Category Archives: Nostalgia

Rip-Shirts

This story zigzags like my life. I apologize for having no consistency.

I generally have a rip-shirt in the closet. The current one is somewhere between 15-20 years old. The vivid color of the shirt has faded, and the fabric is stretched past its intended shape. But I keep fixing the rips and frayed edges because that is what life is. I’ve done every activity you can imagine in that shirt. (Don’t overthink that.)

Because I have always sewed, I sometimes dabble with a variety of things that require it. My Grandma Cook taught me to do a stitch when I was very young. I loved sitting at her feet on the rough floor and sewing anything she handed to me. And often, my fingertips. Thimbles were available but made poor guides for novice sewers.

My Dad and brother loved mercilessly teasing me about my penchant for making non-bunching pillows many years ago; my favorite kind involved going to a fabric store or department and choosing something appropriate for the intended v̵i̵c̵t̵i̵m̵s̵ recipients. Sewing has always been meditative for me. I’m not GOOD at it, of course, but you know what I’m going to say: I don’t care. No one in their right mind would ever invite me to a quilting circle for my sewing skills unless they needed comic relief.

In my early 20s, I started doing what I call rip-shirts. Some of them took me 100 hours to make. Simply put, I choose a shirt, usually of a distinctive color, then spend hours sewing stitch patterns all over it. Part of the fun is using a wide variety of threads, especially of different colors. It’s supposed to be garish. It’s possible to do intricate monograms this way, too, which I’ve done. I gave away many of these for years. One of the key advantages of such a shirt is that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish if it should be discarded, as all subsequent rips, tears, and issues can be restitched and become part of the resulting pattern. One of my shirts had over 500 hand-stitched lines on it. For another, I sewed a difficult-to-see curse word cleverly hidden in the stitch lines. That one amused me greatly.

Later, I discovered Kintsugi’s idea, where breaks and defects in bowls and cups are repaired using lacquer and gold dust. Theoretically, such repaired bowls can be fixed repeatedly and still be both useful and beautiful.

Rip-shirts fulfill the same purpose for me. They are each unique.

As the fabric wears, it becomes softer and more comfortable. If you rip the shirt, you can just sew it back. Unless you tell someone, they’ll assume all the stitches were purposefully placed.

When I was 30, I made a shirt for someone I initially thought was mocking me. He pulled me aside to correct me and told me that the idea was perfection to him. Because he was a large black man, I chose a very large shirt. I monogrammed his nickname along one sleeve and put hundreds of stitch lines on it. It was the only time that I worked hard to get the stitches perfectly aligned. When I handed him the shirt, he teared up. “Wow. I bet this took twenty hours to make, X!” I shook my head. “No, it took fifty.” He couldn’t believe that I spent so much time making him the shirt. He died much too young a few years later. What breaks my heart when I think too long about it? I told him I could teach him to do basic stitching in less than 15 minutes. So it came to pass that I sat in an industrial office in a vast poultry plant patiently showing another grown man how to stitch. It occurred to me how strange the idea would have been to my Grandma.

I indeed caught a fair bit of mockery for wearing these shirts. Likewise, I also wore my clothes inside out for fun, too, or made exotic and ridiculous headbands, sewed on a long-sleeve to a t-shirt, and a wild variety of stupidity. I went inside what is now First Security on Emma. The plant manager for the company I worked for had a wife who worked there. I went to the next teller, and it was the plant manager’s wife. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she realized that my t-shirt had the sleeve of a long-sleeve button-down dress shirt sewed on it instead of a standard t-shirt sleeve. She laughed so hard that a bubble came out of her nose. The look of mortification on her face was etched in marble. And then she laughed more. The person in charge of the tellers walked over to see what the problem was. The plant manager’s wife was crying from laughter and trying to tell her what the joke was. Looking at the floor manager in the eye, I said, “I got robbed, and they did THIS to me!” – and I pointed at my sleeve. The plant manager’s wife and I both laughed for another full minute. The floor manager walked away, shaking her head.

I made several rip-shirts for younger kids, who were fascinated by the concoction of stories I created to go along with them. Kids take a bit longer to lose their sense of adventure or categorically reject something interesting.

Somewhere around 2000, I was at the store wearing a rip-shirt, and a gentleman asked me where I bought the shirt. I think I was at Hastings Records. “I didn’t buy it. I made it.” He seemed genuinely interested. That particular shirt had a lot of neon threads in it. I grabbed the hem of my shirt, pulled the shirt up and off, and handed it to him. “Here,” I told him as I stood there shirtless near the main entrance. He didn’t argue or hesitate. “Thanks, Man!” You would have thought I handed him my wallet. At least fifty times that year, I bragged that I was willing to give someone the shirt off my back.

As my eyesight naturally worsened, I began to sew less often. That was a mistake.

I wonder where some of the rip-shirts ended up or if they still exist. Each of them was made by my imperfect hand. Each one of them is a literal tapestry of the moments I spent making them. They are not for everyone.

A Nostalgic Apology

I hope you find it in your heart to forgive me for writing stories in related batches. Like any storyteller with a labyrinth of brain cells, I find myself wandering between branches of the same story. At times, what seems interesting to others is evident to me. In others? I’m clueless.

