Monday, December 29, 2014

Wilderness Fishing

I got a job immediately upon returning home from the service to avoid the temptation, slight as it was, to re-up. It was a grunt job, minimum wage at a shoe sole factory that had just moved to my town from up north. Why they moved further away from their shoe markets, I do not know. Anyway, that job played out in about four months because the company was having financial trouble, so I decided to take a long-deferred vacation.
An old man named Randolph had a boat rental place on the Champagnolle Creek close to where it empties into the Ouachita. Another recently discharged vet and I packed some camping and fishing gear and rented a boat from Randolph, who was most assuredly a free spirit. From the looks of his feet, he had never worn shoes and a pedicure, even a self-inflicted one, was apparently never an option. All his boats were identical: 14 foot aluminum boats that looked as if they had been in a war. Nevertheless, he asked, “What kind of a boat are y’all a-looking fer?” My friend replied, “One of these will do,” sweeping a gesture over the dozen boats docked there.” Randolph spit a stream of Red Man and pondered his boats for a little while. “Well, sir, I can rent y’all this here 14-footer fer eight bucks a day.”
We got him down to five dollars, loaded our stuff, and took off paddling up the murky creek. The woods were thick and seemed to get thicker, so when we saw an open place and a little sandy “beach” we pulled in, set up our tarps and built a fire. At first, we started fishing in the creek, but only encountered little bait-stealers. I got bored and took a little walk back through the woods between the creek and the Ouachita. Behold, I found a nice little lake or pond back in there and my first cast rendered a fat bulge-headed blue-gill. I called for my friend and we mopped up. We cleaned a nice stringer full of bream and cat and fried up the best camp supper I remember eating.
That evening we set out a trotline in the creek and caught mainly trash fish: grindle (slap-jack), mud cat and turtles, but a few pubescent channel cat barely big enough to eat. I slept pretty well after figuring out that the shuffling noise at the edge of camp was a rooting armadillo and woke up bright and early for another go at the newly discovered lake. We dragged the 14-foot Randolph boat over to it and found some really great fishing spots. We harvested a lot of goggle-eye that day and encountered several water snakes, sunning on logs, acting like they were beautiful.

We stayed three nights, the best $15 we ever spent. When we got home, Mother told me the shoe sole factory had called two days ago and wanted me back. When I phoned the boss, he said it was too late—they had hired a replacement for me. Then I got a job as clean-out crew for the American Oil refinery, hard work rewarded only by sweet memories of camping and fishing.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Wise Old Man Comes to Washington (Arkansas)

The sun came out for a little while Sunday afternoon as I made my way down to Pioneer Cemetery, an isolated place to sit and think. I was deep in thought, gazing at the glistening pines, when I heard a voice behind me: “Is that you, Dan?”
It was the wise old man dressed in olive drab from head to toe, carrying a modern hiking pack, fully loaded. “Where did you come from, sir?”
“I spent the night down behind Goodlet Gin. There is a whole little abandoned town down there, Dan. I found a place with a good bed in it and set up camp.”
“So, you have been traveling for a while, then.”
“All my life, Dan. But yes, I have been hiking around since I saw you in August. As soon as the weather cooled, I bought this rig here on my back and started out. I was in Kutawa, Kentucky at that time and I have covered a lot of ground since. I don’t walk all the time. Sometimes I spend a day or two around truck stops and get rides on down the road. I am trying to stay in the South.”
“Well, sir,” I replied, “What do you think of current events?”
“Media-driven, Dan. I am interested in the way opinions are formed nowadays, aren’t you? Logic seems to have gone by the boards along with appreciation for our country’s constitution and laws. Without abiding by these, we are lost.”
“Do you think we are lost?”
“No, Dan, I don’t.  There are still plenty of people who rely on their own ability to read, think, analyze and ponder. You are one of these, Dan; otherwise why are you down here in this lonely place sitting on a tombstone?”
“Well, I try to form my own opinions, but I do listen to those I admire. The pundits I admire are those who have a Christian worldview, universalizing the experience of mankind on the planet.”
“That’s heavy stuff, Dan,” the wise old man said as he shuffled out of his pack and found a place to sit and lean back against a gnarled pine. “One disease of modern man is complexity, in my view. Ponder this proposition, Dan, ‘Man is complex—God is simple’.”
“What does that mean, sir?”
“To me, it means that it is human nature to major on the minors, forgetting the old verities, the old simple truths of the heart: love, honor, pride, willingness to sacrifice for others, the ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes…you know the drill.”
“What about dehumanizing?”
“Exactly, Dan, exactly. When someone hates another because of the uniform he or she wears or because of his or her religious views, that is dehumanizing. The value of human life is put aside when people live by prejudice and stereotype, which is another name for cowardice.”
“Where are you headed, sir?”
“May I spend Christmas with y’all?”

