Archive for May, 2011

Graduation day

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Friday is graduation day in our family.

I’ll be in the hot, humid gymnasium at Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys that night.

I know the memories will flow during the ceremony as I think back on the past 18 years.

My goodness, how those years have flown by.

Could it really have been more than 18 years since that frigid February night in 1993 when Melissa called me at work and asked me to rush home?

When Austin was a baby, people would say things to me like this: “They grow up quickly, you know. Today they’re in kindergarten, and tomorrow they’re graduating from high school.”

“What tired cliches,” I would think to myself.

“How right they were,” I find myself thinking today.

Now, I’m the one spouting the cliches to young parents.

I was the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in February 1993, and my life had never been busier. Bill Clinton had been president for a month, I was supervising a Washington bureau of three full-time reporters from my desk in Little Rock and it seemed there was a new controversy every day.

I also was supervising three full-time reporters at the state Capitol bureau, and we were in the midst of the first legislative session with Jim Guy Tucker as governor.

On top of all the supervision and editing, I was writing a piece from the state Capitol each day called Capitol Journal.

Oh, one more thing: Late nights and weekends were spent writing a biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton that a New York publisher was wanting as soon as I could get it to them.

The stories were lined up for me to edit that Wednesday when Melissa called at 6:40 p.m.

“I’ve got to go,” I told Ray Hobbs, the editor at the desk next to mine. “You’re going to have to edit these stories.”

As I wound my way west on Interstate 630, I discovered that a freezing rain had begun to fall. I passed the exit to Baptist Health Medical Center, and I noticed flashing blue lights and wrecks on the bridge.

“We’ll never make it,” I thought to myself.

I made it home and, yes, we made it to the hospital by 7:20 p.m.

Austin arrived at 2:48 a.m. on a Thursday. He had been born a month early. I held off until 5:30 a.m. before I began making calls to relatives.

I called my mother and father in Arkadelphia. I called Melissa’s mother in Washington, D.C., and her father in Kingsville, Texas. I called my grandmother in Benton. I called my sister in Pensacola.

Melissa’s father is gone now. My father and grandmother also are gone.

But the others on that list — my mother, Melissa’s mother, my sister — will gather with us Saturday night to celebrate Austin’s graduation.

Fourteen years of school are completed.

College looms.

I vividly remember taking Austin to his first day of pre-kindergarten at Holy Souls on August 20, 1997. He didn’t want to go.

A precocious child, he had loved his routine at home — the television shows he watched, the nap he took, the lunch his mother fixed, the afternoon snack he ate, you name it.

Melissa often would leave him in a playpen with CNN playing in the background. She’s a news junkie, and our son would become one, too.

The first three words he strung together were “this is CNN.”

I kid you not.

When he was just 3, I came home one night in May 1996. He excitedly pointed at the television and exclaimed: “The ValuJet crashed!”

For hours, he had been subjected to the CNN coverage of the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Everglades.

Once we got him to school, though, he excelled. He has yet to make a B, though that could change in college.

There also were the other things boys do — the many baseball games at the old Highway 10 league and with a traveling team; the basketball games at Holy Souls and in AAU leagues during the summer; the cross country and track meets in high school; the other school activities; the church events; the family vacations.

My favorite photo on the refrigerator at home is one that was taken at Walt Disney World Resort in the summer of 1999.

Austin is age six in that photo. Brother Evan is two. They look like the two happiest boys in the world.

They’re 18 and 14 now.

Yes, the years really have flown by.

I know. I know.

I’m a cliche machine.

I think back to my own high school graduation in 1978 and realize now that it probably led to far more reflection on the part of my parents than it did for me.

It boggles my mind to think that I’m now as far away from that graduation night — 33 years — as the country was from the end of World War II at the time of my high school graduation.

I still feel young, still feel the need to say “yes sir” and “no sir” to those older than me and hate it when people call me Mr. Nelson rather than Rex.

I’ve been blessed these past 33 years and hope I have at least 33 years ahead that are just as fruitful and fun.

That’s not to say that life doesn’t throw you curve balls. Austin’s curve ball came more than two years ago just before he turned 16, and it was a big one. But I’m proud of him for battling the physical and emotional challenges on a daily basis.

My prayer is that his battle will make him a tougher and a more compassionate person, someone who understands the travails so many others face. He’s learning the hard way at a young age that toughness and compassion are traits that can go together.

Time spent asking “why me, Lord?” is time wasted. You put your head down and plug on in this life.

It will be a time to celebrate on Friday and Saturday, a bright spot in this somewhat melancholy spring when I’ve lost my father and another of my childhood heroes within a few weeks of each other.

We’re proud of what you’ve accomplished thus far, Austin, and look forward to the years ahead.

Godspeed as you begin your college years.

Almost camp meeting time

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Summer approaches, and in certain parts of Arkansas that means camp meeting time.

The camp meeting tradition in Arkansas dates back to 1821, 15 years before Arkansas became a state.

According to the Old State House’s website: “The religious camp meeting movement reached Arkansas with a big meeting at Cadron in 1821. The next year there were camp meetings at Crystal Hill and at the Ebenezer Camp Ground in Hempstead County.

“A camp meeting is a one- or two-week period of preaching, testimony, Bible study and fellowship. … The whole family comes and camps out for the entire meeting. At first a campground might have a brush arbor — a wooden framework covered with vines — and family tents. As camp meetings continued year after year at the same place, there would be a frame tabernacle and family cabins. Camp meetings also became famous for music and food — lots of food.

“The 19th century camp meeting movement began in Logan County, Ky., about 1801. A large group of Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian people met near Cane Ridge for two weeks in late August. That first meeting had many of the characteristics of later meetings, including the brush arbor and the family camps.

“The idea spread rapidly, especially through rural areas and the frontier states and territories of the South and West. It was part of what people called a Great Awakening of religious and reform enthusiasm.

“Arkansas locations of camp meetings included Sardis, Warnock Springs, Magnesia Springs, Midway, Gravelly, Mt. Pleasant, Pump Springs, Bailey, Bethel, Red Colony, Keener, Lost Creek, Sulphur Springs, Falcon, Liberty, Union, Clear Lake, Thornberry, Macedonia and Greathouse Springs.

“Some camp meetings continued into later times, including those at Salem, near Benton; Davidson, near Hollywood in Clark County; Ben Few, in Dallas County; and Ebenezer, near Center Point in Hempstead County.”

The Davidson Campground in Clark County will hold its 127th annual encampment from July 22-31. This is the most famous of the camp meetings still going on in Arkansas. The campground is just off Arkansas Highway 26, about 12 miles west of Arkadelphia.

The opening prayer service will be July 21 at 8 p.m. The actual camp meeting begins the next day with daily services at 11 a.m. and 7:45 p.m. Singing groups will perform each night beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Davidson is one of the oldest continuously operated camp meetings in the country. There are almost 100 wooden cabins on the grounds, and many people spend the 10-day camp meeting in recreational vehicles. There are usually up to 600 people staying on the grounds at any time.

Those desiring more information on the Davidson encampment should contact my old friend Blake Batson of Arkadelphia at (870) 345-9711. He can answer your questions and tell you about RV space availabilities.

