Saturday, April 30, 2005

SEARCY ’46-’56 – Part 13

Chapter Eight

Tom Pry

Wheels – Trains

For a town that was never located on the main line of a major railroad, Searcy has quite a history with trains.

So do our neighbors, of course. Bald Knob was reportedly named by a railroad crew after a small, treeless hill near town. The popular story in Kensett is that, when the MoPac surveyors came through in advance of the tracklayers, and asked where would be a good place to put the rails, locals told them, “Well, you kin set ‘em here, or you kin set ‘em there.”

The only one of which there is still a presence is, of course, the DK&S, the Doniphan, Kensett and Searcy. This actually started out as the Kensett and Searcy, and then the Missouri-born company for which my grandfather worked moved their hardwood mill down from Doniphan, MO, and opened up outside Kensett.

(Sidenote: that mill’s primary product was turning out hardwood spokes for automobiles, and had already cleaned out most of the hardwoods within a 50 mile radius of Joplin, MO, and Blytheville, AR, before it got here – to ultimately leave here and move to Glenwood, AR, near Hot Springs).


The Railway Express office had a plaque on the wall proclaiming it was run by the Rock Island Line. If a very shaky memory still functions to some degree, that means it was served by a spur from Hazen at one time, probably over that same DK&S stretch of track.

In fact, let’s deal with good old REA Express (the final name for Railway Express) right now.

Railway Express was started by a consortium of railroads – most of them, in fact – to deal with the problem of LTL (Less Than car Load) shipments: a box of this, a package of that, etc. These offices were much better equipped to deal with that sort of thing than the individual railroads, and also eliminated the potential problems caused by shipping a package starting on one railroad, and finishing its journey on another: who got the package from the first rail line to the second?

Enter what finally came to be called REA Express, a company that, like that buses the railroads had spawned, ended up becoming a separate entity, for all practical purposes. The rates were reasonable, the offices were all over the place, and the service was fast, since the REA cars traveled with the passenger trains.

It was the demise of the passenger trains that gave UPS its opening to eventually expand nationwide. (United Parcel Service, for what it’s worth, started out as a package delivery service for the Chicago area. It was begun by a group of department stores, lead by Marshall Field & Co., that decided it was foolish for each downtown store to maintain its own fleet of delivery vehicles).

Coming down Spring Street towards City Park, did you ever wonder why the Northeast corner of Spring and Pleasure, across from the Library, is elevated so high above the level of the park? It’s because that parking lot was the Rock Island terminus, and the REA office sat where McKinney Supply, Dr. Nevins et al are now located. Eastbound, if you stay on Pleasure and cross Main, you can see some remnants of rails in several patches between Main and the apartments near the Harding campus, on the north side of the road.

The DK&S also terminated at Main Street, on the east side. The old terminal still stands there, not quite abandoned by its present owner, the Union Pacific. Within the last couple of years, the DK&S line was terminated at Benton Street, so rolling stock no longer comes to downtown Searcy but, growing up, I can still remember working boxcars parked on the WEST side of Main Street, alongside what is now Beebe-Capps, right behind the feed store.

That stretch of track along Market Street was very busy, once upon a time. It had started out as a WOODEN rails track, with cars pulled by mules. Later, it was changed to iron rails and trains actually started running on it, especially when Galloway College was starting and ending a school year. That stretch of track started as an attempt to connect both with the Missouri Pacific and the Fulton and Cairo, which refused to come to Searcy because Searcy wouldn’t cough up some inordinate amount of money. (Searcy got the last laugh: Searcy’s still here, but where is the Fulton & Cairo? In fact, where IS Fulton and which Cairo?).

Old #9 at the M&NA Terminal Posted by Hello

The star of the rail show in Searcy has to have been the Missouri & North Arkansas.

Envisioned originally as running from Joplin, MO, to Helena, AR, it ended up running from Springfield, MO, to Helena. Along the way, it seemed to hit every wide spot in a very bumpy road: Pangburn, Crosby, Eureka Springs .. all told, about 40 towns and settlements. The first run in this area came about in 1907, out of Heber Springs to Searcy.

I say “.. a very bumpy road ..” because it cost a fortune to build that road; that being the case, it had been built on the cheap, with only light ballast (the gravel between the ties) and even lighter rail. Rumor has it that some passengers took the precaution of ingesting seasick pills before taking a trip on the line, since the trains had a tendency to swing and sway.

(The always-interesting Bob Sallee, in the Dem-Gaz of 12/8/98, quotes the late “Bub” Harrison as saying that trains were such a rarity that about 100 people turned out in Letona in 1907, waiting to see their first train, the one coming down from Heber Springs. Harrison said that many of the women were carrying parasols – “the best thing on earth to scare a horse.” As the train neared the station, “.. some crackpot hollered, ‘You women better close them parasols. You’ll scare that engine!’” It is reported that, at that warning, about half the parasols closed).

The M&NA quickly acquired a canard claiming the letters actually stood for the “May Not Arrive,” because that was the case all too often. One major bridge was shoddily built, and a bad storm dumped it in the drink. A number of bridges were burned, especially in a very vicious strike that took place in the early 20s, that took the railroad out of service for almost a year, before hungry strike breakers got the wheels turning again. They didn’t turn at all for eight months.

(My partner in cockeyed history, Ernie, faintly remembers taking excursion rides out to Crosby, on something he remembers as “the Moose,” a self-powered single unit. Turns out, it was the “Blue Goose,” a blue locomotive and two cars, one for passengers, one for freight).

But, as Searcy’s only through railroad, the M&NA acquired a certain amount of fame. Probably the high point of its history was in early 1937, when the very first automatic railroad safety gate in the entire southwestern United States was given its sendoff right at the corner of Beebe-Capps and Elm Street. Even the governor came up to give a speech for the occasion, no small thing, considering the condition of the roads between Little Rock and here.

In 1943, right in the middle of the war, the railroaders went on strike again. Despite a change of name to “The Missouri and Arkansas,” and a new owner acquiring it in 1945, that railroad never ran again.

In the spring of 1946, I saw one of the last vehicles to come down the line. It was what is called a “hi-railer,” a pickup/utility truck that can swing down steel wheels to ride on the rails, leaving the rear tires to just supply motive power. I’d guess that it was surveying the route to see if it could still handle rail cars, so that rail could be picked up and placed on flat cars as the Last Train came through, a work train.

There are few people around who remember the M&NA and where it ran, even though a lot of people here duplicate a big chunk of the local route every day.


Judging from its location, it seems a fair assumption that most of Beebe-Capps, from Healthcorps to East Line Road, is built on the abandoned M&NA right-of-way. At the western edge of town, just past the Conoco gas station, Highway 36 takes a sharp dogleg to the left before turning west again. That dogleg is where the M&NA diagonally crossed state highway 36, going down about a mile, straight as a rail, to cross what is now North Valley Road, on its way to Crosby; this was where, in 1946 and 1947, I saw the last of the M&NA as a workable railroad.

The name is still around, of course, worn by a “short line” that carries freight from a point about 50 miles north of Springfield down to Ft. Smith .. but it's just not the same as it once was.

Then again, it never is, is it?

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).

Friday, April 29, 2005

SEARCY ’46-’56 – Part 12

Chapter Seven

Tom Pry

Wheels – More Buses

It was easier getting from Searcy to Rosebud (or vice-versa) than it was to get from the west side of town to the east, using public transportation. This was critical to many families.

(Yeah, I know that Searcy proper had a couple of cab companies and, for a brief period of time, a bus that hit every street in town, but let’s not ruin a good introduction with The Facts).

Understand that there were no new vehicles available for sale to civilians from the beginning of 1942 until the beginning of 1946. There was a lot of traffic in used vehicles but, even if you managed to get one, you then had to face rationing for gas, oil, and tires.

The average family in the forties had one vehicle, and it was a WORK vehicle, at that. (When my wife, Karen, and I first moved back here in 1992 and went to register our car with the Tax Assessor’s Office, Karen had to face a grilling from a clerk who had great difficulty believing that two people had only ONE car. It was obvious from the look on her face that she thought we were lying about it, and she just didn’t have any way to prove it. “You don’t have a pick-up truck, too?” she asked, rather incredulously).

Enter the rural bus line.

There was a dry goods store at Spring and Market and, behind it, a dirt lot fronting on Main Street. That lot was where the buses gathered.

Being the age I was, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to details, nor do I know the schedules of those buses. (The next time I’m 10 years old, I’ll pay more attention). I do know there were quite a few of them, and that they were all re-done retired school buses, in a variety of colors.

They sat there in that lot without, usually, their owner/drivers in attendance. This does not mean you had to stand out in the elements, by any means. You just got on the bus and visited a bit, or slept. I remember once getting on, to find a young mother breast-feeding her baby. Neither the new mom nor I were embarrassed; it was part of rural life.

The operators usually showed up about 15 minutes before departure time, but didn’t collect fares until just a few minutes before the bus left.

Over the years, Searcy had a lot of different examples of sometimes-improvised bus service. There was, for instance, daily bus service to Kensett, the first bus leaving the Mayfair Hotel about 5:30 in the morning, so that people catching the first of eight passenger trains (in each direction) for the day could get there in time.

There was a similar bus operated between Kensett and Galloway College. It must’ve been a very small affair, because their luggage had to wait to show up later, in a mule-drawn wagon.

Possibly the height of creativity was reached when some bright soul took now-unoccupied auto transports, constructed sides and put a top on them, benches inside, plus a “stewardess,” and operated these impromptu buses between Searcy and Little Rock.

In any case, except for the big MoPac buses, this kind of rural transportation was on its way out. With the Big War over, wheeled transportation started coming back on the market, enough so that, by 1950, “Deac” King could build a drive-in movie theatre out somewhere in the neighborhood of the White County Medical Center, and turn a profit on it.