“Absolutely, sir, absolutely.”

Monday, December 15, 2014

Travels With Birdie

Every time I smell oil based paint or turpentine, I have an involuntary remembrance of my frequent visits to Birdie’s art studio back in the woods behind my childhood home. Because of naiveté concerning the larger world, I did not consider her eccentric, which, in retrospect, she certainly must have been. She had decided to follow her heart, her talents and her reclusive nature and thus became a non-conformist in the truest sense of the word. Birdie lived life her way and it showed.
By her example, she taught me to respect individual perceptions of reality and appreciate the artistic ways these perceptions were depicted, whether in painting, sculpture, music or writing. She was a big fan of Rudyard Kipling and she quoted him a lot. I do not know who her favorite artists were, but she won awards for her own landscapes and portraits down in Sarasota, Florida where she drove herself and her art supplies in a pickup truck every year to paint and associate with other artists.
Birdie liked to draw and paint my portrait because, in her words, “You have ruddy features. I like to capture ruddy features on canvas.” I did not know what ruddy features were, but I was glad I had them because I could sit and listen to her talk, watch her smoke the ever-present cigarette dangling between her and the canvas, and even draw pictures myself with the charcoal she provided. She would sometimes compliment my drawings by saying, “You can draw.” She did not say I could draw well, she just said I could draw. But the way she said it gave me the impression she thought my efforts were satisfactory.
As far as I know, she did not have many close friends, but she was on good terms with a Miss Dyer, the elementary school music teacher who lived way across town. She asked me to hike over to Miss Dyer’s house one day in the wintertime. It must have been during Christmas break. I was probably a first-grader, and I had seen Miss Dyer at the school often. Birdie talked the whole way over there about the way people lived. She was satirical and commented on the smugness or ostentation of various homes and yards. Nothing pleased her about the way people lived until we got to Miss Dyer’s unusual neighborhood. Unpretentious is the way I would describe it now. Back then, I just thought it was unusual to see such a conglomeration of houses and yards so unsymmetrically arranged.
We sat on the porch at Miss Dyer’s, drank Kool Aid and ate cookies. The two women talked non-stop and laughed a lot. I was really surprised when I asked to go to the bathroom and they sent me to a little house out back. I had not seen an outhouse since Mother moved us to town from the country. It brought back memories, such as they were.

I don’t remember much about our jaunt back to the studio. I do recall, however, that Birdie didn’t talk much. Perhaps she had said it all to her like-minded friend.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Grits

