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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Stop the Presses! But Go to 500!

After eighteen months of writing, and a half-year of (ongoing) editing, we’ve set Saturday, October 3 as the release date for The King of Highbanks Road.

There is much to to share. The book’s foreword is set to be authored by a New York

Our hardback and paperback cover.

Times best-selling author at the top of his game. We’ll have some commemorative ceremonies, but more about those things later.

Today, I’m happy to tell you that KOHBR will release as a traditional limited-edition hardback with a 500-volume numbered press run. That means you can get a “one and only.”

So I hope you’ll make plans to buy one one of these signed, limited-edition books now. They will be released for sale in two phases: first at a ceremony in the King’s hometown of Monette, AR; the second phase a few hours later via online order. Hardback copies will sell for $24 each, plus shipping. #1 goes to my mom. #2 goes to my wife. #3 through #500 are up for grabs.

Both unnumbered hardbacks, and paperbacks will also be available via Amazon. The paperback will sell in the $15 range.

I’m also pleased to report there will be an audio version of KOHBR, narrated by yours truly. More to come on that as well.

Stay tuned for future announcements. We’re not finished yet!

Which number will be on your bookshelf???

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When Religion Makes You Think Too Much

 

It’s worth noting at the beginning my sensitivity to this topic. It began in 2012 when a well-intentioned, but misguided church pastor literally walked away from my dying father’s request for baptism.  There is no more anger. Over the years, I have understood this moment for what it was.

Fast forward six years.

Dana and I were working a  three-month term of volunteer service at a facility in Santiago de Compostela, Spain known for its welcoming atmosphere, peaceful environment, and Christian foundation. This is not a place that pushes religion on you, but it ideally operates as if Jesus managed it. We often said we hoped visitors experienced Jesus when they walked through the door. It’s also worth noting that the founders of this facility were abroad on business during these three months, and had they been there, none of this likely would have happened.

As I mentioned, Dana and I were volunteers working with several full-time staff members. We greeted visitors, helped them with travel issues, helped them understand the city, and other basic needs. Volunteerism is a commendable thing, but you also have to remember your place. You are there to assist, not necessarily lead. You are on someone else’s turf.

Several weeks into our service, a young man from Portugal came in. After helping him with some logistical issues, he began a conversation along spiritual lines. The young man mentioned he’d been on pilgrimage for three weeks, stopped in three churches to request baptism, and was denied each time. He was confounded how this could happen.

“Can you baptize me here?” he asked.

I asked a few questions exploring his faith a bit more. My judgment was that he’d had a genuine experience out there that fully merited his request.

I should have handled it right then and there. It was so exciting. What a moment this will be, I thought. We will remember it forever. It even crossed my mind that this was the reason we were called so far from home. Yes, I should have handled it right there. Were it to repeat, that’s exactly what I’d do.

But in the moment, I decided the best protocol was to quickly explain the scenario to a full-time staffer and let him and others move this process forward. There was no question in my mind they’d do so, and it was the respectful thing to do.

So I led Carlito into a conversation with the senior staff member on duty and went back to the desk, listening intently, and excited about Carlito’s decision.

Carlito described his frustration with the three churches who would have no part in his baptism. He did not wish to be catholic. He wished to be baptized in the name of Jesus. I counted this a real sign of his understanding.

At this point, it might be helpful to explain what baptism is, and what it is not.

It is not:

•Membership in a denominational church

•A magical moment of conversion

•Even particularly necessary for  one’s salvation

It is:

•A symbolic profession of faith carried out as a result of a previous experience

•Agreement that one believes in Christ Jesus, His deity as the Son of God, his death as atonement for sin, and his resurrection ,and place at God’s right hand today

•A milestone moment on which a Christian can reflect

Our staffer, a well-educated, deep-thinking scholar and Christian evangelical from Tennessee walked Carlito though conversation. I eventually heard him explaining how baptism is an act of community, and should be performed in community. He encouraged him to return home, find a church, explore his faith further and invest in a place where he could serve. There was so much talking, and so little acting.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It would be the fourth time Carlito was refused baptism. He left later that day never knowing the difference.  I was sick to my stomach.

