The King’s English

 

 

You’ll find a bonus story here and there through The King of Highbanks Road manuscript. One such bonus is a list of my dad’s favorite sayings. Several are toned down in color. Ha.

Are any of these tossed about in your family?

•She’s as nervous as a sinner in church. (as nervous as it gets)

•Never get in a fight with a pig in the mud. You get dirty, and the pig loves it. (some things just aren’t worth it.)

•He’s choppin’ in tall cotton. (acknowledging a nice accomplishment)

•Don’t know about you, but I’m wore plum out. (more than just tired – very tired)

•How’s your mom and them? (greeting between families close in friendship)

•You beat all I’ve ever seen. (hard to believe)

•Colder than a well digger’s @$#. (very cold)

•He’s gettin’ way too big for his britches. (braggart)

•Slow as molasses in winter. (usually reserved to describe an adolescent male)

•I’m full as a tick. (what you say after every meal in the South)

•Look to the West. It’s comin’ up a storm. (rain and wind will be here in twenty minutes)

•I’ll swan. (my, oh, my)

•Yes, sir, that (rain) was a toad strangler. (rain that leaves water standing in row middles)

•Tight as a banjo string. (a cheap old man, or a nut on a bolt that won’t budge)

•I swear to my time. (personal exasperation, disbelief)

•He doesn’t know his @$# from a hole in the ground. (downright dumb)

•He’s cruisin’ for a bruisin’. (luck is about to run out)

Highbanks Road: Where All Things Are Possible

A photo I took a few years back where Highbanks Road dead ends into the St. Francis River.

I’ve thought a lot about roads lately–especially the ones that seemingly end in the middle of nowhere. We call them dead ends.

One day, thirty-two years ago, I had a revelation on an old dead-end road. It was a moment that still guides me.

Everyone back home knows it as Highbanks Road. There are no directional signs that point you there. None that identify it by name for that matter. But it’s a two-mile east-to-west passage “out in the country” as we say, between Arkansas Highway 139 and the St. Francis River dead ending into the muddy waters flowing along the western edge of the heart of the old Macey Community. It’s unremarkable and undistinguished, a few homesteads along the way, most dotting the corners of 40-acre cotton fields, and each with a signature name like Tiny’s Forty, Turkey Run, or Bobby Joe’s down on the corner. When two vehicles meet on Highbanks Road the drivers wave to one another. It’s the code of the community.

It’s also the road where I grew up my first twenty years, and it taught me a lot about life.

County Road 514 as it became known in the progressive 90s was a simple gravel thoroughfare maintained by the county road department. What that really meant was a monthly pass with a road grader, and you were sure-as-the-world bound to get a nail in your tire next trip to town, so you cussed every time the grader appeared knowing you’d have to spend money at Dean’s Tire Store. The grader driver had a big mustache and kept a big coffee Thermos in the cab. I remember that. He looked so comfortable in the air-conditioned cab on those oppressive July days when I chopped cotton on our home place and he’d creep by with the cringing noise of blade against rock. But he always waved. So I waved, too, but couldn’t stop thinking about how hot I was and how cool he must feel. Youth on the farm was so unfair.

Each winter season for two months sportsmen from across the countryside pulled camouflaged boats and motors with pickup trucks to Highbanks Landing lickety-split before sunup every morning. They were in search of mallard ducks from the surprisingly cozy confines of their heated duck blinds. Some loved the hunting, others were just along for the fellowship and tall tales. A few sought undeserved respite from their wives who wished their husbands would do more productive things than hunt ducks, drink beer, and fall asleep on the couch.

The town drunk, Oscar Wiles frequented Highbanks Road in an old brown Ford Maverick. Old Oscar got drunk three times a week on whatever he could find and you’d often find him passed out in a ditch snoring, tobacco juice running down his chin and onto his shirt. Depending on the angle Oscar hit the ditch at least one of the Maverick’s wheels revealing balding tires was always suspended mid-air. People said Oscar never broke a bone because the booze loosened him up so much.

“Having trouble?” my dad would ask as we pulled up on the scene. Oscar growled unintelligibly. “I’ll be fine. Go on,” he’d eventually say.

We pulled him out from road ditches a hundred times if one. Oscar eventually died in one of those accidents when he crashed into a ditch and the car went ablaze. People secretly swore a local troublemaker killed Oscar for sport. He was surely mean enough the story was credible.

