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Archive for August, 2012

“I have a love-hate relationship with the Delta:
I hate I love it so!”
—Danny Lynchard, native of Cleveland, MS

In this post and the next one I present reviews of two books written by Margaret Jones Bolsterli, a native of Desha County, Arkansas, in which my hometown of McGehee, Arkansas, is located.

I have reprinted them just as they were written with my emphasis in italics and my comments and other inserted information in brackets. I have also inserted photos and broken the copy into shorter paragraphs to fit the format of the blog pages.

Born in the Delta

The first piece is a book review that I wrote in 2001 of Born in the Delta by Margaret Jones Bolsterli. It was published by the Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where I taught for a short period in the early 1970s. It appeared in volume 32, number 3, of the December 2001 issue, and is reprinted here with permission.

Born in the Delta

Born in the Delta: Reflections on the Making of a Southern White Sensibility. By Margaret Jones Bolsterli. (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000 [originally published in 1991]. Pp. xiv + 132, acknowledgments, illustrations. $19.95, paper)

Since I am from the same Arkansas county (Desha) that Margaret Jones Bolsterli describes so insightfully in her autobiography, her memoirs are of great interest to me.

As noted in the flap copy of the original hardcover edition published by the University of Tennessee Press, the broad, flat Delta of which the author writes is “as much mindscape as topography.”

Willie Morris once observed about the Delta: “I’ve always felt that land shapes the people who dwell upon it. This is powerful land. It just leaps out at you.” [U.S. News & World Report, Sept. 13, 1993.] It also seeps deep within you, as Bolsterli can doubtlessly attest.

Delta plowing

Large-scale cotton farming in the Arkansas Delta in 1938, the year I was born (to magnify, click on the photo by Dorothea Lange that appeared in A Photographic Legacy by I. Wilmer Counts Jr., Bloomington, Indiana)

This seemingly indissoluble attachment to the land of one’s birth or upbringing, this sense of place so prevalent in Southern literature, is one of the key elements in Bolsterli’s reminiscences of the region about which she expresses mixed feelings. [See my earlier posts titled “Some Southern Stuff V: Sense of Place” and “Some Southern Stuff VI: Love of the Land.”]

This acknowledged ambivalence toward the Delta is evidenced by her choice of the epigraph for her book drawn from William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! Quentin Compson answers the question, “Why do you hate the South?” with the anguished self-denial, “I don’t hate it . . . . I don’t hate it!” (pp. 18, 19) [See the opening quote of this post by Danny Lynchard.]

As noted in that flap copy, the other major themes of Bolsterli’s work include “the southern penchant for stories rather than conversation, things rather than ideas; violence; blackness and whiteness as organizers of social relationships; manners (the importance of not being ‘common’); the repressive function of southern evangelical religion; respect for books and learning; special foodways rooted in African and Native American customs; and the presence of the Civil War in the present.” [Except for the “repressive function of southern evangelical religion,” most of these same themes are addressed in my blog.]

Arkansas Delta Confederates

Arkansas Delta Confederate soldiers John M. W. Baird and Henry Clements from Jacksonport (to magnify, click on the photo published by the Delta Cultural Center, 95 Missouri Street, Helena, Arkansas 72342, courtesy of the Arkansas History Commission)

As descriptive of the contents of the work as this copy is, it refers to the author’s “thoughtful reflections” as “a convincing new interpretation of southern white female identify.” This gender distinction is noticeably absent from the back cover of the new edition which adds to that list of Southern themes, “the patriarchal family structure, [and] the ‘southern belle’ concept.” [In regard to the “southern belle concept,” see my earlier post titled “My Annual Tributes to the Clique.”]

Arkansas Delta Belle

An Arkansas Delta belle standing in front of an antebellum home and holding a magnolia blossom (to magnify, click on the photo taken from a brochure of the Helena Advertising and Tourist Promotion Commission, 622 Pecan St., P.O. Box 495, Helena, Arkansas 72342 (501) 338-6583)

The crux of this work is the inner conflict the author experienced while growing up in the first half of the twentieth century in a culture, a society, and even a family in which she felt increasingly alien. The source of this inner turmoil centered on her inability to conform to the prevailing attitudes of her time and place, especially in regard to race, religion, gender, and the caste system they produced and protected. [In reference to “the prevailing attitudes of her time and place, especially in regard to race,” see my earlier posts titled “Life Is Reg’lar/My Mother’s Bible” and “Selma Store Evokes Boyhood Memories” about my mother’s lack of conformity to the prevalent societal customs of her day.]

Cotton picking

Picking cotton on an Arkansas Delta plantation in the 1930s about the time of my birth (to magnify, click on the photo by Ben Shahn that appeared in A Photographic Legacy by I. Wilmer Counts Jr., Bloomington, Indiana)

This inability to conform to the expectations of the world into which she was born finally led to a self-imposed Northern “exile” (p. 65) undertaken in search of social and intellectual freedom. However, like most Southern expatriates, eventually she came home—or as close to it as possible. She is now professor emerita of English at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where she has taught since 1968. [This information was still accurate when this review was published in 2001.]

It would be interesting to know Professor Bolsterli’s view of the Delta today, a full decade after this incisive examination of the mystical “mindscape” about which I too [like many others] still harbor deep and conflicting emotions.

 —Jimmy Peacock

Update: According to an article by Cindy Smith in the August 15 issue of the McGehee-Dermott Times-News, the Old State House Museum in downtown Little Rock is currently presenting an exhibit by Dr. Margaret Jones Bolsterli. Titled “Things You Need to Hear: Memories of Growing Up in Arkansas from 1890 to 1980,” the exhibit features five videos with oral histories relating to family, work, school, play, and culture. Memorabilia and photos complete the exhibit. To learn more about this exhibit, click here. To learn more about the book on which it is based with memories from such noted Arkansans as Johnny Cash, Maya Angelou, former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, musician Levon Helm, and others, click here.

Note: To view a video titled “Delta Mud in Your Blood” set to Delta Blues music performed by Marty Denton of McGehee, Arkansas, with scenes of Bayou Bartholomew, sharecropper shacks, cotton picking, the Mississippi River, the flat Delta landscape, Blues music and musicians, scenes in McGehee, etc., click here. For additional information and photos on many of the subjects presented in this review, see next week’s post titled “During Wind and Rain,” as well as my posts titled “My Bucket-List Trip II: The Arkansas Delta,” “Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton I” and “Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton  II,” “Some Additional Quotes about the Delta,” and “Days Gone By: A Delta Passing.”

Special Press Release on Lakeport Plantation Fifth Anniversary:

Lakeport Plantation

Lakeport Plantation

Lakeport Plantation, often featured on this blog (see the close of the preceding post titled “Days Gone By”) will be celebrating its Fifth Anniversary on September 28-30. The three-day event will showcase newly installed permanent exhibits in the house. See the press release below for more information and how to register.

The plantation home is an Arkansas State University Heritage Site, built ca. 1859 for the Johnson family of Kentucky. One of Arkansas’s premiere historic structures; it has changed little since its original construction and is the last antebellum plantation home in Arkansas on the Mississippi River. The Sam Epstein Angel family of Lake Village deeded the house to the university in 2001. Restoration began in 2002, using the highest level of U. S. Department of Interior standards for rehabilitation, and the restored home opened to the public in 2007.

Since its opening, thousands of visitors from all over Arkansas, the United States, and the globe have toured the plantation. Lakeport now enters a new phase with the installation of permanent exhibits, designed in collaboration with Quatrefoil Associates in Laurel, Maryland. Exhibits are based on years of restoration and research in family records, archives and oral histories.

“The house itself will always be our major exhibit,” stated Dr. Ruth Hawkins, executive director of Arkansas Heritage Sites at ASU. “We wanted to enhance the visitor experience, however, with unobtrusive exhibits that tell the stories of the house, the restoration, and the people who lived and worked at Lakeport.”

