A whimsical look at life growing up in the small town of Waldron, Arkansas in the 1960s and 1970s, plus occasional observations from the present. Want to start at the very beginning? Click HERE.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Littlest Man I Was Ever Terrified Of

It's been an incredibly busy week for me, so our blog entry today is somewhat short. But short is really just a state of mind, because short can still be pretty powerful. Which brings us to our subject today: Mr. Raymond Rackley, Principal of Waldron Junior High.

He would have to be described as diminutive. Small in stature, not much taller than the junior high students he supervised, and yet anyone who said they were not intimidated by Mr. Rackley would unquestionably be a teller of untruths.

Fear, respect, whatever it was exactly, came naturally. It was a hallmark of a very effective principal, which is what Mr. Rackley was. One sensed that even the teachers had at least a small measure of fear for their boss. After I became a teacher myself, I heard the story of a time when one of Mr. Harlan Hawkins' students had been seriously ill and had missed a considerable number of days. Tragically, the student later died, so Harlan quit counting the student absent. After a few days, Mr. Rackley showed up at Harlan's classroom door, questioning why the student was not being counted absent. Harlan explained that he had seen the student's obituary in the Waldron News, so he assumed that his name would be dropped from the roll. Nope. The student was counted absent until Mr. Rackley gave the word otherwise.

When I entered junior high in the late 1960's, Mr. Rackley was nearing the end of his career. But he was definitely not past his game. I guess it must have been something about the way he carried himself, or the way he spoke, but we knew from the beginning that he was in charge and that we didn't want to cross him. There was not a lot of interaction between him and the students; I guess that contributed to our fear of being sent to the office.

I remember one time when I was in probably ninth grade, some of were pulled out of study hall to work in the office for a week. When my week came, I sat in a student desk in the outer office, and would run errands and things like that. When not busy, I would sit at my desk and read or work on homework. One day, while I was sitting quietly reading, Mr. Rackley walked by my desk. Suddenly and without warning, he slammed his hand down on my desk and said, "Settle down!" I was so startled I nearly jumped out of my skin. For the one and only time in my three years with the man, I heard him chuckle as he walked away.

After he retired, I would often see him as he walked from his little house near school over to the post office. He would always smile and say hello, and I watched over the years as his steps became more and more deliberate, as the journey became more and more a challenge. Then, I quit seeing him, and kind of lost track of him. I don't remember when he passed away.

I always recognized Mr. Rackley as a man of character. I wish I could have known him as an individual, rather than as just the feared authority figure that he was. But he played a large role in molding a lot of rowdy teenagers into productive members of society, and undoubtedly kept a few mean boys out of prison. So, thanks Mr. Rackley. You had a difficult job to do, and you did it well.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

In Search of the World's Meanest Worm

He lies in wait, motionless, attuned to the delicate vibrations made by his prey as they walk along the ground.  Crouched at the top of his burrow, he's poised to pounce.  And as soon as the unsuspecting victim gets close enough, he does just that!  Clutching the hapless prey in vice like pinchers, he retreats, pulling his victim back into his burrow, a victim whose fate is sealed.

OK, technically, he's not a worm.  He's larvae.  The larval stage of a Tiger Beetle, to be exact.  This fierce beast is known by other names in various regions of the country, but in the South, he has the somewhat unfortunate moniker of Chicken Choker.

The barbs on a Chicken Choker's back.
In the carefree days of childhood innocence, we were unaware of the more pejorative definition popular culture has assigned to the term "chicken choker."  (OK, go ahead and google it..)  We just recognized that, given its horrific pinchers and hairy, barbed hump on its back, it would be something that would cause great distress if swallowed by poultry.  So, partly out of obligation to any passing hens, and partly because we had nothing better to do, I and my friends spent quite a bit of time catching these rascals when I was a kid.

By the way, all of the pictures on this post came from here.  It's a good site to visit on those numerous occasions when you need a good bug picture.

To locate a Chicken Choker, you first need to find its burrow.  They are easy to identify; they are perfectly round, about the diameter of a pencil eraser, and usually are in a relatively clear patch of yard (for more efficient grabbing.)  The Chicken Choker, no fool, has already retreated to the bottom of his burrow by the time you locate him.  After all, if he can pick up the vibrations of a little spider walking along the path, it's a dead giveaway when you come clomping through there with your size 8's.  So, instead of being conveniently poised at the top of his burrow, he's way down at the bottom, hiding from you.  So you must go get him.  And how, the uninitiated might ask, would one go about that?  Well, with the correct tools.  And to catch a Chicken Choker, you need only two things:  patience, and a good strong broom straw.

