OK, OK, settle down. You three there in the back, put away them gatdamn dominoes and listen up. We’ve called this meeting today on the occasion of the retirement of the great Arkansas humorist and Arkansas Times columnist Bob Lancaster, who hung up his jock and had his jersey hoisted in the rafters last month. We’ll be presenting him in short order with his gold watch. Well … gold-colored, anyway. We got a recession on, and the free newspaper biz was never a rich man’s game, even back when the rest of the country was using their twenty-dollar bills to light their hundred-dollar bills.
As someone who has spent the last 10 years working a part-time gig in which I try to teach people how to write, I can tell you that the hardest part of that job is making a wannabe writer understand that even if he or she isn’t beautiful, or rich, or powerful, or even particularly talented yet, they deserve to have a voice in the conversation. We’ve got a problem with that in this country (and maybe even as a species): the idea that unless somebody who appears to be in charge tells you it’s your turn to speak, you should shut your yap. It’s a high wall, one most people never even try to climb, much less get their leg over.
One person who scaled that wall a long time ago was Bob Lancaster. It says a lot about Bob that, as a student attending Southern State College in Magnolia in 1962, he lasted all of six weeks as editor of the student newspaper before he pissed off college president Dr. Imon Bruce badly enough that Bob was fired. Though the listed offense was that Lancaster had been running cartoons that offended religious groups, it probably had more to do with the fact that he’d spent that summer writing letters to the Arkansas Gazette in which he — writing under the pen name “Auspice” — went after Gov. Orval Faubus with the linguistic equivalent of a claw hammer.
Though Bob never got a college degree, he kept learning and moving, starting as a sports writer at the Pine Bluff Commercial at 19, eventually working for both the Gazette and the Democrat, heading north for a year as a Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard, and doing a three-year stint as a roving columnist for the Philadelphia Enquirer in the mid-1970s. He even took a turn as the editor of the storied publication you see before you. After covering the trials of the West Memphis Three for the Arkansas Times, he was the first journalist — and maybe the first person, period — to publically call bullshit on the prosecutions, years before the rest of the sane world began to suspect they were, in fact, the product of a kangaroo court. After the Oklahoma City bombing, he wrote what could be called the perfect eulogy for those lost. He helped start a magazine called Arkansan. He wrote and published several books, including two novels. He stayed in Arkansas, even though he and his family probably could have had more elsewhere.
In between, he developed that amazing voice of his, and it wasn’t easy. In a 2005 interview with Mara Leveritt, on file at the Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, Bob said that as a child he didn’t talk until he was four or five years old. “I was intimidated by the world,” Bob said, “by my inability to make a place for myself in the world. I shied away from it and I still do, pretty much.”
In that piece, Bob talks about stories he’s written, interviews, moments that gave him pause. He talks about how journalists write for the public but write to impress other journalists — which might be the truest sentiment spoken aloud since “the poor shall always be with you.”
In what might be the most moving part of the piece, Bob recalls going up to Philadelphia, being given total freedom to write about what he wanted, and finding his voice there while in pursuit of the human condition. After awhile, Bob said, he realized that while he’d have to use “I” in his column, the trick was to develop an alter ego — a character who shared his name and face, but who saw the world very differently. “It was a different person from me, really, who was doing the column,” he said, “and it was the development of that character that the column was really all about.”
It’s a voice and a character that lots of folks — this writer included — came to love and admire, and one that will definitely be missed.
Odd days in Little Rock
June 6, 2011
One day in Little Rock a bluejay ate the only tomato on the only backyard tomato plant I’ve ever grown. I don’t normally avenge wrongs committed against me by creatures doing what comes naturally. But this whorehopper had attitude, and had it coming.
One day in Little Rock state Sen. Mutt Jones of Conway gave me a personal seminar on the life and works of a Belgian historian named Hendrik Willem van Loon. I didn’t know at the time that Mutt and Hendrik were both Loons. I suspected it, but didn’t know.
One day in Little Rock I asked Anita Bryant, then at the top of her game, if she ever doubted the righteousness of her cause. In response, one of her handlers pulled me aside and said, “Let me ask you something. Are you saved?”