New exhibits also will display artifacts found during restoration and original items donated back to the house. Dr. Blake Wintory, director of Lakeport Plantation, said his personal favorite is a case full of artifacts, dating between 1860 and 1970, which were found behind mantels during restoration. “From the time the Johnsons moved into the house in 1860, people began losing pictures, letters, business cards and other objects behind the mantels,” Wintory said. “These lost and found artifacts are a fascinating record of their lives.”

The Lakeport Family Reunion will include descendants of the Johnson family, other residents of Lakeport, and descendants of African Americans who lived and worked at Lakeport as enslaved laborers and later as tenant farmers.

Early registration will take place from 5-7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 28 at the Guachoya Cultural Arts Center in Lake Village. Permanent exhibits will be unveiled at the plantation house at 9:00 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, followed by presentations related to new discoveries at Lakeport from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the Lakeport lawn.

Saturday afternoon events will include a 2 p.m. tour of the Epstein Cotton Gin in Lake Village, led by Sammy E. Angel, and a 3:30 p.m. guided walking tour of downtown Lake Village by Rachel Silva of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. A social hour at the restored historic Tushek Building begins at 5 p.m., followed by a Homemade Spaghetti Dinner at 6 p.m. at Our Lady of the Lake Parish Hall. The dinner will include a presentation by community historian Libby Borgognoni on Chicot County’s Italian history.

On Sunday, Sept. 30, a panel of Johnson descendants will present “Memories of the Family” at 10 a.m., followed by “Memories of the Community” featuring Lakeport area residents at 11 a.m. A noon barbeque lunch will end the celebration.

The three-day event is open to the public, but registration is required by Sept. 14 and there is a charge for the meals. For information on registration, visit http://lakeport.astate.edu/, call 870.265.6031, or email lakeport.ar@gmail.com.

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In this post I share a rather long piece I wrote twelve years ago about two unforgettable “pilgrimages to the Holy Land” that Mari and I made from Sapulpa, Oklahoma, back “down home” to and through our beloved Arkansas Delta. I have edited it slightly to insert some photos and Web site links and to update it.

“Days Gone By”:
A Delta Passing

Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on?
Could it be a faded rose from days gone by? . . .
—“Delta Dawn”
Words and Music by Alex Harvey and Larry Collins
(To hear this song sung by Tanya Tucker, click here.)

Delta Belle II

An Arkansas Delta Belle–note the rose on the front of her dress (to magnify, click on the photo from a travel brochure by the Helena Advertising and Tourist Promotion Commission, 622 Pecan, P.O. Box 495, Helena, Arkansas 72342, 501-338-6583)

In the summer of 2000 I made two entirely different but somehow strangely related trips back to the Mississippi River Delta of my youth.

Although at my age and stage of life every trip “back down home” provokes an almost overwhelming flood of mixed emotions, these two contrasting returns were especially touching yet disturbing. As I say about my beloved but blighted and benighted homeland, visiting the Delta now is like visiting a loved one in the nursing home, soul-stirring but spirit-depressing—a remarkably apt description of both of these journeys into the past.

Old McGehee

Our hometown of McGehee, Arkansas, as it looked in its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s (to magnify, click on the photo; source of photo unknown)

The first trip was both voluntary and preplanned. It was a triple-purpose outing Mari and I made in June to visit her aging and ailing mother and to attend the reunion of Mari’s 1960 McGehee (Arkansas) High School graduating class and the scheduled reunion of a small group of special women from that class referred to all these years simply, yet proudly, as the “Clique.”

Since I am also a McGehee graduate, though from an earlier year (“Tough as nails, hard as bricks, Maggie class of ‘56!”), I joined Mari in the festive activities relating to that larger alumni gathering.

And since I had dated (or double-dated) several of the members of the Clique, to whom at reunion time I always send a bouquet of Dixie-style flowers and a bit of sentimental poetry (“Southern Belles, like vintage wine, grow ever sweeter with passing time”), not only was I invited to drop in on that exclusive group, but was officially accepted as an honorary member of it, as attested by a members-only “Clique 2000” T-shirt I was awarded. (See my earlier post titled “My Annual Tributes to the Clique.”)

To Mari and me, both the class reunion and the Clique meeting were wonderful, enjoyable, unforgettable events. However, that visit “back down home” to the Arkansas Delta of our youth, like all the former visits over the past thirty-five years, was tinged with memories of “the way we (and the Delta) were.” It brought to mind the words of an old Al Martino song about a “wild and lovely rose” who abandoned her adoring suitor because “the party life was what she chose.” As the rejected lover relates years later:

Last night I saw my lovely rose,
All painted up in fancy clothes.
Her eyes had lost their spark,
The years had left their mark,
She’s just a painted, tainted rose.
—“Painted, Tainted Rose”
Words and Music by Peter DeAngelis
(To hear this song sung by Al Martino, click here.)

Sad to say, Mari and I agreed that this song is a rather telling portrait not only of our beloved hometown but also of the entire Delta—once a grand and glorious “flower of the Old South,” and now just a jaded, “faded rose from days gone by.”

McGehee 2000

Our hometown of McGehee, Arkansas, as it looked in the year 2000 at the time this story was written (to magnify, click on the photo)

The second of the two trips was involuntary and unplanned. Involuntary in that it was not one that we would have ever chosen to make. Unplanned in that it came as the result of a totally unexpected phone call announcing the sudden, tragic death of a family member in the old Mississippi River city of Helena (pronounced HEL-en-uh), located some sixty miles or so downriver from Memphis.

Helena II

Estevan Hall (1826), the oldest landmark in historic Helena, Arkansas (to magnify, click on the photo from a postcard by Postal Graphics 901-458-1455)

Since it happened that our older son Sean, then an aspiring film maker from LA (then Los Angeles, originally Lower Arkansas) was arriving in Tulsa that very day for his first visit with us in three and a half years, he quickly agreed to accompany us on our unscheduled return to the “Flatlands” where he was born.

Likewise, we were followed home later by our younger son Keiron, also Delta-born (albeit on Crowley’s Ridge in Jonesboro), his Okie wife (whose father coincidentally was a product of the Delta and whose grandmother was buried near Pickens Plantation), and our first and only grandchild at the time (whom I was determined to baptize in the Muddy Mississippi, as I did our little Okie dog, to guarantee him the full benefits accorded every “Arkie of the Covenant”).

Mighty Mississippi

The Mighty Mississippi River (to magnify, click on the photo from the book The Mississippi River by Ann McCarthy)

So it was that Mari and I, in the company of our progeny, set out once again for our hometown of McGehee to spend the night with “Mimi” before making the two-hour excursion upriver to Helena on the morrow.

All along the way from Northeast Oklahoma to what Mark Twain referred to as “the bottom of the state of Arkansaw,” I refreshed my Hollywood son’s memory of the historical and personal significance of the places we had driven by on our earlier “pilgrimages to the Holy Land” during the many years of our “Oklahomian Exile.”

Places like Mt. Nebo: “Do you remember when I had already taken the job in Tulsa and Mama and y’all were still in McGehee finishing up the school year and we all met in Russellville and drove up on top of that mountain over yonder?” And Petit Jean Mountain: “Of course, being French, it’s not Petty, and it’s not Gene—though, come to think of it, I went to Ouachita Baptist College [now University] with a guy named Gene Petty!”

The next morning in McGehee, after a long overdue evening of reunion with just our own personal family, we turned our sights and our attention northeast toward Helena for what we expected to be a larger though probably less emotionally satisfying reunion with our “extended” family in their time of bereavement.

As an avid amateur genealogist, historian, folklorist, and chronicler (witness this writing), naturally I continued the running travelogue I had begun on the day before from Tulsa to McGehee— this time sharing with both sons (the younger by way of walkie-talkie) bits of historical information about the places we passed.