So much theology!

It doesn’t take a special set of circumstances or a certain environment to profess your faith in Christ. Jesus doesn’t care if you are fully immersed, or sprinkled, or if you are in a church of five thousand, or with a friend in the woods. Jesus cares for the condition of your heart, and asks that you take a step in faith to know Him.

Our faith has never been about the rules, or the guidelines, or the principles. Just as it is not about your resume or list of achievements. We come to the place where we realize that we are not enough, and we need a helper. A simple decision, not a ceremony.

Don’t overthink Jesus.

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Pilgrim Strong Readers: We Need Your Review

Did you read Pilgrim Strong? I could use your help.

We need 36 reader reviews to reach 100. The Amazon gods are saying magical things happen to a book’s visibility at 100 reviews. All our reviews are legit. We’ve never attempted to pad our page with fake reviews for the sake of numbers. But if you”re a reader, and can take a moment to help with an honest opinion, we’d be grateful. You must have an active Amazon account in good standing. Here’s a sample, and thank you!

Giving Tranquility Base Some Breathing Room

 

 

Lot 5 was our original purchase on January 2. The Lot 4 addition doubles the property for our Tranquility Base Writer Retreat Center Development.

Its legal description is Roundbottom Pool Estates, an approximate 50-acre land tract developed in a spectacular river valley near Mountain View, AR in 2007. When a one-hundred-year flood passed through a year later, it derailed plans for everything. Today it is the site for about seven homes, most of them vacation homes for people living full-time elsewhere. It is also the home of our Tranquility Base Writer’s Retreat Center. Outside the trickle of the White River and an occasional eagle, you can hear a pin drop there.

From Mountain View, you travel about five miles southeast and downward following the White River to reach Roundbottom. Not uncommon along the drive are deer, turkey,  and all kinds of wildlife, not to mention the occasional hillbilly. The Herpelites (those hillbillies living along Herpel Road) are the biggest challenge as they fly around blind corners in beat up pickup trucks (think Deliverance) with no regard to possible oncoming traffic. A Herpelite can kill you in a heartbeat. Watch out, and drive defensively for Herpelites.

The conclusion of the five-mile drive down into the valley on our River Valley Road is take-your-breath-away beautiful.

Last Monday, Dana and I spent an hour researching real estate records at the Stone County Courthouse. After some digging, we identified the lot owners immediately west of our 1.2 acre property. The kind clerk gave me directions to the owner’s house and we drove there. The owners kindly invited us in to their amazing mountain cabin overlooking our valley and I asked about his willingness to sell his property adjacent to tranquility base.

“I’d love to sell it,” he said. My heart jumped.

After a couple of days of negotiations, I’m happy to say we’re purchasing another 1.2 acres that will double the size of our sanctuary, providing room for more wildlife habitat, a walking trail and lots of breathing room. It also brings our river frontage to just more than 200 feet.

We’re hopeful that construction will begin on March 1.

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The Honesty Box

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely that what others think of you. The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”  – Coach John Wooden

Is your character worth a penny?

Lake County has been the poorest of Tennessee’s ninety-five counties for a long time. It’s mostly two small towns with thousands of acres of the world’s richest farm land. This Mississippi River twists and turns through its heart, and the land is so flat you can see forever. There aren’t more than eight or ten families who farm all that land now, so the jobs aren’t all that plentiful.

“You don’t just put any yahoo to operating a half-million dollar cotton picker,” as one local resident recently noted.

Jimmy Lee Tucker remembers the late 1950s when his father worked as a commercial fisherman on Reelfoot Lake.  “If he had a good week, I got 25 cents on Saturday,” he said. “If it was a bad week I got nothing. The 25 cents would get you a Coke, a big Baby Ruth and enough bubble gum to last for the week.”