One day in Little Rock the late, great George Fisher entertained creative-writing students at a big writers’ conference at Hall High School. He drew them take-home cartoons of celebrities and of themselves, and played the guitar and sang mountain folk songs and had them sing along. They had a high old time. When George left the stage, I came on to talk to the same audience about writing essays.
One day in Little Rock, Gerald L.K. Smith told me with a companionly chuckle that when he and his goons took over they’d have me in a concentration camp before sundown. If that came to pass, I told him, I wouldn’t want to be found anywhere else.
One day in Little Rock I insulted a blind professional-rassling promoter who retaliated by renaming the fattest, most disgusting slob in his stable “Bruiser Bob Lancaster,” putting him in pink tights, and having his entire sweathog drove, pretty boys and villains alike, beat him senseless with piledrivers, clotheslines, ringside tables and folding metal chairs. This was the main event on their weekly TV show.
One day in Little Rock Joe Wirges, the police beat reporter, yelled across the newsroom at the Arkansas Gazette to ask an editor if cocksucker was one word or two. The editor yelled back that you couldn’t use that word in the Gazette, and Joe replied: “Oh, it’s all right. It’s in a direct quote.”
One day in Little Rock some hustings acquaintances came to town for an elegant, romantic anniversary dinner. All duded up, and whetted for prime rib, they were inside the Carriage House with somebody asking “Can I hep y’all?” before they realized it wasn’t a restaurant but a furniture store.
One day in Little Rock the power windows and door-locks on my car went crazy and I had to take it to the dealership, then owned by and named after a famous Arkansas basketball player. “Somebody done put the hoodoo on it,” the repair technician explained. “Oh,” I said, as if I understood. Only cost $1,800 to get it fixed. Including Marie Laveau’s hex remover, and the chicken foot.
One day in Little Rock a former waitress watching the demolition of the Hotel Marion told me the most famous person she’d served coffee to there was the swayve and deboner actor Walter Pidgeon, a fair-to-middling tipper.
The worst tippers then, she said, were judges.
One day in Little Rock an innocent bystander got beat up by a stick-swinging gang of state troopers when civil rights protesters tried to desegregate the cafeteria in the basement of the State Capitol. I was that innocent bystander. Got whomped pretty good, although in later years I didn’t suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
One day in Little Rock, at the State Fair, I saw Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, not the original certainly, not even a good knockoff, and decades beyond boyhood, but arguably dog-faced, at least as much so as Dwayne Chapman, taking a break from the freak booth, waiting patiently in line to order a corndog.
One hot summer day in southwest Little Rock I set the all-time record for cherry snow-cones purchased and consumed by one person in one day at Ethel’s Sno-Cone House.
One day in Little Rock I stood out watching and waiting for the airliners to come crashing into our skyscrapers. And they did. In a way, they did.
One day in Little Rock I saw my brother stepping off a red train at Union Station, home from World War II. First time I’d ever seen him, and him me. My second earliest memory if I’m not mistaken.
One day in Little Rock, Bill Clinton, all sweaty from jogging, flopped down on an expensive leather chair in my office and just ruined it. I was royally p.o.’ed. No, wait, that was Jim McDougal’s office, and it was Jim who was p.o.’ed. That must’ve been the case because I had no office, and my cubicle lacked furniture except in a certain laughable sense.
One day in Little Rock I saw the old America. Didn’t know it’d be the last time, but reckon I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known. Maxie going out of business.
The Chronicles of Weed
April 7, 1995
… Dying may be the only real escape from nicotine addiction.
It’s the route I took.
I mean that metaphorically but just barely.
The addiction was stronger than I was; I couldn’t ever have conquered it; and to escape from it I had to sacrifice myself to it, to die in a way, and come back as somebody else.
This was one day in the Salem spring of 1984. Vertiginous from chain-smoking away a tense morning, I put my head on my desk, closed my eyes and said, like Roberto Duran, No mas, and the me who’d been me, like Gen. MacArthur, faded away. Old guy: a reeking old chunk of tar and regret, farewell.
Well, actually, the transformation took some time and occurred in stages —two weeks, then two months, then four or five years. (They say it takes seven years to clean your system of the residue.) But it was indeed a new creature who slowly took shape (lamentably the shape of Mr. Peanut): somebody whose mind worked different, whose habits were those of a stranger, whose prose was suddenly this pile of Coke-bottle fragments and broken runic stones, whose signature suddenly looked like Chinese.
