Archive for August, 2009

Football season at last

Monday, August 31st, 2009

I have always enjoyed the beginning of September. It marks the start of football season. It marks the start of dove season. It means that fall is not far off.

When I was growing up, the long Labor Day weekend was always special. Often, my birthday fell on Labor Day weekend. That weekend was marked by high school football on Friday night, often a college game on Saturday and several consecutive mornings of dove hunting with my dad. For my birthday, there were fried doves (if we had a successful opening morning of hunting, and we always did) and chocolate cake. 

For a fourth consecutive year, the start of the Ouachita football season is going to mean that I miss the opening morning of dove season. There just isn’t enough time to do everything.

The last time I hunted on opening morning at Wiley Meacham’s farm in Monroe, two other hunters and I cleaned 194 doves before breakfast. We were legal, mind you. There were a lot more people hunting, but just three of us cleaning the birds.

In 2006, I had to drive to Joplin, Mo., for Ouachita’s opener against Missouri Southern. There wasn’t time to hunt in east Arkansas and then make it to southwest Missouri for the game.

In 2007, I had to go to Commerce, Texas, to broadcast the Ouachita season opener. Again, there wasn’t time to go east to Monroe County and then drive back west.

Last year, there was a home game in Arkadelphia to open the season, but the kickoff was at noon in order to accommodate the travel schedule of the opponent from Colorado. A morning hunt near Monroe (on the Monroe County-Lee County line) and a night game in Arkadelphia would have allowed me to hunt and broadcast the game. It would have been a perfect day. But I could not hunt and still be in the press box by 10 a.m. to prepare for an 11 a.m. pregame show.

This Saturday will find me driving to Tyler, Texas, for the Ouachita opener against Texas College. So hunting on the opening morning of dove season is once more not a feasible thing to do. If Ouachita would play its opener to the east rather than to the west, I might make it work one of these days.

But college football is on. And if the crowd of 700 people at today’s meeting of the Little Rock Touchdown Club is any indication, Arkansans are ready for some football.

Each week during the season, I’ll put my neck on the line and predict all games involving Arkansas schools. I invite you to add your predictions for any or all of these games in the Comments section.

Here goes:

Arkansas 50, Missouri State 18 — The Razorback season starts at War Memorial Stadium. They’ll be partying on the War Memorial golf course shortly after 7 a.m. and be in a frenzy by the 6 p.m. kickoff. Last year saw the Razorbacks struggle in games they should have won easily early in the season. That should not be the case in this game.

Arkansas State 37, Mississippi Valley State 9 — The Red Wolves have an excellent chance to win the Sun Belt Conference and play in the New Orleans Bowl this year. They’re loaded. Don’t expect problems from a SWAC school in a game played at Jonesboro.

Hawaii 42, UCA 19 — The Bears get their “bowl trip” at the first of the season rather than the end of the season in a game scheduled to begin at 11:30 p.m. CDT Friday. UCA will play well for a half before wearing down after the long trip. Still, having this game on the schedule has been a great hook for recruits.

UAPB 24, UAM 23 — The Division II Boll Weevils upset the Division I-AA Golden Lions (I refuse to use that FCS and FBS stuff) last year. As it turned out, it really wasn’t much of an upset. UAM had its best season in recent years in 2008 with a 7-4 record, and UAPB struggled in its first season under Monte Coleman as head coach. The Weevils will make it close this year after a terrible first game last Thursday at Tarleton State in Texas. But based on the opener, this UAM team doesn’t seem up to the level of last year’s squad.

West Alabama 38, Harding 36 — Harding scored in the final minute Saturday to defeat Missouri Southern in a game played at Searcy. Harding should be improved from its 2-9 season of a year ago. But West Alabama should also be improved. This will be an early test of which of these Gulf South Conference schools made the most improvement during the offseason. This is the Thursday night GSC television game of the week, by the way.

Arkansas Tech 49, Incarnate Word 20 — Incarnate Word? Are they having a football game in Russellville or a tent revival?

Ouachita 45, Texas College 17 — Ouachita went 7-3 last year, the best record at the school since 1985. The Tigers should roll on the road against an NAIA school.

McNeese State 50, Henderson 22 — The Reddies were defeated last Thursday in their opener against Southeastern Oklahoma. They now must make the long trip to Lake Charles, La., to collect a check from a Southland Conference foe and traditional I-AA power.

It’s your turn. Let’s hear your predictions.