As I attempted to finish this, I thought of the innumerable times I’ve wondered about how I acted and what I was trying to say with this story. I’m not sure. It’s an apology at heart, though inexpertly written. It’s a wildly imperfect recounting, too. And that’s good enough for me. The day is too long to slow the urge to share. One of these days, as I write, it will be the last time I do so, though I won’t know it. As with the millions of stories everyone holds close to their secret hearts, they will vanish and with no witnesses to bring life to them.

As my senior year in high school ended, I moved to Elm Springs. I’ve written a few stories about it, both the violent end of my parent’s marriage and others about the whimsical encounters of life I experienced there. Nostalgia paints it in a way that evades mundane description.

This one is an apology. Though it is likely that the person I needlessly harmed doesn’t recall, I do. I’ve done so many things that are much worse than this. Trying to explain why my brain zeroes in on this relatively small story and goes back to my choice to be cruel offers no explanation.

A friend I didn’t initially know very well named Don Braden occasionally came over in the summer. I can’t even remember how it started for him to visit. For anyone to come over to my house was an anomaly. Only a couple of people in my childhood knew the shorthand of dread that I experienced at the idea of others knowing the content of what passed as a homelife for me. Many of us experienced this, and it is a strange common ground upon which to stand with human beings. A couple of childhood friends knew: Troy Duncan, Mike Hignite, and others to a much lesser degree. It is no accident that, despite the intervening distance, the fondness I feel for them is distilled nostalgia. I can’t explain why there were some people I could just say, “My parents are violent and drink too much. It might not be safe at my house. Also, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.” I have no gauge or measure to explain what allowed or compelled me to be forthcoming to some and guiltily silent with others.

Don would sometimes ride my terrible bicycle (or his, too maybe? – please pardon my lack of recall) as I ran several miles around the long circuit of the lake’s roads. He was an awkward guy – but certainly not to my level. I’m confident I misjudged how smart he turned out to be. He had a quick wit and smiled relentlessly. While I ran, having him talk to me was a welcome way to relax and melt the miles away.

One of the things Don didn’t know was how uncertain the storm of my Dad’s anger could be. I don’t recall Dad exploding in anger in front of Don, but I remember snarled mumbles and veiled complaints. Due to my limited ability to warn people, I didn’t know how to navigate the implications of just yelling out, “It might not be safe here.” Don gave no indication (that I remember) that he had any idea of what a terrible family life might be like. As I grow older, I am still astonished to discover that people precisely like me were hidden in plain sight. Some make my stories of vulgar violence seem meaningless. I think and hope that Don’s childhood is what shaped his effortless ability to laugh. And that he still possesses the superpower of humor.

If I did yell out a warning about my parents and didn’t remember doing it, I know that I wasn’t entirely honest. There were a couple of times before Dad ran off to Monroe County to start a new life that Don barely missed an outburst, both coming and going.

I liked running and riding with Don. But the fear of ‘something’ happening convinced me to be a lesser human being to him.

One early afternoon, Don drove over. He knocked. Instead of answering the door, I hid in the back. The console tv in the living room, visible from the front windows, blared. He waited. Finally, he retrieved a large watermelon from his vehicle. He broke it on the concrete porch in front of the house, creating a delicious mound of watermelon pieces and running juice. Instead of coming out and admitting I was at home, I went out the back door and waited. How long I waited, I don’t remember. Don ate handfuls of the watermelon. At some point, he decided that no one was at home or coming out. He cleaned his hands with the water spigot outside and left.

It was a dumb thing to do. In my defense, I was an idiot. I don’t know if it would have helped him to know that my stupidity and lack of understanding of how to deal with people was the problem – not him. I don’t understand how letting him stand outside with a broken watermelon could have saved him from any potential craziness had my Dad came home, much less violently. That seems to highlight precisely how muted my ability to be logical regarding my situation was.

I didn’t keep up with Don. I didn’t keep with most people. Don went to the Air Force, someone told me. And I was glad for him.

Though I found Don on social media. I didn’t reach out to him. He is smiling and apparently living a good life. I wouldn’t want him to remember that I was a jerk, nor to disturb his life. If Don miraculously ever reads this, I, of course, later figured out that Don could have been a great friend, especially if I could have been honest so he could see that I was just an idiot. It’s easier to be friends with an idiot than a bad person.

Not that my blip of hideous behavior could deflect someone from the trajectory of a great life, but it is increasingly evident that we have no idea whatsoever what the smallest thing can do to affect another person’s life. Given the terrible things I’ve said and done in this life, I haven’t been able to put this one aside. I can’t explain my reluctance to share other stories of pure craziness and yet find this one stuck in my throat.

The Rueful life

Whether or not feeling well warped my sense of self or feeling something inside me well up intolerably, I went out into the world for what I thought was the shortest of intervals today. Though you might doubt me, those moments stretched into a length that flowed without end.

Most people use the word ‘rueful’ in an exaggerated negative sense. I prefer the term to mean “expressing sorrow or regret, tinged with humor.” Those are the sublime connotations that often fuel me. Humor is what shields me; bittersweet fringes give me pause to ponder at the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of life. Swimming in the valley between them is a blessing interspersed with the unknown horizon.

My limited interactions while out in the world today reminded me of life’s sublime ability to be filled with our exclusive perceptions. Today’s moments were wrapped in the lightest of gauze and applied with gentle attention. To walk in a world so gossamer each day would be my undoing.