To quit cigarettes, you have to be willing to give up who you are and take your chances on who and what you’ll become.
The new guy might not be a better person; might not be one the old guy would’ve wanted to be or would’ve given the time of day; might be a bad swap all the way around. But you can count on him being different. Somebody else.
One thing the new guy had that never troubled the old guy was a big void in the middle of his being. A big hole somewhere inside him. Causing him little fits of grief, anxiety, and longing, mystifying because they were irrational. They came and went. They might last two seconds and yet cause major desolation. Ten years after, he still had them.
New guy figured this hole might’ve been in the old guy too, but old guy kept it filled with cigarette smoke: magic smoke with the tranquilizing power to let him pretend it wasn’t there.
Puff the magic dragon.
This calm that really wasn’t, this placidity of self-deceit, had been the payoff he got from his brain for supplying it with the drug.
Addicts duped, manipulated, jerked around and put through hoops by their own brains.
Knowing your own brain is smarter than you are. And knowing it’s trying to kill you.
Quitting means going to war against your own brain, knowing you’re outgunned. Your brain even more devious and calculating in this struggle than the tobacco lobby.
You have to run a different gauntlet.
Longer than from here to Conway.
I had to enlist some religious terms and symbols to have a chance against my own devil brain. One of these was that metaphor about the old guy dying, with such tyrannies of the flesh as the nicotine addiction dying with him, and the new guy emerging from the baptismal waters reborn, a different person.
Deliver us from Evil. The evil being your own brain, under the seductive power of the drug, beseeching you to poison yourself by sucking down all these old gasses and slime. Ordering you to. Furious and despondent and pathetic. Smarter than you are, weary sinner, and stronger than you are. And finally you just have to let it have the old guy, like Jaws getting the old skipper, and watch his torment with pity till he expires.
And give the new guy to know he simply has to keep clear of this old dangerous craziness. Can’t be flirting with it, entertaining notions of “cutting down,” “tapering off,” or “just one after breakfast to kill the taste of the eggs.”
Those just preludes to another fall. They’ll kill you again, and next time maybe your body too.
Just a couple of hundred thousand more will probably do the trick.
The building never talked
June 28, 1995
Four different reporters from four parts of the country tried to interview me that Saturday afternoon, mistaking me for someone who had a reason for being on the scene and perhaps having something to say. They were a little resentful that I wasn’t somebody they could use.
Well, so it went. I never could get the building to talk to me, and it never would let me think. The rescue workers didn’t go back in that evening, and there were no sirens signaling that someone else had been found alive. Just the mournful countenance of the ruin looking out over this shabby end of town, vestiges of tarp flapping cruelly over parts of it, from time to time a chunk of concrete falling. Chimney swifts gathered in the dusk above it to clear the sky of gnats and skeeters; the rain returned vengeant after a pause; and in the sloppy fading of day I slopped on back to the car up by the Episcopal Church, shucked the wet shoes and socks, and some of the wet clothes, and betook myself back toward Arkansas, darkness, and home.
On the morrow another Arkie would be here to utter words of consolation at the memorial service. I had been here looking for another species of words — words of explanation, or revelation, or something — but the Alfred P. Murrah federal office building, what was left of it, was no oracle. “Evil visited here,” the snapping tarps or teeth chattering might have said. Or “Beware the fanatics.” Or simply “Why?”
But otherwise nothing that made any sense, nothing you couldn’t get from the graveyard nearest where you live.
Bare feet and
[I]n 1963, state Representative Paul Van Dalsem of Perryville made a place for himself in the annals of both Arkansas and feminism with a speech telling how the menfolk of Perry County kept their women from becoming uppity: by giving them an extra cow to tend, then a larger garden to work, and, as a last resort, getting them pregnant and keeping them barefoot.
Others had only toyed with the association, but Van Dalsem’s speech finally equated barefootedness with degradation, and so the speech and the national publicity it received were especially painful to the longsuffering image-watchers. All the more so because the spectacle had an aura of naivete about it, as if this were par for the course in Arkansas, where nobody knew better.
