Category Archives: Monroe County

The Unsettling Solace Of the Ruins

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This is a guest post.

Each of us has a hometown. Returning brings the blessing of memories and the bitterness of entropy enveloping what we remember.

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Trips to my hometown are usually quick and for a particular purpose. Occasionally during these trips, an investment of a few minutes is made to drive past the small house that was home to me for well over half my life. 

One of my earliest memories, if not the earliest, is of the day we moved in. I was not yet four years old. We lived next door, and my main contribution to the move was carrying my baby doll’s high chair down the front steps of that two-bedroom house (where a sheet divided one bedroom down the middle to accommodate my brother on one side and my sister and me on the other) to the larger (barely) three-bedroom.

This was home for the next 28 years–until my mother died—when it became a house-home mixture of sorts. It was never the same for any of us with her missing, but my father owned it for several more years before selling it and moving to a new town. 

In the bottom right corner of the photo is the front window to my bedroom. It often held a box fan in the summer and was covered with plastic on the inside during the winter to help block the cold draft. During my early teenage years, it held a view to and thoughts of a much bigger world beyond. 

The crepe myrtle outside this window was always one of my favorite things about the house. It provided a wonderful canopy for day or evening, and its delicate flowers and flaky bark were a constant enticement to touch. This crepe myrtle has never been subjected to the yearly scalping performed on many crepe myrtles, and so it has grown from the 10-foot (or less) height of my youth to the 30-40 foot beauty you see here. Knowing this tree as a friend from day one makes it feel as though the roots of this tree are deeply intertwined with the “roots of me.”

The photo is from the street in front of the house-taken today during one of those quick trips.  

Not all here was beautiful, though. Today brought the unsettling (and a bit devastating, being totally honest with myself) discovery of an abandoned home with a broken kitchen window and No Trespassing/Keep Out signs posted in various places on the property. Barring an unforeseen and unlikely miracle, this house will probably not exist within a few years. Based on the condition the structure and its outlying storage buildings are in, I hope it doesn’t. It would be far less painful to see a clean slate than to see the neglected and abused ruins of a home that held life and dreams for so many decades. Maybe I will drive past again during the next fast dash to the area; maybe I won’t. Maybe instead, I will ask friends who still live nearby to let me know when it is gone. I know this is not a situation unique to me, and maybe it makes no sense to many others who often moved in their growing up years; but, for today, I am sad about what is and miss what was. 

It’s Personal, With Love

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This is not a Father’s Day post.

On the other hand, it is. I just found out this morning that my dad had another child. Were he still alive, he would have found out this morning, too – and I would have been the person telling him. Life is a series of kicks in the face.

All my life, I’ve resisted the revisionist tendencies of much of my family. I revolted against the idea of secrecy and shame. Each of us makes our own decisions and is responsible for the consequences. People misbehave and make terrible decisions.

For the first time, this morning, I wrote, “every person in my immediate family has struggled with the demons of alcohol, drugs, or violence.” Some of their stories weren’t mine to tell, even as the consequences boiled over and tainted my ability to live a good life. Over the last year, I learned that my brother, despite his stunning intelligence, has been a victim for much of his adult life. On the Terry side of my family, every person in my immediate family has led a double life. Many have died prematurely as a result. Just writing this paragraph might have earned a beating in the not-so-distant past. The revelation that some of us lead secret lives (or smaller lives) controlled by our lesser natures is one that seldom gets a warm embrace. We prefer to hide our shadows away from questioning eyes.

None of this is a secret. Everyone close to those family members knew, of course. That’s part of the corrosiveness of alcohol or addiction. Part of my adult fight was trying to reconcile the fact that so many people stood by on the sidelines and angrily pushed me away as I tried to be open and honest about my parents and their brutal hidden lives. It’s my story to tell because I have an equal right to share my steps.

Since I was little, I’ve joked that I must have brothers and sisters out in the world. My dad was unfaithful in every sense of the word. He had notorious affairs with several people. I knew that one day I would be able to say with certainty, “I told you so,” even as a couple of my aunts and uncles angrily told me to shut up. “You ought not to talk about that!” Equally true is the fact that my father ought not to have behaved that way. People close to me have heard me say that my genetics are an infection. I don’t say it with disrespect toward my brother and sister; it’s a fact that is sustained by the carnage of our lives.

Years ago, I started genealogy. I didn’t think it would be interesting to me, even though I love to research. It opened a world to me. I helped many people find lost loved ones, discover their birth certificates, and unlock countless mysteries. Many of those mysteries were buried – or so those involved foolishly thought. I participated in the DNA system early and with optimism. DNA is the blueprint of truth that people can’t control. It is the genie which relentlessly tells us the truth, despite what those who preceded us might have written as history. Alongside DNA, I began to discover the historical record that buttressed my claims about my past. Much of the record contained people’s accounts of crime, abuse, violence and sometimes proud moments. Several of my aunts and uncles died before I compiled a record that would make them wince.

History devours all of us incrementally.

As the unofficial family historian, I’ve never shied from directly admitting what happened behind closed doors. It’s caused some discomfort and anger.

