During my stint as political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the best sentence I ever read was written by Mike Trimble.
It was so good, in fact, that I don’t remember how it ended.
It was 1993 and Trimble, who had earned the reputation of being one of the state’s great storytellers at the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Times magazine, had been enlisted to help me with the newspaper’s first shot at putting together a package on the Best 10 and Worst 10 state legislators.
In his introduction to the package — which took up almost an entire section — Trimble wrote this about the Arkansas House of Representatives: “In the House, where the shallow end runs the length of the pool, …”
Like I said, I don’t even remember how the sentence ended.
In yesterday’s Southern Fried post about Murry’s, the famous east Arkansas catfish joint that was once at DeValls Bluff but is now on U.S. Highway 70 between Hazen and Carlisle, I noted that writer John Egerton had quoted Trimble in his 1987 book “Southern Food.”
Trimble had described the original Murry’s as a place that “appears at first glance to be a minor train derailment.”
I also noted in the previous post that Max Brantley and I had run into each other on a recent Saturday night at Murry’s. In the post Max wrote on his Arkansas Blog, he included a link to a transcript of a lengthy interview Ernie Dumas conducted with Trimble as part of the Gazette oral history project.
That project is part of the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History at the University of Arkansas (in the way of full disclosure, I have the honor of being on the Pryor Center board).
The Gazette published its final issue in October 1991, and the oral history project began in 2000 with funding from the Patterson family of Little Rock, the Arkansas owners of the newspaper prior to its purchase by the Gannett Corp.
Former Gazette and New York Times reporter Roy Reed was the project director for the Pryor Center.
In the interview with Dumas, Trimble was asked about a Gazette feature story he did on catfish cook Olden Murry.
A former Gazette reporter who had left the newspaper to work for the office of Disability Determination for Social Security read the story and filed a complaint against Murry.
“Olden Murry had worked for the Corps of Engineers on a snagboat for a time and had an injury to his arm,” Trimble said. “He was mangled in a winch, I think, and as a result had been getting a disability payment for several years. In getting Mr. Murry’s history, he told me about that. … And I reported this and also reported the long hours he put in at this restaurant.”
Trimble received a call from the former reporter who was now working for the government. He was informed that Murry had been drawing full disability for years.
In an attempt to protect Murry, Trimble told the caller: “To be perfectly honest, I was real drunk when I went out there. I’ve got to admit I was real drunk when I was talking to him, and I don’t know if any of that stuff is right.”
Indeed, Murry’s has long been known as a brown-bag restaurant, in the tradition of a lot of the old restaurants across the river in the Mississippi Delta.
Fortunately for Olden Murry, the deputy U.S. attorney was a fan of the restaurant. So was U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers.
The Social Security bureaucrats were informed that Murry had no money saved. In other words, it would be a waste of time to go after him.
Dumas said in the interview: “He hired all of his kinfolks down there, and I don’t think he ever finished a week with a penny.”
According to Dumas, the Social Security Administration was told, “‘The restaurant is yours. You can have it. It’s yours. Just tell us when you want to take possession.’ And Murry would just leave. And they finally just said the hell with it and dropped the whole thing. And he didn’t get any more benefits.”
Once things were resolved, the deputy U.S. attorney rented a bus and took a group to DeValls Bluff for a feast of fried catfish, fried crappie, turnip greens and black-eyed peas.
It reportedly was quite a night.
Olden Murry is gone, but Becky and Stanley Young carry on his legacy nightly at one of Arkansas’ best restaurants.