It was fitting that this speech should have come from a state legislator, since the General Assembly has been a greater force in shaping Arkansas’s image than any other criminal class. In one of its first sessions in Little Rock in 1837, the Speaker of the House concluded the discussion of a banking bill by murdering a critical colleague on the House floor with a Bowie knife, that marvelous weapon invented in Arkansas and known affectionately to Slashers everywhere as “the Arkansas toothpick.” And ever since, the legislature has seemed to view its mission as including an obligation to amuse the national cognoscenti with yahoo initiatives. These have ranged from anti-Abolitionist tirades to creation-science testimonials — from the immortal (and apparently mythical) change-the-name-of-Arkansas-hell-no harangue of Reconstruction to the Cow Chip Soliloquy, a heartfelt tribute to barnyard manure, much reprised a hundred years later by a Pine Bluff representative named Boyce Alford.
Aug. 16, 2007
The last time I was in the House of Dominoes when it was this hot, Dollar Short, the moon-shooting fool, now deceased of course, told me, “Everybody talks about the hot weather but nobody does anything about it. Damn all the talking. I’m ready for somebody to take the bull by the horns.”
His buddy Day Late said, “Amen to that, but you can count me out as far as messing with any bulls.”
“It’s just a figure of speech,” I explained to Day Late, doing my duty as official grammarian of the House of Dominoes.
“Well,” Day Late said, not acknowledging.
Then he said, “I seen on TV where they turn loose a bunch of bulls and these people in Spain are out there on the street running alongside of them, and I told myself, ‘If they’re doing that of their own free will, they just about have to be feeble-minded.’ I mean the people not the bulls.”
“Wally Hall ran with them once,” I mentioned.
“I rest my case then,” he said.
“I knew you meant the people not the bulls as far as the free will,” Dollar Short said. “I’m a dim bulb usually but I know only human beings get to choose their lot. Them and cats. But not bulls. Especially not one of these rodeo bulls, with the dewlap. Them are some mean suckers but it’s not because of any choice they made.”
“What you need, as far as somebody that can do something about the hot weather,” Day Late said, “is another Homer Berry.”
I remembered Homer Berry. He was our last famous rainmaker in these parts, from North Little Rock, as I recall. Worked with a smoky barrel in the back of an old pickup. Fumes from it seeded passing-over clouds, milking them of their moisture rather than allowing them to bear the precious stuff on to other precincts. In theory anyway.
Hock Tooey remembered him too. We thought Hock was napping, hat pulled down and his chair comfortably tilted against the drink box, but he opened a bloodshot eye and said, “You boys won’t believe it but I rode shotgun with Homer Berry on two of his most famous cases.”
This claim was met with near comprehensive indifference, and I was only being polite in asking Hock what exactly riding shotgun for a rainmaker entailed.
“He’d stop ever once in a while and I’d have to get out and stir some stuff or throw in some briquettes,” he said. “I never mastered the art of it myself.”
The indifference gave way to apathy, which you get a lot of in this kind of weather.
“His radio didn’t work either time,” Hock said, “but he wouldn’t let me fool with it. He said I might blow something up.”
“What’s the point of this fairy tale?” Dollar Short said.
“I’m just telling you,” Hock said before snoozing off again, “whichever town Mr. Berry doctored for, it wouldn’t be no 109 degrees there. It might be over in the next town, but not in one of Mr. Berry’s.”
This is Dollar Short: “That was a long time ago. Quacks ruled. People were credulous but on the whole I think they were happier. Ol’ Huckabee changed it to where you didn’t try to force it to rain to cool things off, you prayed for it to. You’d pray for two or three weeks, then when it rained six months later, he’d say, ‘See? There’s your answered prayer. Now give me a campaign contribution.’ “
Praying is not really doing anything proactive about the weather, the parlor grammarian noted. It grabs no toro horn. “Yeah,” said Day Late, “it’s more like we’re saying maybe if we just grouse around long enough, Super Mario will take pity and do it for us.”
If you know dominoes, you know what a “sweater” is, and here’s a remark that a sweater threw into the conversation at this point: “I don’t see why if he could change the course of a cyclone just to get that old 700 Club slime weasel to shut up, he couldn’t stir up a cool front for our bona fide suffering old-timers. Even without being asked.”
“On such matters ours is not to reason why,” the grammarian said.
“Maybe yours idn’t,” the sweater said. “Mine is.”
“Mine too,” Dollar Short said. “That’s what I was saying to begin with.”