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South Arkansas’ shining star

Friday, August 28th, 2009

I love downtowns. I love the downtowns of big cities, and I love small town downtowns.

My love of downtowns may come from the fact that my father was a Main Street merchant in Arkadelphia in the 1960s (after which he moved over to Clinton Street in the old post office building). In those days, you had your choice of five-and-dime stores on either side of  Main Street. I thought Ben Franklin (always with a friendly greeting from Mr. Caldwell) had the best mixed nuts while Sterling had the best popcorn.

You had the Royal Theater, which even showed movies on Wednesday afternoons in the summer. You had your choice of drugstores — Woodell’s, Heard’s and Fuller’s on Main Street itself and the Phillips’ Rexall store just a block over. They all had soda fountains at one time.

While not on Main Street itself, the downtown area even had two newsstands — Red’s (later Woody’s) and Langley’s. You could even get the Sunday New York Times from Mrs. Langley. There was Mr. Allen’s bookstore on Main Street.

You could buy jewelry from Ace Finger and a men’s suit from Red Bethea and later Eddie Clark. Tom Chandler (now a noted interior decorator in Little Rock) would sell you shoes. Dew-Orr Department Store had a bit of everything. Mr. Echols could set you up at the Otasco store. And the businessmen could get free coffee in any of the three banks — Elk Horn, Citizens or Merchants and Planters. Sadly, none of those bank names live on.

Like downtowns all over America, downtown Arkadelphia has changed drastically since the 1960s. It had changed even before that March 1, 1997, tornado that devastated much of downtown.

I was thinking about my favorite downtowns in Arkansas recently, and I believe I’ve decided on El Dorado as No. 1. Drinking a good cup of coffee last week in The Olde Towne Store on the El Dorado square, I was struck again by just how active downtown El Dorado is. It was, in fact, not easy to find a parking space on a Tuesday morning. And downtown is about to get even better as Claiborne Deming, recently retired as president and chief executive officer of Murphy Oil Corp., begins renovation of a three-story building.

El Dorado has suffered along with the rest of south Arkansas from job and population losses. Witness the recent closure of the Pilgrim’s Pride plant. The forestry industry also still struggles

But El Dorado continues to be a place where the leadership has its act together. There’s a sense of optimism among the city’s business and civic leaders. A lot of that was spurred by Murphy Oil’s $50 million commitment in 2007 to provide students who graduate from El Dorado High School with tuition scholarships to any accredited two-year or four-year institution of higher learning in the country. Known as the El Dorado Promise, it has increased the college-going rate of El Dorado High School students from 60 percent to 95 percent. The national average is 66 percent, and the state average is 65 percent.

Families have moved to El Dorado from 28 states to take advantage of the El Dorado Promise. The school district already has seen an enrollment increase of more than 4 percent.

Add to this the fact that:

– The El Dorado Education Foundation has invested more than $1.7 million into the El Dorado School District during the past dozen years. The foundation assisted in the establishment of the nation’s first elementary and secondary school endowed chair program with experts hired in the areas of in mathematics, science, foreign language and literacy. You expect to find endowed chairs at colleges and universities, not in public school districts.

– El Dorado residents approved a millage increase that will pay for a new high school facility that will open in the fall of 2011.

– The El Dorado Convention Center will open in 2011, covering 50,000 square feet. The new convention center will be walking distance from downtown.

– South Arkansas Community College, which now has a record enrollment, has a new president and by 2011 will have a new health sciences facility.

– El Dorado is even getting into the college football business. On Nov. 7, the Boomtown Classic will pit the Muleriders of Southern Arkansas University against the Boll Weevils of the University of Arkansas at Monticello. A concert, a giant tailgate party, band competitions and pep rallies will be held in conjunction with the game.

As I said, there’s a sense of excitement and optimism in this town. Downtown El Dorado is still alive, filled with places to shop, eat and even spend the night.

For now, it has my vote of the best downtown in Arkansas.

Which Arkansas downtown gets your vote and why? Certainly, Conway has come on strong in recent years.

And what’s the most depressing downtown and why? Main Street in Little Rock is too obvious. So let’s go for something other than that.

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Sign sign everywhere a sign

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Kirkley Thomas e-mails from the mountains of northeast Georgia. He’s in Lakemont, near Lake Rabun.

The sign on a store there reads (and I spell it just like it is spelled on the sign): “News Papers, Red Worms, Nite Crawlers, Crickets, Rat Trap Cheese, Ice.”