Some of those buses kept running into the 50s, but I suspect that the late 40s was the high water mark for that kind of service. As the buses (or their owners) wore out, I doubt they were replaced very often.

Still, it was an interesting piece of Americana, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it. A tip of the hat to Charley May (Searcy-Rosebud) and his colleagues, who got us from Here to There at a reasonable price, if not outstanding comfort.

Beat the hell out of walking the same distance.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).

Thursday, April 28, 2005

SEARCY ’46-’56 – Part 11

Chapter Six

Tom Pry

Wheels - Buses

Picking buses as the first entry in a set on wheeled transportation is just about putting the cart before the horse ‘cause, you see, this country’s nationwide bus system was started by .. railroads.

Yep. The idea was to use the bus company’s wheels to get travelers to the nearest train station, there to climb on the train and get to where they were going. The progenitors of Greyhound and Trailways had never given a thought to people traveling hundreds of miles by bus. Bus takes to train, train takes them hundreds of miles, bus takes them to final destination.

It was probably some variant of that idea that prompted the Missouri Pacific Railroad (otherwise known as the MoPac) to start their own bus company. As was the case with Greyhound and Trailways, though, their creation assumed a life of its own.

I’m sure that G & T had a presence someplace in Arkansas, if no place else, passing along US70 to get from Ft. Smith to Memphis and vice-versa but, really, there was only one bus company in this neck of the woods: the MoPac.

Their buses were big, clean, frequent, and had a total disregard for speed limit signs. (I was doing around 80 coming down from Bald Knob on 67 one day, when a MoPac bus blew around me like I was parked).

They stopped at every hamlet and town along their route; you could, if you had to, flag them down between stops, too. The drivers didn’t like it, but they’d do it.

Periodically, the bus stop would be something more than a gas station. Those buses did NOT have a lavatory in them (and, really, would you like to be shut into a small, wet closet in the rear of a vehicle careening down narrow, curvy roads at 90 m.p.h.?) and, besides, people have to eat once-in-a-while, too.

Searcy was just such a major stop, and the designated stopping point was … the Rendezvous Café.

NOW you know why that parking lot is so big. Had to be; I’ve seen two and three buses at a time parked nose-in to that building.

The Rendezvous was hopping. The downstairs was not just a large restaurant and lunch counter, but a ticket window AND a freight room.


Oh, yeah, that was as important as the people it carried. There was no such thing as UPS and FedEx; there was Railway Express (later called REA Express, and of which we’ll hear more later) and buses, unless you had a truckload of something.

The freight service was so good and the buses so frequent … well, let me give you a scenario. “In the old days …” if you had a picture to run in the Searcy Citizen, the printing technology of the time demanded that the photo be etched into a thin medal plate attached to a block of wood. The Citizen did not have the technology to do that. So, the pictures for the next edition were bundled up in the morning and put on the next bus for Little Rock. A courier from the Arkansas Gazette (the Dem-Gaz was, at the time, two different and quite competitive papers) would pick them up and take them over to the Gazette Building, where the requisite etching was done. Then the courier would take them back to the bus terminal, put them on the next bus to Searcy, and they’d get here in enough time to make up the mats and plates for the afternoon’s paper.

Here’s another one: There was a period in 1955 and 56 when I was – believe it or not, folks! – the Artificial Insemination Technician for the county Dairy Cattle Breeding Association. The prepared semen was shipped several times a week from the UofA in Fayetteville.

In a masterpiece of economical improvisation, they would freeze large tin cans of water, wrap a paper towel around it, snap a large rubber band around that, and then slip the labeled GLASS test tubes under the rubber band. That was put into a corrugated box and sealed. Then it was put on a MoPac bus.

It is a longish haul from here to Fayetteville, especially when you consider that had to come via Little Rock yet, on the hottest day, those cans were still cold when they got to me, the same day they were shipped, and I think in all that time, only one test tube got broken.

That’s good service any way you’d care to look at it.

There’s a joke in the southeastern United States to the effect that, “Even if you’re going to hell, you’ve got to make connections in Atlanta.” Well, in Arkansas, those connections had to be made in Little Rock. If I wanted to come home from school in Conway, there was no bus running the roughly 60 miles from there to here. Nope, it was Conway to Little Rock, THEN to Searcy, so that a one hour trip was more like three or four.

However, other than that, it was about a good a transportation system as you could ask for, and served rural Arkansas and small businesses well for many years.

Original sketch of the Rendevous Posted by Hello

A slightly-out-of-context footnote about The Rendezvous Café, if I might. Besides being a very busy (and, really, rather good) restaurant, plus transportation center, the Rendezvous was The Place to have a fairly decent gathering. If you were a school group operating on the cheap, and it was a weeknight, you could usually get the school cafeteria (that’s where I attended my first FFA Father & Son Banquet, sans Father). For real ritz, there was the Country Club (now one of the buildings at the County Fairground; in 1956, the SHS Senior Prom was held there). For a non-catered gathering of the mingle-and-dance variety there was the smallish fieldstone building on the square, next to Bobby’s Restaurant which, over the years, was the Draft Board and, I think, the American Legion Hall, but it was Available.

Most used was the second floor of the Rendezvous. Our Junior-Senior banquet was there, both Ernie and I have dined and appeared there at Lions’ Club meetings. The food was good, the prices reasonable, the space ample and flexible, the service experienced and good.

After being occupied for some years by a local insurance company, someone made a stab at resurrecting the Rendezvous in its original site. (As of now, April of 2005, it’s a coffeeshop).

(Also as of 4/05, the only bus service left is a small commuter line out of Newport).

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

SEARCY ’46-’56 – Part 10

Chapter Five

Tom Pry

School Daze – Searcy

By Christmas of 1946, the charm and novelty of walking 5+ miles a day to and from school had just about worn thin. Fortunately, there was an alternative available: Searcy. I don’t know how the news reached our ears, but it turned out that kids out our way could go to either their local school, or the big one, in town.

There was even a bus to get us there.

That was the good news. The bad news was I still had to walk up to Highway 36. Still, 1.3 miles beat 2.6 miles any day, even if it was the worst part of the trip.

I cannot remember what time that bus got there. I DO remember that, during the winter, it was still dark out. Walk, scrape boots, walk some more.

You might find it hard to believe, as you watch the myriads of yellow rolling stock running through town but, in 1946/47, Searcy Schools had only what I’ve always thought of as a “bus and a half.” There was a small bus body on about a one-ton chassis, and a regular bus.

The regular bus came in from the direction of Joy Mountain, picking us up along the way. When it got into town, it went by the school (the whole complex was located at the site of Ahlf School) and we had an option: we could either get off and kill the next 45 minutes or so on our own, or we could stay on the bus while it traveled its second route, which was out what’s now South Main Street, going as far as the present Wal-Mart Distribution Center. I remember it was somewhere around the airport that the bus turned around, ‘cause I could see the runway lights in the dark.

I have no idea what the half-a-bus was doing; I do know that, in 1952, that vehicle was still in use, over at what we thought of as “the colored school” (about which I’ll have quite a bit to say later).

If it was cold and/or crummy, we’d stay on the bus. As spring approached, and the weather started turning warmish, we’d get off and explore. Searcy was approaching full throttle by that time in the morning, especially the donut shop and, if I had a few cents spending money, one of those donuts, hot out of the grease and then dipped in the hot, liquid sugar, was about as good as a treat could get, and a great way to start the day.


There was a very good lunchroom in the school complex, serving delicious hot food at a very reasonable price, like a dime or a quarter, so the fried egg sandwiches and the butter and molasses sandwiches became history. Instead, cornbread (utterly delicious and hot out of the oven), beans, meat: a MEAL, hot and GOOD. These cooks were not professional dieticians, they were our mothers, and they cooked for us at school as they did for us at home.

I don’t recall ever leaving that cafeteria hungry or otherwise dissatisfied with my meal.

The old Searcy Grammar School Posted by Hello

Memories of that half-a-year are sparse. I do remember a shy kid named Joel who always, by his choice, sat in the back of the room. When we sang “School Days, School Days” and got to the line, “You wrote on my slate, I love you ..” we made sure the name used was Joel, instead of “Joe,” and most of us turned to see how he was taking it. Invariably, he was ducking his head, trying to hide his red face.

Joel must have hated that damn song and, wherever you are, Joel, I apologize, both for taking part in the group teasing, and for the all-around cruelty of kids everywhere.

Most of all, I remember our teacher, Edna Ferris (it could’ve been spelled with an A, as in Farris, but I don’t think so). A very sweet lady, a good teacher, and she’d discovered the universal panacea: Coca-Cola®.

No kidding, Mrs. Ferris had come to the conclusion that a Coke could cure anything. Tummy ache? Headache? Nosebleed? Mrs. Ferris would pluck a nickel from her seemingly-endless supply of them, drop it in the Coke machine that sat right outside the building, and give it to the kid. It never failed to take care of the problem.

In fact, some of my peers were playing bullfighter one day. One of the bulls ran full tilt through someone’s coat/cape only to discover that, immediately behind it, was the school wall. Rang the bull’s chime REALLY good.

Somehow, Mrs. Ferris’ obligatory Coke took care of any incipient skull fracture, and life went back to normal.

As kids, we were well-served by our teachers and our schools in general.

We were damn lucky.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

SEARCY ’46-’56 – Part 09

Chapter Four

Tom Pry

School Daze – Honey Hill

I consider myself fortunate to have participated in something which, for all practical purposes, no longer exists: the country schoolhouse. There was a potful of them around; at one of our high school reunions, I heard there had been one on Morris School Road, among many others.

The only one of which I can speak with any first-hand knowledge was the Honey Hill School, located just north of the then non-existent Country Club Road, on the west side of Honey Hill Road, the site of the newer of the two Honey Hill Christian Union church buildings. (The older one, across the road, was the only one there in 1946).

