A Change Is Gonna Come

Not the lynching I was told about, but probably similar.

Not the lynching I was told about, but probably similar.

I was sitting in my car in the Walmart parking lot watching people walk toward the store. Sometimes when Ann and I go shopping together, and I’ve been in the store too long, I get this claustrophobic otherworldly feeling and I have to just get out of there. It’s silly, I know, to fell claustrophobic when you’re in a giant barn of a building, but that’s how I feel.

But I’m fine when I get outside and I really enjoy watching the shoppers coming and going while I wait for Ann to finish shopping. It gives me hope. You see, I’ve lived long enough to witness some major changes in things. My oldest memories go back to the fifties, a time when the American rural South was largely white bread. Many small towns had signs warning minorities not to let the sun go down on them in their town. Many counties in the state where I live had for more than a century successfully kept minorities out and none of this really began to change until the 1950s.

The people I see in the Walmart parking lot these days are a diverse mix. I watch a group of young college guys heading into the store, some white some black, hanging together. A big Mexican family is getting out of a mini-van. A couple of gay guys walk for their car, one white one black. Another black guy is walking by holding hands with a young white woman. An older Asian lady walks slowly toward the door.

When I’m sitting in my car watching this parade of all kinds of people, it usually dredges up a memory from a yard sale I went to a few years ago. The sale was at the end of a rutted dirt track and when we pulled in, it was obviously a former farming operation. Some of the stuff being sold was old farm equipment, the kind that was pulled by horses or mules. There was lots of old stuff to look at and I remember buying something, but I can’t remember now what it was.

Like the stuff being sold, the woman I bought it from was very old. I ended up talking to her for a while. Older people are repositories of stories and history you often can’t find anywhere else, so when I have a chance, I try to get them to talk about what things used to be like. On that day, the old woman told me a story I’ll never forget.

It turned out she came from a little town called Pettigrew, Arkansas, a little country village to this day, about fifty miles off in the sticks from the bright lights. She started talking about when the railroad first came to Pettigrew. I wish I could remember the exact year, because she still remembered it, but I don’t, but it was sometime early in the twentieth century, maybe around 1910 or 1920.

One day, she said, not long after the trains started running, a young black man decided to ride the train down to Pettigrew just for fun. He got off and walked around the town, just looking around, sightseeing.

“They hung him,” she said. I understood immediately from living with the dark heritage of the South that “they” were the citizens of Pettigrew.

I was shocked. I guess I shouldn’t have been. The Tuskegee Institute recorded 4,473 lynchings, most frequently in the South, between 1882 and 1968.

I knew lynchings took place back then in Arkansas, but I’d never actually talked to someone who’d witnessed one. I could tell from the tone of the woman’s voice that she was haunted by it and probably had been for all the years since.

That pretty much ended our conversation that day. I didn’t know how to respond to her story. I didn’t have any words that would relieve her of that memory or ease its pain.

Now, when I sit in my car and watch the mix of ethnicities and types happily entering and exiting Walmart, I can’t help but think how much things have changed in the last hundred years.

Don’t get me wrong, I know racism and bigotry are still around. I know the South and the rest of the country have a way to go yet. I know intolerance and discrimination are still in some hearts.

But things are better than they used to be. There has been movement in a positive direction. You can walk the streets, no matter what you are, and not worry about being murdered by an angry mob. You can go to college, eat at restaurants, have a job and a career, love who you want, have a good life and not have to live in fear, and I take some comfort in that.

Racism Alive in Arkansas

Racism is alive and well, at least among some legislators in Arkansas. This week the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette exposed three Republicans, two who currently serve as state representatives and one former representative who is seeking to return to office, for blatantly racist and radical statements.

One is Rep. Jon Hubbard of Jonesboro. In a 2009 book, he wrote “no one can argue that  the institution of slavery was not cruel in most every respect; however, knowing what we know now about life on the African continent, would an existence spent in slavery have been any crueler than a life spent in sub-Saharan Africa?’

Really? Better to be a slave in the American South, than a free person in your native land? Duh!

In the same book, Hubbard wrote, “The black community has been reluctant to understand that government entitlement programs were only intended to help move them out of poverty and toward self-reliance and not to become their livelihood.”

Really? Do you think black people are turning down all those high paying jobs they’re being offered?

