Archive for Ozarks

Up Northwest

I drove up to Fayetteville on Monday morning to spend a couple of days with my best friend Lesha, owner of Little Mountain Bindery. I haven’t been up to the north part of the state at all during the first half of this year, but during the last month I’ve been up there three times.

First, we went to Newton county to my family cabin over the fourth of July weekend. The next weekend, Hubby and I drove up to Branson to see Terry Fator in the RFDTV theater. This week I went up to the home of the Razor Pigs to sit in Lesha’s quiet little studio and house, hang out with my “nieces” Miranda and Naomi, and talk about books and life.

I can’t express how much I miss her most of the time. When we both left Little Rock in 1999 to go to MFA programs 2,000 miles apart, I didn’t know what to do with myself without her.

Who would I call when I was angry at a significant other? Who would know exactly what I mean when I say, “You know, I’m really sick of domestic fiction. These days, if you’re going to write a neurotic suburban meditation on dysfunction, you ought to just go ahead and write a memoir. It will sell better”?

She’s read almost every book I love with irrational passion, including the world history Salt. So when I complain about “domestic fiction,” she knows exactly what I’m talking about from her own literary ramblings.

No one in my current set of local friends really shares this level of book geekdom. I have wonderful writer friends all over the country who are but an e-mail away, but it isn’t quite the same as explaining the plot of my slow-moving novel to Lesha over a glass of wine in her kitchen.

I realized on this trip that I’d missed a lot of things in her life — the girls are growing up so wonderful and smart. I also noticed that, somehow, Lesha became an amazing artist during the past few years. I watched her work on book restoration at her bindery most of yesterday afternoon.

She was competent and confident; her hands were so steady. I’ve admired the blank books she’s made for me in the past, and the work on display in her studio (including beautiful paper boxes), but I’d never really spent time watching her restore someone’s beloved text to a new life.

When I arrived at the bindery Monday afternoon, she was carefully painting a leather treatment onto the new covers of ten or so Dickens novels, published around 1900. They belonged to a woman who got them from her father, who treasured them. Lesha and her team matched the marbling on the original covers, restored the bindings, and restamped the spines with gold lettering.

Yesterday, she worked on a bible that needed a new cover. It was obviously routine work for her, but she handled it with a care I rarely see in my own working life. I looked around at the other projects lined up on her work tables. A huge 24 X 12 inch scrapbook lay on the opposite table, where it too, was awaiting a new cover and binding. It was filled with stories about local literacy projects — obviously the accomplishments of someone’s life’s work.

I envied her ability to bring meaning into the everyday during those few hours –that quiet confident magic of reincarnating someone’s treasure. I was struck with how important her work really is. Without people who know how to sew bindings by hand, we will eventually lose the original artifacts of literature. Those Dickens novels will last another hundred years now.

She and I often dream together about ways we could, somehow, manage to live in the same town. But I’d rather have her off up northwest if she’s going to spend her time at the bindery.

Comments (1) »

Insomniac Hillbilly says Respect Your Elders

A dozen years ago my parents bought some acreage in Newton County, Arkansas just north of Ben Hur (Yes, that’s a town. Last place in Arkansas to get electricity in 1976) on Highway 16 east.

The land itself is situated just about four miles north of Moore (which is really just a church and a cemetery). Their land stretches across both sides of Richland creek near Jack Jones Hollow and Hideout Hollow.

They own fifty-six acres with two cabins. One sits on a bluff overlooking the river. The other is across the creek on a low ridge overlooking a classic bottom-land hay field.

They’ve built a little “swimming hole” access to the creek on this side of the property and there are trails surrounding it. In fact, the famous Ozark Highlands Trails follows the back line of the property and crosses onto it when it hits road access at Richland Creek.

I start thinking about “the cabin” this time of year. We’re heading up there for the Fourth of July weekend. The way my parents ended up with the land is a long story, but I’m grateful they got it.

That much land up there is hard to come by these days, especially a plot entirely surrounded by national forest and a wilderness area.

A couple days ago I was out drinking at Pizza D with friends and the subject of the “Lord God Bird” Documentary came up, again, because that’s what people talk about when they are drinking — what movies they’ve seen lately.