But Tucker, now a census worker for the government, remembers an abrupt change that came to his weekend routine one day.

“The Cokes went from a nickel to six cents. You put your nickel in the slot like always, and they attached a tin box to the outside where you placed the extra penny. They called it the honesty box. Paying six cents for a Coke was a big deal.

“Hardly any of the kids did it, and so it wasn’t a year later before they just upped the price from six cents to a dime. That showed us.”

***

When I was younger it didn’t bother me so much taking a pen from the bank or just accepting the extra french fries when the order got mixed up. And I must have left a hundred shopping carts right there in the parking lot.

That conscience, though.

The older we grow, I think, the more self-aware we are of that person we see in the mirror. I’ve realized that among all things, I have to live with that guy, and I don’t want him feeling guilty about some small, silly thing.

Dana and I once spent a five-month stretch in Ecuador not knowing if we’d ever return to the US. It was on the back side of a tough time, emotionally, economically, and lots of other ways. The thing I realized most from that adventure is that wherever you go, you take yourself with you. There’s really no hiding from yourself.

Everybody has an honesty box.

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COMING FRIDAY: Dates for the 2021 Tranquility Base Writers Retreats

Top 10 People Who Shaped My Storytelling

Any writer would have a difficult time counting all the things that affect his or her work. Places, different environments, other writers. Lots of things.

People inevitably affect the way we write, some from a technical, craft kind of standpoint, others from a place of voice and how we see the world, and tell the story.

These are ten people who’ve shaped the way my mind develops a story, and conveys it in black and white.

My Mom: After an unhappy first freshman semester at the University of Central Arkansas where I majored in public administration, I decided transfer to Arkansas State University with no idea about my life’s future. “Why don’t you talk to the people in the journalism department,” said said. And that’s where it began.

My Dad: Pat Conroy once said: “My father’s violence is the central fact of my art and life.” I didn’t live with a father who displayed violence anywhere near that of the Great Santini, but he was rough and tough enough. It was my father who evoked the strongest emotions I’ve known in a lifetime. Fear. Embarrassment. Gut rage anger. The strongest desire to do anything that would make him proud. It’s a strange thing to say, but my life is richer for my father’s rigid ways and a lifestyle more about his next beer than anything that had much to do with me. The stories born from my childhood and adolescence are a storyteller’s paradise.

Arkansas State University’s Journalism Department Triumvirate (Dr. Joel Gambill, Dr. Gilbert Fowler, and Dr. Marlin Shipman) : These three men were the foundation of ASU Department of Journalism for a good two decades. The foundational skills they passed on to me are are invaluable, and their great friendship was an uncommon encouragement.

Jesus: It’s pretty simple actually. Jesus was the greatest storyteller of them all. He was a master. Jesus used common, everyday, slice-of-life stories to teach the masses about God’s Kingdom.  His parables have been a model for my work from the beginning. For me, no story is greater, no image more amazing, than the prodigal son’s father running toward him upon his return.

J.L. Kimbrell (representing so many others): J.L. Kimbrell was an average, ordinary man from my hometown of Monette, AR. He was a farmer, a war veteran, loved his wife, told great stories of his own, and he was kind to everyone he met. He was like so many men in my hometown who, over the years, I had the chance to observe as they gathered at the local gin, or the implement company, or the duck blind. Watching their mannerisms and their language, even the way they crossed their legs was an extraordinary education. There are too many to name here. But I loved those men.

Fernand Brault: My French-Canadian friend told me an incredible story one day about his solo adventure from Montreal, Canada to the Bahamas on a vessel called Windseeker. To that point in our relationship, he’d never shared with me a story so captivating. As he shared the emotions he encountered when it came time to turn around and sail home, I was speechless. Fern’s tale was a great reminder that we all have a story. There is really no boring life.