The campground bears the name of the site’s donor, Jerry Davidson. Services are held under a large shed that’s located in the center of the campground. The first shed was built by W.B. Pullen and his wife (the Pullen Camp, by the way, was the name of a well-known hunting camp in the area when I was growing up in Arkadelphia. Members didn’t just gather for deer season. There also was an annual squirrel season gathering).

A new shed was completed in time for the 1911 camp meeting. Lighting was provided by burning pine knots atop four-foot towers at each of the four corners. This method of lighting the shed gave way to oil lamps and then in the 1920s to generators. The campground is now served by the South Central Arkansas Electric Cooperative.

The numerous springs in the area were among the initial attractions of the site.

An 1888 story in the Southern Standard at Arkadelphia (which no longer exists but gave me my first newspaper job in 1976) described it this way: “Mr. J.J. Davidson donated five acres of land to be used exclusively for a Methodist campground, and anyone has a privilege of building a tent on the ground. It was named Davidson’s Camp Ground as a compliment to the generous donor, Uncle Jerry Davidson. It is a beautiful place for a campground, situated in a lovely grove of trees and surrounded by 15 to 20 mineral springs consisting of sulfur, iron and calybeate.”

For years, campers obtained their drinking water from a spring about 50 yards from the shed. An electric pump was installed at the spring in the 1950s. In the 1960s, deep wells were dug.

The largest of the annual gatherings was believed to have been the 1925 camp meeting when almost 8,000 people showed up on a Sunday to hear W.G. Hogg from Texas preach the gospel.

The full meeting has been called off only once. In 1905, Terre Noire Creek overflowed its banks and inundated the campground.

Here’s how the Davidson Campground website ( describes the annual gathering: “While children enjoy bicycle riding and water balloons to stay cool, adults relax on the front porch swings of their cabins. Youth can be found playing volleyball, pingpong and basketball throughout the day. Cool drinks and hand-dipped ice cream cones are always close by at the camp’s commissary.

“While rest and relaxation is a major activity of the camp meeting, spiritual revival is the focus of the encampment. Visitors are always welcomed and encouraged to bring their RVs. … Albeit a Methodist campground, all Christian denominations are welcomed and campers represent many faiths.”

The Ben Few Campground, meanwhile, is located two miles west of Princeton in Dallas County. The camp meeting first was organized in 1898 by Rev. Benjamin Asbury Few. This year’s camp meeting, which is sponsored by the Sparkman United Methodist Church, will be held from July 22-31.

The Salem Camp Meeting near Benton will be held June 19-26. People no longer camp out in tents or cabins at this meeting, and there are only evening services. Still, the crowds come.

The camp meeting’s website states: “We still enjoy joining together in singing traditional hymns and hearing inspiring sermons. Camp meeting is held under an open-air arbor (tabernacle). Dress can be casual. Ceiling fans circulate the air, but it still may be hot. You are welcome to bring lawn chairs and sit outside the arbor if you wish. Concrete now replaces the sawdust floor.”

The marker in front of the Salem United Methodist Church notes: “In the early days of Saline County’s history, the settlers would gather here after the crops had been laid by for rest, relaxation and to give thanks to the Lord. The early camp meetings were held under brush arbors lighted by pine knots and included daily preaching and singing services. The Salem Camp Meetings were first organized soon after 1830. Annual meetings have been held continuously on this hallowed spot since 1867. During its history, many renowned ministers of Methodism have inspired those attending with their great preaching.”

Early camp meetings in Arkansas traditionally were held in the fall after the crops had been harvested. Once public schools became widespread, the camp meetings were moved to the summer.

Shirley Gregory has researched the history of the Salem Camp Meeting.

She writes: “In 1859, Patrick Scott, along with his brother and neighbors, built a small log church for regular church services. But the fall camp meetings were probably still held outside under a brush arbor. Camp meetings were suspended during the Civil War but resumed afterward.

“The campers (tenters) held services several times a day. Since many of them lived on farms with few neighbors, camp meeting was a time to make and renew friendships. Undoubtedly many courtships began at camp meeting. The evening services were likely better attended because people who lived relatively close by in Benton would come out just for the evening service. Some people who would not go inside a church attended the camp meeting as it was free entertainment. Certainly some of those onlookers were converted to Christ.

“In the late 1800s, a tabernacle was built that was about 80 square feet and open on all sides. The first seats were split boards and puncheons laid across logs with no backs. The pulpit was at one end of the shed with a platform for singers and other preachers behind the pulpit. Since electricity was not yet available, the evening meetings were lighted in the following manner: Scaffolds about four feet high were built on the four sides of the shed at a safe distance and covered with dirt. Fires were built here with rich pine knots, which provided the light.

“At some time in the early 1900s, a generator would be set up on the campground to provide electricity for lighting the arbor. This probably continued until about 1940 — well after Little Rock and Benton residents had electricity. Rural areas such as the Salem community had been neglected by electric companies until after the government established the Rural Electrification Administration.

“In 1935, the Works Progress Administration built the star-shaped well around the spring, which is still in existence. By the 1950s, about 50 cabins had been built surrounding the campground. There were likely several different brush arbors that preceded the church building. Since the church was established at the campground, three different arbors and four different church structures have been built. The first arbor was brush, and the first permanent structure was made of logs. The second arbor was also brush, but the second church was a frame structure.

“Sometime around 1909 or 1910, a fire started in the church and soon spread to the tabernacle, which stood against the church. Both were quickly destroyed. The date of reconstruction is placed sometime between 1909 and 1919. Sometime around 1955, the tabernacle was moved from alongside the church to its present location.

“With improving roads and transportation, fewer people actually camped on the campground during camp meeting so day services ended and the camp meeting was shortened to a weeklong event. As the farm lifestyle became rare, the dates of the camp meeting were moved forward. For the past few years, camp meetings have been held in late June to avoid conflicts with school sporting events.”

It’s almost summer.

In a handful of places in Arkansas, that still means it’s almost camp meeting time.

Mr. Jack, Augusta and the world of golf

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

In 2003, Jack Stephens co-authored a book with Dr. T. Glenn Pait of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

The book was titled “Golf Forever: The Spine and More: A Health Guide to Playing the Game.”

A Las Vegas-based writer named Jack Sheehan was brought in to assist Stephens and Pait with the book.

After Stephens’ death in July 2005, Sheehan wrote a piece about a now legendary incident at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. I’ve heard various versions of this story through the years, but Sheehan’s telling of it is as good as any, so we’ll let him relate it:

“It seems that in the 1970s, a new member asked to join Stephens’ group on the first tee at Augusta. Jack welcomed the man warmly, and the newcomer suggested they have a little wager.

“Jack replied that they played friendly games for $10 at Augusta, and that would be fine.

“The man hitched up his trousers, and said: ‘At my home club back in Detroit we play for a $100 Nassau with automatic two-down presses.’

“‘My, that’s impressive,’ Stephens said. ‘But we keep our betting to $10 here.’

“The new member grumbled all the way around the course, making comments to the effect that he was hungry for some action and that he expected that members of Augusta National could afford larger wagers than that.

