The picture isn’t real, much like each of our collective sets of memories. That’s my dad standing next to me, though. The power of memory and photography grants me the ability to recreate an imperfect idea.
This story, although difficult to believe, is true. Or true-ish. It’s true enough to make you nod your head in recognition of the people and places mentioned. Since I suffered two almost-fatal head traumas when I was young, I’ve learned to sometimes distrust my grasp of the details but also simultaneously cling to the mood that nostalgia brings. I’m averse to taking the direct route, so if you’re seeking linear fulfillment, it’s probably best that you scamper over to something else to amuse you. Young people don’t appreciate the agony of becoming old and being unable to simply tell a story. Stories worth sharing fail to conform to plot development. In my youth, there were no disinterested bystanders. We were all either in the action or trying to hide from it.
This story takes place somewhere around 1978. Even then, we thought the world was moving too fast, as whispers of new highways and industry were everywhere. Springdale had just reached 20,000 people, a 1/4 of what it is today. Out in the world, many things happened that year, yet few touched the residents of Springdale. Inside City View Trailer Park, though, the world was further reduced to minutes, dollars, and wondering what life was like out in the real world. For many years, it was timeless, stagnant and visceral. Faces changed, to be sure, but the circumstances of those living there hinged on the same calculations people still make today when they might run out of money before days in the month. Most little towns have their own versions of City View. It appeared in the newspaper with startling frequency, usually near the words “Police Beat.” My best friend’s mom was immortalized in the Police Beat section, because burglars broke into their trailer and stole some of their belongings in July 1976. It was strange to find it in the newspaper so many years later. I found hundreds of mentions of City View – none of them had positive headlines. No Nobel Laureates sprang from its loins. As in all places, a few great people lived there and avoided being infected by its lunacy.
For those who aren’t familiar with City View, it was a place a family could find an immediate place to live. It consisted of more than a hundred trailers, set on a mostly quadrangular grid with three main streets and two connecting end loops. The further inside your family lived, the more likely you’d find yourself questioning your ability to make good choices, especially on the drinking nights. If you’re picturing a house with a fireplace or windows that were guaranteed to work, you’re being too lenient on the definition of the word. As long as you weren’t concerned about insulated walls or normalcy, City View always answered the eternal question of “How little can I pay and still claim to live on the inside of a building?” In my later years, I often joked that it was impossible to feel the pull of loneliness there because the roaches were always there to keep us company. We all could hear each other’s business, even as we pretended to hear and see nothing.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the principal owner of the City View trailer park was quite wealthy. He bought the Faubus House in Madison County at one point. When I was diving into the details of this story, I discovered he owned trailers very near where I now live and that a tornado had hit the east end of Emma in 1977, damaging trailers he owned there. To be clear, I’m not faulting him for City View’s problems. He could have done much better, of course, but places like City View are almost necessary.
It’s important that you understand two contradictory things. City View Trailer Park could be a hellish place to live, especially if keeping your stuff from being put in the trunk of someone else’s car was important to you. On the other side of the equation, it was a small community on the east side of Springdale, one cloistered from much of the rest of the little town. Close quarters create an intimacy that’s difficult to replicate elsewhere. It was just as easy to make a lifelong friend as it was to be both witness and participant in a brawl at 2:30 p.m. on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Despite proximity to one’s neighbors, it might as well as have been supervised by the Mafia. All manner of questionable human activity transpired there. Despite it all, many families lived there and walked the straight and narrow path. Its areas were inevitably crawling with children and their adventures.
Looking back, I see that the concentration of poor people tricked many of us into believing that all the craziness happening there with a monotonous regularity had more to do with the place than the inhabitants did. As wild as the place could be, it’s no surprise to anyone who knows me that I frequently mention that my parents were almost ideal for the confines of City View. While we lived there, much of the shouting had my trailer at its epicenter. We only left City View because either the terrible wiring of our trailer failed, or my mom burned yet another residence because of smoking. To say that my mom smoked is akin to saying a volcano tends to emit a bit of ash. She burned down several residences in her life. I’ll never forget the sight of approaching the palatial grounds of City View on that early November afternoon to see a plume of smoke. Everyone on the school bus was shouting, both wanting to go see whose trailer burned and in hopes that it wasn’t his or hers. No one died in the trailer that day, but several million cockroaches were rendered homeless. I lost my connection to my best friend that day, too, as quickly as the smoke rose and vanished.
