Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

“Gay Panic in the Ozarks”

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

In 1968, as Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller stepped up his efforts to root out corruption in Arkansas politics, a 32-year-old former FBI agent named Ed Bethune was asked to help remove the symbol of the Old Guard — Conway County Sheriff Marlin Hawkins — from office.

“The director of the Arkansas State Police warned me that we were walking into a hornet’s nest,” Bethune would write years later. “By the time we got to the courthouse, there were well over 500 Hawkins supporters milling around. Most were on foot and quite a few were armed. They were carrying pistols, rifles and shotguns and making no effort to conceal their weapons.”

Bethune vividly remembers how a Morrilton city policeman “jumped out of the shadows and stuck his shotgun in my stomach, saying, ‘Halt, I’m fixin’ to shoot you.’ As he pushed the gun harder into my belly, I realized that my life depended on the wiring between the rookie’s brain and his trigger finger, and I did not like the odds.”

Ed Bethune survived that day.

And Marlin Hawkins remained in office.

That incident from Arkansas’ colorful political past was one of many Bethune wrote about in his 2011 book “Jackhammered: A Life of Adventure.” In it, the former Republican congressman from Arkansas’ 2nd District did more than tell political war stories. The heart of the book is a trip Bethune took with his wife, Lana, in 1990 aboard their 31-foot sloop named Salute. The goal was to sail from Norfolk, Va., to Portugal. In an incident that received widespread media attention, the couple had to be rescued by U.S. Coast Guard helicopters after withstanding rough seas for 36 hours prior to being spotted.

After writing the book, Bethune told me that the sailing trip fundamentally changed him and helped him better understand his life to that point: “I didn’t really set out to write a memoir. I had a number of friends through the years urge me to write a book about that sailing trip. But I wasn’t real eager at first to write about something I considered a failure. We didn’t make it. I later thought about trying to turn it into a novel. What was I doing out in the middle of the ocean in a 31-foot boat anyway? As I thought about my life and the things that motivate me, I suddenly found myself writing about my childhood. As we grow older, I think we all begin thinking more about who we are and how we got to this point in our lives. My hope was that by reading this story, others might be inspired to be more introspective.”

Soon after finishing the memoir, Bethune began outlining his first novel.

“I had no idea when I started writing this novel almost two years ago that its release would come in the midst of an Arkansas firestorm about gay marriage,” he said last week. “I created two mythical counties in north Arkansas as the setting for my story and then developed this fictional proposition: Wounds and prejudices stemming from the Civil War, the Great Depression and other conflicts run deep in the Ozark hill country.”

The book — titled “Gay Panic in the Ozarks” — begins with the lynching of a young gay man, whose body is left hanging from a tree.

“The papers, blogs and airwaves are full of hot arguments about gay marriage,” Bethune said. ”The culture war is obsessing America, and the noise gets louder every day. My book is not about gay marriage, but it does consider the wide range of cultural changes that have occurred since the 1960s. It digs deep, going beyond superficial political issues to the root causes of prejudice, the ugly force that bedevils humankind.”

Bethune described the protagonist of his novel, Aubrey Hatfield, as a “shamed man who seeks redemption for himself and for his community. ‘Gay Panic in the Ozarks’ deals with homosexuality, but it also invites the reader to think. … Recently, prejudice caused many Americans to fuss about a dispute about A&E and the program ‘Duck Dynasty.’ A few weeks later, people were arguing about an upcoming Discovery Channel show called ‘Clash of the Ozarks.’”

For the record, Bethune said he believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

“‘Gay Panic in the Ozarks’ goes to the heart of the matter, the age-old question of how to deal with the multifaceted problem of cultural adaption,” he said. “How do we find tolerance in the face of deep-seated religious beliefs? How do we conquer the curse of indifference, man’s impulse to maintain his neutrality in the face of great moral crisis? These are just a few of the reasons I believe there will be a good market for this story in 2014, a volatile election year that will produce endless talk about gay rights and the culture war.”

The book was edited by Gene Foreman, an Arkansas native who went on to serve for many years as managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

I’ve always found Bethune to be an interesting man. His parents divorced when he was 8. By his early teenage years, he was a self-described “problem child” who was getting into trouble on a regular basis at Little Rock. Bethune went to his mother’s hometown of Pocahontas in northeast Arkansas, a move he says “saved my life.” After graduating from Pocahontas High School in 1953, Bethune joined the U.S. Marine Corps and served until 1957, including a stint in South Korea. He met Lana at what was then Little Rock Junior College — now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock — after leaving the Marine Corps. He was 23 and she was 21 when they married.

Ed Bethune finished college and law school and then worked as a deputy prosecuting attorney in Randolph County in 1963-64. He was an FBI agent from 1964-68, serving in Newark, N.J., during the riots in the summer of 1967 that left 26 people dead and hundreds injured. After leaving the FBI, Bethune returned to Arkansas and began practicing law at Searcy. He lost to Democratic nominee Jim Guy Tucker in the 1972 race for attorney general but shocked the Arkansas political establishment six years later when he was elected to Congress. Bethune served three terms in the U.S. House and then left Washington following an unsuccessful 1984 race against U.S. Sen. David Pryor.

Bethune was the chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party from 1986-88. He and Lana returned to Washington following George H.W. Bush’s 1988 election as president. Lana became the social secretary for Vice President Dan Quayle. Ed became a well-known Washington lawyer and lobbyist, the go-to man for Republicans who found themselves in hot water, men such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The Bethunes returned to Arknsas in 2009.

Bethune includes two quotes at the first of the novel.

One is from Canadian poet Bliss Carmen: “Indifference may not wreck a man’s life at any one turn, but it will destroy him with a kind of dry rot in the long run.”

The other is from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: “What is indifference? Etymologically, the word means ‘no difference.’ A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil. … Indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive.”

Bethune is a heck of a writer. Just to give you a sample, here’s how the novel begins. The year is 1968: “Aubrey and Prissy finished their picnic and stretched out on a shady spot beside Sycamore Lake, wed to each other and to life in the hills of Arkansas. They listened to the mockingbirds singing their different songs, copycat chords in harmony with the whisper of pine needles and the rustling of leaves. A gentle breeze made a cat’s paw on the still water and then came ashore, a zephyr of cool air. The young couple snuggled and spoke warmly of living an unfussy life in the Ozarks. Their sweet talk added melody to the score. It was music, the music of the hills.

“Their dream, a bond made as childhood sweethearts, was coming true. Prissy would teach kindergarten; Aubrey would run the family hardware store and work part time as the deputy prosecuting attorney for their sleepy little county. Life in the Ozark Mountains, for those who love it, is a magnetic blend of simplicity and hardship, grounded in faith and in an unshakeable belief in the pioneering spirit. It had been good for their parents and grandparents. Surely, it would be good for them.

“Soon the afternoon shadows crept farther out onto the lake, darkening the water, warning of wounds and prejudices stemming from the Civil War, the Great Depression, the World Wars and other human tragedies. Such frailties run deep, and like the scab of a putrid wound, they will from time to time reopen and ooze pus. When that happens, a discordant note seeps into the music. On this September afternoon in 1968, a day made for lovers, Aubrey and Prissy Hatfield heard only what they wanted to hear. This is our home. Life is good.”

