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Archive for May, 2011

 

Part Two: The Arkansas Delta

Muddy Mississippi River water leaves a stain on the soul that is virtually impossible to get out—assuming any fool would try.”
—Jimmy Peacock

 In last week’s blog I described the first part of my recent “bucket-list trip” to my native and beloved Southeast Arkansas. In that part, I attended the combined reunion and fundraiser for the damaged historic 1872 Selma Methodist Church in my birthplace.

Seven Devils Swamp

Seven Devils Swamp

It so happens that Selma is located on the easternmost edge of the West Gulf Coastal Plain in Arkansas, about a mile from the edge of the Mississippi River Delta. As I am fond of saying, “For all my love of the Delta and my constant talk and endless writing about it, I am the only one in my immediate family who was not actually born in the Delta. But I was born on the bank of it!” That is true since the house I was born in back in 1938 is exactly one mile from where the Delta begins. It is also not far from a Southern lowlands area called the Seven Devils Swamp. In one of my endless self-quotes I say, “I was born on the edge of the Seven Devils Swamp. God saw fit to cast me out of the Seven Devils, but unlike Mary Magdalene He has never seen fit to cast the Seven Devils out of me.”

Another of my endless self-quotes is: “At age ten, when my parents forcefully moved me against my will from my rural birthplace in the Gulf Coastal Plain (Selma) to the Mississippi River Delta (McGehee), neither they nor I had any idea how it would mark me for the rest of my life—and for the next one as well.”

So after our “bucket-list” visit to the Selma Methodist Church and the Mount Tabor Methodist Church and Cemetery, where we will one day be buried with our ancestors, Mari and I turned back east toward the flatlands of the Arkansas Delta. 

The Delta Rivers Nature Center 

“One of these days when I die,
I’m going to that Big Delta in the sky!”
—Jimmy Peacock

 We had actually driven through the Delta earlier on our trip “down home” from Oklahoma, stopping in Pine Bluff, which like Selma is also located “on the bank of the Delta,” to visit the Gov. Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center, one of four such nature centers in the state. The center, which features “the Delta and its rivers [as] the star attractions,” has exhibits that describe “how meandering waterways have changed this land and why swamps are incredibly valuable ecosystems.” It shows how oxbow lakes are formed, presents a simulated crop duster flight over Delta fields, and screens a short film on Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto’s visit to the area in the 1500s. There are also hiking trails and a hands-on laboratory. It also has exhibits of many of the fish, reptiles, and plants of the Delta, including a live alligator that lives in a pool beneath the center. To learn more about the center, click here.  

 My one question about the center was the absence of a panel on “King Cotton” (despite the presence of an actual cotton bale) to accompany those on other current Delta crops: rice, soybeans, and wheat. The reason was provided in an email to my query from the director of the center, Eric Maynard:

While Cotton was once “king” in this area, cotton acreage has greatly reduced over the years. The vast majority of the Delta is in food crops, now starting to include some corn. The facility is run by the Game and Fish Commission and those panels were put up to help explain some of the ways wildlife use or benefit from agriculture in the area. Cotton fields do not provide much in the way of wildlife food. 

King Cotton

King Cotton

The virtual demise of “King Cotton” in the Delta was one of the first things that Mari and I noticed. The once vast fields of “white gold” have now been replaced by fields of the other crops mentioned by Mr. Maynard, including milo maize. We also noticed the disappearance of the once ubiquitous cotton gins, many of the remaining being only rusting shells of their former glory. There were only a few that seemed to still be in operation. My friend Joe Dempsey, who designed this blog, reports that while there were once many cotton gins in Pine Bluff where he lives, now there are none. Also almost gone, for better or worse, are the traditional Southern-style “shotgun” houses once inhabited by the thousands of sharecroppers in the Delta.

Delta Shotgun House

Delta Shotgun House

So from our first encounter with the Delta at Pine Bluff, Mari and I were shocked to see how it has changed, even since the last time we visited it about five years ago. In many ways, it is no longer the Delta that we knew while growing up in it in the forties, fifties, and even the sixties. 
 
Delta Shotgun House

Delta Shotgun House

 

Arkansas City and the Mississippi River

“Heaven better look a lot like home or I’m comin’ back to haunt th’ Delta Queen!”
—Jimmy Peacock

 So after leaving Selma and the Selma Methodist Church fundraiser, Mari and I drove back to the Delta. In so doing we passed through McGehee where we laid a Memorial Day wreath on the graves of my parents, and headed twelve miles east to the old river port of Arkansas City, seat of Desha County, which was mentioned by Mark Twain in his Life on the Mississippi.

