More Arkansas Travels

Six weeks in Arkansas — what to do?

Three or four times in my childhood, that was the dilemma. We were in Bismarck, Arkansas (whether the town was named for Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of the modern German empire (1871-1890), was never clear), in the heat of summer (except for the one time we went in mid-February for Grandpa Bingham’s funeral; 1965?), ensconced in the home of whichever relative was willing to put us up and with whom we wanted to stay. Mom (and Lee) usually stayed with Grandma; I’d stay with Aunt Margaret or Uncle Melvin; and Luci would stay with Uncle Melvin, too, except for the one year she snubbed us all and went back to Dallas with Uncle Lindsey instead. We’d get settled in, look around, and then think — what now?

In one sense, it was idyllic. Leaving the main highway at Bismarck proper (don’t blink), and heading up the road past the high school and the Lambert Assembly of God Baptist church, you’d soon realize that the houses were very far apart and that you were, indeed, in The Country. There was true darkness at night, zillions of stars, and incredible quiet, so quiet at times that you could practically hear your own heartbeat. The summer was filled with long, lazy days that started late, stretched mindlessly through hot, humid afternoons, and faded into late sunsets (perfect for playing horseshoes) and warm evenings (perfect for watching fireflies, or “lightning bugs”). It was a perfect setting for relaxing and visiting and pretty much doing nothing, with no regrets, because nobody expected anything. Not much, at least.

At the start of the trip, though, it would seem really boring. What do you do all day when it is hot and you’re alone, and feel that you have to be doing something?

Well, often I would sit and read. Preferably in the rocking chair on Grandma’s porch overlooking the road, watching the occasional pickup truck pass, and hope that it would rain a bit to settle the dust that those trucks kicked up.

I’d write letters to those poor friends of ours at home in San Pedro who didn’t get to go on big trips like we did (or so I thought). “Dear Trina, you would not believe how much fun we’re having here, seems like we’re always busy…how are you?”

I’d wait for mail, hoping for responses to all those letters we’d sent off. Posting and receiving letters was really quite fun, primarily because in Arkansas you had the novelty of mailboxes-by-the-road with the little creaky red metal flags.

I’d explore Mom’s land. Yes, Mom had a seemingly huge tract of land (5-1/4 acres) up the road a bit from Grandma’s; hers fronted the road, with Lindsey’s land to the right. A gate blocked the easement to the land behind hers (12 acres which we bought ourselves in 1990). The property was a big overgrown tangle; on each trip Mom would spend some time trying to find the surveyor’s marks for the corners and mark the boundaries so that adjacent unrelated scumbags wouldn’t try to take over her land. [I own hers now too, so well know what it’s like to find the corners!]

I learned to smoke. Well, more like learned not to smoke. One summer when I was about 15, my cousin Mike (a few years younger than me, but already a confirmed smoker) told me he’d teach me how to smoke. “What do I do?” I asked naively. “Just inhale real deep,” he replied…and then laughed himself silly when I burned my lungs on the damned smoke and had a coughing fit. He had his fun, and I was pissed off, but in the long run he did me quite a favor; that experience left me with absolutely no interest in smoking anything, ever!

We would play, as much as energy allowed. Summer of 1970, my cousins Stan and Mike and I were into playing with water pistols, and I usually got ambushed and nailed by the two boys. One day Mom and I went to the department store where Aunt Margaret worked, and Mom bought me a big, shiny, green plastic water rifle. This thing easily held five times the water our little pistols could carry; I might lose on the initial assault but I’d nail ’em while they were reloading! Needless to say, my altering the balance of power was not well received (especially by Stan), and our water wars that summer soon ceased.

Lee occupied himself that same summer torturing pets, either chasing Grandma’s hounds, trying to yank the tail off her resident cat, or pouncing on Aunt Margaret’s and Uncle Myrl’s incredibly patient German Shepherd named “Lady”. The tortured pets had some measure of revenge, though, when Lee stepped barefoot in some beans that Grandma had thoughtfully hurled out the window into the grass for her hound dogs to eat. The beans squished up between his toes and, frankly, looked remarkably like dog shit, which was enough to make Lee start retching and make the rest of us double over in hysterical laughter. He continued to chase the pets after that incident but with somewhat less vigor.

Go jump in the lake. Seriously — access to lovely DeGray Lake was just a half-mile or so down the road from Grandma’s (although the more scenic access points were around the other side off the highway). Lake swimming seemed to be a definite improvement over the beaches at home. For starters, the water was always bathwater warm, and you didn’t have to worry about pesky waves knocking you over, or sand infiltrating your bathing suit. And if you were lucky you’d feel fish slapping against your legs as they swam by. On the days when Melvin didn’t work he’d take us in his boat and we’d zoom around the lake, often with Aunt Pat and cousins Mike and Tanya water-skiing behind us (I was always too chicken to try). (In fact, it was in Melvin’s boat that I first noticed he was missing an index finger; shot it off when he was a boy.) Once we went to Lake Catherine; what a muddy hellhole that was! I stayed on my air mattress for hours to keep my feet out of the sucking mud on the lake bed, and got thoroughly sunburnt for my efforts. I stuck to the vinyl furniture at Melvin’s house for days after that (ouch!).

I learned to shoot a rifle. Mike taught me one summer. (I came to rely on Mike to teach me the things that Mom wouldn’t want me to do.) It was kind of scary, and I only tried a couple of shots. I think I was supposed to be aiming for a tin plate on a tree behind Melvin’s house (the one that later burned), but of course I didn’t come anywhere close. The rifle’s kick (strong!) interested me more than my proximity to the target. Lee was taught to shoot by Mike a few years later, but he had a big old shotgun, and nobody warned him about the gun’s kick, resulting in one very bruised shoulder for my long-suffering brother.

We’d play the piano at Melvin’s. Pat had a spinet piano, and she and Tanya had a very distinctive style of playing, with lots of flourishes on the chords. Luci picked up the style much better than I ever did.

We’d fight. I’ve determined over the years that the primary advantage a large family has over a small family is that there are more possibilities for arguments, and you get to divide up into factions. (This theory was borne out in spades by the Slav side of the family in San Pedro.) Sometimes the arguments involved Aunt Jackie. Everybody loved Jackie — but everyone also knew that she considered herself superior because she had grown up in a French city rather than the Arkansas countryside. Usually she kept this attitude under wraps, but from time to time she would get a little snobby and uppity (“I won’t stay at Margaret’s house, she has mice!” she complained more than once.) “What’s so great about France,” Mom grumbled one summer, “where she grew up the streets are filled with garbage!” I believed that assessment for many years — poor Jackie, growing up in garbage — until it finally dawned on me that Mom had never been to France and wasn’t exactly an authority on French living.

(Another time – we were much older by then – Pat was going to make sandwiches for lunch, and asked what kind of cheese we wanted. “Brie,” said Jackie. Pat replied, “Cheese is cheese. There’s yellow, and there’s white.” I don’t even remember what Jackie ate at that point.)

When you got right down to it, staying in Arkansas wasn’t boring at all, there was a lot to keep you going. It was just at a much slower pace, a crawl almost, than we were used to. And about the time we’d really feel in tune with the pace and the lifestyle, poof! the time would be gone, we had to go home, and we would find ourselves crying as we left. We were happy to be going home, but sad because we knew it would be years before we returned, and everyone would be different when we did return.

But not the countryside; save for some of the roads getting paved, it changed little over the years. A good thing, as far as I’m concerned — it means when I go back with Robert, he can see what it was like for me all those years ago, and understand what it means to me.

© Liza and Robert Weissler 2023, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International License.