Like Arkansas Post: “first permanent European settlement in the Lower Mississippi Valley and scene of a Civil War battle in which Confederate Ft. Hindman fell to Union general William Tecumseh Sherman—yeah, that General Sherman!” St. Charles: “site of the most destructive single shot of the American Civil War when a piece of hot Rebel lead struck and sank a Federal gunboat on the White River, exploding the boiler and scalding or drowning some 150 Yankees.” And Helena itself: “another Civil War battle site city, one that produced seven Confederate generals, including the renowned and revered Patrick Cleburne, an Irish-born Southern martyr known to his peers as the ‘Stonewall Jackson of the West.’”

Arkansas Post

River traffic near Arkansas Post National Memorial. Arkansas Post was an important stop for steamboats in the mid-1800s and the scene of a Civil War battle conducted by General William Tecumseh Sherman (to magnify, click on the photo from a postcard by Thompson’s Community Service, 1220 Chickasaw, Paris, TN)

Interspersed within my geographical and historical narrative for my sons’ benefit were bits of reminiscences about the personal landmarks of their parents’ former lives in this area. Like the little cotton town of Holly Grove, “where Mama and I started out teaching when we first got married in 1962.” And the two ferries on the Arkansas and White Rivers “that we had to cross in those days.”

White River Ferry

A 1980s snapshot of the White River ferry at St. Charles, Arkansas, the scene of the most destructive single shot of the Civil War that sank a Federal gunboat, killing 150 invading Yankees (to magnify, click on the photo)

Which, of course, elicited a story about the local sailor stationed near Memphis who arrived just ahead of us at the Arkansas River ferry crossing, now spanned by a soaring bridge. After driving out to a smudge pot light on a sandbar in the middle of the Arkansas during a sweltering, mosquito-plagued Southern night and signaling the ferryman to come carry him and his guest across to the other side, we heard the local boy’s Yankee companion exclaim to his Delta host in pure Chicago-ese, “Mahee Gahd, what kind’va cahntry is this!”

All these references to the land and its past (and present) influence upon the lives of those who inhabit it (or are exiled from it) echoed the sentiment expressed by the late Mississippi author Willie Morris: “I’ve always felt that land shapes the people who dwell upon it. This [Delta] is powerful land. It just leaps out at you.” It also seeps deep within you. As I say, muddy Mississippi River water leaves a stain on the soul that is virtually impossible to get out—assuming any fool would try!

These constant allusions to our inborn, inbred Southern “sense of place” were interrupted with my frequent calls for attention to roadside signs revealing the unique Delta culture. Like the agricultural chemical company billboard at Marvell: “Without cotton you’d have to clean your ears with a stick.” Reminiscent of a similar sign outside McGehee: “No one was ever inspired to sing, ‘I wish I was in the land of polyester.’“ Certainly, no one who was born or raised in “the Land a’ Cotton.”

McGehee Cotton Gin

A McGehee cotton gin from the 1940s-50s (to magnify, click on the photo from McGehee Centennial 1906-2006)

As I was quick to share with my sons, such highway reading once inspired me to compile a list of what I referred to as the seven roadside words that describe Southeast Arkansas culture, namely: Razorback, Delta, catfish, cotton, Baptist, beer, and bait.

Of course, my sons, in return, helped me confirm that astute observation by identifying supporting evidence along the way, which may have helped pass the time and liven up just a bit what must have been to them a rather dismal, dreary safari through seemingly unending fields of cotton, rice, and soybeans dotted here and there with the decaying remains of shotgun houses, fetid cypress sloughs, and rusting farm equipment. (For more information about cotton in the Delta, see my earlier posts titled “Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton,” Part I and Part II.)

Jimmy Cotton Patch

Me standing in a Delta cotton patch about the time this story was written (to magnify, click on the photo)

Arkansas Cypress Slough II

A “fetid” East Arkansas cypress slough with green slime and water lilies (to magnify, click on the photo)

To me, on the other hand, every mile of that trans-Delta trek was a “soul-stirring (if spirit-depressing)” voyage into the past, a “sentimental journey” back to the sunshine days of my earlier life passed in a place where “old times there are not forgotten,” but rather are sipped and savored like the vintage wine that they truly are. This was made all the more precious by the knowledge that those old times will never come again. Because, as the saying goes, they are “Gone With the Wind.”

Cotton in Walnut Ridge

Cotton bales in an Arkansas Delta city back in “days gone by” (to magnify, click on the photo from the Delta Cultural Center, Helena, Arkansas)

Those days are indeed gone, never to return again, but as Gerald O’Hara noted to daughter Scarlett, the land and the love of it will remain, because “’tis the only thing that matters, ’tis the only thing that lasts. . . . There’s no gettin’ away from it, this love of the land; not if there’s a drop of Irish blood in ya. And you’re half Irish.” So am I, and I can attest to the fact that O’Hara was right. Half is quite enough Irish blood to form an insoluble link to the land—ask General Cleburne! —even if you weren’t actually born on it and no longer live on it or even near it. (See my earlier posts on the Southern sense of place and love of land.)

As we reached the outskirts of Helena we passed by Barton, one of the arch rivals of Holly Grove during our early days of marriage and teaching, and the sign pointing south to Elaine, another Holly Grove nemesis and the site of a now famous (or infamous) race riot between black sharecroppers and white planters. (To read about this race riot, click here.)

As I told my sons, it was while I was teaching at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro [birthplace of our younger son and of Southern author John Grisham] that the Methodist campus chaplain shared with me the cultural shock he experienced when he was sent from his native Iowa and assigned to Elaine in his first pastorate. “I soon learned,” he recalled, “that those folks lived in the State of Delta, and the capital was Memphis.” Some things never change; some people don’t either.

Then came Helena, that lovely though somewhat dowdy old port city that occupies what Mark Twain described in Life on the Mississippi as “one of the prettiest situations on the river.” Perched on the very end of Crowley’s Ridge, a geographical anomaly in the otherwise table-flat Delta, and covered by kudzu (the ubiquitous, fast-growing plant wryly called “the vine that ate the South”), Helena, with its antebellum homes, Civil War battlefield markers and Confederate cemetery, Delta Cultural Center, and blues music festival, is widely recognized as Arkansas’ most Deep South city both in appearance and attitude. In fact, I often refer to it as “a poor man’s Vicksburg, Mississippi.”

Delta Cultural Center

The Delta Cultural Center (photo from the Delta Cultural Center, Helena, Arkansas)

Helena 1

The Tappan-Pillow House (1851-58) in Helena, Arkansas (to magnify, click on the photo from a postcard by Postal Graphics 901-458-1455)

Then I go on to note that “everything in Arkansas is a poor man’s something—and I’m that man!” The problem is that I just can’t afford to move back home and enjoy it. On this subject, I once wrote a short “talking head” play called, “A Visit With Aint Ida Claire [I Declare], or Why Urban Southerners are Drawn Back ‘Down Home,’ But Cain’t Live There.” (This play will be presented in a future post.)

Depositing our belongings in the aptly named Delta Inn in still-flat West Helena, we quickly dressed for the solemn occasion for which we had come so far. Then we followed the long winding street through Helena’s vine-covered knolls and glens to the lovely old red-brick, Georgian-style First Baptist Church where all the family was to gather for a pre-funeral “dinner” (Southern for “lunch”) provided by “the ladies of the church.”

Helena III

First Baptist Church of Helena, Arkansas (to magnify, click on the photo)

Needless to say, that reunion with relatives from both far and near, some not seen in years or even decades—others perhaps not to be seen for a similar length of time, if ever—was, as they say, “a slice of heaven.”

Almost as tasty and satisfying as the luscious offering of real “down home” Southern foods prepared and served by the hands of the gracious and genteel “flowers of Southern womanhood” whose East Arkansas accents were as thick and sweet as their iced tea and “Kay-row Nut (pecan) pie.” (To read more about this Southern delicacy, click here.)

Both the reunion and the repast combined to create an indelible though admittedly bittersweet experience, one made all the more so by the realization of its growing disappearance from the lives of modern Southerners whose families are increasingly scattered all over the nation and, indeed, the globe. If only such priceless moments of joy were not so rare, and the events that provoke them so sad.

