Natalie Canerday: An Arkansas Natural

By Denise White Parkinson

Actress Natalie Canerday

Actress Natalie Canerday

Natalie Canerday—stage and screen actress, comedienne, postmodern Southern Belle—is not so much elusive as just plain busy. Catching up with the divine Ms. Nat is a gratifying experience; only do not attempt to find her on Facebook, Twitter, or via email. “I don’t own a computer,” she confesses, grinning.

Ms. Canerday is therefore best appreciated in person, old-school, where her flashing dark eyes and smoky-molasses drawl can be fully enjoyed. Over the past two years, she has completed three films, a television pilot, two webisodes and a play about iconic Arkansas photographer Mike Disfarmer. Earlier this summer, she joined an ensemble cast for the Rep’s production of August, Osage County.

But as there is no use trying to rush Natalie Canerday (as we chat, she is making a cake from scratch) we must begin at the beginning: A native of Russellville (“God’s Country,” she interjects), Natalie got her first break performing at Dogpatch USA, the Ozark mountain theme park based on long-running comic strip “Li’l Abner.”

Nat dogpatch bw - Copy (791x1024)

With news of the property’s sale to a motivated owner, generations of Arkansans are expressing hope of a hill-country renaissance. Natalie counts herself firmly among the optimists wanting the park to prosper, in whatever form it takes. Dogpatch was pure-D fun, after all.

“I was a senior in high school when mother saw they were holding auditions for characters at Dogpatch,” Natalie recalls. “I worked up a song from Oklahoma (‘I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No’) and a few bars into it, I forgot the words!”

Instead of freezing in panic, she sashayed up to the man accompanying on piano. “I got behind him so I could cheat and read the words on the sheet music,” she laughs. “I began rubbing his bald head as I sang.” She won the part.

Natalie as "Moonbeam McSwine" posing next to Pappy Yoakum, circa 1981

Natalie as “Moonbeam McSwine” posing next to Pappy Yoakum, circa 1981

As the youngest performer of the 1980 summer season, Natalie embarked on an adventure. For young’uns who did not have the good fortune to experience Dogpatch USA during its wild and wacky heyday, a brief intro: the 800-acre theme park near Harrison, Arkansas, based on Al Capp’s long-running comic strip, was a destination from the late 1960s until its closure in 1993. Since that time, the abandoned site has attracted intrepid photographers and indie filmmakers that venture into the hills to capture its eerily beautiful landscape.

But the summer of 1980 saw the place in full swing, with amusement rides, musical shows, non-stop roving skits and improvisational performance featuring characters led by Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae. (A thesis could be written on the significance of Li’l Abner’s and Daisy Mae’s archetypal foreshadowing of Jethro Bodine and Ellie Mae Clampett, but probably never will.) Harrison, Arkansas, and surrounding hamlets were amply rewarded for embracing Dogpatch’s hillbilly caricatures as tourism boomed, boosting the local economy.

By the time senior prom arrived, Natalie had been commuting to perform on weekends for over a month. After high school graduation she went full-time at the park. It soon became apparent that the summer of 1980 would go down as the hottest in Arkansas history. Natalie, with trademark enthusiasm, welcomed this trial by fire.

“I drove up in my ‘76 Monte Carlo,” she says. “They housed us in a little circular trailer park called Rock Candy Mountain—honey, it was smaller than any dorm room. All the performers stayed there. The others were in graduate school from Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere. At night, it was cool—they’d sit on the steps drinking, singing songs and playing guitar.” Natalie, all of 18 and away from home for the first time, was captivated by the atmosphere of laid-back creativity.

“That first year I was Dateless Brown—she carried a shotgun looking for a husband,” she explains. Lugging around a heavy antique rifle as a prop, Dateless Brown roamed the park searching for unwary little boys. “If they looked like they still thought girls had cooties, I’d come up to them and say ‘hey little feller, wanna get hitched?’ and make smooching sounds,” she says. The boys would run off screaming in terror and delight.

The following summer, five days a week, she portrayed Moonbeam McSwine, sort of a hillbilly Veronica to Daisy Mae’s blonde Betty. Every sixth day, Natalie played “Nightmare Alice,” the witch of Dogpatch. “I had so much fun—I carried a rubber snake and leather pouch full of potions and things, blacked out my front teeth,” she chuckles. “As Moonbeam, though, I was all pretty and made up.”

