The Art of Loafing in a Parts Store

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.

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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.

What These Numbers Say to Me…

One of the best things that has blessed my life over the last couple of months has been the opportunity to re-connect with my best friend from high school.

Because of circumstances that are just too complex to explain in one post, I’ll just say there was a period of some 20 years when we lost touch and never even spoke. We weren’t angry with one another. We were just estranged…

My best, most loyal buddy, Brady Cornish (left).

About two months ago when it became obvious my dad had only days left to live, I called my estranged friend and told him I was going to need him soon. He said, let me know when you need me, and I’ll be there … and so he was.

Our relationship picked up immediately where it left off. It was as if time never passed. Now let me explain to you the importance of this relationship. If need be, Brady and I would cut our own hearts out and hand it to the other if that’s what was needed to help the other. That’s the depth of our friendship and I treasure it beyond what words might say.

We’ve shared a lot of “catching up” time lately, and yesterday I went to church with my friend at Mount Pleasant General Baptist Church, where some might say is “smack dab in the middle of nowhere.”

What a great experience to go back to the area where I was raised and see so many friends in their home church – worshiping where countless of their own generations have worshiped before them.

It’s a simple white wood structure with a modest steeple – no electronic billboards, no multi media mega screens, no rock the house praise and worship bands – just a small group of people coming together to hear the Word.

Most nostalgic to me was the photo you see here at the top of this post. The “display of numbers” you might say that reminds me of the very church I attended also “in the middle of nowhere” when I was a small child. We had one just like it at Macey United Methodist Church.

A few thoughts on what these numbers said to me.

  • At the bottom, notice the modest building fund goal, and the number where that goal currently stands. It’s important to have a vision and to regularly evaluate that vision. As we reach toward a goal such as this, we should celebrate milestone victories along the way.
  • Notice the day’s giving as it relates to the previous week and the correlation in church attendance from the previous week to yesterday. Attendance yesterday was one person more than the previous week, but the giving skyrocketed. The takeaway? Yes, one person can make a difference.
  • And the day’s attendance in itself? Do you see that? 27 people. Just 27. A small group of committed people CAN make a difference. I’ll bet you that almost every one of those folks came up (and as we say in the South) “hugged my neck,” just for being there.
  • And about that building fund goal – they are not there yet, but they are making progress. You keep pushing. You stay the course. You keep the faith. And God will provide.

At Mount Pleasant General Baptist Church “in the middle of nowhere,” they get it.

Thanks to my friend for welcoming me to his church, for showing me these lessons, and for just being there, as he always was, and always will be. Love you, my good buddy.