City View was near the skating rink on highway 68 (Robinson Avenue), the one near the airport. I didn’t realize until I was older than one end of the park was directly south of the airfield’s path. Back then, the airport had houses along three sides. 68 morphed in 412 as the dollars changed hands and progress moved along the corridor. There weren’t convenience stores on every corner back then, or easy restaurants on that side of town. The Spe-Dee Mart was the best attraction nearby if you excluded the Pepsi Distribution Center that sat on the corner closest to City View. When I looked up “Spe-Dee Mart” to write this story, the very first story that popped up in the newspaper was from 1977, when a man robbed that very store at gunpoint. I have to admit that I laughed upon reading the words. The cliché of imagining that the man who robbed the store probably lived at City View made me laugh even more. I knew it was dangerous to walk or ride a bike along the highway but for someone as poor as I was, it seemed like another world. In my defense, it was just as likely to be dangerous at my house as it was to be around total strangers in the dark, all of whom were armed with questionable motives. One night, back when Springdale had concrete medians, I had ventured all the way to the intersection of 71. A drunken man in a pickup had pointed a shotgun at me in irritation. He didn’t appreciate that I laughed at him and rode away.
Honestly, there wasn’t much ‘town’ on that side of town, either. There were no trails or sidewalks and all the streets in and around City View all looped and connected back to Powell Street. Even the roads were trying to tell us to leave. On the farthest end, a large polluted pond sat, hoping to trick uninitiated youngsters into foolishly wading into its dark water.
Near that pond, a trailer away, a friend of my dad’s lived with his wife and two kids. Like my dad, he was a rough man. His pleasures were fishing and drinking. Unlike my dad, his laugh came easy and though he worked hard, it was difficult to rouse him to anger. Jerry wasn’t the only inhabitant of City View that I knew. I had a couple of cousins, many school classmates, and the only real friend I made as a kid.
I’m not sure why my dad was home when the school bus dropped me off. He was a mechanic by nature but had learned a dozen trades and done countless jobs. I dreaded reaching the small rickety set of steps leading up to the door. It was impossible to open the door to that trailer without it emitting a high scream of metal protest. I knew it was likely that dad was drunk and that said drinking had probably soured his less-than-stellar mood. I sat on the porch a few minutes and petted my dad’s dog, Duke. My dad owned a long line of Dukes, all of them dark German Shepherds.
Cradling my books like a shield, I flung open the front door. Dad was sitting at the kitchen table with a partially consumed bottle of something in front of him. It was probably Old Charter. I’m sure that in those days, it was distilled from cat urine. I’m basing that only on the intense and penetrating stench it released when the lid came off. He immediately started talking to me in his language of Mumblecorn. If you’re not familiar with Mumblecorn, it’s a dialect of mostly English spoken by people who already mumble, spiced with words in no discernible order. As bad as my dad’s mumbling was, it was a capital offense to be unable to understand him and comply with whatever nonsensical order he might throw my way. In this case, I understand the word “Jerry” and nothing else. I walked down the narrow hallway, tossed my books on the floor, and returned to the kitchen.
Dad unsteadily stood up, grabbed his bottle by the neck and said, “Come on, let’s go see Jerry.” He either said that, or “The world is a paradox, unknowable in its complexity.” It’s impossible to be sure, though I imagine the former is more likely. At any rate, I had to put on an Oscar-worthy performance and pretend to understand his alcohol-induced word salad.
Dad stepped outside and missed the steps directly in front of him. He fell in one long step, all the way down. He didn’t drop his bottle or lose the cigarette, which perennially dangled from his lip. His ugly brown beast of a cowboy hat also didn’t tilt off. I knew better than to assist him up. If I made that error, someone would have to pick me up after he knocked me down. Many times, I would simply disappear by darting around a corner or hiding. It was a relief to discover how often he’d forget me if I weren’t in his direct line of sight.
I climbed over the tailgate of his truck and dropped inside. Duke jumped over, too, and lay down along the cab side of the bed. There was no way I was going to get inside the cab with my dad. Not just in fear I might laugh at him fumbling for the keys and the keyhole, but in fear he’d challenge me to drive, smoke his cigarette, or take a long pull from his whiskey, all of which was a common development with him. I sat in the back, hoping we were heading to the other end of City View instead of out into the world. Being drunk rarely stopped my dad from driving.