That about does it. What else do you need in life?

What are some favorite signs you have seen in your travels?

I did like the hand-painted signs several years ago that promoted the campaign of the gentleman running for “Perry County Corner.”

I think I was told he won. Just be careful not to back him into one.

And when I lived in the nation’s capital back in the 1980s, I liked to spend weekends driving through rural West Virginia. A friend told me about a place that I just had to find on my own. And there it was, advertising “Cold Beer and Welding.”

I’ll leave the punch lines to you.

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Press box food

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

John Robert Starr, who served many years as the mercurial managing editor of the Arkansas Democrat, did me one of the great favors of my life when he ordered me to move to Washington back in 1986.

As related in the initial post on this blog, I didn’t want to cover Congress and the federal government. I hadn’t applied for the Washington job. I was having too much fun covering sports.

That’s when Starr related to me the question he had once asked himself: “Do I want to be 50 years old and begging a naked 18-year-old kid for a quote?”

Because I turn 50 next week, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about lately about that career move. I imagine I could have been quite happy spending my career as a sportswriter and editor. It’s a fun way to make a living. But had Starr not forced me to move 1,100 miles away to the nation’s capital, I never would have met my wife. I likely never would have set foot in the White House (I had the honor of visiting in the White House at one time or another with Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43), worked for interesting political characters or come to know some of Arkansas’ top civic and business leaders.

Hitting the half-century mark, I might have found myself single, with no kids, still living in an apartment, not making much money and working nights. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. As noted, I loved my years as a sportswriter. You get paid to attend what other people must buy tickets to attend. It’s just that I kind of like the course my life actually has taken. And I’m still able to dabble in all kinds of sports activities.

I do know one thing for certain. I’m big, but had I remained a sportswriter, I would be even bigger (i.e. fatter). That’s because sportswriters get lots of free food. College and professional press boxes are known to put on great spreads. And there now are plenty of high schools that get in on the act.

When I covered the Dallas Cowboys in the early 1980s, there was nothing better than getting to Texas Stadium early and eating the beef brisket, sausages and barbecue sauce in the press box while then-general manager Tex Schramm loudly held court at an adjacent table. In Austin, legendary University of Texas sports information director Jones Ramsey was known for bringing in great Mexican food from Matt’s El Rancho.

In 1980, ABC moved the Arkansas-Texas game in Austin to Labor Day. Wally Hall and I first drove to Dallas for a Saturday night Cowboys preseason game and gorged on the brisket and hot links. We then drove on down to Austin for Mexican food on Sunday night at a restaurant and more Mexican food on Monday night in the press box.

I always try to make it to at least one Arkansas State University game each fall to sit in athletic director Dean Lee’s box. Dean is one of those who does food right. The chili on the cold afternoon of Nov. 22 last year (it barely reached 30 degrees that day) was some of the best I’ve ever had.

So where is the best press box food in Arkansas?

Old friend Walter Woodie puts in a vote for Van Buren High School. And it appears that Van Buren, still trying to overcome the fact that Bill Vickery once played football there, does indeed treat those in the press box to a feast.

Walter sent me the menu for this season.

For the first home game against Alma, a taco dinner will be served.

For the second home game against Bryant, it will be shades of Texas Stadium with brisket on the menu.

For the third home game against Little Rock Catholic, meatloaf is the main course. By the way, I’ve found the best meatloaf in central Arkansas. It’s chef Lee Richardson’s special each Tuesday for lunch at the Capital Hotel Bar & Grill.

For the fourth home game against Conway, turkey and dressing will be served.

And the final home came against North Little Rock will feature what the school describes as “crockpot stuff.”

There are a lot of you out there who are associated with high school or college sports as a statistician, radio person, public address announcer, etc. So help me out. Cast your vote for the best press box food in Arkansas.

And, while you’re at it, tell me which basketball tournaments have the best hospitality rooms. As sportswriters, we used to judge basketball tournaments by the quality of the so-called hospitality rooms and their free food.

Bring on football season.

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Remembering Ann Vining and Ouachita Hills

Monday, August 24th, 2009

I will attend the funeral of Ann Vining today, just nine days before my 50th birthday.

I will make the one-hour drive to Arkadelphia and think along the way about how much my old neighborhood, Ouachita Hills, is changing. It’s still a great neighborhood, but younger folks are moving in.

Mrs. Vining is gone. Other former neighbors are gone. My parents are still with us, but they are no longer living in the home in which I was raised.