Such attention to the essential ruins us in our endless and needless desire to see the things around us instead of our interconnections.

During the first encounter, the female clerk ran across the recently-mopped floor, risking life and limb simply because she thought a customer might have waited too long. She made eye contact with me, and I said, “Please don’t worry. Nothing at hand deserves any stress.” While she wore a mask, I could see her eyes widen in curiosity. Her eyes then darted behind me as she noted another customer behind me tapping his foot and shifting his weight.

It’s when the shift I felt toppled inside me and made me lopsided.

As she handed me back the change, I tapped it and said, “This is for you, if you can accept it. And if not, let it be for someone who will soon approach who needs it.” Her eyes widened and became tear-laden. She nodded, unable to say anything. Not from awkwardness or loss of words, because whatever became momentarily off-kilter inside me became the same for her. It was tangible.

I walked away. The next two interactions were similar, even though it would be easy to dismiss them as figments of my feverish mind.
*

“With careful toes, I pranced through my life, to awaken no one. And in so doing, the ones who should have noted my passing failed to look up and witness me.”

An Unexpected Jump

Recently, a friend posted about kayaking on Lake Elmdale. He also mentioned that many people seem to be unaware of its existence. (The lake, not kayaking – although I do wonder if such people who kayak really exist.) I tend to agree with him. Lake Elmdale is an artificial lake built in 1953. It derives its name from a mix of the names for Elm Springs and Springdale communities. I think they missed their chance by not naming it something extraordinary, like “Devil’s Tooth Lake,” or even “Drowning Hole.” Arkansas already boasts Nimrod Lake, named after Noah’s grandson. (Sorry, but the word “Nimrod” was forever redefined by Looney Tunes.) 

Since I have your attention, in 1950, Springdale had a bit over 5,000 people. Ten years later, the population doubled. Elm Springs started at 217 and, by 1960, added a whopping 21 additional people. 

I have dozens of stories from my youth involving this body of water. Many from my early childhood are fishing stories involving my Dad and Uncle Buck or a rotating series of misfits called friends. Other stories are from the time when I lived in Elm Springs in the mid-80s.

If you look at the picture, you can see one of the lake access roads on the right, about halfway up. Just a short drive beyond, and you can take a left on Lakeview and quickly reach Elm Springs road. Continuing on the circuitous route past the lake entrance, and you’ll emerge on Elm Springs Road further east and headed to what is now I-40. This story is really about the roadway’s right side, where the lake access ramp road intersects with E. Lake Road. 

(36°12’02.6″N 94°12’56.8″W 

36.200713, -94.215790 

(GPS coordinates if such things interest you.)

My Dad loved a good scare while driving. Whether it involved turning off the headlights at any random moment, cutting unexpectedly through a field (fence or not), jumping out of the vehicle if it were going slowly enough, leaving the wheel to whoever might be both inside and paying attention, shooting a pistol or shotgun from inside the cab, playing chicken with unsuspecting people dumb enough to be on the road at the same time, driving on railroad tracks (sometimes suspended) over creeks, marshes, and rivers, or hitting things for no discernible reason, my Dad often had no limits. 

I know that the last sentence is intolerably long. I wanted to pile it all out there to give you an idea of the level of crazy that might Dad exhibited. Sometimes, it was scary. Looming death tends to be that way. Other times, it was fun – but after the fact. Surviving such ‘fun’ colors the ability to laugh about it. 

My apologies for taking so long to get to the point. Before this picture was taken, the road was less maintained. Edges weren’t graded appropriately, and erosion and run-off worsened already bumpy or uneven roads. This specific spot was no exception. 

While I don’t remember the first time Dad revved his truck to 50+ mph and fly across the edge of this entrance as he passed, I remember coming off the cab’s seat and floating for the briefest instant. Whether the vehicle had a solid axle or good suspension had a say in managing the landing. If you’re thinking of the Dukes of Hazzard reading this, you’re not far off the mark. Though you might think I am exaggerating, Dad once convinced me and my brother Mike that he would do it at 80 mph. He did, after telling us he was going to for a long approach. Our butts were clenched until the point we realized that Dad wasn’t bluffing. Afterward, I felt that Dad would have regretted doing it had he not been three sheets to the wind. When I tell the story, I usually say, “I could see Kansas from up there.” It’s a joke. It was decently dark when Dad took that last quarter of a mile stretch before hitting the bump at 80 mph. After keeping the truck in the road, he hit the brakes and skidded to a full stop. He took the Camel cigarette out of his mouth with a flourish, looked at Mike and me cowering against the other door panel, and said, “Which one of you wants to drive and do it again?” Dad took the same jump, albeit slower than 80 mph, while we were in the back of the truck in the bed, too. We failed to determine whether clutching the truck’s side was safer or to lay against the tailgate. 

At times, Dad doing this sort of thing would involve Mom being in the car or truck with him. Mom’s reaction to being scared like this can best be described as “murderous rage” or by one of her signature phrases, “Go# Da## It, Bobby Dean!” shouted at ear-piercing levels. If it lands me in hell for saying so, I’ll admit that hearing her squawk like that was amusing as long as we weren’t witnessing the oft-overlooked attempted murder aspect of many of our weekends. 

If you are wondering if Dad ever wrecked, broke an axle, or blew out a tire doing these things, the answer is “yes.” Likewise, if you wonder if any of us ever suddenly experienced bladder control issues, you’d be right for questioning. 

