Archive for July, 2009

Great Stadium Debate II

Friday, July 31st, 2009

I suspect the debate over whether the University of Arkansas football team should play games in Little Rock will always be with us.

I spent more than nine years working in the office of Gov. Mike Huckabee. During that long tenure, guess which issue generated more calls, letters and e-mails to the governor’s office than any other?

If you guessed education reform and school consolidation (though that generated lots of public comment), you would be wrong.

If you guessed controversies over executive clemencies, you would be wrong.

If you guessed the smoking ban, you would be wrong.

If you guessed the Great Stadium Debate, you understand what really gets the heart pumping when it comes to Arkansas males.

Mark Carter of Arkansas Business wrote a story earlier this week about the many things that the energetic chairman of the War Memorial Stadium Commission, Little Rock’s Gary Smith, would like to see happen in the next couple of decades.

As soon as this year’s football season concludes, construction will begin on a $7.5 million press box at War Memorial Stadium that will cover 28,000 square feet. There’s also about to be landscaping in the stadium’s drab parking lots and a walking track built around the outside of the stadium. The new press box will be a grand addition to the work that has already been done at the stadium in recent years.

Frankly, Smith’s ability to find money from various pots for stadium improvements has been amazing. There was the cleaning of the outside concrete walls that brought the stadium’s art deco features back to life. Rusting metal was replaced by glass bricks. There were the improvements to the concourse with new concession stands, flat-screen game monitors, restrooms and more. Inside the stadium, new artificial turf, new lights, new seats, new scoreboards, new video monitors and lots of fresh paint have been added.

Smith is not stopping there, however, with the state-owned facility. He eventually would like to add more private boxes encircling the top of the stadium and perhaps even add an upper deck on the east side. In additon to Razorback games, it seems to me that Arkansas State, UAPB and UCA should play one home game a year in Little Rock with parties for alumni, pep rallies, etc. surrounding those games. And I still think UALR football makes sense (see earlier post).

If you were to take five UALR games, two Razorback games, one Red Wolf game, one Bear game, one Golden Lion game and a bowl game (believe me, this could happen), you would have 11 college football games a year in a revamped state facility in the center of the state’s largest metropolitan area.

Carter’s Arkansas Business story was followed with a column by Chris Bahn of AB affiliate Bahn, though based in Fayetteville, reasoned that the Razorbacks should continue to play at least one game a year in Little Rock.

I think the Hogs should continue to play two or more, and that’s not because I live in Little Rock and tire of the many drives to Fayetteville. Frankly, I attend very few Razorback games. I have far bigger fish to fry — I’m at Ouachita games every Saturday.

But I care about my state. And I know that Arkansas needs its flagship state university to truly be a statewide school, not an increasingly regionalized institution. Nothing does more to unite people from all parts of the state than Razorback football.

It goes without saying that many of the most avid Razorback supporters never attended college a day in their lives. Yet with the state’s rapidly improving public education system and the increased scholarship opportunities that will be made available by the lottery, their children might attend college.

As Bahn points out, Razorback football games in Little Rock are important if we’re to keep the Fayetteville institution fresh on the minds of those kids and their parents.

Gov. Huckabee took the Little Rock side in the Great Stadium Debate because he understood Arkansas — all of it. He had campaigned in all 75 counties in his 1992, ’93, ’94, ’96 and ’98 campaigns. He grew up in a far corner of southwest Arkansas. He knew what makes people in LA — Lower Arkansas — tick. He understood that the flagship university risked regionalizing itself without a Little Rock football presence. He knew it was about far more than how much the athletic department could earn.

We heard all of the arguments. There were arguments along the lines of “Auburn no longer plays any games in Birmingham, Alabama no longer plays any games in Birmingham, Ole Miss no longer plays any games in Jackson, Mississippi State no longer plays any games in Jackson. We’re going to be different.”

My answer: “What’s wrong with being different? I love the fact that Arkansas is unique. When did we reach the point that our goal is to emulate Alabama and Mississippi?”

We also heard the arguments about how the roads to Fayetteville are better now, there are far more motel rooms in the region than there used to be, there’s a good airport, etc.

All of this misses a key point: Fayetteville is not in the South. Fayetteville is in the Midwest. Northwest Arkansas has far more in common with Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri than it does Louisiana, Mississippi and even east Texas.