In my mind, I still think of the folks around Ouachita Hills as they were when I was a child. Growing up in a college town, it seemed that everyone in the neighborhood (with the exception of my dad and one neighbor, who were downtown businessmen) was Dr. This or Coach That.

Our neighborhood was filled with kids. The Vinings had six — four of them were older and two were younger.

The Vinings also had the second swimming pool in the neighborhood. Bob and Claudia Riley (yes, the former lieutenant governor and his wife) had the first.

In the summer, you spent a lot of time swimming at the Vining home. In the fall, you played football on Sunday afternoons on the Ouachita football field, which is adjacent to the neighborhood. In the winter, when there was an occasional snow, the hilly neighborhood made for a great place to go sledding. In the spring, the Ouachita River would rise and you would explore the flooded areas, being careful not to step on a snake.

Maybe I remember my old neighborhood too fondly. Maybe the trees weren’t really that green in the spring. Maybe the neighbors weren’t really that nice. Maybe it was not really that neat of an experience to be able to walk to a college football game in three minutes and have the head coach and some players come over to your house to play pool afterward. Maybe we really weren’t allowed to ride our bikes and roam the neighborhood until dark.

But I know that’s not the case. Those memories are real. I realize now that I was lucky enough to have a sort of Mayberry RFD (with college Ph.Ds thrown into the mix) childhood, something we all took for granted at the time. My parents, despite a terrible tragedy in their own lives, saw to it that my childhood was a happy one. And Mrs. Vining was, in a sense, one of the den mothers of our neighborhood.

Growing up in a college town, my heroes were not athletes or coaches in some far-off city. They were right there in Arkadelphia — Ouachita basketball coach Bill Vining and Ouachita football coach Buddy Benson. You couldn’t imagine Coach Vining without his wife, Ann. And you couldn’t imagine Coach Benson without his wife, Janet.

Coach Vining led the Ouachita basketball team the whole time I was growing up. Coach Benson led the Ouachita football team the whole time I was growing up. I couldn’t even comprehend a time when they wouldn’t be on the job. Both are now in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

As a student at Ouachita, I had the honor of handling the radio play-by-play duties for both the Ouachita football and basketball teams. I remember when a Thursday night basketball game in Conway against UCA was called off due to snow. We rescheduled the game for a Saturday afternoon. The roads were still bad, and there could not have been more than 100 people in the Farris Center for the game. It was like a scrimmage.

Ouachita played poorly in the first half, and the Bears built up a huge lead. In a moment of frustration, I said on the air: “I doubt anyone back in Arkadelphia is still listening other than Mrs. Vining.”

The Tigers came back in the second half and made the game close.

I had ridden the bus to the game with the team, so Mrs. Vining knew to call my dorm room as soon as her husband walked into the house.

The phone rang just as I walked in, and she said: “You’re dang right I was still listening.”

To describe Mrs. Vining as feisty when it came to Ouachita basketball would be an understatement. She was her husband’s — and his players’ — biggest advocate.

Coach Vining — and Charlotte, Billy, Amanda, Andy, Molly and Lon –  please know that there are hundreds of us who share at least a small piece of your pain in losing Mrs. Vining.

We learned of the sad news of her passing on Friday, my mom’s 84th birthday. My parents have lived in Little Rock for the past year. I picked Mom up for a birthday dinner Friday. As I went into the Villa to pick up the food, Mom’s cell phone rang. It was Coach and Mrs. Benson calling to wish her a happy birthday. They had remembered. The call brought a smile to her face.

Yes, my old neighborhood is changing, though there is a 100th birthday party planned for Dr. Raymond Coppenger next month.

Mrs. Vining is gone. Mom is now 84. I turn 50 next month. Dad turns 85 in October. Those childhood memories become more precious with each passing day. Time marches on.

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The annual Grady Fish Fry

Friday, August 21st, 2009

There are certain annual events in this state that I try never to miss.

My favorite winter event is the Slovak Oyster Supper. Held on a Friday night in late January each year, this men’s only dinner attracts hundreds of people to the small farming community in southern Prairie County to eat raw oysters, devour fried oysters, buy raffle tickets and talk loudly. The Knights of Columbus put on the supper to benefit the Catholic parish at Slovak.

If you attend, wear your camouflage and be prepared to wait outside in a long line. It’s usually cold, but the wait and the many wisecracks you hear while in the line are an integral part of the overall experience of Slovak Oyster Supper night.