The investigation of the gay man’s murder goes nowhere.

Aubrey Hatfield is wracked by guilt that he didn’t do more.

Thirty-eight years later, he gets a second chance to confront what Bethune refers to as man’s greatest vice, “the refusal to see wrong and do something about it.”

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Tales from the South: Randy Tardy

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

There was no way I was going to say “no” to this request.

Walter B. Walker was born and raised at Helena. He moved to Little Rock in 1962 and worked for the Darragh Co., the Mountaire Corp. and Orbit Valve Co. before retiring in 1993.

Walter has been friends with fellow Helena native Randy Tardy since the first grade.

“I don’t think a week has gone by since 1939 that we haven’t talked at least once,” Walter told me.

I’ve only been friends with Randy since 1981, when I went to work for the Arkansas Democrat as a sportswriter. Randy was a business writer at the newspaper for a quarter of a century, and a darn good one.

He’s also a great storyteller, especially stories of his early life when Helena was a prosperous port city on the Mississippi River. Randy is in hospice as I write this. It was Walter’s idea to contact Paula Morell, the talented executive producer and host of “Tales from the South.”

His plan was to have some friends of Randy read pieces Randy had written. They would be read during the weekly taping of the radio show at the Starving Artist Cafe in downtown North Little Rock.

Morell agreed to the idea, and so I found myself at the Starving Artist on Tuesday night reading stories along with Walter and Harvey Joe Sanner of Des Arc. A full house listened.

“Tales from the South,” which airs each Thursday at 7 p.m. on Little Rock station KUAR-FM, 89.1, is quite a phenomenon. It began as a single show seven years ago. It’s now syndicated by the World Radio Network, where it airs three times a week on WRN Europe, twice a week on WRN Asia and twice a week on WRN Africa.

The show also can be heard on numerous public radio stations across the country.

The weekly taping before a live audience features writers reading their stories. All stories must be true. Past participants have included people ranging from Judge Reinhold to Jill Conner Browne to David Pryor.

I only wish I could have read a story by Randy about the old second-floor newsroom at the Democrat. When I went to work there in 1981, it was still like something out of the 1931 movie “The Front Page.” There was trash on the floor and wires running everywhere. The air was thick with smoke, and ashtrays were overflowing. Finding a chair that wasn’t broken was a challenge.

Randy used to claim he was going to write a book titled “Ray 85.” Here’s the story behind that: The late Ray Hobbs was the city editor in those days, and the main number to the city desk was 378-3485. Clerks would answer the phone and then scream at the top of their lungs for the city editor to pick up on that line.

“Ray 85!”

Frank Fellone, in a column in Monday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, described that old newsroom as a place “so crowded, noisy and unkempt that reporter Randy Tardy once described it as being like Bhopal, India, at rush hour.”

Randy loved the newspaper business, and he loved every form of transportation. His idea of a day off was to go to the airport to watch planes take off and land, to the banks of the Arkansas River to watch the barges go by or to the train station to watch the trains as they passed.

I like Helena, I enjoy radio and I’m intrigued by the history of KFFA-AM. So I had no complaints Tuesday night when Walter asked me to read about those subjects.

Here’s part of what I read. The words are those of my friend of more than three decades, Randy Tardy:

“I worked at radio station KFFA-AM, 1360, in Helena from 1956 until July 1959. I set up locally prepared newscasts and delivered them, using information gathered from local sources, our Associated Press newswire, handouts and local interviews.

“As I recall, my live newscasts were weekdays at 8 a.m., noon, 5 p.m. and a 6:15 p.m. wrap-up of the day for 15 minutes. My noon program was unique. It immediately preceded the 12:15 p.m. broadcast of ‘King Biscuit Time,’ which had been on the air since around 1941 and is still going.

“The musicians stored their instruments in a corner of my newsroom. So did the janitor with his mops, brooms and bucket. I even had a vertical rack of glowing and buzzing radio tubes, which kept the station’s signal going out.

“During one noon show, I was talking about an explosion of some kind along the Gulf Coast when the King Biscuit drummer came in to get his instrument. He had trouble holding onto it. As I was reading the story, there was a ‘wham’ behind me. It was timed right with the word ‘explosion’ as I was reading the story. It was not a funny story, but the timing almost got to me. It was hard to get through the rest of the newscast.

“I looked at the drummer with my microphone still on. He said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Randy, I didn’t go to do that.’ I knew he didn’t, but I remember that moment until this day. I believe that drum, with its red lettering, is still around and on display at the Delta Cultural Center.

“When I would come into the station from making my rounds of the police department, fire station and courts, I would park out front on York Street and put a nickel in the parking meter. Often, Dudlow, the King Biscuit piano player, would be standing there. This time he asked me if I could give him a dime to ‘get me some soda crackers and a little bologna.’

“That day I had a pocket filled with quarters because the gas station I had just stopped at was out of dollar bills. I had put five gallons of gas in my 1955 Pontiac and was expecting $4 in change. I got it, but not in bills. They gave me the change in quarters. They were out of bills.

“‘Here, Dudlow, here’s a quarter,’ I said. ‘Go have yourself a big lunch.’ He thanked me over and over. He looked at the quarter and said, ‘This will really help me tickle them ivories.’

“Those were interesting times. Little did I know that the broadcast would live on for decades and become the centerpiece of an internationally known blues festival. Sunshine Sonny Payne was at KFFA then. He’s still there as of this writing, a legend himself.

“When folks sometime refer to me as a pioneer radio broadcaster, I tell them that I never looked upon myself as a pioneer. But there weren’t too many of us around back then. One is my old friend H.R. ‘Herbie’ Byrd, who toiled for early news operations at several radio stations. I remember him best as the news voice of Little Rock station KLRA-AM, 1010, which has been off the air for years.

“Life goes on, but I wish news today were the real news we tried to deliver back then.”

Nice memories from Randy Tardy.

They’re holding the third annual Arkansas Delta Rockabilly Festival in Helena this weekend. The likes of the Kentucky Headhunters, Ben “Cooter” Jones, The Cate Brothers, Sonny Burgess and the Legendary Pacers and Wanda Jackson will be there.

Rockabilly got its start in the Memphis area in the 1950s. I wish Randy could be there for the festival. I have no doubt he would enjoy it, especially if he had a spot atop the levee where he could also see those barges moving up and down the Mighty Mississippi, the river that so defined his youth.

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Razorbacks: 21 wins during two seasons

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

The University of Arkansas Razorbacks won a combined 21 games during the past two football seasons.

The last time that happened prior to 2010-11?

The answer is 1964-65.

Let’s be clear that Bobby Petrino does not quite have the Arkansas football program to the point where Frank Broyles had things in 1964-65. The Hogs played 10 regular season games in those days instead of the 12 that are now played, so the winning percentage was better back then.

There’s also the fact that the 1964 team won several versions of the national championship, and Arkansas would have been almost a unanimous pick for the national championship following the 1965 season if not for that upset loss to LSU in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1966.

That was the first of the 19 Cotton Bowls I’ve attended. I’ve written here before how I cried in the cab (I was age 6, but I’m sure there were grown men from Arkansas crying that day) we took from the stadium back to the Baker Hotel in downtown Dallas.