As regular readers know, I recently reviewed the film.

One guy at the table, I’ll call him J, took the long view: as a species, we’ll be really lucky if we can get a couple million years in. We’ve adapted in the past and we’ll adapt in the future. Isn’t it better, now, to get what we can out of the environment?

J brought up the defunct effort 1970’s era effort by the Corps of Engineers to drain much of the Cache River basin. If the “supposed bird” (as he put it), was going to hold up economic progress, then wasn’t that a problem?

Another friend, who I’ll call C, who also happens to have his own 40 acres just a few miles to the east of our family land near Bear Creek, said over his beer that he agreed in the long run.

But, at the same time, he said, “As long as no one messes with the Ozarks in the mean time. I don’t care what happens after I’m dead, so long as the Ozarks stay exactly like they are until then.”

I pointed out the obvious problem: he was speaking out of two sides of his mouth. C was a little chagrined but kept his point, which is that he agrees we can’t really stop progress but he just doesn’t want it on his 40 acres.

Since I’m terrible at social graces — I never notice when men are concerned more for bravado than actually winning the argument — and since I’m not one to back down from these things, I started to preach my gospel of “respecting our conservation elders. ”

It goes something like this:

Look here, if it weren’t for people just like us who fought to keep the Ozarks they way they are, they wouldn’t exist now. Same goes for the Big Woods.

If it weren’t for various odd coalitions of grassroots groups — wilderness enthusiasts, hunters, tree-huggers, paddlers, climbers, hikers, and locals — neither place would exist in its current form. If you want to keep it the way it is, you gotta fight for it.

Cause the Corps of Engineers is pretty much one huge environmental disaster machine going back to way before the 1927 Arkansas and Mississippi River floods.

If we let them get their protractors anywhere near anyplace we love, there’s no other choice. Even our recent history shows us they are going to screw it up.

It’s not just here in the south that the Corps has managed to erase a place, or irrevocably alter a landscape forever and not necessarily to our benefit. Lake Mead is a very good example of the problem out West.

That’s the group, I said to J, who started the whole discussion, that you’d be putting in charge of “progress.”

J changed the subject to something about Mardi Gras.

C shrugged and said, “If I found that damn woodpecker on my land shoot it.” He flashed an evil grin at me.

At that moment, I decided that I needed to do more drinking when I go out drinking. My over sized glass of Coca-cola looked pretty lame.

Maybe alcohol would have smoothed away my natural tendency to throw out a rhetorical smack-down out when I get the least chance. But no, I opted to take my poison in the form of corn syrup and caffeine.

And so, being the true nerdette than I am, I ended up going all “persuasive rhetoric teacher” on their asses.

My shame over my social awkwardness vanishes when I think about those 56 acres in Newton County, though. There’s nothing more beautiful than the fog rising above the hay field and through the multi-colored leaves on a frigid October morning.

Image of the Ozarks in Fall

Comments (1) »

Shameless Pope County Gossip

I ran up to Pope County this morning to have breakfast with my Mom & pick up a quilt that my Grandmother’s neighbor gifted me. The local paper ran a story about the recent wedding shooting and it appears there’s more to the story than what was first reported. Let’s just say it involves “lewd acts,” a girl fight, pummeling about the head and face, and according to the rumor mill, a camouflage bikini.

Yup, that’s home. I’m glad no one got killed and that no one bothered to sign them up for My Redneck Wedding so the whole thing isn’t on tape somewhere.

Comments (2) »

Shooting sprees, and it’s not even July.

I’ve been trying to carve out time to blog for days now. I’m swamped designing an online course. 

When I finally got a few minutes to write today, I realized I can’t very well post anything and not mention this story about a couple who were shot during their wedding ceremony just north of my hometown of Dover, Arkansas. 

The rumor I heard was that the shooter just got back from Iraq. I don’t know how much of that is true, cause it came directly from that juicy Dover gossip line. This got me thinking about my hometown. It got  me thinking about violence. 

Then I started thinking about violence as a kind of narrative.  How many people think of Gettysburg, for example, and don’t think of the battle there during the Civil War? How many people think of New York and don’t think of 9/11?  I don’t think many people think about Dover, Arkansas except the folks that live there, but if someone from outside were going to create a hypothetical story about the place, what would our most widely told stories say?