Thankfully, we turned to the east. Dad gassed it, screeching the tires, and didn’t relent until we hit the first speed bump. He loved doing that if he had a victim in the back. In my dad’s mind, the back of a truck was tantamount to the back seat of an SUV in today’s world. I rode hundreds of miles, even through the mountains in summer and winter sitting in the bed or clutching the sides in terror. When people post those stupid memes of kids in the back of pickups, declaring, “We survived,” I’d like to punch them in the throat. I had the joy of being in the back of one on a 4th of July when dad wrecked on an embankment going at least 50 mph, coming back from the coldest swim hole in the area, Blue Hole in Tontitown. To be clear, I loved riding in the back of a pickup if a sane person was behind the wheel. With my dad driving, though, any kid in the back would find himself praying to any and every god imaginable in hopes of surviving the trip.
We made it to the end of the trailer park where Jerry lived. His truck was parked in front of his trailer. People like my dad and Jerry didn’t walk if a truck was nearby. Even the idea of walking for pleasure would’ve confused them. I jumped over the back and stood just out of dad’s sight. Dad climbed the steps and pounded on the door. When no one answered, he began shouting, “Jerry, you b@#tard, open the door!” He turned around to find me and I made the mistake of looking in his direction. He waved his arm to beckon me to the door. As bad as the neighborhood was, many people didn’t routinely lock their doors. With people like Jerry and my dad, it would have been unwise anyway. Guns were tucked everywhere, and usually loaded. The door was locked and later I figured out why.
Dad stepped off the porch and walked a couple of steps to the window. He put his bottle on the ground and pushed against the cheap window. It slid up. “Come on. I’ll push you up,” he told me.
I stepped up on dad’s knee as he bent and then lifted up to grip the window. Just as I was about to clear the edge, I heard dad laugh. Before I had time to react, he forcefully shoved me through the window without warning. I hurtled inside and knocked some things off a little table by the recliner in the living room. I got up and opened the door for dad. I could hear noise from the other end of the trailer. By the way, if you didn’t know, using windows as doors was completely normal, and not just because so few of the windows at City View had screens.
Dad looked in the bedroom directly off the living room. He then turned and walked across the living room, then the kitchen, then down the long hallway on the far side of the trailer. He came back, a horrible smile on his face. He took a Camel cigarette from his striped shirt pocket and lit it.
“We’re gonna have us some fun, son.” He then laughed as Roscoe P. Coltrane might have and whooped. I was glad he was laughing because this indicated a shift in mood. The problem was that it was impossible to know how far my dad might go. “Reasonable” was a fake word to him when he was either drinking or pulling pranks. Some of the stories I tell about him sound impossible to me, too.
Before proceeding, it’s important that you understand several other details about daily living. First, many men like my dad and Jerry often kept a pitcher or jug of tap water on the counter or in the fridge. Filters and bottled were unheard of back then. You simply drank directly from the jug. Everyone in the house knew that it was forbidden to put your lips on the jug or pitcher of the man of the house. Second, most trailers didn’t have showers back then. Most had small bathtubs. Bathing wasn’t meant to be comfortable. You were lucky to get your own bathwater. Kids knew the agony of their moms washing their hair for them. At times, we were convinced our moms were ripping our scalps off as they squeezed our hair. As an adult, you had no real choice except to almost lie down on the floor, placing your torso on the narrow lip of the tub and then bending your neck unnaturally under the protruding faucet. Third, most men like my dad and Jerry had guns everywhere, intended for shooting things outside of one’s house.
As dad puffed on his cigarette in the small kitchen, I could see the wheels of mischief churning in his head. He went into the living room and hunched down near the couch. He reached under it and pulled out a short barrel shotgun. I think it was a .20 gauge, though I can’t be certain. He pumped it to see if it was loaded. Indeed it was. My blood ran cold for a second as I realized dad was going to shoot the gun. Based on experience, I knew that it was just as likely he’d do it inside as outside. He put the gun back under the couch and then went back into the kitchen. I stood, watching.
He opened the old yellow fridge door and reached inside. He pulled out a mostly-full pitcher of water. “A-ha. Here it is. This will teach him to lock the door and wash his hair.” Dad was unstoppable at this point.