Still, Petrino has Arkansas back in the national championship conversation. Since the Cotton Bowl is the only bowl game remaining on Fox, the promotion the network provided in the week leading up to the game was extensive.

To be on Fox on a Friday night in prime time — and to win by a double-digit margin — was good for Arkansas’ national brand.

Those 21 wins during the past two seasons had me thinking back to 1964-65. I ran across two stories Dan Jenkins wrote for Sports Illustrated during the 1965 season.

Jenkins, a Fort Worth native who still does some writing at age 82 for Golf Digest and Golf World, long has been among my favorite writers.

Asked recently by Texas Monthly to list what he reads each day, Jenkins answered: “At my doorstep every morning I get the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (what there is of it,) The New York Times (although I’m under doctor’s orders not to read Paul Krugman or Maureen Dowd, but I do enjoy Gail Collins’ wit even though she seems to represent the other team) and my lifesaver, The Wall Street Journal, best newspaper in America today. The Saturday WSJ has more good stuff to read — and enjoy or be informed by — than any single publication, magazine or newspaper in North America.

“When I’m done with all that and breakfast and coffee are over, I go to the computer and get on Drudge. Then I click on The Washington Post and see if my daughter, Sally Jenkins, has a column up that she hasn’t told me about. Then I check all the usual suspects — Noonan, Coulter, Steyn, Cal Thomas, Buchanan, Thomas Sowell and, of course, Charles Krauthammer, the smartest man in America. By now you may have guessed my politics.

“Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post is the best sports columnist in the country. Second best is Gene Wojciechowski of ESPN.com and third is Dan Wetzel on Yahoo!.”

Jenkins attended TCU and played on the golf team there. He was familiar with the Razorbacks from covering the Southwest Conference for the Fort Worth Press and the Dallas Times Herald (sadly, neither paper exists these days). He went to Sports Illustrated in the early 1960s.

Jenkins retired from SI in 1985 after having written more than 500 articles for the magazine. Jenkins — the author of novels such as “Dead Solid Perfect” and “Semi-Tough” — will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in May in the lifetime achievement category.

In a story titled “Arkansas On Top Of The World” that was published in the Oct. 25, 1965, edition of Sports Illustrated, Jenkins began by quoting from the song “Quarterbackin’ Man,” which was playing on radio stations across the state at the time.

“When John Brittenum was a little bitty boy, sitting on his mammy’s knee, well, he said to his mother, don’t you worry now, Big Frank’ll make a quarterback o’ me, Big Frank’ll make a quarterback o’ me.”

Jenkins wrote: “You hear it not only in Fayetteville or Little Rock or Fort Smith, but in Possum Grape and Poplar Bluff and Pea Ridge and Terrapin Neck, far along the leafy Ozark hills and then down in the river bottoms where a wild hog — a razorback — looks for acorns when he’s not listening to some barefoot fellow hollering at him … or when he’s not beating a Texan at football again.”

Maybe someone informed Jenkins at the time that Poplar Bluff is in Missouri, though close to the Arkansas border. Perhaps he meant Poplar Grove over between Marvell and Helena (it has been incorrectly listed for years as Popular Grove in the index to the official state highway map).

Terrapin Neck is not on the map but apparently was on the route of the old Reader Railroad in south Arkansas between Reader and Waterloo.

Jenkins went on to write, “You could hear this song about Jon Brittenum, who beat Texas last week, 27-24, and another one about Harry Jones, who helped Brittenum simply by being fast and being there, and songs about last year’s unbeaten team. There is, in fact, very little you can hear about in Arkansas now except Coach Frank Broyles’ Razorbacks, who may be long gone toward college football’s next great winning streak.

“If the song, as sung by groups called The Rivermen and Cecil Buffalo and The Prophets, did not have you convinced in the last few days before the game, the signs did. Like the songs, they were everywhere, at food markets, real estate offices, bank buildings, restaurants, service stations and theater marquees. They said, ‘Go, Hogs, go. Beat Texas. Fryers 29 cents a pound,’ and ‘Beat Texas, Apples $1.99,’ and ‘No Vacancy. Beat Texas,’ and one of them was even on a church — the First Baptist Church of Fayetteville — and it said, ‘Football is only a game. Eternal things are spiritual. Nevertheless, beat Texas.’

“The people who made the signs wore red hats, red vests, red coats, red dresses, red ties, and the red banners were dangling down from high windows and roofs just everywhere, and the songs — instant folk songs — kept peeling all these layers off your brain, so how were even the amazing Texas Longhorns supposed to win a game in that atmosphere? They weren’t.

“Even after the Longhorns came from a stunning 20 points behind to lead by 24-20 with just four minutes left and Arkansas back on its own 20-yard line, Texas was not supposed to win last Saturday because of all this belief that had been mustered from the hills and river bottoms and given to Jon Brittenum and the fastest team in the land.”

Just two weeks later, Harry Jones (who now lives at Lowell and will be inducted Feb. 3 into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame) was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and Jenkins had another feature on the Razorbacks.

This story had a headline that read “The Man For The Next Few Seasons.”

Jenkins wrote: “Aw, yew bet. There’s White River channel cat — Frank Broyles likes it better than steak; ask anyone — and strawberries as big and red as Harry Jones’ helmet, and fried chicken so tender and flavory it makes a man want to weep. There’s good duck hunting and better fishing. You mean you’ve never throwed a hook in Bull Shoals? There’s the Watermelon Festival in Hope, the Grape Festival in Tontitown, the Diamond Cave in Jasper, the Bracken Ridge Lodge Doll Museum in Eureka Springs and the Oil Jubilee in Magnolia.

“Gen. Douglas MacArthur got himself born in Little Rock, of course, and there was Fay Templeton, the actress, Bob Burns, the comedian, and Albert Pike — he wrote something or other. You also got to consider that Mr. Winthrop Rockefeller, sitting up there on his hill, likes it pretty good. It isn’t as though the state of Arkansas never had anything to be proud of before Frank Broyles taught the Razorbacks to bristle and snout. But God love Frank Broyles, and don’t cash his personal check. Frame it.

“There is a special kind of hysteria in Arkansas now. It is the kind that comes only with a winning college football team. It dabs small, rosy blotches of pride on the cheeks of everyone. And it spreads like measles. It happened in Oklahoma with Bud Wilkinson, in Iowa with Forest Evashevski, in Mississippi with Johnny Vaught, in Texas with Darrell Royal and in Alabama with Bear Bryant.

“A man comes along — the right man at the right time — to organize things, rally the people, put fire in the athletes, build a winning tradition and, suddenly, there is an empire. Arkansas is the newest, and those old familiar cries — ‘Boomer, Sooner,’ ‘Hook ‘em Horns’ and ‘Roll Tide’ — are being drowned out by a curious new one: ‘Whoooo, pig, sooey,’ And Coach Frank Broyles — you will simply have to forgive this — is the sooey with the fringe on top.”

Jenkins went on to describe Broyles as a “tall, talkative, excitable, evangelistic native of Georgia” who had caused “hysteria” to reach out “in all directions. The banker, the farmer, the mechanic, the housewife, the grade-school student — they are all afflicted. They wear red, the university color, almost all of the time, but especially to the games.”

With everything from a former president to the world’s largest retailer to the top new art museum in the world, Arkansas has a lot more to hang its hat on nationally these days than it did in the early 1960s.