On one occasion, Dad drove with his boss back to his house in Elm Springs. The truck was a Cheyenne or Chevrolet truck of some sort, one of their favorites to restore. In those days, rednecks often stated with confidence, “I have to blow the cobwebs out.” Being young, I didn’t understand the cliché but did know that it roughly translated to mean, “I’m going to go incredibly fast and possibly die in this vehicle.” Dad wasn’t drinking. I was in the bed of the truck with Duke, Dad’s german shepherd. Charles sat upfront up with Dad. He had a cigar in his mouth as he often did. Charles was also married to one of Dad’s cousins. I didn’t figure that out until years later.

We drove down Highway 112 and turned on E. Lake Road leading to the lake. About halfway between Highway 112 and the lake, Dad slowed and shouted to me out the window, “White lightning!” I immediately realized that it was a “go” for Operation Scare the Boss Shi$less.” The phrase could refer to the hell-raising 1973 movie starring Burt Reynolds or to moonshine – and sometimes both.

About 100 yards from the side road to the lake, Dad pushed the gas hard and shifted gears. As we hit the bump and sailed off the ground, I laughed. I heard Charles scream in surprise and then scream at Dad, asking if he’d lost his ever-loving mind. By the time we reached Charles’ house, he was laughing and jokingly cursing at Dad. 

One more note. Thanks to Dad, I learned how to drive through barbed-wire fences, closed gates, front lawns, flooding creeks, and just about anything else. Here’s the secret: you have to not give a damn about what happens when you do it. Once you master that skill, sober or inebriated, you too can be an amateur stuntman. I wish that I had experienced that version of my Dad freed from alcohol. There’s no doubt he would have still managed to convince me I might die at a given moment. 

When my brother Mike came home from leave in the Army, I didn’t get to spend much time with him. Life’s demands and the constraints of his limited time conspired against us. We did drive the road leading to Lake Elmdale, though. I knew Mike was going to ask before we ever approached the jump zone. “Should we?” he asked me, laughing. We were in my car. He was driving. “How can we not?!” I shouted. We hit the bump going 50 mph. As soon as we started to lift, Mike regretted testing his courage. After the adrenaline subsided, we drove for another hour along what once were quieter roads. 33 or 34 years have passed. 

In the years since, in the spirit of full disclosure, I too have excessively sped toward that same bump without warning the occupants of the car. Though the ridge is considerably flatter than it once was while I am much fatter, it never fails to fill me with nostalgia for both the times that were and those which weren’t. 

Humor’s Acolate

“As sorry as I was to hear of my brother’s passing, I’ll bet the news bothered him a LOT more.” – X

There’s a considerable risk in people misunderstanding you on a good day. Many of us tend to judge others with the worst possible filter. I’ve found that good people can understand and appreciate contradictory and sublime behavior. Those who don’t just aren’t my people. Old age and experience, if we’re lucky, gives us more latitude in recognizing this.

The greater danger is people hearing what you actually said, and you having no defensible context to mitigate it. So much of life is context, and much of that isn’t immediately explainable. “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” is a cliché for a reason.

The joke that started this post? I’m sure people can and will get angry if they choose to. They’ll claim I wrote it as an insult to Mike. It’s not. He would laugh his ass off reading that joke. About one hundred times over the years, I threw one of Woody Allen’s jokes at him: “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Years later, I threw in another one: “My relationship with death remains the same,” he said. “I’m strongly against it.” When Mike and I were young, we both read “Death Knocks,” a story (turned play) by Woody Allen. It was a sometimes topic of hilarity, even though Mike did not like Woody Allen as he grew older. Mike and I both made many bargains with imaginary devils and deities when we were young.

Only those who can imagine hiding in the space between the bed and the wall in the dark and waiting for a parent to come for them in a drunken rage might be able to understand the connection between bargaining and gallows humor. I have a list of stories about these incidents, and some of them surprise me by being funny. If you’ve read my blog, you can see that I’ve largely refrained from identifying some of my family by name. Despite this, I still infrequently find myself at the receiving end of hateful criticism.

When we lived at City View Trailer Park in Springdale, Mike swallowed an incredible amount of tobacco juice. Several of us had played and fought down at the retched pond that once stood at the end of City View. Mike spent much of his time between punches proudly with a mouthful of tobacco. He puked violently on the floor for what seemed like a full minute. That black juice stained the purple carpet deeply. No amount of cleaning could remove it. We’ll talk later about how someone thought purple carpet in a tinderbox trailer might look attractive. When the trailer burned, the stain obstinately remained. The carpet was dark, of course, but the underlying stain plainly stood out. Years later, when Mike and I spent the night at Mom and Dad’s house on Highway 49, Mike compared that stain to dealing with being helpless all those years, or nearly so. That was the same night we discovered that a nest of yellow jackets inhabited the other bedroom’s west-facing window. That’s a story for another day. As for the tobacco, despite attempts to make Mike stop, he dipped most of his adult life. I have at least three dozen pictures of him spitting into a bottle, cup, or a family member’s potted plant to prove it.