And so…

After years of relentless diligence, it finally happened: through DNA, I discovered that I have a half-sister out in the world. This discovery just happened. It’s raw and fresh in my mind. I can’t imagine what my half-sister is experiencing. I have a million questions, of course. Luckily for her, she can use my ancestry treasures and written accounts to jump right into the lives that she wasn’t able to experience. I warned her that demons possessed my father. I’m not one to gloss over the terrain that makes people uncomfortable. I’ve given my dad a long eulogy, one punctuated by bitter truth.

Her mom was very young when she was with my dad. The liaison happened in the early 70s after my dad was in prison and had returned to Monroe County, Arkansas. He’d barely survived a DWI accident that killed my cousin. I know nothing about my new half-sister’s mother or other family. It’s probably best at this point as she comes to terms with unintentionally finding an entire family in the world.

I don’t have all the details. Part of the uncertainty is that the woman in question didn’t expect to ‘find’ relatives, much less someone like me with a full arsenal of DNA results and extensive family history for her. I don’t even know her name yet.

Ironically, I found confirmation on Father’s Day, a holiday that was no more real than a unicorn in my family. My dad died over 25 years ago. He would laugh. Whether that makes him human or a monster I’m not sure.

I am both confused and happy. Most of my glee is for my half-sister who found the road she was seeking. What she does with it is entirely her choice. That’s entirely the point of DNA and family history. None of us had a choice regarding who brought us to this world, and many of us would desperately love to be able to change those choices. It’s not our fault. Whether our parents were doctors or assassins, we are guiltless in our existence.

I wish I could grant amnesty to all those children who grow up feeling responsible for the people behind them.

For those of you who have good families, it probably seems a bit exotic to think about these situations. Many of us flee in self-protection from our family. All of us would prefer the warm embrace of people who value and love us. Unfortunately, much of the world operates on a stranger wavelength.

It’s no insult to say that my original sister and I are incompatible. I’m not one for anger, drama, and instability. It might make her angry to see this truth written out – but it is true in a way that no one can deny. As for my brother, he wisely moved away when he was younger. Over the years, our connection lessened. A few years ago, we went through an intense and disruptive episode that broke something in me. I didn’t know at the time how much he was suffering from addiction. I knew but didn’t ‘know,’ much in the way that each of us later wonders how all of us avoided connecting the painful dots.

Now that the day has come that I might have a connection to another sister, it is news that I can’t share meaningfully. Mom and dad are both dead. My sister is in exile for my sanity, and my brother is struggling merely to live another year.

You might say, “None of that is your place to say, X.” You’re wrong, though. I have earned the right.

I don’t know what, if anything, will come of my discovery of a new half-sister. I wish my brother Mike were in his right mind, though. We share a deep and incisive bond of dark humor and irony. Since he’s been at the brink of death, he has passed a lot of time with me recounting the old stories. Shared history acquires a more profound meaning when you realize that your time in it is diminishing rapidly. In the last few months, Mike has read all my family lore and stories and relished them. He knows how strongly the gravity of what we came from has affected us.

I hope that my new half-sister waits a long time to meet my original sister. While I am by no means able to claim normalcy, I’m foolishly confident that I am the best ambassador to the family.

To anyone reading this, I hope each resists the urge to ‘find’ my new half-sister. She gets the right to decide when or if she opens the door. I wish her peace regardless of her timeline.

To the new half-sister I don’t even know by name, I wish that Father’s Day were one of joy for you. I wish that life had been different for us all and that all of us could sit at a table and wonder about what might have been. Each paid the price of our common ancestor. We never stop paying.

We also never stop hoping, though, either, not if we share a common humanity.