One thing hasn’t changed: Nothing unites Arkansans like a winning Razorback football team.

21 wins in two seasons.

Not bad in 1964-65.

Not bad in 2010-11.

Not bad at all.

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Cotton picking time down South

Friday, October 14th, 2011

It’s cotton picking time in the Delta.

Fields are white with cotton, and gins are operating around the clock.

When it comes to cotton and its legacy, many Americans think of Mississippi and Alabama. The fact is that Arkansas grows more cotton than either of those states.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Arkansas ranks fourth among states this year in the amount of cotton acreage. Texas is first (growing five times as much cotton as the next closest state), Georgia is second and North Carolina is third.

With the cotton harvest in full swing, it was an appropriate time for Ruleville, Miss., native Gene Dattel to appear at the Clinton School of Public Service and talk about his book “Cotton and Race in the Making of America.”

Dattel spoke Thursday night.

“The story of cotton in America is a dramatic economic tale whose fundamental importance in the nation’s history has been largely ignored,” Dattel wrote in the book’s preface. “Because of its connection with race, cotton is uniquely tainted in American history. … Slave-produced cotton was shockingly important to the destiny of the United States; it almost destroyed the nation.”

Ruleville is in Sunflower County, which is in the heart of the Mississippi Delta’s cotton-growing region. Dattel’s ancestors were part of the influx of Jewish immigrants who moved to the Delta in the late 1800s and early 1900s to serve as peddlers and merchants in what was then a growing region.

Dattel’s family came from Latvia. His grandfather opened Dattel’s Grocery and Market in Sunflower.

“The Delta was opening up,” Gene Dattel said. “It was a frontier area.”

Bottomland hardwoods were being cleared, lumber was being shipped north to Chicago and what was once forest became vast fields of cotton. Levees were built to hold the water out, and railroads were built to haul out the cotton.

The Dattel family moved from Sunflower to Ruleville when Gene Dattel was age 2. His father opened a dry goods store in Ruleville, and many of the customers were black. Saturday was the big day for merchants as sharecroppers and tenant farmers came to town to shop, visit with neighbors and seek entertainment.

Gene Dattel would work in his father’s store from early in the morning until late at night on Saturdays.

“I became quickly aware of how poor people shopped and was privy to their wants and dreams,” he told Memphis writer Helen Watkins Norman. “It’s not difficult to develop sensitivity in that situation. There’s no way to talk about the Delta without talking about race.”

Of the large number of Jews in the Delta in those days, Dattel said: “There were so many Jewish athletes that the high school football coaches would call the rabbi to find out when the high holy days were so they could schedule football games.”

Norman wrote: “Dattel made friends, played sports and, like every other white boy in Mississippi in the 1950s, became an authority on Ole Miss football. But his ethnicity and family background were different from the majority living in the Delta, and he knew it.

“‘No one in our family hunts,’ he laughed. ‘Our family sport was arguing. It was egalitarian, nothing personal. Our Thanksgiving holiday sometimes required reference material.’

“By the time Dattel reached high school, the Delta was in the throes of desegregation, and racial tensions were high.

“‘My little world in Ruleville was confining, and I wanted out,’ he said. Besides, he explained, he had outgrown the public schools in Ruleville and was looking for more academic challenge.”

In the second semester of his junior year, Gene Dattel moved to Memphis to live with relatives Ann and Sidney Dattel and enroll in the Memphis University School.

Sidney Dattel, a former physics professor at the University of Prague, spoke six languages. He had been injured in World War II and was a paraplegic. Each night, he would grill young Gene with various questions.

A classmate at both MUS and Yale was Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx.

Gene Dattel excelled in school and was accepted at Yale. In the fall of 1962, he was the only Mississippi student in the freshman class.

James Meredith became the first black student at the University of Mississippi that same fall. After having been barred from entering the university in September, Meredith was admitted on Oct. 1. His enrollment sparked riots in Oxford the day before, requiring enforcement not only from U.S. marshals but eventually from Army troops shipped in from Fort Campbell in Kentucky.

The riots left two people dead, including French journalist Paul Guihard. At one point, there were 20,000 U.S. combat infantry, paratroopers, military police and National Guard troops in or near Oxford.

Time called it “the gravest conflict between federal and state authority since the Civil War.”

In his book “An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962,” William Doyle wrote: “The mayhem of the riot was so severe that many reporters fled the scene early in the fighting or couldn’t get there until after the fighting ended. Since the crisis occurred in the days before national TV networks began covering such events live, there were almost no TV images of the battle. There were exceedingly few newsreel or still images, either, since it was a nighttime battle and photographers on the scene were threatened and attacked by rioters. There do not appear to be any newsreel or video images of the daytime rioting in downtown Oxford on the morning of Oct. 1, though a few still photos were made.”

Still, the word of what was happening in north Mississippi dominated the news.

More than 1,000 miles away in Connecticut, Dattel followed those sometimes sketchy news accounts, shocked by what was happening in his native state.

He said he was “put on the defensive because I was from Mississippi.”

Reacting to the events back home, Dattel became immersed in Southern history as a way “to understand where I was from and who I was.”

The famed Southern historian C. Vann Woodward, an Arkansas native, was a professor at Yale at the time. Woodward had arrived at Yale the previous year from Johns Hopkins. He would become Dattel’s favorite writer.

Dattel also helped start a speakers’ program at Yale that brought some of the top Southern writers to the campus. One of those who spoke was Hodding Carter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Delta Democrat-Times at Greenville, Miss.

Norman wrote: “Dattel’s interest in the Mississippi Delta and how it worked economically, socially and racially led to a fascination with what he calls systems. By that, he means economic systems, legal systems, financial systems and value systems — the broad picture. After graduating from Yale with a degree in history, he entered law school at Vanderbilt.”

Dattel wrote a senior thesis on antitrust as it relates to institutional investment. It came back to his interest in systems — in this case the movement of money. He joined Salomon Brothers in 1969 and spent years working his way up through the ranks at the investment firm.

Dattel was a vice president for the company in New York, London and Hong Kong. During the 1980s, he managed Salomon’s Tokyo branch as it grew from five to 250 employees.

Dattel later managed Morgan Stanley’s equity operations in Tokyo, serving as an adviser to U.S. and Japanese financial institutions.

Dattel’s first book, “The Sun That Never Rose,” came out in the early 1990s and accused Japan’s financial institutions of “squandering the wealth of the nation” due to a lack of accountability, a lack of central planning, bureaucratic excess and provincialism.

Dattel later turned his focus back to the Southern United States. Now 67, Dattel had long been fascinated with how cotton shaped the global economy in the 19th century while increasing racial problems in this country.

“Without cotton,” he wrote, “slavery would most probably have been headed for extinction.”

His book covers events from the 1780s until the 1930s when subsidies began making cotton what Dattel calls “a permanent ward of the federal government.”

A European thirst for clothes made of cotton rather than wool made cotton the top U.S. export from 1803 until 1937. Southern cotton farmers needed black labor to grow the massive amounts of cotton demanded by consumers worldwide. And even though many people in the North had opposed slavery, racism remained rampant in Northern states.

“The blatant racial bigotry in the North played a vital role in consigning blacks to a life in the cotton fields by impeding and even curtailing their physical and economic mobility, thus furthering the entrapment of most blacks in the South after the Civil War,” Dattel wrote.

