Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Southern Fried: The book

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

In September 1965, I turned age 6.

Rather than being one of the youngest people in my class at school, I would be one of the oldest. That’s because I would wait a year to start the first grade. It was my father’s decision. He was a former coach and loved to tell people: “We decided to redshirt him in kindergarten.”

Instead of attending kindergarten a second consecutive year, though, I traveled the state of Arkansas with my father as he sold athletic supplies to high schools and colleges. It was a magical nine months. Looking back, I realize now that he was doing it as much for himself as he was for me.

On Feb. 29, 1964, my 9-year-old brother was killed in an accident at Pine Bluff while my parents were there to take him to a Ouachita Baptist University basketball game. Less than two years after that tragedy, I imagine my father figured it would be good therapy to have his surviving son with him on the road. Dad was 41 at the time, 16 years younger than I am as I write these words.

The memories of that year remain vivid.

I remember waiting in line at a small café at Delight to buy a hamburger, stopping at Caddo Gap to wade in the Caddo River, watching a deer run across the school campus at Magazine and eating a whole trout for the first time at Tommy’s in Conway.

While the weather was still warm that September, I was allowed to jump into motel swimming pools before supper.

I was in heaven.

We sat in high school gymnasiums built by the WPA and watched basketball games together.

We ate pieces of pie in country restaurants.

We listened to KAAY-AM on the car radio.

It was during that 1965-66 school year that I learned to love Arkansas.

As we celebrate another Thanksgiving, I realize how fortunate I was to have had Robert and Carolyn Nelson for parents (they’re both gone now) and to have grown up in Arkansas.

I also realize how fortunate I am to be able to share stories of Arkansas.

I’ve had the privilege of writing millions of words through the years about this state. I left a full-time career in journalism in July 1996 to work in the governor’s office. What I thought would be a short detour into public service turned out to be a 13-year adventure in the state and federal governments. When I returned to the private sector in 2009, I contacted my former employers at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to see if they might be interested in allowing me to write a weekly column. Since I had spent nine years in the governor’s office and four years in a presidential administration, I’m sure they expected me to write about politics most weeks.

I came to the conclusion that there already was so much political writing on the Voices page of the newspaper that I simply would be another voice with nothing to distinguish me from the other columnists. That’s why I decided to make Arkansas — its places, colorful characters, fascinating history, food, music and events — my niche.

I’m also thankful this Thanksgiving that Butler Center Books, a division of the Central Arkansas Library System, decided to publish a collection of my newspaper columns. The book is titled “Southern Fried: Going Whole Hog in a State of Wonder.”

I hope you’ll consider purchasing a copy as a Christmas gift for someone who loves Arkansas as much as I do.

I’ve learned that Arkansas is a difficult place to explain to outsiders. We’re mostly Southern but also a bit Midwestern and a tad Southwestern. The Ozarks are different from the pine woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain, the Delta is different from the Ouachitas.

Invariably, those who take the time to get off the main road and get to know the real Arkansas are enchanted by the place.

Large parts of the Delta of east Arkansas and the pine woods of south Arkansas are emptying out. The population shift from east and south to north and west has been occurring in Arkansas since at least the 1950 census when widespread mechanization of agriculture meant that tens of thousands of tenant farmers and sharecroppers no longer were needed in rural areas. That trend has accelerated in the past decade, though. And there’s no end in sight.

I don’t consider it my job to say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. People are going to do what’s best for their families. They’ll go where the jobs are.

What cannot be denied is that Arkansas is a far different place now than it was a decade ago and will be an even more different place a decade from now. Part of what I’ve tried to do through the years is capture the essence of the restaurants, swimming holes, hunting grounds, local festivals and sports events that were such an important part of the Arkansas in which I was raised. Many of them are gone or soon will be.

Those who know me realize that I’m fiercely proud to be from Arkansas. When the Arkansas Democrat sent me to Washington, D.C., in 1986, I knew it would be a temporary stay. It was a wonderful opportunity for a young man in his 20s, but I had no desire to spend the rest of my career in the nation’s capital. By the end of the decade, I was home. I brought along a new bride who had been raised in south Texas. She soon fell in love with this place they once called the Wonder State.

Our two sons — to whom I dedicated the book — were born here, raised here and chose to attend college here.

I know this sounds provincial, but here goes: Arkansas is such a unique, quirky place that I believe it takes someone who grew up here and traveled its rural highways as a child to really explain to new residents what makes us tick. We welcome those who move to Arkansas from elsewhere and hope they soon will come to love the place as much as the natives do. Please understand that we don’t brag like Texans or brand ourselves as different from the rest of the world like Mississippians. We know what we’ve got going here. And despite our many problems, it remains a fine place to call home.

Thanks for going on a statewide journey with me on this blog and in my newspaper column. Maybe we can stop to wade in the Caddo River or eat a piece of pie along the way.

I would be most honored if you would consider purchasing this book.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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Buttons and pearls

Friday, August 26th, 2016

I’ve always found Ed Bethune — Marine, prosecutor, a Republican before it was cool in Arkansas, congressman, lawyer, lobbyist, Baltimore Oriole baseball fan — to be an interesting figure.

He’s also a talented writer as evidenced by his first two books.

His memoir “Jackhammered: A Life of Adventure” came out in 2011. The book revolved around a trip Bethune and his wife, Lana, took in 1990 aboard a 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.

Here’s an example of Bethune’s writing from that first book: “It was going to be a long night, seven more hours to sunrise. Our little ship tossed about, left to right and up and down. She turned first one way and then another. Every five minutes or so an enormous wave would lift us skyward, and when we reached the top, perched on the crest of the wave, our boat would fall sideways off the crest of the wave and crash, and shudder, against the trough of the wave. The fall of 25 feet felt like a thousand.”

The couple eventually was rescued by a helicopter crew.