After the reunion and dinner came the traditional Southern Baptist funeral with the familiar old heart-tugging hymns of the faith; loving eulogies from family members; a word of consolation from the kindly, gray-haired pastor, who assured us of an even greater, more joyous reunion one day “when we all get to heaven” and (again) “gather at the River”; and ending with a touching final view of the deceased lying in the open, flower-laden coffin.

Then followed the equally traditional funeral procession led by mortuary limousines and family vehicles from the stately church to the manicured cemetery on the edge of town where a few more words of comfort and parting were spoken in front of the closed casket under a funeral-parlor tent set up to protect at least a portion of the perspiring mourners from the merciless August sun.

Finally, after the formal proceedings were over, and while the deceased was left for private interment in the dusty Delta sediment, much of the family gathered back at the home where friends and church members had set out an elaborate array of calorie-laden “finger food” and non-alcohol-laden “soft drinks” for those who could stay and “visit a while.”

As the evening wore on and the family circle grew smaller and closer, the atmosphere grew more relaxed and convivial. By the time the midnight hour approached, the conversation had become decidedly livelier and less restrained.

It had also become more homey and humorous, eventually centering around the recounting of happy memories and, inevitably perhaps in such a Southern setting, the retelling of “huntin’ stories.” The latter, of course, included accounts of successful (and not so successful) woodsy expeditions and encounters by the adults and even the “young ‘uns”—replete with display of some of the actual firearms used in the bagging (or missing) of the prized game.

Yet, surprisingly, no one seemed to notice the change in tone or subject of the conversation from death to life. Perhaps that is as it should be, as it was meant to be.

The next morning my little family and I, after partaking of a decidedly non “heart-smart” country breakfast at a “good ole boys’“ cafe on the outskirts of West Helena, departed on yet another family-oriented detour.

Traveling north for an hour or so, we passed through true East Arkansas Delta scenes of onetime self-contained and often self-sufficient cotton plantations now being transformed into huge, corporate-owned and computer-run agribusinesses.

Delta plowing

Large-scale cotton farming in the Arkansas Delta about the time of my birth in the 1930s (to magnify, click on the photo from the Delta Cultural Center, Helena, Arkansas)

Cotton and steamboat

“Days gone by . . .” Steamboat loading and unloading cotton in East Arkansas (to magnify, click on the photo; source of photo unknown)

On we went through Lee Country (named for the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, in whose Army of Northern Virginia one of our ancestors served) to Forrest City (named for the Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, namesake of Forrest Gump and alleged founder of the Ku Klux Klan) where we visited “for a spell” with our virtually housebound aunt and uncle.

Our purpose in going was not just to see “kinfokes,” but so the “kinfokes” could see our new grandson, Baby Levi Jesse, named for two ancestral Southern preachers: one Baptist (“the Catholic Church of the South”) and the other Methodist (“the Baby Sprinklers”), all in keeping with the old saying that, “Ever’body in the South is Bab’tist or Meth’dist—‘less they been meddled with!”

Eventually, and with a final lingering farewell, we dutifully and sorrowfully climbed into our already scorching vehicles to begin the long, hot journey straight back across the blistering Delta, up the Arkansas River Valley, and out onto the vast, sun-baked plains of Oklahoma—a trip which is, as I say, “uphill all the way.” At least it’s uphill all the way from Little Rock (“the Westernmost Bastion of the Antebellum South”), beyond which the Delta quickly “passes away” (a telling term!), gradually becoming nothing more than a lingering, haunting memory.

Arkansas Belle

An Arkansas Delta Belle holding a magnolia blossom and standing in front of an antebellum home (to magnify, click on the photo from a travel brochure published by the Helena Advertising and Tourist Promotion Commission, 622 Pecan, P.O. Box 495, Helena, Arkansas 72342, 501-338-6583)

My conclusion about the second, involuntary and unplanned trip “back down home” that summer twelve years ago was basically the same as the one I reached after the first, voluntary and preplanned trip: Like the “faded rose from days gone by,” the Delta and I have both aged. And, also like her (but unlike the delightful doting dowagers of the First Baptist Church of Antebellum Helena), neither of us has done it either very gracefully or very graciously. Instead, more like the departed family member, we have just been “passing on.”

Is there any hope of return and restoration for either of us? Doubtful. At least not back to “the way we were.” As I once wrote:

Yes, you can go home.
You just can’t go back.
Time never runs in reverse.
The things that are past,
Are done and passed,
For better or for worse.

But though there is little hope of ever going back, perhaps, as in the case of the deceased, there is every hope for a better life ahead. As the writers of “Delta Dawn” went on to ask her:

And did I hear you say he was a-meetin’ you here today
To take you to his mansion in the sky?

I’m counting on it, because if there really is a “River of Life” in heaven, then it has to have a Delta—and I expect to find my “Tara” waiting for me on the Arkansas side of it!

Jimmy Peacock, August 31, 2000
Updated April 15, 2012

Lakeport

Lakeport Plantation on the Mississippi River near McGehee, Arkansas. “One of these days . . .” (photo courtesy of Lakeport Plantation)

Note: A second “pilgrimage” to Antebellum Helena for the funeral and burial of another close family member, this time during a cold and rainy Thanksgiving holiday in November 2010, will be the subject of a future post. The similarities and differences in the family, the city, and the Arkansas Delta in that ten-year interval will be examined and explored.

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“In the life of a writer there are no extraneous experiences.”
(It is all grist for his mill [i.e. bread for his meal].)

—Anonymous

“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”

—Acts 2:17 NIV

As you have probably learned by now, recently I spent nearly a week in the hospital in Tulsa for back surgery. Although the official name of the Roman Catholic hospital is St. Francis, because of its huge size and unique color it is commonly referred to as the “Pink Palace.”

St. Francis Hospital

St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the “Pink Palace”

During my six-day stay there—and the more than two weeks of recovery back home in Sapulpa—I have experienced some strange encounters: some I would classify as dreams, others as hallucinations, others as visions, and others as unexplained occurrences of the Third Kind.

In this post I have tried to classify some of these various experiences by type and degree of logical explanation.

All of them I have grouped together under the subtitle “Les Fleurs du mal,” the title of a collection of poems by French poet Charles Baudelaire. This is a title usually translated “Flowers of Evil” but which I translate “Flowers Out of Misery.” Now here are those strange encounters from my recent—and sadly still ongoing—misery. You can be the judge of their meaning and significance, if any, and can click on the photos to magnify them.

 Opening Hallucination:
My Mexican Drug Cartel Abduction

After my surgery and release from the recovery room I was wheeled into a small hospital room that seemed to me in my still heavily sedated state to be little more than a basement-floor utility room. With its stark grey cinder-block walls and crowded space, there was just enough room for my bed, which was surrounded on all sides by stacks of mysterious-looking medical supplies in boxes and crates.

Shocked by my surroundings and the lack of any medical staff, I instantly became convinced that Mari and I had been abducted and were being held for ransom by . . . members of a ruthless Mexican drug cartel!

In fact, I was so convinced of this fact and so frightened about it that no amount of logic or reason by Mari could persuade me differently or calm my raging emotions.

After what seemed like an eternity in which I had worked myself into a nervous fit, suddenly the door opened and in walked two stocky African-American men in blue hospital uniforms. Seeing them, Mari quickly grabbed my head and turned it toward them saying, “Look, Jimmy! Here are your two nurses! Do they look like Mexican drug bosses to you!”

As I stared at them in shock and disbelief, Mari quickly interrupted my thoughts by calling my attention to the logos on their shirts: “St. Francis Hospital, Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

“Now do you still think we are being held captive by a Mexican drug cartel?” she asked.

Reluctantly I murmured contritely, “No, I guess not.” But things still just didn’t look right to me.