This was not the fabled “one room school house” that kids groan about when their grandparents mention it. Rather, it was two rooms, a hallway, and a steeple, complete with bell. (It used to considered a privilege to be allowed to ring the bell; the day it was my turn, first yank and the rope came loose from the handle and piled itself on my head: typical).

One classroom was the 1st thru 5th grades; the other – the “big kids’” – was for the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. Each room had a wood-burning stove for heat, windows for warm weather ventilation, two large blackboards (yes, kids, blackboards were really BLACK in those days), and the conventional school desks, not these all-in-one chairs with a desk arm.

That , chalk, text books, and a pencil sharpener screwed to the window ledge pretty much comprised our educational equipment.

Our individual grade level determined in which row we sat, first thru fifth reading from left to right. 3 or 4 grades would be given book assignments to complete, while 1 or 2 would be given actual instruction by our teacher who, if memory hasn’t totally failed me, was a Mrs. Gunner (Gunnar?), a nice middle-aged lady who lived at the foot of Honey Hill, and drove a little pre-war coupe. She had a neat balancing act to run every day, since there was no way of turning off our little eyes and ears when other grades were getting their instruction and, sometimes, what they were learning was much more interesting than what we were working on.

Attention discipline could be a little difficult to achieve under those conditions, but not Discipline itself: to give one of our teachers a tough time would be akin to telling our own mother to stuff it: the idea just never crossed our little minds. We were instinctively polite to our elders, and that was considered the normal course of events.

Attendance was a slight problem during the fall and spring. In fall, there was still some harvesting/cotton-picking to be done, in spring it was planting. Not being at school for either of those two reasons was considered an excused absence.

I discovered, much to my surprise, that my classmates were ahead of me. Good as the Chicago schools might be, we had just barely dipped a toe into long division, and these kids were going to town on it. I had a struggle to catch up (a year later, when I went back to Chicago, I had a slight edge on my y**k** classmates).

(Okay, kids, get ready to groan): The worst part of the entire experience was not GOING to school, but GETTING to school.

Morning chores were a given: tea, buttered toast, cows, later breakfast, and then off to school. Now, if it was reasonably dry and warm, no problem but, if it was rainy and cold (which most of that year was), that’s when the fun started.

This is not exaggeration, I actually measured it with an odometer on a car just the other day: my walk to Honey Hill School was 2.6 miles – each way. No kidding! I didn’t complain because I just flat didn’t know better. With so much new stuff in my 8-year-old life, substituting two-and-a-half miles for 5 blocks (8 city blocks to a mile) didn’t seem that far off the mark: walking is walking.

There were and are advantages to being ignorant.

If the weather was crappy, that walk assumed the dimensions of the fabled cold day in hell. The “shoulder” of that road was about 4 inches wide, so you were walking on wet clay in the rutted road itself. In rubber boots (the only thing you dared wear), this meant you walked about six feet and then looked around for a rock you could use to scrape about four inches of clay off the bottom of your boots, then repeat.

Stopping at the Varner’s meant a chance to warm the hands while you picked up Bubber, and then it was off again. Same process. When we finally got to the highway, (1.3 miles for me), if it was REALLY bad, I could stop at the Freeling’s, right at the head of the road (a house that’s still there, although considerably overhauled). Gerald Freeling was in high school by then but, as an old Honey Hill alumnus, his mom Understood. Finally, after a brief warming, .4 miles to Honey Hill Road, picking up company along the way and, finally, just a hair under a mile further on, SCHOOL! On really crummy days, no kids anywhere looked forward so anxiously to their arrival at school!

We brought our own lunches. I had a nice tin lunchbox, and an almost unvarying menu: one molasses and butter sandwich, one fried egg sandwich – with ketchup (or catsup, if you’re a purist). In that funny-looking lid was stashed a one pint thermos jug, filled with hot tea, liberally laced with REAL CREAM and sugar. Occasionally, a homemade cookie or muffin went with it all although, truth to tell, my favorite dessert was Mrs. Gunner’s apple peelings. No kidding. She always had an apple, and she always peeled it before cutting it up in sections. At first, she thought I wanted the peeling because we couldn’t afford apples. When I finally convinced her that wasn’t the case, I got the peelings instead of one of her seemingly inexhaustible hoard of apples.

She peeled to a liberal thickness.

Great dessert. Great meal.

Recesses and lunch were our time for play, and getting rid of all that excess energy.

What we did for entertainment would make teachers today blanche and head for the hills. This is probably why we played essentially unsupervised.

When all that cord wood was delivered to get us through the winter, the Big Kids somehow talked their teacher into letting them have a little fun with it. Their idea of fun was to somehow stack that cordwood in such a way that it formed a long tunnel, capped by a largish (it seemed) cave, into which they lured us Little Kids, and then proceeded to scare the living hell out of us, with various threats and lurid stories.

When we’re weren’t trying to elude the Big Kids, we were having our own fun. Probably the biggest fun was making bombs.

This takes a little explanation.

There is this mineral called Carbide (you’ve seen the trucks marked Union Carbide? That’s where the name came from. That’s what they make welding gas out of). Carbide is a smelly dirty white/yellow crumbly mineral with one outstanding characteristic (besides the smell): when wet, it generates a very flammable gas. This made it invaluable for miner’s lanterns and the original automobile headlights. They were very simple devices. A tank for a chunk of carbide (came in a small, resealable tin), another tank for water, with a small valve attached. Turn the valve, it drips on the carbide, the gas from which hisses through a minute hole set in the middle of a polished reflector. You light the gas and off you go.

We had a slightly more elemental use for it.

Ballpoint pens were about a year away (and the first ones were HORRIBLE: your lines had lumps in them), and so we always had a plentiful supply of ink bottles (“Quink” was cuter, but the square Schaeffer’s worked, too). When we acquired one of these valuable (to us) little items, we’d find a short piece of string, and someone would pull out their jack-knife (every boy had one: couldn’t survive without it – try carrying one to school now) and carefully drill a hole through the ink bottle cap.

Equally carefully, we’d thread the string through the hole in the cap. This frequently took considerable ingenuity but, eventually, we’d get it done.

Finally, the big moment. We’d go out in the middle of Honey Hill Road and, while most of us would check up and down the road to make sure no one was coming, the demolition crew put down the bottle, inserted the carbide, spit liberally on the carbide, and screwed the lid on.

By then, all of our peers recognized the signs, and were giving the demo men plenty of room. By the time the lid was screwed down, the gas was building inside the bottle. Someone would pull out a wooden kitchen match, light it, and try to set the string on fire (which is not as easy as it sounds), and everybody was putting some distance between the scene of the crime and themselves. The chief demolition expert was on hands and knees, blowing on the string, making sure it was well and truly burning; then he, too, would run like hell.

The explosion was always very loud and very satisfying – and, surprisingly, none of us were ever wounded or blinded by the shards that flew all over the place.

In fact, the only recreational mis-cue I recall was when the Superintendent of Schools brought us out our allocation of what little sports gear the district could afford. In the small pile was a large ball the likes of which we’d never seen before. We gathered around it like it was a strange bug and debated this strange, hitherto-unseen spheroid. It was too large and pliable to be a softball, it was white, so it wasn’t a basketball … we finally, by a process of elimination, decided it was a soccer ball, since none of us had ever seen one of those, either.

It was still warm enough that we hadn’t gotten into our “gum” (rubber) boots yet, which meant most of us were wearing hard leather work shoes as we gaily kicked the living hell out of that ball, making up the rules as we went along.

The ball expired the next morning, permanently. This is how we learned what a volleyball looked like; if there’d been a net in the pile, it might’ve given us a clue.

Back to the ink bottles.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).

Monday, April 25, 2005

SEARCY ’46-’56 – Part 08

Chapter Three - 2

Tom Pry

Day-to-Day – The 40’s

The second-most exciting day of the week was Thursday; that was the day The Paper came in the mail.

The Searcy Citizen published six days a week; every day except Wednesday, it was the Searcy Daily Citizen, an afternoon paper. On Wednesday, though, it became the White County Citizen, a weekly that differed from the Daily in several respects, besides the name. First, it was the day that all the grocery store ads came out, with their weekly specials. (This was to become the bane of my grandfather’s existence, because Billie would spend two days finding all the “two-fers” and other specials, and Grandad would spend a good part of Saturday ferrying her from one store to another. As he bemoaned more than once, “I spend $5 worth of gas so she can save $3 on groceries!” But that Thursday and Saturday was the high point of her week and we all felt she was entitled to it).

The other difference was that the White County Citizen contained all the “community news.” Little old ladies, the resident gossips, and frustrated would-be journalists all sent in the minutiae of smalltown America: “Miss Leslie Bent hosted a party for the Sidon 4-H girls Saturday night at the home of her parents, Arthur and Guinevere Bent. The theme was ‘Cotton Again?’” No event was too small to be caught by their eagle eyes: “Norman Fullofit, formerly of Antioch, and his wife, Alice (the former Alice Empty of Bohunk, Arkansas), visited with Norman’s parents, Herman and Gloria Fullofit of Antioch Saturday on their way to their new home in Palarm. They were accompanied by their children, Able (10), Beta (9), and Cain (8). Herman and Gloria have been married for eleven years.”

The only thing never mentioned was divorces and “messin’ around” (a very popular pastime, then as now). Otherwise, church socials, awards day at the local school house, illnesses … all grist for the journalistic mill.

And that brings us to Saturday, the day to hit the grocery stores (especially so Billie could sell her excess eggs to Kroger and, with the money, buy a couple of packs of Kool™ cigarettes and Listerine™ mouthwash. That egg money was “hers” and she used it to finance her only vice, smoking. In all the years I knew them, she never lit up in front of Grandad, instead sneaking a few puffs here and there where the smoke wouldn’t linger, before she’d take a fast swig of Listerine and go back to what she was doing. My mom never smoked in front of him, either. I have a strong suspicion that he was aware that both of them smoked, but it amused him that they’d go to such great lengths to try to hide it from him, a tobacco-chewer and ex-smoker).