“As we flew away, I saw Salute with the life raft attached,” Bethune writes. “She was still rolling violently with her mainsail collapsed over the side, hanging into the water. I felt sad that we were leaving her, but it was the right decision. We lost everything that was on the boat. Lana had tied a waterproof pouch around her waist that held our cash, our credit cards and our driver’s licenses. That, and the clothes on our back, were all we salvaged.

“Salute was now just another speck of white in a sea of large whitecaps; she blended in and soon was lost to sight. It was easy to see why it is so hard for search pilots to find a small sailing vessel in a stormy sea, even when they have exact coordinates fixing the position. Our dream of sailing across the Atlantic was also gone, but we took it in stride; after all, we were safe. We would live to see our children and loved ones again.”

Soon after finishing “Jackhammered,” Bethune began outlining his first novel.

The 2014 novel is titled “Gay Panic in the Ozarks” and begins with the lynching of a young gay man, whose body is left hanging from a tree. A murder investigation goes nowhere. The book’s protagonist 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.”

Bethune’s third book, which has just been released, is titled “A Pearl for Kizzy.” It’s the story of a child who lives with her family on a houseboat in east Arkansas. The family — like many of the so-called river rats who once inhabited houseboats on the lower Black, White and Cache rivers — survived through commercial fishing and gathering mussels. Family members would look for freshwater pearls in the mussels and then sell the shells to button factories.

In the book, Kizzy becomes friends at the start of World War II with a boy who’s a refugee from Nazi Germany. The book tackles various prejudices, sexual abuse and even the subject of eugenics.

“I owe so much to Pocahontas,” Bethune says. “I probably would have wound up in prison if not for the people there.”

Bethune’s parents divorced when he was 8. He’s quick to admit that he often found himself in trouble during his formative years in Little Rock. He was sent to his mother’s hometown of Pocahontas and graduated from Pocahontas High School in 1953. Bethune joined the U.S. Marine Corps, served three years and then met his wife Lana when both were students at what was then Little Rock Junior College.

Perhaps owing to the fact that my mother was from Des Arc, I’ve always been intrigued by the houseboat culture of east Arkansas.

“Button finishing plants in Iowa and New York were supplied by tons of button blanks that came from small factories lining the northeastern Arkansas rivers, which teemed with the freshwater mollusks that naturally grew mother-of-pearl-lined shells,” Lenore Shoults writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Supplying the button blank factories with raw material offered farm families extra income because shell harvesting fit around the ebb and flow of agriculture. Some families worked together, the men hauling the mussels from the river with the women and children steaming them open, discarding the animal flesh back into the river for fish food, drying and sorting the shells, and keeping an eye out for pearls.

“Some button blank operations consisted of a single man, while other factories employed as many as 60 workers. Factories, which had to be close to a railroad for shipping outbound cargo, had button-cutting machines with variously sized tubular saws that generated small to large button blanks. Coal or propane, and eventually electricity, powered the machinery. The shells were softened by soaking in water prior to drilling, and this necessitated water towers in some locations. A few factories had grinding capability, pulverizing spent shells into agricultural lime or meal.”

There were button factories along the White River at Batesville, Newport, Grand Glaise in Jackson County, Des Arc, DeValls Bluff and Clarendon.

There were factories along the Black River at Corning, Pocahontas and Black Rock.

“Batesville saw two waves of button blank factories,” Shoults writes. “The first, at the turn of the 20th century, was located in Poke Bayou near the present-day jail. The second, a 1940s location, was situated near the Missouri Pacific depot with two factories, one with 10 to 12 machines and the other a solo operation. Newport was a major hub in the button industry due to its proximity to the river and railroad. A factory was listed in Chastain’s Addition as early as 1902.”

Pocahontas had a factory by the early 1920s. A new factory opened in 1941 soon before the start of American involvement in World War II.

“The initial demand for buttons in the first two decades of the 20th century suffered setbacks in the Great Depression as new clothing purchases diminished,” Shoults writes. “During World War II, government restrictions on zippers and other metal garment closures (to save metal for the war effort) reinvigorated the button industry, and demand rose for Arkansas shells. After the war, the factories closed, although some solo operations lingered. Today, little remains of the industry but the occasionally telltale sign spotted on the ground — shells laced with perfectly round holes — and millions of mother-of-pearl buttons saved in button jars across the country, cut from blouses and shirts from a time when nothing was wasted.”

Later, mussels from Arkansas provided the raw material for cultured pearl farming.

“The 1960s until the 1980s were the heyday for shell harvesting for the cultured pearl industry,” Shoults writes. “Most of the shell was shipped to Japan, where Kokichi Mikimoto had perfected a cultured pearl process in the early 1900s. In this process, a bead was inserted into a marine oyster and the creature layered its natural nacre around the orb, thus creating a pearl. As is the case with human organ transplants, pearl oysters could potentially reject an inserted nucleus, and Mississippi River Valley shell proved to be the least likely to be expelled.”

Shoults notes that Arkansans used “the same ingenuity that kept old cars and tractors running on the farm to engineer equipment. Old Model-T car engines were turned into compressors. Garden hoses served as air conduits, and dive helmets were designed from things as disparate as fire extinguishers, hot water tanks or, in one instance, an old torpedo casing. The glass faceplate was useless in the underwater darkness but offered a degree of illumination once the diver returned to the surface. … When the cultured pearl process no longer required a shell nucleus, international demand for Arkansas shell dried up, leaving limited uses for the shell.”

The Black River, which Bethune loves to write about, once had a huge population of mussels. Dr. J.H. Myers found a large pearl two miles north of Black Rock in 1897.

“This led to a pearl rush, and tent camps sprouted along the river,” Jerry Cavaneau writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The shells provided mother of pearl, and Myers, with others, established a button factory at Black Rock three years later. According to Myers, this was the first button factory in the South. Area museums, such as the Randolph County Heritage Museum, have button-making tools and shells from which the buttons were cut.”

