In September 1965, I turned age 6.
Rather than being one of the youngest people in my class at school, I would be one of the oldest. That’s because I would wait a year to start the first grade. It was my father’s decision. He was a former coach and loved to tell people: “We decided to redshirt him in kindergarten.”
Instead of attending kindergarten a second consecutive year, though, I traveled the state of Arkansas with my father as he sold athletic supplies to high schools and colleges. It was a magical nine months. Looking back, I realize now that he was doing it as much for himself as he was for me.
On Feb. 29, 1964, my 9-year-old brother was killed in an accident at Pine Bluff while my parents were there to take him to a Ouachita Baptist University basketball game. Less than two years after that tragedy, I imagine my father figured it would be good therapy to have his surviving son with him on the road. Dad was 41 at the time, 16 years younger than I am as I write these words.
The memories of that year remain vivid.
I remember waiting in line at a small café at Delight to buy a hamburger, stopping at Caddo Gap to wade in the Caddo River, watching a deer run across the school campus at Magazine and eating a whole trout for the first time at Tommy’s in Conway.
While the weather was still warm that September, I was allowed to jump into motel swimming pools before supper.
I was in heaven.
We sat in high school gymnasiums built by the WPA and watched basketball games together.
We ate pieces of pie in country restaurants.
We listened to KAAY-AM on the car radio.
It was during that 1965-66 school year that I learned to love Arkansas.
As we celebrate another Thanksgiving, I realize how fortunate I was to have had Robert and Carolyn Nelson for parents (they’re both gone now) and to have grown up in Arkansas.
I also realize how fortunate I am to be able to share stories of Arkansas.
I’ve had the privilege of writing millions of words through the years about this state. I left a full-time career in journalism in July 1996 to work in the governor’s office. What I thought would be a short detour into public service turned out to be a 13-year adventure in the state and federal governments. When I returned to the private sector in 2009, I contacted my former employers at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to see if they might be interested in allowing me to write a weekly column. Since I had spent nine years in the governor’s office and four years in a presidential administration, I’m sure they expected me to write about politics most weeks.
I came to the conclusion that there already was so much political writing on the Voices page of the newspaper that I simply would be another voice with nothing to distinguish me from the other columnists. That’s why I decided to make Arkansas — its places, colorful characters, fascinating history, food, music and events — my niche.
I’m also thankful this Thanksgiving that Butler Center Books, a division of the Central Arkansas Library System, decided to publish a collection of my newspaper columns. The book is titled “Southern Fried: Going Whole Hog in a State of Wonder.”
I hope you’ll consider purchasing a copy as a Christmas gift for someone who loves Arkansas as much as I do.
I’ve learned that Arkansas is a difficult place to explain to outsiders. We’re mostly Southern but also a bit Midwestern and a tad Southwestern. The Ozarks are different from the pine woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain, the Delta is different from the Ouachitas.
Invariably, those who take the time to get off the main road and get to know the real Arkansas are enchanted by the place.
Large parts of the Delta of east Arkansas and the pine woods of south Arkansas are emptying out. The population shift from east and south to north and west has been occurring in Arkansas since at least the 1950 census when widespread mechanization of agriculture meant that tens of thousands of tenant farmers and sharecroppers no longer were needed in rural areas. That trend has accelerated in the past decade, though. And there’s no end in sight.
I don’t consider it my job to say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. People are going to do what’s best for their families. They’ll go where the jobs are.
What cannot be denied is that Arkansas is a far different place now than it was a decade ago and will be an even more different place a decade from now. Part of what I’ve tried to do through the years is capture the essence of the restaurants, swimming holes, hunting grounds, local festivals and sports events that were such an important part of the Arkansas in which I was raised. Many of them are gone or soon will be.
Those who know me realize that I’m fiercely proud to be from Arkansas. When the Arkansas Democrat sent me to Washington, D.C., in 1986, I knew it would be a temporary stay. It was a wonderful opportunity for a young man in his 20s, but I had no desire to spend the rest of my career in the nation’s capital. By the end of the decade, I was home. I brought along a new bride who had been raised in south Texas. She soon fell in love with this place they once called the Wonder State.
Our two sons — to whom I dedicated the book — were born here, raised here and chose to attend college here.
I know this sounds provincial, but here goes: Arkansas is such a unique, quirky place that I believe it takes someone who grew up here and traveled its rural highways as a child to really explain to new residents what makes us tick. We welcome those who move to Arkansas from elsewhere and hope they soon will come to love the place as much as the natives do. Please understand that we don’t brag like Texans or brand ourselves as different from the rest of the world like Mississippians. We know what we’ve got going here. And despite our many problems, it remains a fine place to call home.
Thanks for going on a statewide journey with me on this blog and in my newspaper column. Maybe we can stop to wade in the Caddo River or eat a piece of pie along the way.
I would be most honored if you would consider purchasing this book.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.
My first cousin, John Robert Schirmer, gave me a copy of your book for Christmas. This was the best gift I received last year. What a fun read! I grew up in Murfreesboro, graduated in 1970 and started at HSU that fall. I took political science and math at OBU. After graduating in 1975, I went to graduate school in Fayetteville and received my PhD in Chemistry in 1981. I’ve lived in East Tennessee (mostly Knoxville) ever since. I’ve never felt apart from my beloved Arkansas. Your book has solidified that feeling and I have learned a lot of new things I’m ashamed to say I did not know about the state. I hope you keep writing you column for many more years.