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? . . .
Words and Music by Alex Harvey and Larry Collins
(To hear this song sung by Tanya Tucker, click here.)
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.
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.”
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.
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”).
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.’”
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.”
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.”
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.)
Me standing in a Delta cotton patch about the time this story was written (to magnify, click on the photo)
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 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.”
The Delta Cultural Center (photo from the Delta Cultural Center, Helena, Arkansas)
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.”
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.
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)
“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.
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 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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