The Randolph County Heritage Museum is one of the best local museums in the state. The River Room there is dedicated to the five rivers that flow through Randolph County and their effect on the county. There’s a collection of Black River pearls, a mounted alligator gar caught in the Black River in the early 1950s and walls lined with old photographs of bridges, barges and steamboats.

Of the pearl rush, Shoults writes: “Shanties and tents sprang up along the river, largely the White and Black in the initial rush from 1897 until about 1903 as people destroyed thousands of mussels attempting to find a single perfect pearl. Some stories hold that because everyone was down at the rivers looking for pearls, crops went unharvested and shopkeepers could not find people to work in stores. Buyers traveled by train from New York and San Francisco. Local buyers included John L. Evans, who bought and sold pearls in Batesville. Evans was also known to be skilled in peeling pearls, a process whereby an unattractive outer layer was peeled back to reveal a more lustrous gem within.

“Discoveries could be accidental, as happened when a fisherman in need of bait opened a mussel and happened upon a gem, while others were well-planned expeditions. One account tells of four men who ordered pearling rakes from a blacksmith and set up camp. They had lumber delivered to their camp, built a boat and drilled a freshwater well — and their expedition eventually yielded a gigantic pearl. Families went on summer pearling vacations hoping to find treasure but enjoying the festive atmosphere regardless of whether or not a gem was discovered. The rush had dwindled by 1905, but pearls were still found occasionally.”

Back to Ed Bethune.

Bethune says becoming a novelist was “a case of necessity” since he found himself bored after his memoir came out.

“I needed something else to do,” he says. “The novels have given me a chance to write about my youth, the prejudices I’ve seen, the things I’ve learned. Even after the first novel came out, I discovered that I still wanted to write. When I was a boy in Pocahontas, I was fascinated by the river rats. I often wondered what it might be like to grow up on one of those houseboats out on the Black River.”

That fascination helped lead to this most recent book.

As Bethune wrote his first two books, he wouldn’t let anyone see the manuscripts until they were finished. This time, he allowed Lana to read and offer suggestions each time he finished a chapter.

He explains: “I was writing about a girl going through puberty. Obviously I never had that experience, so I needed Lana to see if the things I wrote rang true. The two things you’ll find in each of my books are a Marine and a mule. The mule appears early in this one.”

Bethune says he’s already at work on an outline for a third novel. At age 80, he shows no signs of slowing down.

 

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John Gould Fletcher: Part 2

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

John Gould Fletcher’s return to Arkansas from England in 1933 was, according to biographer Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University, a “return to a place far from centers of literary ambition” in an attempt “stabilize his bipolar condition.”

Soon after his return, the noted poet was working with folklorist Vance Randolph to collect and promote mountain folk songs and stories.

Hanging out in the Ozarks and the Ouachitas was a long way from hanging out with Ezra Pound in London and T.S. Eliot in Paris.

Randolph had been born in 1892 at Pittsburg, Kan., and was, according to Robert Cochran in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, a person who was “born to the respectable center” but also was “attracted to the margins, to the rich ethnic and cultural diversity and radical politics of the region’s mining communities. He dropped out of high school and published his first writing for leftist periodicals.”

Randolph graduated in 1914 from what’s now Pittsburg State University and later completed a master’s degree at Clark University. He was attracted to the Ozarks and settled in Pineville, Mo., in 1920. He married a local woman and began to study the Ozark culture.

Cochran writes that Randolph’s works were “ignored by most academic reviewers and sometimes resented by Ozarkers themselves for their celebration of backward elements in the region’s culture. More recent students have recognized them as pioneering examples of what are now called folklife studies, and in the 1970s especially, scholars began praising Randolph for his prescience in this and other areas. Randolph collected folklore steadily through the 1930s and 1940s, even as he supported himself with everything from writing articles for sporting magazines to various works for juvenile readers.”

Randolph began collecting traditional music in the 1920s. He lived in Arkansas for most of the 1940s and 1950s, calling Eureka Springs and Fayetteville home. His first wife died in 1937, and he married a University of Arkansas English professor, Mary Celestia Parler, in 1962. Randolph continued to publish books until the 1970s. A collection of folk tales titled “Pissing in the Snow” was published in 1976 when Randolph was 84 and proved to be his most popular book. He died in November 1980 and is buried at National Cemetery in Fayetteville.

Randolph and the temperamental Fletcher were a strange pair as they made their way through the Ozarks and Ouachitas. Fletcher was among the first people to bring attention to folk singer Emma Dusenbury, who now has more than 100 songs archived at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Dusenbury was born in Georgia in 1862 and moved with her parents to Arkansas in 1872. They first lived in Crittenden County but later moved west to Baxter County. A serious illness in the 1890s left Dusenbury blind. She and her husband, an Illinois native, settled near Mena in 1907. Her husband worked for the railroad and in packing plants. He died in 1933.

“During the late 1920s and early 1930s, guided by F.M. Goodhue, a teacher at a nearby radical labor school, Commonwealth College, Dusenbury was recorded by some of the best-known folksong collectors in the region and nation,” Cochran writes. “John Lomax, Vance Randolph and Sidney Robertson all visited, as did poet John Gould Fletcher and Little Rock composer and symphony director Laurence Powell. All were greatly impressed. Lomax wrote in his autobiography that she sang continuously for two days and recorded more traditional Anglo-American ballads than any other singer.

“Dusenbury’s one brush with celebrity came in 1936 when she sang in Little Rock as part of the celebration of Arkansas’ statehood centennial. Her photograph appeared in the newspaper along with two feature articles about her (one written by Powell) that are even today the primary sources of information about her. Powell later based the final movement of his ‘Second Symphony’ on three of her traditional songs.”

Dusenbury died in May 1941 and is buried (as “Emmer Duesberry”) in the Polk County community of Rocky.

Fletcher also was part of that 1936 centennial celebration in Arkansas, hired by Arkansas Gazette publisher John Netherland Heiskell to write an epic poem titled “The Story of Arkansas.”