“Jack Stephens just let the grousing go without responding.

“When they had finished the round and adjourned to the members’ card room, the man suggested they have a game of gin rummy.

“Stephens said that would be fine, that the custom at Augusta was to play for a penny a point.

“‘You gotta be kidding me,’ the man said. ‘At my club in Detroit we play for $10 a point.’

“Having listened to this refrain for four hours, Jack Stephens had heard enough.

“‘Mr. Johnson (not his real name),’ Jack said as other members in the room looked up to hear Stephens’ voice raised for one of the few times. ‘If you tallied up all your holdings — stocks, real estate, the whole nine yards — what would you say your net worth would come to?’

“Johnson was taken aback by the question but finally puffed out his chest and said, ‘Oh, I’m probably worth between $15 million and $20 million, I’d say.’

“With that, Jack Stephens took a deck of cards from the table, slapped it on the bar and said, ‘I’ll cut you for it!’

“For the first time that day, the new member was overcome by silence.”

That story says a great deal about the unassuming, dry-witted Jack Stephens that I had the pleasure of being around back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

On Friday, former President George W. Bush will be in Little Rock to honor Jack’s son Warren and Warren’s wife Harriet for their support of The First Tee of Central Arkansas. The former president will dedicate a garden area at The First Tee complex, which is just off South University Avenue in Little Rock.

Bush now serves as the honorary national chairman of The First Tee. His father had been in that role since the 1997 inception of a program that has reached more than 4.7 million children nationwide.

I was among those in attendance at The First Tee of Central Arkansas complex back in April 2001 when the elder Bush joined the likes of Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, Jerry Pate, Pat Summerall and Chris Schenkel to dedicate the facility.

“Anybody who has ever spent any time with my father knows that golf is important in Dad’s life,” Warren Stephens said that day. “But to know that you also have to understand that he was somewhat a late arrival to the game. Unlike these young people who will enjoy the Jack Stephens Youth Golf Academy and the opportunities that will come with it, Dad didn’t start playing until he was 36 years old.

“He grew up in a time and a place where golf literally was unthinkable. But I think Dad would agree that golf is a great teacher of life. And that’s why Dad firmly believes in exposing young people early on to golf and to the lessons golf teaches.

“It has been said that golf mirrors the virtues that society desires — integrity, honor, respect, rules, discipline. I think all of those traits can be applied when I talk about my father. And I think all of those traits are what we are exposing young people to when we get them interested in golf.”

Here’s part of what David McCollum wrote in the Log Cabin Democrat at Conway following the 2001 dedication ceremony: “Because of his business connections in building the largest brokerage firm off Wall Street in the country, Stephens was invited some years ago to become a member of Augusta National Golf Club. As part of that, he was invited to a social gathering.

“Stephens was never endeared to a lot of social mingling and left early. As he was walking along the course, he heard a distinctly Southern voice, something to the effect ‘nice evening, isn’t it?’

“Stephens struck up a conversation with the stranger sitting on a porch of a cabin adjacent to the Augusta National course. Not much for partying, Stephens told the man.

“‘Me neither. How about some cards?’ the stranger reportedly said.

“And that evening, Stephens began a friendship with Bobby Jones, lord of golf at the Masters. That relationship led to Stephens eventually becoming chairman of Augusta National. That led to Stephens later becoming a $5 million benefactor to The First Tee program. … Stephens doesn’t talk much publicly. He allows his son to speak for him. But his actions and his motivation speak volumes. …

“Apparently, there are a lot of people who believe that all types of youngsters can learn life lessons from a game that alternately exhilarates and humiliates everyone who plays it. There are many who believe that a youngster learning to hit a good shot or two or even discovering how to recover from a bad lie might eventually prevent a school shooting or a teen suicide. Taking out frustrations on a golf ball is much healthier than taking them out on a human being.”

Sheehan put it this way: “There are those in the world of golf who seem to be front and center at all times. They are the type who cherish the spotlight and are more than willing to reap every ounce of glory they can from the game.

“Then there are men like Jack Stephens. … Jack fully appreciated the most important things that golf offered him — wonderful recreation, breathtaking scenery and the most ideal venue on earth to make friends and strengthen friendships. And he always tried to give back to his sport in equal measure.”

During the 2005 memorial service for Jack Stephens at the Episcopal Collegiate School (which his family’s donation had helped build), Lou Holtz said this: “When people hear about a personal misfortune that happens to you, 90 percent of them don’t care. The other 10 percent are just glad it didn’t happen to them. But Jack was one of those few who care. And that’s just one of the things that made him so special.”

The former president will be in town this week to honor Warren and Harriet Stephens, but he will also be honoring the memory of Mr. Jack.

Cut those cards!

Rockabilly in Helena, Cash in Jonesboro

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Mississippi and Tennessee have done a far better job than Arkansas of promoting their music heritage.

We are, however, making progress in a state whose music heritage is every bit as rich as those two neighboring states.

Several upcoming events come to mind since they’ll help fund future tourist attractions.

The first will occur this weekend. My friend Bubba Sullivan of Bubba’s Blues Corner at Helena has put together what he hopes to be the first of many rockabilly festivals.

It’s called the Arkansas Delta Rockabilly Festival and will be held downtown on Helena’s historic Cherry Street on Saturday.

Tickets are $10 each. That’s a steal for a lineup that will include Brandon Cunning and the Stunning Cunning Band at noon, C.W. Gatlin at 1 p.m., Smackover native Sleepy LaBeef at 2 p.m., Stan Perkins at 3 p.m., W.S. Holland (who played drums for Johnny Cash for decades) at 4 p.m., Travis Wammack and J.M. Van Eaton at 5 p.m., Mississippi legend Ace Cannon at 6 p.m., Sonny Burgess and the Legendary Pacers at 7 p.m., Ronnie McDowell at 8 p.m. and El Dorado native Jason D. Williams at 9 p.m.

Proceeds from the festival will help fund a project that Bubba has worked on for years — the American Music Museum, which he hopes to put in some of the vacant buildings on Cherry Street in order to attract more tourists to the city.

Bubba, who is about to turn 71, helped start the King Biscuit Blues Festival and the Sonny Boy Blues Society.

“Sonny Burgess and I have been friends for a long time, and he booked everybody,” Bubba recently told The Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi. “All of them are up in age. They’re all respected overseas, and a bunch of rockers did tributes to them.”

On May 28, meanwhile, Helena will host the Arkansas Delta Family Gospel Fest at the Cherry Street Pavilion. Gospel great Mavis Staples will headline the 11th annual event.

The Gospel Fest is sponsored each year by the Delta Cultural Center. Admission is free. The festival will begin at 11 a.m. and run until almost 10 p.m. Other groups scheduled to perform are the Holmes Brothers, Tim Rogers and the Fellas, the Lee Boys, Gloryland Pastor’s Choir with Pastor Cedric Hayes, Rev. John Wilkins, the Dixie Wonders, the Fantastic Jordan Wonders and Voices of Joy.

As for this Saturday’s festival, Burgess and Sullivan have created what looks to be a fun event.