Little Rock — and points south and east of here — are in the South. The folks in Forrest City think differently, act differently and live differently than the folks in Fort Smith. But Razorback football can unite them as long as you don’t take away a cherished tradition — the tailgating on the War Memorial golf course and the games in the adjacent stadium.

We hear a lot about The Grove in Oxford, but the War Memorial golf course is The Grove times 18 on a Razorback game day. The Grove has the national reputation, but I’ll take the golf course in Little Rock any day of the week. Maybe it’s my inner redneck coming out, but I find the golf course more eclectic, more egalitarian, less pretentious and just plain more fun than the white-linen party in Oxford.

Paul Greenberg and I have debated the question of where the South ends and the Midwest begins. I suspect it is somewhere around Ozark or Alma.

Regardless of where that line is, you would think that a school in the Southeastern Conference would at least continue to play a couple of home games in the South.

A magazine and a website to love

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

It became official today.

Warwick Sabin is leaving his post as the associate vice president of communications at the University of Central Arkansas to spend all of his time in his other role, publisher of The Oxford American.

It’s time for another confession: I’ve known about this for quite some time since I’m the chairman of the OA board. But it was up to UCA to make the official announcement, and the university did that today.

Warwick, a New York native, came to Arkansas as a college freshman to attend the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He decided to stick around. He’s one of the most talented individuals with whom I’ve worked in my years of journalism, government and politics. It’s going to be a tremendous benefit having Warwick devote all of his time to the magazine.

Warwick took on the title of publisher in April 2008. He basically did a full-time job at the magazine in his spare time as his work days were consumed by UCA business. I’m not sure when he slept.

What Warwick’s move to the publisher’s position did, though, was to allow the heart and soul of the OA — editor Marc Smirnoff — to devote his days and nights to making a great editorial product even better.

It was Marc, a California native who ended up in Oxford, Miss., who founded the magazine with the goal of making it The New Yorker of the South. Living in Oxford allowed Marc to get to know Southern writers such as Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown and John Grisham. The first issue of the OA was printed in March 1992, and the magazine went out of business the first time in 1994.

Grisham helped resurrect the publication in 1995, but it went out of business a second time in 2001.

Private investors brought the OA to Little Rock in 2002. By the following year, those investors had decided that publishing an award-winning magazine with a literary bent was not a way to get rich.

So the magazine went out of business yet again. Then, Warwick stepped in. He was too young and idealistic to know better. He asked a group of people who were OA fans to work with him to give the magazine new life. I was fortunate to be one of the people he asked. It helped that Marc refused to give up on his dream and take a job in the real world.

Thankfully for all who love the South and love good writing, the University of Central Arkansas agreed to provide the financing necessary to resurrect the OA yet again. The university also provided a home for the magazine. Publication began again in late 2009. And this time, the OA is here to stay.

I think we have found the perfect mix — a non-profit status, a quarterly publication schedule, a home on a university campus where learning, reading, writing and lively debates are cherished. Now, if only we could give Marc more time to spend evenings at Dickey-Stephens Park.

The magazine was able to lure good, talented people like Ray Wittenberg to help it stay alive this time. With Warwick as a full-time publisher and Marc at the top of his creative game, I’m more optimistic about the future of the magazine than I’ve been in years.

The OA is the type of literary gem that we should support in Arkansas. It reaches people in the book world, the film world and the music world who don’t necessarily think of Arkansas as a place of culture. We know what we have in this state, and we shouldn’t keep it a secret. Even though its focus is on the entire South, the OA helps us spread the Arkansas message — the story of a state filled with talented writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers and more.

Yes, we turn out nationally known politicians. Attending National Governors Association meetings through the years, I would often find myself asking: “How on earth was that guy elected governor of his state?” But then I would realize I was spoiled. I came from a state that had produced truly world-class orators like Dale Bumpers, Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee. The fact that all are native Arkansans says a lot about the oral tradition in this state.

And, yes, we turn out nationally known football coaches. I never tire of reminding my friends in the state of Alabama that when the University of Alabama wanted to win, it had to turn to a native Arkansan, Paul “Bear” Bryant. And when Auburn University wanted to win, it had to turn to a native Arkansan, Tommy Tuberville. I even seem to remember that there’s a native Arkansan coaching over at Ole Miss right now.