A day or so later my physical therapists—one a pleasant middle-aged white woman and the other a quiet younger bearded black male who looked like James Harden of the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team—were in my room. When they had finished with my exercises, as the young black man was remaking my bed, I was telling the two of them about my hallucination about being held captive by a Mexican drug cartel. When I came to the end of the story about my two African-American nurses, I looked at the young man and said, “I was never so glad to see two young black Americans in all my life!” Then I reached out my hand toward him and said, “Thanks, Brother!” He took my offered hand with a firm grasp and a broad grin. And we were truly brothers for the rest of my stay in the Pink Palace.

That incident taught me that people appreciate being recognized not only for what they do but also simply for who they are.

 My Filipina Angels

One of the few delights during my stay in the hospital was getting to know a young Filipina (feminine form of the masculine term Filipino) who served as my medical “tech.” She was pleased that I began to call her “Ruby” (not her real name) because I told her that she reminded me of one of my favorite songs by Ray Charles by that title, which she promptly asked me to sing for her. (To hear this song performed by Ray Charles, which you will greatly prefer to my version, click here.) (To hear a different primarily instrumental version of this same song with written lyrics and performed by Ray Charles on piano with some group vocal backup, click here.)

She was also pleased when I told her that Mari’s father had served with the U.S. Army in the Philippines during WWII and had not seen her until his return from the war in 1945 when Mari was three years old.

Grover in WWII uniform

Grover Williams in his WWII uniform

“Ruby” had been living in this country for only two months. Although she said she had completed her RN diploma, to me and Mari she looked to be only about seventeen years old.

Blessed with a gorgeous smile, bright sparkling eyes, and long silky black hair pulled back in a perfect teeny-bopper, Gidget-style ponytail, I could not help noticing right away how young, slim, attractive, and vivacious she was. Her bubbling personality, infectious giggle, and cute Filipino speech only added to her feminine charm and to her youthful ability to make me smile when I had absolutely no other reason to do so.

This was especially true when she asked my name and immediately began to call me “Meestah Jeemy,” as when I said something amusing and she would burst out in girlish glee: “Oh, Meestah Jeemy, you so funny! You know that?”

By the time I checked out of the hospital, “Ruby” was no longer there. “I’m going to miss her,” I told Mari, “but maybe it’s just as well. I could have taken her home with us to be one of our kids or grandkids. But I don’t know anything about raising girls. The first time she brought home some old slovenly, no-count boyfriend I would come unglued!”

What’s funny is that very night on TV I saw a commercial in which a father brings home pizza for himself, his wife, his younger son, and his teenage daughter who is accompanied by her gross boyfriend. While they are all oooing and gooing over the pizza, the girl looks at her dad and asks, “But where’s Jason’s pizza?” To which the dad responds ruefully with his mouth full, “I had Jason’s delivered to his house!” As “Meestah Jeemy,” I would have done the same thing for any boyfriend of “Ruby!”

But the topper to this story is what happened a few days after we got back to Sapulpa for me to begin my home recuperation. We received a call that we would be visited that afternoon by a home health care nurse who would continue my physical therapy. When she rang the bell and Mari opened the door, in walked a more mature version of young “Ruby” with the same slim build, sparking eyes, warm smile, and shiny black hair.

As soon as she introduced herself to us, I recognized the same soft accent though not quite as youthful or as amusingly cute. I also noticed the same smooth brown complexion, easy good nature, and gentle sense of humor.

After the initial formalities and the required paperwork and physical examination, I confirmed my suspicions by asking the woman, “Are you Filipina?”

“Why yes,” she replied with a smile. “How did you know?”

Then I told her about “Ruby” and what a doll she was and what she called me. I also showed her the newspaper accounts on the wall of Mari’s father serving in the Philippines in WWII and the small snapshot of his return to Mari on her third birthday.

Grover with Mari at age 3

Grover Williams with daughter Marion at age three upon his return from WWII

During the last exercise, as the physical therapist was following me through the house observing my walk, I heard her saying behind me, “Oh, you’re doing so good, Meestah Jeemy!” We both laughed out loud, and as she left we felt a close bond.

So I suddenly realized that although I could not bring young “Filipina Ruby” home to take care of her, God had sent a more mature version of “Filipina Ruby” home to take care of me.

Coincidence . . . or strange encounter?

 Russians in the Bayou!

It was after I got home to recuperate that I had a dream that I am sure was inspired by the month-long nightly James Bond movie marathon Mari and I watched on TV just before I went into the hospital.

In my dream as Western spies we were being chased by Russian secret agents across the USSR as we wheeled and skidded and did death-defying stunts in a supercharged sports car. Unfortunately, as luck would have it we ran off into a bayou (it must have been in that part of Russia known as Georgia—forgive the pun).

So we ended up with the front end of the car in the muddy water with Mari trapped inside as the murky water closed over her head. I was lying on the bank of the bayou behind the car, my body—with my back broken, a bit of near reality there—halfway in and halfway out of the dank water with cottonmouths and alligators crawling all around and the KGB vehicles flying up and down the dusty roads above the banks, sirens screaming and shots firing.

Bayou Batholomew

Bayou Bartholomew between Selma and McGehee, Arkansas, like the one into which I crashed in my dream

Somehow I managed to free myself and Mari and make it to a nearby castle where I was miraculously all cleaned up and dressed out in a Russian Cossack uniform complete with the tall furry hat, the ankle-length grey overcoat, and the knee-high black boots.

Russian Cossack

Russian Cossack

As I was walking down a Versailles-style hall decorated with high mirrors and ornate crystal chandeliers, I was carrying a leather attaché case in which there were the official papers that I was supposed to deliver personally to the Russian president.

Just then I looked down and realized that my hands were covered with sticky, stinky bear grease! Obviously, I had killed a Russian bear with my bare hands (no pun intended!) and used the grease to soothe the burns I had received in the car crash in the bayou while I was being chased by the KGB . . .

Are you getting all of this? Does it make any sense to you?

Me neither, which is why I woke up and moved on to a more humorous incident.

God’s Sense of Humor

In this one (dream, hallucination, vision, who knows?), I was watching a pudgy Jewish comedian with a large black moustache and lots of curly black hair who was telling and acting out some amusing Hebrew story.

In the course of his “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (that’s a line from Shakespeare’s McBeth, Act 5, Scene 5, in case you missed it), he was demonstrating some fictitious Jewish game using small bowling pins and a tiny handball. Suddenly he made a “grand slam” of some kind and started giving praise to God. Throwing up both hands, he cried out, “Wow! Did you see that! Thanks be to God! He is soooo great! For that I’m gonna give Him a ‘Rock Hanukkah Harmonica.’”

So he pulled out a harmonica from the vast pockets of his drooping clown-like pants and commenced to play a rousing Fiddler-on-the-Roof-style “praise song” while dancing around like David rejoicing before the restored Ark of the Covenant in 2 Samuel 6:12-16 NIV.

Although I had never heard of anything remotely related to “Rock Hanukkah Harmonica,” when I searched for it online to my utter amazement I found several sites featuring Hanukkah Harmonica tunes. (To view one of these “Rock Hanukkah Harmonica” sites, click here.)

As I was “dreaming” this sequence of the “Rock Hanukkah Harmonica,” it suddenly seemed that someone was lying beside me in my “sick bed” and suddenly reached over and gave me a couple of quick elbows jabs in the ribs, as if to say, “Ain’t that great!” I laughed out loud so that Mari stuck her head in and said, “What’s going on?” To which I said, “God does have a sense of humor! He just gave this Southern Baptist boy a Jewish joke!”

But then I remembered that God has been giving Mari a daily Arkie joke for almost fifty years!

Closing Hallucination:
Selma Childhood Memories Come Alive!

While lying on my bed at home still under the influence of painkillers and sedatives I had another, final dream, hallucination, vision, or whatever.

This one was about my boyhood home of Selma, Arkansas, about which I have published several posts in the past year or so since I launched this blog.

