Excerpts from THE OLD MAN'S LETTERS

NEIGHBORS

May 12, 1985

Today, the majority of the land in and around our area no longer consists of large ranches and farms, but is more a mosaic of small ownerships.

In years past, the only sound you heard from your neighbors was an occasional gunshot. Today many, if not most, homesteads are close enough together for you to hear your neighbors arguing over who was supposed to take out the trash. I don't care much for that. It's not what I came to Arkansas for.

The piece of property your mother and I recently purchased in Nunley is big enough to insulate us on three sides. The land bordering the north corner, however, is within a few hundred yards of the house, and it has recently come up for sale. We're not sure we can afford to buy the property, but we're a little concerned about having a Louisiana or Texas version of "The Honeymooners" settling in next to us. If the truth be known, I'm not sure I want anyone buying that land.

The other day I was preparing to mow our lawn when I saw a pick up truck stop on the road by the real estate sign at the edge of the north pasture. A man and a woman got out, talking, gesturing toward the property for sale. I decided I needed a plan. I slapped my hat on backwards, hopped on the mower and drove it out to where the people were standing.

"Afternoon," I said in my best hayseed dialect as I turned off the mower. "Couldn't help but notice you all stopped on the road. You folks got car problems? Anything I can do for y'all?"

"No," replied the man. "We're just looking at this piece of property."

"Yep, yep," I said, nodding my head like a cupie doll, "Pretty enough piece of land. It'd sure be nice to have neighbors again. The last folks were only there two months before they drove off with their trailer and put the place up for sale."

"Two months?" the fellow said. "How come?"

"Ticks, least that's what I heard. Ticks the size of golf balls. One of them unexplained phenomenons, like the lemmings. Huge things, suck a full-grown coon dog dry quicker than you can spit. Property's loaded with 'em. I guess it could have something to do with the toxic waste."

"Toxic waste?" the man said, his voice rising slightly.

"It's only a rumor, probably not a shred of truth to it. 'Course that could explain why the last owner lost all his hair and got all blotchy-looking."

At the mention of ticks and toxic waste, the woman was already shuffling backwards. The man held his ground, not ready to be intimidated yet. I moved into phase two. Without warning I put my fingers to my mouth and gave a loud whistle. The woman flinched like she'd been shot. On cue, Mac, my 140 pound Rottweiler came bounding toward us from the house. A dog that size running at you is an impressive sight. The woman was already moving around to her side of the truck and the door. The guy hesitantly took two steps backwards and rested his hand on the door handle. Grabbing Mac by the collar as he braked in front of the truck I said congenially, "Hope you folks like dogs. We raise a few of these fellas in the pens behind the house." (We don't, of course, but the statement had the desired effect.) "They don't usually get out," I added, "but if they do, just keep your cats and small children inside 'til we catch 'em."

"Yeah, real nice piece of property," I said again, "'cept when the creek floods."

"When the creek floods?" the man asked. "There's no creek on this property."

I smiled sagely. "You haven't seen it rain around here, buddy. What isn't hilltop is creek. I don't mind the water much but all them dern cottonmouths...."

"Snakes?" his wife said shrilly from the other side of the truck.

"I wouldn't worry about 'em, ma'am," I said. "The bite's not usually fatal. You'll swell up like a toad and turn purple as a bruised plum for a bit, and they may have to cut out a hunk of flesh where the fangs got you, but you'll be okay. Here, I'll show ya what a bite looks like," I said, reaching for my belt buckle. "I was answering the call of nature a couple months ago and one got me right on the ol' backside."

"No, No!" they replied in harmony, the woman retreating to her seat in the truck. The guy had opened his door and was standing behind it now, beginning to lose some of his composure.

"Not sure this is the piece we want," he said. "We're really just looking."

"Well, I'd be glad to walk you through it, show you where the boundaries are," I replied. "Pretty important that you know where your property lines, cause the fellas that own the land west of here grow some things in the woods they don't want people botherin' with, if you know what I mean."

"Maybe some other time," said the fellow as his wife dragged him into the cab. "But thanks for all your help, just the same."

"Anytime, anytime at all," I replied with a toothy grin. "Y'all come back, now."

Lord, I just hate myself when I get devious--but it's so much fun.


