Monday, October 19, 2015

A Washington (Arkansas) Feud

The Historic Washington State Park chief interpreter has shared with me some information the park is working on for a possible reenactment. The pages of the Arkansas Gazette for the month of April in 1872 they showed me reveal that there were serious factions amongst those in high position during Reconstruction in Washington, Ark. For example, Judge Page and his son, attorney Tom Page, belonged to a radical faction called the Brindle Tails, while Sheriff Vance belonged to another called the Minstrel Faction.
A serious conflict arose concerning the escape of a criminal: Tom Page alleged that Sheriff Vance had put it out that he, Tom Page, had helped the criminal escape. The disagreement became so heated that the black militia was assembled with abundant guns and ammunition and placed under the command of Sheriff Vance. The problem culminated at the 1836 courthouse on April 19, 1872. Sheriff Vance, having been sworn in, sat in the witness chair, being questioned by Tom Page. Tom’s father, Judge Page, was at the bench. Tom Page began by asking, “Sheriff Vance, did you ever say that I had helped the prisoner escape and that you had made me admit to it? For that is what people are saying.” Vance replied sullenly, “I have no recollection of saying anything of the kind.” Tom Page countered, “Sheriff, you are under oath; are you certain your answer is the truth, the whole truth in this matter?” Vance replied, “Do not doubt my veracity, sir. Everyone in this courtroom, nay, everyone in this town is aware that you Brindle Tails are out to disrupt my authority as sheriff at every opportunity.”
“That is a ridiculous statement, Vance,” Tom Page argued. “It is also irrelevant to the present inquiry. Your mindless association with the soon-to-be extinct Minstrels is for you to remain in office. Your Honor, I wish to dismiss this witness and call the prisoner himself to the stand.” The Judge allowed it and the prisoner was sworn in and seated as Sheriff Vance stood threateningly nearby. Tom Page asked the prisoner if anyone had told him that he had admitted to helping in the escape. The prisoner looked fearful as Vance leaned towards him and, at length, said softly, “Sheriff Vance said that to me.” Tom Page asked him to say it louder and he did so. Tom Page pointed at Vance and asked, “Is this the man who said that about me?”
Vance stepped towards Tom Page and said, “Yes! I am the man and, by thunder, whatever I have said, I will stand up to.” Tom Page drew a pistol and fired at Vance, missing him. Vance pulled his pistol as he retreated towards his office nearby, firing as he went. The elder Judge Page went to the courthouse door, shooting two pistols repeatedly towards Vance’s office, while Tom Page went upstairs in the courthouse and returned with a double-barreled shotgun and fired it towards the Sheriff’s office. A dozen shots were fired and no one was wounded or killed. A score of black militia arrived and backed up to Vance’s office, weapons on the ready.

Such were some of the local fruits of Reconstruction. One of the correspondents on this matter from Washington to the Gazette signed himself as Know Knothen. I have taken only a minimum of liberties for the sake of readability, for I know much less than the original correspondent about this event the Historic Washington State Park folks are researching.