By the time Natalie entered Hendrix College she was “pretty wild,” she recalls. In the 1980s at Hendrix, however, that just meant she was in good company. She studied theatre but maintains that she learned everything she knows about staying in character during those sweltering Dogpatch summers, where heat stroke was a daily occurrence and the whole place, from town square to train depot and lake, was a theatre in the round.

“You could never break character, no matter if the train jumped the track (the heat kept loosening the rails) or if someone fainted,” she muses. “You couldn’t stop to tie your shoe, much less adjust your bloomers or wipe away sweat. Dogpatch was also the biggest influence on my accent—thanks, Al Capp!” She remains in touch with fellow character James White, formerly the Shmoo, now associate editor of the Harrison Daily Times. “We bonded because James was one of the few kids my age. He toured Dogpatch with the new owner, and wrote that it’s in better shape than he thought it would be.”

At Harrison’s annual Women of Distinction awards banquet, Natalie was invited to be guest speaker (“comic relief,” she interjects). The organizers wanted her to share how Dogpatch influenced her career. “Afterward, every single person came up to me with some kind of connection with or good memory of Dogpatch,” she recalls. “People in the region know that back in the 1970s-80s, Dogpatch was a bigger draw than Branson and Silver Dollar City. It really affected the economy when that place closed. At one point I even dreamed about buying Dogpatch. I wanted it to become an artists’ colony—the Sundance of the South!”

After performing in plays in college, joining the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and taking off a year to work, she received her Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Hendrix. Her leap from the stage to the big screen soon came with roles in Biloxi Blues, Walk the Line and One False Move. When she joined the cast of a film written and directed by fellow Arkansan Billy Bob Thornton, she became part of the legend that is Sling Blade.

Winner of the 1996 Academy Award for best adapted screenplay, Sling Blade remains a cult classic. As the beleaguered mom in the movie, Natalie endured the abuse of her sinister boyfriend Doyle, played by Dwight Yoakam. Sling Blade’s cast, which also included Robert DuVall and John Ritter, was nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Cast in a Motion Picture (1996).

The film October Sky followed, in which Natalie starred with Laura Dern and a teenage Jake Gyllenhaal. Eventually, returning to Arkansas and the stage was, for her, the natural thing to do—Hollywood could only compare for so long with “God’s Country.” She says, “I’ve filmed in nine states but my favorite is Arkansas. There’s a ‘let’s all pitch in and put on a show’ vibe here that you cannot find anywhere else.” She’s the go-to gal for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and Murry’s Dinner Playhouse, and currently splits her time between film locations, Little Rock and the family spread in Russellville, home to her biggest fan: Mom. She lost her other biggest fan—her father—three years ago.

When her father Don got sick, Natalie says, “I literally dropped out of a play at Murry’s and came home and kept Daddy for the next five months. He lasted longer than anybody thought he would. I’m a Pisces; we’re natural nurses… but it was hard.” Her mother, Nancy Canerday, was in the audience for the Argenta Community Theatre premier of Disfarmer, written by Natalie’s fellow Hendrix alum Werner Treischmann and directed by the repertory’s Bob Hupp. Natalie stole the show as a downtrodden “ordinary woman” doing her best not to lose her sense of humor during the not-so-great Depression.

Despite a broken ankle sustained in a fall from Murry’s Dinner Playhouse stage, Natalie proved the show must go on by appearing in Valley Inn, a film shot on location in Hindsville, Arkansas. In the film, Natalie plays the innkeeper, starring with fellow Arkansas luminaries Joey Lauren Adams and Mary Steenburgen, who cameos with Kris Allen on a song he wrote especially for the film: “Love in a Small Town.”

with fellow Arkansas actor/producer Joey Lauren Adams on the set of Valley Inn

with fellow Arkansas actor/producer Joey Lauren Adams on the set of Valley Inn

Writer/director Kim Swink, who grew up in the area, partnered with Arkansas producer Kerri Elder to tell a story of a town that, like so many rural areas, struggles to regain its footing after being stranded on the downside of a new highway. Just in time for the shoot, life imitated art: a couple bought the real Valley Inn and reopened its cherished restaurant—even the area’s legendary pie lady returned, bringing the Valley Inn Café back to its former glory. Currently touring the indie film festival circuit, Valley Inn is described by IMDB.com as “a love letter to small-town America.”

Natalie’s other recent films include The Grace of Jake, starring Jake LaBotz and Jordin Sparks, written and directed by Forrest City native Chris Hicky and shot on location in Forrest City in 2013; and All the Birds Have Flown South, filmed in Benton in January, 2014.