Someone gave me a pair of roller skates for Christmas the year I was eight and I wondered how in the heck they expected me to learn skating on a gravel road. Might have been the most disappointing gift I ever got. Funny thing is, I actually tried. You got really bored sometimes on Highbanks Road.

A few years later, daddy thrilled me when he bought an old rusty go-cart frame and a brand new four horsepower motor to drive it. I recall it as the most adventurous summer of my life loading up bait and fishing pole each afternoon heading to the ditches toward the river and pulling in endless stringers of bream, goggle-eye and perch. Going fishing alone on that old rickety four-wheeled-bucket-of-bolts contraption made me feel like the king of the world, the captain of my soul. Remembering it makes me so happy for how that young boy felt. It was pure liberation.

The summer of my eighteenth year is a time I still recall as critical in shaping a personal life view. It seemed abrupt that summer season that I had no girlfriends to date, no buddies with whom I could spend time, and it was the first time I remember feeling truly lonely. It may have been my first introduction to depression. But it was a time of extended contemplation for a young man beginning to think about things in a deeper way.

I spent a lot of time reading the bible that summer and also fighting the anxiety that comes with a personality always looking for the next thing. Waiting has always been so hard. I also spent considerable time each evening around sunset riding a bike or just walking along Highbanks Road. As the sun would slip past the treeline marking the river and setting the sky ablaze as red fire, I’d wonder about the other side of the world where the sun now rose. People of different skin color, languages, customs, things I’d only read about in the leather-bound Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias. Big dreams of faraway places were born on Highbanks Road that summer.

One especially tranquil sunset that summer brought the most peaceful hope when it made me think about the rural, isolated dead-end road, and how it lead out on its other end to Highway 139. From there, it lead everywhere. You could go north to St. Louis or south to Memphis and from there, well, nothing stopped you from there.

In that moment, everything changed. The epiphany was almost spiritual.

Highbanks Road wasn’t a dead-end at all. It was just a starting point to all other destinations. It would take you every other place in the world if you’d let it.

But getting those places was my responsibility. No one else would take me there.

From a dead end, all you have to do is turn around and go the other way. And from Highbanks Road, all things were possible.

How to Lose an Election: Arkansas Senate District 21

Who would’ve thought the national public mood would have reared its head so prominently yesterday in a little race for the state Senate in Northeast Arkansas?

Chad Neill made a big bet that very thing would happen. Problem is, winning his six-figure wager depended on getting dealt an entirely different hand.

In the two weeks leading up to yesterday’s special election in Arkansas Senate District 21, voters simply could not escape Neill’s enormous (likely the biggest ever) media buy for a citizen legislator’s job that pays $14,000 and change annually. Neill engaged a proven strategy that flooded almost every local media venue imaginable. In the last 14 days, he owned local television, radio and billboards. Fact is, this is how you buy name recognition. Everyone knows it.

Furthermore, Neill paid thousands of dollars for professional consultants and research that clearly advised him to take hot-button national political issues such as gun control and national health care and throw them into the campaign mix so he could line up with the perceived pervasive mood of his Republican Party.

One published media report indicated Neill was reluctant to participate in a debate since he’d already invested more than $100k in paid media.

This time, at least, an election would not be bought. Not here. Not today.

Money would not be the thing that would impress Northeast Arkansas voters this time.

After watching Paul Bookout throw $50k and change at designer jeans and high-tech surround-sound systems, playing fast and loose with money was already a soft spot with local voters. They clearly were looking to be impressed with something beyond money.

Then, add a barrage of national media coverage over government shutdowns and debt ceilings at a time when every word that comes out of a politician’s mouth is considered mostly BS by anyone who hears it and Neill’s strategy (that in most other circumstances would’ve worked) got him dead last place in his own Republican Primary, That, despite the fact that he spent twice as much as both his opponents combined.

Neill’s own strategy, became the very thing that beat him.

Enter John Cooper, the unlikely candidate, who spent nothing by comparison, and led the entire field. Cooper’s strategy? Good old fashioned shoe leather. Go figure.

First there were seven. Now, four. Cooper and Dan Sullivan will square off for the Republican nomination in three weeks, while Radius Baker and Steve Rockwell will court their Democratic base.

Yesterday’s election results now offer the candidates some interesting lessons moving forward in the January 2014 general election. They’d be well advised to study hard.