The Pacers were formed in 1955 at Newport. They had five singles for Sun Records. They later had a 1965 hit on Razorback Records called “The Short Squashed Texan.” As a child, I was delighted each fall when KAAY-AM, the Mighty 1090, would play that song over and over the week of an Arkansas-Texas football game.

The group has played through the years with Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Patsy Cline, Ronnie Hawkins, Billy Lee Riley, Ace Cannon, Charlie Rich and others.

The group, which has toured throughout the United States and Canada, was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Jackson, Tenn., in 2002.

Their motto: “They play the music of the ’50s the best because they helped invent it.”

It also must be noted that tickets are now on sale for the huge Johnny Cash Music Festival that’s scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 4, at 7 p.m. at the Convocation Center on the campus of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

Proceeds from the concert will benefit the Johnny Cash boyhood home project at Dyess.

The number to call for tickets is (870) 972-2781. Tickets may also be purchased by going to the school’s website at

“Because of Johnny Cash’s fame, visitors come to see the town where he grew up, but there’s little there that tells his story,” says Gov. Mike Beebe, an Amagon native who knows all about the music heritage of east Arkansas. “I’m pleased that the city of Dyess, Arkansas State University and others are now joining to develop a museum that focuses on his boyhood in Dyess, along with efforts to restore or re-create his childhood home. … Within five years of opening, the tourism projects are projected to have the potential of pumping more than $7 million annually into the regional economy and generating more than 80 jobs.

“For too many years, the fact that Cash spent his entire childhood in Arkansas has largely been igonored, except by his most ardent fans. Born in Kingsland in 1932, Cash moved with his family in 1935 to Dyess Colony in Mississippi County and remained there until his graduation from high school in 1950. The colony was one of the nation’s earliest New Deal agricultural resettlement communities, created to give struggling farm families a chance at a new beginning.”

There are three types of tickets:

— The $150 VIP package includes a seat on the floor in front of the stage, admission to an exhibition of Cash photos by Alan Messer and access to an artist reception to meet Cash children Rosanne Cash and John Carter Cash.

— The $75 ticket includes a lower-level seat and admission to the photo exhibition.

— Other tickets are $37.50 each.

Those planning to perform include Rosanne Cash, John Carter and Laura Cash, Johnny’s brother Tommy Cash, George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Gary Morris, Dailey & Vincent, Rodney Crowell and Chelsea Crowell.

If you need more information, go to

Rosanne called the possible restoration of the Cash family home “a long cherished dream.”

ASU wants to restore the home that Cash lived in from the time he was 3 until he graduated from high school to make it look like it did during the 1930s and 1940s. If the private owners won’t sell the actual home, ASU will re-create it.

The university also is restoring what was the administration building at Dyess Colony. The museum will include exhibits on Cash’s boyhood at Dyess, the influence of his family and the impact his early life had on his later music.

The former theater next door (only the facade remains) will be reconstructed to show an orientation film along with Cash documentaries.

ASU hopes to make the music festival an annual event.

Christy Valentine, the school’s communications director, said: “Since the moment the announcement was made about the benefit concert, we have received a flood of requests for ticket informtion from all over the country. We believe that this festival will be a top draw each year.”

If you like music, you would be wise to mark the next two Saturdays in Helena on your schedule along with Aug. 4 in Jonesboro.

Seven to save in Arkansas

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

All last week, people would ask me the same question: “Are you going to Ray Winder Field on Saturday and get some of the seats?”

Each time, my answer was the same: “No. It would be too painful.”

Reading the Sunday morning newspaper account of people ripping out the wooden seats caused me to be depressed the entire day.

If I had one of those orange or green seats at my home, it would represent failure in my mind each time I looked at it.

With the help of my friend Russ Meeks, I set out to save Ray Winder Field.

I failed.

What hurts so badly is that it could have — should have — been saved. City leaders with a sense of history, a sense of continuity and a sense of place would have found a way to preserve this Arkansas treasure for the American Legion, high school and other teams that were clamoring to play there.

We could have had hundreds of games there each year (I still have all the letters of commitment to prove it) and maybe even a baseball museum as well.

Alas, there was no vision.

As eager baseball fans ripped out the seats Saturday, they ripped off pieces of my heart.

I’ve thought about Ray Winder Field a lot in recent days. And I’ve thought about historic preservation — how important it is to save the landmarks from our past since they help us understand the present and chart a better course for the future.

Saving historic places says a great deal about a city, a county and a state.

I’ll let you decide what the neglect of Ray Winder says about Little Rock.

I was honored when Vanessa McKuin, the talented executive director of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, asked me to serve as the master of ceremonies for the event today at Curran Hall in downtown Little Rock that highlighted what the HPAA considers the seven most endangered places in our state.

Each year the HPAA comes out with its list of historically and/or architecturally significant properties in Arkansas that we’re in danger of losing forever.

The alliance solicits nominations from individuals and organizations across the state for places that should be considered for the list. The HPAA launched Arkansas’ Most Endangered Historic Places in 1999 to raise awareness of the importance of historic properties to the state’s heritage. Properties listed through the years faced threats such as deterioration, neglect, insufficient funds, insensitive public policy and inappropriate development.

A few of the properties that have appeared on previous lists, in addition to Ray Winder Field, are the Johnny Cash family home at Dyess, bluff shelter archaeological sites in northwest Arkansas, the Faulkner County Courthouse in Conway, the Stephen H. Chism House in Booneville, the African-American Rosenwald schools across the state and the Japanese-American relocation camps at Rohwer and Jerome.

Here’s this year’s list (known as the Seven to Save):

1. Dunagin’s Farm Battlefield in Benton County: This was the site of the first Civil War battle in Arkansas. Also called the Battle of Little Sugar Creek, it took place on Feb. 17, 1862, as part of the Pea Ridge Campaign. This site is privately owned and for sale. The property is not protected from development or the removal of artifacts.

2. The Hester-Lenz House on Arkansas Highway 5 near Benton: This may be the oldest home on its original site that’s still standing in Saline County. The house is a notable example of a two-story dogtrot log cabin and also an interesting example of German-influenced vernacular construction applied over an existing log home. The home is owned by a member of the Lenz family who would like to see it stabilized and rehabilitated. However, it has been vacant for many years. Its condition, to be charitable, is dire.

3. The Knox House in Pine Bluff: This home was built in 1885 by Richard Morris Knox, a businessman and former Confederate colonel. The Knox House is largely intact and is among the best surviving examples of Eastlake Victorian architecture in Arkansas. This home’s plight is typical of the dozens of once fine homes in Pine Bluff that are threatened by neighborhood neglect and declining property values as that city continues to lose population.

4. The Plummer Cemetery in Conway County: This cemetery is the final resting place for Samuel Plummer, who settled the area that eventually became Plumerville. Plummer’s wife, five or six of his 10 children and likely a grandchild also are buried there. The cemetery needs some tender loving care. It’s within 50 feet of railroad tracks, which presents a challenge to access and maintenance of this important burial plot.

