Summer in Arkansas

The July issue of Arkansas Life magazine (www.arkansaslife.com) is out, and there’s a nice series of essays about summer in Arkansas.

For those of us who love summer, the essays bring back plenty of memories.

Here’s the introduction: “That first sweet bite of watermelon. The waxy-fine feel of a ripe tomato in the palm of your hand. Slapping your skin over and over, hoping the pesky mosquitoes will find another host. These are the staples of an Arkansas summer. But the soul of the season hides in the most unusual places and moments. For there is magic in a pre-dawn bike ride, a float down the Buffalo River or a cold mojito sweating in your hand. There is pure joy found in the eyes of children as they swat at lightning bugs or watch the fireworks sizzle in the sky before falling into the lake.”

During the summer, for instance, I simply cannot get enough of Arkansas tomatoes and peaches.

I plan to drive tomorrow to Clarksdale, Miss., for part of the Oxford American’s Most Southern Weekend On Earth event. On the way home, I hope to stop at the fruit and vegetable stand on U.S. Highway 70 at Biscoe to buy peaches, tomatoes and perhaps a big cantaloupe.

My friend Kane Webb, the executive editor of Arkansas Life, asked me to contribute a couple of short pieces. I addressed two subjects I’ve written about on this blog before — eating outside at the Dairyland Drive-In just off the Prothro Junction exit off Interstate 40 in North Little Rock, and getting my fill of vegetables at Franke’s in the Regions Center in downtown Little Rock.

I visited Dairyland at 1 p.m. on a sunny Wednesday. There were two other people eating outside. That left me two of the four small picnic tables from which to choose.

A steady stream of traffic wound slowly down Arkansas Highway 161 — big, loud trucks; cars with the windows open and their radios playing full blast. Don’t expect a quiet dining experience at the Dairyland Drive-In.

You can sit facing the traffic or you can sit with your back to the highway, facing an old shed and a dilapidated mobile home with boxes piled high on the added-on wooden deck. The lunch special was a hamburger, fries and a drink. With tax, the total came to $4.42. And there were enough fries to feed two. These aren’t the mass-produced, frozen version, either. They’re fresh cut and fried to a golden brown. It costs an extra 40 cents if you want cheese on the burger.

There’s a full selection of milkshakes, malts, sundaes, floats and banana splits. I ordered a milkshake to take back to the office with me. It was as good as any milkshake you can find in this state.

On the day I visited Franke’s for the magazine story (I’m in the same building; I’ve already visited twice for lunch this week), my choice for a salad was the marinated tomato and cucumber salad. Vegetables? I went that day with turnip greens and Franke’s famous eggplant casserole. The entree was the stuffed bell pepper. I added a cornbread muffin. A piece of egg custard pie is de rigueur for dessert when you visit Franke’s.

There’s a Franke’s out on Rodney Parham in west Little Rock that’s open seven days a week, serving lunch and dinner. The downtown location is only open from 10:45 a.m. until 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, still overseen by a member of the founding family, Kristin Franke. The demographics vary greatly between the two locations. Out west, it tends to be an older crowd — retired folks, people from out of town who have doctors’ appointments. Downtown, it’s more of a business crowd — good suits, well-shined shoes (I’m the exception; my shoes badly need a shine. Can someone suggest a good place to get a shine?).

The July edition of Arkansas Life also includes short pieces by:

– Christopher Irons on cycling at dawn

–Kyle Brazzel on Fourth of July fireworks

– Tammy Keith on drive-in movies and on peaches

– Werner Trieschmann on mosquitoes

– Steve Straessle on snow-cone shacks

– Nancy Elizabeth Dement on Lake Ouachita

– Kane Webb on baseball

– Sean Clancy on driving through the Delta with bugs hitting the window (I will no doubt experience some of those bugs on the way back from Clarksdale tomorrow)

– Bobby Ampezzan on summer heat

– Keith Sutton on fishing the oxbow lakes in the White River National Wildlife Refuge

That one brought back memories of summer evenings spent fishing with my dad on an oxbow in the Ouachita River bottoms south of Arkadelphia. We were always the only boat on the water. It was quiet, eerie even.

The talented Sutton writes: “Bass live in the emerald waters of the oxbows, and catfish and bluegills and crappie — lots of them. Yet anglers don’t visit often. The lakes are remote and it can be difficult to launch a boat. One might fish a lake for days without seeing another soul. But you can drop in a cricket or minnow, cast a crankbait or spinner, and catch fish after fish.