Vegan Jake: That’s not his true name, but the name I used for the villain in Pilgrim Strong. Jake was a midwestern, number-crunching, vegan, atheist, extreme liberal of Polish decent, who believed it a sin to use things like washing machines, or lawn mowers, or even drink a Coke. As we spent time together on the Way of St. James, it seemed he expressed his disdain for my ways at nearly every turn.  One day I surprised him. “You can act as though I disgust you, but deep down inside you like me,” I offered. “You’re likable enough, High Roller,” he countered. He was a two-week lesson in conflict.

Jeannick Guerin: Another pilgrim with whom I spent considerable time on the Way. As we stopped one morning for second breakfast and Jeannick explained his reason for walking, it was clear that a terminal illness had brought him from Australia to his homeland in France so that he might say “goodbye.” I never asked another question about it. Some things are more important than the story.

Bradley Harris: My first editor. Upon our agreement to work together back in 2013, Brad was pretty straightforward about his toughness. He asked me to picture a dial 1-10 and give him a number representing just how much I could stand without having a meltdown. I think I offered a nine. Brad taught me so much. Mostly that every story that gets told can no longer be about me. It’s all about the person reading the words.

I’ve never met Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller, but his work has guided me for years. His recent book, Building a Story Brand outlines a simple, three-pronged idea for how stories can best hold readers’ attention. The writer first addresses a problem, then a solution, then explains how life is better because of that solution. Simple really. It’s a theme in many stories I write.

(Coming Wednesday: The Honesty Box)

 

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Be Teachable

You wouldn’t think it would be the case for someone who’s completed five decades and entered a sixth, but one of the most important lessons I continue learning is the value of being ‘teachable.”

It’s been especially true with writing — ironically the one thing I’ve always done with some confidence, and the only thing I ever considered a natural talent. Especially true in recent years, I’ve learned to maintain a spirit that is teachable.

Most of my livelihood has been based in the written word. Ten years in the newspaper business, another eight in the magazine trade. As a higher education fundraiser, and a political press secretary I made a living informing people and persuading them about certain things. It all came fairly naturally. Not all, but so much of this is about gut instinct and understanding people. That’s what I do. It’s art. And it’s science.

So it stood to reason way back in 2012 when I first decided to write a book that I came into the process with a fairly confident (arrogant) attitude. I’d interviewed 15,000 people. Written miles of copy. I’d sat with tattoo artists, strippers, men dying of AIDS, ambassadors, and presidents. A book was only a longer, more drawn out process, right? More story, right? Wrong.

That first book manuscript still sits in a file, crumpled, wrinkled, and dusty. I remember when it came back from my editor that first time. It was humbling. There was obviously an incredible amount to unlearn and relearn, so much so, it was almost overwhelming. 

But I didn’t quit. I read, studied, researched, found mentors, attended conferences, chased agents and publishers, and practically gave my life to the pursuit. If you’ve given up on a dream forgive me, but chances are you didn’t want it as much as you thought. If you want something, you’ll find a way.

In the meantime, I have published a book based on an incredible experience and a story that I thought deserved to be told. The story was as much about healing as it was about walking a very long distance. That process took more than three years.

Today, I’m closing in on the second book. It’s about a year in the making so far, and quite possibly, has involved more learning than all the years leading from 2012 until now. This is a LONG process. That’s another thing for the learning. Endurance.

You have to learn to listen to people. You have to learn not to listen to people. You have to learn who those people are. You have to learn the hard lesson that really good writing is not necessarily a great story. You have to learn how a reader’s mind processes a story. You have to learn that even when you believe so strongly in your gut that you’re right, you may be wrong. And you have to learn when to stand your ground. But you have to remain teachable. We never stop learning.

Whether you’re writing a book, or raising a family, pursuing a new career, or seeking some great truth, it’s the most important thing. Being teachable.

What will you learn today?

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