History Seldom Stays Silent

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This post is personal. Read at your own discretion.
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I’m not quite sure what precipitated some of my revelations this week. Gears clicked and connections snapped together in so many different places. I felt like Rainman as a few things which had previously been a block for me fell away. Not only was I able to help several other people, but I also used my luck to take another stab at some of my own history.
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I found a few things which I’ll process and write about later. Some of them are dark and some are simply crazy. A few of my ancestry leads broke open, too. A couple of people are going to have to rethink who they think they are who they think they come from. I’ll take this opportunity to remind everyone that while we are not our DNA, it is the tenuous and undeniable connection that belies our ancestry and heritage. I’ve made some discoveries which I’ve never shared with anyone; once told they are no longer ideas to be held, but burdens which cannot be forgotten. All of us have our internal history, the one which we know to be true – but often isn’t.
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Regarding one of my most personal finds this week, I only found them because I had helped someone find a bit of information. I wrote, “Start your inquiry in the simplest way possible.” Easy words to write but hard to live by. Starting simple is exactly like attempting to tell a story without drawing an entirely new and complex roadmap in the middle of the story as we tell it. We are so impatient for the people in our lives to get to the point and yet some of us are enraptured by the presence of a story well-told, filled with wrinkles, and the destination unclear.
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And so, in a matter of minutes, I found news articles in Indiana regarding some of my dad’s run-ins with the law. There was more than one, I discovered. I’ve been told that my dad left Arkansas because he had family in Indiana, which is true. The myth is that he had exhausted the good-ole-boy network in Monroe County, Arkansas and needed a clean break. Like in most rural Southern places, it was possible to run amok without real consequence in Monroe County, all the way to mayhem and sometimes murder. I do know that my Grandmother Terry exerted a great deal of pull in a continual attempt to keep my dad from being held accountable for the hell-raising that he always found himself in. My dad’s father James died in early 1964, and shortly before my oldest sibling was born.
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The story of all this is a massive tapestry shared by countless people. Some know more of it than others, especially the older generation, the one succumbing to death with greater urgency. Others, the younger generation, are unaware of much of the tapestry, as ideas like family honor, secrecy and shame shielded them from being aware in the first place. I’ve unevenly kept my post through the last few years, honing in on some truths. Some I’ve cemented rightfully into the record because I was able to find sources other than those affected by dubious family loyalty.
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That same misplaced loyalty to protect my dad served as an umbrella for him through much of his life. It enveloped him and encouraged many of my paternal relatives to shamefully look away as he engaged in a long series of brutally violent and alcohol-fueled crimes against his wife and children. (And society.)
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Alcoholism is one of the few diseases that infects others with an inability to see and hear clearly. Alcohol coupled with anger or violence demands a collective and permanent bout of amnesia. Once initiated, this voluntary amnesia makes everyone an accomplice.
I’m relieved that I’ve learned to place this idea in a tidy descriptive box like that because it makes it more palatable and relatable. People get really angry when they are reminded that they allowed children to be abused.
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My dad’s family silently stood by, almost always pretending to not see it, nor the symptoms of pathology that it engendered in myself, my brother and my sister. It is a miracle that we survived. It’s a greater miracle that I did not see fit to murder him while I had the chance, or that another family member didn’t light his bed on fire in the dark of night. Throughout my early life, I constantly heard, “We don’t talk about that.” Or, “Shame on you! He’s your dad.” The latter would be hurled at me through tightly-bound lips, spitting the obvious anger all over me, even as the person saying the words could see the dark purple and yellow bruises from my ankles to my neck. I can’t fathom how many children went to church with the hard wooden pews pressing against the trail of agony on their legs and back, wondering when the mercy would flow toward them.
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“Only the spoon knows what is stirring in the pot,” is an old saying to remind us that situations are complicated and look different from the outside. It’s easy for normal people to jump to their dad’s defense, (or mine) on the pretense of biology. It’s easy for some to expect me not only to forgive, which I have done – yet for some, they also insanely demand that I not use my voice to share my experiences. It is possible to share simply because the story of our lives is interesting to us. As we tell it, we learn things anew.
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“Bobby Dean was a good man,” some would say. No, he was not.
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By any objective measure and any accounting, he was not good. In his defense, he had his shining moments, as everyone does – and I remember those with fondness. To any family member asking me to focus only on those shining moments, I remind them that not all monsters have fangs. Some of them are in the PTA and engage in all manner of horrors.
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Years ago, Dad helped organize a fish fry to help someone with medical bills. It was truly a good effort with real consequence. A family member used it angrily against me as an example to support their ignorant thesis that my dad was a good man beneath it all. I acknowledged that it was indeed a good act, but that terrible people live lives of mostly normal constancy. I then shocked and angered the family member by saying, “Is that man good if he broke a rake across my back so violently that I peed blood for a week, or beat my mom so hard with a pistol that he broke her nose? Killed someone? Went to prison for multiple crimes?” As I talked, the man’s face became crimson. “And anyone who let him do it is as guilty as he is.” He stomped away.
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As my ability to comb the past has grown, I’ve assembled a larger picture of my dad. The more I learn about his life, the more sympathy I see for his trajectory. His arc was cruelly bent at an early age and he chose not to deviate from its perpetual fall. The responsibility is his and his alone, though, just as my impatience in my own personal life has led me to some dark moments. I, however, didn’t have children; my ownership of the defective biology that flowed through my dad now dies with me. I’m being literal. Whatever dad had lurked in his DNA.
