Buttons and pearls

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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