“The motel where we shot it was where the cast and crew of Sling Blade stayed,” marvels Natalie. “I texted Billy Bob to let him know I was having a flashback!” Written, directed and produced by brothers Josh and Miles Miller of Benton, the film also features Joey Lauren Adams and Paul Sparks of Boardwalk Empire. Afterward, Natalie headed for the Ouachita Mountains to film the television pilot Catch ‘Em Lane with world champion Bass Master Mark Davis, a native of Mount Ida.

As Natalie Canerday has matured in her craft, gracing Arkansas with inimitable style, the impish twinkle in her brown eyes has only deepened along with her voice’s uniquely husky purr. She can go from flirty to feisty to fierce in a split second, and everyone blessed to work with or know her adores her as a treasure akin to the Murfreesboro diamond. The following summation came to Natalie suddenly, while she was mixing the cake batter:

“I’ve been so very lucky… I’ve worked at Dogpatch; done Shakespeare, and I’ve stripped in a wheelchair live on stage. In films I got to be sweet and hateful; I got to die of neuropathy and have a cult following thanks to Sling Blade. I am the luckiest girl in showbiz.”

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(photo of Natalie Canerday chilling at a shindig for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute taken by Dee, her blondest fan!)

Helen of the White River: a play in three acts based on the life of Helen Spence, 1912-1934

Helen of the White River

A play in three acts based on the life of Helen Ruth Spence, 1912-1934

by Denise White Parkinson

adapted from my book

adapted from my book

CHARACTERS:

Spirit of Hattie Caraway, first female Senator elected in the U.S.

Helen Spence, a girl from the White River Delta

Jasper, a tow-headed country boy

LC Brown and John Black, elderly men

LC Brown as a child (played by same actor as Jasper)

Miz Brockman, warden of Arkansas’s Women’s Prison, aka the Pea Farm (played by same actress portraying Hattie Caraway)

V.O. Brockman, her husband, assistant superintendent of the Women’s Prison
Will Brockman, their 20-year-old son

Frank Martin, 30-year-old trusty guard at Pea Farm; a convicted murderer

The White River, longest river in Arkansas (~700 miles)

The Tree: representing simultaneously the red cedar planted at Helen Spence’s grave, the shade tree in front of the Big House at the Pea Farm, and the tree beside the well.

Setting: Arkansas, from the Crash of 1929 to the ensuing Great Depression and afterward, since as the saying goes, “there’s always a Depression in Arkansas.” The stage holds a large panel on casters. One side of the panel depicts a river scene; the other side, a well. During the prison scene, the panel is hidden offstage or draped; for the scene at John Black’s place, a card table and chairs are present. In foreground, stage left, a tall tree remains throughout scene changes. Green cushions around the tree suggest flora.
PLACE:
An old well next to a tree in rural North Pulaski County, Arkansas, several miles from Arkansas’s Women’s Prison, aka The Pea Farm.
TIME:
Just before dawn, July 11, 1934
ACT 1
SCENE 1
At Rise: Music plays and fades, Claude Debussy’s “Maid with the Flaxen Hair,” as images from the White River project onto the walls: houseboats, steamboats, bridges, ferries, giant trees; a watercolor portrait of a Quapaw Brave. The spirit of Hattie Caraway enters stage right, in her hand a lantern uplifted in the pre-dawn darkness, searching. She does not notice Helen Spence asleep under the tree.
Hattie Caraway:
I swan to my time! You’d think after being in the hereafter for so long, my eyes would improve. I don’t even know why I came back here. I can’t change what will happen. It just hits me on the soft side of the heart to think of that poor young girl being hunted down like a wild animal. Even if she is what they call a River Rat, no child deserves ill treatment. When I was elected, I learnt right quick that even the first woman in the United States Senate gets treated like a common River Rat—at least in the halls of Congress. They sat me in the very last row of the chamber; called me “Silent Hattie.” Well what did those men expect, that I would holler down front from the back of the room like a heathen?
But y’all know from sitting in the back pew at church: you can see everything from there. And I saw it all: Senators absent for votes, showing up drunk, sleeping at their desks—during the height of the Great Depression! It was shameful. There I was up in Washington doing my level best to bring Mr. Roosevelt’s New Deal to Arkansas, and all the while, a terrible injustice was taking place back home. A poor girl thrown into prison, and for what? For taking the law into her own hands. Why, in our nation’s capital, I saw countless men day in and day out take the law into their own hands—and reward themselves handsomely for doing so. What was it that spiteful old hillbilly governor said? Oh yes, Governor Futrell, another fine Arkansas politician, he said, “The poor are not worth the powder and lead it would take to blow out their brains.” Guess what? I have it on good authority that Governor Futrell is going straight to perdition when he dies. In fact, he’s there already.
At least Helen Spence will die free. No prison can hold her. Ladies and gentlemen, if you happen to see a little lost houseboat girl with dark hair and big brown eyes—would you be so kind to tell her Miz Hattie Caraway sends her regards and will find her in the hereafter, on the other side, where there is no such thing as Time. Thank you.
[EXIT STAGE RIGHT]
[lights up] Sunrise reveals Helen asleep under the tree. She is dressed in the canvas pants and blue shirt of the field crew, with a red bandanna around her neck and a black felt hat currently in use as a pillow. The well occupies center stage. Jasper enters stage right, carrying a cane pole and some tackle.
Jasper
[whistling] Bet it’s one of them convicts run off from the Pea Farm. She don’t look too dangerous. Hey, wake up!
Helen
I was dreaming I was back on the river. Little boy, is the river right near?
Jasper
The Arkansas River ain’t too far from here.
Helen
I have to get home to the White River. It’s a long way… I’m so thirsty. Can you give me some water?
Jasper
Yes ma’am, I was coming to this well for a drink myself. Are you all right? Somebody after you?
Helen
[drinks from cup] Thank you—my daddy used to say, if you can’t get spring water, well water does just fine.
Jasper
[drinks from cup] I’m going fishing; guess I better head on.