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As I do with everyone, I say that almost everything we do when young can be forgiven. Most of us are simply stupid when younger. After a certain point, it becomes an issue of either willfulness or pathology. Beating your wife and kids to the point of risking murder is a great example of this, if using half your income to buy alcohol and cigarettes isn’t. Everything must be weighed against youthful ignorance and the long totality of a person’s life. Accumulated choices and consequences allow us to characterize someone in a way that singular mistakes cannot.
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I’d also been reluctantly told that my dad was only guilty of being in the getaway car at a truck stop robbery on Highway 20 in Indiana. Based on the evidence I’ve been able to uncover, he wasn’t just “there.” What I wasn’t told, however, was that he had also committed other crimes, including burglary, while he was in Indiana. He was younger than I had been told, which had hampered my ability to accurately research. I had to indirectly ask questions, usually when people had been drinking. My head was filled with a million untruths, half-truths, misdirection.
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My dad was sentenced to prison in Indiana the month before I was born. I was the last child, the baby, and the second-born son, and through a series of accidents and misunderstandings, was branded with his name upon my birth in Brinkley, Arkansas. Some of my dad’s misfortune benefitted me, as during one long portion, I lived with my Grandma and Grandpa Cook. I’ve long suspected that Dad’s incarceration in another state might have saved my life, and most probably the life of my mother.
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As you all know, I later rejected my birth name entirely and yet credit my grandparents with the part of me that I find myself prideful of. Names don’t contain the essence of a person. My Grandpa would have never wrapped his head around my choice of name in “X,” but he would have leaned in and hugged me with his arm around me on the porch swing and laughed at my foolishness. He would have known why without being told. His eyes had seen a lot of human misery and recognized the stale indifference that often overpowered my dad. When I was young, Grandpa often said, “Don’t be afraid of things on four legs. It’s the ones on two that will get you.” In the rural area we lived, critters and creatures constantly came to visit, often stealthily and seen through the darkened screen of an open window on a blistering night. Years later, I felt as if Grandpa were talking about my dad. He rarely had words with my mom and dad, but several of the instances were warnings to stop mistreating their kids, and me in particular.
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So it came to pass that this week, on a whim,  I found the first article from Indiana in less than 2 minutes, after years of haphazard and dedicated digging. Dad started small and then went big with his nascent crime career in Indiana. I indexed the articles so that future interested parties might find the articles more easily.
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It’s worth noting that regardless of my dad’s official criminal record, he killed a cousin of mine while drinking and driving, (Which I recently found a mention of in a newspaper. Another tidbit that I literally just discovered is that my dead cousin’s father was related to the county sheriff.)
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My dad was quite the adept arsonist and managed to be involved in almost all the petty and felonious no-nos on the books, whether it involved guns, marijuana, VIN displacement, DWI, domestic violence, or assault. When the Springdale City Attorney went to prison for DWI-fixing, you can be sure that my parent’s names figured prominently in that accounting.
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Because the truth reaches places I hadn’t expected, I now know that a few other rumors I had heard in screaming and bloody episodes in the deep of night as bones gave way to furniture are probably true. Words I didn’t have context for now have meaning and their incoherence has slithered away, leaving behind a freshly-washed sidewalk for me to examine.
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I say none of this with shame; his life was his own.
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I have more than paid the price for his presence in my life. For anyone who has read my mind by reading my words over the years, you know that I’ve worked hard to extract the useful parts of my dad’s life, too. I’ve not turned my back on the whole person. A story I wrote earlier this year was read by thousands of people. It was a story of my dad as a whole, imperfect person, written through his eyes. I understand much of dad’s pathology now. I owed him a demonstration that I could see him as a human being.
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I’m not bitter, but I will confess that the sharpest lemonade is akin to water to my taste in part due to my dad.
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There have been times in which people have incredulously asked me about some of my stories. “That can’t be true!” someone will say.
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It’s true I sometimes get the details wrong, but I assure you that I try to get it right. I’m the only one out here on the limb of my family tree doing the time and attempting to share my part of the story. Not all stories are of youthful summer mornings on the porch with my Grandpa Willie.
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Where I err in detail, I strike a chord in truth.
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All these decades later, I’m amused that I get the final say. I read, I ponder, and I consider. The scarring I have is my friend, one which whispers in my ear as I put words on paper.
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Recently, I’ve been able to talk openly with someone who is familiar with the tornado of my youth. He’s shared some stories, many of them I couldn’t remember. In the past, he might have been the one to silence my family’s critics, as his family loyalty was ingrained into him in a way that it never was with me. His advancing age and experiences in the world finally gave him permission to detach and tell the overlapping stories of our youth. I thought that it would have been my cousin Jimmy, but cancer silenced him a few years ago. During a conversation last week, I could only imagine the storytelling if Jimmy were alive to join in. Here we are though, with our myths, certainties and acquired perspective, wondering how many unpleasant ripples our own choices might have made in life.
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Before parting, I’d like to mention that there’s another sinister chapter in my dad’s life, one which I don’t feel is my story to tell. It is a mirrored hall of horrors. I’ve circled its fringes with curiosity for a time; I doubt that I’ll ever claim ownership to the story. That I believe the chapter of his life is true reflects on the chasm that my dad punched and beat into me. I sometimes creep up to the bloody edge of it and recoil. It is the darkest of possible secrets. I guard it closely, knowing that those who would disagree with the assessment of dad would cringe and run if I were to shout it to them in reply their foundationless defense of a man long dead. I know that others walking in this world have their stories. Their silence is astounding to me. It is theirs to guard, though.
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Vicks Recipes For Southern Survivors