While the pilgrimage to Slovak marks late January, the unofficial end of summer and the start of the school year is marked by a trip to the Grady Fish Fry. I was there again Thursday night for the 54th annual event sponsored by the Grady Lions Club. I have probably been to 20 of the 54 fish fries.

Now that the U.S. 65 bypass has opened around Grady, you no longer pass by the sign that proclaims the fish fry is “Always The Third Thursday In August.” Hopefully, that sign will be moved to the new highway.

People from all over southeast Arkansas gather in the Ned Hardin pecan grove to eat fish and visit with each other. The event begins at 4 p.m. and lasts until 8 p.m. Arkansas State Police troopers and Lincoln County sheriff’s deputies line the road to direct you off the highway and show you where to park.

You line up, purchase your ticket for $12 per head and then walk under the shed for all of the fried catfish, hushpuppies and french fries you can eat. You can watch the catfish being cooked while you’re standing in line.

You can also see one of my favorite contraptions in Arkansas, the famed Grady hushpuppy machine, which was constructed years ago from various pieces of equipment found on local farms. This device represents Arkansas ingenuity at its best as it spits out one hushpuppy after another into the hot grease. I don’t have the words to adequately describe it. You just have to see it in action.

Years ago, I brought then-Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Washington bureau chief Kathy Kiely to the Grady Fish Fry. A Pittsburgh native who loved visiting the rural South, Kathy most enjoyed seeing the hushpuppy machine at work.

It’s normally hot and humid on the third Thursday in August. Sweating profusely while eating your fish is part of the routine. This year was the most pleasant weather I ever remember for this event, and it seemed to bring out the biggest crowd in recent years.

On the way down to Grady, we paid a visit to Bobby Garner at the Sno-White Grill in Pine Bluff. Bobby was busy grilling hamburgers as usual on a Thursday night, but he said that business is always slow on the third Thursday evening in August. That’s because many of his regulars go to Grady.

Outside the shed in the pecan grove are the drinks (iced tea or water), the coleslaw and the sliced onions. Dessert consists of big slices of watermelon served by prisoners. The volunteer workforce is courtesy of the Arkansas Department of Correction. The prisoners, dressed in all-white prison uniforms, also help clean the tables as guards walk around and keep an eye on things. The prison band plays. Sitting under the giant pecan trees while eating catfish and listening to a prison band is, frankly, about as Southern as it gets.

The $12 tickets aren’t the only source of revenue for the Grady Lions Club. As you drive in, you’re given a program packed with ads from all over southeast Arkansas. The program ran 146 pages this year. Businesses from Grady, Dumas, Pine Bluff, Pickens, Monticello, McGehee, Little Rock, DeWitt, Star City, Gould, Lake Village, Dermott, Eudora, Tillar and Altheimer had ads. Everything from farms to farm supply companies to funeral homes to restaurants were represented. If they do business in southeast Arkansas, they likely had an ad in this program.

Some of the state’s political figures traditionally buy ads. Lt. Gov. Bill Halter was represented in the program. So was land commissioner Mark Wilcox, U.S. Rep. Mike Ross and state treasurer Martha Shoffner.

I realize this is not an election year, but the number of politicians working the crowd seemed to be down this year even though the overall crowd count was up. Where were Sen. Linclon, Sen. Pryor and Congressman Ross? Maybe I just missed them among the large crowd. Maybe they had conflicts. Maybe they didn’t want folks hitting them up about health care reform.

One of my favorite Grady Fish Fry memories came in 1998 when I was managing the campaign of Gov. Mike Huckabee. It was at least 100 degrees that day, and I ordered that hundreds of funeral home-style fans bearing the campaign logo be taken down to Grady and distributed in advance of the governor’s arrival. Huckabee was one of those rare Arkansas Republicans who could count on solid support in south Arkansas and east Arkansas. He played with the prison band that day as hundreds of people fanned themselves, seemingly in unison. All through the grove, you could see the Huckabee campaign logo. It was a beautiful sight.

I along with my two regular Grady dining companions, Bubba Lloyd and Greg Yielding, had a great visit this year with Judge John Fogleman of Marion. Judge Fogleman is running for a seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court. It was his first Grady Fish Fry. I can assure you that it won’t be his last.