Helen
Wait—what’s your name?
Jasper
Jasper.
Helen
That’s a funny name!
Jasper
Well it ain’t nothing to laugh at. Good day, ma’am.
Helen
Wait—Jasper. Don’t run off. You remind me of someone I knew back home. Pleased to meet you, my name’s Helen Spence. I got lost in the dark and I don’t have my medicine. Would you sit with me a minute while I catch my breath? [They sit on edge of stage, legs dangling]
Jasper
Medicine? You got a fever?
Helen
The doctor says I have to take the digitalis for my heart. I get weak spells—but it’ll be all right, once’t I get back on the river. I’m going to live with my Uncle. He’s got a houseboat near St. Charles. He’s a mussel-sheller, mainly.

Jasper
Is mussel a sort of clam?
Helen
Yes. Here—it’s the last one I have but I’ll be getting more soon’s I get home. They didn’t find it on me because I had it stitched into the hem. That way, I could always have the river near.
Jasper
What is that?
Helen
A pearl, a freshwater pearl from the White River. Help me stand up, I think I feel better now. [Faints]
Jasper
Now what the heck am I s’posed to do with a convict? And a dang pearl?
[lights down]

SCENE 2
Place
Arkansas Women’s Prison, aka “The Pea Farm,” a disgrace of an institution located in the countryside north of the Arkansas River, just a few miles the other side from Little Rock, the Capitol City.
Time
October 11, 1932: the day Helen comes to the Pea Farm, sentenced to prison for killing the man who shot her father.
At rise: Mr. and Mrs. Brockman are standing by the tree waiting for Helen Spence to arrive. Miz Brockman fans herself with a paper fan from a local funeral home.
Miz Brockman
I don’t know why we have to take her here. They should have sent her to the State Hospital for Nervous Diseases. Everybody knows River Rats are all crazy or degenerates or both.
V.O. Brockman
There’s been a lot of newspaper stories about this girl. She could be trouble.
Miz Brockman
Here come Will and Frank now. Let me do the talking. If she’s a pretty one you better keep your mouth shut, hear?
[enter stage right Will Brockman, Frank Martin and Helen Spence.]
Will
We brung you a present, Ma. She’s just a li’l cigar-nub of a gal, but plenty feisty.
V.O. Brockman
Come on boys, I think Ma can handle ‘er.
[men exit stage left]
Helen
Looks like the geese are heading back…
Miz Brockman
You will receive your clothes after you’ve been checked in and de-loused.
Helen
But I don’t have any lice on me, ma’am, I promise.
Miz Brockman
Nonsense. After the de-lousing, you will be assigned to a bunk and you will report to the line.
Helen
The line? Like a trot-line, ma’am?
Miz Brockman
This is a farm. You will be hoeing potatoes with the other girls.
Helen
Oh. Well I’m sure I can manage. I was picturing a trot-line, you see—back on the river, we—
Miz Brockman
Miss Spence, you are no longer on the river. You are at the state Women’s Prison, for killing a man.

