“Gay Panic in the Ozarks”

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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