If some database searcher in the year 2050 wanted to know about Dover, he or she would most likely end up finding stories related to national news sources.  It seems like the only time I can recall Dover being in the national spotlight, it’s because of some kind of bizarre murder.  

The first time in my memory that Dover was on the national news was after Ronald Gene Simmons killed 16 people, mostly his own family members, in a house north of town in 1987.  I was 14 years old and in the ninth grade.  In 2005, there was the Nona  Dirksmeyer murder, which was on Dateline earlier this month.  

I watched it with my parents in their big house on Linker Mountain, just south of town.  We had some family visiting from out of town because there’d been a funeral that day.  My parents and I watched  the Dateline story with all kinds of insider twittering between us.  We know one-half of the drama personally in various ways. 

Kevin Jones, who was accused and acquitted of killing Dirksmeyer, served me food when I went through the Bayou Bridge Cafe’s drive-through every other day in the summer of 2004. My momma knows his momma from school.  I know one of Kevin’s attorneys on an acquaintance level (he’s my first cousin’s best friend) and a professional level (he did my divorce).  

A small part of my life, including people I know (and  in the case of the lawyer, confessed our dark secrets to), flashed across the national consciousness for an hour.  Watching them all parade across my Dad’s giant flat-screen TV was a strange kind of intersection with cultural discourse that can only happen in a world of 500 channels and the vast Internet. 

Here’s people I grew up with, in this remote backwater of a place, squeezed flat on national television, talking about everything the gossip engine threw out during the few months between Kevin’s arrest and his acquittal.  It sort of felt like a dirty-phobic stranger stumbling across the pile of dirty underwear I hide on the far side of our bed.  

It was the same way when Ronald Gene Simmons went through his horrible spree twenty years ago. Mom and I stayed away from the town square because it was flooded with reporters from all over the world.  A town of roughly 1,000 people doesn’t deal very well with a tsunami of flash bulbs and television cameras.  I remember my grandaddy telling me that the square was packed with cars after they found the bodies on Simmons’s land.  “Not a single empty parking space,” he said. 

When we finally went back to town a week later, there were still a few straggling news vans parked in front of my grandfather’s supermarket in the town square.   When I saw all the stories about the murder via satellite on CNN, I felt the same weird intersection of my life and the larger national chatter. 

The townsfolk mostly behave themselves on TV, though. They waited until Simmons was safely behind bars and the national press onto the next sensational murder before someone sneeked out to the house in the middle of the night and burned it to the ground. There’s nothing left of the place now; it’s gone back to forest.  

 

 

Comments (4) »

Interview: Writer David Koon

David Koon of the Arkansas Times is also a fantastic fiction writer. He’s a recent winner of Glimmer Train’s Fiction open with his story “Four Sisters” and he’s published work in Crazy Horse and New Stories from the South.He did his undergraduate work at UALR (where I first met him in a Creative Writing workshop), did an MFA at Iowa, and a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Currently, he lives in Little Rock with his wife and son, Sam.

I asked David mostly about his relationship with Arkansas and his fiction writing.

As an Arkansas native, how much does the culture of the place influence your fiction?

Oh God, that’s a tough one. I guess the thing I love about being from Arkansas is that it has — both in terms of terrain and culture — all these different areas: mountains and hillbillies in the northwest; river delta along the Arkansas and White and Ouachita; big city in the middle; piney woods and oilfielders down south; Mississippi River and gone-to-seed plantation culture over in the east. What I’m saying is, I suppose: If you’re a writer from Kentucky, you kind of have to write about mountains and hillfolk. If you’re a Texas writer, you kind of have to write about cowboys and the lonesome prairie (or at least the legacy of that). Here in Arkansas, though — unlike any other state almost — we’ve got a little bit of everything, and each place really does have it’s own culture and food and way of speaking. That leads both to a delicious hodge-podge of people, but it can also lead to these horrendous collisions of culture. That gives a writer a lot to write about.