After Dad died, my cousin jimmy recommended that I watch a particular Billy Bob Thorton movie. Most people have never heard of “Daddy And Them.” You’ll be shocked if you take a look at how many stars joined this movie. Because it was set in Arkansas, it accurately grabs the absurdity of white trash living and wraps it in comedy. (A difficult feat.) After Jimmy twisted my arm and made me watch it, I did the same to Mike. In it was one of the jokes my brother and I shared as hilarious. Here’s the joke:

“Hey! Do you know what Dad would say if he were alive today?” One of us would reply, “No, what?” Dramatic pause. “Let me out!” With the last line, we scratch the air in front of us with both hands as if we were clawing our way out of the coffin. Last year, an Irish veteran stole the joke and shocked funeral attendees by having a pre-recorded tape of his voice shouting to be let out played during his service. Mike thought it was hilarious and an excellent way to separate the humorless from the good people in a crowd. “Can you imagine how tightly wound up Aunt Elsie’s panties would get if someone did that?” was part of his reply.

I have to say, though, that despite the immense teeth-gnashing my brother and I often shared, our deplorable and macabre sense of humor was unrivaled. Marines and serial killers alike cringed if they accidentally overheard our nonsense.

No matter what you’ve read and heard on sitcoms or dramas about the impossibility of confining an involuntary laugh at a funeral, my brother and I separately were a disaster; in combination, we probably deserved the death penalty. Some of the fault lies with my Dad. Even when he wasn’t drinking, he could say some of the most outrageous things devised by a human being. He once called the preacher a “co$$su$$er” in front of about 50 people just to get a leg up on him. In a twist of fate I’ve written about before, Dad and the preacher somehow became friends.

My brother Mike once unknowingly used an open mic at a funeral home in Brinkley to improvise a bit of comedy regarding our Grandma’s teeth. The funeral director sheepishly ran into the outer area to grab the mic from my brother and tell him that it was a ‘hot mic.’ It’s essential that you know that my Grandma was one of the two closest people I ever loved. Despite that, I laughed. I cannot think about that incident without losing a little bit of my soul to laughter. I’m convinced each chuckle puts me a foot further into purgatory.

There’s no greater or sublime pleasure having someone who is both smart and willing to go the extra mile for a laugh, joke, or smile – even if it burns down a few villages on the way there. I give Mike the win, though, because he could tell jokes that I wouldn’t. That’s saying a lot.

Not too many months ago, I sent my brother a collection of hand-written postcards, each with a joke from comedians we both loved. As with index cards in my back pocket, I’m also a fan of prestamped postcards for quick notes. Even while we were uneasily bickering, I wanted him to know that humor was still a big part of my life. (Even if I’m old, boring, wear a lot of black socks as leisurewear, and get too excited by an early buffet.)

Mike would see these words as a compliment.

Because of our relationship, I tend to expect someone to emerge with poison in their hearts to attempt to silence me for joking. Those who know me also know I’ve written multiple times about the fact that they have my permission to mock me to the end of the world when I’m gone, especially if it is funny or creative. Mike was not someone to pull back from a bastardly comment. The same quick and violent tongue he sometimes used to wound me also created some world-class humor. For everyone who knew Mike and watched him in action on solemn occasions, the Bobby Dean in him could not be confined or controlled. Trying to do so was just catnip for his enthusiasm to up the ante.

It’s not reasonable to accuse me of glossing over or attempting to sugarcoat Mike’s life. Equally so, I have to tip my hat when it is merited. Both of us emerged from childhood with a scorched-earth comedic streak. It probably saved us as many times as it caused us grief.

As it turns out, Mike was indeed there when death came for him. His birthday would have been November 1st, the day after Halloween. For some, it is All Souls Day. When I sat to finish Mike’s ancestry record, I noticed that his two children are the same age I was when our Dad died. Mike was 20,062 days old, the mentioning of which would irritate him due to my occasional reminder that I still keep a tab of how many days old I am.

My job is to remember the Mike who put a fish under the driver’s seat of my 1984 Oldsmobile in the middle of summer during a visit to Aunt Barbara’s. (Without telling me.) Or the Mike who read “Lord of The Rings” in almost one sitting back in the early 80s.

Please don’t fault me for taking refuge in contradictory stories about Mike. But if you do, I’ll accept that charge. Given the arc of my origins, I find this potential sin to be minuscule.

P.S. The word “acolate” is mine, one devised to denote eulogic remembrance, perhaps a day too late.

And The Story Both Ends & Begins

The first picture is my sister, my brother Mike, and me laying like a lump of coal. This picture was taken at Grandpa and Grandpa Cook’s house in Rich, when they lived near White Cemetery. The second was taken when we lived in Springdale for a short time.

*

My brother recently died as he neared 55. Our dad died before he turned 50.

The military was not Mike’s first, second, or third choice. But it’s the choice that got him out of Arkansas and into a career in law enforcement. Whatever else the military does, it spectacularly solves a multitude of problems when people join. It may present others, that’s true, but those are unseen and delayed when you decide to join. No matter how old we get, option fatigue is paralyzing.

Out of high school, my brother recently returned from a very brief stint at Arkansas State University. He convinced me that the military was the worst possible choice for me, even though I was being offered an incredibly cushy spot in the Army music program. As it always does, hindsight paints a panorama of choices and chances for me in the Army.

Mike then turned around unexpectedly and went directly into the Army and off to another life, leaving me with a wtf-face beyond description. He went to Germany while there were still two of them and then to Northern Illinois, where he remained.