5. The McDonald-Wait-Newton House in Little Rock: This home is commonly known as the Packet House. Constructed in 1869, it’s the last remaining example of the large homes that where built soon after the Civil War on the north side of Cantrell Road, which was then named Lincoln Avenue. The area was called Carpetbaggers’ Row or Robbers’ Row during Reconstruction because a number of the houses were built by men who had been associated with the Union during the war. The house, which is now zoned for commercial use, has been vacant and for sale for several years. Fortunately, a prospective developer has applied for a permit to rehabilitate the house for use as a restaurant. That’s an exciting turn of events. But since the sale is still pending, the house remains on the list.

6. St. Elizabeth Catholic Church at DeValls Bluff: The church was built in 1912. The history of the parish, which was established in 1904, is closely tied to the history of immigration by European farmers to the Grand Prairie. Following the death of the last remaining parishioner, the building was abandoned in 1986 and has remained unused. The building, which was further damaged by last month’s storms, is in need of structural work and maintenance.

7. The White-Baucum House in Little Rock: This house at 201 S. Izard St. was built in 1869-70 by Robert J.T. White, who was the Arkansas secretary of state from January 1864 until January 1873. The house is one of the earliest and best examples of Italianate architecture in the state. The house was sold in 1876 to George F. Baucum, a prominent businessman in Little Rock. The Baucum family lived in the house until the 1920s. The White-Baucum House is now vacant and for sale. The city of Little Rock has had to board up and secure the house since vandalism is a problem.

There you have it: The Seven to Save for 2011.

Louisiana oysters, Cajuns and the flood

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Man tries his best to assert control.

In the end, though, nature triumphs.

We learn that lesson anew as the Great Flood of 2011 continues to roll south.

If we watch, listen and study, there’s much we can learn during and after a historic flood such as this one.

Take Louisiana oysters, for instance, without a doubt one of my favorite things to consume (how I wish I was sitting at the oyster bar at Pascal’s Manale — circa 1913 — in uptown New Orleans on this spring Friday).

Bob Marshall of New Orleans is among the nation’s finest outdoors writers. In 1997, Marshall was a member of a three-person team at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans that won a Pulitzer Prize for a series that examined the plight of the world’s fisheries.

Marshall’s 2005 investigations into the Corps of Engineers’ work on New Orleans levees and floodwalls was part of a package that won the newspaper yet another Pulitzer Prize.

Marshall also is an expert on Louisiana’s coastal erosion crisis.

In an article in Thursday’s Times-Picayune, Marshall outlined the effect on Louisiana oysters from the opening of the Morganza Floodway (which will begin Saturday) and the Bonnet Carre Spillway.

“When the planet acts in ways that prompt humans to claim natural disaster, ecologists calmly point out there are no disasters in nature, only events,” Marshall wrote. “Louisiana’s oyster industry is about to be the next example.

“Opening spillways to divert the rising floods of the Mississippi River away from cities and across local wetlands will almost certainly kill a significant portion of the nation’s richest oyster grounds, bringing immediate financial disaster to fishing families from Lake Borgne to Vermilion Bay still recovering from the BP oil spill, state biologists said.

“But the event is also good long-term news for the oysters, beginning as early as this fall.”

Here’s what Patrick Banks, the biologist in charge of the oyster program for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, told Marshall: “This will be a terrible blow to the industry, to the fishermen, no question. But we know from records that these large freshwater events usually result in greatly improved conditions for production in the future.

“You have to remember that floods of water from the rivers originally were part of the natural cycle that helped Louisiana develop the incredible oyster resource it has. The impact of every opening is different and depends largely on the length of the opening and the (stage of an oyster’s life cycle) that they occur. Judging from these other events, we could see 100 percent mortality in some of these oysters.”

In other words, it’s going to be hard to find Louisiana oysters this summer, just as was the case last summer following the BP spill. The 2010 Louisiana oyster harvest was down 50 percent from 2009.

Marshall, however, supplies the rest of the story: “Louisiana’s oyster resource evolved not only to handle these frequent river floods but to prosper from them, thanks to a two-tiered population of estuary reefs, which grow inside the bays, and intertidal reefs, which grow along and just inside the coast.

“Estuary reefs killed by the fresh water open their shells, which become ideal attachment points for the next crop of spawn — which is provided by those intertidal reefs that are not affected by the flood.”

Banks put it this way: “The experience has been reefs that suffer mortality from these openings come back stronger than ever. The impact on the fishermen is not good, but the long-term impact for the animals is actually a positive.”

The Corps will open the Morganza Floodway north of Baton Rouge this weekend for the first time since 1973, relieving pressure on Baton Rouge and New Orleans but flooding large parts of the Cajun country of south Louisiana.

“Some 25,000 people in an area known for small farms, fish camps, crawfish and a drawling French dialect are hurriedly packing their things and worrying that their homes and way of life might soon be drowned. … Opening the gates for the first time in 38 years will unleash the Mississippi on a wild ride south to the Gulf of Mexico through the Atchafalaya River and divert floodwater from the river into the basin’s swamplands, backwater lakes and bayous,” The Associated Press reported today. “Several thousand homes will be at risk of flooding. … No one seems to doubt that a major flood is bound for Butte LaRose, Krotz Springs, the oil-and-seafood hub of Morgan City and other swampland communities in the Atchafalaya Basin.”

The story described a public meeting Thursday at the volunteer fire department at Butte LaRose.

Col. Ed Fleming, the head of the Corps’ New Orleans District, warned of a wall of water 15 feet high.

“From the ground?” one resident asked incredulously.

“From the ground,” Fleming immediately replied.

In “Rising Tide,” the classic account of the Great Flood of 1927, John Barry described the fight to save a levee on the east bank of the Atchafalaya at McCrea, a town that no longer exists.

“Now 2,500 men worked at McCrea in shifts,” he wrote. “They used every technique, shielding the levee with lumber, backing it up with sandbags, revetting it with rocks. Repeatedly, some small part of the levee crumbled into the river, but each time hundreds of men rushed to the spot with timber, rocks and sandbags.

“‘They are soldiers, every one, heroes, too,’ Herbert Hoover said of them. But at 3:30 in the morning of May 24, muddy water suddenly appeared behind the levee. A few moments later a stretch of levee 700 feet long crashed into the river. The river had just ripped open the last crevasse of the 1927 flood.

“The current near the crevasse roared past at 30 miles an hour. An Associated Press report said: ‘A wall of water 40 feet high and almost 20 miles wide tonight was … cutting a path of desolation across the length of Louisiana. … Immediately behind the advancing waters scores of residents of the lower Atchafalya were being rescued by tiny boats, which ploughed precariously through the raging current to remove them from housetops. … Further back, along the Bayou des Glaises sector, only the swishing of the water could be heard.’

“The image of a 20-mile-wide, 40-foot-high wall of water was hyperbole, but the Atchafalaya had breached levees on both its banks and was spreading still another sea across central Louisiana. The flood rose to 42 feet above sea level, while the land through which it flowed had an elevation of less than 10 feet. Another 150,000 people became refugees.”

Fast forward to 2011.

Today’s AP story described how a man named Maxim Doucet in Butte LaRose has deployed a team to erect a six-foot levee around his home on the banks of the Atchafalaya. Doucet owns a construction company called Monster Heavy Haulers.

“I figured I’d give Mother Nature a run for her money,” he said.