We’d also go by Person’s Feed & Grain, over a block from the square, and pick up cowfeed, which came in sacks made of doubled cotton fabric in pretty finely-figured floral prints. There was a reason for those pretty prints: it wasn’t that the feed companies thought farmers were a bunch of pansies, but because the farmers’ WIVES could get a yard-or-two of nice but sturdy fabric out of it. Billie would make housedresses out of it and, once we moved to Arkansas, I don’t think I ever saw her wear anything else but blouses and housedresses made – literally – out of feed sacks.

As I said about precious little going to waste on the farm … If whatever feed was bought was in a plain white sack, those turned into kitchen towels.

If Grandad was feeling really flush, we could buy an RC™ or Nehi™, maybe even a Dr. Pepper™. Here’s a shocker: soft drinks cost a nickel, 7¢ if you took the bottle with you. Pepsi-Cola’s advertising jingle was:
“Pepsi-Cola™ hits the spot,
12 full ounces, that’s a lot!
All of that, and a nickel, too!
Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you!”

While Pepsi was an undeniable bargain, it always, for some reason, carried vaguely Yankee overtones to it, so it never really did well here. Perhaps it would’ve done better if they’d had Little Jimmy Dickens singing the jingle.

In later years, Saturdays for my sister and I were much more exciting. We’d get into town either with Grandad or riding in the back of a neighbor’s truck (I remember once riding in the back of a dump truck from Virgil Boyd’s, not as bad a ride as it sounds: the truck was filled with just-picked cotton).

Once we got to town, we’d meander over to the square and the Rialto Theatre, where we’d drift into line with the rest of the kids. At 9:30 or 10, they’d let us in, we’d get our popcorn and Coke, then get into the auditorium and pick our seats, chattering away as only grammar school-age kids can. Finally, a half-hour after the doors had opened, the show would start. Always a western or two, and a serial installment, and a cartoon.

My sis and I NEVER sat together: that was not Cool.

It was early afternoon by the time we got out. My sis and I would join up, and walk over to this little “café” on Spruce Street, next to Person’s Feeds. There, we would have our lunch: a foot-long hot dog and a soft drink. (Funny, but foot-longs don’t taste as good today as they did then. I wonder why?).

We were in no hurry, for a very good reason: at that point, there was nothing we could do to affect the rest of the day’s schedule. We might go over and drift through the Woolworth’s and/or W.T. Grant store, just off the square, or might just go on over behind the dry goods store and go ahead and get on the bus.

The bus?

Yep. In a later installment I will speak more of this but, for now, suffice it to say we climbed on Charlie May’s bus, the one that made 2-or-3 round trips a day to-and-from Rosebud. It was a pre-WWII schoolbus, painted in a dead rose color that was more like old paint primer, but it was clean inside, and the seats intact. Charlie would finally climb on and collect our fares (I seem to remember it was a quarter apiece for my sis and I), and then out highway 36 we’d go, to be dropped off at the head of the road.

By the time we walked the slightly-over-a-mile home, it was time to change clothes, do our evening chores, and eat supper.

We REALLY liked Saturdays!

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).

Sunday, April 24, 2005

SEARCY ’46-’56 – Part 07

Chapter Three - 3

Tom Pry

Day-to-Day – The 40’s

What, you might ask yourself, did we use for light in the 46-48 interregnum BP (Before Power)?

Grandad had a certain advantage over a lot of people living where and when we did: he didn’t have much in the way of experience and past history to hinder his thinking. As a result, while most other people used dim kerosene lamps and their smoky chimneys, Grandad bought one of those newfangled Coleman™ gas lanterns, the big, bright one with TWO mantles in it, and hung it on a nail driven into the doorsill between the livingroom and kitchen.

One quart of gasoline would light both rooms very well for a full evening. Kerosene lamps were for when you had to go into the “pantryroom” or the back bedroom, if you were going to stay lit in there for longer than a flashlight would suffice.

Grandad had built the first radio in Glenwood, AR, back in the 20’s, a nice little quartz job that made all the neighbors stand in awe. He’d been a fan of the medium ever since. Now, understand that “portable” radios weren’t. To begin with, they had TWO batteries (don’t ask: there was a good technical reason), one pretty light, and the other one wasn’t at all. (James “Bubber” Varner still has the one that belonged to his folks: perfect shape, he just can’t find batteries that’ll fit it).

What’s a fella to do when you’ve got a habit of Paul Harvey on one night, Walter Winchell on another, Gabriel Heatter on a third, and the rest of the world the other four? I don’t know what the rest of the world did, but Grandad pragmatically yanked the radio out of the dashboard of the car and put it on a stand next to his livingroom chair. He attached long lines and alligator clips to the power leads, and then made the new parking place for the truck right outside his window. At the end of work late every afternoon, the truck hood went up far enough for Grandad to fasten the radio power clips to the battery posts in the truck.

Hey, it worked. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.
The rest of our evenings were kind of dictated by the weather/time of year. Sometimes we’d individually read (except for my sis, who had to count the contents of her penny jar every single evening, and God help the mark if she found a penny missing! She learned to count before she could read), or games (Billie was very fond of teaching us card games, especially poker). If it was the right time of the year, there might be popcorn, made in a wire basket over the heat coming up from the wood in the kitchen stove, or we’d be shelling peanuts for next spring’s planting (the usual ratio was eat one, shell four), until we had a five gallon can full of shelled nuts.

That’s a lot of shelling. It might not sound like much, but see how many little cellophane packages of peanuts you have to open and empty before you fill that can.

When electricity finally arrived in 1948, Grandad bought a table radio, set in the same place. Its schedule was now expanded: we got stock reports for lunch, followed by a live gospel quartet, and news. (A later installment of this Endless Epic will explore the wonderful world of electronic entertainment).

The Coleman gas lantern was now replaced by a naked dangling bulb in each room, a certain improvement. For my Grandmother, Billie, it meant entertainment on the radio, and Saturday night was HERS, and no one dared complain about the quality or the content on Saturday evenings – which was invariably The Grand Ole Opry, live from Nashville, and DIRECT from WSM Radio in Nashville.

WSM was/is a 50,000 watt AM station (the U.S. legal limit) but, even at that, it’s a long haul to Nashville from here. So, along with Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Little Jimmy Dickens, Flatt & Scruggs, et al, we had copious quantities of static, a hissing and crackling that kids today don’t remember, because they all listen to FM.

AM is what we had, WSM is what Billie had, and every Saturday night was a fun night for her, too.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).

Saturday, April 23, 2005

SEARCY ’46-’56 – Part 06

Chapter Three - 1

Tom Pry

Day-to-Day – The 40’s

Once we’d cleaned the outbuildings, mowed the grass, and taken care of some orange and black salad-dish-sized spiders that lived around there, life started settling into a routine, varying just slightly from one day to the next.

Grandad bought three horses, a trained team (Dick & Dan) and a small single (Shorty). He also bought a cow and, in buying her, he started showing a strange sort of talent: as it developed over the years, he could look at someone’s bag of bones cow, ribs showing through the skin, and tell which ones had the potential to be really good milk producers, given food and love. This first cow, Heart (so-named because of a blaze on her face), became the progenitor of a line that included a couple of cows that, in terms of milk produced, outdid the national champions.

He also got a pregnant brood sow – momma pig, to you city slickers. Thus, shortly we had a bunch of pigs.

The day was structured around all those critters. Coffee/tea and piles of buttered toast early (VERY early, like 4:30 am), then chase the cows in, feed them, milk them, turn ‘em into whichever pasture they were going to be in that day.

By that time, Billie had a full breakfast going. Eat that and then go off to the chore of the day while Billie separated the milk.

Now, that sounds like a strange statement, “separated” the milk. Into what? Into cream and skim milk (you didn’t think it was the difference between milk from fat cows and skinny cows, did you?). It was an arduous physical task, using a machine, a DeLaval Separator. This sat on its own stand in the kitchen. When it was assembled, the bowl on top of it would come to about the chest of the average person.

Billie (Granma) was the Designated Separator. This meant that, twice a day, she had to assemble the machine, and pour the milk into the large stainless steel bowl on top of it. Placing a bucket carefully under one spout, and a cream can (5 gallon) under the other, she started turning the crank. This was not as easy as it sounds, because it turned a heavy flywheel via some multiplier gears that really spun that sucker and the flat, horizontal plates attached to it.

At each revolution of the handle, a “ding” was heard. Turn faster and faster and, when you were finally turning it fast enough for the ding to disappear, you were ready to turn the valve on top of the bowl, letting the milk in to drop on the plates, with centrifugal force sending the milk in one direction, the cream in another.

Then take the machine totally apart into its component pieces and clean the living hell out of it.

Billie did this twice a day from 1946 until they finally went into a Grade A dairy operation around 1953.

Anyway, the cream can was sealed and, twice a week, was carried to a pickup point over at Morning Sun (just south of Searcy) for shipment to a butter factory. The skim milk was kept in buckets in the backroom, and into it went all the food scraps. Didn’t matter what it was: apple or potato peelings (or both), leftover whatevers, which Grandad would haul out to the pig pen. On his way out, he’d give his food call which, with his perverse sense of humor, consisted of loudly calling “PORK .. CHOP!” and the not-so-little suckers would come running as the slop was poured into the trough.

Pigs are not picky eaters (“They’re not persnickety,” as Billie would say).