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Vicks salve was invented in 1905. The same person Frenchman who invented BenGay was ultimately responsible for creating Vicks VapoRub, as he inspired a pharmacist here in the United States to modify the recipe for BenGay.

On a personal note, I’d like to say that I l-o-v-e the smell of Vicks. I like the smell of creosote and diesel, too. None of them are good on a sandwich, an ice cream float, or on a spoon on its way to my mouth, however. As anyone who ever used Vicks in steam can attest, the aroma is inescapable and rich. If eaten or allowed to melt in one’s mouth, it manages to embed itself between teeth and the gums for several hours. If you’ve never eaten Vicks, get a slice of Dominos pizza and put an entire package of mint gum on it, and then topped with vaseline, and attempt to eat it. A slice of Dominos is bad enough, I admit.

The cobalt blue bottles were also immediately recognizable. One could clean them completely with very hot water, followed by vigorously adding soap and wiping them out.

Evidently, Vicks became a household staple thanks to the 1918 flu epidemic that killed millions of people. It’s hard to imagine the effect of such an epidemic, one which killed more people than any other in human history. We don’t hear much about it anymore. At least 7000 Arkansans died officially from the flu in 1918, a huge number, compared to the 600 who died in WWI. Because of the huge number of poor rural people in Arkansas at the time, family history and circumstantial evidence tell us that many more died from the flu. Additionally, because Arkansas was deeply affected by Jim Crow, thousands of blacks also went under the radar. It’s interesting to delve into the story of this epidemic; it’s undeniable that Arkansas lost at least twice as many people as officially reported.

Interestingly, I had heard stories that a great-grandfather of mine died from the flu in 1918. Research proved this to be erroneous, as he died in February 1918 before the first known case in the United States that year. Almost no family escaped death from the Spanish flu that year.

You can’t study the history of Vicks without factoring in the trauma of the 1918 epidemic. I found several news articles from early 1919 regarding the Vicks shortage as a result of the flu epidemic which had killed millions of people worldwide. Vicks was relatively inexpensive and easily obtained. Almost all households in the rural South had a bottle of Vicks. Most were smart enough to avoid eating it. I like to think that some ate it simply to accelerate meeting their maker.

For those of us who had ignorant ancestors who made us eat Vicks, most of this tendency is a result of misinformation and the worldwide scare of the deadly flu over 100 years ago. They didn’t mean to unsuccessfully poison us. At least, for the most part. During the epidemic, Vicks was considered to be a disinfectant if applied on or inside the nose. It’s no wonder that even level-headed people began to ingest it directly.

The world was smaller and people didn’t have access to a wider community of people. Home remedies and folksy cures tended to become ingrained in cloistered communities. This is exactly why so many of us were subjected to the stupidity of our parents telling us to eat Vicks, even if the bottle were clearly labeled “do not ingest,” or “toxic.” We can laugh at such goofiness now, despite the fact that the modern internet has brought us anti-vaxxers and other idiots clamoring for attention to spread their modern snake oil ideas.

Vicks also contains varying levels of turpentine, another old folk remedy that can be quite poisonous but was once very popular. It’s important to remember that people scoffed at the idea of germs until fairly recently, too, or believed that blood-letting and blowing smoke up one’s anus could reduce serious ailments such as hernias. (It’s where the term “blowing smoke” originated.) By the way, I’m referring to the mistaken idea that all turpentines are the same, even the ones found in hardware stores versus distilled turpentine oil.

Another point I’d like to make is that so many people could make a living in the South selling Snake Oil. Like all ridiculous claims, Snake Oil appealed to those without a proper understanding of science or medicine. Paradoxically, thanks to the internet, we now find ourselves in reversed roles: some of the stupidest health claims for completely useless products are made by those with advanced education and training.

In the same way that people say, “Riding in the back of a pickup didn’t kill me,” or “We didn’t have seatbelts back then,” people excuse away eating Vicks VapoRub with the same ridiculous claims, “Well, it didn’t kill me!” Any examination of our safety record clearly demonstrates that seatbelts made our lives much, much safer. Science easily demonstrates that ingestion of Vicks is dangerous. Convincing people that they were terribly wrong about such an obvious thing is a difficult feat. They didn’t die after all.

Were my mom still alive, she’d roll her eyes and cluck like a chicken if she heard me picking on her about this. My favorite cousin will point out that my mom learned to feed Vicks to children as a result of my Grandma. In Grandma’s defense, she was born after the turn of the last century and her world was very small, in the Arkansas Delta area around Monroe County. She loved me like no one ever did; she also had some strange ideas about the weather, driving in the dark, and eating things like Vicks. She lived to be over 90 years of age, so it’s difficult to argue with her methods. Plus, she loved bacon, and as you know, bacon is the single best medicine available.

I’m convinced that my mom enjoyed forcing people to eat Vicks. I’m only saying that because she could be quite sadistic, a fact that is a simple truth today, but one which would have resulted in my murder had it voiced in her vicinity as a kid. As I grew older, I joined my brother in reading the labels on ‘medications’ my mom was fond of. Several of them literally had poisonous logos on them. Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy would have been a relief to us both as we endured our mom’s ignorance about all things medical. Mom was one of those people who would not listen to reason and her stubbornness was legendary, even among mules. For most of my childhood, my mom worked at Southwestern Bell and had excellent insurance, yet I never went to the dentist between ages 5 and 18  and only got medical treatment after trauma. “You’re breathing!” she’d say.

In 1983, the FDA decided that products such as Vicks couldn’t have more than 11% of a concentration of camphor. Camphor can be fatal to small children and studies demonstrated that it actually made most people less likely to breathe more freely. Weirdly, many people report that it allows them to sleep better.

Any discussion regarding Vicks needs to take into account the historical differences of the ingredients used compared to the modern version. I’ve read anecdotes of people who claim that the bottles once recommended ingesting small amounts. I don’t doubt these claims given the ointment’s history. I can’t find evidence of it, however.

Interestingly, Vicks labels have warned against using it under one’s nostrils for any reason, as well as ingesting it. Obviously, you should never eat it, either, or put it anywhere it can penetrate into the skin. I was surprised to learn that it can damage one’s corneas, too.

Vicks VapoRub actually confuses your brain, which makes it think that you’re breathing more easily while actually reducing your ability to breathe more freely. I think it works the same way that the internet does for modern versions of my mom.