Helen
Mr. George Hartje, the prosecuting attorney, says not to worry, that he’ll help me get a parole, he—
Miz Brockman
Try to understand, Miss Spence, none of that matters at all. What matters is: are you going to make trouble, or are you going to be a good girl? The fact that you are here suggests you are a bad girl. I cannot be your friend, but I can damn sure be your worst enemy. Don’t try me or your life will become a living hell, I promise you.
Helen
Yes ma’am.
Miz Brockman
And all your pretty pictures in the paper—all those stories on the front page—that doesn’t get you any special treatment here. Here, you are nothing—got it? Nothing except whatever we say you are.
Helen
Yes ma’am. Your house sure is pretty.
Miz Brockman
It’s one of the finest structures in the county. We have the only telephone for miles. But you won’t be making any calls. And believe me, the only part of that house you will ever see is the basement, and you don’t want to go there.

Helen
Why, what’s down in the basement?

Miz Brockman
Make trouble and you will find out, my dear. Now, come along to the showers.
[exit stage left]
SCENE 3
Place:
The White River at St. Charles, Arkansas. Two old men, LC Brown and John Black, sit at a table. John Black is very frail.
Time:
Midafternoon, autumn, 1978.
At rise: The two friends are having coffee.
LC Brown
Looks like the ducks and geese are heading back to the river.
John Black
Remember when we’s kids, the sky used to turn dark there was so many of ‘em.

LC Brown
Look here, John, why’d you call me out here again? It’s a long drive from my place and your cookin’ ain’t that great.
John Black
I wanted to talk to you about something. I’m dying, LC. Now, it ain’t so much about that. It’s about I need to tell you a secret’s been burning a hole in me for years. I never told anybody, not even my wife.
LC Brown
Well, all right John.
John Black
You remember Helen Spence.
LC Brown
We grew up together, how could I forget? What a shame that was. They say the trusty guard took the rap for killing her—they say he died in his sleep.
John Black
Frank Martin. Damned Drylander. I heard a different story.
LC Brown
You heard it too? After Frank Martin got paroled, he went around bragging he was the one shot the notorious Helen Spence. Then one day he goes to buy a loaf of bread at Cloud’s Grocery, and the lady behind the counter was from the river…