We grew our own potatoes. You “break” (plow) the ground and drop pieces of potato in the resultant grooves, making sure there’s an “eye” on each piece. You harrow the ground down flat. When they’re ripe, you plow them up (they grow underground), shake off the dirt and break off the stems. Then store in a cool place. We spread ours under an oak tree near the house. (That tree still stands, now in somebody’s front yard).

Didn’t know that, did you? Bet you thought potatoes grew in plastic bags at Wal-Mart.

In later years, Billie had her “truck patch,” what most people would call a vegetable garden. A few rows of “roas’n’ ears” (corn), maybe a row of popcorn, snap beans, etc. We ate damn good out of all that, especially when Grandad bought the old Anspaugh place (which eventually became our home after my parents got down here from Chicago) and put in an acre of strawberries. Those little red berries are an interesting crop to cultivate. They’re a pain in the lower regions to plant but, after that, except for picking them, they’re pretty painless for about four years .. IF you have a few geese.


Geese have two outstanding characteristics: first, they’re REALLY bad-tempered, especially the ganders. Secondly, they hate strawberries. Won’t touch either the fruit or the plant … but they’ll munch every bit of grass and weeds that grows anywhere near them. So, you plant the strawberries, put in the geese, pick and eat the strawberries (with the occasional physically AND emotionally-satisfying holiday meal of roast goose). Every four years, you must carefully dig up and store each strawberry plant while you re-plow the ground, fertilize, and then equally-carefully re-plant the plants.

In that first year, I had three main chores, besides going to school. Twice a day, to the chicken house to “pick” the eggs. Carry the water, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. When Grandad bought that place, he inherited a natural spring (which is still seeping today, feeding a small creek that forms the back boundary line of our present home). It was about 40 yards behind the house. Now, remember, I was eight years old by now, but not all that big for my age. Several times a day, I’d walk out there, pull off the wooden cover, fill my buckets by just reaching in and dipping them, put the cover back on, and lurch back to the house.

Yes, “lurch.” Two galvanized buckets full of water represent a considerable load, and I quickly found that I was better off carrying two than one. Carry one bucket, and you were tilted to one side like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Lugging two buckets meant you lurched, rather like Frankenstein, but at least you were upright.

The third standing chore: getting the mail. Again, not as simple as it sounds, since the mail boxes for all three homes on the non-county road were located all the way down at the corner of what is now Collins and North Valley. From Grandad’s house, that was a hair under a half-mile by the road, very slightly shorter if you cut diagonally across the field.

And the same distance back.

In those days, you never knew what was going to come in the mail – including LIVE baby chicks (which can, incidentally, still be sent via the USPS), seeds .. whatever you needed to run the farm. Our store was in catalogs, especially Sears and Montgomery Wards (or, as we called it, “Monkey Wards”). Once they’d outlived their usefulness, they moved to the outhouse, where they provided educational material (I learned a lot about female anatomy out of those catalogs, plus how corsets worked), and toilet paper.

Roll paper was a perishable luxury.

(At that, we were lucky. One of the novelties being sold at hillbilly-oriented tourist stops were small boxes with glass fronts. Inside the boxes were three small corn cobs: a red, a white, another red. The directions said, “For Emergency Use Only. Break glass, use red cob, then use white cob to see if you need the other red cob.” I am not making this up: some places, that was not that far from the truth. Very little went to waste on a farm).

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).

Friday, April 22, 2005

SEARCY ’46-‘56 - Part 05

Chapter Two

Tom Pry

First Ruts, Then Path - 3

A couple of footnotes.

What was there consisted of the house, a good-sized two-story shed, and a large barn, all hand-made, amateur built (plus the de rigeur chicken house and equally-essential – and ancient -- outhouse).

Since the shed and barn were probably built after the house (and better), let’s look at the house. Set against the shoulder of the hill, it had four rooms. It was rectangular. On the kitchen (back) side, it was ground level. The front had a porch all across the front, and both the porch and that side of the house were propped up with piles of field rock.

At a guess, the house had been built sometime in the latter 20s or early 30s … of green lumber. Over the next 15 or 20 years, the wood had dried and shrunk. We ended up breaking boxes down flat and nailing them to the wall, just to keep the cold winter wind from blowing through.

My grandparents stayed in that house until they finally built a new one, sometime in the late 50s. It is the home I returned to in 1952, for my freshman year in high school. That house, plus a new outhouse, we described as “Four rooms and a path” to anyone foolish enough to ask.

And, about that road up to the shoulder ….

There not being a lot of farming you can do in the middle of Arkansas in the winter, we’d take a horse-drawn sledge out to the field and fill it with part of that season’s crop of rocks, take them up and put them in that road. Over the years, we continually dumped from one end to the other (breaking the larger ones up with a sledge hammer). In the early 50s, I heard Grandad tell a friend that he estimated “them damn rocks” went down about 12 feet before they stopped sinking. It was rougher than hell going over, but you didn’t have to worry about getting stuck.

Never will have to worry about it, either. I suppose leaving that as a legacy beats leaving no legacy at all .. but you’d think the least they could do is name the street Edwards Drive.

Oh, well …

It was the turn of the 21st Century before North Valley Road was completely paved. Up until then, it was Jeff Foxworthy: “If the directions to your house include the phrase ‘After you leave the paved road ..’ you might be …”

Things don’t always move fast in the valley.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).

Thursday, April 21, 2005

SEARCY ’46-‘56 - Part 04

Chapter Two

Tom Pry

First Ruts, Then Path - 2

For those reading this who are or were “locals,” let me place you. That rutted road down which we were bumping is now called North Valley Road, the next road to the right as you’re leaving town, past Honey Hill Road. It goes north for the bigger part of a mile before crossing another road coming in from town, now called Collins Road. North Valley Road goes another, oh, quarter-mile more before turning right and (at the time) coming to a dead end, on the shoulder of the ridge, after another quarter-mile.

The bordering-on-ritzy Hillcrest Subdivision corners at the intersection of North Valley and Collins, grows to encompass all the original 148 acres of what eventually became “Tom Eddard’s place,” including a goodsized chunk of the top of the ridge (we always just called it “the hill”), where the REALLY expensive homes are being built.

That night, though, what that intersection signified was the spot where the county road we were on turned right, back towards town (Collins Road). Think about that statement for a minute, and pick up on the implications. We kept going straight, but county road maintenance turned RIGHT. The county road grader DID occasionally tinkle along that road with some feebleminded political appointee at the wheel – up to the point where Collins and Valley now intersect.

That terrible road became worse, hard as it might be to believe – and, down where it turned right, it became a private road and got absolutely horrible, as it climbed toward our “new” home.

Well, new to us, at any rate.

As we crept along the wide, bumpy path at about 5 miles an hour, the rest of the vehicles fell in behind us and, when we pulled into the yard, around the big oak tree, the rest of them stopped where their headlights could illuminate the house, and Grandad backed the truck up to the warped porch.

We’ll get back to that in a bit. The important thing now is that those vehicles discharged our new neighbors – R. C. Rice (after whom North Valley Road was named by the power company, before 9-1-1 decided on the Valley name, many years later) and his wife, Ozella, the aforementioned “Bubber” Varner, his dad, Gene, and his grandfather, Ben, plus his sister, Nelda Jean, and mom, Estelle, Leo Anspaugh and his family, and Virgil and Gladys Boyd.

I mention all these names because I’m not sure people like this exist any more. These marvelous people, like a trained team, quickly cleaned what looked like 20 years worth of dirt and cobwebs out of the house, then started unloading the truck and car.

No. Putting it that way downplays their contribution. They didn’t just unload the truck: they put everything where it belonged, assembled a batch of new stuff that hadn’t been taken out of the box yet (like a brand new wood-burning stove, which meant also installing a flue, and a kerosene room heater, ditto), put blankets on what needed blankets, etc.

When they were finished, we had a functioning home, ready for sleep, non-essentials piled neatly in one room where we could continue the next day, and all of us ready for the impromptu community supper that we all enjoyed about 11 that night.

They’d brought the food, too.

If counting on my fingers works right, that was almost 60 years ago that it happened. Only one other person alive besides me was there to remember when every person in the valley got out of their beds in the dark, fixed food, and came up to set up their new neighbors in their ramshackle new home.

I hereby offer this tribute to you to help carry that memory forward.

It deserves it.

Yep, they don’t hardly make people like that any more.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).

Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Originally run on the old site 10/17/03.

Ernie Simpson (2004) Posted by Hello

I’m at that time in life when I should know better. By “that time in life,” I mean a time to look back and see what you learned from who – or what. I’ve looked back at my own life, and the things I’ve learned. It took my old friend, Ernest, to remind me that there are times when we should look back a little farther. He shared one of his memories with me that deserves to be not only preserved, but shared with others. With his kind permission, herewith, my part of the equation:

Grandpa and Tom Martindale

Ruben Ralph Bennett was my grandfather. He died in 1956. He was a friend to all his grandkids, and I shared lots of things with him growing up. I was ironing a pair of Levis at home that Saturday morning, when Dad came from the hospital and told me Grandpa was gone. There were lots of colorful things about Grandpa, and some were good, some were not so good. One of his hobbies was being a horse trader, sort of, but more about trading mules than horses. If the old mule had a skinned place, Grandpa would take shoe polish and use it for makeup to hide the blemish before going to the sale barn to trade the mule. His objective was to get more for his mule than he paid for the next one, of course. When he was a young man, he loved to drink and carouse. In his later years, he was not proud of the fact, however, and had long repented of the sins of his youth. Somewhere around August of 1953, Grandpa and I were baptized together at the First Baptist Church at Kensett, Arkansas. This is one of my treasured memories of my Grandpa. It was a milestone in my life as well as his. Grandpa was very emotional in this service, and was concerned that his friends would not have confidence that he had truly changed his ways, partly because his change of attitude came later in life, and partly because his reputation still lingered with some of his old friends. One of whom was Tom Martindale.