With my new cookbook of recipes, those who survived eating Vicks when they were young can once again enjoy the undeniable taste of this treat. I recommend that you start with a PB&J&V sandwich.

1975

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The early summer mist still blanketed the encircling cotton fields. Grandpa poured me a cup of coffee and then held the screen door open for me to slither through. Instead of sitting on the long porch swing, we both stepped down onto the cut railroad ties in front of the porch and sat. Grandma’s coffee was always hotter than the top of a wood stove. I was expected to respect the dangers of hot coffee. We could hear grandma inside, fussing with the skillet of salt pork, bacon, and sausage. When I was young and with my grandparents, vegetarianism was unimaginable. Later, as Grandma noted my love for vegetables, she filled my plate and bowl relentlessly with corn, mustard greens, and beans of every kind. After a few minutes, the smell of breakfast filled the damp air. All of our stomachs grumbled in anticipation.

Grandpa pointed with his right hand as a reddish grey coyote bounded through the periphery of the cotton field to our left. It stopped in the gravel drive, his head sniffing the air. To me, they all resembled foxes. After a moment, he turned and ran through the mist and across the road. We watched as the mist above him churned to mark his passage.

Grandpa sloshed the remainder of his cup onto the grass and stood up. Just as I stood up, Grandma hollered from the back of the house, “Woolly, come on!” Because of the way she talked, I found it hard to believe that she was calling him Willie; my young ears could not distinguish the subtle difference.

Grandpa shrugged his shoulders and took my cup and sloshed it into the yard, too, indicating we’d better get inside before the call to eat intensified.

Salt pork, sausage patties, bacon, and buttered toast greeted us as we sat at the table. It was Tuesday, but looking back, it was a morning for kings, one of many that summer of 1975. The mist of that early morning over forty years ago still swirls in my mind. I awoke this morning with it fogging my senses.

One of My Earliest Memories

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One of my earliest memories is of me standing upright in the back seat of a black sedan. I looked up front to see my dad Bobby Dean driving and Elizabeth in the passenger seat. Dad was having an affair with Elizabeth. I didn’t know that or what it meant while I was experiencing it. Because of the fog of my memory, for the longest time, I convinced myself it was near Marianna. My mom insisted that there was no way for me to have remembered being in the car. She was angry that I had any such memories at all. I can only recall peering through the windshield ahead of me, toward an outcropping of rock. I sometimes strain to recall more of that day and where we went and to be able to observe the adults in the natural course of that day. Though it may be both a wishful and wistful thought, I know that my dad was happy on that day.
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I’m not sure that a return to that moment would maintain its veneer of happiness. I only know that being unable to recall the nuances of the trip elusively frustrates me. One of the other witnesses to the moment is still alive. I’m not sure whether circumstances would allow an honest recollection of our shared moment all those years ago.
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And so, it remains a milestone memory, a singular and almost solitary slice of my life.
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Of all the sublime moments in life, many of them fall under the umbrella of “Somewhere In Time” moments. Whether you’re a fan of the movie, or of the book on which it was based, “Bid Time Return,” the sensation of wishing to propel back and witness the world around a picture is bittersweet.
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I loathe the mechanics of photography, yet you’ll find no greater fan of pictures.
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While no fan of staged photography or still photos, I find that the exceptions are always exceptional in depth.
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Often, even when perusing the photos of strangers, my imagination overlays the essential ‘me’ into their captured moments.
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Observing. Remembering. We’re all traveling in time now, leaving behind a gathering accumulation of pictures for those who follow to scrutinize. If we are lucky, they’ll take the necessary time to struggle to remember the feelings we shared when the pictures were taken.
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The picture seen through the windshield of this photo is of my dad, standing shirtless on horseback.
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When you gaze back onto the past, it gazes back without accusation. I cannot, however, say the same for myself.
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Silence Is Seldom Rewarded

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It turns out that the story I wrote regarding my dad and Oct. 23rd, 1993 might end up being ‘the’ thing.

A torrent of people wrote to me after reading the story in other places, wanting to know the rest of the story or asking questions about Bobby Dean – or the history of the place I once called home. I’ve done my best to answer them. My dad would get a laugh from the idea that so many people, almost all of them strangers to himself or his hometown, might want to read about his life. He would also struggle to understand that it would be his younger son who valued nothing of his contribution until it was too late who would ultimately be the culprit responsible for softening Bobby Dean’s character. I opted to shed myself of his name and yet the residue of his shadow eternally lurks just behind me.

Better writers, better singers, and better historians might recount a more compelling tale; from their absence or application of effort, however, they’ve yielded the floor to me. I don’t know what writer’s block is and I seldom let the undertone of misbehavior break my pencil. Our lives are all stories, even as we fail to see it or wish them to be unwritten.

For anyone who has looked past my imperfect and stubborn way of writing and reached out to me to let me know they found something of value in it, I thank you. I still believe that our lives and the internet would be more understanding if everyone could find a way to share stories, even those tempered by our lesser natures.

It’s maddening and rewarding to find an audience out in the sea of strangers on the internet, in the place allegedly most hostile to sharing one’s life or story.