For years, even though we were full, our trip back was marked by a stop at Mrs. Jones’ restaurant in Pine Bluff for a piece of pie. Mrs. Jones’ place is gone, replaced by a produce shed. We wouldn’t have had room for pie anyway. We almost closed the event down last night. It was nearing 8 p.m. as we pulled out of the Hardin pecan grove and headed north. I’m already looking forward to next year’s fish fry.

I once worried that Grady would run out of Lions. Like many southeast Arkansas farming communities, Grady gets smaller each year. The program has ads in memory of former Lions Club members — Harold Venable, Earl Sparks, David McLemore and others. But with women now in the club, the organization still seems strong. The Grady Lions Club even sponsors a chili supper on a Saturday night in February each year. That’s not an event I’ve attended, but I want to.

How are the proceeds from program advertisements and ticket sales used? The Grady Lions Club members collect eyglasses for recycling, provide glasses for the needy and distribute fruit baskets to the elderly at Thanksgiving. The club also awarded three college scholarships this year.

Slovak and Grady — one in winter and one in summer — top my list of must-attend Arkansas events. Which events, festivals, etc. in Arkansas do you try never to miss?

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Sno-White Grill in TBQ

Monday, August 17th, 2009

Several weeks ago, Roby Brock, the Little Rock business journalist and entrepreneur, asked me if I would take on a delightful assignment.

Roby was wanting to add a regular feature to his excellent magazine, Talk Business Quarterly. He would call it “Arkansas Institutions.”

He told me that he wanted to focus on “things, people, places that make Arkansas what it is — things you need to do or experience to really get your Arkansas bona fides. These could be well-known places like McClard’s, Cotham’s, a Razorback football game or floating the Buffalo, or they could be more obscure gems.”

How could I resist the invitation to be a part of a project such as that?

The most recent issue of Talk Business Quarterly can now be found at www.talkbusiness.net. It includes my story on the first Arkansas Institution we chose, Pine Bluff’s Sno-White Grill.

Across this state, there are restaurants where the locals gather to drink coffee, catch up on the town’s gossip, discuss the previous day’s sports events and talk politics. But few of those gathering spots have the longevity of Sno-White, which was founded in 1936, one year before Walt Disney produced his first full-length animated classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Bobby Garner, who purchased the Sno-White Grill in February 1970, is still there six mornings a week at 5:30 a.m. to open up. At age 73, Garner shows no signs of slowing down.

I hope you will read the story and let me know what you think.

We’re already getting nominations for future installments of “Arkansas Institutions.” For instance, I heard from Brian Crowne, the owner of George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville. George’s has been around since 1927 and is indeed an institution.

Please send me a couple of things:

1. Your nominations for future institutions I should write about. These could be stores, streams, restaurants, sports rivalries, you name it.

2. Your memories of restaurants like the Sno-White Grill that are no longer with us. Bobby lamented the loss of places in Pine Bluff such as John Noah’s Restaruant over by the Norton Lumber Mill and the Wonderland.

You have the floor.

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The King’s English and Little Rock talk radio

Monday, August 17th, 2009

In listening to talk radio in Little Rock and noticing how callers (and sometimes even the hosts) abuse the English language, I don’t know whether to:

a. Laugh and thoroughly enjoy what I’m hearing for its entertainment value

b. Despair over the English education folks in this state are getting in school (or at least the education they received when these callers were young. We can only hope it has improved.)

Last week, I was listening to a news talk station when a caller said about health care reform: “Even if Congress passes something decent, the aristocrats in government will mess it up.”

Do you figure that caller meant “bureaucrats?”

Of course, having lived in Washington, I can assure you that a lot of bureaucrats act like aristocrats. So perhaps we should let that one pass.

On Friday afternoon, meanwhile, there was a fellow on a Little Rock sports talk station who played for a short time in the NFL. He was trying to defend Michael Vick. He said: “You know, in a lot of other countries, dogs and cats are considered delicatessens.”

OK.

So in New York, we have the Stage Deli and the Carnegie Deli.

Abroad, it might be the Beagle Deli and the Siamese Cat Deli.

I wish I had written down more of these radio moments. They come at us hot and heavy each day in this market on the locally produced shows.

In a recent sports discussion, a man was complaining that the outcome of a game was changed when the referee blew an “inverted whistle.”

The hosts never tried to correct him. Maybe they thought he was correct.

I could only assume an “inverted whistle” is one with the little ball on the outside.

What are some of the more interesting uses of the English language you’ve heard on talk radio? I would love to hear your best stories.

I’ll hang up and listen.

