The Observer called UCA on a tip the other day and learned that Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three will be coming there on Nov. 11-12 to speak and to teach a mini-class with their crop of eager young creative writing students, quick as a whip with a metaphor. Color us shocked. If Yours Truly had been pent up in the Arkansas hoosegow for 18 years for something we didn’t do — and brought kissing close to the point of a poison needle a few times for the same non-crime — we would make every effort not even to fly over this particular patch of dirt in a jetliner at 30,000 feet, much less return on our own two legs. We tend to carry a grudge. It probably says something about the kind of human being Echols is that he’s willing to make the journey back here. Jason Baldwin, who is doing well in his new home out in Seattle, came back to Arkansas last winter for a talk at the Clinton Center. Good for him and good for Echols. Not only is it stirring to see them walking around in the state that once held them in bondage, The Observer has long been of the mind that we should be reminded, and often, of that lowdown shame so it doesn’t happen again. Hearing that Echols plans to come back to Arkansas reminded us that we met him once. Well, “meet” isn’t quite the word. More like: stared at through glass, him reduced to something like an animal in a zoo and us the guilty Observer. We’d gone down to the prison with our photographer that day in January to talk to all three of them: Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley and Damien Echols. At the last minute, though, prison officials stepped in and said we were only cleared for photos of Misskelley and Echols for some reason. And so, instead of talking like two men, The Observer watched in silence as Echols was led in and sat down, him in a cage on one side of a pane of glass, The Observer in our own, larger cell on the other. He was lean, his skin bleached white. He lifted his ankle so our photographer could get photos of the skin rubbed raw by the chains. And then The Observer and Echols were left to mouth our apologies through the glass to one another like kids trying to dodge the teacher in the back of homeroom, both of us muffled by edict. The Observer, fearing the consequences for Echols were we to break that silence, bit our angry tongue, and looked, and smiled, and despaired at what hell had been done to a man in our name. Eight months later, in the heat of August, we were in Jonesboro to watch him walk free, something we would have bet a thousand bucks and a borrowed guitar would never come to pass had you asked us the probability of it in that cold room down at the prison. Seeing that — seeing all of them free men, and hearing them speak in their own voices — blew that old, January chill out of our heart and gave us hope to spare. Call us crazy, but knowing that Echols has found enough forgiveness in his own heart to cast his shadow on this land again gives us a bit more.
The Observer is working on a history piece right now, so we’ve been reading back though some very old articles. We ran across the following newspaper item, printed in June 1891, and it was just too beautiful not to share. Pretty sure the original author won’t mind: ”Joe Spencer, charged with murder, used to be a preacher, and yet has preacher spells sometimes. Last year, he humbugged the citizens of Okmulgee by initiating them into a supposed order of Masonry. He instituted a lodge there, and, for $15 a candidate, put them through the first degree, promising to come back in a few weeks to give them the other degrees. He never showed up again, and when his Okmulgee Masons began to make signs at the genuine Masons in town, [the victims of the humbugging Mason maker] were thought to be crazy or drunk.” They just don’t make newspaper stories like they used to, do they? Don’t make humbuggers like ol’ Joe Spencer anymore either, thank God.