In this one I was suddenly back in front of the Selma general store right at closing time late in the afternoon just as it was getting dark. (For more childhood memories of the Selma store, click here.)

Selma store front

Ruins of the Selma store as it looked in the 1980s with the front porch on the left and the owners’ apartment on the right (the old-fashioned gas pump stood at the end of the porch, see next photo)

As the owners of the store were leaving for the day, I was kneeling down in front of the porch by the old gas pump (the literal old-fashioned type that had to be pumped up to fill a glass globe on top with the amount of desired fuel to be drained out by lowering the hose and inserting the nozzle into the vehicle’s gas tank).

Antique gas pump

Antique gas pump like the one that stood at the end of the porch of the Selma store (Lion was the name of an oil company in El Dorado, Arkansas)

I was searching under the porch for something I had bought months earlier to commemorate the completion of the restoration of the historic Selma Methodist Church, the subject of the very first post on this blog back on May 25, 2011. (To visit this site, click here.)

Looking down at me, the owners asked me what I was doing, so I said truthfully: “Oh, I’m just lookin’ for something I hid here some time ago.” I didn’t elaborate on it because I didn’t want anyone to know what it was or what it was for.

Exasperated that I could not find it, I finally looked up and saw that there was a light on in the Selma Methodist Church a short distance away. So I walked over to the old church building and began to search under its front steps and then around its side, looking for my hidden gift.

Selma Methodist Church

Selma Methodist Church with a view of my birthplace outbuildings in the background

Outside on the ground toward my birthplace I did find a cache of pink rose petals—Mari’s signature color and the color of the flowers in our wedding, the fiftieth anniversary of which we will celebrate this Christmas. Unfortunately there was nothing else.

As I was rising up from the ground beneath the window above, from inside the church I heard the sound of quiet conservation and gentle laughter. I peeked in and recognized some of Mari’s family and relatives who were obviously setting up for a party to celebrate what I thought to be the wedding anniversary of Mari’s grandparents, now dead more than forty years. (What’s strange is that none of her family were actually from Selma, nor were any of them members of the Selma Methodist Church.)

50th anniversary0001

Mari’s grandparents at the time of their fiftieth wedding anniversary on New Year’s Day 1951

When I walked inside still looking for my gift, a couple of Mari’s relatives asked me what I was doing and I just murmured some noncommittal comment. It never occurred to me that perhaps the planned surprise celebration was to be for our own fiftieth wedding anniversary in December though we were married in the First Baptist Church in McGehee.

Then suddenly I woke up back in my own bed and was looking into the next bedroom in which Mari’s mother had spent her last five years living with us as an aged invalid. Although Mimi was gone I could see part of the room that I was also now using in my recuperation along with her walker, her shower, her recliner, and other items from her last days.

Mary Elizabeth Williams 90th birthday 2005

Marion’s mother, Mary Elizabeth Williams, on her ninetieth birthday in September 2005

Just then I realized that at a small round table with a fancy pink cover (Mari’s signature color), a photo of Mimi, photos of the grandkids, etc. there sat a kindly-looking elderly man with snowy white hair and grey-steel-rimmed glasses who was dressed impeccably in a white suit and tie. He was very quietly and calmly writing down names in a pink sheet (there’s that color again), what I took to be a list of those to be invited to the family event at the Selma Methodist Church for which the family members were getting prepared.

The nattily groomed man never looked at me or even seemed to be aware of me as I lay and watched him as he meticulously but steadily worked away at his task.

Just then I realized who he was: He was Mari’s older cousin, a true Southern Gentleman, from Tupelo, Mississippi, who had been born and raised at Florence, Arkansas, like the rest of Mari’s family. I can only assume that he was in that room in our house in Sapulpa—and I am almost convinced that he actually was in that room where Mari’s mother spent her last years—for some reason. A reason that I will seemingly never know, just as I will seemingly never know what my lost gift was and why I could never find it.

I do know that I am hoping and praying that I will be recovered enough by this fall to attend the dedication service of the restored Selma Methodist Church, the first church I ever attended as a child, to complete the spiritual journey I began there more than sixty years ago. (For a summary of my personal spirituality and pilgrimage, click here.)

Maybe then I will finally find my gift and its purpose. I hope so.

As the Apostle Paul wrote: Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12 NIV).

After seventy-three years I am eager to know just what that goal and purpose was—and is—assuming there ever was one. But all the “supernatural signs”—as muddled and confusing as they may be—do seem to point to it.

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“If any place can engender a sense of being permanently dissed, it’s Arkansas.”
—Peter Applebone, New York Times

In an earlier post titled “Keep Arkansas in the Accent” I inserted some of my quotations about my beloved home state of Arkansas. Some of those quotations were my responses to negative quotations from others about Arkansas and Arkansans.

In four later posts titled “Arkansiana,” I wrote about Arkansas’ French exploration and settlement and mentioned its later stereotypical and undeserved reputation as a land of “rustic rubes and rascal rednecks.”

In this post, part of my tribute to my beloved home state, I will provide some additional negative quotations about the state from others—and even from some Arkansans—with my comments in parentheses. Afterward I will offer some positive quotations about Arkansas and its residents. I will then close the post with links to several positive sources with words, music, and videos about Arkansas and its people.

Throughout I will illustrate this post with some of the magnetic stickers and picture postcards affixed to the filing cabinet in my office to remind me of my sorely missed homeland.

Arkansas Bird and Flower

Arkansas magnetic sticker with the state bird (mockingbird) and flower (apple blossom)

Negative Quotes about Arkansas

“Arkansas? . . . Excuse me, but isn’t that the Bubba/Backwater/Redneck capital of the Western World?”

Orlando Sentinel columnist L. C. Johnson

“I didn’t make Arkansas the butt of ridicule, God did.”

—H. L. Mencken

“What is the problem with Arkansas that needs you to do battle for it? I know of no other state that needs battle to be done for it.”

—Southern author in personal letter
to Jimmy Peacock in 1996

“Arkansas is another country. I experienced none of that legendary southern charm. I saw only a state that is mired in poverty and ignorance, with an educational standard that is next to last in the country. Arkansas is a beautiful state. . . . [but] The minute I hit the Arkansas state line, I began to miss Oklahoma. . . . It’s all here folks. Oklahoma is the promised land.” (That’s funny; for some reason as soon as I cross the Oklahoma line I begin to miss Arkansas. Oklahoma is not my Promised Land; it’s my Purgatory!)

—Art Cox, “Oklahoma is unique spot,”
Sapulpa Daily Herald, November 1, 1992

Arkansas Rapids

Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains (postcard by Jenkins Enterprises, North Little Rock, AR 501-945-2600)

“Why would anyone in their right mind want to [come to Arkansas]? A state where 99 percent of the population are related, where the normal IQ is in single figures, where the main form of transportation is a pickup truck . . . A state where there are as many honest politicians, honest judges and good teachers as there are good roads. A state that can only attract businesses because of low wages, a tame work force and no real trade unions. As I asked, why would anyone want to come to Arkansas?”

—Letter to editor of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, nd

“There’s an old gag that in the old days when you crossed the Mississippi there was a sign that said, ‘Texas left and Kansas right.’ . . . Those who couldn’t read stayed in Arkansas. I heard that from someone from Arkansas . . . . They have a nice sense of humor if you don’t provoke them.” (The source of this quote is John Shelton Reed, a famed “Dixieologist” from the University of North Carolina and a longtime correspondent of mine.)

—John Shelton Reed, quoted in
“How tough it is to be from Arkansas,”
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 20, 1996

“Deep in the Arkansas consciousness is a tragic sense that across nearly three centuries of existence as colony, territory, and state its people have been misunderstood and put upon. . . . When explaining their special ways to strangers, Arkansans sound to the practiced ear as though they are resigned to dealing with fools, but are too polite to say so.”