I find myself often moving back to landscape over and over again in my own writing. There’s something about certain vistas, or views of the world, I guess, that keep me fascinated. Do you have any particular images or subjects in your work that you think are inspired by Arkansas? What about the landscape of Arkansas influences you as a writer?

I hate to compare myself to Faulkner, but I am like him in as much as I find myself writing again and again about the same little piece of dirt — a place that can be contained in maybe a hundred square miles. I can even tell you where it is: An area just southeast of Little Rock, in a rough triangle formed by Redfield, England and Sweet Home. That’s all Arkansas River delta through there, and it’s the place where my father’s people came from before they starved out and had to come to Little Rock during the Great Depression. I’ve known that area solely through my father’s and grandfather’s stories, so in my mind, it’s this place where just about anything can happen. Back during college, I wrote a whole series of stories about an enchanted swamp down there that my grandpa called The WIllie Bell Woods. There really is a Willa Bell Woods down there, but mine was full of ghosts.

I read a quote that I’ll try to repeat here. I never figured out who said it. The quote goes something like “All children born in Arkansas are born with boomerangs on their asses, no matter how far they go away, they always come back.” You “came back” to the state, so to speak, after doing your MFA in Iowa and your PhD in Louisiana. What did you think about the place when you left? What do you think about it now?

You know, though I’ve known a lot of people who couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of Arkansas as soon as they could pay for a bus ticket and a duffle bag big enough for their stuff, I missed it every day that I was away. I’m glad I lived elsewhere — I wouldn’t want to be one of those people who are born, raised and die in the same zip code. But when I was gone from here, in the back of my mind there was always this nagging sense that the background noise wasn’t right — that in a crowd, the accents weren’t right somehow. Though I met loads of fine people and made friends I’ll have for the rest of my life, I really couldn’t wait to get back. I hate to sound like a xenophobe or a rube, but I’m only really comfortable here.

You’ve done some great work at the Arkansas Times over the past six years. What have you learned about the state that you didn’t know before you started working in journalism here?

I think the most surprising thing I’ve learned over the past six years is that there are people out there walking around Arkansas right now that are more fascinating, twisted and funny than any fictional character somebody like me could dream up.

Considering your journalism has you working for a “liberal” publication in a state that, until recently, was pretty “red,” what stereotypes have you had reinforced since you came back? What stereotypes have you had destroyed?

You know, I try — and I encourage my creative writing students — not to think in stereotypes, just because they tend to lead a writer to the easiest possible conclusion. For one thing, the stereotype never really fits once you get through the shell every person sort of exudes over time to protect themselves. For another, it’s just plain old lazy thinking — the refuge of those who can’t imagine that a person outside of themselves might have deeper motivations than their class or race or job or political affiliation. However, I can say that as far as assumptions I’ve had destroyed since I became a reporter, the biggest thing is the idea that there’s a rigidly enforced divide between blacks and whites in Little Rock. As a reporter, I’ve found, time and again, people trying to tear down the old walls that have separated us in Little Rock, Arkansas and the south in general. While that doesn’t extend to everything, I’ve seen blacks and whites honestly and humbly reach out to one another often enough over the past six years that I’m sure the idea of a Black Little Rock and a White Little Rock is more politically expedient myth than anything else.

You went from being a writer in academia to a journalist and editor for a weekly newspaper. Do you approach fiction writing differently now that you’re out of the ivory tower, so to speak?

You write what you know, I suppose, so back when I was a student, my writing was — I’m sad to say — a lot more self-centered and self-indulgent (that’s kind of the lot of the student, when you think about it: whether you’re going to school to learn air conditioning repair or quantum mechanics, that0 quest for knowledge is an inherently selfish act. It can lead to a lot of unselfish things, but for the time your in the class room and absorbing, it’s all about you). That has been the experience of many, many writers I’ve talked to. ON the flip side, getting out of college — getting married, and a kid, and a house and a job — makes the circle of your worry broaden, and writers always do better with that dark cloud of pressure hanging over them. Given all that, I think my writing has really matured over the years. I can really feel my characters’ pain when they’re worried about the rent or the car or that child with a 103 fever. You can read that as a student, but you’re never going to be able to fake it until you’ve experienced it.