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To the Candidates for Arkansas’ Disgraced State Senate Seat

So several of you are thinking about, or say you are in the running for the Arkansas State Senate District 21 seat. Contrary to many media headlines, it’s not, and never was, Paul Bookout’s seat. It belongs to the people of Jonesboro and the surrounding area. That’s one thing. Just for the record.

As you move forward in your candidacy, and perhaps beyond in your service … a few suggestions to consider:

arkansas state flag

1.  Your candidacy, platform and service should be based in how you see things differently four years from now.  What will have changed for the better, and what legacy will you leave? The fact is, for the most part, we’ve had a horrible group of state legislators from this area, who’ve brought us as much embarrassment  as they have good. The truth is, we’ve enjoyed fair success, not because of, but in spite of, goofy and lazy state legislators whom we can only blame ourselves for electing. There were a few decent ones. Not that many.

2. On that note, keep in the back of your mind the state’s most widely circulated newspaper publishes its list of the 10 Worst State Legislators following each meeting of the General Assembly. We had a state senator who made that list not too long ago, They said he was as effective as a “piece of furniture.” Yes, furniture. The best you could say about him is that he was arrogant, yet ineffective. Two days ago, the man who carries that dubious distinction said he is running again.  Whichever of you is elected to the District 21 Senate seat, do us a favor and don’t make that list. It embarrasses us.

3. You’ll inevitably say your platform gives high priority to education. Please don’t say that if you don’t mean it. Consider actually doing something that would make a difference in a first grader’s life 25 years from now. Want to ensure that young kids today have a job 25 years from now? Mandate second language fluency for graduation. Students in the European nations will be fluent in three to four languages upon graduation. Most students in Arkansas don’t even know grammatical English.  The kids today who have second language fluency 25 years from now will never lack for a job. And have you ever read the educational guidelines from the Arkansas Department of Education? Could they be any more convoluted? Another idea? How about right here in Craighead County, maybe we should have one superintendent of schools rather than seven. I dare you to tackle that one. It’s the right thing, no matter what anyone says, or what turf they try to protect.

4. Lately, some state office holders have said our ethics guidelines are “gray.” Not really. Good ethics are pretty simple. You err on the side of caution. Always. If you can’t properly interpret state ethics guidelines,  you probably shouldn’t run for office in the first place.

5. If you raise money for a campaign, spend it on a campaign. Spend it all. Don’t carry your funds over. Nip temptation in the bud. State legislators need not carry over campaign funds.

6. If you make a mistake, admit it, and don’t be so arrogant or self-absorbed with your own well-being, that you refuse to say, “I’m sorry.” It’s not cool, and the voters will never forget it.

7. Don’t try to be a big shot. In this job, you are a citizen-legislator. There’s a reason “citizen” comes first. It’s a part-time job where you are elected to serve and sacrificially give of yourself. Don’t try to be a big shot. It didn’t work out so well for the last guy.

8. If you are running for this office as a spring board to something beyond. Don’t do it. Run because you want to make a difference here.

9. Want to see an example of a pretty good state legislator? You need not look too far to Greene County. Robert Thompson shows every indication of a public servant with integrity, smarts and devotion. I question his decision to give legal representation to Paul Bookout, but it’s not the end of the world. He’s a good example for any state legislator.

10. Please understand the difference between your choice to be a politician, and your duty as a public servant. Politics is a necessary evil and often gets public servants in trouble. Public service, done well, is among the most admirable of vocations. And there is a big difference between the two.

11. When the media calls, call them back. Actually speak to them. Don’t hide behind emails and “press releases.” At the end of his term, the last office holder tried to manipulate his message by having a one-way conversation with the media. Ultimately, everyone saw through that.

Good luck.

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14 Cliche’s That Work Well in Arkansas’ First Congressional District

A follow-up to this post, yesterday.

1. The Early Bird Gets the Worm – not always true, but always worthy of consideration. The best campaign I ever witnessed (as a reporter) was in 1989 when Osceola, AR attorney Mike Gibson ran for 18 solid months against entrenched incumbent Rep. Bill Alexander. Gibson lost the primary by the tightest of margins.  Today, he would tell you his defeat, and the subsequent decision not to run in the following primary (when he would have almost surely won) were the best circumstances and single best decision me made in his life.