Down the street, Russell Calais sipped on a beer as his children loaded his possessions into trucks.

“I made up my mind I wasn’t going to leave,” he said. “After I sat down and drank about 10 or 12 Coors, I said, ‘Well, it’s time.'”

The AP story noted, “Water may drive these families out of their homes, but it’s also what will bring them back to repair and rebuild. Five generations of Pamela Guidry’s family have called Butte LaRose home. Her father was a commercial fisherman. Her brothers catch crawfish for money. She worked at a seafood-packing business.

“‘I didn’t want my kids growing up in a city. I wanted them to learn how to live the hard way,’ she said. ‘They had to learn how to survive on their own down here. Once you’re out of Butte LaRose, you’re out in society, out of our own little world.’

“Guidry said her family weathered the 1973 floods and the Great Flood of 1927 without any thought of leaving town for good.

“‘The water receded. They cleaned up. Their lives went on,’ she said.”

Indeed, in the summer that lies ahead, the waters from the Great Flood of 2011 will recede.

People from Illinois to Missouri to Tennessee to Arkansas to Mississippi to Louisiana will rebuild.

Yes, even the oysters will come back strong.

The Corps will make repairs.

And then we’ll wait. We’ll wait for the next great Mississippi River flood that inevitably will come in our lifetime, our children’s lifetimes or our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

Archarch. . . ouch! (John Ed understands)

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

Hopes were so high for Bob Yagos and his wife, Val, of Jacksonville going into last Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.

Their 3-year-old thoroughbred, Archarcharch, had won the Arkansas Derby just three weeks earlier and now was being touted by many racing analysts as a longshot worth keeping an eye on in Louisville.

Meanwhile, extensive media attention had focused on 70-year-old trainer Jinks Fires of Hot Springs, who has been in the business for five decades and finally had a horse in the Kentucky Derby.

Not only that, the jockey was his son-in-law, a 50-year-old veteran rider named Jon Court.

Thoroughbred racing can bring owners, trainers and jockeys alike to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

Saturday, April 16, in Hot Springs had been the highest of highs for Bob and Val Yagos, Jinks Fires and Jon Court.

On the first Saturday in May in Kentucky, it was a different story.

Archarcharch stumbled coming out of the No. 1 post position and was never a factor in the race. The horse pulled up lame just after the finish. Those across the country who were watching the race on NBC had a sickening feeling as they saw Archarcharch being loaded into an ambulance.

X-rays revealed a fracture in the left front leg, and it was announced that Archarcharch would be retired from racing.

It could, of course, have been even worse.

Ruffian. Go For Wand. Charismatic. Swale. Holy Bull. Barbaro.

The list of great horses who had career and even life-ending injuries is long.

Arkansan John Ed Anthony understands.

In May 1993, the chairman of Anthony Timberlands Inc. stood at the top of the sport of kings. He had joined Harry Payne Whitney and the famed Calumet Farm of Kentucky that year in being the only 20th-century owners to win the Preakness Stakes in back-to-back years.

The highest of highs.

In June 1993, however, things began to change for Anthony, a 2001 inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Prairie Bayou, who had been the runner-up in the Kentucky Derby and the winner of the Preakness, shattered a leg in the Belmont Stakes.

“The horse was strong and sound, had never had any physical problems, was on one of the safest tracks in America, just galloping along at the back of the pack, not even extended, and took a step and shattered his leg,” Anthony later told The Baltimore Sun. “More than anything, the emotion I felt was absolute astonishment.”

The lowest of lows.

John Eisenberg would describe it this way in the Sun: “Wild-eyed, unable to stand, the horse was taken by ambulance from the track to the Loblolly barn. After conferring with veterinarians, Anthony reluctantly agreed to have the horse euthanized a half-hour after the race. He is still haunted by his decision.”

“They kept telling me no horse had recovered from such an injury,” Anthony told the Sun. “I kept saying, ‘Death is always an option, but why do we have to do it now?’ They finally convinced me the situation just wasn’t going to change. But I have often wondered if it wasn’t the right time to try some of the radical procedures that are out there. The horse was a classic champion.”

Condolence letters poured in from around the world.

A year later, none of Anthony’s 37 3-year-olds proved worthy of running in the Triple Crown races. The best of the 1994 crop, Bayou Bartholomew, had been injured in the Arkansas Derby and retired.

Thus John Ed Anthony never had the chance to do what others in the 20th century could not do — win the Preakness three consecutive times.

Whitney had won with Bostonian in 1927 and Victorian in 1928, but Beacon Hill finished fifth in 1929.

Calumet won with Faultless in 1947 and Citation in 1948, but Kentucky Derby winner Ponder ran fifth in the 1949 Preakness.

Anthony had started Loblolly Stable with his wife Mary Lynn in 1975.

Loblolly began gaining attention as Cox’s Ridge won important races in 1977 and 1978. Then came Temperence Hill’s 1980 Belmont Stakes victory along with the Preakness victories of Pine Bluff in 1992 and Prairie Bayou in 1993.

John Ed and Mary Lynn divorced in 1988 after almost 28 years of marriage but continued for several more years as the co-owners of Loblolly.

“You divorce your husband, but you don’t divorce your friend,” Mary Lynn once said.

Mary Lynn married Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Robert Dudley, and Anthony also remarried.

In 1994, though, John Ed and Mary Lynn decided to desolve Loblly.

“If you want to blame someone, blame me,” Mary Lynn told the Sun that year. “John Ed and I have worked together well on Loblolly, but I have a new life, and it was getting harder to fit racing into it. And then Prairie Bayou was so devastating. I realized I had reached the point where the highs didn’t make up for the lows.”

Loblolly’s mares, yearlings and weanlings were sold at auctions in Lexington, Ky.

John Ed Anthony, however, wasn’t about to leave the racing game he had so come to love. He quickly created Shortleaf Stable.

“The name is symbolic,” Eisenberg wrote. “The shortleaf is a species of pine, a smaller, higher-quality species than the loblobby, which is more common in Arkansas.”

Shortleaf Stable would be smaller than Loblolly had been, but there would be quality.

Anthony, a Bearden native, was born in February 1939 and graduated in 1961 from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He briefly enrolled in law school but returned home when his father died. He knew the family timber business in the vast pine woods of south Arkansas was his calling and wanted to help his grandfather operate that business.

Anthony’s ancestors had settled the area in the 1840s. In 1907, his grandfather, Garland Anthony, began operating a small sawmill near Bearden. By the 1930s, the man affectionately known across the Gulf Coastal Plain as Mr. Garland had built one of the largest timber operations in the South.

From its headquarters in Bearden — just three miles from the original mill –Anthony Timberlands operates sawmills and other wood products businesses across south Arkansas.

Mr. Garland died in 1982 at age 97. John Ed Anthony’s grandchildren are the seventh generation of their family to work in those forests.

“We believe the seven generations of heritage invested in our lands, plants and communities require a higher standard than simply operating for a profit,” Anthony says. “Each succeeding generation is challenged to leave a better forest and a better company than when they arrived.”