—Harry Ashmore, a South Carolina native,
in Arkansas: A History

“I hope no one else from Arkansas wins an Oscar. Billy Bob Thornton and Thomas W. Jackson have set Arkansas back to the Stone Age.”

—Theron Martin, Pine Bluff,
in undated letter to the editor
of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

“Thank God for Mississippi . . . ’cause it keeps Arkansas from being last in everything!”

—Traditional Arkansas saying

Arkansas Mosquito

For a video of an amusing portrayal of Arkies as rednecks in the form of a country song by Ray Stephens labeled “Arkansas’ National Anthem,” click here. For more positive poems and songs about Arkansas, go to the end of this post.

Positive Quotations from Arkansans about Their State

“Welcome to Arkansas!”

—From the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
(To view a brief video with scenes from Arkansas
and a welcome from Arkansans, click here.
Note the increasing prevalence of “Ar-kan-sah”
rather than the traditional
“Ar-kan-saw” that we knew.)

“There is no more beautiful state than Arkansas.”

–Academy Award-winning actress Mary Steenburgen
(To view a video of Mary Steenburgen
talking about her native Arkansas, click here
;
to read a thank-you note she once sent me,
click here
and scroll to the end of the post).

Arkansas Mountian Card

Mount Magazine in Arkansas (postcard by Jenkins Enterprises, North Little Rock, AR 501-945-2600; to magnify, click on the photo)

“You might be an Arkie if . . . you think the Fall in Eden refers to Autumn in Arkansas!”

—Jimmy Peacock
(To see a video with music and scenes
of Arkansas in autumn, click here.)

Arkansas in Autumn

Arkansas in Autumn (postcard by Jenkins Enterprises, North Little Rock, AR 501-945-2600; to magnify, click on the photo)

“I’m an Arkaholic!”

—Bumper sticker on our old car

“Arkansas, You Run Deep in Me!”

—Title of song that got me through a near
fatal illness (six weeks in hospital)
(To view a video of this song, click here.
For the same song with words and different
Arkansas scenes, see the end of the post.)

“Arkansas is the only state mentioned in the Bible ’cause it says that Noah looked out of the ark-and-saw land!”

–Traditional Arkansas joke

“What did Tennessee? Whatever Arkansas.”

–Page from a desk calendar stuck to my filing cabinet

No one could be more steeped in the lore of his home state, Arkansas, . . . than Jimmy. . . . He is a one-man chamber of commerce for the state he loves.”

—Virginia Peacock Whitehead,
Peacock Family Association of the South, 1985

Arkansas Cypress Slough

“He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.” (Psalm 23:2-3) (to magnify, click on the photo)

Where I come from,
it’s cornbread and chicken.
Where I come from,
there’s a lotta front-porch sittin.’
Where I come from,
it’s workin’ hard to made a livin.’
And tryin’ to get to heaven,
where I come from.

—“Where I Come From,” a music video with
scenes of Arkansas (to watch it, click here.)

“But wit is so common in Arkansas that it does not distinguish a man—not while he is in Arkansas. It is the tradition of the land.”

—C. L. Edison

“Leave the kids with great memories.”

—Advertisement slogan for Arkansas, the Natural State

When they made the Promised Land,
they gave it the name Ark-in-saw.
Nature lent it a helping hand,
to make it as great as any one of 48.
When they call the final roll, you gotta go, that’s the law.
Lawdy have ’em send my soul to Ark-in-saw. (Amen!)

—Song published in Charles Allbright’s
Arkansas Traveler column,
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 8, 2000

“From the very first day of my 10-day visit [to Arkansas from Scandinavia], I ran into one surprise after the other. Every morning I woke up I could feel all the cells in my body humming, swinging and singing, and I was incredibly happy for no special reason, as if I had come to a spot on earth that my body and mind were totally in tune with.” (I know the feeling—but far too seldom since I have been exiled from it for more than three decades.)

—Britta E-M Sandqvist, “Amazing Arkansas,”
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, nd

Arkansas Lake

Greer’s Ferry Lake at Heber Springs, Arkansas (to magnify, click on the photo from a postcard by Jenkins Enterprises, North Little Rock, AR 501-945-2600)

“A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.” (My problem is just the opposite—for more than three decades I have not been able to achieve escape velocity from Oklahoma!)

—Charles Portis, The Dog of the South

Arkansas Poem and Links to Arkansas Songs

Arkansas, my homeland
You are love and warm sunshine
You’re the scent of apple blossoms
Mingled with the pine.

You are mockingbird’s sweet music
Falling on my ear
You are twinkling stars and rainbows
bringing Heaven near.

You have riches: rustic mountains
Crystal waters, diamonds rare—
But by far your greatest treasure
Are the friendly folks who care.

Arkansas, my homeland
Forever you will be
Dearest place in all the world
Home, sweet home, to me.

 —“Arkansas,” framed poem by Doris Gordon
that hangs in my office as a reminder
of my beloved and much-missed homeland

Arkansas state card

Arkansas state statistics (postcard 1988 MAGNET INC. asi 68520, to magnify, click on the photo)

I am thinking tonight of the Southland,
Of the home of my childhood days,
Where I roamed through the woods and the meadows,
By the mill and the brook that plays;

Where the roses are in bloom,
And the sweet magnolia too,
Where the jasmine is white
And the fields are violet blue,
There a welcome awaits all her children
Who have wandered afar from home.

Chorus:
Arkansas, Arkansas, ‘tis a name dear,
‘Tis the place I call “home, sweet home”;
Arkansas, Arkansas, I salute thee,
From thy shelter no more I’ll roam.

‘Tis a land full of joy and of sunshine,
Rich in pearls and in diamonds rare,
Full of hope, faith and love for the stranger,
Who may pass ‘neath her portals fair;

There the rice fields are full,
And the cotton, corn and hay,
There the fruits of the field,
Bloom in winter months and May,
‘Tis the land that I love, first of all, dear,
And to her let us all give cheer.

Chorus:
Arkansas, Arkansas, ‘tis a name dear,
‘Tis the place I call “home, sweet home”;
Arkansas, Arkansas, I salute thee,
From thy shelter no more I’ll roam.

—“Arkansas,” Arkansas State Anthem,
written by Mrs. Eva Ware Barnett

October morning in the Ozark Mountains,
Hills ablazing like that sun in the sky.
I fell in love there and the fire’s still burning
A flame that will never die.

Chorus:
Oh, I may wander, but when I do
I will never be far from you.
You’re in my blood and I know you’ll always be.
Arkansas, you run deep in me.

Moonlight dancing on a delta levee,
To a band of frogs and whippoorwill
I lost my heart there one July evening
And it’s still there, I can tell.

Magnolia blooming, Mama smiling,
Mallards sailing on a December wind.
God bless the memories I keep recalling
Like an old familiar friend.

And there’s a river rambling through the fields and valleys,
Smooth and steady as she makes her way south,
A lot like the people whose name she carries.
She goes strong and she goes proud.

Chorus:
Oh, I may wander, but when I do
I will never be far from you.
You’re in my blood and I know you’ll always be.
Arkansas, you run deep in me.

—“Arkansas, You Run Deep in Me,”
Arkansas State Song, written by Wayland Holyfield
(To hear this song and view a video of it
with different Arkansas scenes, click here
.)

Arkansas Waterfall

Cedar Falls in Petit Jean State Park in Arkansas (postcard by Jenkins Enterprises, North Little Rock, AR 501-945-2600; to magnify, click on the photo)

On a lonely road quite long ago,
A trav’ler trod with fiddle and a bow;
While rambling thru the country rich and grand,
He quickly sensed the magic and the beauty of the land.

Chorus:
For the wonder state we’ll sing a song,
And lift our voices loud and long.
For the wonder state we’ll shout hurrah!
And praise the opportunities we find in Arkansas.

Many years have passed, the trav’lers gay,
Repeat the tune along the highway;
And every voice that sings the glad refrain
Re-echoes from the mountains to the fields of growing grain.