There we were not allowed to drive up on the levee, but we did walk up on it and viewed the flood waters in two places: right in Arkansas City and a little way down the river at Kate Adams Landing where that old riverboat used to tie up. In my files there is a photo of the Kate Adams docked at Arkansas City during the flood of 1927, the year that my parents were married. At some time they took a ride on the Kate Adams. To view a video on Arkansas City and old steamboats like the Kate Adams, click here.

Kate Adams Steamboat at Arkansas City

Kate Adams at Arkansas City During 1927 Flood

 
Arkansas City from the Levee
Arkansas City from the Levee

Click here and here to see two of Joe Dempsey’s posts on Arkansas City and its unique riverport architecture.

Arkansas City Museum

Arkansas City Museum

In later years the riverboats Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen used to stop in Arkansas City on their regularly scheduled river cruises. Neither of the boats now cruise the river. At last account the Mississippi Queen has been dismantled and sold for scrap, and the Delta Queen is moored at Chattanooga, Tennessee, where it serves as a hotel. On the wall of my office hangs a large 2 X 2½-foot poster with images of Mark Twain, a Southern Belle with parasol and elegant dress standing outside an antebellum plantation house, two scenes of carriage rides and New Orleans Jazz musicians, brown pelicans, and the Mississippi Queen “rollin’ on the River.” The poster is appropriately titled:  “Steamboatin’: The Last Great American Adventure.” Like cotton and cotton gins, the boats represent another disappearing Delta symbol and tradition. I had always wanted to take a cruise on the Delta Queen or the Mississippi Queen. Now they are gone, as are so many other things in my own rapidly disappearing world.

 To see a video on the Mississippi River made at the very spot where Mari and I and our Arkansas City friends Cullen and Mary once caught half of a five-gallon bucket of crawdads, click here. That video and its message and music, like the Mississippi River it represents, expresses the central theme of all of my life and writings: A River Runs Through It.

In a later post I will share an article I wrote and sent to Charles Allbright, a fellow McGeheean and then the Arkansas Traveler columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It was written on Memorial Day weekend in 1994 about a visit I made to Arkansas City to meet Cullen and go over on the River at the time of the fortieth anniversary of my father’s death in McGehee in 1954. As you will see, the Mississippi River still runs through all my life and writings. 

While we were “down home” in the Delta we learned from the local newspaper that due to the floodwaters alligators were a common sight, and that there were lots of snakes. Mari and I can attest that there were also lots and lots of gnats—and especially mosquitoes. But even so the Delta will always be the Holy Land to us.

  Flooding at Arkansas Levee
Flooding at Arkansas City levee 
 
 
 
 

 
 
Flooding at Arkansas City 

McGehee, Lakeport Plantation, and the New Greenville Bridge

“If there is a River of Life in heaven, then it has to have a Delta—and I want my Tara to be on the Arkansas side of it.”
—Jimmy Peacock

 After leaving Arkansas City, we traveled back to McGehee where we visited the McGehee Veterans Memorial.  While there we took pictures of the commorative stones and bricks with the names of veterans from the McGehee area, including one with the name of Mari’s father on it. In World War II Grover Williams served in the U.S. Army in the South Pacific, not seeing his three-year-old daughter Marion until his return in 1945. A later entry in this blog will be a tribute to him and his life of service to his country, community, church, and family.  As part of the Veterans Memorial there is a Japanese garden dedicated to the memory of the thousands of Japanese-Americans confined to a relocation center in Rohwer, not far from McGehee, one of only two such camps in the South, both in SEARK. We also walked over to the old restored Missouri-Pacific railroad depot to take photos of other bricks dedicated to the loyal service of railroad workers, which also included Mari’s father who retired after thirty-eight years of service. As part of that depot restoration a small museum of artifacts from the Japanese relocation camp will be on display.

McGehee Veterans Memorial

McGehee Veterans Memorial

 
Japanese Memorial
Japanese-American Memorial Garden
 

 Later we traveled South out of Desha County into Chicot County where Mari and our older son Sean were born in the neighboring town of Dermott. About twenty-two miles or so south of McGehee is Lake Village, which as its name suggests sits on the edge of a lake. Lake Chicot is an oxbow lake formed when the Mississippi River took a new turn and left behind a long curve of water. It is said to be the largest oxbow lake in the country. It was named by the French explorers for the “teeth” in it, actually the cypress “knees” that stick up out of the water around those huge Southern lowland specimens.