Racial oppression, you see, wasn’t limited to the South.

Dattel spent three years writing “Cotton and Race.” The book was released in 2009. It was a subject Dattel had begun researching as a freshman at Yale.

Ruleville, surrounded this week by fields of white, now has about 3,000 residents. More than 80 percent of them are black. Ruleville was larger when Dattel was growing up there with the population evenly split between black and white.

“I do think what’s going on in the Delta is of interest and value outside the Delta,” he told Norman. “If you want to talk about American history and developmental economics, you don’t need to go any further than the Delta. It had a beginning and an end in terms of economic growth.”

Towns were being born in the Delta regions of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi when Dattel’s ancestors arrived from Latvia. Now, dozens of those communities are almost dead.

When Dattel’s book came out two years ago, he spoke to about 60 people at the Mississippi state archives in Jackson. Sitting quietly in the back of the room, wearing an Ole Miss cap, was James Meredith.

As he spoke, Dattel was looking at the man whose efforts to integrate Ole Miss had sparked in a young Yale freshman the hunger to explain the South’s history and the effect of race and cotton on the region.

“The symmetry was unbelievable,” Dattel later would tell The Associated Press.

In a sense, Gene Dattel had come full circle.

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“The Ghost of Bud Parrott”

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

I met Kane Webb for an early dinner at the Town Pump in Little Rock (one of my favorite, independent, locally owned establishments) Tuesday night.

As I pulled up, I could see Kane staring into the adjacent parking lot of the Dixie Cafe.

What had he spotted?

“That was Charles Portis going in to eat over there,” Kane said. “He’s probably the most celebrated author in the country right now due to the remake of the movie ‘True Grit.’ And here he is going to eat — probably by himself — at the Dixie Cafe.”

What a small, wonderful state this is. Kane and I agreed on that fact long before the chips and cheese dip (true Arkansans must order cheese dip at such establishments) had arrived.

You’re going to dinner and you run into a famous yet unassuming — some would say reclusive — author.

He’s our version of J.D. Salinger or Nelle Harper Lee.

Kane had written in this month’s issue of the constantly improving Arkansas Life magazine: “I’ve touted the literary brilliance of our resident genius so often that folks surely tune me out when they hear the words ‘True’ and ‘Grit.’ Which is either Portis’ best, second-best or third-best novel on my all-time list. It depends on which book of his I’ve read (again) most recently. … For the sake of the American reading public, let’s hope the move rekindles interest in the book, and that in turn rekindles interest in Portis’ other books. He deserves it, yes, but we deserve it.”

We live in a state filled with immensely talented people, almost all of them as equally unassuming as Buddy Portis.

Pretension is just not in our Arkansas DNA.

I was reminded of that yet again last night when I arrived home from dinner and found a package from Dr. Judson Hout of Camden.

Another of the great things about a state of fewer than 3 million people is that we all know each other or at least pretend to. Judson Hout grew up in Newport. My father’s first job out of college was to serve as the high school football coach in Newport.

Dad left coaching in 1951. Dr. Hout still refers to him as Coach Nelson.

I like that.

Judson Hout graduated from Newport High School, went on to receive his medical degree from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and then practiced medicine on military bases and in communities in Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Most people think they have a novel in them.

The difference between Dr. Hout and the vast majority of us is that he actually wrote his novel.

And he found a publisher — Ted Parkhurst of Little Rock.

I began reading “The Ghost of Bud Parrott” last night. It’s outstanding.

Dr. Hout explains his connection to the real Bud Parrott in his foreward: “This novel, this work of fiction, is the result of my affection for the time and place in which I grew up: Northeast Arkansas in the 1940s mostly. I have chosen to use the real name of a man who was my friend and confidant in those days, Bud Parrott.

“I knew Bud Parrott late in his life. He taught me a great deal about being a man in this world. Although he lived with my family for eight years, I learned nothing of his past. There were rumors that he had played Negro League baseball in his youth, rumors he would neither confirm nor deny. He could, however, throw a sharply breaking curve ball, a skill he tried to teach me without success.

“When I decided to write a novel, I chose to make Bud the hero and picture him as I imagined his life might have been. In doing this, I have completed a work that is purely and totally fiction. In all the years Bud was close to me, I felt I never really knew him. His outward jovial, cheerful personality seemed to mask a deeper sadness. As far as any of us knew, he had no relatives.

“In writing of that time and place, I have felt it was important to use the deplorable N-word in places. It is not used to offend the reader but rather to be true to the period and place. I hope the reader will understand and accept that for what it is.”

U.S. District Judge Harry Barnes has called the book “a racial-healing saga for the ages.”

The Rev. Lawrence Braden, a physician and Episcopal priest, said it opens a “window on the social disease that is bigotry.”

Brian Hardwick, the chief executive officer of Regal Energy Corp. in Dallas, said: “Baseball fans and those who love a well-turned coming-of-age story will find themselves absorbed in this tale of life in small towns, farmlands, factories and ballparks from Pennsylvania to Alabama to Arkansas.”

Here’s how the book begins, just to give you a sample of the good writing that follows: “I am haunted by a menagerie of memories of childhood. Pleasant and unpleasant, the days of my youth have been tumbled in a drum of years. Days of excitement, anticipation and discovery are jumbled up with events so frightening I wish they would go away. Some days from those years so long ago often do seem buried in some New Orleans-style vault, away somewhere, yet not quite out of consciousness. Always, they are floating in my subconscious ready to pierce the veil of knowing.

“From the day I walked out of Newport, the county seat that had been my home in Northeast Arkansas, in 1953, I have poked and prodded those ghosts whenever they threatened entry into my daily thoughts. Now the time had come to brave the place again, to travel back into the Delta, to see Newport one last time. To resurrect the ghost of Bud Parrott required a bold attempt to burying the others, once and for all.”

John Minor, one of my father’s favorite football players at Newport High School, found a photograph of the real Bud Parrott that’s used in the book.

“Your father knew him,” Dr. Hout wrote to me. “Bud was a janitor at Newport High School during Coach Nelson’s last year there.”

Dr. Hout has had successful book signings in recent weeks at Newport, Blytheville (Mary Gay Shipley and That Bookstore At Blytheville are Arkansas treasures), Little Rock and Camden.

This first novel deserves wider publicity, however.

Here’s how the dust jacket explains it: “In the tradition of Southern youth portrayed by Truman Capote, William Faulkner and Harper Lee, Judson Hout gives us the voice of Isaac Wood, whose coming of age in the White River bottoms of Northeast Arkansas takes us back to the 1950s, when Elvis was still touring the flats of east Texas and Burma Shave was laying claim to the fenceposts along Highway 66.

“Beginning and ending with a frame story — Isaac Wood as an older adult — the guts of this little Southern novel are laid out like the innards of a White River catfish. Some say ‘purdy’ and some are aghast. In that frame is the life story of young Isaac Wood’s surrogate father. From the wrong side of the tracks comes a quiet man to fill that part, a man who keeps his own council and treats folks right. A man all covered in black skin, Bud Parrott walks out of Jackson County and near-slavery at the age of 16.