Chorus:
For the wonder state we’ll sing a song,
And lift our voices loud and long.
For the wonder state we’ll shout hurrah!
And praise the opportunities we find in Arkansas.

—“The Arkansas Traveler,” traditional Arkansas folksong
(To hear and see this tune performed
by Bill Monroe and band, click here
.)

To hear and see this song as performed in a now famous “Dueling Banjos” scene from the movie Deliverance, click here.

Arkansas Flag-Hog Card

Arkansas and some of its state symbols (postcard by Jenkins Enterprises, North Little Rock, AR 501-945-2600)

To hear “Oh, Arkansas!” one of the two Arkansas State Songs, with Arkansas scenes, click here.

To learn more about Arkansas’ four state songs, click here.

To hear the group Alabama singing “South of the South” with a video of Arkansas scenes, click here.

Arkansas Razorback

Arkansas Razorback, mascot of the University of Arkansas

To hear the Arkansas Razorback Fight Song with words, click here.

To hear native Arkansan Glenn Campbell sing, “Arkansas,” click here. (Notice that, being from my generation, from South Arkansas, and from the country, he pronounces it correctly: “Ar-kan-saw,” not “Ar-kan-sah.” Just recently I learned that Glenn has been diagnosed with alzhiemer’s disease and that due to his illness he has had to cancel a planned tour to Australia and New Zealand. So it looks like neither Glenn nor I will be able go back to Arkansas. As I say, “It is literally true that I am dying to get back home!”)

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 “Un des plus beaux [pays] du Monde.”
(“One of the most beautiful [countries] of the World.”)
—A reference to Arkansas in
Nouveaux Voyages aux Indes Occidentales
 (New Voyages to the West Indies) (Paris, 1768),
as cited by James Masterson in a footnote in Arkansas Folklore

In this, the fourth post on Arkansiana, which I wrote in 1981 as part of a proposal for a newspaper column on that subject, I combine two themes.

The first, as indicated by the title of the piece, is Arkansas’ French connection, which was based on the movie The French Connection that was popular at the time.

I have already discussed this theme in earlier posts on the French exploration and possession of the Louisiana Territory, which included what is now Arkansas and from which Arkansas derived its official name.

The second theme in this piece is the “bad name” that Arkansas—and hence Arkansans—developed over the centuries since that original French exploration, settlement, and transfer to the United States.

That subject is deep and far reaching. I have included negative quotations about Arkansas in previous posts such as “Keep Arkansas in the Accent.” I will continue to explore that subject in next week’s post titled “Some Additional Quotes about Arkansas: A Tribute.” Meanwhile, in this one I offer this humorous observation about both subjects from the past.

Of course, the original version of this piece, written more than thirty years ago, was directed to an Arkansas audience. Since then some of the facts in it are no longer accepted as accurate by modern historians, geographers, and linguists. Also the boast of “my near-native fluency and flawless Parisian accent” in spoken French is no longer true due to a lack of opportunity to use the language.

Arkansas’ French Connection

Quand nous étions en Arkansas, dix des Français qui m’accompagnaient ont demandé un établissement sur la rivière Arkansas.
(“When we were in Arkansas, ten of the Frenchmen who accompanied me requested a settlement on the Arkansas River.”)
—Henri de Tonti,
Explaining establishment of Arkansas Post (1686),
Historical Collection of Louisiana, Vol. 1, p. 68

“I didn’t make Arkansas the butt of ridicule. God did.”
—H. L. Mencken 

If you have ever lived or traveled out of state for very long, sooner or later you have undoubtedly found yourself the unwilling victim of the Arkansas stereotype.

In other words, you have discovered that many non-Arkansans still seem to think of our fair state as a rural, backwoods region populated by poor, ignorant, barefoot mountaineers and uneducated, poverty-stricken sharecroppers both much given to houn’ dawgs, moonshine, tall-tale tellin’, flea scratchin’, and racial bigotry.

Arkansas Humor

Postcard with stereotypical jokes about Arkansans–note the misspelling of “you’re” and “hors d’oeuvres” (to magnify and read, click on the photo of the card from Jenkins Enterprises, North Little Rock, Arkansas, 501-945-2600)

Whenever you are confronted with this “ignernt Arkie” syndrome, how do you react?

The late Arkansas Congressman and Southern Baptist leader, Brooks Hayes, used to like to tell of the Arkansan in Washington, D.C., who, whenever he was asked where he was from, always replied: “Arkansas. Go ahead and laugh.”

Well, that’s one way to handle it, I suppose. My approach is a little different.

As a former French instructor, translator, and interpreter, I have had numerous occasions to find myself providing involuntary diversion to out-of-staters who seem to find the concept of an “Arkansaw Frenchman” somehow devastatingly amusing. The reactions range from a bemused raising of the eyebrow to outright guffaws.

Jimmy at French Institute

Me as an “Arkansaw Frenchman” almost fifty years ago

Somehow some people just can’t seem to reconcile the two seemingly mutually exclusive images—the suave, sophisticated, cultured Frenchman and the good-ole-boy Gomer Pyle drawler in bib overalls and brogans from the “wahls of Orkinsaw.”

I don’t really blame them. “Ah reckin them two pitchers is ‘bout lack ohl and warter—they gist don’t mix none too good!”

But I have also found that (in all modesty) after hearing me converse in French with a near-native fluency and a flawless Parisian accent, folks’ condescending smirks soon give way (sometimes rather begrudgingly) to reluctant admiration—especially when they are informed to their utter amazement that this “ignernt Arkie” managed to learn to speak the language of the elite and the intelligentsia without ever having set foot in any French-speaking nation (an occurrence which was to take place twenty-five years after his initial exposure to la langue française).

“But where did you learn to speak such perfect French?” they ask incredulously.

“In Arkansaw,” I humbly but proudly reply. “After all (I never fail to point out), we were French before we were anything else!”

Jimmy as a Frenchman

Me as a Frenchman at French institutes in 1964-65

Then, like a salesmen with his foot in the door, I ply them with as many facts about “Arkansas’s French Connection” as I can:

Like the fact that the very name Arkansas is the French spelling and pronunciation of an Indian word;

That the French were the first to claim the Arkansas region as far back as 1682;

La Salle with Indians

The French explorer LaSalle taking possession of the land at the mouth of the Arkansas on March 13, 1682 (from a postcard stating it is one of a series of paintings by George Catlin illustrating the exploration of LaSalle (1678-1687) published by Arkansas Heritage and made by DEXTER PRESS, West Nyack, New York)

That the first permanent white settlement west of the Mississippi River was established by the French at Arkansas Post (Poste de Arkansea in those days) in 1686 (and not in St. Louis, for instance);

That the name of the mountains which they consider “backwoods personified”—the Ozarks—was given by the French (aux arcs) and refers to the bow-toting tribes they found there (les tribus aux arcs);

That the name of our lovely capital city of Little Rock (the only such city in the U.S. to boast three existent capitol buildings: territorial, ante-bellum, and modern) was originally La Petite Roche (so named by one Jean-Baptiste Bénard de la Harpe—not exactly your average rednecked, tobacco-spittin’, Coors-swiggin’ George Jones fan);

And so on and so on, as long as they will listen.

And, as a topper, just to sort of put the icing on the cake, I show them a picture postcard I bought somewhere (in Arkansas) featuring a painting of a curly-wigged, ruffled-shirted, snuff-pinching, effeminately aristocratic seventeenth-century Italian nobleman turned French army officer.

“This is a picture,” I innocently purr, “of the first Arkie, Henri de Tonti. In recognition of his services to the explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, he was given a seignorial grant upon which was established la Poste de Arkansea in 1686.”

De Tonti

Henri de Tonti who established Arkansas Post in 1686 and for whom Tontitown, Arkansas, is named (from a postcard purchased at the Arkansas Post National Memorial published by COLOURPICTURE. Boston, Mass. 02130)

“That’s funny,” I then remark quizzically, “he doesn’t look boorish!

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