A Chicken Choker poised to strike!
Now, this is the point where many people who have never caught a Chicken Choker begin to doubt.  This step seems so ludicrous that the average City Slicker believes that they are being tricked.  Perhaps a distant memory of waiting in the bushes for an opportunity to sprinkle salt on a snipe's tail feathers emerges, or some other unfortunate prank.  But, as much as this sounds like a prank, it isn't.  To catch a Chicken Choker, one must place a broom straw down into the hole as far as it will go, and wait.  The Chicken Choker, unappreciative of this intrusion, will soon begin to think, "What the heck; this guy's jabbing a broom straw into my head, and it's getting a bit tiresome.  Fortunately, I have these fierce pinchers, so I'll just grab onto the thing and show this guy he's messing with the wrong chump."  Or something like that.  Anyway, the perceptive child can detect when the broom straw begins to move, and can quickly and smoothly pull the straw back up.  The Chicken Choker will undoubtedly still be grabbing the straw with his pinchers, but will be recognizable by the somewhat surprised expression on his face.

Lest you think I'm making all this up, here is a reference in the scientific literature to the technique of "fishing" for Tiger Beetle larvae.  Look on pages 202 and 203.  So see, even smart guys are willing to get a broom straw and go after the fierce beast. 
The much-feared pinchers, up close and personal.

So, once captured, what do you do with the creature?  Most of the kids in my neighborhood subscribed to the "catch and release" school of thought.  We would admire the beast for it's magnificent ugliness, and then put it back in its hole.  This was also perhaps a bit self-serving, because we would often return to catch the monster again on another day.  It seems that Chicken Chokers have such a distaste for having a broom straw jabbed on top of their head that they will, repeatedly, retaliate with their pinchers, knowing full well what the inevitable consequence must be. 

An adult Tiger Beetle
For the entirety of my childhood, I never knew what a Chicken Choker eventually turned into.  I knew it must be some kind of bug, but I never could find out which one.  I suspected June Bugs, but that's not what it was.  I was in college, in fact, when I discovered that they were the larvae of a bug called a Tiger Beetle.  When I saw a picture of a Tiger Beetle, I didn't recall seeing many of them when I was a kid, but they must have been out there.  If you take the time to visit the Tiger Beetle photo page linked above, you'll see that there are apparently a wide variety of color combinations available, similar to visiting a Kia dealership, so neon green isn't necessarily what you'd see every time.  A nice-looking bug, I think we'd all have to admit.

For further reading on kids and bugs, I recommend this entry from one of the world's greatest bloggers, Suldog.  Sully, too, spent quite a bit of time looking for bugs.

 Anyway, I find it reassuring that something as ugly as a Chicken Choker can turn into such a nice looking bug.  Just goes to show, it ain't over 'till it's over.  Here's to good hunting...

Monday, August 15, 2011

Off To School

It's a difficult thing for Mamas to send their little ones off
to school for the first time.
A trip to Parsley's helped make it a little easier for my twin sister Janet and me to transition into the whole going to school routine.  Mama had bought us matching book satchels, the plaid kind made of vinyl, with lots of little straps and buckles to hold your belongings in place.  We packed up our Blue Horse tablets, the kind with the little red dotted lines to help you shape your letters, our pencils, our exquisitely smelling box of Crayola crayons, a bottle of paste, and a few pencils, and off to Mrs. Clara Evatt's class we went. 

I don't remember much about that first day.  Mama often related how Janet and I came home and excitedly told her about the day's events, including how a little boy named Jimmie Wayne Sims stood by the water fountain and, holding the lever so the water would flow, very courteously inquired, "Anybody want a naink?"  As the year went on, I remember almost getting in trouble when a boy sitting at our table took a swing at me and knocked over the fish bowl containing a little turtle, and I remember learning to read and discovering some fascinating tales of a little boy and girl named Dick and Jane, and their little sister Sally, and their dog Spot, who had a particular affinity for running, as I recall, and even their little cat Puff.  But Janet and I were the babies, and I know it must have been hard for Mama to send us off on that first day.

There was another first day of school, the day Janet and I went off to college.  It wasn't far, just to Fort Smith to Westark, but we would be living away from home, with my brother Gary and his wife.  Janet and I had pooled our life savings and bought a car that my sister-in-law had found for us.  It was a 1973 Buick Century, only two years old, with a meager 9,000 miles on the odometer.  We bought it at Crawford County Motors for $3,000, for which we each contributed half. 