“Hopping a freight, Bud heads to Birmingham to seek his fortune. Along the way, Bud is inducted into the rites of the curious fraternity of hobos. Brush-arbor campfires, watering stations for steam locomotives and haunting interiors of boxcars prove the settings for Bud’s induction ceremonies, events for which no crepe paper or soda-pop punch are provided.

“Traveling with hobos and later courting, working in an industrial mill, playing Negro League baseball on the Pittsburgh team with Satchel Paige, standing up to a numbers-running boss and inevitably paying the price for his courage, Bud’s introduction to humanity away from home is as colorful and episodic as Huck Finn’s float on the Mississippi.”

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“God & Football”

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Chad Gibbs must be loving life right now.

You see, he’s an Auburn Tiger fanatic, and his team is 12-0. With a victory Saturday in the SEC title contest at Atlanta, Auburn will be in the national championship game.

Alabama lost to Auburn last Saturday in the Iron Bowl. Cam Newton has been cleared to play by the NCAA.

If you’re Chad Gibbs, it has been quite a week.

And if you love college football, love the South and grew up going to church, you’ll enjoy Gibbs’ book, “God & Football: Faith and Fanaticism in the SEC.”

Gibbs recently spoke as part of the lecture series at the Clinton School of Public Service (which I continue to contend is one of the greatest amenities of living in Little Rock; the lectures are all free), and he’s as funny in person as he is when writing.

Here’s how the book starts (just to give you a sample): ”Welcome to the American South, where God and football scrimmage daily for people’s hearts and minds.

“Perhaps you think this an overstatement. Perhaps you should exchange this book for one you can color in. (I’m sorry; that’s an awfully mean thing to say to someone who just bought your book.) Think of it this way: Suppose an alien were to visit Tuscaloosa, Knoxville or Baton Rouge — and if you don’t believe in aliens, you can substitute a Canadian. Suppose this visitor — we’ll call him Corso — were to spend a week observing the ordinary citizens of those towns. What do you think Corso the alien would conclude about the religious beliefs of those average, everyday people?

“Well, on Sunday morning he’d probably see them make their groggy, wrinkled-shirted way to a steepled building, where some sort of ceremony had begun 10 minutes before they arrived. Inside, he’d watch as they mouthed the words to songs, then struggled to stay awake while a man spoke for less than 25 minutes. Then, for the rest of the week, this place would be the furthest thing from their minds, unless by chance something tragic happened.

“Corso might be justified in concluding that church, for most, was a court-ordered punishment.

“On Saturday, Corso would see something completely different. The people would wake up early, carefully choose an outfit based on the good fortune it had brought them in the past, then drive, sometimes for hours, to a hallowed campus where some sort of ceremony is scheduled for much, much later in the day. All afternoon they would eat, drink and fellowship with friends, family and strangers. Then, when the time came, they would all enter a colossal shrine and join tens of thousands of similarly dressed and like-minded people. Inside, they would chant and sing until they lost their voices, and afterward they would celebrate like they’re at a wedding reception on Fat Tuesday.

“After he sees this, I think it’s safe to say Corso will think he’s found the one true religion — and he’ll probably convert on the spot.

“Football is big down here in the South. Real big. From peewee to junior high, high school to college, and even the NFL, Southerners love their football. And the fans of the Southeastern Conference are arguably the most ridiculously passionate fans in America.”

During the 2009 season, Gibbs attended a home game at each of the 12 SEC schools.

“I was looking for people more screwed up than I was so I could feel better about myself,” he told those in attendance at the Clinton School.

He was raised an Alabama fan but ended up attending college at Auburn. There, his passion for the Tigers exploded.

It was the man they called “The Godfather” in the SWAC — Coach Marino Casem, who was head coach at Alabama State in 1963, Alcorn State from 1964-85 and Southern University from 1987-88 and 1992 — who uttered my favorite description of college football.

“In the East, college football is a cultural exercise,” he said. “On the West Coast, it’s a tourist attraction. In the Midwest, it is a form of cannibalism. But in the South, college football is a religion, and every Saturday is a holy day.”

SEC football attendance will top 6 million people this fall.

Here’s how Gibbs’ book is described at www.amazon.com: “They spent thousands on season tickets, donated millions to athletic departments and for three months a year ordered their entire lives around the schedule of their favorite team. As a Christian, Gibbs knows he cannot serve two masters, but at times his faith is overwhelmed by his fanaticism. He is not alone. Gibbs and his 6 million friends do not live in a spiritually void land where such borderline idol worship would normally be accepted. They live in the American South, where according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, 84 percent identify themselves as Christians. This apparent contradiction that Gibbs sees in his own life, and in millions of others, has led him to journey to each of the 12 schools to spend time with rabid Christian fans of various ages and denominations. Through his journey, he learns how others are able to balance their passion for their team with their devotion to God.”

In an interview with www.saturdaydownsouth.com, Gibbs was asked about his favorite place to visit.

“Taking Auburn and my bias out of play, I would have to say Baton Rouge,” he said. “I was there for the night game vs. then-No. 1 Florida, and I was in the student section. Game day at any SEC school is great, but there is just something special about a Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.”

Gibbs explained the book this way in his interview with the website: “The book deals with how Christians, specifically me, balance the two passions in their life: God and football. So obviously my Christian faith is a large part of the book. The book also deals with family, specifically how growing up in the South watching and attending games with our parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins is a common bond we share. A friend of mine summed it up pretty well when he said: ‘Football is a great hobby but a terrible God.’ Going forward, I hope I will stop looking to football, or anything else for that matter, to fill the void in my life I believe only Christ can fill. This is the lesson of the book.”

Gibbs has figured out that spiritual books need not be dour. They can be funny.

When the book was released back in August, Gibbs wrote this at www.chadgibbs.com: “It’s leaving behind the small group of people who helped make it and going out into a scary place where people can read it, hate it and write means things on the Internet about it. So yeah, I’m nervous about letting go of my little book.

“I think about all the writers who went before me, folks like Harper Lee and Kate Gosselin, and how they must have felt when their books flew from the nest. How can you know if what you have written is good? I don’t think you can. Not at this point. You are too close. When I read ‘God & Football,’ I don’t think it is good or bad, only familiar. But when you read it, it will be good or bad, and what if it is bad? I can’t change it now. It’s too late. It’s not mine to change anymore. It’s out there, in the scary world.”

Having written a book, I can relate.

For the record, Chad, I liked it. A lot.

“Driving home, I felt a strange kindredness for the University of Arkansas,” he writes near the end of his chapter on Fayetteville. “Fayetteville reminds me a lot of Auburn, and the people were so friendly and welcoming. I’d like to think I’ll go back in future years, but if I’m honest, I’ll admit I probably won’t. That drive is no fun, and I certainly don’t want to travel that far just to see Auburn get its teeth kicked in.”

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Arkansauce: The state’s new food journal

Friday, October 8th, 2010

I have some exciting news for those of you who love Arkansas food and the rich heritage of our state’s cuisine.

The Special Collections Department of the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville is about to publish the inaugural issue of Arkansauce: Journal of Arkansas Foodways.

I was honored when Tom Dillard, who heads the Special Collections Department, asked me to serve as the guest editor for this inaugural issue.