My brother with me, before he left Springdale to join the Army. We standing in the driveway at the house on Cottonwood. Many years later, I bought a house right down the street from that spot.

Over a decade later, I seriously considered the option of the military again. I had my physical and background check, and also signed up for delayed entry. He got me out of that idea, too.

Because of our upbringing, I often wonder what would have been the course of our lives if he stayed in Springdale and I had left for the Army as a musician. Would his tendency toward drinking and anger blossom so fiercely. Would mine, had I untethered from family?

In those early years, he publicly held the family honor, even as it continued to vex him. Me? I changed my name and kept my distance. Being poor helped me in this regard. Being ignorant didn’t hurt, either. Mike gave me a lot of grief for my dislike for most of the family’s ideas of politics and how to behave. In my defense and as I increasingly learned, racism often disguised itself as politics. In part because he was the big brother and in part because he thought he was indeed the authority, he fought and lectured me to stop sharing family secrets. I often called him Mike O’Reilly, even though he wanted to break my fingers for it. As time passed, it became evident to anyone paying attention thought although I was the weird kid with the weirder name, I was dead on regarding our biography. Mike favored the Terry family while I loved the Cooks. Both had an equal measure of mishap and heartbreak. The Terry family just had a bigger rug they used to sweep everything under.

As late as last year, I was still uncovering skeletons from our family. People make movies and write books about such strangeness. Had I followed Mike’s insistence to let it go, I would have never picked up genealogy or pursued DNA trails.

Who we once were does not determine who we will be; however, its aim is so undeniably true that those who manage to escape their fate are miracles at work. A lot of smart people know their arcs. Few see themselves in the shadow of their choices. I’m often as guilty as anyone. I’ve never doubted that I inherited the infection of whatever ails my family. I’ve felt its breath to varying degrees for my entire adult life.

Mike was smarter than me. It’s unquestionable. There must be some magical sliding scale and accounting that would prioritize other things over intelligence. I would have cashed in a bucket of compassion and a dose of deafness for a lower IQ. When you are as under-prepared for adult life as we were, it is folly to follow our trajectories and assume success.

Somewhere in those years, that shared biography and its litany of grievances overtook my brother. While I arced into a middle-aged life, he let his guard down to how human he was and how inescapable the dungeon of the lesser can be to us.

While I was still talking to him at length, I asked him at least fifty times to take his time and energy and sit and write his stories. He loved to read and had lived a life stuffed with unusual characters. He told several book that he was excited about the book I was going to write. He didn’t take me up on my enthusiasm. So many stories passed with him.

No matter what anyone else said or will say, one of the things I consider a gift is to often recognize the universality of a good story. Mike had many of them. As I’ve often echoed about my youth, though Mike and I often were at odds, I’d be the first to line up to read a book of stories from his life, whether they were darkly shadowed or humorous.

I’m ready to rush ahead to the magical time when our memories shift and shuffle and lose their harsh edges. Nostalgia is one of those things that’s hard to define yet bangs a gong in all of us.

Though my dad died over twenty-seven years ago, I’m still pondering his choices, his secrets, and his pathology. I still find new revelations.


I suspect it will be the same with my brother.

We fought bitterly a few times in my life. As hard as it was for him to understand, I usually fought for quiet.

Some will exit onto the revisionist road, believing that one’s life and echoes end with death and that those who remain can change the stories of a person’s life. Others will individually have their own stories to tell and questions to ask. It is our way as human beings.

As for me, all judgement laid to rest, all I see is a reservoir of memories and stories. Whether they are told or not is not a valid question. They’ll be told, whether in whispers or shouts.

My dad, standing on a horse. Mike liked this picture.
My brother, with mom when she was Budweiser happy, in Aunt Ardith’s back yard.
Me, Mike, cousin Ricky, cousin Jimmy.
Mike, mom, dad, me. We were at Lutheran Church in Rich, near Brinkley – at mom and dad’s second wedding.
Me, with siblings, at Xmas at Aunt Ardith’s house.

They Could Have Called Me “The Streak”

Jimmy isn’t the one in the long dress. He’s the one wearing a white jacket, wondering what he’d got himself into.

One of my regrets is that I didn’t streak naked around Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs during my cousin Jimmy’s first wedding. His first wedding was in August of 1995 to a woman named Lona Heckle. In 1995, I still had the body to allow me to run fast – and, if caught, not feel too badly about my picture being on the nightly news after my arrest for streaking. Camcorders were common but it was still possible to just be a blur on such cameras. Regular cameras were unwieldy and snapping flash pictures inside a giant glass rectangle tended to yield less-than-stellar photos.

Coincidentally, one of my other regrets is that I did not get to perform Jimmy’s other marriage shortly before his death. I overcame my inertia to become ordained due to the possibility of this marriage. I understand the particulars of why someone else was chosen but still remain a bit uneasy about it. Personally, I can’t understand why more families don’t have someone ordained so that the family member doing the ceremony will forever be part of the memory, too. After all, standing with the two people in love is the best seat in the house, so to speak.

Were Jimmy still alive, he’d join me in laughter if I told him, “Yes, I was going to perform your second marriage naked, Jimmy. No need to streak if I’m standing in front of everyone.”

He’s been dead for more than 7 1/2 years now, which itself seems alien to write.