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Salt Bowl

Friday, August 14th, 2009

The first Friday night of high school football is three weeks from tonight. I can’t wait.

I realize there are some high school games earlier that week. But the full schedule of games statewide begins on Friday, Sept. 4. And it’s the night of the Salt Bowl at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium, a game that could attract almost 25,000 fans if the weather is good.

“I think everybody is ready for football,” said state Sen. Shane Broadway at a news conference earlier this week.

No one is better at promoting Saline County than Shane. He and the other members of the Salt Bowl committee have done a tremendous job of putting together a week of activities surrounding the Friday night contest.

What a great tradition this has become the past few years – having the fans of the two Saline County rivals drive a few miles up Interstate 30 so the Panthers and Hornets can play in the second-largest stadium in the state and everyone can be guaranteed a seat.

Last season, the weather could not have been worse. Hurricane Gustav was blowing through the state on the schduled playing date — Tuesday, Sept. 2. At the news conference, Bryant head coach Paul Calley talked about having once been an “old school coach” who believed that you should play football in all kinds of weather. About three minutes into pregame warm-ups, he realized a mistake had been made in not postponing the game until later in the week. It was raining so hard that you could hardly see from one side of the field to the other.

“Even though we won the game, our kids and fans really didn’t get to fully experience the atmosphere that usually surrounds this rivalry,” Coach Calley said.

Let’s hope the weather is much better for this year’s game and all the activities that surround it. It has become my favorite high school rivalry even though I played my high school football at Arkadelphia. My dad was a Benton Panther in the 1939, ’40 and ’41 seasons, so I guess I will sit on that side of the stadium.

If you don’t already have a team you’re following, you should go to this game. Tickets are only $5 for all ages and already are on sale at all Big Red Valero locations in central Arkansas. Each ticket has a coupon on the back to get a free burger at the Sonic of Benton with the purchase of another burger.

This will be the 37th meeting between the two schools and the 10th time that the game has been billed as the Salt Bowl. Benton leads the series 24-11-1, but the growth of the Bryant School District has swung the pendulum the other way in recent years. Bryant won last year, 36-12.

Coach Calley has established a top-notch football program. Steve Quinn, who last year was at the college level as the head coach at Southern Arkansas University, is in his first year at Benton.

I have great respect for both coaches. Paul and I are both Clark County boys (he hails from Gurdon). And I have known Steve since he was a freshman player at Ouachita Baptist University. He’s a winner and will turn the Benton program around.

If you have a copy of the Arkansas Sports 360 preseason football magazine handy, you will find a feature I wrote on Coach Quinn. He noted that he has now coached in seven states and is living in his 13th house in 18 years. Obviously, Steve, you married a saint.

“I’ve been around some great rivalries, but I’ve never seen two communities come together quite like this to put on an event,” Coach Quinn said. “People were asking me 10 minutes after I had accepted the job if we were going to win the Salt Bowl.”

He talked about the memories that will be created by this game.

“High school football is about the memories you will have 20 years, even 50 years down the road,” Coach Quinn said.

The game even has its own website at www.bentonvsbryant.com. Check it out and buy a Salt Bowl T-shirt online.

Among the other events surrounding the game:

– At halftime, three fans will be given the chance to win a truck from Everett Buick-Pontiac-GMC. People can sign up at the dealership. Three names will be drawn during a pep rally at the dealership from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 3. Coaches, players, bands, cheerleaders and drill teams from both squads will be on hand for that pep rally.

– The Salt Bowl committee has partnered with the Arkansas Rice Depot to raise funds and collect peanut butter for those in need. Before the game, an Arkansas Rice Depot truck will be outside the stadium collecting jars of peanut butter and donations.

– The banks and credit unions in Saline County will sponsor what is being billed as “Arkansas’ largest high school tailgate party.” The event will begin at 5 p.m. that Saturday in the east parking lot of War Memorial Stadium and last until the 7:30 p.m. kickoff. There will be games for children along with free hot dogs, chips and soft drinks. Those wanting booth spaces to showcase their businesses should call the Benton Chamber of Commerce at (501) 315-8272 or the Bryant Chamber of Commerce at (501) 847-4702.

– On Labor Day (the Monday after the game), the Salt Bowl Golf Tournament will begin at 1:30 p.m. at Longhills in Benton. Those wishing to participate in the four-person scramble should call 316-3000.