Anthony, who recently completed a term on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees, stresses quality in both his timber and racing operations. He has used some of the best trainers in the business — D. Wayne Lukas, John Veitch, Shug McGaughey, Joe Cantey.

The emphasis on quality extends to other areas.

In September 2006, the $5.8 million Anthony Chapel complex opened at Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs following a major donation by John Ed Anthony and his wife, Isabel Burton Anthony. There’s a six-story, wood-and-glass chapel that’s an architectural wonder along with a bride’s hall, a groom’s quarters and the 57-foot Anthony Family Carillon, an electric bell tower. The complex was designed by Fayetteville architects Maurice Jennings and David McKee.

“I think horses have to be secondary toward some higher purpose in life,” Anthony once told Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times. “Except maybe if you’re in the Pony Express and the Indians are chasing you, how fast a horse can run is not really very important in the whole grand scheme of things.”

Anthony, though, will long be remembered as having been among the greatest American thoroughbred owners of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The rampage of the mighty Mississippi

Monday, May 9th, 2011

The Delta Council in Mississippi is a venerable (and powerful) institution.

Wealthy Delta planters organized the group in 1935 with a focus on three areas — agriculture, flood control and transportation.

During the years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, I attended the annual meeting of the Delta Council each spring on the campus of Delta State University at Cleveland, Miss.

If you want to see a lot of people wearing seersucker suits, I direct you to two places — the downstairs dining room of Galatoire’s in New Orleans on a summer Friday and the annual Delta Council meeting in Cleveland.

Jim Barksdale, the Mississippi-born businessman who rose to the top of Netscape prior to its merger with AOL, was scheduled to speak Friday at the Delta Council annual meeting.

At the 1947 Delta Council meeting, Dean Acheson unveiled the outline for the Marshall Plan.

In 1952, William Faulkner spoke.

Other speakers through the years have included David Rockefeller, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Werner von Braun.

Changing the speaker for the annual meeting at the last minute isn’t something the tradition-bound Delta Council does lightly.

But that’s just what happened last week for the 76th annual meeting. The day still ended, as it always does, with a catfish fry outside, but Barksdale was asked to come back another year. That’s so a flood update could be given by officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The rare change in plans is a testament to the historic nature of the Great Flood of 2011.

The Delta Council president, Cass Pennington, said: “At a time when so many of our citizens and businesses are facing the greatest flood threat of their lifetime and their property and safety are compromised, it is imperative that we allow all members of the public to hear a thorough briefing from the Corps of Engineers and the emergency management agencies.”

Do you need another example of just how massive this flood is?

Consider this fact: Later this week, the Corps likely will open the Morganza Spillway in Louisiana for the first time since 1973, diverting huge amounts of water from the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya Basin.

The Morganza Spillway is north of Baton Rouge.

Today, the Corps began opening the Bonnet Carre Spillway just north of New Orleans for the first time in three years.

Louisiana officials are even planning to move inmates from the famous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Here’s how Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal put it today: “If you got wet in 1973, you’ll get wet this time. If you nearly got wet in 1973, you’ll probably get wet this time.”

The governor has declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard to assist people from Vidalia south to the mouth of the Atchafalaya near Morgan City.

Once the floodway is opened, large parts of Pointe Coupee, St. Landry, St. Martin, Iberia, Iberville, St. Mary and Terrebonne parishes will be covered with water. Five to even 25 feet of water will rush into some areas.

This flood leaves the Corps with little choice. If the spillway isn’t opened, the river could top the floodwalls that protect New Orleans and immense pressure could cause levees to break, resulting in a repeat of the floods we saw following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

I spent part of the weekend reading a lengthy (almost 50,000 words) piece that Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John McPhee wrote for The New Yorker back in February 1987.

That story — which led to a 1989 McPhee book titled “The Control of Nature” — chronicled the Corps’ efforts to keep the Atchafalaya from capturing the flow of the Mississippi.

“By the 1950s, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it,” McPhee wrote. “By the route of the Atchafalaya, the distance across the delta plain was 145 miles — well under half the length of the route of the master stream.

“For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississsippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah.”

The Corps’ efforts to prevent this from happening are centered at Old River near Simmesport. The Corps dammed Old River back in 1963 to limit the flow of water from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya.

“The Corps would have to build something that could give the Atchafalaya a portion of the Mississippi and at the same time prevent it from taking all,” McPhee wrote. “In effect, the Corps would have to build a Fort Laramie: a place where the natives could buy flour and firearms but where the gates could be closed if they attacked.”

The Atchafalaya had already captured the Red River, which had once flowed into the Mississippi, in the 1940s.

Would the Big Muddy be next?

There remain those who believe the day will come when despite all of the federal government’s efforts, the Mississippi will have its way during a flood such as this one and change course.

Bonnet Carre (pronounced Bonny Carey in south Louisiana) was the first of the major spillways constructed after the Great Flood of 1927. It was completed in 1931 and designed to divert water into Lake Pontchartrain.

What’s known as the Old River Control Structure upstream is constantly in operation to allow 30 percent of the Mississippi’s flow into the Atchafalaya.

The Morganza Spillway, completed in 1954, extends for 20 miles  and is designed to be used far less frequently than the Bonnet Carre. The Morganza is for extreme emergencies. And this appears to be an extreme emergency.

Here’s how the news release put out by the Corps on Friday night stated it: “As floodwaters progress through the Morganza Floodway to the Gulf of Mexico, the height of the water could reach between 5 and upwards of 25 feet above ground elevation, causing widespread flooding and inundation.”

The head of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries said residents should expect to see bears, deer, wild hogs and other wildlife fleeing the dense Atchafalaya swamps.

“It’s like hurricane season,” Jindal said. “You hope for the best, prepare for the worst. We haven’t seen flooding like this in quite awhile. The water will be higher and the duration will be longer.”

John Barry, the author of “Rising Tide,” an account of the Great Flood of 1927, is now the vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority.

In a piece last month for The Wall Street Journal, Barry wrote: “If recent events in Japan were not enough, the news of the past week has reminded us that nature can make our efforts to control it seem like nothing more than hubris. A historic swath of tornadoes has ripped across the South, and now a potentially major Mississippi River flood is gathering. The tornadoes have done their damage already. The rising waters of the Mississippi are about to test human judgment and engineering anew.”

Barry wrote his essay just before the Corps chose to blow up a levee at Birds Point, Mo., and flood much of the Bootheel in order to protect residents on the other side of the river at Cairo, Ill.

Barry called plans to dynamite the levee “one small piece of a carefully thought-out and engineered plan to control the immense forces of the Mississippi. The river drains 31 states and stretches from Olean, N.Y., to the Rockies, from North Carolina to Taos, N.M.”

This water from much of the nation eventually finds its way to Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

“A great flood can easily fill the entire 35,000-square-mile area with water,” Barry wrote. “The last time the Mississippi did so was in 1927. … The problem of protecting against river floods is complex. It requires a broad view of the river system as a whole, a narrow focus on local protection and constant maintenance and monitoring down to almost infinitesimal detail.

“Nature is perfect; engineers are not. As recent experience in Japan demonstrates, if humans make a mistake against nature, nature will find and exploit it.”