 A few miles south of Lake Village are located two of the other Delta landmarks we wanted to visit on our “bucket-list trip.”

 First is the recently restored 1859 Lakeport Plantation, the last remaining antebellum plantation house in Arkansas facing the River. Although it was after hours so we were not able to take a tour of the building and grounds as planned, we were able to take several photos.  To learn more about Lakeport and its restoration and preservation, a project of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro where I taught back in the 1970s, click here.  To read the regular blog on Lakeport published and updated regularly by Dr. Blake Wintory, assistant director, click here.  

Lakeport Plantation

Lakeport Plantation

In the background of some of the photos of Lakeport on its Web site and blog you may be able to see the second and latest Arkansas Delta landmark: the new Greenville Bridge across the Mississippi River.

New Greenville Mississippi Bridge
New Greenville Mississippi Bridge
 
New Greenville Bridge

New Greenville Bridge

It is indeed an architectural marvel, its towers and cables rising up over the flat Delta landscape like the rigging of a gigantic white sailing ship. It replaces the old 1940 bridge a short distance upriver that was such a part of our lives while growing up in the Delta. We traveled back and forth over it countless times in our younger years—especially during our dating times in the early sixties when we did much of our courting on or behind the levee and in frequent trips over to Greenville, Mississippi. Now the old bridge we knew so long and loved (and feared) so greatly is being torn down so that the entire center section is gone forever, as the entire outdated and outmoded structure will soon be—another in the seemingly unending relics of our past lives that are now fast disappearing, except in our memories and in places like this blog.

Old Greenville Bridge from New Greenville Bridge

Old Greenville Bridge from New Greenville Bridge

 That’s what this blog is for—to try to capture and hold, if only for a fleeting moment, the quickly fading images and icons of “the world we knew” and “the way we were.”   

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Part One: The Selma Methodist Church

Gonna take a sentimental journey,
Gonna set my heart at ease.
Gonna make a sentimental journey
To renew old memories.

—Song “Sentimental Journey,” written in 1944,
about the time I started school in Selma, Arkansas

In March 2010 as the Photo of the Week in his Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind site, my friend and 1960 Ouachita Baptist College classmate Joe Dempsey featured the restoration process of the historic 1872 Selma Methodist church.  It so happens that that church was the first I ever attended since I was born in a farmhouse just across the “branch” from that iconic edifice.

Selma Methodist Church
Selma Methodist Church in 1980s Before Storm Damage
 Since I have lived in Oklahoma for the past thirty-four years, I had not seen Joe Dempsey, who lives in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, since the tenth reunion of our Ouachita class held in 1970. Thus you can imagine my surprise when about a year ago in March I received an unexpected telephone call from him on a crisp Saturday afternoon. His opening greeting was: “Jimmy Dale Peacock, I’m sittin’ in th’ parkin’ lot of the Selma Methodist Church!”

Needless to say, he had my full and immediate attention.

He told me he was there to photograph the old church during its restoration and to write an article on that subject. I was able to direct him to Dorris Groom Watson, the director of the restoration committee and the wife of my Selma childhood buddy John Doyle Watson (both of whom I had also not seen in at least forty years), who could serve as an authoritative source of information.  (To learn more about the restoration project contact Dorris at djwatson2001@yahoo.com or at selmamethodistchurch@hotmail.com.)

I also took advantage of the opportunity to direct Joe’s attention to my 1938 place of birth, which was still without benefit of electricity or running water at the time of my arrival on this earth.

Later, after his return to Pine Bluff, Joe sent me a report on his trip with photos of the church. (To see those photos of the storm-damaged church before restoration and read about the beginning of the restoration process, visit Joe’s Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind.)  He also sent me a photo of my birthplace as it looks now, seventy-two years later, and another of Mount Tabor Methodist church and cemetery, a few miles up the road toward Florence, Arkansas, my wife’s place of origin.

Peacock home at Selma

My 1938 Birthplace in 2010

Mount Tabor Church and cemetery

Mount Tabor Methodist Church and Cemetery in 2010

My Peacock ancestors were among the founders of the Mount Tabor church in about 1857 and are buried in its cemetery, where Mari and I will one day join them.
 
It was Joe Dempsey who designed the art plat for this blog and who helped me to start getting my thirty-four years of collected writings onto it, which I am sharing with you now.