John Black
The lady sold him a different loaf, said it cost less but was just as good. Frank Martin ate dinner that night and never woke up the next morning.
LC Brown
The river got him.
John Black
The river gets its revenge. Back when Helen was murdered, the year after she died, the government started kicking folks off the river. They took it over, all right. Sank our houseboats, run us off where we lived and worked. Drove us into exile.
LC Brown
Yep, now it’s just a sandbox for the Corps of Engineers to play in. But John, Helen wasn’t notorious. She’s just a little river girl.
John Black
The newspapers and magazines wrote lies about her. Her picture sold a lot of subscriptions. LC, you moved away a long time ago, but for the past fifty years I’ve been volunteer caretaker of the St. Charles cemetery. Didn’t you ever wonder why? It was so I could tend Helen’s grave. It’s time for you to see where she’s buried. It’s right near the potter’s field. I planted a cedar tree to mark the spot—damn near 30 feet tall now. And take these home with you—I’ve been saving all these old photographs and newspaper clippings. I want you to have them.
LC Brown
Why me, John?
John Black
Hell, Brown, I figure if anybody can tell Helen’s true story, it would be you. Come on now, I want to show you where she’s been sleeping all these years. [Lights down on the men, lights up on the tree]
[CURTAIN]
ACT 2
SCENE 1
Place
The White River near the bend at St. Charles, Arkansas.
Time
Summer, 1929, a few months before the stock market crash.
At rise: LC Brown as a child enters stage right. He is a towheaded boy in similar, though different clothes than Jasper and wearing a different hat. He pokes around on the ground with a stick. Helen enters stage left, sits by the tree and waves to the boy. She has longer hair and is wearing a summer dress with white fishnet stockings.
Helen
Lemuel Cressie Brown, Jr., I see you! LC Brown, do you not see me in the shade? Plenty of room for two.
Little LC
My daddy is down to the houseboat talking to your daddy. I bet it’s moonshiners again.
Helen
I’ll have no truck with bootleggers! Sheriff Lem is a-okay in my book; you can tell him I said so.
Little LC
Helen, tell me a story.
Helen
Hmmm… Ever hear of the Jenkins boys? The Jenkins boys go to the Drylander church. Every Sunday, families come from miles around in buckboard wagons, like big shoeboxes on wheels. They hitch the horses up in the shade and if a baby starts to fussin’ in church, the momma just wraps the baby up and stows it in the buckboard. The baby sleeps all tucked away, til church lets out.
Little LC
I slept in a buckboard once’t, on a quilt pallet.
Helen
Well, one Sunday, Preacher Burton was sermonizing and there had been some babies fussin’ and they were all asleep out in the wagons. The Jenkins boys got together and decided they’d switch all those babies around. So when church lets out, folks head home for Sunday dinner only to find nobody has the right baby! They got to turn around and take ‘em all back where they belong. After a few Sundays of this, those drylanders got wise and start to checking their babies before they leave.
Little LC
Tell me another one about the Jenkins boys!
Helen
[standing to act out the story]
The Jenkins boys always sit in the back pew of the drylander church. One Sunday, Preacher Burton was sermonizing and those boys start to scuffing their big ol’ boots on the floor, drowning him out. Now, Preacher Burton doesn’t say anything, but the next Sunday he shows up to preach, he takes out his Bible and sets it on the pulpit. Then he pulls out his pocket watch and sets that down beside. Then Preacher Burton takes out his pistol and lays it down, too, and he says, “I come here to preach the word of the Lord. But if anybody in the back row wants to make noise, I’ll be happy to send him to Hell!”
Little LC
[Rolls around laughing]
Helen
I like the Brush Arbors down by the river, where folks go to get baptized. Seems better than an indoor church. Here, stroll w/me a bit. Shhhh, want to see something?
Little LC
What?
Helen
[holds open a little drawstring purse] Looky here.
Little LC
You got a gun in there!?
Helen
It ain’t loaded. But I got some bullets, just in case. Daddy’s been teaching me how to shoot. Want to see something else?
Little LC
Sure!
Helen
[pulls up her skirt a little ways to show a wad of bills tucked behind her stockings] – Daddy needed a place to hide his money. That’s $300! Hey, you hungry? Miz Dupslaff makes the best bread pudding. Let’s go—she always gives me some!
Little LC
Lordy! I’d kill for some of Miz Dupslaff’s bread pudding! [exit, stage right]
[lights down]
Act 2, Scene 2
Place
The river scene.
Time
January, 1931: the day Jack Worls is standing trial for killing Helen’s father, Cicero Spence.
At rise: Helen enters stage left wearing a red velvet dress with matching cape and rabbit fur muff, paces about alone.
Helen
Daddy, I wish I didn’t have to do this, but I’m praying you will understand. Especially now that you’re up in heaven with momma. I’m about to go in the courthouse. Today’s the trial. The deputies are telling me Jack Worls might get off scot free! I don’t understand it. He already admitted he shot you! He stole everything I ever loved… They won’t even let me go back to the houseboat, they say it’s not safe, but how can any place or anyone be safe as long as that no-good Jack Worls thinks he can get away with murder? Well he won’t get away, not today, not on the River. I promise you, daddy. [pulls pistol from inside the fur muff and exits stage right].
[The sound of three shots rapidly fired. Noise of people yelling, screams. Lights down.]
Act 2, Scene 3:
Place
The well beside the tree.
Time
Moments after Helen has fainted and is starting to come to.
At rise: Jasper fans Helen with his hat and offers more water.

Helen
I must have fainted. Look what they did to my hair… they cut it all off on purpose. It’s so when folks see you working in the fields, they know you’re a troublemaker that got punished. I used to have such long hair.
Jasper
I’ve got some deer jerky, you can have it. You need it worse than I do.
Helen
Thanks, I haven’t eaten since before…since yesterday morning.
Jasper
That’s because we got Oppression in Arkansas, and it’s making folks go hungry. If it don’t rain soon daddy may have to sell another one of our cows.
Helen
Back home, the drylanders always talk about a Depression in Arkansas, but you know something? We never go hungry on the river. It’s just fish fries, frog-gigging and swimming all summer long. That, plus hunting and trapping. River Folk laugh at hunting season—huntin’ season’s just what you use to flavor the meat.
Jasper
I sure hope nobody in that house over yonder sees us sitting here. Momma says the lady that lives there is a nosy ol’ busybody. She might turn you in to the… you know.

Helen
If she knew what goes on at that place, she might not be so quick to judge.
Jasper
Whenever my sister and I get to fussin’ and fightin’, momma and daddy say “y’all settle down now or we’re sending you to the Pea Farm!”
Helen
You ain’t just a-wolfin’! I know a lady who got sent to the Pea Farm for “keeping an unruly home.”
Jasper
I best warn momma about that. Why’d you get sent there?
Helen
They’re crazy folks at the Pea Farm—Miz Brockman—she’s the warden—she made the girls plant yellow daffodils in rows, right out in front of the Big House! The Big House is where they put you over a barrel.
Jasper
A barrel? Like a pony keg or a pickle barrel, you mean? But why’d they lock you up anyhow?