Here’s how the university describes the new food journal: “Arkansauce is a mix of popular and semischolarly articles, heavily illustrated with original documents, drawings and photographs. It focuses on topics including but not limited to nutrition, cooking, food customs, table manners, tableware, food history, chefs, food producers and production, restaurants, cookbooks, recipes, menus for both ordinary and special occasions, sociological aspects of foodways, the culinary heritage of minority groups and immigrants, and food-related poetry, mythology and literature.”

Arkansauce should be out by the first of January.

It’s the brainchild of John G. Ragsdale, who has done so much through the years to contribute to the study of Arkansas history and culture. Mr. Ragsdale is a special person and has a vision for what this publication should be.

I hope we can make him proud.

Here’s a short sample of what’s to come:

David Stricklin, who heads the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock, writes about hamburger joints: “One, for a really good hamburger, you need to get down and away from the factory model and find a place run by people who are likely to be there the next time you go to the place. Two, you need people to make the thing who will listen to you when you tell them how you want it prepared. These injunctions fit into my Unified Field Theory of Hamburger Excellence, which can be summarized in lay terms: The quality of a hamburger is found to be in inverse proportion to the quality of the sign outside the establishment producing and selling the hamburger for human consumption. In other words, you won’t find a truly great hamburger at a place with a sign that costs more than you car, i.e. at a fast-food chain.”

Kane Webb, the executive editor of Arkansas Life magazine, writes about Arkansas barbecue: “It is a moment of grace before the meal, a pause for reflection, gratitude and curiosity. Breathe deeply. Exhale. The mouth waters. You unwrap the wax paper, lift the barbecue sandwich — pulled pork, not beef, never beef — to your lips, bite with confidence and expectation and . . . analyze. This is the way Arkansans eat their barbecue. We may not all be food critics, self-styled foodies or gourmands, but, when it comes to pulled-pork barbecue sandwiches, we do have our standards.”

Ben Johnson, the dean of liberal and performing arts at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, writes about the good ol’ boys in a south Arkansas deer camp: “Time did not stand still at the Old Guard deer camp. Instead it was mixed up. The tales, fabrications, myths crisscrossed one another with such ferocity that history was bent and warped. One day Wilbur Mills was running for president and the next Bill Clinton dropped by to say he had another race in him. Tomorrow the camp founders would sign over to Witt Stephens the mineral rights on a new tract filed yesterday in the territorial land office as a Spanish land grant.”

Michael Dougan, a distinguished professor emeritus at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, writes about beans: “Arkansas needs a state vegetable. Although virtually every state in the union has a designated state vegetable, Arkansas passed a law in 1987 making the ‘south Arkansas vine ripe pink tomato’ the official fruit and vegetable. Just how the fresh fruity tomato (hence not store-bought) got to be a vegetable goes back in history.”

Trey Berry, a deputy director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, writes about small-town, locally owned restaurants: “Community and friendship. Those are the two words that are cemented in my mind when it comes to eating burgers in Arkansas. I know, most people think of sliced tomatoes, melted cheese, sesame seed buns or even the commercial double golden arches. But for this south Arkansas boy, dining at Arkansas burger eateries/joints/stands represents more than just a place to eat. Those eating experiences have shown me through my 49 years the importance of community, face-to-face conversations and lasting friendships.”

Kat Robinson, the Little Rock-based food and travel writer, writes about fried green tomatoes: “A green tomato is a sacrifice. It’s a red tomato that hasn’t had the opportunity to get that red. In good years you could eat them and not feel guilty — you’d have tomatoes coming off the vine all summer long. In bad years, though, you wouldn’t take them unless they were windfalls or you just couldn’t help it. Green tomatoes were also used for other things like pickles and relish. Perhaps they came from the leftovers, I don’t know.”

Ray Wittenberg, the advertising and development director for the Oxford American, writes about Mary Thomas’ Family Pie Shop in DeValls Bluff: “Just a quick word about DeValls Bluff because I can’t separate the town from the pie shop. It’s a scruffy old river town where my grandfather used to keep a boat, a small, wide-decked paddle wheeler called the Amharlee, named after the three men from St. Louis who owned the boat and brought it down the Mississippi and abandoned it for unknown reason at DeValls Bluff in the ’40s. Before Hot Springs was the place to cool off, folks from Little Rock would drive over to the White River and cast out for a sandbar on the weekend. My grandfather would have friends down for eating, cards and drinking. Mary Thomas would have been in her early teens back then.”

Louise Terzia, the director of development for the Historic Arkansas Museum, writes about blackberry cobbler: “Just the words ‘blackberry cobbler’ conjure up for me overexposure to summer sun, wasps, chiggers, stickers, mouth-burning inky oozing juices, endless waiting and hanging around the kitchen with the oven hot. Until yesterday, I firmly believed our mother made the best blackberry cobbler. Summers in Shreveport, my brothers would ride their bikes to the place where blackberry vines hung with the sweetest, darkest berries.”

Tom DeBlack, a professor of history at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, writes about Chicot County restaurants: “History has not been kind to the Arkansas Delta. Once the center of wealth and political power in Arkansas, it is now the poorest region in the state and one of the poorest in the nation. Many of the Delta’s once vibrant, agriculturally based towns are either dead or dying, and prospects for the future are uncertain. In at least one regard, however, the Delta more than holds its own with the rest of the state for there, in a number of establishments large and small, can be found some of the best food anywhere. Nowhere is this more evident than in a 10-mile span of U.S. Highways 82 and 65 in Chicot County, stretching from the Mississippi River west to the county seat at Lake Village.”

This has been a fun project. I hope you enjoy the finished product.

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Visiting Mr. McCormick in Greenville

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

I love independent bookstores.

I can get lost in them. I can spend hours upon hours in a good bookstore. Just ask my wife.

When I was a child growing up in Arkadelphia, we had Adams Bookstore on Main Street. Mr. Adams was more than willing to let a young boy roam the aisles of his store and stay as long as he wanted. That bookstore is long gone. It seems a shame that a town with two four-year universities isn’t the home of a great independent bookstore. I wish I had the funds to open one there. Alas, those funds don’t exist.

Mr. Adams’ story was remarkable. As a teenager, he was paralyzed in a high school football game while playing for the Arkadelphia Badgers. The community came together to support him and help him open a business. He paid the community back many times over by providing a quality bookstore for decades.

Speaking of independent bookstores, I wish I could get up to Blytheville more often than I do. The long drive from Little Rock is almost worth it simply to visit Mary Gay Shipley’s northeast Arkansas institution, That Bookstore In Blytheville.

Mary Gay started the store in 1976. It covers 2,400 square feet and has more than 25,000 books. There are rocking chairs to sit in. Good coffee is always available. It is, without a doubt, one of my favorite places in Arknasas.

During the four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, I was able to visit another favorite bookstore — McCormick Book Inn in Greenville, Miss. — on a regular basis. Business took me back down that way Friday, and I had a chance to drop in at 5 p.m.

Every town should be so lucky. McCormick Book Inn is an oasis.

Residents of southeast Arkansas (at least the ones who like to read) are familiar with this wonderful retreat and its highly opinionated owner, Hugh B. McCormick III. His wit and sense of humor are contagious. And he will tell you what he thinks. For instance, he believes that one of my favorite books, John Barry’s “Rising Tide” (an account of the Great Flood of 1927 with much of the story centered on Greenville), is an “atrocity.”

