Today we kicked things off at Tranquility Base. While digging for a septic tank perk test isn’t very sexy, it’s something, and the sight of equipment and materials rolling onto our new property was exhilarating!
The trusses for Alissa’s Overlook arrived, and we used a chainsaw and Bobcat to clear brush and improve our river view for both the pavilion and the house. The view is SO much better! Monday, we begin pouring support pillars for Alissa’s Overlook.
A few visuals:
•A world-class retreat center known for its hospitality and depth for writers learning the publishing business.
•Walk the Great River Road from Lake Itasca, MN to the Gulf of Mexico to raise money for AgriWellness, a non-profit that provides counseling to suicidal farmers, and studies rural American behavioral science.
•Have about five good books under my belt, and another five ahead.
•Be a more disciplined man in the areas of prayer and bible study.
•I’d love to run just one more marathon, even if it’s not pretty.
•Create some kind of center that provides hot meals for hungry people. The one thing I cannot tolerate in this world is hunger.
•Establish a sanctuary for bees and birds that would educate kids.
•Do some trail angel work on the AT.
•Syndicated newspaper/internet column.
•Know at 60 there were a few young men I had a positive impact on.
When you think on it, it’s amazing just how much of nothing can go on in a little town. In the seventies and eighties, Monette, Arkansas had at least a half dozen places dedicated to doing nothing. If you wished to laggard about and pick up on the latest second-hand hearsay, there was a group and a place just for you.
Claud Earl Barnett’s parts store was headquarters for some of the older, more refined, town loafers. It was an exclusive club and the store was configured so patrons could park around back. Those who took a view from main street were none the wiser who was there.
Farmers had two primary loafing hot spots. The offices at Keich-Shauver Gin were appointed with fifteen wooden chairs around the periphery where some of the more legitimate loafing took place and the topics focused mostly on farming. Gin manager Raymond Miller was one of the smartest men in town, the kind of man a kid could listen to forever.
Not a hundred yards south at Ball-Hout Implement was where the real cut ups and the tallest tales got told. Of course, it was David Watkins go-to place of belonging. Oftentimes, I thought, the center of his world.
Loafing hours started at 6 AM and ended at 5 in the afternoon. Ball-Hout, known to locals as the International (Harvester) Place, was the only location in town with a room dedicated entirely to hosting town loafers. In retrospect, it was some of the most brilliant marketing of the day. A rectangular room with two extra-long couches and a couple of vinyl cushion chairs, there was an industrial-sized coffee pot that parts manager Doyle “One-Eye” Yates freshened on the hour. All this across from the long parts counter and a small room where you could buy Nacona boots and toy tractors. The store and its loafing customers were so amalgamated, there was a huge framed art piece above the parts counter featuring a Western bar scene with dozens of characters, each named for store employee, or a special customer. I spent hours admiring the piece in the near eighteen years I accompanied my dad there. It hung until the store closed forty years later.
In many ways, loafing with dad at the International Place taught me a lot about what it meant to be a man. One day you’d hear stories of uncommon valor from some of World War IIs bravest veterans like J.L. Kimbrell or Tinkie Wimberley. The next, a rambling tale from some of town’s most lovable drunks.
It was in the International Place where I learned that in casual settings a man can cross his legs one of two ways — with one leg perpendicular straight across the other, or hanging down in a more feminine sort of way. Some of the toughest men in town went with the feminine style, and by four years old I was replicating their behavior — a young boy’s admiration for some of America’s finest. A little of each lives on in every child who ever loafed there with his dad.
Inaugural picnic on the grounds of Tranquility Base. 2/29/20 (Photo, Frances Merrell)
During the last eighteen months and through the process of drafting The King of Highbanks Road, there is something I’ve not shared with you. It’s the kind of thing that troubles a writer deep down. Even makes him wonder whether it’s worth it.
I’ve never been able to explain to you how it’s more than just a story. I’ve known it was more, even if but from a feeling deep down inside my soul that couldn’t be explained. The words describing it wouldn’t come out. But I knew it was more.
And so there was always a nagging void between the writer and the reader. To be completely honest, I felt a bit inadequate in the vortex of that void, and struggled daily because the story I’ve been telling you wasn’t, well, whole.
We are about to clear all that up.
There was not a day that passed from the time I was 5 years old until the day my father died from natural causes in 2011 when I did not believe that would be the day we found him in a roadside ditch, his head blown off with a shotgun.
Every summer morning in 1981 as the temperatures exceeded 100 degrees for 23
consecutive days, I watched dad force down a cup of coffee, then he’d go to the bathroom and vomit for ten minutes. We literally watched a crop burn up that year. It happened to small farmers everywhere. Interest rates skyrocketed the next year, and the banks came after our land. They didn’t care if we had to sleep in a ditch. They just wanted their money. I never believed my father would survive the pressure.
He died twenty years later, hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
Earlier this week I randomly came across a 2018 article in The Guardian about suicide rates in rural America. Its title: Why Are American Farmers Killing Themselves? The story quoted two academic researchers who had dedicated their life to counseling small farmers in rural America. And their research specialized on the 1980s.
The weather, the markets, the interest rates, the stress. It was the “wrecking ball” that became the beginning of the end of the small farmer on the American landscape, they said.
A “wrecking ball.”
These guys were telling the part of the story that I didn’t know how to tell. The view from twenty-thousand feet. The big picture.
Finishing the long story, I put my head into my hands and cried. I tracked down those researchers and called them, and we talked, and I cried some more. I told them my story. They said they’d heard it a million times. And so they let me cry some more.
“But farm families are proud, and we just don’t talk about it a lot,” the said. “…and yes, we’d be happy to help you with your book. Whatever you need. Anything.”
The thing is, everyone’s normal is relative. We are products of that place from which we come. Without and understanding of something else, the only thing we know is our normal. But there was something that just kept telling me my normal was different. I witnessed too much stress, too much pain, too much struggle. Surely that wasn’t normal.
And so even though I didn’t really know what to call it, I had a deep, down desire to tell you about it and share it with you. It seemed a story that needed told.
And now I get it. It WAS something.
It was a wrecking ball that tore through the landscape I called home.
As we wrap up the finishing text for The King of Highbanks Road, I reflect on so many things from the experience of putting it all on paper – and how the place I will always know as home has impacted me all over again.
• The art of loafing and sitting around a coffee table with a group of men just shooting the bull, telling tall tales, even a few lies.
•Massive Crock Pot gatherings after church where the food is so good it makes you want to melt, but the older ladies say, “It must notta been fit to eat. They barely touched a thing.” This, although every last crumb was scraped from the bowl.
•The smell of fall. For cotton farmers, this is distinct, unique, and like nothing else in the world.
•Four-wheel drive pickup trucks so tall you need a step side to get in one … and the bird dogs and retrievers that ride in back of them. I recently got one of those trucks for myself.
•Watching the fall migration of Canadas, Snow geese, and mallard ducks navigate the Mississippi River Flyway.
•The sudden power jerk when a 2-pound crappie hits a 12-foot pole, and the battle that follows in the seconds afterward.
•Going out of my way to see the senior members of community families who raised me.
•Listening to the satisfying, nostalgic, mechanical hum of a distant cotton picker in a field miles away as it tries to beat the rain.
•The smell inside the old church where I was raised.
•All those small-town stories, and people, especially the local farmers who for better or worse, shaped me into the man I am today.