In their early twenties they were close as two young men could be, friends in any endeavor, and partners in crime and punishment. One of the favorite social activities of the time was dance -- socials -- generally held at a school on a Saturday night. The one-room school was a perfect auditorium for having such a social event. Furniture or school desks were moved aside for space, and a three-piece string band was the live entertainment. If it was cold, the old pot-bellied stove was fired up; however, summer or fall was the most favored time for such a gathering.

On a cool autumn night when Grandpa and Tom were young men, they had spent the better part of one Saturday taking care of some home brew they had made and stored previously. By sundown, they were feeling no pain, and looking for mischief. Walking down the road, they came to the school at Sidon and, lo-and-behold, there was a Saturday night dance. They walked up the steps to the door, looked in, and saw a nice crowd inside, a crowd just having fun and enjoying themselves. They went in, but were soon asked to leave, since they were inebriated, and presented none of the social graces that would be necessary to stay and enjoy the fun.

Outside, they conspired to create an uprising. Their plan would disturb the dance, as a part of their revenge and self-righteous indignation for their being asked to leave. Grandpa told me the following as a direct quote: Grandpa said, “Tom, let’s go in and bust up this dance.” (He pronounced ‘dance’ like ‘daints’, which I thought was the correct pronunciation until I was 21 years old and, now that I’m in my 60’s, believe it truly the more colorful pronunciation). Tom agreed, and they discussed who would go in first to get things started. Tom said, “I’ll go in and bust up the dance, and you stand here at the steps, and get them when they come out. Be ready to start in when they head your way.” Grandpa says fine, he’d be ready.

Tom went in, and the commotion began, yelling, cussing, women screaming, furniture crashing, and the sound of blows and scuffle. Pretty soon, the door swings open, and someone comes rolling down the steps, head over heels … and a voice says, “Ruben, don’t start now. This is me.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

SEARCY ’46-‘56 - Part 03

Chapter Two

Tom Pry

First Ruts, Then Path - 1

It was after dark when we got to Searcy: the middle of town, then Pleasure Street and, finally, at the edge of town, a gravel highway .. and more darkness than you can conceive of. About three miles out of town, just over a hill, a hard right turn, followed by more ruts in a road that, in my 7-year-old innocence, as used to city streets as I was (hell, I didn’t know there WAS such a thing as an unpaved street), thought was possible. From one side to another, it was one tire groove next to another, from one side of the narrow road to the other.

It felt like it, too. Remember, it had been not just trucks using that road in wet weather, but narrow iron-wheeled wagons, cars, tractors, horses, mules, and God-only-knows what else for God-only-knows how many years, each one leaving a very long 3-to-7 inch-deep memory in it.

I’m not sure the road had ever felt the blade of a grader.

But we felt the road as we bumped ahead into a stygian darkness that, if anything, was even darker than the “highway” had been. (That highway was not paved until sometime between 1948 and 1950; right now, the part that runs through town is four lanes, and the road from there to a mile past our turnoff is in the process of being made quadruple).

The reason it was so dark was that, first, there were only six houses on the mile-and-a-half road, and just five of them were occupied; secondly, we didn’t get electricity in the valley until 1948. So, shortly after supper and sundown, it was kerosene lamp out and go to bed, and everyone already had done exactly that by the time we got there; consequently, we were driving into a sea of total darkness (there is no such thing as a kerosene nightlight).

I’ve gone into this darkness routine for a couple of reasons. First, you can’t find that kind of darkness anymore: streetlights, light from nearby towns, somebody staying up to watch David Letterman .. something is lightening the scene. Secondly, I was about to see enacted an event that one just doesn’t see anymore (except when a presentable widower moves into the retirement home): the community welcome.

As we drove slowly and cautiously down the kidney-destroying road, the darkness served to emphasize the fact that lamps were being lit in the valley, usually as we rumbled by, occasionally preceding our arrival. It has only recently been confirmed to me by James “Bubber” Varner (the only one left besides me who was there that night) that everyone knew exactly when we were due to get there, so they were sleeping with only one eye shut. As a consequence, while we proceeded with our bumpy motorized processional, families were getting out of bed, getting dressed, and loading their cars or trucks before pulling out to catch up with us. Grandad had been there a few months earlier, when he bought the place, and had met them all then, and told them what was up.

To me, it was and would remain for decades a miracle of the sort you just don’t see anymore.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).

Monday, April 18, 2005

SEARCY ’46-‘56 Part 02

Chapter One

Tom Pry

The Path from C to A

Chicago is roughly 600 miles from here. Even without expressway from Newport north until you can finally cut over to I-55, if you feel like pushing it a bit, you can easily drive it in a 10-12 hour day. It wasn’t that easy then, because US highways went smack dab through the middle of every town along the way, and were mostly two-lane, at that.

Yep, in 1946, only the directions were simple: US66 from Chicago to St. Louis, US67 to the middle of Searcy. When you get to the park, turn right and follow State 36 out of town a-ways. Then turn right again and go to the end of the road. There’s your house, along with the “148 acres of rocks” (as my grandfather characterized it) on which it sat (now the site of the rather tony Hillcrest Subdivision).

Let me see if I can give you the reality of the trip that my grandfather, Tom Ripley Edwards, my baby (and only) sister, “Cookie,” my maternal step-grandmother, Billie (in reality, the only grandmother I’d ever known, the two having gotten married the year I was born, 1938), plus her mother, Granma Charles, embarked on less than a year after the end of World War II.

There was the car, one of the last Chevys built before the war had broken out. Came complete with AM radio. Billie drove that, the rest of us kind of rotating through as the truck seat got a bit stiff for us.

The truck? Another Chevrolet -- hardly a surprise, considering Grandad had been a highly respected mechanic at Chicago’s largest Chevy dealer until the urge to “retire to the country” bit him -- what he described as a “ton-and-a-half on a two-ton frame.” One of the first built after the war, it had a four-speed transmission and, hot damn!, an 86.5 horsepower engine.

Tom & Billie Edwards (in the 70s) Posted by Hello

It was a humdinger, let me tell you. I took my driver’s test on it at fourteen in 1952 and, to this day, I think the only reason the examiner passed me was the fear that he’d have to drive it back should he flunk me.

Anyway, it was a platform truck with stakes around it, and it was packed to the gills, to overflowing had it not been for the tarpaulin holding it all together. In that truck was everything needed to set us up in housekeeping except for clothing and toiletries: those kind of stuffed the nooks-and-crannies of the car not otherwise occupied by people.

The highways .. there are still some souvenirs of pre-and-postwar highways around where you can see them, although you probably don’t recognize them as such. Example one: the White River Bridge on US64 just west of Augusta. High tech for that era. Most people are like my wife where that bridge is concerned: they cringe at the thought of riding across it, let alone driving themselves over it. For those unfamiliar with this area, that bridge was BARELY two lanes wide, arched high enough to allow clearance room for the steamboats that, by that time, could no longer navigate the silt-laden river. Folks, that was the norm for highways then, semi’s and all. (Latecomers to this saga: that bridge has finally, mercifully, been replaced since I began writing this thing).

Don’t believe it? Let me give you Example two: Davis. That’s the curving road that comes off East Race to define one edge of Berryhill Park, runs past the White County Fairgrounds, meanders over the Little Red River and, finally, crosses over 367, meanders besides the river for a bit before running through Judsonia (yes, Virginia, there really IS a town by that name) before once more merging into 367.

I hate to break it to you, but that narrow road was US67, our entryway to Searcy that early summer in 1946. Coming from the north, you came into town at that point, drove down Race to Main, turned left on Main, and followed that to what is now Lincoln, where it turned right and kind of headed for Little Rock (now you know why Gum Springs Road is subtitled 267). Even in 1956, that latter stretch of road was known, simply, as “the old highway,” since it wasn’t until the early 50s that the “new” US67 (now old 367, running from Bald Knob to an ignominious end at Huckleberry’s Catfish House) opened.

Footnote: that stretch of “the old highway” was the scene of an impromptu dance party, by headlights, and with music broadcast from Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin, Tennessee, synched on several car radios: that was the night the SHS class of ‘56 graduated, and I don’t remember a single car coming by.

Maybe because it was two o’clock in the morning.

But there was no party going on when we rolled into Searcy that night in 1946. The old joke about rolling up the sidewalks at sundown seemed to fit what we could see of the town to a T. If it hadn’t been for the constant procession of trucks rolling through (with the occasional punctuation of an 80-miles-an-hour Missouri Pacific bus), I’m not sure we’d have seen any life at all. Heaven knows, we had precious little left in us. We’d spent the night before just outside St. Louis in one of those newfangled “tourist cabins,” all of us crammed into one room with two beds. The first Holiday Inn was still in the dreaming stages of its creator and, when the first one opened in Memphis six years later, the concept became an instant hit, for what is to me obvious reasons.

When you think of Heaven and Holiday Inn in the same mental breath, you can just imagine what those tourist cabins -- the ritzier ones were “motor hotels,” hence the word “motels” -- must’ve been like.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).

Sunday, April 17, 2005

SEARCY ‘46 - ‘56 - Part 01

The Shaky Remembrances
of a Transplanted Y**K**

Tom Pry

For those of you who’ve never set foot in Arkansas, let alone White County and/or Searcy, in your life …

This started out to be another one of those precious, self-published little books whose moments of fame are an ill-attended book signing at Hastings, then a dusty shelf at the County Library, plus the author’s appearance before the Historical Society on a night when there’s not much else going on anyway.

I got sidetracked and the whole book never got written.

With this blog site, I have the perfect vehicle, and have saved myself about $2500, to boot. I mean, why publish a book that no one will read, when I can publish on the web for free, and where at least a couple of people will take a glance now and then?

Leaves a little more space on the Library shelves, too, thereby cutting taxes. (Now, Pry, remove your tongue from your cheek so people can understand you).