By the way, I forgot to mention that I wasn’t sure that Jerry had ever actually washed his hair. It was difficult to imagine him having the time or patience to crouch so uncomfortably and waste his time doing so. I know it didn’t make sense for me to believe this. In my defense, most people didn’t consider the fact that a grown man might fire a gun inside someone else’s house.
I didn’t follow dad down the hallway. I did watch in disbelief as he threw his cigarette in the sink, grabbed the sloshing pitcher of water, and then marched down the hallway to the bathroom to say hello to Jerry. I had connected the dots.
Within half a second of my dad darting into the open doorway of the bathroom, I heard both the simultaneous slosh of water as dad threw the entire contents at an unseen target in the bathroom and the most inhuman scream I’d heard to that point in my life. Believe me, I had heard and memorized some ungodly screams of terror and anger. The scream, which poured from the bathroom, could only be accurately measured against the Richter Scale if it were recalibrated to measure both agony and volume. Almost immediately, another scream and a thud filled the trailer
Dad backed out of the bathroom, empty pitcher in hand, laughing and pointing.
“Go##damnit, Bobby Dean! I’m bleeding everywhere!” Jerry’s voice was piercing.
Since dad was laughing, I risked going past him. Jerry was naked, now sitting on the toilet, and had a towel against the back of his head. Blood was on the edge of the tub, on the floor, and running down his back.
“Where are you bleeding?” I asked. He was lucky I personally had a couple of hundred head stitches of my own when I was 6 or 7 – and had felt the inside of my own scalp when it was almost ripped off my head. I’d seen enough blood to know that if I were looking at it while it was coming from someone, no one had been killed. Yet.
“It’s my head. That faucet caught my head after Bobby Dean threw the ice water on me!” Jerry sounded like a wounded mountain lion. My suspicions had proven to be true: dad had thrown the entire pitcher of water directly across Jerry’s rear-end as he hunched over the edge of the bathtub, washing his hair.
I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I said something like, “Aren’t you glad he threw the water on you instead of firing your .20 gauge in this bathroom?”
The look on Jerry’s face seemed to indicate that neither sounded very reasonable to him. He told my dad to stop laughing and to go jump in the pond behind the house. His language was a little more colorful, though, full of words which surpass mere English.
Jerry, of course, didn’t go to the doctor. Back then, you only went to the doctor if you lost an arm and couldn’t find it. He soaked a towel and a shirt in blood as it slowed. He put a ripped piece of a shirt over the flap of scalp and put a ball cap over the top of that to hold it in place. Wherever he and my dad had planned to go was forgotten. They sat in the living room, drinking beer and sips of whiskey. Occasionally, Jerry would idly threaten to kill Bobby Dean. Dad would laugh and ask Jerry if he could get him another glass of ice water, or “ass water,” as he jokingly referred to it.
I’m not sure which had hurt him worse: the huge cut on his head as the faucet scraped all the way to his skull as he jumped up with a buttcrack full of ice water or his back, from attempting to jolt him upright from what amounted to a prone position under the faucet. If Jerry washed his hair for a while, I’ll wager he locked the front door, all the windows, and the bathroom door, too. And maybe hid all his guns, too.
After a while, I walked back up to the trailer I called home and probably hid in the closet to read.
So, please forgive me as I sometimes forget the idea of scale or appropriateness. My barometer for evaluation was damaged. Prehistoric man had to be cautious of predators and being gutted while sleeping. Modern men exposed to my dad had infinitely more difficulty attempting to navigate the prognostications of what he might or might not do. “If you dream it, they’ll come” is a well-known mantra of the baseball player. “If you can imagine Bobby Dean doing it, he’s already on his way over,” would be the mantra for my dad.
Based on the scream Jerry produced at the moment the ice water contacted his backside, I’m going to have to say that sinister government agencies should replace water-boarding with ice water crack attacks.
You’ll never forget those screams, even if you had the chance to live in City View Trailer Park, back when time sometimes stood still.
Time eventually started its march once again, even for City View. Springdale mercifully stepped in and vainly attempted to correct some of the living conditions there. For good or ill, it touched thousands of people. For me, it fills a spot in my mind similar to the one occupied by my dad. All the people and places that I called home color everything that I am. City View changed its name, just as I did.
Humor is in the eye of the beholder and time always renders translucent the fondest of memories – and the toughest of circumstances.