One of this crew — it doesn’t really matter which, now, does it? — had the notion that the moral responsibility for doing something about the Arkansas weather belonged to … well, to Jerry Jones.
I’m not sure I followed it, but it had to do with him and Sheffield having filled their giant pokes by gouging Arkansas biscuit cookers half to death in something called a buy-back scheme, and how, instead of spending it on a billion-dollar football field that the Cowboys don’t even need, he instead ought to install a WeatherGard system over much of Arkansas that would deflect extreme temperatures and fairly apportion the Natural State precip.
I didn’t even know there was a WeatherGard system, patent pending, but there you go. I did know that while our little hick domino parlor had an official grammarian, the Dallas Cowboys opted for an official brick, and I think I know which designation bodes best for western civ.
June 28, 2006
… Pap kept a succession of look-alike fice squirrel-hunting dogs at our place over the years of my youth, all of them named Jack. And all of them pretty much driven insane by irrepressible, ever bolder dog-peter gnats. You couldn’t swat d-pgs, and they were immune to any kind of spray or application. You could turpentine the dogs, causing them great agony, but the dog-peter gnats seemed actually to relish turpentine. They’d guzzle it like winos and swell up big as ticks. As I watched Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack, and the other Jack suffer, I resolved to one day get me a laboratory and do the research that would eliminate d-pgs from the earth forever, like polio or smallpox.
But I grew up and forgot about such foolishness. I decided that if I didn’t have bigger fish to fry than dog-peter gnats, then I was never going to amount to Jack Squat. …
April 7, 1994
When you look back at the infamous crimes of this state’s past, this one doesn’t resemble any of them. There’s something distinctively modern about it. It’s a crime of this era, but I don’t know what quality or aspect it has that makes it so. The wantonness? The pointlessness? The challenge it represents to the scantest pretense of decency? Don’t know what the quality is, but think it might have to do with the question of motive. The absence of motive. Or the trivializing of motive.
Why did Gene Simmons kill all of those folks in Pope County a few years ago? Because he was deranged, it’s easy enough to say, but that’s no answer, and there is no answer — none that ever got outside that spooky man’s spooky head. Why did those Manson zombies, maybe the original modern criminals of this species, kill all those people that night? If you’ve seen the recent interviews with some of them, you saw that even today, with half a lifetime to think about it, they can’t say why, and don’t know why. John Wilkes Booth was confused and deluded, but he had his reasons. What reasons have any of these latter-day assassins had? The absence of motive may be why it’s hard for us even to accept that some of them committed their crimes. Easier to accept the conspiracy theories; conspirators may be shadowy characters but they always have a strong, clear motive.
The prosecutors in the West Memphis murders didn’t establish a motive, and didn’t try to very hard or very long. They looked foolish, and actually jeopardized their case (risked letting it slip over into absurdity) when they did try. Sporadically they portrayed Damien Echols as a novice dabbler in the occult, suggesting he choreographed the murders of those little boys as a kind of ritual blood sacrifice. Satanism would endow the case with a motive. But the prosecutors never produced any evidence to show that Echols had anything beyond a jerkoff Metallica-level interest in witchery and hobgoblins, and they could only conjecture (or hint around about it, in slightly embarrassed fashion) that his “beliefs” in regard to these matters might have inspired or driven him to contemplate murder, much less actually commit it. The one “cult expert” they put on the stand was a sad old retired cop from up North somewhere who got his expertise via correspondence courses from some California academy that’s undoubtedly a post-office box, and he couldn’t rightly say — though he was willing to guess — whether the murders might have been “cult-related” since there was no evidence pointing in that direction, or in any direction. The prosecutors convicted Echols of checking certain suspicious books out of the public library, and copying off dark passages (“full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”) from the likes of William Shakespeare. God help him if he’d ever discovered Poe. And yet this vague proposition of the murders as an expression of an ignorant boy’s conception of the demands of demonology was the state’s entire case. That’s all we had. And an obliging jury — and a judge as dedicated to bringing forth convictions as he was to looking good — called it enough.
A few bits
Nov. 9, 2011
A few bits of Arkiana, definitions and elaborations, alphabetically arranged for your convenience, to pass a few minutes of a slow week.