What is your definition of the word “hillbilly”?

My mother’s people are all from the mountains above Conway, so when I think of the word Hillbilly, I think of them: proud people. full of music and laughter. Beer drinkers, churchgoers, pulp wood cutters. Excellent singers and hunters and cooks. People who can find you a ginseng root or a quinine tree or a fender for a ’52 Dodge. The best joke and story tellers in the world.

Where is your favorite place in Arkansas? What do you like about it?

My favorite place in Arkansas is pretty much anywhere on or along the Arkansas River near Little Rock. I haven’t been on the river in a boat in probably fifteen years, but I love to stand on the bank on summer afternoons and just watch it roll by.

Where is the one place in Arkansas you try to avoid at all costs? What’s so awful about it?

I have to say that I don’t like Pine Bluff much. Though I hear it was once a really beautiful place, it’s a big, sprawled out afterthought of a city these days. My family and I have to drive through there to go visit my wife’s relatives, and it just seems to get seedier and seedier.

Comments (4) »

Bullfrog Valley

Bullfrog Valley meanders alongside Big Piney Creek in Pope County, Arkansas for about five miles, marking the spot where the river begins its slow descent out of the Ozark hills and into the floodplain of the Arkansas River. The valley begins at Long Pool—a popular take-out and put-in spot for boaters and fishermen.

 

Long Pool stretches about a quarter mile as it bends to head south. The only obstacle during this long patch of green, calm water is a set of three house-sized boulders set far to the river right just before the river swings around to create one milder Class II rapid. The rapid is a kind of shudder, before the river widens into the lazy Class I section canoeists call the “Long Pool to Twin Bridges” run. Long Pool is one of those places where the topography gives humans a name for itself.

 

In the Ozarks, as in most places in America, settlers named places after themselves or, as in the case of Bullfrog Valley, after other humans. My maternal grandmother, Mildred Opal Light Waldo, tells a story about Chief Bullfrog, the Cherokee, who lived and died here “back in the old-time days.” She never says what caused Chief Bullfrog’s death, but she makes a point of romanticizing it: he was buried, with honor, under a tree at one end of the valley.

 

When I asked her which end, she shrugs off the question, because that isn’t the point. The point is that Chief Bullfrog was a legend, and legends exist outside of time and place. No one remembers which end of the valley Bullfrog’s family picked for his grave because it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the people liked him enough, or remembered him well enough, to name the valley after him.

 

Long Pool is different. Maybe no one claimed ownership of the spot, or maybe the convenience of naming the place after its topography was too easy and obvious. Maybe the settlers found no sense in getting creative about it: no need to or manufacture symbolic gestures or create ambience, the way they did with other spots in the area.

 

Booger Hollow, the east entrance into Bullfrog Valley, is named for the bad luck travelers had there during the American Civil War. The dark overhang of cliffs and trees on either side of the road made it a great hide-out for highwaymen and bandits. It was, at the time, also a major thoroughfare on the road from Harrison near the Missouri border and Russellville on the Arkansas River.

 

Everyone traveling by wagon had to cross through Booger Hollow on their way in or out of the most remote part of the Ozarks. Cemeteries punctuate the hollow on both ends, which surely gave the place an otherworldly feel. On the southwest end of Bullfrog valley, Silex Mountain (named after an early Anglo settler) marks the valley’s border on the northern bank.

 

Only Long Pool, and nearby Bald Nob Mountain, are named for their topographical features. Bald Nob has a pun-ish nature about it, though. It’s not as straightforward. It could have just as easily been called “No Tree Nob” or “Rock Nob,” if the intention was to describe the hill’s treeless summit. “Bald” has a decidedly human ring to it. At Long Pool, the river created the name and the locals didn’t see any need to romanticize the selection.

 

They clearly didn’t see any need to fancy up the river’s name either, other than to differentiate it from Little Piney Creek and from the now-faceless settlement called just “Piney” that sits at the confluence of Big Piney Creek, the Illinois Bayou, and the Arkansas River. Big Piney Creek slowly settles into its slower pace at Bullfrog Valley, flattening the landscape at gradual intervals. The valley completely opens up about a mile south of Long Pool, near the Bates family hog farm, just north of Grimmet Springs. Grimmet Springs, like Bullfrog Valley, is no longer a place exactly. Not in a sense that most Americans understand, anyway.