After moving back to Arkansas from England, Fletcher lived for a time in the Pike mansion at Little Rock with his sister, Adolphine Fletcher Terry. They had been raised in the huge home built by Albert Pike.

Three years older than her brother, Adolphine also became a well-known figure. She enrolled at Vassar College when she was just 15 and graduated in 1902.

Peggy Harris writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture that Adolphine and “another Vassar graduate from Arkansas, Blanche Martin, were asked to serve on a national committee to investigate the state’s education needs. They discovered a system of mostly one-room schoolhouses among 5,000 school districts, inadequate supervision and no consistent policies. The two made school consolidation their cause, writing articles for newspapers, making speeches and lobbying. In 1908, Fletcher was leading efforts consolidate school districts, appoint professional county superintendents and provide school transportation in rural Arkansas.

“As a young college graduate, she also co-founded a group to encourage women to become college educated. The group eventually became the Little Rock branch of the American Association of University Women. She also formed the first School Improvement Association in Arkansas, forerunner of the Parent Teacher Association; organized the first juvenile court in Arkansas in 1910; and chaired the Pulaski County Juvenile Court board for about 20 years.”

Adolphine’s lifelong interest in education led her and two friends, Vivion Brewer of Scott and Velma Powell of Little Rock, to form the Women’s Emergency Committee after a ballot measure to close Little Rock high schools as a way to avoid desegregation passed in 1958. The WEC led the successful effort to reopen the schools in 1959. Adolphine’s husband, David D. Terry, served in Congress from 1933 until giving up his seat in the House in 1942 to run for the U.S. Senate. He lost the Senate race to John L. McClellan.

Ben Johnson writes that even though John Gould Fletcher was living in the majestic Pike mansion with David and Adolphine Terry, “the prominence of the poet’s family did not keep many in his hometown from regarding him as remote.”

In January 1936, Fletcher married writer Charlie May Simon.

The prolific Simon wrote almost 30 books and dozens of short stories. Since 1971, the Charlie May Simon Book Award has been presented in Arkansas to honor her work in the area of children’s literature.

Simon was born in Drew County in 1897 as Charlie May Hogue. Her family moved to Memphis when she was three. Her father was a teacher and writer.

“Hogue’s first marriage was to Walter Lowenstein, a wealthy heir of a Memphis mercantile business, but she was widowed while still in her 20s,” Toran Isom writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “She wanted to enhance and expand her perspectives in the world of art so she used the financial settlement from her first marriage and moved to Chicago and later to Paris. In Paris, she met and married Howard Simon, an artist who would become the illustrator of her books. The two married in 1926, and she became Charlie Mae Simon, the professional name she used for the rest of her life.

“Simon returned to Arkansas with her husband. This was during the time of the Great Depression, and money was scarce. The two resided in a mountainside log cabin that they built in Perry County with help from neighbors. Simon planned the cabin, drawing the outline for the walls with a stick in the dirt. In the 1930s, she returned to writing, in part because they needed the money and because she wanted to tell of the Ozark way of life and the strong people who lived it.

“Simon enjoyed the hard work on the homestead, but her husband did not. She and Howard divorced, and though he returned to Paris, he still served as illustrator for her books. Simon’s first major work for children was ‘Robin on the Mountain.’ It was published in 1934 and is considered by many to be a classic in the field of children’s literature.”

Fletcher became aware of Simon’s work, and Simon was aware of Fletcher’s writing.

“Fletcher and Simon spent their childhoods geographically somewhat close to each other, but they had very different experiences,” Isom writes. “Fletcher knew a more privileged way of life that had allowed him time and space to reflect on subjects such as flowers, lakes and trees. Simon wrote about the humble folk she knew as a child. … Though the two had great respect for each other’s writing, their styles remained distinct, Fletcher in the spare style of the poet; Simon in her painstaking, conscientious prose.”

In 1939, reporters at the Arkansas Gazette learned that Fletcher had won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his “Selected Poems,” which had been published in 1938. Heiskell dispatched two reporters to Fletcher’s home near Pinnacle Mountain to give him the news.

“He was the first Southern poet to receive the prize, although this volume was more heavily weighted toward his early free-verse experiments rather than his more decidedly Southern work,” Johnson writes. “Despite receipt of the prestigious award and induction into the National Institute of Arts and Letters, he did not gain a new readership. ‘The Burning Mountain,’ his last collection in 1946, was not widely recognized for containing vital, well-crafted poems. ‘Arkansas,’ his impressionistic history in 1947, served for many years as the most readable and accessible history of the state but attracted little attention elsewhere.”

In 1941, Fletcher and Simon moved to a wood-and-stone home at 10314 Cantrell Road on the far western edge of Little Rock known as Johnswood.

Isom writes: “The hearth and the books were Johnswood’s most important features. Fletcher and Simon believed that writing was something of an individual pursuit. After breakfasting together, each would retire to his or her respective study, where they created their individual works. Afternoons were spent enjoying and keeping up the grounds. A raccoon appeared regularly, accepting its daily bread from Simon’s hand.”

Johnson describes Fletcher and Simon as a “restless couple” who traveled frequently in the years prior to the Johnswood purchase for extended stays in places such as New York, Santa Fe and the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. They traveled less after building Johnswood. It was during a stay at the MacDowell Colony that Fletcher wrote his autobiography, “Life Is My Song,” which appeared in 1937.

The Poetry Foundation notes that the years that followed the move to Johnswood “were apparently calmer. Fletcher was settled and older, and he had received a certain amount of recognition. But inwardly he still hated the materialistic, mechanized world he saw being built up about him.”

Johnson says that, by the late 1940s, “the knowledge that he was falling into obscurity, coupled with worsening arthritis, ignited more bouts with depression.”

On May 10, 1950, Fletcher walked to a shallow pond near Johnswood, neatly folded his jacket on the bank and drowned himself. He’s buried at Little Rock’s Mount Holly Cemetery.

The Central Arkansas Library System later would name one of its branches after him.