All get-out. A vague superlative, the meaning of which eludes and perplexes the authorities. “Them catfish are meaner than all get-out.”
Arkansas go-getter. Said of an Arkansas man who has no job but has a wife who does have a job, “I take her to work in the morning, and then in the evening I go-getter.”
Big old good ‘un. The same as a good old big ‘un. The direct object needn’t be specified. And it needn’t be big, old, good, or just one.
Cellar. A basement. Cellar is sometimes used in storm cellar or root cellar, but if it’s a dark airless place under the house at the bottom of the stairs, one that looks like the set of a horror movie, it’s a basement.
Coffee. A non-native editorial writer eager to sound folksy went into a Little Rock diner not so long ago and ordered a cuppa joe. I’d bet anything that the very next words he heard were, “You ain’t from around here, are you, Slick?” No Arkie ever ordered joe, or a cuppa joe, or a cuppa anything. Or no Arkie ever did it without getting hoorawed something fierce.
Deep freeze. A food freezer about the size of John Adams’ casket. The deep freeze was the most common piece of front porch furniture in Arkansas throughout the previous century. “If you don’t stay out of my deep freeze, I mona kill you.”
Dingleberry. The worst of our native berries for making jam.
Dinner. The noon meal. The evening meal is supper. We don’t have brunches, at least not on purpose. Or teas.
Done crossed over into Campground. Dead.
Fixing to. Preparing to. As in, “If you don’t shut up, I’m fixing to kill you.”
Gone to glory. Dead.
Goober. Can refer to an idiot, a peanut or a penis. The people of Goobertown, halfway between Jonesboro and Paragould, used to be called goobers, but now it’s said that the population is “about half goobs and half rubes.”
Horsecock. What stick bologna used to be called. In this same neck of woods, in the same time period, Vienna sausages, which aren’t sausages and didn’t come from Vienna, were often called puppy peckers.
HOT Springs. Visitors and relative newcomers put the emphasis on the first name of this Arkansas resort town; they call it HOT Springs. Natives and longtime residents put the emphasis on the Springs part, pronouncing it Hot SPRINGS. It’s the same deal with PINE Bluff v. Pine BLUFF. Also, DeWitt v. DEEwitt.
Houseshoes. Most of the rest of the country calls them slippers.
Jaybirds. According to Vance Randolph, quoting well-known auspexes in Waldron, jaybirds carry firewood to Hell every Friday.
Lost. Going to Hell when you die.
Love offering. This is a second passing around of the collection plate at the same church service, the money designated for a special purpose, often to pay the visiting evangelist at a revival meeting.
Might near. Almost. “I’ll eat might near anything, excepting a eel.” Purt near is not quite as near as might near.
Mona. A contraction of the words “am going to.” As in, ” If you don’t shut up, I mona kill you.”
Naught. Aught. “Jethro’s fixing to be a double-naught spy.”
Peckerwood. Turn it around it’s a bird, but with the pecker first it’s a jasper whose highest aspiration is to live in a doublewide in a trailer park. There are no female peckerwoods, or black peckerwoods of either sex.
Removed kinfolks. I don’t understand the concept. I’ve read the usage mavens and I’m still at a loss. How is it possible, for instance, that my first cousin twice removed is not the same amount of kin as my second cousin once removed? And where do they go when they’re removed? Is it like the Cherokee Removal along the Trail of Tears?
Ring-tailed tooter. A family of nocturnal stalker critters, with subspecies that include the Going Jessie. Except for the ringed tail, tooters are hard to describe, but you’ll know one if it gets after you on a country road at night.
Sack. What our groceries come in. People elsewhere call it a bag.
Saved. Going to Heaven when you die.
Stuffing. We don’t call our main Thanksgiving dinner turkey go-with stuffing; we call it dressing. Stuffing belongs in a mattress or a couch, not in a turkey.
Th’ow. Fling. Chunk. “If you don’t quit th’owing rocks at passing cars, I mona kill you.”
Whatnot. Doodad. A store at Ico is named Nanaw’s Nick-Nacks.
Y’all. This is a plural, referring to at least two people. Only tin-eared visitors from colder climes would think of using it in the singular: “Y’all are my best friend; I just love you to death.”
Yard. What we usually call a lawn. If farm animals are eating grass off of it, it’s a pasture.