But we also turn out the musicians — Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Louis Jordan, Al Green, Glen Campbell (sorry, Melissa, I’m not quite ready to add Kris Allen to that list). And the artists. And the architects. And the writers. When I had an office in the Mississippi Delta, I would joke to my co-workers about the famed Mississippi literary tradition: “All of your great writers are dead. A lot of ours are still alive.”

The OA helps us celebrate all of that and spread the word.

A couple of items to close. First, you’re missing a real treat if you’ve not visited the OA’s revamped website at It features a new original video series; editors’ picks for music, books and the theater; interviews; links to the blogs of top Southern writers; and much more. Be careful. If you’re like I am, you will end up spending hours at the site.

Finally, congratulations to my friend Jeff Pitchford. UCA also announced today that Jeff, a Mountain Home native, has been promoted to vice president of university and government relations. Jeff and I worked together in the early years of the Huckabee administration, including the contentious 1997 legislative session when Sen. Nick Wilson was calling many of the shots. I know what Jeff is made of, and it’s strong stuff.

UCA’s new president, Allen Meadors, made a wise choice. I’m not sure we have to sell Dr. Meadors on the value of having the OA on campus. But if we do, we’ll just lock him in the room with Marc and Warwick for the day. They’re true believers. When the door is opened, Dr. Meadors will be a true believer, too.

A home run at Ump’s

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Since I was taught in the newspaper business not to hide things from readers, I will reveal my bias at the start: I am a member of the board of the Arkansas Travelers.

That said, I would not be touting Ump’s at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock unless I believed it was a good place to eat — really good.

I’ll be quick to tell you that I miss Bill Valentine’s Ballpark Restaurant. Valentine’s had some of the best Italian food in the region. Bill insisted on it. He was always happy to stop by the table and tell you what he recommended that night. The first time I was there, Bill brought over some mussels that had just been flown in earlier that afternoon. On the next trip, he brought over some fresh mozzarella.

If you pressed him, Bill would tell you how he grew to be such a connoisseur of fine food and wine. When Bill became the youngest umpire in the history of the America League, most games were still played in the afternoon. After the games, other members of the crew were ready to put on casual clothes and go find a burger and a beer. They assigned the young Valentine to accompany the crew chief, a wealthy New Yorker who liked to put on a suit and try out the finest restaurants in each city.

The crew chief paid the tab for both men. Bill, a Little Rock native, ate, listened and learned while visiting restaurants in great American League cities such as Boston, New York and Baltimore.

Bill Valentine retired from the Travelers shortly before the start of the season. And the economy fell through the floor, making high-dollar restaurants the kinds of places you visit only on special occasions, not weekly. It seemed inevitable that there would be a change. And there was.

Fortunately for all who live in Central Arkansas, that change did not consist of the decision that a full-service restaurant was not viable at Dickey-Stephens Park. In fact, most of the kitchen staff remained intact. Now, instead of veal osso buco, they’re serving some of the best burgers and onion rings around. The French dip sandwich is highly recommended, as is the patty melt.

Some higher-dollar items remain on the menu for those wanting more than a sandwich, though the sandwiches tend to be large.

I’ve been at Ump’s on numerous occasions since the season began. And I’ve yet to be disappointed.

The atmosphere could not have been better Sunday night when I dined there with my 12-year-old son. We arrived well before the start of the game and stayed in Ump’s through the first inning, watching the first six outs on the large monitor above the bar. The staff had switched from a major league game to the closed-circuit Travelers feed just before the first pitch.

Maybe it’s only me, but Dickey-Stephens Park seems just as new, just as fresh, just as clean today as it did two years ago during its inaugural season. And the view across the river at the Little Rock skyline is better than ever.

We have a jewel in Dickey-Stephens Park. And Ump’s has proved to be the perfect complement to a night spent there.

I don’t wish old age on myself. But when work obligations and family obligations are no longer what they are now, I think I will become one of those old guys who is at the ballpark every home game and stays all nine innings. With season tickets at Dickey-Stephens Park, fall football at Ouachita, UALR basketball season tickets at the equally fantastic Stephens Center and a box at Oaklawn, I could just about fill my year.