Another sitting state representative, Loy Mausch of Bismarck, also commenting on slavery, writing in a 2003 letter to the editor, “Nowhere in the Holy Bible have a found a word of condemnation for the operation of slavery, Old and New Testament. If slavery was so bad, why didn’t Jesus, Paul or the prophets say something?”

Really Mr. Mausch? Jesus didn’t say anything about dandruff, child molestation, beastiality, cancer, or light beer. Are those OK too?

Charles Fuqua of Batesville is seeking election to the legislature in which he formerly served.

Writing just last year about the millions of Muslim-Americans, he stated, “the Muslim religion is incompatible with the U.S. Constitution” and “I see no solution to the Muslim problem short of expelling all followers of the religion from the United States. We will either expell them or be killed by them.”

Really Charles? Have you ever heard of freedom of religion?

Even more shocking, in the same book, Fuqua advocates killing disobedient children.

“A child who disrespects his parents must be permanently removed from society in a way that gives  an example to all other children of the importance of respect for parents.” Fuqua cited a Bible verse from Deuteronomy which calls for the stoning of disobedient children.

Really Mr. Fuqua? Were you stoned when you said this?

What’s really troubling is that these aren’t drunk rednecks saying these things. These are our elected leaders, people who are at the top of the state pecking order. These are people who are supposed to represent the views of the rest of us in Arkansas.

This is exactly the sort of thing that makes our region look stupid, backward, and bigoted. But maybe that’s because too many people in the South are stupid, backward and bigoted.

The Republican party chairman in Arkansas has made a point of saying that these three Republicans do not represent the views of the state party. But the state party did contribute $2,500 to each of their campaigns.

This isn’t just one crazed extremist, it’s three of them. And if these three are willing  to go on the record with their outdated and fanatical views, one has to wonder how many legislators and Arkansas citizens sympathize with these ideas, and are just smart enough in these politically correct times not to air them.

Another question is whether these views will have an impact in next month’s election. It will be interesting to see if Arkansas voters are willing to return these bozos to the legislature.

Razorbacks bleed red

Arkansas Quarterback Tyler Wilson

“Through thick and thin and through it all, I’m gonna be for Arkansas.” – Old Arkansas saying.

If you’re not an Arkansas football fan, you might not be interested in this. If you are an Arkansas fan, you’re probably depressed and hurting right now.

Before the season started, there was national championship talk. It was probably unrealistic but not completely crazy. Last year’s team lost only two games, and both those games were to teams that were ranked number one in the country at the time. The team started this season ranked tenth, and moved up to eighth after an opening win over Jacksonville State.

Then the wheels came off, the bottom fell out, the shit hit the fan. First the Razorbacks lost in overtime to Louisiana Monroe. Never mind that LM has a damn good team this year. Arkansas just isn’t supposed to lose to them, ever.

Then Alabama came to Fayetteville and administered a humiliating ass whipping, 52-0. Arkansas was playing without their starting quarterback, and would probably have lost anyway, but not by this wide a margin. Getting shut out in front of your fans is unacceptable.

Then Rutgers came to town. The Razorbacks were favored by the oddsmakers. They lost anyway, letting Rutgers come back, the defense playing like a bunch of girls, unable to stop the passing game.

Then they had to go down to College Station, Texas, where A&M blew them away, 58-10. Oh, the shame of it all.

What the hell happened to the team that was supposed to compete for an SEC title? There’s no simple answer, but the biggest factor was our new head coach John L. Smith.

Up until last year, Bobby Petrino had been building a team that was getting better and better. Hope buoyed in the hearts of Razorback fans. Hope for football glory.

When Bobby Petrino had a motorcycle wreck with his girlfriend on the back of his bike, Razorback fans were second only to his wife and family at becoming the victims of his firing. The university hired a makeshift interim coach. John L. Smith, and it was all over right then. John L. Smith is a nce guy, too nice to be a football coach, and not a dumb guy, but not smart enough to coach in the highly competitive SEC.

Personally, I think firing Petrino was a screw up. Bill Clinton philandered all the way from Arkansas to Washington. But his wife forgave him, and so did the American public. If the university had suspended Petrino without pay for a few months, and then let him come back, things would be different now.