Why Searcy, Arkansas? Well, other than the fact that I lived here through the designated period (and, obviously, still do), there’re these things:

For those who live in Other Places, Searcy is one of Arkansas’ larger cities (which isn’t saying much). It’s the Seat of White County. It’s in the Central part of the state, about 54 miles NNE of Little Rock. It’s never been on a major rail line, its only river connection is the very minor Little Red River across one edge of town, no great Civil War battles were ever fought over it or in it. The nearest major fishing holes are about an hour’s drive away, unless you count the once-steamboat-served White River, a half-hour towards Memphis, in a couple of different directions, all of them basically east.

Geographically, it’s red clay dirt, and one of the spines of the Ozarks starts in town as a gradually-elevating ridge as it runs west, just behind our place, from Searcy towards the BIG mountains. To cop the advertising motto of one of our neighboring towns, it’s where “The Ozarks meet the Delta.”

Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” once bannered that “Pleasure Street in Searcy, Arkansas takes you to Joy and Romance.” Still does.

Locals could describe the town’s location (to the amusement of visiting y**k**s) as, “Well, any durned fool’d tell you it’s just west of Kensett, east of Center Hill (pronounced “Center of Hell”), ‘bout zackly halfway between Bald Knob and Beebe!” Any fool could find it, with that description. (Repeat earlier comment about this tongue in this cheek).

Yet, the town has not only survived, it’s thrived. The airport, while it has no scheduled service, has half-a-dozen charter operators, including helicopter, and is in the middle of a major upgrade, complete with instrument landing system, it would appear.

Harding University is here (described by Time Magazine some years ago as “.. the West Point of the Far Right”), and they’ve just opened a branch of Arkansas State University at the location of one of the first of the state’s excellent series of vo-tech schools. Two high schools, two major hospitals, a radiation therapy center, not just one but TWO Wal-Mart distribution centers (and, strangely, not a Target store or a K-Mart inside the County Limits. Why’s that, daddy?).

There’s no broadcast TV station (although there is an LO operation), and the cable TV operation is obviously (to me, anyway) run by people who’ve learned what little they’ve learned right here … which is to say, they’ve learned the mechanics, but not the merchandising and the service. Their attitude is kind of like the phone company’s was before it was broken up: “Hey, if you don’t like our service, take it to another phone company.”

But that’s a whole ‘nother rant.

We have two broadcasting companies operating six local stations. The programming formats are like the line in The Blues Brothers, when the brothers ask what kind of music is played at Bob’s Country Bunker. “Why, sweetheart,” chirrups the proprietress, “we play BOTH kinds: country AND western!”

As I said earlier, Searcy has not only survived, but it’s thrived, with not much help from geography or nature. So, why?

Must be the people, and people are, to a greater or lesser extent, formed by their environment. I figured it might be useful to look at that environment in a kinder, gentler time, from right after WW II ended, till a couple of years after the Korean “police action” was put fitfully to rest. It had some features to it that are no longer around, and you might find it interesting to see what life was like before you had to lock your vehicles and your houses and hope nobody locked up your kids.
This is NOT a history. It is so not a history that, where embarrassment could be caused to some of the individuals (or their various relatives) in this scribbling, I’ve gone out of my way to disguise their identities. True, these disguises are sometimes quite thin but, nonetheless, they’re there. God knows, there are enough skeletons in my past and that of my family I fervently hope will never see the light of print that there’s no point in trashing the innocent and not-so-innocent, and please show me-and-mine the same courtesy, thank you very much.

I also do not vouch for the strict accuracy of historical places and events. As a number of former teachers at Searcy High School and elsewhere will attest, research and midnight sweat were never my strong points. Glibness was.

A voice in the back of the room has just asked, “What’s the point, then?”

Well, it’s this way. I’ve recently realized that my history vis-à-vis “Greater Searcy” is probably unique, a little bit like seeing a runny-nosed 8-year-girl who’s more of a pest than anything else and then, ten years later, stumbling across this excitingly beautiful young lady who, as it turns out, is the same girl, just enhanced by the passage of years .. but those 120 months means she bears as much resemblance to the urchin as a tricycle does to a Mercedes: they both have wheels and both will get you from Here to There, but there’s a lot of difference in the available accessories.

That pretty much summarizes the differences between Searcy now and as I first saw it in 1946, the changes accented by the fact that I effectively left town in 1947, although I spent most of my summers here until 1952, when I entered high school as a member of the SHS freshman class. In 1956, I went off to, first, college and then the Army, with just a few short vacation trips between then and 1992, when my wife, Karen, and I came back to (re)establish residence, right next door to where I spent most of my growing-up years.

Coming back was a shock. Some things hadn’t changed: our states’ cumbersome, antiquated automobile and driver licensing procedures, for instance (parts of which are FINALLY showing signs of improvement). Friendlier was the Courthouse and its Square, Harding College (now a University, by George!) but, past that, so many changes that I kept getting lost because all my landmarks were either gone or changed beyond recognition (the old Dairy Queen is now a hock shop, etc). Even the old school buildings had undergone painfully insulting changes: the gymnasium now a warehouse, the Vo-Ag building a workshop, etc., etc.

Bear with me here for a moment. When a parent looks at one of their children in adulthood, they see what is there today but, like a trick movie effect, there are also these progressively smaller faint shadow images underlying the reality of today with the memories of many, many yesterdays. We see the totality of all these images, where a stranger will see only the surface, with nary a memory in sight.

Those of us who were around Searcy and environs in earlier years have the same palimpsest with which to deal when we gaze at our Home Town. The difference in my case is that this was not a gradual transition: it was enough to give you whiplash, with a whole lot of transitional images missing in the succession from the past.

After the first shock had worn off, and there’d been time for conversations with a few people, it slowly got through to me that a community, like a person, is more than just a surface image. What is here today is present (or in its present form) only because of what preceded it. If you don’t know what and who was there, you can’t truly appreciate Now.

Hence, these Shaky Remembrances from a Chicago slum kid who ended up answering “Searcy” when asked to identify his hometown. Not facts and figures to memorize to impress your friends over a game of White County Trivial Pursuit but, instead, the flavor of what life was like in the middle of the just-departed century.

It was a whole ‘nother life.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).

Saturday, April 16, 2005


I’ve never given it much thought until now, but I strongly suspect that most people have never had a real Hero, someone they knew who inspired them to be more than they might otherwise have been, had they not met.

I had mine, it goes back a lot of years and, strangely enough, he’s been around as a reminder ever since. I’d to tell you about him.

Let’s back up here a bit. I spent the better part of 38 years in various phases of broadcasting, everything from selling time and being a deejay on local radio, to co-hosting a national satellite television series, which I also wrote, produced, and edited. If my role model/unintentional mentor not been where he was, WHEN he was, it might not have happened at all.

It used to be a cliché in the broadcasting industry that every radio station in the country had a bucktoothed, freckle-faced kid always hanging around, wanting to grow up and be an announcer. In 1950, that was me and, in my ignorance, I picked a doozy of a station in which to hang around: the (now-sadly-defunct) WMAQ, the NBC-owned station in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart.

I say “in my ignorance” because I was too young (not-quite-12) and dumb to realize that I was hanging around in The Big Leagues. Saturdays were mine around that joint, and what a wonderland it was. After a long “El” train ride from the west side of Chicago, my day started in the large PBX room up on the 21st floor. Normally, three operators manned the huge switchboard but, on Saturday mornings, there was just one. She seemed to look forward to my visits, and taught me how the board worked. It was very impressive, with direct lines to New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other places.

At 9:30, it was sitting in the engineer’s booth while one of my two favorite disc jockeys, the legendary Norman Ross, came in to do his Saturday morning show. Later in the morning, it was NBC’s “National Farm and Home Hour” in the next studio over from Norman’s. This WAS a big production: a singing male quartet, a 30-piece orchestra, a live studio audience, and live feeds from around the country, plus a host/announcer who started each program by loudly declaiming, “It’s a BEAUTIFUL day in Chicago!” followed by a qualification, like “Oh, the snow is ass deep to a tall injun standing on a pine stump, but it’s warm inside and …..” which would lead into the opening march (you understand, now, don’t you, that that qualifier is not a direct quote?).

And then, if I was so inclined, it was over to the other side of the elevator shafts, to ABC territory, for “Junior Junction” which, again, featured a live studio audience and an orchestra (same guys who’d played the Farm & Home Hour a couple of hours earlier), this time under the baton of a tall, curvaceous blonde given to wearing tweed suits and horn-rimmed glasses. Her name was Mary Hartline, and she became famous/infamous for two things: one of them was her doffing the glasses and putting on a VERY abbreviated costume to lead the band on ABC-TV’s big hit (and first LIVE coast-to-coast program), “Super Circus,” jiggling her substantial behind in front of a few million people each Sunday afternoon as she lead the Super Circus Band (some of the same guys from Saturday).

Her other claim to fame was having the legendary Paul “Pops” Whiteman (the guy responsible for the public premiere of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue”), the Musical Director for ABC, calling Mary after she did a trumpet solo on JJ one Saturday afternoon, to tell her that, if she ever put a trumpet to her lips in an ABC studio again, she was fired. I’m sorry I missed that show.

And, after awhile, on Saturday mornings, there was “Uncle Ned’s Squadron.”

Uncle Ned’s real name was Norb(ert) Locke, a genial “everyone’s favorite uncle”-looking guy (think Ned Beatty, without an attitude), and the Saturday morning NBC show was elaborate enough, with a live studio audience of kids, two sound men, a record spinner in another studio, Norb/Ned, a kid portraying “The Executive Officer,” and an announcer, who was an integral part of the program.

I was frequently The XO … and the announcer, for the first year and a half, was My Hero, My Mentor, My Role Model.