I wrote much of this post a few days ago, before the other shoe fell and my brother died. I don’t recall why Mike wasn’t at Jimmy’s wedding. Fittingly enough, Jimmy and I didn’t make the trip up to the Chicago Metro area to attend my brother’s wedding. Our excuse wasn’t personal; we were both just young, poor, and unaware that we could reach out and find a way to get there.

My cousin was a bit crazy himself. He was prone to get whiskey courage and do some outrageous things. We inherited the tendency from our ancestors.

For whatever reason, Jimmy was very nervous about the wedding itself. All the family he’d ever known was attending. When I first started teasing Jimmy about potentially streaking during his wedding, he laughed and said, “You’ll never do it. You’ll say you will but you don’t have your dad’s crazy streak.” So I told him, “Exactly. NOT having it gives me the courage to do it precisely because no one will expect it.” As the days passed, I could tell I had got into his head.

For those unfamiliar with the Thorncrown Chapel, it’s made of glass and steel and sits in the middle of an expanse of trees and forest. I’ve witnessed people become overwhelmed by emotion while sitting inside. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of being inside during heavy snow or while the sun is beaming through at an oblique angle, you undoubtedly can imagine it again.

Now add the idea of me running around the place naked with dozens of horrified onlookers trapped on the inside watching me do it.

I made the short video cut of Jimmy standing at the altar. It captures his unease at being the center of attention and spectacle. I took it from a VHS tape I had digitized several years ago. It was one of my few chances to be able to see videos and images from lives overlapping mine. Much of the bulk of such photography was lost to me due to the odd lack of sharing many of the family members seemed to inherit.

And because it’s one of the few relics of me on video, here’s a short one of me the day of Jimmy’s wedding. We were milling around outside the motel waiting for the hurry-and-wait part of the afternoon to commence.

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I wanted to post this picture of Jimmy and Lona a couple of years after they were married. I mean no disrespect but I always remember wrong how long they were married.

Cursejoy

Reaching the age when you are looking through old photos and realizing that you are the only one in the picture still alive.

It truly comes for us all.

Because I’ve maintained my ancestry account for so long, I’ve had at least 20 instances where I realized that I needed to update someone’s life by posting their death. For several, I’ve not only been the first to do so, but the only one. In time, others often see a death marked with a ‘hint’ on their trees and borrow my initiative. I try to gather the enthusiasm as soon as possible to post all the pictures I have of the person who has died. I find it increasingly hard to imagine hoarding pictures from posterity; while I might possess a picture, I’m merely its custodian.

I can imagine what Paul Edgecombe from “The Green Mile” felt when he was cursed with long life. Part of the arrangement was that he had no choice but to witness the passing of everyone who shared his life. While I’m in my early 50s, I can feel the pain of someone who reaches 80.

Getting older presents us with more opportunities to hold the disparate ideas of bittersweet and melancholy simultaneously.

Because I love pictures and genealogy, the two hobbies often coalesce and focus my attention to the passing of people – as well as the infrequent but inescapable realization that the deaths accumulate behind me.

Cursejoy.

Granddaddy Lun

A wise woman once told me anyone can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a daddy.

She spoke from experience having been raised from the age of three by a man who wasn’t her biological father but who loved her as if she were his own.

He was a man of the land; a farmer who sweated in the cotton fields of Monroe county and hunted in the area’s woods. He took his family to live for a time in California during the Depression where he worked as a carpenter and where one of his children was born before the family returned to its roots in the soil of the Arkansas Delta.

Before that, he had a wife and  children he loved. When the youngest of them was still a baby, his wife became ill, and the family needed help. A young woman needing work came to the house each day to care for the younger children, cook, clean, and tend chickens while the man worked the fields and cared for his wife. Tuberculosis was common in those days, and it robbed many families of their loved ones. With her passing, the man was left a widower with children. He and the family still needed the young woman’s help, and, to keep things “proper,” they wed so she and her small daughter could move into the house full time. What surely began as a marriage of necessity turned to a marriage where love lived and grew, and they added four more children to the family. The number of grandchildren grew, too, over the years.

For many of them, memories of him included how he rolled his own cigarettes—carefully pulling a thin cigarette paper from its packet and holding it between several fingers of one hand while tapping tobacco from a Prince Albert can with the other. He then rolled the paper, licked to seal it, and twisted the ends. If asked, he allowed whichever grandchild had climbed into his lap to watch the fascinating process lick the paper for him. It was a thrill beyond thrills, and only a granddaddy wouldn’t mind a child’s spit on his cigarette. He loved his grandchildren, and the honest summary of their high energy visits was a simple “I love to see them come, and I love to see them go,” as he smiled.

He was a quiet man, but his eyes and facial expressions spoke volumes. You can take my word for it, or you can look at his expression in this photo—the first photo taken by my sister on her first camera. Its value can’t be determined by a number for it is priceless to me as it is the only known photo to exist of this elderly man and young child, and he only lived a few years longer after it was taken.

Most folks called him Lawrence; his wife called him Lun. Turns out the wise woman mentioned at the beginning of this memory was right. Anyone can be a father or grandfather, but it took someone special to be the man I call Granddaddy.

A Girl Called Incident

I know most of you know that a lot of people reach out to me and share personal stories. Most of them who do so respond to my fling-it-to-the-wall method of personal sharing, I’ve yet to find a single person who doesn’t have a couple of jaw-dropping stories.