We wouldn’t have lost to Louisiana Monroe. Smith lost that game through bad clock management. We would probably have beaten Rutgers on our home  field. It’s now obvious that Smith doesn’t know how to get the team ready and that they are not in top physical or mental condition.

We might have lost to Alabama and Texas A&M, but it would have been more competitive and Arkansas wouldn’t have looked just hopeless.

Instead of 1-4, Arkansas should be at least 3-2 at this point. That’s the difference between Petrino and Smith.

There’s an important lesson to be learned here. Don’t put a nice guy in charge of your football team. Find the biggest asshole you can and put them in charge. Football players are by and large assholes, so you need an even bigger asshole to rule them by fear and intimidation. That’s what football players understand.

A lot of people think Nick Saban at Alabama in the best coach in the country. He may be the biggest asshole in the country too. When Alabama was in the middle of drubbing Arkanas by a bunch of points, the TV folks showed Saban shouting angrily into the face of one of his players over some mistake. That’s how you coach winning football.

Now, this Saturday, the Razorbacks have to go down to Auburn, Alabama and play. The handicappers say they are ten point underdogs. It’s hard to know if they can overcome all the adversity and win. It will be up to the players. The coaching staff has proven they can’t win.

The Arkansas Razorbacks mean a lot to the people of Arkansas. There are no pro teams in the state. There is only one major university. The Razorbacks are all we have. We’re a small state with few resources competing in the best football conference in the country. Over the years, the fans have watched a lot of teams struggle, but the fans here are great. They never stopped supporting their team, even in the darkest moments. The fans deserve better than this.

Arkansas (parts of it) may be joining 20th century

On the square in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Yes, I know it’s the 21st century, but here in Arkansas we run about 100 years behind the times in many ways.

But that could be changing. Voters in two counties of Northwest Arkansas will be voting in November to legalize liquor sales. Currently, Arkansas has a mix of dry and wet counties. Also on the November ballot is a proposal to make medical marijuana legal in Arkansas.

Seventeen states now have medical marijuana in some form, but none of them are in the South. It appears Arkansas will be the first southern state to have the issue put before the voters.

Benton County, in the northwest corner of the state, is the fastest growing county in the state, booming from being the corporate headquarters of Walmart. If you’ve never heard of Bentonville, Arkansas, it’s just a matter of time until you do.

When Walmart was founded in 1962, the county seat was a quiet little burg of 3,500 people. Fifty years later, with the explosive growth of Walmart, it has ten times as many people and the four counties in the northwest corner of Arkansas are now ranked as the 109th most populous area in the country with a population or more than 400,000.

Interestingly, two of the grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the petition effort to get the booze question on the November ballot. It’s hard to believe Sam would approve. He never allowed the sale of alcohol in any Walmart stores during his life, and it’s only been within the past couple of years that Walmart finally started selling wine and beer.

Benton County borders Missouri to the north. Just over the state line, there are huge liquor stores and a constant parade of Arkies buying liquor and heading back to Arkansas. Though it is illegal to do this, there is no law enforcement effort to stop the flow of alcohol into Arkansas. And the losses in tax dollars to Arkansas are in the millions.

Legal booze in the boonies?

Perhaps even more indicative of the changing times in Arkansas is the fact that in Madison County, which lies southeast of Benton County, the liquor question will also be put to voters in November.

What makes this significant is that Madison County is almost the direct opposite of Benton County. Madison County is intensely rural. The county seat of Huntsville, the largest town in the county, had a population of just over 2,000 in 2010. Imagine, if you can, an entire county with not one stoplight. That’s Madison County.

A vote to toke?

The effort to get medical marijuana put to a vote statewide has been a struggle for advocates of the measure. They tried to get it on the ballot four years ago, but failed to get the more than 60,000 signatures needed from registered voters. This time, the measure was certified for election, but now an opposition group is challenging the proposal in court and trying to get it off the ballot.

But it’s doubtful the opposition group, which claims to represent “Arkansas values,” will be able to stop the medical marijuana vote. Voters will probably vote it down this November, but just getting it on the ballot is an eyebrow-raiser.

Of course, the real truth is that booze and pot are readily available everywhere in Arkansas, one way or another. But making it legal to do what people are doing in huge numbers illegally will at least get some power out of the hands of people who are still living the 19th century.