The King of Augusta

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

I’m not sure when the book will be finished, but I can hardly wait until it’s out.

I’m referring to the book being written by Jerry King of Augusta about his late father, legendary high school coach Curtis King.

If you are a certain age and grew up in a certain part of east Arkansas (or if you have followed high school football in Arkansas through the years), you already know all about Coach King.

He coached at Augusta High School for three decades. His Augusta footall teams were 203-83 from 1944-73. At a small school, a person did a little bit of everything in those days. So Curtis King also coached boys’ basketball, girls’ basketball and track. And he taught math.

The Mountain View native coached at East Ridgewood Academy in 1928, Mountain View in 1930 and Beebe from 1937-40. He was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Arkansas High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1995.

When my father graduated from college at Ouachita in 1948, his first job was as a coach at Newport High School. Coach King liked to take young coaches under his wing, and my dad was no exception. After coaching at Newport for four years, Dad went into the sporting goods business at Arkadelphia in 1952. His friendship with Coach King would strengthen further as he called on the Augusta coach to sell athletic supplies until Coach King’s retirement.

As a child, this time of year for me always meant attending the high school coaches’ clinic for several days with Dad — first in Little Rock, later in Conway. The annual visit to the coaches’ clinic meant summer was coming to a close.

Coach King would come by the Southwest Sporting Goods Co. booth to visit, though I’ll admit he scared me a bit when I was really young whenever he would ask: “Have you ever been whipped by an old toothless man?”

He would even stop by the motel room at night to trade stories. We stayed at the Magnolia Inn on Roosevelt Road in Little Rock when it was nice, so you know how long ago that was. The Saturday night treat — between the afternoon all-star basketball game at Barton Coliseum and the evening all-star football game at War Memorial Stadium — would always be dinner across the street at Hank’s Dog House. For a boy from Arkadelphia, seeing live lobsters in a tank was a big deal.

I wish I could relive some of those nights in the motel room when my father, Coach King and other coaches would trade stories. I would appreciate those stories so much more now.

At any rate, Jerry King shares a couple of the stories that will appear in his book. One is about the game in which Coach King sent in an unwilling substitute.

“Abe, go in for Lloyd at defensive end.”

“Coach, I ain’t never played that position before.”

“Abe, I ain’t never played the piano either. But I know how to sit on the stool. Now get your butt out there.”

Another story involves the day that a stench enveloped the entire south end of Augusta. Coach King ordered his players to go around the fence surrounding the field, looking for a dead animal. They found nothing.

In the middle of a scrimmage, a player fell on one of the field stripes and proclaimed: “Coach, I found the dead dog.”

As it turned out, Coach King had run out of money for lime to line the field. So he took some powdered milk from the school cafeteria to complete the task. It had rained, and the powdered milk had soured.

Hurry up and finish that book, Jerry. I can’t wait.

Another “work in progress” that I anxiously await is the book on the late Coach “Ralph” Sporty Carpenter being written by George Baker of Arkadelphia, a long-time assistant to Coach Carpenter at Henderson State University.

Coach Carpenter, a Hamburg native, had a nickname for everybody. I was always Rexall.

I’m sure I’ll be sharing Sporty stories in future posts, but I’ll leave you with this one: A running back had fumbled at a crucial point and cost the Reddies a game.

After the loss, Coach Carpenter described the tailback as “a triple threat — a threat to the opposition, a threat to us and a threat to himself.”

Football coaches — the really good ones — can make such an impact on the lives of young men. Willie Tate of Arkadelphia, for example, played a major role in shaping me into who I am.

With two-a-days about to begin, my hat is off to those coaches who do it the right way.

The Boudin King

Monday, July 27th, 2009

In his Sunday column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Philip Martin mentioned that his first newspaper job was in Jennings, La.

Suddenly, I found myself craving boudin early on a Sunday morning.

You see, Jennings is the home of The Boudin King restaurant. In August 2003, my wife and two sons (ages 10 and 6 at the time) decided to explore the Cajun country of southwestern Louisiana. Having read about The Boudin King in Jennings, we pulled off Interstate 10 early one evening and found the restaurant hidden in a residential area.

Recognizing us for the tourists that we were, the owner came over and sat with us. We learned that her name was June Cormier and that her husband, the late Ellis Cormier, had indeed been the Boudin King.

