it is. I don’t hunt, though, mainly because I would be a vegetarian if I weren’t so damned lazy. The idea of shooting animals for sport or food is strangely exotic to me. While I would do it to survive, it would be a lesser choice for me. (You’d find me eating stale prairie grass before you’d catch me skinning a hog as an appetizer.) For our own sake, we have to figure out a way to separate the exaggerated claims of gun ownership for hunting and basic personal protection from the one the fringe continues to impose on us all – the one which commands us to pretend that all guns and gun owners are the same.

Most gun owners are responsible, reasonable people. Contrary to what the NRA would try to tell us, most people don’t want automatic weapons or the ability to buy literally any firearm they want. They think gun locks and safes are reasonable. Most want responsible controls in place for everyone. It’s the way society works when it works well.

The shadow in the back of my mind, though, is the one created by people such as my father.

RIP Heritage Inn

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RIP Brinkley Heritage Inn…

No sane person wept about the loss of the Brinkley Heritage Inn a couple of weekends ago. It burned on my birthday, which is a cosmic sign of some sort. I didn’t hear of the loss until yesterday. Some people report they witnessed Lucifer’s shadow escaping the billowing columns of smoke and flame. Most weren’t looking up, however, as they were undoubtedly watching the ground closely for whatever might run out of the fires. For every good thing that might have come from Brinkley, the presence of this horrendous reputation-killing hotel confirmed every stereotype for such places. This hotel should have been fire-bombed by the Air Force at least ten years ago. I can’t imagine the firefighters called to contain the blaze really wanted to do anything to stop the burn. It wouldn’t have surprised me to see them throwing additional materials into the flames to ensure nothing rose from the ashes.

True story: you know the place is rough when you hear a gunshot and everyone with a concealed carry permit or even an illegal handgun runs toward the building, hoping to find an excuse to fire back and kill someone inside the hotel. It looked like the first take of a Quentin Tarantino film. (This hotel was one of the few places you get both meth and bedbugs within 5 minutes of entering.)

Even though thousands of people made the grievous mistake of attempting to stay there over the years, the Heritage Inn won’t be remembered as a quiet place of peace. It could have easily been used as a training ground for police needing to learn the urban tactics of the common criminal or by the ATF doing raids. GhostHunters wouldn’t film there – even the unfortunate ghosts residing there were armed and perfecting their own brand of meth. It is true that places like this need to exist, but I was in awe through the years that this particular Hell was allowed to exist directly off the interstate, openly defying Health and Safety laws and being the source of so much human misery.

Among the amenities of this hotel, one could experience the joy and passion of needing to climb through the window to get into your own room when no key was available. Dog lover? Stay near the room dedicated entirely to holding other tenants dogs, left loose and clawing the walls down to the studs. The scent of the area was quite fragrant, too. Several people reported feces in the bathtub when they got a room there. I’m not sure what level of crazy you have to be in to relieve yourself in the bathtub – or how a hotel would fail to notice that particular thing and then fix it. I guess they at least picked up the missing fingers and soaked up the pools of blood before renting the room?

You could sit in the back where the RV area was, watching the police drive by slowly, but never stopping. If you watched closely, you could watch drug deals, domestic abuse, and all the activity you would normally see on “Cops” the TV show, with the exception of the police not actually daring to climb out of their vehicles. It wouldn’t be uncommon to get a flat from a hypodermic needle or hear random screams – and not the pleasure kind either; no, these screams were snatched from the bowels of deepest human misery and amplified on the dirty concrete walls.

To the rear of the property behind the RV area was the abandoned hull of the saddest Wal-Mart to have existed in the history of retail. Not incidentally, that Wal-Mart had the distinction of having the worst bathroom I had ever personally experienced, and that includes even the time I was helping dad with a septic tank and fell in up to my waist. The Wal-Mart closed, leaving the Heritage Inn to remain, holding forlorn watch over the exit from I-40.

To those who accidentally pulled off I-40 from exhaustion, hoping to find a peaceful place to lay their heads, I say “thank you” to all of you who wrote some of the best reviews over the years. Your horror and disgust at some of the things you complained about was amusing. I’m sorry for your suffering of course, but be gladdened that your abject terror was enough to make me laugh. I could never write satire better than those who shared their horror stories disguised as reviews.

Now that the building has burned, if you read reviews online, most of them express joy that the place finally died. Most echo the sentiment that burning was the perfect end to such an imperfect and hideous business.