I Need A Vacation From Myself


Chris Denny

In 2007 an Arkansas musician named Chris Denny recorded a song titled “Vacation.” The opening line is, “I need a vacation from myself, a little  time out of my head.” The first time I heard it a few years ago, it resonated for me. I could really relate.

Truth is, I’m sick of me. I’ve spent way too much time in my own skin. I know all of my weaknesses, foibles, failures, embarrassments, and irritating habits. I feel guilty about all the dirty secrets of my life, some so bad I’ve never told anyone about them. (I’m not a psycho or anything. I’m probably just about average in my regrets.)

I don’t think I’m weird or even very different from most people on this. There is an unfortunate human tendency to focus on the negative. In journalism it’s called “If it bleeds, it leads.” If your front page choices are between a train wreck or a carefree picnic, which one do you think most everyone is going to read? So don’t tell me to focus on the positive. People aren’t built like that.

So I’m stuck with me. I can’t even get away from me for five minutes. Sure, there’s sleep, but even there I’m haunted with dreams that obviously spring from the most traumatic experiences in my life.

Think of all the movies that use the fantasy gimmick of people switching bodies. Think of all the books that put you in the mind of somebody else. Think of all the songs that let you live somebody else’s life for a few minutes.

I also believe many people use drugs to change and escape who they are at least temporarily. Of course, it’s just another version of you, even when you’re high, and sooner or later, you get tired of your druggy self too.

When my wife Ann and I spend too much time together, it often leads to hostility, because we get tired of each other’s company. But if she’s away from me for more than a few hours, I really miss her. That just confirms my hypothesis that I have met the enemy and he is me.

If I can tire of another person, someone I love, upon overexposure, just imagine how disgusted I am with me. The self-loathing sometimes reaches Hunter Thompson proportions. I try not to think about it, but how can you ignore something that’s with you all the time?

In a way, I envy those people with multiple personality disorder. I wouldn’t want to be afflicted with this, but wouldn’t it be fun to be able to be someone other than yourself? I’m no psychologist, but I suspect the pain of being trapped with yourself is what drives people into this state.

Reincarnation also offers some hope. I’ve always found the idea of having multiple chances at life as different people very appealing. Maybe I could get it right one of these days if I had enough shots at it. I hope reincarnation happens, but I don’t think so.

There’s only one thing I see I can do, and it’s more of an amelioration than a cure. I can try to be the best version of me I possibly can be, create less stuff to feel bad about, make fewer missteps, keep progressing toward a happier life. Of course, some of this is not under my control, but I do what I can.

Still, I long to get away from me, take a couple of weeks off, get some perspective. I’m pretty sure I’d come back liking myself a lot better.

Here’s a link to a video of a live performance by Chris Denny and the Natives of “Vacation.”

The Lost Art of Visiting

When I was a child, one of our main family activities was going to visit friends and relatives and having them visit us. The adults would sit and talk and drink coffee in the winter and lemonade or iced tea in the summer. The children would play, outside if possible. Most often, we visited and were visited by aunts and uncles and cousins. Mom and Dad both came from large families, so the extended family net was wide. Sometimes it was friends or neighbors.

I don’t know exactly when visiting starting to decline, but I know it’s not practiced in our culture anymore the way it was then. Today, visiting has mostly been replaced with television, digital games, recorded music, movies, the net, all kinds of wonderful media.

I’m not saying we don’t have face-to-face visiting anymore. It hasn’t died out. It’s just not our main form of entertainment and support these days.

I’ve been reading a book titled Vinegar Pie and Chicken Bread about a woman who lived in the Arkansas delta and for two years, 1890-91, she kept a diary. The diary gives a real glimpse into the daily life of isolated rural Arkansas farmers.

Nothing of much importance happens in the diary. She records the weather, daily chores, work being done on the farm, and quarrels with her husband. But what is really striking is the sense of sharing and community. Much of every day’s entry is about who visited whom and, no matter the weather, hardly a day went by without either hosting visitors or making visits or both.

And visitors often brought food. Instead of making a pie, you made two, one to give to someone you were visiting. It might be a washtub of turnips, some onions, a couple of pieces of cornbread, some fish, or fresh meat. Basically, people shared what they had with others around them.