In the late 1980s, the University of Arkansas Press started reprinting some of his works as part of its John Gould Fletcher series.

“Simon continued to reside at Johnswood after initially doubting whether she could, though she did travel the globe,” Isom writes. “Her writing in her later years moved significantly toward the biographical. She focused on the truly great difference-making people of her day, people often associated with bringing peace and a sense of humanity to the world. Simon spent some time in Japan and taught English at the Women’s University in Tokyo. She continued to work hard on her writing craft and was known for her in-depth research. She traveled to Africa and spent time with Albert Schweitzer.”

Simon died in March 1977 and also is buried at Mount Holly.

The Poetry Foundation sums up John Gould Fletcher this way: “Fletcher’s work is most generally recognized for its idiosyncratic innovations, and the connections between his aesthetic choices and those of the prevailing literary trends of the first half of the 20th century. After a clumsy but promising beginning, Fletcher’s experiments gave rise to highly unusual and interesting results — poetic symphonies and paintings, and an emphasis on undidactic directness in the evocation of emotion.

“While he was always prey to criticisms about his coldness and verbosity, he was seen as part of a new wave in poetics, bringing in a fresh vigor and musicality. His later poems, which deal more openly with questions of salvation and social directions, are regarded by most as documents attesting to a particular trend, a reaction against full-scale industrialization. He enjoyed a rare connectedness with the brightest lights in poetry and brought that cosmopolitan sensibility back to Arkansas.”

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The troubled life of John Gould Fletcher

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

It’s a safe bet that few of the people who enter the John Gould Fletcher Library at 823 N. Buchanan St. in Little Rock know anything about the man for whom the facility is named.

Fletcher was the first Arkansan to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1939 when the poor Southern state was still struggling to escape the Great Depression.

When those of us at the Arkansas Humanities Council (on which I’ve served for the past five years) were developing a lecture series to mark the 100th year of the Pulitzer Prizes being awarded, it seemed natural to make the first talk in the series about Fletcher.

So it was that the eminent Arkansas historian Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University took the stage at the Ron Robinson Theater in downtown Little Rock last Thursday night to talk about Fletcher’s life. Johnson is the author of a biography of Fletcher — “Fierce Solitude: A Life of John Gould Fletcher” — which was released in 1994 by the University of Arkansas Press.

Johnson’s talk was interesting, but it was not necessarily uplifting. Fletcher fought depression for much of his life. He committed suicide in May 1950 when he drowned himself in a shallow pond near his Little Rock home.

Here’s how the Poetry Foundation describes this native Arkansan: “John Gould Fletcher is considered by many literary scholars to be among the most innovative 20th century poets. He is closely associated with poet Amy Lowell and the Imagist movement she championed. In addition to being an adherent of Imagism, which was dedicated to replacing traditional poetics with a more concise use of language, new rhythms and a concrete rather than discursive or symbolic treatment of subject, Fletcher also wrote poetry that drew from such varied sources as French Symbolism, Oriental art and philosophy, and music.

“Later in his career, Fletcher concentrated less on technical innovation and began to develop themes he had previously only touched upon in his work, including humanity’s relation to nature and the individual’s search for God and salvation. During this period, he also became associated with the Fugitives, a group of American poets dedicated to reviving an agrarian way of life and traditional Southern values.”

Fletcher was born in Little Rock on Jan. 3, 1886. His father was a Confederate veteran (also named John Gould Fletcher) who made a fortune after the Civil War as a cotton broker and then purchased much of what’s now downtown Little Rock.

His mother was named Adolphine Krause Fletcher.

Johnson writes in a biographical sketch of Fletcher for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Fletcher’s mother had abandoned the prospect of a musical career to tend to her ailing mother and likely centered her artistic ambitions on her only son. Fletcher was reared and educated by tutors in the company of his two sisters, Adolphine and Mary. As a child, he was rarely permitted to leave the grounds of the antebellum mansion — built by Albert Pike and purchased by the Fletchers in 1889 — that was his home. Fletcher developed a dense imaginative life, nurtured by his reading of Poe, Coleridge and Goethe.”

Pike, who built the massive home that’s now owned by the Arkansas Arts Center, is one of the most fascinating figures in Arkansas history. He was born in Boston in December 1809, began to write poetry as a young man and wound up in Arkansas teaching school in the Fort Smith area in the early 1830s. He often would write letters to the editor of newspapers signed Casca after one of the Roman politicians who had assassinated Julius Caesar.

Charles Bertrain, who owned a Whig Party newspaper known as the Arkansas Advocate, was impressed by Pike’s writing ability and hired him as the newspaper’s editor. Pike moved to Little Rock to edit the newspaper and also began working for the Arkansas Legislature as a clerk. Pike married a wealthy Little Rock resident, Mary Ann Hamilton, and the money she brought to the marriage allowed Pike to buy the newspaper in 1835. He later became a lawyer.

Historian Carl Moneyhon of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock summed up Pike this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “He was a lawyer who played a major role in the development of the early courts of Arkansas and played an active role in the state’s politics prior to the Civil War. He also was a central figure in the development of Masonry in the state and later became a national leader of that organization. During the Civil War, he commanded the Confederacy’s Indian Territory, raising troops there and exercising field command in one battle. He also was a talented poet and writer.”

Like the man who built what’s now known as the Pike-Fletcher-Terry Mansion, young John Gould Fletcher was attracted to poetry. Fletcher’s father was 55 at the time of his birth and a remote figure. Fletcher’s mother was 24 years younger than her husband. Her interests were music, literature and the arts.

The Poetry Foundation says of John Gould Fletcher’s early years: “Fletcher often spoke of the gloom and desolation of (the large house built by Pike). Even at an early age, his life was characterized by a solitude from which he would never completely emerge. Having little social life, Fletcher became a voracious reader. His preferences ran toward the decadent and pessimistic, especially as he grew older. The writings of Edgar Allan Poe were his constant companions in adolescence, and while attending Harvard he developed a lifelong love of French literature, devouring the works of Theophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire, as well as Dante Rossetti, William Morris, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. It was at this time that Fletcher began writing poetry of his own, though he seldom showed it to anyone, being an entirely private person.