Arkansas' First Congressional District2. Go Big or Go Home – in 1997 I was press secretary for Marion Berry, a Democratic candidate for Congress in Arkansas‘ First Congressional District. The primary was a three-way contest, money was key, and we had every reason to expect a runoff to make it to the general. Two weeks before the primary vote, we made the decision to spend every dollar we had, rather than hold back for the runoff. Good decision. Had we not gone “all-in” we might never have made it to the big dance, which, by the way, we won.

3. It’s What You Know AND Who You Know – there’s no better candidate than one who’s connected AND wise.

4. To the Victor Go the Spoils – Arkansas’ First Congressional District has a history of sending men/women to office and keeping them there. Hopefully, that’s not the case in this season.

5. You Can’t Teach That – the best candidates are born with something God-given, and it can’t be taught or learned.

6. It’s a Two-Sided Coin – public service is a wonderful profession for those who truly are public servants. But executed at its best, it’s grueling. The analogy applies further, unfortunately, in that the best candidate is one skilled in both politics (campaigning) and public service (actually getting things done.) The candidate who excels at both, is rare.

7. It Pays to be a Student of the Game – there is no substitute for a Politics in Arkansas' First Congressional Districtcandidate who does his/her homework every single day. The candidates who make a personal habit of study, far exceed the capabilities of those who depend on a staff member to be a student for them.

8. Always Play Like You’re Down – the best run like they’re scared, and as if there’s no tomorrow.

9. Expect the Unexpected – every day. It’s a cruel world out there.

10. A Championship‘s Won One Game at a Time – those who take their eye off the ball and look ahead, often get blindsided in the back field.

11. Just Getting in the Game Requires a Real Gut-Check – any candidate must take serious measure of him/herself to do this right, and well.

First Congressional District of Arkansas12. We’re All Monday-Morning Quarterbacks – hind sight’s the easiest game we play, and yes, it’s perfect.

13. Things Usually End Up in a Game of Hardball – this is not for the faint of heart.

14. Be True to Yourself – Arkansas’ First District electorate is now looking for someone who’s real, to whom they can relate, who can reach across unnecessary racial and ethnic boundaries, and who will respect and return our heritage to its former glory. You can’t fake that.

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What Arkansas’ First Congressional District Needs Again

Four things, I submit.

1. Someone who has a passion for public service, not the perks of the job.

2. Someone who speaks as an independent voice, a representative of the people, not a manipulated party puppet.

3. Someone who bridges the gap between black, white, Hispanic, rich and poor. Someone who embraces diversity.

4. Someone who “gets” that the background of the First Congressional District is rooted in the forward thinking of entrepreneurial farmers, under-paid, under-valued teachers, and senior citizens who’ve given us all a legacy of hope and opportunity.

***

Full Disclosure:

Former U.S. Rep. Marion Berry (D-AR)

I spent nearly four years working alongside Congressman Marion Berry as a press secretary, and later as a district director. In the years leading up to that privilege, I was a newspaper reporter with a love for following those invested in public service, Blanche Lincoln among them.

And I’ll tell you what Arkansas‘ First Congressional District needs again. We need a public servant, a representative in Congress who follows the example set forth by Marion Berry and Blanche Lincoln.

***

Three weeks ago today, Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington (D-AR) ended his bid to recapture the traditionally Democratic held seat representing nearly a million people. I voted for Ellington, not that I know him personally. We’ve met a few times and I gauged him to be one who fit the mold of Berry and Lincoln. Whether it was an inadequately run campaign, or just bad timing, we may never know, but I think we missed a good opportunity to get the First District going again.

***

Berry and Lincoln were quite different, yet very much alike.

To each of those one million constituents, she was Blanche. He was Marion.

That’s what I loved the most about them.

Over the years, Lincoln developed a strong skill set in constituent relations.

Former U.S. Rep. and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR)

People loved her. But she was more than just a pretty face. Blanche Lincoln was an effective public servant. She got things done.

Berry, on the other hand, was never a slick, tell-you-what-you-want-to-hear kind of guy. What you saw was what you got. I quit, early on, trying to morph him into something he was not. It couldn’t be done, and no one should have ever tried.  Berry got the job done. His advocacy for all of us built roads and overpasses, put clean, running water in rural towns, beat down every ridiculous regulation he could that would aggravate the already lopsided odds against farmers everywhere. Not a great politician was Berry, (and it was never his aspiration) but a magnificent and tireless public servant.

Can we say that’s what we enjoy today in the First Congressional District? A warrior who stands in the gap, and on our behalf?

If not, who?

And, when?

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