 

These days, Grimmet Springs is a burned out shell of an old wood shop building, just steps from a natural spring. This spring gurgles up from porous limestone underneath the forest floor. It sits only a few feet from the highway, hidden in a heavy overgrowth of pines, oaks, and dogwood. The road follows the edge of a hollow, so the landscape sharply rises just beyond the spring. The bottoms of Bullfrog Valley stretch out immediately across the road, beyond a pair of wear-worn farmhouses.

 

There is no grocery store within twenty miles, unless you count the snacks on hand at Moore Outdoors, a canoe-rental shop at the intersection of Hwy. 164 and Long Pool Road. Cell phones don’t work here. There is only one quasi-public building besides the Moore Outdoors shop: Booger Hollow Recreation Center, an ancient Masonic-esque building, that sits alongside the road as it enters the valley from the east.

 

There aren’t many people living in Bullfrog Valley, and there never have been. This was always a backwoods place, even in Chief Bullfrog’s days. Chief Bullfrog, as much as we know, was one of the first outsiders to settle here on a semi-permanent basis. Chief Bullfrog would have arrived around 1820, with the first exodus of Cherokee from their ancestral home in the eastern southern states of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.

 

Before that, the entire area of Johnson, Pope and Newton Counties were only counted as hunting grounds for various Native American groups including the Osage and the Choctaw. A few small bands of various Native American groups lived at least part-time in caves and overhangs in the Ozarks, but there were no large settlements in northern Pope County, Arkansas. A few intrepid French and Spanish explorers and trappers had been through the area before Chief Bullfrog, but none of them settled down for good.

 

If Chief Bullfrog was a real person, it’s likely he farmed here, as most of the Anglicanised Cherokee did at that time. Farming would have been a relatively new endeavor in this hilly area, which was mostly known for its abundance of game. Arkansas was entirely wilderness then, seen by its white American overseers as far enough away from civilization to send a whole series of Native American tribes into exile there.

 

The naturalist Thomas Nuttall didn’t make his descent of the Arkansas River until 1819, just a year before a breakaway group of Cherokee took the Americans up on what seemed like a good offer: land in the Arkansas River Valley for their long established farms 2,000 miles away. At least it would get the Americans off their backs, and maybe in the familiar hilly landscape, they could start over.

Life is never that idyllic, of course. The first group of Cherokee that settled here did not get along well with the Osage, and were constantly fending off raids. The major part of the Cherokee settlement in Pope County focused on Piney, at the confluence of the Illinois Bayou and the Arkansas River. For a man trying to recreate a life of farming and occasional hunting, Bullfrog Valley probably looked like an excellent choice.

 

It was too far away from the main settlement to be of any real consequence to a raiding party. The valley is protected by narrow hollows on two sides. If you are trying to avoid the marauding locals, Bullfrog Valley would have been strategic. The Big Piney was big enough and low enough up to Long Pool that a canoe could easily navigate its way up and down to the main settlement, offering a market for farm goods and easy access to the local society. The bottomland along Big Piney offered up plenty of lumber and fertile soil. Bullfrog Valley would have made a resource-rich, if immensely isolated, farmstead.

 

Not much has changed, really. This is still the wilderness and farming is still the major occupation for the few full-time residents. Along the road through Booger Hollow sits a neatly fenced and tidy cattle farm, marked by a large sign near a 1960’s ranch-style house that sits on a low rise overlooking bottom land stretching several hundred acres to Big Piney Creek’s bank.

 

From the road, a traveler can see a mix old wood-frame houses, house trailers, and neat modern houses like the cattle farm, or the Bates Hog Farm property at the northern start of the valley. A visitor would have to be heading toward Long Pool to even encounter the Bates farm: deliberately traveling upward, further into the hills, on a one-way road.

 

If you stick to the main highway through here, the last sign of civilization in Bullfrog Valley is the well-tended Owens Cemetery, situated across the road from Moore Outdoors.  After that, the valley really does feel like the end of the earth, especially because the one paved road through the area dead-ends at Long Pool. Surrounded by steep mountainsides and accessible only via a steep winding road, it feels literally cut off from the rest of the world.  