“Fletcher did not prosper at Harvard. His did not fit into Massachusetts society well, neglected the syllabi to pursue his own reading and skipped classes regularly so as to have more time for the University Library, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the symphony. Determined to pursue a literary career, his lack of application in his studies was the cause of considerable friction between Fletcher and his father, who wanted him to become a banker or lawyer.

“When his father died in 1906, Fletcher inherited the family fortune and a sizable annuity. Apparently unable to see the point of further education, and against the wishes of his mother, who like his father felt he should leave literature on the side and take on a profession, Fletcher dropped out of Harvard just before the final exams in 1907. The following year he departed the country for Italy. When his mother died in 1910, he did not return home.”

Fletcher had spent a year at Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, Mass., before enrolling at Harvard. A 1905 train journey to the American West helped inspire his poetry. Johnson notes that “the regular checks from a trust fund did not relieve his anxieties about his livelihood. His anxieties and sudden rages grew from his bipolar disorder, an illness marked by cyclical episodes that first erupted during his college years.”

Fletcher spent time in Venice and Rome after heading to Europe. The Poetry Foundation says he “soaked up the atmosphere, flirted with the idea of converting to Roman Catholicism, wrote more poetry and read voraciously. In 1909, he relocated to London, where he began to meet other poets and artists. His interest in painting was especially strong, and he never missed an important exhibition. This abiding fascination with both the arts and music would deeply influence his later poetry, although at the time his work was fairly conventional. He doggedly assailed publishers with his poems, but to no success. Finally, he approached four different publishers and arranged to finance five volumes of his poetry himself. All five appeared in May 1913.

“Critical reception to Fletcher’s work was lukewarm.  … Fletcher himself was the severest critic of these books — within roughly one year of their publication, he had the unsold copies pulped and referred to them as mere juvenilia for the rest of his life.”

Fletcher later met poet Ezra Pound, who convinced Fletcher to help underwrite the magazine the Egoist. Pound, in turn, introduced Fletcher to Amy Lowell.

“Pound promoted Fletcher’s free-verse experiments to Harriet Monroe, founder of Poetry magazine, and invited Fletcher to join a group of poets that Pound had dubbed Des Imagistes,” Johnson writes. “However, Fletcher resisted Pound’s attempts to revise his poems. Only when Amy Lowell, who was less dogmatic on poetic principles, supplanted Pound as the leader of the group did Fletcher agree to include his work in Imagist anthologies. In 1914, Fletcher sailed to America. He wrote incessantly during his tour.”

Fletcher later returned to England and married Florence Emily “Daisy” Arbuthnot, who recently had been divorced, in July 1916. Fletcher had become involved with the older (and still married) Arbuthnot when he was 27. They began living together in 1914. A visit to Little Rock during the winter of 1914-15 was, according to the Poetry Foundation, “the occasion for rueful and gloomy reminiscences about his childhood.”

The Poetry Foundation says that starting in 1916, Fletcher’s life “ran aground. His new marriage with Arbuthnot was rapidly showing itself to be a mistake, his poems were no longer being accepted, his literary contacts were drying up. He had moved to Sydenham in England to be with his wife, and for several years he more or less languished there. During this time, the exuberance of his early poetry dimmed, and his work become more stolid, majestic and plain — and his initial prolixity dwindled, until he was producing almost nothing new. His work in the early 1920s is characterized by a concern with the history and future of America, which he felt was headed to its own destruction in a nihilistic industrial downward spiral.”

During a tour of the American South in 1927, Fletcher fell in with the Fugitives, the group of poets at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., that included John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren.

Johnson writes that these young Southerners had become “increasingly unhappy with the direction of the industrial society. They organized the Agrarian movement to uphold the traditional hierarchy of the Old South as a better model for the good society. Fletcher eagerly enlisted in their causes, but his overwrought, anti-democratic essay on education in the Agrarian symposium ‘I’ll Take My Stand’ in 1930 signaled the onset of a depressive crisis.”

Fletcher attempted suicide in late 1932 and spent several months at the Royal Bethlehem Hospital in London, commonly known as Bedlam.

His divorce from Arbuthnot wasn’t finalized until 1936, but he had moved back to Arkansas in 1933.

“His marriage was clearly at an end, and he had no further desire to live in Europe,” the Poetry Society notes in its biographical sketch. “In 1933, he moved back to Little Rock, where he was received as the poet laureate and premier intellectual in the state. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Arkansas, founded the Arkansas Folk Lore Society in 1935 and produced ‘The Story of Arkansas’ for the state’s centennial in 1936.”

John Netherland Heiskell, the famous publisher of the Arkansas Gazette, had commissioned Fletcher to write the eic poem “The Story of Arkansas.”

Johnson writes: “A revised version of ‘The Story of Arkansas’ later appeared in his collection ‘South Star.’ Although the Arkansas poem suggested his recent allegiance to his native region, the publication of his memoir, ‘Life is My Song,’ the following year concentrated on his early Imagist career.”

In the next blog post, we’ll focus on the final 14 years of his life.

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The sportswriter

Friday, March 11th, 2016

The original version of this story ran in Talk Business & Politics magazine.

It has been 30 years, but I vividly remember that interview in 1986.

The student from the University of Missouri was an Arkansas native and had a knack for the written word. He was back in Little Rock during spring break, and he needed a job with a May graduation looming.

The newspaper business was still robust, and we had plenty of applicants in those days at the Arkansas Democrat, where I served as the 26-year-old assistant sports editor. This particular writer’s stories stood out. He clearly had a future in the newspaper business, and I recommended that he be hired. He came on board late that summer, but I didn’t get to work with him. The newspaper’s mercurial managing editor, John Robert Starr, informed me that I would be headed to the East Coast to serve as the Washington correspondent. I spent the next four years living on Capitol Hill, finally returning to Arkansas for good with a wife I had met in the nation’s capital.