He was younger than most of the announcers there. He’d worked in his home state of Ohio, then in Detroit (Big Leagues: did you know the Lone Ranger, in its original radio form, originated from Detroit?) before going into the Army, from which he’d gotten out just a few months before I met him at WMAQ. When we first came into contact, his job consisted of primarily doing station breaks every half-hour-or-so, plus the occasional public service announcement, and later the occasional DJ stint.

He took me under his wing, coached me and encouraged me .. bought me coffee downstairs (and once saved one for me when I was late getting there from a remote I’d done earlier that morning at the Edgewater Beach Hotel quite some way away).

He was my Friend, my first true grownup friend, who never was too busy to share a few quiet minutes with me. At the same time, he was an excellent role model. He was always prepared, always pleasant to co-workers and strangers alike, a good example of professionalism and How To Be A Good Human Being.

He was not without a sense of humor, and it always showed up, if at no other time, at rehearsals, when he’d come to the line, “And this is your announcer …” and then he’d invent a name, a different one ever week, things on the order of “And this is your announcer, Malfinger Malingerer, saying ….” We’d all laugh, and I’d say (away from the others), “One of these days, you’re going to forget this ain’t rehearsal, and you’re going to use that name… ” but, of course, he never did. That wouldn’t have been professional.

Instead, every week, those round tones would say, “And this is your announcer, Hugh Downs, thanking you for being here, and inviting you to join us next week for .. Uncle Ned’s Squadron” (music up) (cue audience for applause).

Hugh Downs Posted by Hello

Hugh Downs, the single nicest and, simultaneously, most professional person I’ve ever known, in or out of broadcasting, the man who puts the lie to the old saw about “Nice guys finish last.”

I remember when he got tapped as the fill-in announcer, the voice who’d occasionally be heard saying, “Live, from the 8th Street Theatre in Chicago, it’s Your Show of Shows, with Jack Carter!” Bet you don’t remember that hour that preceded the 90 minute classic with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, but it was there, every week and, every four or five weeks, it was Hugh’s turn to Do His Thing.

And, when he wasn’t busy with his rapidly-building career (he now had his own record show), he’d do things like calm me down the first time I ever heard my own voice, on a show we’d pre-recorded against a day when weather or disaster cut our audience to near-zero. Well, that day came (a high-rise warehouse across the street burned down, making mini-squab out of the Hartz Mountain Canaries, coincident with fog and other Chicago-style weather crumminess), so we gathered the handful of kids who showed up into a smaller studio, passed out that week’s prizes (almost invariably, model airplanes), and then sat around listening to the show we’d done several months before. (Recorded on a 16” disc, if you want to know how long ago that was).

Remember, this was before my voice started changing: pure boy soprano. What I THOUGHT I sounded like, and what I DID sound like …. the difference almost made me quit broadcasting right there and then.

Hugh assured me that this, too, would change.

There were changes going on all over the place. Hugh moved on to other things at NBC Chicago, just about coincident with our being booted out of our studio so they could convert it to television (our successor in the studio was variety/comic pioneer Dave Garroway, who I still remember coming thru the lobby trying to crack a piece of rope stapled to a chunk of broomstick, while attempting to sing “Mule Train,” a la Frankie Laine).

And my voice started changing, while I almost simultaneously completed 8th grade and my family moved me to Arkansas, to my grandparents’.

When my sister and I went back at Christmas, for a visit, it was to find that Hugh now had his own five-day-a-week half-hour TV variety show, mornings, called “Coffee And …” with a music group (the Art Van Damme Quintet) and a girl singer. It was a mélange of interviews, commentary, and music, live (the only way TV was done in those days). Hugh, typically, invited sis and me to sit upstairs in The Fishbowl (a sponsor room) and watch the whole proceeding one morning, after showing us around the floor and introducing us. (I was really thrilled to meet Van Damme, a fellow accordionist .. although it was a little dismaying to realize that the reason for the soulful looks and close-ups of Art’s downlooking face during the feature solo was to disguise the fact that he was reading oversized sheet music laying on the floor at his feet).

Hugh and I exchanged several letters over the next few months, one of which was very deliberately crafted by Hugh as an entrée to our local radio station. Poor old Carl Dodd, the station owner, didn’t quite know what to do with a 14-year-old kid who walks into his 1000-watt Arkansas daytimer with a letter of introduction on NBC stationery.

Then, one late spring, Hugh apologized for the fact that his heretofore-always-dependable responses might get kind of spotty from now on since “I’ve got commitments that threaten to even invade my livingroom,” and he was being transferred to New York.

I thought that “invade my livingroom” was a nice turn of phrase … and then NBC-TV announced a new program in the fall daytime schedule: “The Home Show,” starring Arlene Francis and you-know-who. This was a five-day-a-week, hour-a-day gig that was most notable for the fact that the second half-hour was always done In Living Color, NBC’s first regularly-scheduled color show.

From that point, there was no stopping Hugh. He played Ed McMahan to Jack Paar’s Johnny Carson (the late show was, first, Steve Allen, then Jack Paar, THEN Johnny Carson and, finally, Jay Leno), including doing – with zero warning – most of the show the night Paar opened the show by saying he was sick of NBC’s censorship and he was quitting … and left. Somewhere in there he hosted a game show, too.

By the sixties, Hugh was the host of The Today Show, a very big deal in those days: it was tantamount to owning two morning hours of a few million families five-days-a-week.

Then the Republicans decided to hold their convention in Miami Beach, and I dropped Hugh a note saying that, if he was going to be doing his show from Miami Beach, we might have an opportunity to meet again since, by that time, I’d worked my way into TV, Program Director of a station in Miami.

The response from Hugh was a date and a time and a place to have lunch with him.

There were a lot of reasons not to like Richard Nixon. At the top of my list was the fact that the night before Hugh and I were to have lunch, Tricky Dick kept the entire news corps up all night while he pondered his choice of presidential running mate (that’s how we got the ill-fated Spiro Agnew). Now, Hugh had gotten up around 3 a.m. the preceding day, had done the show, spent the day pre-recording interviews and other host things, then had joined the crowd in the corridors of the presidential hotel all night, THEN had done his show, all sans sleep.

That was when I showed up for lunch, knowing none of this.

Instead of Hugh, I was greeted by a very attractive, very articulate redhead named Christina Ferrarri, Hugh’s assistant/secretary (and, later, host of her own Lifetime daytime show). She told me of the 36-hour debacle, and then told me that she was under orders from Hugh to feed me lunch – on him – and find out what I’d been up to.

That’s the one-and-only time I ever ate lunch at a Fontainebleu cabana, with a good-looking redhead, at that.

It’s also the last time I was ever any closer to Hugh than my TV set.

But he’s continued to inspire me over the years. For a long time, it seems like I was running his professional itinerary, but in reverse, including Phoenix, Arizona, and Detroit, where I finally exited the ole broadcast biz. (He also funded and founded a public communication school at Arizona State University).

By Hugh’s own admission, he had some ego problems early-on in his career. No shame in that, especially in light of the fact that, with the help of his lovely wife, Ruth, he got that in hand in short order, and has remained an exemplar to everyone but, especially, to me.

Thank you, Hugh, for being my mentor and my childhood friend – and for the information and insights you’ve given your millions of viewers and readers over these many, many years.

Thank you, Hugh, for being a damn good human being.

Friday, April 15, 2005



Part Three

As Dad would probably have phrased it, he had “.. people skills out the butt!” (If you had told him he was uncouth, he would’ve rejoindered, “What’s all this couth crap?” Daddy was a great believer in letting his audience determine the appropriate vocabulary).

In more socially-acceptable terms, Dad fit the definition of a Diplomat: “Someone who can tell you to go to hell, and do it in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip.” Very persuasive man. My mother used to point at me and tell her friends, “He’s descended from a long line I never should’ve listened to.”

We never spoke of it, so I don’t know whether it was instinct, or the fine art of watching, listening, and drawing conclusions from the best and worst of bosses he encountered over the years.

I never really got a chance to watch Daddy in action until I was almost out of grammar school, and not much of that. I do remember that, whichever job I accompanied him to, people above him and below him seemed genuinely glad to see him. The only job he was fired from was that stockroom job at Marshall Field’s.

Daddy went into no job that I know of where he wasn’t made a foreman or supervisor or team leader in almost nothing flat.

A taste of Dad’s style can probably be gleaned from his time at A&P. His crew was almost all eastern European immigrants. To hear Daddy carrying on with them, you could swear you were dealing with a xenophobic bigot: “You dumb Bohunk, I said there, not there!” What separated him from the prejudiced herd was that, first, they gave back to him as good as they got: “Crotz-eyed bustard .. that you should have said in first place!” Secondly, he and Mom were always guests of honor at high family functions: wedding receptions, etc., and everyone could relax and have fun with him.

He also wasn’t afraid to pitch in on the physical work when necessary, either. Dad was a believer in the old business adage, “Nothing is impossible to the man who doesn’t have to do it himself.” Pitching in is the best way to NOT ask the impossible of your people – keeps your employees from trying to BS you about the difficulty, too.

Other pointers to good management:

Take care of your people and they will take care of you .. AND your company.

Praise in public – truly chew ass only in private.

Make the rules simple, enforce infractions consistently and quickly and appropriately.

If Daddy had taught me nothing but that list, he would have deserved being immortalized by me, because I was known as a damn good supervisor and manager in my day, and I did it by following those guidelines.

But he taught me much more than that. He taught me compassion for the underdog. He taught me to look for the humor in a situation. He taught me empathy.

I’d say Dad did a pretty good job on me for a guy who went through my teen years wondering why I was carrying a drum down the field at the game, rather than the ball as a quarterback.

At least we ended up understanding each other pretty good.

Hope he was pleased at how his son turned out.

See ya again, one of these days, Dad.