It’s evident that the Mississippi desperately wants a shorter route to the Gulf of Mexico — the Atchafalaya.

Will the works of man keep the Old River Control Structure in place and thus keep the river flowing past Baton Rouge and New Orleans?

A major test lies ahead.

The Great Flood of 2011

Friday, May 6th, 2011

My grandfather, W.J. Caskey of Des Arc, often would talk about the Great Flood of 1927.

He also would talk about the 1937 flood, another memorable event of a life spent in east Arkansas.

When I was young, I sometimes thought to myself, “Pam-Pa is rambling again.”

He died in the hot summer of 1980 at age 96. How I wish I had recorded some of his stories. In retrospect, I realize he was a walking history book.

He founded the Caskey Hardware Store and Caskey Funeral Home. The building he built early in the 20th century still houses those businesses, now known as Garth Funeral Home and Garth True Value Hardware.

I’ve thought about him a lot these past few days with Des Arc in the news.

I thought about him this morning when I looked at the color photo atop page 6A of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It showed the brown water of the White River almost reaching the back door of the Prairie County Courthouse. The courthouse is just across Main Street from his businesses, and he spent time there as the county assessor from 1913-17, the county clerk from 1917-21 and the county judge from 1937-41.

I loved it when people would still refer to him as Judge Caskey, though it had been decades since he served in public office.

I thought of him again this afternoon when the U.S. Geological Survey reported that the White River at Des Arc has passed the previous high-water mark set in 1927. And the river is not even expected to crest there until tomorrow.

Even my mother, at age 85, was too young to remember the Great Flood of 1927.

For almost all of us who are alive in Arkansas today, this Great Flood of 2011 will be for us what the Great Flood of 1927 was for our parents and grandparents.

Sure, the system of levees along the Mississippi River and its tributuries will ensure that the damage is far less than it was 84 years ago. But this is a historic natural disaster. You’ll tell your children and grandchildren about the year when busy Interstate 40 was flooded for days.

One of the best works of nonfiction I’ve ever read is “Rising Tide,” John Barry’s account of the 1927 flood.

At the start of Chapter 12, Barry describes the rain-swollen Mississippi River this way: “There is no sight like the rising Mississippi. One cannot look at it without awe, or watch it rise and press against the levees without fear. It grows darker, angrier, dirtier; eddies and whirlpools erupt on its surface; it thickens with trees, rooftops, the occasional body of a mule. Its currents roil more, flow swifter, pummel its banks harder. When a section of riverbank caves into the river, acres of land at a time collapse, snapping trees with the great cracking sounds of heavy artillery. On the water the sound carries for miles.

“Unlike a human enemy, the river has no weakness, makes no mistakes, is perfect; unlike a human enemy, it will find and exploit any weakness. To repel it requires an intense, nearly perfect and sustained effort. Major John Lee, in the 1920s the Army district engineer at Vicksburg who would in 1944 make the cover of Time as an important World War II general, observed, ‘In physical and mental strain, a prolonged high-water fight on threatened levees can only be compared with real war.”

It’s what we now face: A prolonged high-water fight on threatened levees up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries.

There’s flooding on the Arkansas, the White, the Black, the Cache, the St. Francis, the Ouachita.

I attended the annual Little Rock meeting of the Delta Grassroots Caucus today at the Clinton Presidential Center and, as one might expect, the talk was all about the floods.

Gov. Mike Beebe stopped by on his way to check out the levees at West Memphis.

House Speaker Robert Moore, that proud son of Arkansas City, was in attendance to introduce the governor.

The 1927 flood, of course, had forever changed the fortunes of Arkansas City. More than 2,000 people had to be rescued in the area. Thousands of people camped for weeks in tents on the levee there.

Paula Reeves describes it this way for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture ( “The floodwaters were up to the second floor of some homes, and the citizens of the area camped in tents on top of the levee. When the floodwaters receded, the river channel, which was just across the levee, had moved about a mile to the east. This brought an end to the port at Arkansas City and made the railroads useless. The town never fully recovered from this tragedy.

“Arkansas City became a quiet little town in the years following the flood. There have been attempts to have the county seat moved to one of the larger cities in the county, but these attempts have been unsuccessful.”

Moore, a preservationist at heart, had been scheduled to make remarks during a Thursday luncheon that celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas.

The luncheon was held in the majestic 1924 Albert Pike Memorial Scottish Rite Temple in downtown Little Rock. The master of ceremonies, former U.S. Sen. David Pryor, noted that Moore was instead in a helicopter viewing the floods with officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Pryor then mentioned the famous incident in which Moore’s mother, Dorothy, received her high school diploma from the second-floor window of the Arkansas City school while seated in a boat in 1927.

The House speaker said Friday that now he will simply wait — it could be as late as May 16 before the Mississippi River crests at Arkansas City — while hoping the levees hold.

On Good Friday in April 1927, The New York Times reported: “From Cairo to the sea, the most menancing flood in years was sweeping down the Mississippi River and its tributaries tonight. High stages from Evansville, Ind., to Cairo, Ill., increased volume from smaller streams above Cairo, and the unloading of heavy surplus of the Arkansas and White rivers presaged a stage that may equal or surpass the records in 1922. … The guardians reported the great dikes in fine condition, but they placed men and machines at strategic points to reinforce any weakness which may develop under the immeasurable weight.”

The Commercial Appeal at Memphis reported that same day in 1927: “The roaring Mississippi River, bank and levee full from St. Louis to New Orleans, is believed to be on its mightiest rampage.”

This morning, the lead story in The Commercial Appeal began this way: “Defying all efforts to hold it back, the Mississippi River burst through a temporary levee and submerged a downtown-area airport Thursday before spilling onto Memphis’ doorstep at Riverside and Beale.

“All across the area, the river’s steady rise toward a historic crest prompted renewed preparation, with even venerable institutions such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital forced to take precautionary measures to protect their facilities from flooding.

“As of Thursday night, the Mississippi had swelled to 45.44 feet on the Memphis gauge, inches shy of the level of the 1927 flood and a little more than 3 feet below the record of 48.7 feet set in 1937. It is expected to crest at 48 feet on Wednesday, but forecasters suggested it could go slightly higher as a result of more rain upriver. … Some of the most telling evidence of the Mississippi’s rise could be found late Thursday at the foot of Beale, where water pooled beneath a trestle. Although the river was still a foot or so below the level of Riverside there, it was pushing water out of storm drains onto the pavement, forcing police to close portions of both streets.”

Late this morning, I received an email from the Riverfront Development Corp. at Memphis noting that Mud Island River Park had been closed.

“This is hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime event,” the email said. “Although people want to come down to witness it firsthand, they must be careful in where they drive. … The river is to be respected and safety must take priority.”

We’re witnessing a monumental event in the history of the Mid-South.

The Corps earlier this week blew a hole in the levee on the Missouri side of the river — flooding tens of thousands of acres in the Bootheel — in order to save Cairo.

Will major levees downstream hold?

It’s going to be an interesting weekend.

Please post your flood reports, memories and anecdotes in the comments section below as the Great Flood of 2011 plays out.

I’d love to hear from those of you who live between Memphis and Little Rock.