I would later learn that the Louisiana Legislature — that paragon of ethics — had once declared Jennings to be the Boudin Capital of the Universe.

The Cormier family recipe for boudin — pork, long-grain rice, parsley, peppers, green onions and spices placed in a sausage casing and served warm — had been passed down for generations. Ellis Cormier, however, did not get around to passing that recipe on to other members of his family until later in life.

More about that later.

The Cormiers had turned what had been a neighborhood grocery store into a restaurant, and people were soon driving many miles for Ellis’ boudin. There’s an old joke about a seven-course Cajun dinner consisting of a pound of boudin and a six-pack of Dixie beer (more cultured Cajuns perhaps go for Abita these days).

The Cormiers refused to sell beer. Despite that, the crowds still came due to the quality of the boudin.

Several years ago while waiting in Memphis for a connecting flight to Washington, D.C., I found myself sitting at the gate next to U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany from southwestern Louisiana. When he was elected to Congress in 2004, Boustany became the first Republican elected to Congress from the area since 1884.

Boustany, who is of Lebanese ancestry, grew up in Lafayette. His father was the parish coroner. Charles became a cardio-thoracic surgeon.

I mentioned to the congressman how much I liked his part of the country. And then, for some reason, I mentioned my family’s visit to The Boudin King restaurant in Jennings.

“I was the Boudin King’s doctor,” Boustany said matter of factly.

“Really?” I replied.

The congressman then told the story of the night before he was to perform heart surgery on Ellis Cormier. Mr. Cormier called Dr. Boustany into his room and made a confession.

“Is there a chance I won’t survive the surgery?” the patient asked.

“There’s always a small chance,” the doctor replied.

“Well, I’m worried,” Mr. Cormier replied. “I’ve never passed on my boudin recipe.”

“I would suggest you do that,” Dr. Boustany said.

The King survived the surgery. And family members got the recipe.

When Ellis Cormier later passed away, it was certain that The Boudin King Restaurant would keep going strong.

Darn you, Philip Martin. Now, I’m craving boudin, and I don’t know where to find the good kind in Arkansas.

Milkshake madness

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

Dennis Byrd, our Benton-based food correspondent, reports on a Friday night road trip to Hot Springs.

Dennis and his wife were leaving Hot Springs several years ago when they noticed the sign at the Fros-T-Treat at 1020 E. Grand Ave. It advertised: “Milkshake flavor of the month — PEACH.”

It was a memory that stuck with them. Dennis stopped there last month, but there were no peach shakes.

Knowing that Arkansas peaches are now ripe, though, Dennis and his wife decided to take the chance and drive to Hot Springs on Friday night.

You guessed it.

The peach shakes were on the menu and were the perfect complement to the hamburger and fries that were consumed on a picnic table next to the Fros-T-Treat.

The Fros-T-Treat, which meets my definition of an Arkansas classic, has a flavor of the month each month. I’ve been known to stop in late in October for a pumpkin milkshake.

Where is your favorite milkshake served? And where is your favorite dairy bar in Arkansas? The answer might be the same for both questions or you might have one place you prefer for milkshakes and another for the overall dairy bar experience.

I haven’t been out to the Salem Dairy Bar on Congo Road in Saline County in years, but it was a regular stop when I was a child and my grandparents in Benton had a lakehouse on Lake Norrell. Going and coming from the lake each summer, the Salem Dairy Bar was a required stop.

And while there are three or four places that vie for the title of my favorite cheeseburger in Arkansas, the Dairyland Drive-In on Arkansas Highway 161 at Prothro Junction certainly ranks in the top three. There’s something nice about leaving downtown Little Rock, crossing the bridge into North Little Rock, taking the Prothro Junction exit off Interstate 40 and eating lunch at Dairyland while sitting at the picnic table.

For now, though, the Fros-T-Treat is calling my name over in the Spa City.

Wynne! Wynne!

Friday, July 24th, 2009

I was in Wynne on business Thursday. As I made the nice drive up Arkansas Highway 1, I was reminded of one of my favorite Arkansas political stories.

It’s the story of Gov. Win Rockefeller’s stop in Wynne near the end of a long day of campaigning.