The new sportswriter was named Kane Webb, and he flourished at the Democrat. When I was editor of Arkansas Business, I wound up hiring him away from the Arkansas Gazette as the end neared for that newspaper in 1991.

Webb’s long-form writing skills were a major reason that Arkansas Business was named in 1992 as the best business publication in any market of 1 million or fewer people by the Alliance of Area Business Publishers.

Last October, a lot of Arkansans were surprised when Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that a former journalist would replace the beloved Richard Davies as executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. Davies was retiring after having worked for the department for 42 years, serving under eight governors. Few people lasted longer in state government than Davies. And few people in state government were more popular.

Now, the avuncular Davies was being replaced by former sportswriter Kane Webb.

“I’ve known Kane for almost 20 years, and I’ve gotten to know him especially well since he joined our team,” Hutchinson explained. “He has a deep and abiding passion for Arkansas. He has written about more people, places and events in this state than I can count, and he understands how important parks and tourism are to Arkansans. … He’s an outstanding communicator, and I’m grateful for the work he has done as one of my senior advisers.”

Like Webb, Davies was a journalism major in college. He graduated from the University of Arkansas, served in the U.S. Army and was looking for work. Bill Henderson, who headed the department at the time Davies was hired, also had been a journalism major. Henderson gave Davies a job as a writer.

“That was in the days when Gov. Dale Bumpers had put a lot of money into state parks in places like DeGray and Toltec and the Ozark Folk Center, and those places were just coming online,” Davies said. “So I was writing about what the department was doing, and it became more and more administrative and less and less writing. I ended up over at the state parks division for 14 years and back here for another 25.”

The first state park was established atop Petit Jean Mountain in 1923 after the Legislature authorized the commissioner of state lands to accept land donations for parks. In 1927, the Legislature established a seven-member State Parks Commission that had the power to acquire tax-delinquent lands for parks. That’s what happened in the case of the second state park atop Mount Nebo.

Later legislative changes would occur — a revised Arkansas State Park Commission was established in 1937, the State Forestry and Parks Commission was launched in 1953, the State Publicity and Parks Commission was created in 1955 and the current state Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission was formed in 1969.

The current state Department of Parks and Tourism was created in 1971 during Bumpers’ first year in office.

Webb and I met recently for a burger at a place where we’ve shared stories many times through the years, the venerable Town Pump in the Riverdale area of Little Rock. I had never asked him why he initially wanted to be a sportswriter. This time I did.

“Like every other boy who liked the Razorbacks back in those days, I grew up reading Orville Henry in the Gazette,” Webb said. “I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

He recalls grabbing the Gazette at the family breakfast table in 1976 on the morning when Henry broke the story that Frank Broyles would be retiring as head football coach at the University of Arkansas and devoting all of his time to his job as athletic director.

Webb was born at Hot Springs, where his dad taught English, but he spent most of his formative years in Sherwood. He attended Catholic schools — Good Counsel in Little Rock in the first grade, Immaculate Conception in North Little Rock from the second through the eighth grades and Catholic High School in Little Rock from the ninth grade through graduation. He inherited a love of sports from his father, who would run over to Oaklawn Park during his lunch breaks back in the Hot Springs days and place bets for fellow teachers.

Floyd Webb, the father, also loved baseball. He had been a talented knuckleballer for the famed American Legion team known as the Little Rock Doughboys. The team, which played at Lamar Porter Field and was sponsored by the M.M. Eberts Post of the American Legion, existed from the late 1920s until the 1950s. It was the national American Legion runner-up in 1947, losing to a team from Cincinnati. Floyd Webb came along a few years prior to a Doughboy named Brooks Robinson, who would go on to become a legendary player for the Baltimore Orioles.

Floyd Webb decided that he could make more money for his family selling college textbooks than teaching school. The family lived for a time in Tennessee at Nashville and Memphis before settling in central Arkansas. Kane Webb lived for one year on Little Rock’s Fair Park Boulevard before his family built a home in Sherwood.

In addition to a love of sports, Floyd Webb instilled a love of reading in his son. The teachers at Catholic High also helped inspire him to read and write. Each afternoon after school when there wasn’t a sports practice, Kane Webb could be found at a place called Publisher’s Bookstore, walking the aisles and looking for new books to purchase.

“I went to the counselor’s office at Catholic one day and told him I wanted to be a sportswriter,” Webb said. “I asked him where I should go to college. He said I should go to Missouri. It was that simple. It was the only school to which I applied, and I never set foot on campus until the first day of my freshman year.”

Webb joined the staff of an alternative newspaper on campus as a freshman and began cranking out copy.

He said: “I wrote pretty much every day for the next 30 years.”

Webb remembers his first day of work at the Democrat: Aug. 6, 1986. His first out-of-town assignment was an American Legion baseball tournament at Memphis. He got the final score wrong in his story. He figured that might be the end of his newspaper career, but no one said anything. In those days, as the Little Rock newspaper war was heating up and both newspapers had large amounts of space to fill, just getting out the paper each night was the goal.

“Being in the sports department at the Democrat was kind of like being in a fraternity,” Webb said. “We were young, and most of us didn’t have families to worry about. Friday nights during high school football season were spent drinking beer on the parking lot after we got the city edition out. We would rush to the box in the middle of the night to buy a Gazette and then count to see if we had more high school scores. It was a war, and we thrived on that. I can remember once going straight from the parking lot to the airport to fly to a Razorback football game. I never went to bed. I realize now how lucky I was to come along when newspaper work was still fun.”

In the fall of 1990, Webb was offered a raise from $20,000 a year to $28,500 to jump to the Gazette. He made the switch.

“I was going to get married, and I needed the money,” Webb said. “In hindsight, it was a stupid decision. It was all about the money. By about May 1991, some of us realized the Gazette wasn’t going to survive.”