Just this past weekend (May 21, 2011), Joe returned to Selma to photograph and chronicle the fundraiser to restore and preserve the Selma Methodist Church. To see his report and to view the photos he made of the event, click here. While on the site be sure to click on the other links to get the full story of the church, the event, and the participants. A couple of those photos in the gallery are of me. I am easy to spot since I am the distinguished white-haired gentleman wearing glasses, a red Razorback cap, and an equally red pull-over shirt with the word “Boompa” on it, both the shirt and the name being gifts from my two grandsons: Levi and Ben.

Selma Methodist Church Watercolor

Watercolor Painting

While at the fundraiser I was able to visit with relatives and friends (including a couple of classmates who went to school with me at Selma), some of whom I had not seen in decades. I also purchased a watercolor painting of the church, an old hand fan from it, and a basket for Mari. I was also able to pull the rope and ring the church bell for the first time since I was a child, more than sixty years ago. That bell is said to be lined with melted-down silver dollars to re-enforce it and to enhance its tone. Unfortunately, due to my physical condition and the condition of the building I was not able to climb up in the steeple to view the bell, just as I was forbidden to do so by my mother when I was a child. Then I was too young and now I’m too old!

Selma Church Fan

Selma Methodist Church Fan

But since Mari and I were able to visit with so many friends and family; enjoy the delicious catfish and barbeque meal; listen to live gospel music; participate in a fundraiser auction; and take photos of the church, my birthplace, and the Mount Tabor church and cemetery, it was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime, “bucket-list” opportunity to “renew old memories.”
Next week I will continue that “sentimental journey” by heading to the Arkansas Delta, a few miles to the east, where my family moved me when I was ten years old to begin a new chapter in my life—a move that would leave an indelible mark on both me and my life forever.

PS For a recent cover-page photo and article on the Selma Methodist Church from Rural Arkansas magazine with great views of the interior as well as the exterior before the storm damage, click here. (It may take a minute or so to appear. You can also access it through Joe’s latest post.) For a great history of the Selma Methodist Church and of Selma itself, click here. To purchase a copy of the watercolor painting of the church or one of the hand fans from it, contact my former high school classmate Pat Scavo (known to us as Patsy Mc) who owns an art gallery in Hot Springs at pat@bluemoonartgallery.com.

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My Story Begins

“Unless he goes on ‘walkabout’

[a spiritual journey into the wilderness]

he will never have a story.”

—Said of aboriginal boy in movie Australia

 

“How should we tell [our] story?

Our own way.”

—Eudora Welty, Southern author

To Mari

The only person who truly understands the message of this collection of writings because she is the only person who endured with me the entire length of time it took to live through these events, write about them, and then collect and organize the pieces in this site.

Thanks, Mari, for bearing the burdens of exile and adversity that I brought upon us. I pray that you will be blessed for as many years as you have suffered because of me (Psalm 90:15).

“Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.” (Proverbs 31:29 KJV).  “Blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28 KJV).

Mari on Our Wedding Day, December 27, 1962

Quotes on Nostalgia and the Artist

by Eric Sloane

“I’m supposed to be a master of nostalgia, and I despise nostalgia. Nostalgia is crawling back into the womb. It’s sad. I’m reaching into the attic of the past, and retrieving what has been thrown away.”

“I believe that art cannot be taught. Why? Because love cannot be taught, or sleeping. There is no such thing as talent. The only thing an artist is is a sensitive, aware person. He’s not one that can dance, or sing, or draw, or write, but someone who sees, hears and feels more than the average person. An artist expects to pass on this ability, to enrich the lives of others.”

Quote on Home and the Writer

by Willie Morris

 “‘The writer’s vocation,’ Flaubert wrote, ‘is perhaps comparable to love of one’s native land.’ If it is true that a writer’s world is shaped by the expression of childhood and adolescence, then returning at long last to the scenes of those experiences, remembering them anew and living among their changing heartbeats, give him, as my writer friend Marshall Frady said, the primary pulses and shocks that he cannot afford to lose.

“Yet, justly, when a writer knows home in his heart, his heart must remain subtly apart from it. He must always be a stranger to the place he loves, and its people. His claim to his home is deep, but there are too many ghosts. He must absorb without being absorbed. When he understands, as few others do, something of his home in America . . . that is funny, or sad, or tragic, or cruel, or beautiful, or true, he knows he must do so as a stranger.”

Holy Bible Passages on Promise of Homecoming

“When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes [or bring you back from captivity] and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.

“Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. . . .

“Then the Lord your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands. . . . The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your fathers, if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deutronomy 30:1-10).

“‘At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,’ says the Lord” (Zephaniah 3:20).

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