I have one astounding memory of the day we left for Westark.  It was a Sunday, I believe, and we were packed up and ready to go and were saying goodbye (although we planned to come home on the weekends), and Daddy, with whom I had a somewhat distant relationship at the time, unexpectedly reached out and hugged me.  I hardly knew what to think.  It was, I think, the beginning of a long thaw.

My sister Janet recalls that, as we left town, we stopped down the street to say goodbye to our grandmother.  "Memaw," as we called her, was a widow who lived alone in a tiny little house on Pine Street.  Janet remembers that Memaw was so sad to see us go away that she could hardly talk.

Well, we loved Westark.  Gary's house was not far from campus; Janet and I went home for lunch most days but on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we went to the Hardee's that was located by Central Mall (not there anymore) and got a hamburger.  Janet got a job working with my sister-in-law in the campus business office, and I got what, in hindsight, was probably the best job I ever had.  My job was to walk around the campus, carrying a mechanical "grabber" and a trash can, and pick up any trash that I encountered on my journey.  So, for about three hours a day, no matter what the weather, I walked.  I got to keep any Coke bottles that I found, which could be turned in for a few cents each at Buddy Gray's store on my weekends home.  I even occasionally found a dollar bill or some loose change.  As a side benefit, I got three hours of exercise each day, and I began to slim up. 

I recall a particularly cold winter day, when I was out picking up trash as usual, when a faculty member, Dr. Curtis Ivory, came out of the Holt Building to where I was working.  Dr. Ivory said, "I just wanted to tell you, I appreciate what you're doing.  The campus looks really good, and I see you out here every day working, and I really admire that."

I thanked Dr. Ivory, and went on my way, but I never forgot what he had taken the time to do.  Years later, when I was again working at what was now known as the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith, I googled Dr. Ivory's name and found him at a university in Wisconsin.  I sent him an email, relating my memory of what he had said to me, and got a very nice email in return from him.

After Westark, which at that time was only a two-year institution, I transferred to Arkansas Tech in Russellville.  Janet, on the other hand, had completed her Associates Degree and had found gainful employment, so she stayed in Waldron.  I sold her my half of the car, and invested the proceeds in having our family's old 1967 Ford Custom 500 rebuilt.  We had to tow it down to the Brigance boys to have the engine rebuilt.  It wasn't finished until literally the day before I was to go over to Tech, but sure enough that Saturday, they called and said it was ready.  I went down to get it with Daddy, but when I got out my billfold to pay them the $500 it cost to have the work done, Daddy had already gotten his billfold out.  I tried to pay, but Daddy insisted on paying the full cost himself.  He hadn't said a word to me about doing that, but he did it anyway.  I think it was kind of like another hug.  A little more ice melted.

Later that day, a crisis.  Daddy had gone to get me a tank of gas, and when he came back the muffler fell off of the old Ford.  Mama called Bill and Fred Harris and they told her to bring the car on down.  So, on a Saturday afternoon, Harris Motor Company fixed my car so I could go off to college.

I remember driving over to Russellville on that Sunday morning.  It seemed so weird to be missing church, and every time I drove past a church with a full parking lot, I felt a little guilty.  This was really going to be different; I was truly on my own for the first time, would have a roommate that I had never seen before in my life, and would be living in a town I'd never been to before.  Let the adventure begin...

Monday, August 8, 2011

Excuse Me, Ma'am. Would You Like To Buy A Subscription To Ladies Home Journal?

The man standing in front of Noyce Bruton's Agri class held up a beautiful, brand new shotgun.  "This," he said proudly, "is the grand prize.  The person who sells the most magazines will win this shotgun!"  An audible intake of breath was heard all across the classroom of ninth grade boys.

Technically, we weren't even in FFA.  That year, the rules had changed and no one younger than tenth grade could join FFA, or Future Farmers of America.  We found this out on the first day of class, which resulted in a crushing sense of disappointment for me.  While I did not aspire to be a Farmer at any point in the Future, I did aspire to wear one of those blue corduroy jackets, and I also aspired to travel on a school bus to the Arkansas State Fair in Little Rock.  When I found out that neither of these worthy options would be available to me, I began to regret my decision to take Agri in the first place.  To further complicate matters, I had heard from someone that in order to belong to FFA, you would be required to raise a calf.  I immediately saw the impracticality of this, since I lived in town and had no space available for bovine housing.  So, I was having doubts about the whole Agri thing.