Just a few hours after the Salt Bowl ends on that Friday night, folks will begin setting up their tailgate parties on the adjacent golf course. They will party all day prior to the University of Arkansas opener against Missouri State.

The Salt Bowl on Friday. The Razorbacks on Saturday. We’re only three weeks away.

Let me know your favorite high school rivalry and why it rates at the top of your list.

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Remembering Bill Gwatney

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Thursday marks the first anniversary of the murder of former state Sen. Bill Gwatney.

When I was working for Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee and Bill was serving as a leading Democrat in the Senate, we often would spar in the newspaper. It was all business. It was actually kind of fun. Not a lot of people realized at the time that we were friends.

I was part of a regular breakfast group that consisted of Bill and Skip Rutherford on the left (relatively speaking) and Bubba Lloyd and me on the right (relatively speaking). I say “relatively speaking” because we all tended to want what was best for Arkansas.

If I remember correctly, the breakfast meetings began about 1990 at the old Hungry’s restaurant on West Seventh Street in downtown Little Rock. When Hungry’s shut down, the breakfast gatherings moved to Cuz Fisher’s on Broadway in North Little Rock. We had great fun with Bill when he would order something called the Working Man’s Breakfast.

“That’s as close as you will ever come to being a working man,” we would say. Accusing Bill of having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth was a favorite sport.

Bill could take it. And he never hesitated to dish it out.

When Roy Fisher sold the place, we moved our breakfast club back to Little Rock and the Ozark Mountain Smokehouse (now the Ozark Family Restaurant). The last breakfast had been several weeks before a madman entered the headquarters of the Arkansas Democratic Party and shot Bill.

I remember the details of that horrible Wednesday, Aug. 13, as if it were yesterday. I suspect I always will.

The Little Rock Touchdown Club had scheduled a news conference for 11:30 a.m. in the lobby of the Metropolitan Tower downtown to announce its schedule of speakers for the fall. I pulled into a parking spot on Capitol Avenue in front of the Baptist Building and began to put change in the meter. As I did so, two Little Rock Police Department vehicles raced through the intersection of Capitol and Broadway, headed west at a high rate of speed with their lights and sirens on.

I remember thinking: “Boy, something bad must have happened for them to be going that fast.”

I attended the news conference and remember that my cell phone — which was set on “vibrate” – went off several times during the event.

As I walked across Broadway to my car shortly after noon, Ron Witherspoon saw me through the window and came out of his office at Arvest Bank.

“Aren’t you friends with Bill Gwatney?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied as I stood on the sidewalk.

“Well, television news is reporting that he was just shot at Democratic Party headquarters.”

I walked to my car in a trance. Only later would I learn that the murderer had come to the Baptist Building after shooting Bill — the building that ironically enough I had parked in front of. For all I know, I might have laid eyes on him as I arrived at 11:30 a.m. for the news conference, never realizing this was a man who had just shot my friend.

I drove down to Democratic Party headquarters and saw the police units, the television trucks, the whole frenzied scene. I’ve been a part of more than my share of tragedies as a newspaperman and a governor’s spokesman. I had no desire to get out of the car.

I checked my phone messages. The earlier calls had come from Bubba to tell me of the news.

I went back to my office and simply sat there — praying, crying, checking websites. I had a dinner in Jonesboro that evening and left at 3 p.m. Friends had already informed me that the situation was grave.

So when ABC radio news led its 4 p.m. national newscast with the confirmation of Bill’s death, it was not a surprise. All of us who knew him were expecting the worst by that point in the day. I remember that I was near Bradford on U.S. 67 when I heard that news. It’s so strange hearing a friend’s name as the lead story on the national news.

The rest of the trip was a bit of a blur. I do remember stopping at a service station at the intersection of Arkansas Highway 17 and Arkansas Highway 14 just to get some fresh air and walk around. I thought about Bill’s daughters. I thought about his new wife. I thought about his mother, his father, his brother in Memphis. I thought about how often we take our friends for granted.

I prayed some more. I cried some more. I made it to Jonesboro in time to check into the Washington Street Bed and Breakfast and watch the story of my friend on the national news.

It has been a year.

We’ll get back later this week to the fun stuff on this blog — catfish eating, plate lunches and the like. Tonight, though, I needed the therapy of writing about Bill. Thanks for reading these ramblings.

I am about to leave the office and drive home in my vehicle from a Gwatney dealership. Tomorrow won’t be a fun day.

Dang you, madman. I miss my friend.

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