“Watch, and you will see flashes of yellow in the cypress trees — stunning prothonotary warblers, gleaning insects for their young. Breathe deeply, and you will smell the evergreen fragrence of cypress needles and the redolence of rich, bottomland earth and fertile water. Listen, and you will hear the haunting calls of barred owls — Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? — and the sonorous hum of summer cicadas. Relax, and you will feel your cares melt away. Senses stir every minute you are there.”

It’s nice writing, and it brings back nice summer memories.

What things, places and events define an Arkansas summer for you?

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8 Responses to “Summer in Arkansas”

  1. For this ol’ Russellville boy, sitting on the end of the pier at Lake Dardanelle for hours just watching the lake or looking up at Mount Nebo.

    Cruising on a party barge.. well just about anywhere…

    Sitting on the back porch with a radio tuned to 1120 khz… Letting Jack and Mike entertain me with another Cardinal win…

    Stopping at the Exxon station in Brinkley on the way home from Memphis or Jonesboro on a hot July night, and thinking that God was sending another horde of locusts like He did in Moses’ time because they ALL descend on that gas station and it’s florescent lights after dark.

    Trying to find the \Dover Lights\

    Cruising the strip in Russellville… or another town if we got bored.

    Getting an e-mail from Rex Nelson in July that I needed to have something ready for the Ouachita football broadcast. (Wait.. that was spring time never mind…)

  2. Sitting in the sun at the ballpark in my lawn chair, midway through pool play on a hot Saturday, reaching into the cooler beside me to grab a handful of ice and smooth it along my legs, arms and neck to cool me off a little.

    Eating fried okra, fresh corn, purple hulled peas and sliced tomatos on the deck because it’s too hot inside from the stove. Drinking a half-gallon of tea and delighting in the condensation dripping off the glass and onto your shirt.

    A cold beer tingling down your throat aboard a boat on Lake Hamilton.

    Soft serve ice cream from the King Kone.

    Brilliant red cardinals perched on the railing of the deck.

  3. Phil W says:

    Not sure why, but summer reminds me of Sunday lunch after church. We usually ate at Bill and Snookie Dixon’s house with an eclectic mix of adults, children, college students, and Greta their Dachsund.

    Great Southern food, wonderful company, and interesting conversation in an amazing old house.

    Also working at Southwest Sporting goods (which I hope you will write about some day!) shipping LOTS of equipment to schools all over the state.

  4. rexnelson says:

    Working at Southwest Sporting Goods (putting facemasks on football helmets while sitting in that old chair down in the basement) indeed was an interesting summer experience — Rex

  5. Danny Powell says:

    Summer for me was baseball at Ray Winder Field. When I was young our parents would drop us off at the front gate and come back to get us at 9 p.m. We had the run of the place. As a teenager and college student, going to Ray Winder involved driving all over Little Rock to find the free promo tickets that were being distributed that night. As a young adult it was a place to go either early or late to drink cheap beer and sit in the bleachers. As an adult it was a place to take my son and teach him about baseball (although it was touch and go when he was little and so scared of Shelly the Donkey we had to sit on the top row of the grandstand so we could keep an eye out for him).

    I love the new Dickey-Stephens Park and like I was at Ray Winder, I’m a regular each summer. It’s newer, nicer, offers more options, and was probably a good idea. But, at least to me, it’s not better …

  6. rexnelson says:

    You hit the nail on the head, Danny.

    That is exactly how I feel. Dickey-Stephens Park is newer, nicer, offers more options and was probably a good idea.

    But it’s not necessarily better.

    One of the things that makes me saddest is the fact that the city of Little Rock did not lift a finger to try to save Ray Winder for high school, American Legion and college baseball. We even had a nonprofit organization in place to help them — Rex

  7. I’m astonished! You still seem to have that sense of small town history and fun. People in Casselberry, FL, where I live (10 miles N of the Mouse House) have come from everywhere. That increased in the 60s of course, and now it seems that everyone is from everywhere- Else! Few people can sit around and talk about the types of things that I grew up with there. Enjoy the conversation… it’s priceless being able to share that value.

  8. bkn says:

    I was just re-reading this column from last year to remind myself about dairy bars around the state when I saw your question about where to get a good shoe shine. Go see Jimmy at Jerry’s Barbershop on Kavanaugh in the Heights. He has been shining shoes there for years. The clientele at Jerry’s is a who’s who of Little Rock personalities, and you never know who you may get to visit with while you are getting a shine or waiting for a haircut.

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