This picture is of my dad in a moment brimming with happiness. The house is now a hunting lodge off of Highway 49. I’m not sure what music might have been playing in the background, but Schlitz beer was powering the occasion. Dad, whose dance moves ran the gamut between A and all the way to B, danced with glee in front of his friends. It’s worth noting that Bobby Dean would have never danced in front of other men had alcohol not been involved. Delma Lee, the wife of one of dad’s friends, snapped the picture. She was one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. Her voice was as supple as a whispering angel, one with a drawl long to reach across the room and cause people to listen.

It’s still difficult for me to believe that dad wasn’t even 30 when this picture was taken. 25 years after his death, people who never shook his hand or cursed at his antics are thinking about his life. It’s a romanticized version, of course, but the majority of our memories are culled from the husks of things that many times should remain at rest or fuzzy with the passage of time.

X

A Living History Focused In a Moment

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In the early evening of Saturday, October 23rd, 1993, Bobby Dean stood by the tan surface of Highway 49, in a community sometimes called Rich. He watched as the last glimmers of the sun reflected from one of the windows of the fellowship hall of the Lutheran church across the state highway. The church itself had no front-facing windows, something that always drew his attention. Due to Bobby Dean’s connection to farming in the Delta of Arkansas, he knew that the official sunset was technically 15 minutes ago, slightly before 6:30. Like so many from that part of the state, he didn’t need a calendar or weatherman to predict the weather for him.

It was a warm day for eastern Arkansas. Not that Bobby Dean typically wore a jacket, but on this day, he had left his grease-stained jacket on the hook in the garage all day. The day had turned out to be perfect, rising to the upper 60s. The gas pumps were busy for most of the day, then activity tapered substantially as people headed home to eat before either venturing out again of staying home to watch the world series or Hee Haw. In the last ten minutes, only two cars had passed. Neither had stopped, probably on their way to Helena or Tunica. The casinos had recently put their footprint on the area and Highway 49 was quickly becoming a rapid corridor to find them. Locals argued relentlessly about whether they’d bring life back to their area or further drain it.

As the last car passed, Bobby Dean had been inside the station, closing the old register, the kind featuring mechanical rolling numbers. For no particular reason, he looked out one of the two wide front windows and saw the Reverend from Our Savior Church pull out on to the highway and point his vehicle toward Brinkley. As was his custom, Bobby Dean instinctively waved at toward the departing pastor, unsure whether the preacher could see his silhouette inside the station. Much to the surprise of many, the preacher and Bobby Dean had become well-acquainted. He performed Bobby Dean’s remarriage, as well as his funeral. One of Bobby Dean’s jokes was that remarriage technically could be considered to be a funeral, depending on one’s perspective.

As Bobby Dean looked to the north and south, the highway lay silent, its straight strip of asphalt pointing the way to wide expanses of farmland and house dotted along its perimeter. The tilled-under fields now waited, dormant and marching toward winter lifelessness. For those who admire such austere landscapes, it was meditative. Bobby Dean was certainly no one to ascribe to such silly words. To him, it was simply peaceful.

A younger Bobby Dean had lived in Northwest Arkansas and a short time in Indiana. He resided in Pendleton Correctional facility in Indiana as well, for his part in a robbery of a truck stop off of U.S. Highway 20. His heart always beat strongest in Monroe County. He was anchored to his wild youth, his family, the soil, and the freedom that such wide open spaces always presented to those willing to live inside them. Unfettered freedom and wide stages often led people like Bobby Dean to run wild.

He took an unfiltered Camel from his front shirt pocket and lit it. The smoke filled his lungs. As he exhaled, it formed a small cloud near him. The day’s light breeze had weakened. Bobby Dean always smelled like a blend of one or more of gasoline, oil, cigarettes, dirt, mints, and whiskey. Those who knew him could often read his potential behavior based on the prevalence of one scent over the other.

Looking back at the small church across the highway, he recalled that he had remarried there only 8 months prior. Strangely, it reaffirmed where he’d started: married to Carolyn and living in the small farming community. Carolyn would undoubtedly be at home just a bit up the road, near Cypress Road. The last time Bobby Dean ran this service station, the United States was celebrating its bicentennial and he and Carolyn had lived in a trailer almost touching the rear of the gas station. For a second, Bobby Dean wished they still lived behind the station. He could imagine the scent of freshly fried catfish in hot oil, the shouts of people congregating, and time before family began succumbing to inevitable biological frailty. His weariness enveloped him. His dream of coming back here to live and to work was realized but his bones were weary. Bobby Dean’s idea of a metaphor was the type found in Louis L’Amour westerns or demonstrated in the slitted, watchful eyes of Clint Eastwood.

Tonight, his demon fed by whiskey would not rear its head. Lately, Bobby Dean could not sustain its aftermath. His hard life was dealing out hard consequences. His namesake son, X, had surprised him last weekend with a visit. Bobby Dean had been driving his pickup along Highway 39, heading toward Monroe. His son had pulled alongside him in his roommate’s borrowed car, hogging the entire road. Carolyn was in the passenger seat, smiling like an idiot and shouting. “What’s up, #$%#$%#$%$@#$ ?” Bobby Dean had shouted back, laughing. He pulled over so everyone could exchange greetings and cleverly-worded obscenities as they laughed. Bobby Dean managed to salvage a few normal moments with his son during that visit until the urge to drink overwhelmed him. Like so many, he had no way of knowing that it would be his last chance to build a narrow bridge back toward his son.