THE LOVE OF THE LAND

Aug. 4, 1985

When I was younger and my folks owned a small ranch in Kansas, I remember my mother good-naturedly chiding my father for always finding something to tinker with on the property, from checking the cattle, or mending a fence, to trimming a fruit tree. He would explain to her (and to me) that his love of the outdoors, and in particular, his affection for that small 40 acre square of earth with its gnarled oak trees, gentle, grassy knolls, and rugged, old barns struck a chord within him that satisfied his most intrinsic needs.

He was bonded to that land, welded to it like the roots of the trees that held the soil in place on the dusty summer hillsides. He'd walk the fields until sunset, mending, pruning and sometimes just placidly observing the wonders of the seasons nature provided him, and there was always a quiet sense of peace about him when he came in for the evening. I didn't understand that then, but I do now.

As you know, a few months ago we bought a piece of property just outside of Mena, 15 acres of tree-shrouded, rolling hills, and pasture as green as any Irish clover. A small clear-water creek wanders through the center, close enough to the porch of the farmhouse that you can hear the water dancing on the rocks in the still evenings. Now I understand what my father felt.

There are many different kinds of ownership, from possession for the simple sake of having, which satisfies only ego, to the deep-seated innate love of something that doesn't simply belong to us, but that we belong to. Some things we possess and some things possess us. Every time I plant a new tree on that precious piece of land that I belong to, I understand my father better.

In the evenings, when the sun has breached the tall pines that stand like sentinels at the edge of the pasture, and the whippoorwills greet the coming night, I watch the fireflies make magic in the still darkness, and eventually I hear your mother, Bonnie, calling to me from the front porch.

As I begin to walk back toward the house, I am once again reminded how much I've become like that gentle man who gave me his love of the land.


ATTENTION SHOPPERS

Sept.19, 1985

Every once in a while something happens that is just so much better than anything I could invent, I just have to shake my head in wonder and smile in appreciation of the devil's sense of humor. Now this story is true, I swear. It may however, have been embellished somewhat by the time it reached me, but it was so good by then that it required little artistic license on my part. This is the tale as I heard it....

A woman went grocery shopping at one of the stores in Polk County, one of those super-sized places that ends with a "Mart." When she finished her shopping she returned to the car, put her groceries in the back seat, got in behind the wheel and relaxed for a moment while waiting for her son, who was still in the store. Time passed, it was a hot day....

A little while later, a fellow who had just left the store was walking through the parking lot when he heard someone cry out. He looked over and observed the lady behind the wheel of her car, writhing and moaning loudly, holding the back of her head with her hands. He rushed over and knocked on her window, asking if he could be of assistance. She--or he--managed to get the door open, but at that point the lady was nearing hysterics.

"Help me! Help me!" she cried. "Call the police! I've been shot in the back of the head!" The man's first response was to reach forward to examine the wound, but the lady pulled back screaming, "No! No! Don't touch me! I'm holding my brains in with my hands! Please, please, call the police now!"

Who would have ever thought? An innocent soul shot while waiting at a store in our quiet little county! What is this world coming to? The man, quite unnerved, dashed off to the pay phone and called for an ambulance. Within minutes the ambulance and the police arrived, prepared for the worst, searching for the sniper, the point of entry, and looking for the blood...but there wasn't any. Nope, no crazed gunman, no shattered windows or rendered flesh, no gore. When they calmed the woman down enough to examine her, they discovered that while she waited for her son, a package of refrigerated biscuits in the backseat had warmed to critical mass and exploded, the contents of which slammed her in the back of the head. Yes, you heard right, struck down in her prime by a biscuit-bullet, a gooey projectile of Pillsbury's best that had smacked her hard enough to jiggle her eyeballs. (I swear I'm not making this up.) Those precious brains she was attempting to keep from draining out of her cranium were nothing more than the Doughboy's buttermilks!

Now I have to wonder what was going through the lady's mind (or what was left of it, as she perceived it) as she attempted to squeeze the biscuit/brains back into her head. Did it occur to her at any time that she was remarkably lucid for having the better part of her grey matter oozing through her fingers and dripping down the headrest? Did she notice at all that her brains seemed a little chilled? Well, these questions and many more we'll probably never have answers to, disappointing as it is. But I felt the tale itself was worth the telling.

In closing, let me leave you with the moral of this little story. It just goes to show you that you have to be careful out there, because calamity can rise up at anytime and strike you when you yeast expect it....

Back