After having been in a number of east Arkansas towns during the course of the day, the governor had lost track of where he was.

He launched into his stump speech.

“It is a pleasure to be here today in . . .”

He paused awkwardly, and his aides behind him on the podium began to whisper: “Wynne. Wynne.”

The governor started the speech again.

“It is a pleasure to be here today in . . .”

Again, an awkward pause.

And yet again the aides whispered, this time with a bit more urgency: “Wynne. Wynne.”

At that point, the governor whirled around and yelled at them: “I know what my name is. I want to know where I am.”

Like so many great Arkansas political stories, this one might be apocryphal. One former Rockefeller aide has promised me it is based on a true story, though perhaps embellished a bit through the years.

It’s a bit like the recounting of the Friday afternoon when a group of state Capitol reporters rushed into the office of Gov. Frank White to ask him about some new controversy.

According to one of the reporters who was there, White responded to their shouted questions: “It looks like we have opened up a box of Pandoras.”

Paul Greenberg later would begin using the term on a regular basis in Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorials.

The by-then former governor called the newspaper one day to claim that he had never said it.

But Paul decided it was too good a term not to use occasionally. So the newspaper would assume Gov. White had said it. If he hadn’t, he should have.

With Govs. Rockefeller and White no longer still with us, we’re going to assume both stories are true.

What are your favorite Arkansas political stories?

My lunch with. . .

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

While having lunch Tuesday at the Governor’s Mansion with more than 200 of my closest friends (I was attending the Political Animals Club meeting), a question popped into my mind.

If I could have lunch every Friday with any living Arkansan — family members excluded — which Arkansan would I choose?

Remember, it’s every week. This should not be someone whose stories would quickly grow old. This should not be someone you would not still be happy to see after a few months.

As I looked around the Grand Hall of the Governor’s Mansion at so many people I know, I suddenly spotted the person I would choose: former Sen. David Pryor.

Through the years, I have discovered that I never tire of Sen. Pryor’s stories — the political campaigns he has run, the colorful Arkansans he has met, the restaurants in which he has eaten, the many interesting events he was part of as a young newspaper editor, congressman, governor and senator.

The highlight of this year’s Arkansas Historical Association meeting in Magnolia was Pryor’s talk on the fight to prevent the Strawberry River from being dammed.

For four years, I covered Washington for the Arkansas Democrat. Due to the heated competition with the Gazette at that time, I felt it necessary each working day to actually stop by the offices of every member of the Arkansas congressional delegation — Sen. Pryor, Sen. Dale Bumpers, Rep. Bill Alexander, Rep. Tommy Robinson, Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt and Rep. Beryl Anthony Jr.

There were many days when Sen. Pryor’s secretary, Leslie, would say: “The senator heard you were out here and said to tell you to come on in.”

“Oh, I don’t need quotes for any stories right now,” I would say.

“Go on in anyway,” Leslie would respond.

Those were the best days — days that were not rushed, days when I could declare ourselves off the record and listen to the great DP stories. Occasionally, he would say during an afternoon visit: “Let’s go down to the Senate Dining Room and get an ol’ bowl of ice cream.”

If you have never eaten with a senator in the Senate Dining Room, you do not know the meaning of good service.

David Pyor can even make a heart attack funny. Literally.

He tells the story of being rushed in an ambulance from his home near DuPont Circle in Washington to the hospital following his heart attack.

“Everything in Washington is paperwork,” he says. “Even as I was in the back of that ambulance, they were asking me questions and filling out a form.”

“Do you smoke?” the ambulance attendant asked as he continued to fill out the form.

“I used to smoke, but I quit,” Sen. Pryor answered.

“When did you quit?”

“About 20 minutes ago.”

Simply shaking David Pryor’s hand and saying hello, as I did yesterday after lunch, brightens my day.

The floor is yours. If you could have lunch with any living Arkansan every Friday, which Arkansan would you choose?

Catfish on the Arkansas River

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

I had to take the youngest son to Russellville on Saturday to play in an AAU basketball tournament. Since it was such a beautiful day with surprisingly low humidity for July, I suggested we go to Catfish “N” on the banks of the Arkansas River at Dardanelle.