He finished his cigarette, dropped it to the pavement, and smashed it out with his boot. Bobby Dean turned and walked over to the three gas pumps. He leaned against the outside pump, watching.

The October sun had disappeared entirely. The edge of the highway and all that surrounded it now lay in a blanket of time and silence. Waiting.

38 days later, Bobby Dean walked his last step.

His bones now rest in Upper Cemetery along the same highway, near one of the areas where Cypress Creek and its thick, muddy waters crest near the road. If you drive by at night, you can hear Bobby Dean’s shouts trailing behind you. You’ll fight the urge to floor it without knowing why. Instead, you’ll roll down the window and listen more closely. Tilled earth, smoke, and whiskey will greet you. It’s my hope that you’ll find only the wild, enthusiastic side of Bobby Dean as you pass; may his violent undercurrent forever be at rest.

If you drive the highway to visit the area where the station once stood, you’ll find the small church still patiently marking the days of its members. The station, though, is long gone. In April of 2009, someone removed the subterranean gas tanks. Not long after, the building was gone. Now, as you pass, you’ll note almost no remaining footprint for the gas station. The two telephone poles which once aligned with either end of the property still stand, along with a very narrow strip of pavement. The rest, however, has surrendered to the relentless fertile soil of the Monroe County landscape. The last couple of times that I passed where the station once stood, I resisted the urge to stop and stand in the field there. I couldn’t be sure that time itself wouldn’t grab me and whisk me back to a distant decade, trapping me in nostalgia.

I fear that the entire area might be slipping into non-existence, reverting to a time before railroads, lumber, and commerce; one inhabited by natives.

I fear that Bobby Dean might be dissipating, too. He’s been dead for over half of my life and I’ve survived this place longer than he did.

Each of us only survives in actuality as long as a living soul still remembers us.

Somehow, I received the curse of being the historian of the family. Despite my untrustworthy memory, the only honor I can bring to the history of those who preceded me is to hold my hand aloft and swear to tell the unflinching truth. Some facts slightly disjoin in my retelling, without a doubt.

The mood and temperament though? These are my promises kept.
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Of Love’s Comprehension

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Nothing is entirely real, not even much of our memory. We revisit the places of our past and often find our footing slightly unfamiliar.

Emotion and bias tinge everything, a spreading patina of ink from a single drop. The more desperately we cling to our version of events, the less firm is our ability to live a life worthy enough to satisfy us. The emotional context which surrounds us shapes our ability to recall objectively what precedes us.

My parents were a volatile mix of temper and tantrum and no one could be an innocent bystander. To be a witness meant participation was mandatory and choosing sides wasn’t optional. There was no Switzerland in the households of my youth.

Yet, my parents chose to marry each other again, despite their long and violent history and while ignoring incredulous scrutiny from friends and family. Both had married other people during their marital hiatus and neither found adversaries willing to suffer and share their scarring.

I’m guilty of allowing my own history with them to cloud my ability to see that somewhere out of my reach, they shared a connection with one another. While it was forged in years of anger, it was real to them. Alcohol, jealousy, and unhappiness were the fuels of their mutual fire. Both of them were adept at stockpiling these lesser tendencies for the upcoming fires that would rage. None of us was equipped with the right tools to combat their wildfires. Each of us tried and failed.

Mom and dad married on Feb. 12th, 1964 and again on Feb. 12th, 1993. Dad died 9 months later, once again with mom in his life and while trying to make his dream work, in a rural little gas station on the edge of highway 49. The gas station is gone and a field has enveloped even its memory. If my father has a ghost, these greening acres along a nondescript highway are one of its homes. Most of these stretches of rural America certainly feel as if they are inhabited by lost souls.

This picture is of us in 1993, at a small Lutheran church that still manages to survive today. Mom and Dad had just exchanged vows for the second time. Although Dad was visibly uncomfortable in the suit he was wearing, he was at home with mom once again in his corner. Twenty-five long years have intervened. The church sits defiantly and almost directly across the road from the gas station dad attempted to make successful during two tries in his lifetime. Small communities need churches to bond them, serving both spiritual and mundane connections. Many of us in this world converged upon that small church in different stages of our lives; most of us have at least a few memories that are rendered opaque and wistful by having done so.

None of the facts has changed, but I have. I’m a stranger in the lands of my memories and I take comfort in my distorted reflection.

Somehow, experience has wrapped me in its strange embrace and violently shaken me. Not only is the sum of my parts now more than whole, but things I knew and things in my field or ignorance have exchanged residency.

I’m not certain of anything anymore.

Yet, paradoxically, I think that it might bring me greater happiness to see a fuzzy world instead of one sharply focused by my own opinions and experience.

The gas station and church both left footprints somewhere inside me, just as my parents did. I struggle with the same forces now that tormented me when I was younger. I learned ways to mitigate the disaster of my upbringing. There was no easy road or prolonged escape from the lessons I learned involuntarily.

I can see immeasurable violence in those whispering the word ‘love’ openly in the world and compassion in the eyes of someone with snarled lip and ready fist. I saw both in Carolyn and in Bobby Dean, the people who played the roles of my parents.

Love’s mystery is that it flourishes at all, as we teeter on the edge of loss at every moment.

Love, X
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