It was not a cold morning in Memphis, fifty-five degrees with a little breeze, so when I followed the couple I had seen leaving the hotel into the bus depot, the hot smoky air was almost overwhelming. It was in the late 1950s and everyone smoked back then: cigarettes, pipes, cigars. I learned in my teen years when I traveled a lot by bus that bus stations were always full of smoke and too warm or too cold. This one in the heart of Memphis was at that time the largest bus depot in Tennessee, even larger than the busy one full of cowboys and guitar cases in Nashville. It smelled of restroom deodorant, pine disinfectant, stale tobacco and frying bacon. I had decided that the couple I followed must have been related, perhaps father and daughter, as they sat side-by-side on stools at the breakfast counter. A blonde waitress with the wrong makeup and a big wad of gum placed glasses of water in front of them and yodeled, “The menu’s up there on the wall. I’ll be back to take y’all’s order in a minute.”
When gum-popper returned, the attractive young woman ordered dry wheat toast and black coffee and the old fellow, perhaps 80, ordered a bowl of grits and a glass of orange juice. Just as the “daughter” was initiating conversation, a middle-aged fellow with a Midwestern accent  interrupted to ask the man, “Hey old-timer, what’s good in this joint?”
“Sir, I’m not trying to make any point,” the old man replied innocently and with great dignity, as he adjusted his jumbo hearing aids.
“I didn’t say nothing about no point. I said what’s good to eat here.”
The old man replied, “This is the first time in my life I have ever been called an old-timer. Old timers are in the western movies, like Gabby Hayes and Fuzzy St. John.”
The Northerner was slick bald and he had on a silk shirt open down the front with chest hair like steel wool leaking out and he wore several gold chain necklaces. His right arm had a devil tattooed on it over the caption, “Born to Raise Hell.” Probably something he had done as a kid in the Navy, I surmised, resolving right then and there never to get a tattoo. “Well, sir,” The old man said meditatively after a pause, “I have never eaten here before but I ordered grits. It’s hard for any cook to ruin grits. I generally put a little butter and honey in them and they make a fine breakfast.”
“Grits?” the bald head queried with contempt, “What’s grits?”
“Hog tallow,” the old guy drawled instantly and with a straight face.
The young woman turned her face away and spewed a sip of coffee into a napkin with an explosion of mirth. She tried, somewhat credibly, to make it seem as if it had been a sneeze.

When their food came, the bald one turned away but kept glancing curiously over his shoulder as the old man made a show of deep pleasure in the delicacy. I didn’t laugh until I was on the bus to Shreveport and when I did, people looked at me funny.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Christmas and Candlelight

Recently, we were talking to an old friend in El Dorado. Knowing us to have been somewhat nomadic in the past few decades, he asked, “Where are y’all living now.” When we replied, Washington, he thought, of course, D.C. or Washington State. We clarified, “Washington, Arkansas.” He said, “Why in the world? There is nothing over there.” We didn’t have time to explain his mistaken impression of our village, so I said, “We are just 30 miles from  Texarkana.” He was satisfied with that. Apparently he saw no virtue in the rural and the small.
There is plenty to see and do in Washington, Arkansas. A historic state park encompasses the entire town and the Southwest Arkansas Archives are located in Washington. It is a repository of entertaining and enlightening artifacts, especially old photographs, letters and legal documents. The city also hosts the Pioneer Washington Foundation, a group dedicated to restoring and maintaining old buildings. The Foundation’s Woodlawn House, the Trimble House and the fancifully structured Presbyterian Church are worth the visit.
But this time of year many people favor the two night event, Christmas and Candlelight. This year, the State Park in association with the Archives Board will host the events on the first two Saturdays in December—the 6th and the 13th. The town will be decorated with 19th Century style greenery and candlelight and musical groups will perform in the churches, the WPA Gymnasium and the 1874 Courthouse. The Melody Boys will also perform on the Tavern Restaurant porch in the afternoon. The event opens at 1 p.m. on both Saturdays and the musical programs begin at 5 p.m. Performances range from individual instrumentalists to very large choirs. Most of the large groups are scheduled for the WPA Gym and the Presbyterian Church. The Historic Washington State Park Website posts a schedule of events and printed programs will be available at the Park Gift Shop.
So, there is a lot to look forward to for the next two weekends. But one thing we like to do in Washington is walk, not just for exercise, but for the beauty of the seasons and the historic feel of the town. There is very little traffic and one can find multiple walking routes around town. We like to walk on the old Southwest Trail, which has some significant hills, leg-burners if you keep a good pace. We also enjoy going down to the Pioneer Cemetery. One cannot find a more peaceful place to sit, reflect and enjoy the ambience of history. Our daily walk, though, is a square mile, literally, through the erstwhile residential area. And there is no such thing as going for a walk in Washington. You are always going for a visit, because you run into people out for the same purpose, summer, winter, spring or fall. This is a friendly community, welcoming to all and full of interesting places to see and visit.

So, if someone tells you, “There is nothing over there in Washington,” just say, “Come and see for yourself.” And we are quite close to Texarkana.