“Everything else you grow out of, but you never recover from childhood.”
I wrote the following story about a males-only hunting trip to Snow Lake, Arkansas, that took place when I was a boy in about 1952. That was the same year that John Grisham’s story based on his childhood in East Arkansas and titled A Painted House was supposed to have taken place. Both stories include cottons fields and Mexican farm laborers.
The difference is that I wrote my story in 1981–exactly twenty years before Grisham’s book was published in 2001. (To read about his book, click here. To read about the 2003 movie version filmed around Jonesboro, click here.)
Incidentally, our younger son Keiron, now on active duty in Afghanistan, was born in the same hospital in Jonesboro that Grisham was born in, though Keiron has never been back there and has no memory of Jonesboro or that part of the Delta. I have also never been back to Jonesboro since we left in 1971, nor have I been back to Snow Lake for decades. But I do remember both places.
“Great writers are exiles, either spiritually or geographically . . . the impulse to write is the impulse to give order and definition to one’s world, and such a desire can only arise out of need.”
I don’t recall exactly when or how Al Boyd and my father met, since we had only recently moved to town (McGehee, Arkansas) from the country (Selma) in 1948. But, due to their shared interest in all things Western in general and cows in particular, I am sure the initial contact must have been through other mutual acquaintances like C. B. Walker, later my father’s partner in the McGehee Livestock Auction, or Hilliard Stroud of the McGehee Bank, both of whom also shared a more than casual interest in the same bovine-related subjects.
However the original connection was made, despite a slight age and education difference, the two “cowpokes” hit it off from the very beginning. Naturally it wasn’t long before the men’s families became equally close and spent many enjoyable hours together—especially after the Boyds moved in directly across the street from the Peacocks on Fairview Drive.
As a painfully timid but intensely sensitive young boy, I always looked forward to the frequent visits between our families, not only because of the good times and tasty treats they invariably occasioned, but also because I, while not nearly so smitten as my elders with livestock, did harbor secretly in my young heart “a more than casual interest” in the older Boyd daughter, Martha—a dark-haired, dark-eyed charmer four years my junior who was blessed with a honey-dripping, magnolia-scented Scarlett O’Hara drawl and a physical appearance that would have qualified her (in my admittedly less than objective juvenile opinion) as a perfect stand-in for the youthful Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet.
It was in October, some time after the melding of the Boyd-Peacock families, that Mr. Boyd suggested the males-only hunting trip to the far northern reaches of rural Desha Country that produced the memory that regularly comes to my mind each fall.
Packing our guns, hunting gear, and a few other necessary outdoor provisions, Mr. Boyd, Daddy, and I (a boyish tagalong) boarded the Missouri Pacific Delta Eagle to travel north up the nearby Mississippi River—through the cotton fields heavy with their white harvest, across the impressive system of levees and landfills, and on into the remote and mysterious Arkansas and White River bottoms with their tangled, foreboding undergrowth and their intriguing houses perched precariously on stilts above the swampy, sponge-like terrain—to the tiny isolated metropolis of Snow Lake, accessible to the rest of the county only by that long and tenuous strip of rusty rail.
Eventually disembarking from the train at the virtually empty local station, we made our way through the shimmering autumn woods to a remote cabin where we spent a thoroughly delightful weekend bagging our limit of prime, acorn-fattened squirrels. The older men spent the two deliciously cool evenings lingering around the pot-bellied stove sipping scalding-hot coffee and “swappin’ tales” (as they called it) while I listened and dreamed and tried to keep my drowsy eyes from robbing me of a very special shared time.
It was on Sunday afternoon after we had made our way out of the almost impenetrable wilderness to the sleepy hamlet where we were to catch the only available means of transportation back to civilization that what was to become the most memorable event of the trip occurred.
“What greater grief than the loss of one’s native land.”
Finding ourselves with several hours before the arrival of the last scheduled passenger train south, we headed for the only establishment open on that otherwise somnolent Sabbath—a small wayside cafe near the tracks. Inside we placed our orders and sat down to wait for our meal at one of the checkered-tablecloth-covered tables that graced the uneven linoleum floor.
As we passed away the time, we could not help but be aware of the only other denizen of the diner—a sad-faced and half-drunken Mexican farm laborer, one of hundreds imported each year in those days to help pick the bountiful crops of cotton in the luxuriant fields of the Delta. As we silently drank our RC Colas and chewed on our greasy burgers and stringy fries, the dejected bracero hung wearily onto the old orange-and-red Wurlitzer which he continued to plug with coins as he sang along in slurred Spanish and moved his work-hardened if somewhat unsteady body in time with the only tune on the jukebox he recognized—a Country-Western version of a popular Mexican folk song. (To listen to Gene Autry’s version of that song, click here.)
Seemingly oblivious to his rather dispassionate audience, the homesick Hispanic spent the entire syrup-slow Southern Sunday swigging on a bottle of unidentified fiery liquid and wailing his heart out in painful lament for a distant and sorely missed land and language and love.
For some inexplicable reason, that seemingly minor and insignificant scene stuck in my subconscious adolescent mind like a recurring dream. Although it transpired more than a half-century ago, there are still moments when it suddenly comes back to me in stark clarity and reality.
One of those moments was several Octobers ago when my wife and I learned that, like my father who had died of a heart attack some two years after this event while working at the McGehee auction barn, Mr. Boyd, retired and a widower for several years, had died of a heart attack while changing the oil in his car.
Mindful of the longtime bond that had existed between the two cattlemen, it was observed by his elder daughter Martha, now a mother and grandmother, that the two friends are rejoined in heaven where they are once again “tawkin’ cows.” I like to think that is so. After all, as someone much more wise and knowledgeable than I once noted, ultimately it is the quest of every living soul, whether realized or not, to get back home.
Perhaps, that is why today, more than five decades later, I recall that long-ago trip and remember not only the two reunited amigos, but also the other two characters whom fate cast in that strangely haunting one-act melodrama.
I know what became of the “painfully timid and intensely sensitive young boy,” now a writer, and himself a tormented exile, who has spent half of those long intervening years “wailing his heart out”—through pen and ink—“in a painful lament for a distant and sorely missed land and language and love.”
But as a writer and an exile I can’t help being curious about the fourth, foreign player in that long-remembered backwater obra dramatica. I wonder if he has yet made it back home, and if so whether he is now aware of the lasting impact his poignant—and powerfully portentous—performance had upon an impressionable young norteamericano with whom he once whiled away a languid October afternoon in a lonely cafe beside a silent railroad in a faraway place called Snow Lake, Arkansas, USA.
This story was previously published by the Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, where I taught for a brief time forty years ago.