Here are review excerpts:
“…In summation, if you’re into sketchy sex, killing things, and a grim, hopeless, overall disconcerting vibe, maybe this is totally the place for you…” – “…I got back in my van and kept driving through the storm. I’d rather risk lightning than a stray bullet any day…” – “…Do not stay here. Avoid it like the plague. Because you might actually catch the plague at this dump…” – “…I opened the room door and was startled by the resemblance to decor right out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I count myself among the survivors of the Heritage Inn….” – “…Go here, if you dare or are writing a horror screenplay…Heritage Inn at Brinkley, Arkansas is alright if you like fighting. And crack deals and homicide…” – “While I am interested in crime scene investigation, I had never dreamed that I would be able to sleep in an actual crime scene…” – “Two of the filthiest prostitutes I’ve ever seen walked passed me and two kids. My little boy literally screamed a little when he looked at them. I watched one of the other long-term tenants kick the rat-trap around as I unloaded my car… We stayed in our room for about 15 minutes, long enough to hear dogs howling in pain and what sounded like a gunshot followed by screams and then muffled crying…” – “…and the lobby attendant looked like he was from a dumpster…”

I know what you are thinking: “X is exaggerating again.” But I’m not. Because of my mom, I spent time near this hotel. The picture on this post is of a Housekeeping cart. It’s an old Wal-Mart shopping cart. You can see the vacuum cleaner, which they rarely used, on the back. The towels in the top are dirty and the ones in the lower basket are ‘clean.’ This picture conveys everything you need to know and allows you to extrapolate the sheer magnitude of crazy that the Heritage Inn conveyed. You can google the pictures and reviews if you want.

I hope that Brinkley decides to allow nothing else to be built upon the ruins of the Heritage Inn. It should be memorialized as a disaster area, left vacant, serving as a warning to travelers and citizens alike.

A Rusty Nail Is All I Need

As strange as it sounds, one of my most prized possessions is most of a rusty nail. Seriously.

Years ago, before it was torn down, I visited the last house my maternal grandparents lived in together. I went on the property at great risk, as it looked like it had been abandoned and infiltrated by wasps, weeds, and rain through the old metal roof and tar paper siding. Before moving to this house, they lived to the south, still off highway 39, on the opposite side, near White Cemetery. They had an outhouse at the previous house.

I have an incredible number of memories about that old “house on the hill” as I call it. It was in Rich, Arkansas; not much of a place, really, even its heyday if it ever truly had one.  It was on Highway 39, on the west side of the road. Cook Road was slightly to the south of the old house. Most of the time cotton seemed to be the crop surrounding it in every direction.

I remember when grandma and grandpa moved in. One of the first things done was to hang a porch swing on the south end of the full-length wooden slat board porch. In that day, one didn’t use complicated screw hooks – a long nail would be hammered in and bent around to hold the chain linked through it. This isn’t the safest of ways to do it, not by today’s standards. Yet I can’t remember seeing one fall when I was young. (The second thing done was to build Grandma Nellie a storm shelter. She was deathly afraid of any weather, having survived the stories of the tornado in 1909 that leveled the town of Brinkley.)

Either Uncle Raymond or Uncle Harold picked me up and held me up high toward the roof of the porch. I held the nail more or less straight while grandpa hammered it in. Once we nailed the two nails, we hung the swing and sat in it, enjoying the simple fun and relaxation of it. I spent a lot of hours on that swing with grandpa. On some level, it is partially to blame for my extreme views on simplicity and comfort. Adding 44 uses and extras to things mostly ruins them.

To this day, when it rains sometimes I can smell the dirt and cotton blowing across the porch toward grandpa and me, sitting on the porch. If weather was coming, we’d usually be listening to grandma cajole grandpa into coming into the house or getting to the storm shelter.

The only thing I was really interested in salvaging that day in the 90s was the swing nail closest to the house, the one I remember “helping” put in. Honestly, I can’t say with 100% certainty that it’s the same nail, although I believe that it is. I’m humbled to think that the first swing installed at that house was balanced there almost 1/2 a century ago. I managed to extract some of the long bent nail from the upper wooden beam above the porch. Everything was caving in as I struggled to use it for footing.

Sidenote: one branch of the Pledger family was the last to live in the house. Their stuff, including pictures, were scattered all around inside. I learned later in life that my grandpa Willie supposedly had an illegitimate child with one of the Pledgers. At the time, he was working for the original Pledger patriarch at a sawmill in Clarendon. My mom didn’t know anything about her half-sister until after the half-sister died. The story is that she and mom looked a lot alike. Although I have delved fairly extensively into the Pledgers, I have avoided any direct linking to their trees or stories.

 

 

This picture is of the old house on the hill. (The aforementioned porch swing is on the left in the background.) Grandpa Willie is seated center. They are sitting on the porch steps, a series of piled railroad logs. I nailed at least 1,000 nails into those logs. These logs were one of the many reasons that I still love the smell of creosote of all kinds.