I normally am not a fan of buffets — I prefer my food cooked to order when in a restaurant — but the catfish was good in Dardanelle. A lot of people were sitting on the patio, and the view of the Arkansas River was great. Catfish “N” does something right since it has been around since 1971.

When ordering catfish from the menu, my favorite place is probably Murry’s, which is just west of Hazen on U.S. 70. It doesn’t have the same funky atmosphere of the original Murry’s in DeValls Bluff, which was a rabbit warren of connected trailers that attracted weekend road trippers from Little Rock for years. More than once, I consumed a barbecue sandwich at Craig’s as an “appetizer” and then went down the street to Murry’s (it wasn’t easy to find) for a main course of catfish.

Stan cooks the fish right at what a lot of people call the “new” Murry’s, though it has been at the current location for years. It’s worth a pleasant drive over on U.S. 70. Stay off Interstate 40. The old highway is far more relaxing.

I also have to plug the catfish at Gene’s in Brinkley. I know “barbecue” is in the name of the restaurant, but I usually find myself ordering catfish. That’s because Gene sells the small whole catfish known as fiddlers.

Most people now prefer catfish fillets. But I prefer catfish steaks over fillets and like whole catfish best of all.

When in the mood for buffalo ribs (for you Yankees, that is a fish, not a big animal that once roamed the plains) , it’s the Lassis Inn in Little Rock.

Questions for you:

Which Arkansas restaurant serves the best catfish?

Do you prefer fillets, catfish steaks or whole catfish? And why?

And where else other than Lassis Inn is a good place to buy buffalo?

A remarkable weekend

Monday, July 20th, 2009

It was a remarkable weekend for those of us of a certain age. It was as if we had been transported back to the 1970s, watching Walter Cronkite deliver the news on tape and watching Tom Watson lead the British Open in real time.

It all began as I was working much too late on a Friday night. The phone rang. It was my wife, and I figured she was about to inquire if I planned on coming home before midnight.

Instead, she said: “Walter Cronkite died tonight.”

The news was not unexpected. Still, it was one of those passages that remove you further from your youth.

I was only 4 years of age when John Kennedy was assassinated. I have little recollection of those events.

By 1968, though, I was a young news junkie, addicted to the big stories that took hours of network time. I have vivid memories of watching the coverage of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, the Robert Kennedy assassination and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And while the coverage we watched was sometimes that of NBC and ABC, more often than not, it was Walter Cronkite and his CBS correspondents who guided my family through those events.

The memories are even more vivid of this week in July 1969. Like Cronkite, I was entranced by the space program. I was allowed to stay up late into the night to watch Apollo 11 coverage.

And, for some reason, I have clear memories of staring at the small rabbit-ear television in my room on the final night of the 1972 Democratic National Convention. That last night of the convention went into the wee hours of the next morning. I can remember staying up to watch Cronkite discuss the convention with his floor reporters long after George McGovern’s acceptance speech had ended and the balloons had dropped. I can recall thinking how much fun it would be to be one of those floor reporters wearing a bulky headset and talking to Walter up in the booth.

When I began attending national political conventions in 1984, the thing that excited me most on entering the convention hall was looking up at the network skybooths with their lighted logos.

My mother still has framed a drawing I did in the first grade with the caption: “I want to be a reporter.”

Be careful what you wish for since I indeed would become a newspaper reporter after college. The first-grade drawing, though, is not of a newspaper reporter. It’s of a network anchor sitting behind a desk.

It was a nice trip back in time to watch the extensive CNN coverage on Cronkite after getting home Friday night. I was glad that John King (not Larry King) was anchoring. John King is a former wire service reporter (AP). Cronkite was also a former wire service reporter (UP). Larry King is, well, Larry King.

The CBS special on Cronkite that aired Sunday night was also good, though we could have done without Robin Williams and George Clooney.

Then, there was Tom Watson’s four-day run at the British Open that made us all feel younger for 71 holes.

One putt. Just one successful putt away from one of the greatest sports stories of our lifetimes.

When the putt didn’t go down, it was the same sick feeling I had when Smarty Jones was edged out in the Belmont Stakes.

We were all so close to something special. Sports can lift us high, only to drop us quickly.

I was going to tell my boys: “Remember this day. You have witnessed history.”

In retrospect on a Monday morning, however, maybe we did witness history.

Thanks, Tom.

It was a special weekend.