But then we heard about the magazine sales.  The FFA was conducting a magazine sale fundraiser, and in a moment of grand generosity, had decided to let the ninth graders help raise the money needed to send them all to Little Rock for the fair.  So, Mr. Magazine Guy made a presentation to our class.  First he showed a collection of the fine publications we would be making available to the populace of Waldron.  But most of his time was spent going over the prizes we would win for selling subscriptions to those publications.  He started with the most basic of prize incentives, the Throwing Dagger.  The Throwing Dagger was a thin piece of steel designed to be aerodynamicly hurled through the air at your enemy.  Well, technically, at a target, but you never knew, really, and no harm in being prepared.  Selling a mere two magazine subscriptions would get you the Throwing Dagger.  From there, the prizes got progressively more desirable; a pocket knife, a hunting knife, machete, on up to the vaulted shotgun.

At the end of the presentation, the enthusiasm was palpable.  We were all handed a little book that listed and described the magazines that were available, along with a supply of order forms, carbonless sets of paper which allowed us to give the customer a copy and keep one to turn in.  In order to make sure that we got credit for our sale, the bottom portion of the form had a place to put our name and school.  So, always practical, I went ahead and wrote my name on all ten of my forms.  No need to keep the customer waiting while I do paperwork, right?

That evening, I and my friends Randy Bottoms and Bruce Keener dispersed throughout the neighborhood, knocking on doors.  Since our neighbors knew us, they generally opened the door, and a few even thumbed through the little book.  But no takers.  Realizing the need to branch out, I suggested that we go down to Church Street and try some of the houses there.  Since this neighborhood was not normally part of our world, we had even less success there.  Finally, the gathering darkness required that we head home; a disappointing day to say the least.

The next morning, Randy and Bruce both had success to report; they had sold magazine subscriptions to their parents.  I, unfortunately, did not have the same luck.  Money was tight, and although my parents wanted to help me, a subscription to a magazine was not realistic.  So, I continued to knock on a few doors after school each day, but it soon became apparent to me that I was really having difficulty moving this particular product.

At the end of the week, Mr. Bruton started figuring how many magazines had been sold.  We still had a week to go, but some of the boys had already exhausted their supply of order forms.  Mr. Bruton asked if any of us had any forms that we didn't think we'd need.  I tried to sink as low in my seat as I could, and avoided eye contact with Mr. Bruton.  I, who had already written my name at the bottom of all ten of my never to be used forms, did not want it known that I had unused forms available.

Both Randy and Bruce managed to sell enough magazine subscriptions to get the Throwing Dagger, but I ended my two weeks with net sales of zero.  I just hoped that if I were ever attacked, Randy or Bruce would be there to lay a little Throwing Dagger action on the perpetrator.

But, Agri ended up being one of the best courses I ever took in High School.  I was actually quite interested in learning things that Future Farmers needed to know, and I still recall that the Ohio Improved Chester, or the OIC as we professionals call it, is an exceptionally good breed of pig.  And, should I ever become a cattle rancher, Limousins are a mighty fine choice.  Of course, if I were more interested in dairy farming, I'd be looking for some Guernseys or maybe Jerseys.  We also learned how to wire a simple electrical circuit, as well as how to arc weld and gas weld.  In fact, not to brag, but when Mr. Bruton took a sledge hammer to break apart the metal plates that we welded together so that they could be used again, the two that Lonnie McKay and I had welded together were completely impervious to the sledge hammer.

So, while a career in sales was not in my future, I possibly could have made it in the welding industry.  But, I ended up being a teacher, which didn't require either of those skills.  But, I'm kind of thinking about asking Marilyn if maybe I could get a little calf to raise...

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Week That Changed Waldron

I'd never before asked for any time off from my after school job at B&B Drug, so it was with a little bit of hesitation that I approached Bill Black, the pharmacist and owner.  "Bill," I stammered, "would it be okay with you if I left work tonight at 7:00 instead of 7:30?  I'd kind of like to go over to that revival at the Baptist Church."

Well, Bill had heard about the revival.  Practically everybody in town had heard about it.  He smiled and said, "That will be fine Bill.  A lot of you young folks are going, aren't you?" 

"Yes, I guess it's kind of swept through the school.  I haven't had a chance to go yet, but I know a lot of kids who have and they said it's pretty neat."

Bill smiled again.  "That's great," he said.  "That's great."