Comments (5) »

Tornado Alley

It’s no secret to anyone who watches the national news that Arkansas’s normal Tornado ratio skyrocketed this year.   The evening news told the husband and I that  we’ve had 84 confirmed tornadoes.   Sixty of Arkansas’s 77 counties are declared disaster areas.   The local weathermen claim La Nina as a culprit. 

 Either way, like the rest of Arkansas and much of the middle-south, I’m weary of dangerous weather. I love the rain this time of year, but I’m sick of the tornado sirens. I’m tired of the pictures of poor folks standing in the wreckage of their lives.  I’m starting to get a little irrational and paranoid.

When my best friend asked me today if the world was coming to an end after we spent twenty minutes talking tornado, I actually thought it was a reasonable question.  This, to anyone to knows me well, is not in my character. I never was much of a church goer, much less an expert on the end times.  But I actually wondered if she had a point.

Then I declared I was so sick of tornado talk that I wasn’t going to watch the news again until July.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel for every last one of the victims.  I know, too, what it can do from personal connections.  A friend of my family, Britt, had to help out his parents, his nephew, and his brother after the Atkins-Clinton tornado blew away all their houses, barns, and cows.  They all survived by standing in a hallway, the only standing structure in the aftermath.  

I know I’ll have to contradict myself, though. I can’t escape it.  Most people I run into around here do the same thing I do: shake their head and say something like “goddamn” (like the guy who bought cigarettes ahead of me in line at the quick stop when he saw today’s Arkansas Democrat Gazette). 

Most people can’t help but start to about talk how terrible it all is, and “but there for the grace of God,” and then eventually get around to telling the story of their own Tornado near miss.  We all have one.  It’s just part of living here.  Hardly anyone has a basement and only folks out in the country tend to keep storm shelters, so mostly we’re all dependent on hiding in our bathtubs and hallways. 

The tornado story I’m telling these days goes like this: Just a block from where I live, the most recent Little Rock tornado knocked a giant oak tree through a two-bedroom ranch house, which had to be leveled. About ten houses in the neighborhood had to have major roof repair.  The night the storm hit was the first time I actually heard the tell-tale “sucking” of the wind and the “freight-train” noise.  I freaked out, grabbed the dogs, and tried to put us all into the bathtub. 

Then my husband pointed out that the bathroom had a window and the hall didn’t.  By then, it was all over. It lasted less than 30 seconds. 

This replaces my older story, which is also about a tornado that passed within a block of my house.

Back in the late 1999, I lived in an apartment downtown on Sixth Street just two blocks away from MacArthur Park in the Quapaw Quarter of Little Rock.  I lived in an apartment building with windows on every exterior wall.  So the only safe place to go was the central hallway.

There were about a dozen one-bedroom apartments in the building and about twice that many people living there, plus their pets.  I, alone, had a cocker spaniel and an alley cat. Add to that a couple of Chihuahua’s, a baby, about six more cats, and a cello and you get the scene. (The cello belonged to a Arkansas symphony member, I think).

We all piled into the hallway and set up camp, listening to the television through someone’s open door. A woman who lived at the end of the hall on the first floor had just moved to Little Rock from Hawaii. She didn’t, and I quote, “believe in tornadoes,” and thereby deemed us all insane.

She decided to go to the Harvest Foods down on Main street, even though we told her not to go. A few of us begged her.  That storm picked up nearly every tree in the park and completed flattened my favorite Waffle House, along with several other buildings in the Quapaw District.  It also completed destroyed the Harvest Foods while the Hawaiian lady watched from her car.   She found her religion after that, I think.

I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t start practicing a little superstition, just as insurance against anymore near misses.   Vance Randolph tells us in Ozark Magic and Folklore that many Ozark old timers believed sticking a knife in the ground with the edge facing the tornado, it would, as he put it, “split the wind” and keep it from destroying a farm (32-33). 

I never heard of anyone doing this personally, but at this point, I’m starting to think an old charm wouldn’t hurt. 

Comments (1) »