Monday, October 12, 2015


I like mockingbirds. Some nest in the holly trees in our front yard. I also noticed that they nest in the trifoliate orange trees in the park. I think they like the thorns on those trees for protection. I have wanted to plant some of these wild orange trees, also known as flying dragon trees, in my back yard. I found some sprouts down by the woods where people around here burn stuff. I decided to walk down there to dig a few up for transplant late one starry night. As soon as I forced the shovel into the earth, I felt a presence behind me and heard, “Hello, Dan.”
It was the wise old man. He was camping in the shed behind the Brunson House and grew curious about my strange activity so late at night. I told him what I was doing and he said, “I grew up on my great uncle’s great big ranch 14 miles out from Dime Box, Texas. From the time I was four, my job was to ride my half Welch, half mustang pony into Dime Box twice a week to get whatever mail was there and any needed supplies. There were only five books at Uncle Derrell’s ranch: a Bible, a dictionary, a Hazlitt, an Emerson and a slim volume of poems by Sara Teasdale. By age 10, I knew the Bible, the poems and you could not stump me on spelling or definition of any word in Webster. I had a little tougher time with Emerson and Hazlitt.”
“Well, sir,” I said, “That accounts for your rich vocabulary.”
“I suppose so,” he said meditatively, looking up at the Milky Way “Dan, I know what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he said stargazing made him feel alone, but I also identify with Teasdale’s feeling of personal honor in observing the stars. When I look up on a night like this I feel both alone like Emerson and special like Teasdale. I feel solitary because I am looking into the infinite otherness of the universe and I feel special because I was somehow chosen to be a part of it.”
I joined his philosophical tone by observing that our galaxy was just a speck in the infinite reaches of interstellar space. “Yes,” he said, “hurling through a universe full of similarly unfathomable systems. It is a miracle that we can reflect and comment upon what we see. Trying to explain the star spangled heavens is like trying to talk about time itself. The future, for example, is merely a present expectation based on the observed regularity of nature. The past is just a present memory and when you say “present” it is in the past. Time has nothing to do with clocks and calendars, which just measure the motions of our solar system.”
“Wow,” I said, “I just came to dig wild orange trees but I got something even better. “Yes, Dan,” he replied, “The bird of truth has flown through your tree. Let her make a nest there.”
“You are so cool,” I said.

“Good thing I brought my Army blanket,” he replied with a wink.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Jack's Idols

Everything in Jack’s life had an aura of idolatry. A staff sergeant, he was at the tail end of his second enlistment, quite ready to re-up for a third because he thought he had a beautiful life.
About a year remained of Jack’s assignment at a German military base when I arrived there. He was about 27 and I was 18. There was little appealing to me about my new assignment with its olive drab buildings and somber soldiers trudging through the early winter snow. There was a cinema on base, a delicatessen, a dayroom in the barracks with a pool table and an enlisted men’s “club” but there did not appear to be much else to occupy one’s hours away from the job. (That is before I discovered the library, the darkroom and the bowling alley).
But I saw right away that Jack occupied his time well. First, he had a well-coifed mustache that went way beyond regulation. It even curled up on the ends, except on inspection days when he trimmed it down or tucked it in somehow. The rule was that your mustache must be well groomed and half way between your nose and upper lip, not extending beyond the corners of your mouth. Jack consistently and easily got by with his extravagant “stache.” He was a friend of the officers in our unit. I think they considered him a charming eccentric that could do no harm, not to mention the fact that he wrote a weekly column for the Stars and Stripes newspaper. He did report abuses in that article, so maybe that is why he was treated with such privilege.
Jack drove a second-hand Jaguar that he kept immaculate and sparkling. He even cleaned under the hood and painted the tires with that black stuff. I helped him wash his car one Saturday and he invited me to play chess in the dayroom. He allowed me to accompany him to his lavishly decorated suite in the barracks—how he rated such a big private apartment, I never knew. There, he retrieved a carved meerschaum pipe from a rack of some 20 such works of art, filled it with aromatic tobacco from a small painted Grecian urn, grabbed an embossed leather case full of a hand-crafted chess board and wonderfully carved chess pieces, and we settled at a table in the dayroom. The conversation was sparse but congenial as he puffed on his Nordic-headed pipe and beat the socks off me two times in a row.
The dude had a temper, too. Once just outside the chow hall, he was taking the bowl out of his calabash pipe and it cracked. I never heard such bad language from a civilized person. He hurled the whole shebang into a trash can as he ranted on and on. Another time, I don’t know if someone keyed the trunk of his Jag or if he had driven under a limb or something, but when he discovered the scratch, he was apoplectic. His countenance fell, his visage reddened and his breathing quickened as he began to defy Heaven itself with his insane invective. To put it succinctly, Jack was an idolater and when anything went wrong with his idols, his whole universe was spoiled.

I learned that it was fine to like your possessions, but not to the extreme of mustachioed Jack the pipe-smoking, chess-playing Jaguar man.