Webb moved to Arkansas Business shortly before the Gazette closed in October 1991. He married Fran Jansen of Little Rock the following month.

“Going to Arkansas Business was a key point in my career because it got me out of sports and allowed me to write about other things,” Webb said.

We had desks that faced each other at Arkansas Business, where I was the editor, and we didn’t mind working long hours. Those were exciting times, and there seemed to be big stories every week — the Gazette closed, Bill Clinton was running for president, Witt Stephens died, Sam Walton died.

During the early summer of 1992, I was contacted by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and asked if I would be interested in filling the new position of political editor and coordinating the coverage of Clinton’s presidential campaign. I accepted the job, and Webb succeeded me as editor of Arkansas Business.

In 1994, Webb interviewed with Paul Greenberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of the Democrat-Gazette. Greenberg hired Webb as his deputy.

“I knew him, of course, but I had never met him,” Webb said of Greenberg. “It was amazing how much freedom he gave me.”

Webb later lived for a short time in Minneapolis, where his wife’s brother resided, and survived what he called “the worst winter of my life.” He also spent a brief time in New Orleans, one of his favorite cities, writing for the Times-Picayune. The vast majority of his career, though, has been in Arkansas.

At the Democrat-Gazette, Webb spent more than a decade writing daily editorials, a weekly column and features for the Sunday Perspective section, which he edited. By 2009, Webb decided that the newspaper business was no longer fun. His father died in May 2009, and Webb said he “lost my ballast.”

Webb did some freelance writing after leaving the newspaper and also accepted an invitation from his friend Steve Straessle to teach journalism, creative writing, American literature, music survey and religion at Catholic High. By 2010, the Democrat-Gazette was calling again, asking Webb to serve as the editorial director of its special publications — Arkansas Life monthly magazine, Sync Weekly and three zoned editions. He set the editorial direction and tone for publications and supervised a staff of more than two dozen employees.

He especially enjoyed the work on Arkansas Life.

“I once had been told that I was a magazine writer trapped in a newspaper writer’s body,” Webb said. “I was just a duck to water when it came to magazines. I loved every part of it — writing, editing, managing the staff. I wanted Arkansas Life to be for Arkansas what Texas Monthly was for Texas.”

When Webb became concerned that he and the Democrat-Gazette management didn’t share the same vision for the magazine, he accepted an invitation to interview for the job of editor of Louisville magazine. Because of his love of thoroughbred racing, Louisville — the home of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby — was to Webb a bit like Mecca is to a Muslim pilgrim. Webb hit it off with the magazine’s owner, Dan Crutcher.

He said of Crutcher: “Dan told me he bought the magazine because he wanted to be able to write longer stories. How can you not love that? My mother and sister had moved to Bella Vista after my dad died. I needed a change of scenery. I just needed to get out of Arkansas.”

Webb transformed the magazine, winning praise from readers and seeing Louisville nominated for national awards. But his father-in-law died, his mother-in-law was aging and his wife and daughter missed Little Rock. So Webb returned to Arkansas once more in the spring of 2014. He began reworking a novel his father had written under the name of F. Spider Webb in 2005. It’s titled “Pool Halls, Parlors and Pawn Shops” and focuses heavily on thoroughbred racing.

Webb also did freelance writing, wrote a column for the website Sporting Life Arkansas, edited a book on the Kentucky Derby and helped out a couple of public relations firms.

The week before Christmas in 2014, Webb received a text from a number he didn’t recognize. It said: “Do you want a job?”

He asked, “Who is this?”

It was outgoing 2nd District Congressman (and incoming lieutenant governor) Tim Griffin, who informed him that Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson needed a strong writer on his staff. Webb, who had covered several governors as a journalist, was intrigued.

Webb began work Jan. 5, 2015. He and Hutchinson hit it off immediately.

“I was kind of the older guy with gray hair on a relatively young staff,” Webb said. “There was the inauguration, and then we went directly into the legislative session. We were working seven days a week, but I didn’t mind. It was pretty heady stuff for an old sportswriter. During the summer, the governor promoted me to senior adviser, and I began working on projects beyond writing for him. One of those projects was to find a replacement for Richard Davies. We looked outside the state and inside the state.

“I kept going back to something Chuck Magill at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock told me. He said: ‘This is such a peculiar state, and I mean that in a good way. You need someone who knows it well. It would be even better if it were someone who lived somewhere else and then came back to Arkansas.'”

Davies mentioned that Webb himself might be a good fit for the job.

Two interviews that Webb had planned with potential directors were called off, and Webb wrote the governor a memo explaining that he had reached a dead end.

Hutchinson called him in and said, “You’re going to get the job, and I want to announce it right away.”

Webb said the governor “trusted me and knew how much I love Arkansas. I enjoyed my brief time working in the governor’s office. I didn’t mind the hours or the pressure. I’m crazy enough that I want to do it all.”

Webb shadowed Davies for six weeks until Davies’ retirement took effect at the end of November.

Like the reporter he once was, Webb took copious notes on a daily basis.

“It was kind of Richard’s farewell tour as we went to state parks and tourism attractions across the state,” Webb said. “His generous endorsement of me at every stop went a long way in helping me get off to a good start. My first goal is to do no harm because I didn’t inherit an agency that’s broken. Tourism revenue is at an all-time high in our state. I’ve walked into an excellent situation.

“I think we have the best system of state parks in the country, but there’s always room for improvement. For instance, we need to attract more outside investors in our private-sector tourism facilities. We need to convince more people to relocate to Arkansas. We need to have more of a national effort to sell Arkansas to groups such as motorcyclists and mountain bikers. Tourism is no longer the toy department of state government. It’s economic development.”

So how does the writer I first interviewed three decades ago sum up the whirlwind of recent months?

“I’m a lucky man,” Webb said. “I love the fact that old sportswriters are able to do things like this. I like it that I’m the third journalism major to head this department. You know, I’ve always been a sportswriter at heart.”

 

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“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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