I love how the McCormick Book Inn website puts it: “Books may be 10 percent cheaper at one of those big fake friendly places, but you receive our genuine bookstore ambience and management’s rants/intelligent insults only at McCormick Book Inn.”

“Intelligent insults.”

What a great term.

The store at 825 S. Main. St. in Greenville was opened in 1965. Mr McCormick describes it this way: “Our floor squeaks under worn rugs and the wooden bookshelves sag a bit. The rocker by the fireplace is often occupied by a regular browser, and our ‘bookstore smell’ is authentic.”

Southern Living, in turn, described it like this: “People come from all over the Delta to visit Greenville’s McCormick Book Inn, with its terrific collection of what they like to call deltalogy. Half the draw is owner Hugh McCormick, who not only recommends great books but also knows everything about everybody in the Delta. He also has a wicked sense of humor. ‘You know, Leland is the sticks,’ he tells us with a wry grin as a Leland customer pays for her books. The Mississippi Delta offers the ultimate Southern travel adventure — catfish and tamales, juke joints brimming with blues, colorful small towns and friendly locals who can’t wait to show you a good time.”

As you head east on U.S. 82, turn right on Main Street (away from the levee). McCormick Book Inn will be several blocks down on the right. If you reach the historic cemetery, you’ve gone too far.

In the back of the store is a small museum that Mr. McCormick has put together.

“My particular interest is the turn of the century of Greenville,” he says. “I’m also interested in the 1927 flood. I have a fairly large collection of Greenville photographs of the flood.”

As far as that term “deltalogy,” here’s how Mr. McCormick explains it on the store’s website: “As far as we know, we invented the term. … We needed a catchall word to describe the growing category of nonfiction and fiction books about the Mississippi Delta or by Deltans. Greenville’s own David Cohn wrote in his book ‘God Shakes Creation’ (1935): ‘The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.’ This flat, fertile, alluvial expanse extending 50 miles east from the Mighty Mississippi to the Yazoo River, running from its northern point along the bluffs of Memphis, 150 miles south to the hills of Vicksburg, is the land of the Delta. From ancient mound builders to blues culture, and the rise and fall of the rivers, and from agri-business to casino gaming, the Delta continues to capture the attention and imagination of folks around the world. The Delta is a place; a melting pot of people; a mythology and a reality. And we need a word for it all: deltalogy.”

The store has always been in the McCormick family. Hugh’s father, Hugh B. “Buster” McCormick Jr., retired from Chicago Mill and financed the store for his daughter, Mary, who had worked for a publisher in New York after graduating from college. The younger Hugh had to cut the weeds behind the old house before the store opened.

“I was in college, and that was my summer job that year,” he said in a 2005 magazine feature on the store. “The property goes all the way back to the cemetery, and I found all kind of stuff that had been dumped back there.”

“Buster” McCormick had the front of the house removed and replaced with windows. A local carpenter built the shelves and other interior fixtures. The two back rooms were added later. Young Hugh took over the store after graduating from college. He has now been running the place for almost 40 years.

“When it first opened, we were in the center of things between the residential and commercial areas, but now we’re sort of on the outskirts,” the current owner told the Mississippi Business Journal. “The commercial areas are all farther south now and we’re an island, sort of an oddity.”

The former house that’s now occupied by the store was built of cypress in the 1920s. Mr. McCormick told the business publication, “The old house reflects character, and I attempt to be a character. Folks from the big city find us charming. Yes, we’ve reached the stage of charming. We enjoy promoting Greenville as best we can. The literary history is positive and all the history of the area is rich. Greenville has produced a lot of writers, and people want to buy something associated with them.”

Long live McCormick Book Inn.

Long live other such independent bookstores.

What’s your favorite bookstore and why? Let’s start a list.

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A chance to write

Monday, July 13th, 2009

It seems like yesterday, though it has been almost 28 years.

I had just finished college at Ouachita, and I had also completed my tenure as the sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald. A job in the sports department at the Arkansas Democrat awaited me. So did the chance to live somewhere other than Arkadelphia for the first time in my life. I had been born in Arkadelphia, graduated from high school there and attended college there.

Though I had lived in a dorm rather than at home during my college years, this would be the first time to truly be away from home. My parents followed me to Little Rock that day and helped me move into my furnished apartment at the old Rebsamen Park complex (a new complex is just going in at that location). I would be close to work and plenty of good restaurants, including the Steak & Egg on Cantrell for those late nights after work.

We moved in, and then my dad offered to buy dinner at the Steak & Ale on Cantrell. In 1981, the concept and even those goofy waiters’ uniforms still worked. At about 8 p.m., my parents headed back to Arkadelphia, and I drove down the street to the new apartment and the new life that awaited me.

I knew my parents wanted me to attend law school. The thought bored me to tears. I wanted to write. I wanted to be published. I wanted to attend sports events and get paid for it.

Wally Hall, the newspaper’s relatively new sports editor, had made me promise I would not tell anyone else at the Democrat that he was paying me $230 a week.

“We have people who have been here for years who don’t make that much,” he said.

How could I turn down such an opportunity?

I would leave the paper after a year to go back to Arkadelphia as the editor of the Siftings Herald. I would later return, though, and was Wally’s No. 2 person in the sports deparment when managing editor John Robert Starr called early one Monday morning in the summer of 1986.

“Why haven’t you applied for the Washington bureau job?” he asked.

“Because I don’t want to live in Washington,” I replied.

“Well, you need to apply because I have already decided you’re the person I’m sending,” he said.

You didn’t argue with Bob Starr in those days. I did mention how much fun I was having. I had even covered the Super Bowl in New Orleans earlier that year. I told him I had an obligation to Wally.

“Wally will do what I tell him to do,” Starr said in his matter-of-fact way.

He went on to tell me how he had started as a sportswriter for The Commercial Appeal at Memphis and thought it was all he would ever want to do for a living.

“Then,” he said, “I asked myself a question. Do I want to be 50 years old and begging a naked 18-year-0ld kid in a dressing room for a quote?”

It was food for thought.

So I moved to Washington, began covering politics, met the saint who is now my wife and spent four wonderful years on the East Coast before the urge to return to Arkansas got the best of me.

I would have the chance later to be the newspaper’s first full-time political editor during Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for president and during his first term. I would appear on national television and radio shows, as everyone in Arkansas with a pen and a press pass got his or her 15 minutes of fame. It was a surreal time to be an Arkansas newspaperman.

I would move to government in 1996 and spend more than nine years at Mike Huckabee’s side before being appointed by the president to work for four years on the problems of the Delta, a region of our country I have come to love.

I have been blessed to never have what I consider a real job.

Now, after 13 years in government, it’s back to the private sector. And there’s this blog as an outlet for the things I want to discuss. Blogs weren’t around back in 1981. But I feel like that 22-year-old all over again today because I have the chance to write.

And, Mr. Starr, if you’re reading up there in that newsroom in the sky, I am almost 50 and not having to beg any naked 18-year-olds for quotes. Not yet anyway.

Dad is in a nursing home here in Little Rock now. Mom lives in an apartment within walking distance of where he is. I hope to keep the house in Arkadelphia.

I just wish Steak and Ale were still in business so I could take Mom to dinner there tonight to celebrate. After almost 28 years, I feel young again.

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