And it was great.  I didn't normally attend the Baptist Church, but during that week in 1973, labels were unimportant.  Something clicked.  People who were searching started to find answers.  People who were hurting started to find comfort.  And I'm talking about High School People, who had carefully built up a wall around their emotions, who, like most High School People, worked very hard to NOT show any vulnerability.  People who had pretty much convinced themselves that they were in this alone began to find out that they really weren't. 

It started with an assembly at school. The First Baptist Church in town had arranged for a couple of young men from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia to conduct a series of services aimed at youth, and had arranged for them to make a presentation to the students.  Marilyn Oliver Sitzes recalls:

The two young pastors names were Greg Kirksey, who is now one of the pastors at Rock Creek in Little Rock, and Gary Turner. Gary last pastored Third Street Baptist Church in Arkadelphia. I believe he died several years ago. I remember that they alternated preaching and leading the singing. I remember that they came to the school and invited kids to come and they came. I remember everyone being so excited, with high attendance.

People really were excited.  The services were much discussed around the halls of WHS, and those of us who hadn't attended yet began to feel like we were really missing something.  Each day throughout the week, more and more people had stories to tell about attending the revival.  And not just attending; each day brought a new story of classmates who had gone to the revival and made a dramatic change in their lives.

One of the best stories came from Eddie Saucier.  Eddie got in on the revival early, and it impacted his life perhaps more than that of any other WHS classmate.  This is what Eddie related about that time:

I remember of course that the First Baptist Church of Waldron invited two youngsters, one whose name was Greg and another, of whom my only remaining memory is that he drove a fine yellow car, to be the guest preachers for a "Youth Revival." Of course in my mind both were experienced and sophisticated beyond imagination, otherwise why would such a fine church and a school let them talk to us all week? In truth Greg was just beginning his collegiate studies, and yellow car was still in high school. At least that's what I remember.

I also remember that both of these young firebrands were kind and generous. Strangely I remember almost nothing that either of them said from the pulpit of the First Baptist Church, but I do remember their conduct among us, for it was exemplary at every point. It was the two of them that caused me finally to decide to pursue vocational ministry, a notion I had long considered but had nearly dismissed due to my complete inability to relate to the role as a sixteen-year-old. I don't know if I owe them or if they owe me!

Far more important than these facts (as I remember them anyway), was the difference that week brought to us as a community. Naturally it didn't last forever, but for a week at least it seemed that parents and their kids cared about the same things and each other, teachers and students looked upon each other with a greater acceptance and appreciation than was customary, and the people of our community in general were on our best behavior. It didn't reach everyone, but it did reach a lot of people, and I've always considered myself fortunate to have been numbered among them. And it wasn't perfect either--of that I'm certain--but it was good, very good.

And it didn't end when the revival ended.  A group of high school students arranged to have access to the school auditorium every day during lunch, and every day held a Bible study there.  This continued, I believe, for the rest of the year.  And not to imply that Waldron High School became Utopia, because it didn't, but there was a genuine sense of peace and calm that permeated everything for the rest of that school year. 

Marilyn Oliver Sitzes was able to put me in contact with Rev. Greg Kirksey, one of those two young people from Ouachita Baptist University who came to Waldron to conduct the revival.  Greg very graciously sent along this message:

It was an extraordinary week that I will never forget. We preachers tend to use the language like “God used me” or “God spoke through me” or “God moved in our midst”  so frequently and flippantly that no one really pays attention. But that is exactly what happened in Waldron that week. God USED me and Gary as His messengers that week. He SPOKE through us....but most importantly God MOVED in our midst in a way that defies any human explanation. Teenagers who began the week defiant and determined to continue their sinful choices of smoking marijuana and drinking and encouraging others to do so melted under the searing presence of our Holy God and repented and became compliant to His will and way. Lives were CHANGED.....FOREVER! It swept over the entire city. I’ve never personally seen anything like it before or since.

Eddie Saucier picks up the story:

I've been a part of only a few occasions in the years since that have reminded me of that week in Waldron, Arkansas, and try as I might I can find no common ground to explain what happened that may have precipitated any of them. It seems simply that the divine presence purposefully distilled among us in spite of ourselves, and we were allowed a brief visitation with the possibilities of what could be if we were willing to allow it.

I think that's the lesson I've been learning all of my life, Bill. If we would allow him to do so God would tear down all the walls of hate, prejudice, and intolerance that we've built in his name and replace those barriers with bridges that we could use to reach people in his name. I know it can happen for at least a week, because I was there and I saw it happen. I've never forgotten it, and, old age and dementia not withstanding, I can't imagine that I ever will.

Me either, Eddie.  And isn't it about time for another week like that?