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).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, I think the new site looks great.
Jo Ann

6:01 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home