Helen
For killing a man.
Jasper
Oh. Was it an accident?
Helen
[stands unsteadily and paces] He stood up in court, lying like a dog. Jack Worls was his name and he shot my daddy in cold blood during a fishing trip. Cicero Spence was the best fishing and hunting guide on the White River, and the best daddy a girl could have. Jack Worls was a no-good. So I shot him in the Arkansas County Courthouse, in front of God and everybody. Because he needed killin’.
Jasper
That beats all I ever heard! Helen—we got to hide you somewhere!
Helen
Then, they tricked me into confessing I killed another man…
Jasper
You killed another man? What for?
Helen
I said I confessed to killing him—not that I did kill him. I wanted him dead, though, sure enough. He was an awful, horrible man who did bad things.
Jasper
How’d you get away from the Pea Farm?

Helen
I just climbed the fence. The guard watched me go. It was like they were letting me escape. Not like the other times.
Jasper
How many times you escaped?
Helen
Four? Five? I don’t quite recall. But each time they catch me they give me 10 lashes with the blacksnake and lock me in the cage. I need my medicine. Maybe if I lie down for just a spell…
Jasper
Helen, don’t go to sleep again! We got to hide you. Dang! Now, what the heck is a blacksnake?
[Lights down]
Act 2, Scene 3
Place
River scene with tree.
Time
1978, the day John Black shows LC Brown where Helen is buried.
At rise: The men are standing by the tree.

John Black
So they brought her body to the funeral home and those drylanders put her on display in the winder, like she was Bonnie Parker. Folks came from miles around to see Helen Spence, the outlaw girl from the White River.
LC Brown
I remember momma was madder than a hornet about them doing that. It was the first time I ever saw my momma cry. Some folks said Helen was pregnant when she was killed, but I don’t believe that. Just hateful gossip, is what it was.
John Black
It’s a damn lie. That funeral home had her in the winder. She looked just like she was sleeping, LC, it were the damnedest thing. We brought her to the cemetery and I planted this cedar tree where we buried her. Cicero Spence is buried over there, and Helen is here. [They bow their heads]
[Helen, dressed in a red-and-white-checked gingham dress, steps from behind the tree. The men do not notice her, as she is a spirit]
Helen
I know you, John Black—but I liked to not recognize little LC Brown! Time does such funny things to people. I see him now, though—those ears!
LC Brown
John, did you hear something? Someone laughing…
Helen
John’s my buddy. Every year, on my birthday, he takes a flower from each grave and strews ‘em all beneath this red cedar tree. He waits til after sunset to do it, and right before the sun comes up, he picks ‘em all up and puts ‘em back where they belong. My birthday’s February 23rd, so sometimes the forsythia’s in bloom. Thank you, John.
John Black
You’re welcome.
LC Brown
What?
Helen
I do wish those two could see the dress I made. It took me a month to sew the gingham into the lining of my uniform. But it makes a fine disguise!
LC Brown
I used to eavesdrop a lot when I was a kid. I remember hearing momma and daddy talking one night about Helen escaping from the Pea Farm. They were saying how when she worked in the prison laundry, she stashed away a bunch of them red-and-white checkered cloth napkins and stitched ‘em to the inside of her prison dress.
John Black
That she did… Miz Brockman, the prison warden, sent some of the girls up to Memphis to prostitute ‘em out. They were doing all kinds of devilish things to gin up money for the Pea Farm. When the bus stopped off in West Memphis, Helen asked to use the ladies’ room and went in there, turned her dress inside out and just walked away.
LC Brown
But they always caught her because they knew she would head for the river.
John Black
The river gets in your blood.
Helen
I headed for the river, to breathe it and swim in it and sleep on it and dream again. I couldn’t take another lashing. The Pea Farm’s got no shade—the land is dry as buckshot clay—and every city in Arkansas smells like a cement outhouse. Even the Insane Asylum was a better place to be than the Pea Farm—Miz Brockman sent me there once because I was running her ragged with escaping. But the doctor said I wasn’t crazy, and they sent me back to the Pea Farm and locked me up in the cage. Thank goodness the other girls smuggled in some paper, so I could write a verse about how I feel. I call it “Echoes”: [dancing and twirling]
Now this is no secret ambition of mine
It’s merely to occupy some of the time.
You can’t heal the heart with no work for the hand
So I pick up my pencil and do what I can.
I’d rather be plowing or chopping down brush
Or rowing a boat in your Arkansas slush
Or scrubbing the fleas from a tiny fox dog
Or sawing and hauling a big hickory log
Or dodging the ruts in a bumpy old Ford
With oodles of kiddies on each running board
And picking them up at each turn in the road
Til Lizzy called Henry to help with her load
Or riding the trail on an old lazy mare
Now and then chasing a cottontail hare
Here and there ducking a nut thrown at me
By a nibbling squirrel that will chuckle and flee…
So here by my window I dream of it all
When shadows like these come and play on the wall
And out of the wreckage I’m forced to confess
I might build again and perhaps for the best.
[exit behind tree, stage left]
LC Brown
John, you have my word: somehow I’ll make sure Helen’s story gets told. But what do I say if folks start asking me why you kept this a secret all this time? Were y’all in love? You and Helen?
John Black
We’s just buddies, is all. Ain’t you ever had a buddy?
[lights down]
ACT 3
SCENE 1
Place
The well. Jasper is kneeling by the tree where Helen lies in a faint.
Time
July 11, 1934.
At rise: Lights down as Mr. and Mrs. Brockman enter stage right into a spotlight; she is carrying some paperwork and a pen.
Miz Brockman
You boys better find her, is all I can say. I’m looking at a letter from Mr. A.G. Stedman, superintendent of the whole prison system—says right here, “She must not escape!”
V.O. Brockman
Don’t fret, we’ll get her.
Miz Brockman
She knows all about our Memphis business. That can’t get out—I don’t care if we’re crooked as a dog’s hind leg, we ain’t going anywhere. It’s up to you and Will to see we don’t go down for this. You better not let some slut put us out of our position—little river rat thinks she knows everything. I ought to lash her myself this time.