In the last year, I would say the strangest and most incredible story someone shared with me was the one shared by a woman about her sister, thought to have died during birth – but was actually stolen by a doctor here in Northwest Arkansas and given to a well-to-do family.

A while back, I wrote a post about not using a clothes iron. (I also don’t own anything that requires dry cleaning, either.) It was a little piece of fun writing. Shortly after, I received a note from someone who told me an interesting story. As with the baby-stealing doctor, I was fascinated but was held to secrecy regarding the people involved. She told me she couldn’t think about irons of any kind without thinking about her grandmother.

Here it is, with some redaction:

My grandmother was born dirt-poor. She didn’t really know what her birthday was because she was born between fields. Her great-aunt told her she was born in 1912. She remembered it was the year that Wilson won the presidency and that it was a leap year. The leap year fact stuck in her head because her uncles kept joking that they had been given an extra day to work. Everyone in her family worked the fields and farms, no matter how old they were. Until WWI, they barely survived. My grandmother Edna remembered her father going to serve along with his two brothers. Only one brother returned alive. His name was Henry, and he was an alcoholic and a violent man. Even though Edna was only 8 or 9, she knew she had to hide from Henry when he was drunk. Her mom Ethel married Henry to survive. Four children were too many to care for.

When she was 12, Edna was working as an adult woman. She spent her days cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and working in the fields. Her other sister worked with her and neither went to school past the 4th grade. After a late-night of drinking, Henry came home and grabbed Edna. He later claimed he didn’t know it was Edna rather than Ethel. Edna fought and clawed until Henry collapsed on the floor. He broke several of her fingers during the fight. Her mom fixed her fingers on the back porch but offered no consolation or words of compassion for her daughter. Years later, she found out that her mom had been abused by someone for several years. The fact melted her heart and turned most of her anger to bittersweet understanding.

Weeks later, Edna hatched a plan to get rid of Henry. She stoked the stove in the living room with more firewood late in the evening instead of letting it burn down to ashes. She put one of the fire-irons into the red coals and closed the stove door as much as possible. After all the lanterns were extinguished in the two rooms used for sleeping, she lay awake, waiting. Before too long, she could hear Henry’s raucous snoring from the room next to hers and her siblings. She climbed from the sunken bed and walked across the freezing-cold floorboards of the cheaply-constructed shotgun house. She searched in the dark for the clothes she’d arranged under the dresser, tucked out of sight. All the doors creaked like the floor as she passed through.

As she entered the living room, she listened to the crack of the stove and the wind-up clock behind her.

Before losing her nerve, she used three rags to pull the red-hot fire-iron from the stove. Walking quickly, she went into the room where Henry and her mom Ethel slept. Henry’s snoring told her he was asleep. Before she could talk herself out of it, Edna pulled back the thick covers from Henry. She put the fire-iron, tip down, across his stomach and legs, as best as she could manage in the dark. She threw the covers back on top of her stepfather. In a few seconds, the snoring stopped, and then a loud scream erupted from Henry. She couldn’t see him grab the iron, but he screamed again, probably as he grabbed the brutally hot iron with a bare hand. A loud thud hit the wood floor. Her mom Ethel began to shout, asking what was wrong. Back in those days, the bedrooms didn’t have light bulbs, or if they did, they were a single hanging bulb awkwardly danging in the middle of the room in shotgun houses. You had to get up and relight the lantern. Her mom, still hollering, shuffled around and struggled to light one of the long matches next to the oil lantern on the table across from the bed. She managed to light the lantern and turn the wick up. As she turned to see what had happened, she saw her daughter Edna standing by the door with her hand over her mouth. Henry was gasping and clawing at his stomach and lower half. The iron had burned away his underclothes from just below his belly button to his upper right leg. Edna had misjudged the iron a little bit; otherwise, Henry would have been reminded of her each time he went to the bathroom. He looked as if he’d been burned by an absurd branding iron.

As Edna looked at Henry writhing in pain, she knew he’d never abuse anyone again. She also knew she couldn’t stay. She ran out of the house into the cold night. She didn’t go back. A second cousin offered to let her stay with her if she agreed to work with her at the store she and her husband owned a town over.

The sheriff visited Edna a few days after she moved. “Henry isn’t pressing charges. What did he do to you to make you do that to him?” The sheriff seemed as if he suspected. “What did he tell you?” Edna asked.

“He didn’t say much, other than he didn’t ever want to see you again.” The sheriff shook his head and left. “I expect you won’t be causing any more trouble, will you?” Edna shook her head “no.”

Edna’s new family immediately started referring to the incident as “the incident.” Before long, they jokingly referred to her by the nickname “Incident.” A few months later, Edna’s sister moved to live with her. Both sisters were adopted in the family and started attending school again. Though they didn’t go to court, as people often didn’t do in those days, they changed their names to honor their new family.

Both sisters became teachers and lived their lives without further felonious undertakings.

The woman who wrote me told me she discovered the story after doing a DNA test. Luckily for her, some of the surviving family shared all their stories with her, several of which she’s written for everyone to share.

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As with the stolen baby story that happened here in Arkansas, the fascinating details aren’t mine to share. If it were my story, I would proudly tell it as a story of a woman who figured out that sometimes fire is a better solution than words or hope.