They took care of each other. If you were ill, they would come and sit up all night, keeping a vigil in shifts. If a person was dying, they stayed with them until they passed and then saw to the burial. If you came for a visit and someone was doing a chore, you pitched in and helped. The women sewed outfits for each other, even made doll clothes for the children.

Here is a typical entry from the diary for January 2, 1891:

“Clear & cold and windy, we got up late this morning and I got breakfast in time for Miss Carrie & the children to get off to school, Caroline Coalman came & helped me get dinner & washed the babies things for me & Fannie & I went to see Mrs. Caulk & tell her good-bye for she leaves tomorrow on the boat she was at Mrs. Giffords and we went there, Lizzie went up to spend the night with Katie McNiel after supper Mr. Jackson and I took the baby & went to Mrs. Giffords & stayed 2 hours and Sue washed the supper dishes & Brother Dick stayed with her, after she got done she wrote to Eddie Mann, & Brother Dick wrote to Ella Chandler, Dr. Chandler went home to day, Eddie Peoples came after Miss Carrie & she went to Mrs. Peoples to stay until sunday evening all well to night, no mail today, Mr. Jackson and Brother Dick picked cotton today & Will Emmet too, John Hornbuckle was here awhile this morning.”

This is a typical day in the 1890s, with a whirl of social activity, people coming and going, people helping each other with work and chores. You were part of a circle, a community, and you were in daily touch with each other.

By the time I was growing up in the 1950s, visiting had already started to be a diminished part of daily life. We didn’t have the bustle of activity described in the diary. We went visiting and/or had visitors maybe once or twice a week.

We lost a lot when we stopped spending most of our time with the other people in our community. But now maybe a new way of “visiting” will revive and increase our contact with others. For example, I have friends who I regularly keep in touch with on the internet on four continents and all over the United States. Unfortunately, I can’t hand them a slice of cake when we get together or help them wash the car, but the most important part of the equation, the social part, is still there.

And there are advantages. When we used to go visiting during my childhood, we were limited to those who lived nearby. With the internet, the world is your backyard in which to play and make friends.

So I feel like we’ve come full circle. What used to be a face to face encounter has been replaced by the tools of technology. But even if we are connecting with other humans over long distances, across national and cultural lines, across oceans and continents, the connection can still be real, and satisfying;

Recipe for Vinegar Pie

In the old days, fresh lemons were not always available to farm families. Vinegar pie was developed as a substitute.



1 (9 inch) pie crust, baked

1/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour

1 cup white sugar

1 cup water

3 egg yolks

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/4 teaspoon lemon extract

3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

3 egg whites

6 tablespoons white sugar


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C).

Mix the flour with 1/2 cup of sugar. Add the water gradually and cook on top of a double boiler for 15 minutes, stirring constantly, or until thickened.

Combine the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar with the yolks and salt and mix well with a whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Add the hot flour mixture to the yolk mixture gradually, mixing all the time. Return to the double boiler and cook for about 3 minutes more or until the mixture is thick and smooth.

Add the butter, extract, and vinegar. Mix well and remove from heat. Place a piece of plastic on top of this custard.

Meanwhile, beat the egg whites until foamy and gradually add the 6 tablespoons sugar. Beat until a stiff, glossy peak is achieved.

Pour the custard filling into the prebaked shell ( the custard should still be hot, if not, heat up a again before adding to shell). Top with the meringue. Spread the meringue all over the top of the pie, sealing to the edges of the crust. Place into the oven and bake until the meringue is a nice nut brown, about 15 minutes. Traditionally, this pie is served hot.

Chicken Bread

Chicken Bread was cornbread made with just water and corn meal and it was called that because it was usually used to feed to chickens, but when pioneers ran out of the other ingredients needed to make cornbread, they had to eat chicken bread.



Howling At The Moon – Flash Fiction for 5/11/12

Photo courtesy Madison Woods

When you live in Arkansas, you can’t buy beer on Sunday. When you don’t stock up on beer, you run out on the weekend. When you can’t get beer on Sunday, you do illegal drugs. When you do illegal drugs, you wander around aimlessly in the woods all night. When the moon is full and you wander in the woods all night, you get bitten by a werewolf. When you’re bitten by a werewolf, you howl at the moon and attack and kill innocent inbred hillbillies. Don’t howl at the moon. Stock up on beer.