V.O. Brockman
There’ll be no need for that. Will’s got the pistol. We’ll get her, all right.
Miz Brockman
What about Frank? He ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Did you go over the plan with him again?
V.O. Brockman
I can handle Frank. You just stay calm. Be back as soon as we got her. [exits stage right]
Miz Brockman
You went and bit off more than you could chew this time, Helen Spence. [exits stage right]
[lights up]
Jasper
Please, Helen, wake up. They bound to be looking for you!
Helen
I feel much better. Thank you for setting with me, Jasper. I think I can make it now.
Jasper
But where to? How you gonna cross the dang Arkansas River? It’s a mile wide, ain’t it?

Helen
Maybe I can find somebody with a houseboat. Wouldn’t that be something! [takes another sip from cup] This here’s the best drinking water—you won’t tell on me will you, Jasper? You’re my buddy, right?
Jasper
Cross my heart and hope to… I promise.
Helen
Here’s a Yankee dime for your trouble [kisses his cheek]. Good-bye. [exits stage left]
Jasper
Dang it, momma’s gonna want to know where this pearl come from.
V.O. Brockman
[from offstage] Hey you! Boy!
[enter stage right V.O. Brockman, Will Brockman and Frank Martin, the posse from the Pea Farm. Will carries a pistol and Frank carries a shotgun.]
V.O. Brockman
Boy, we’re on the trail of an escaped convict. You see anybody come this way?
Will Brockman
Dad, he’s acting like he’s simple-minded. Let me beat it out of him. [grabs Jasper by the shoulder] Boy, I will shake you til your damn head rattles off if you don’t talk!
Jasper
No sir, I seen nobody!
Frank Martin
Look—he’s hiding something in his hand, Mr. Brockman.
Will Brockman
Drop it! [slaps Jasper] What is it?
V.O. Brockman
It’s a pearl, a mussel-pearl like you find on the White River. Come on, boys, she can’t be far. [Will shoves Jasper to the ground and the posse exits stage left].
Jasper
Please get away, oh please get away!
[one pistol shot]
Jasper
Helen! [pulls up knees, puts head down and cries]
[lights down; spotlight on the tree, music: Maid with the Flaxen Hair.]

The end

The Eleventh Hour

Buzzy in Cherry Creek

Buzzy in Cherry Creek

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am writing to state my opposition to the project proposed by Clean Line Energy Partners, LLC (“CLEP”), which has failed to meet criteria required for the Department of Energy (“DOE”) to participate in the Plains & Eastern transmission project (“Project”) under Section 1222 of the 2005 Energy Policy Act.

The studies cited by CLEP in its updated application fail to prove there is an “actual or projected increase in demand for electric transmission capacity” satisfied by the Project. This is reinforced by the Project’s lack of subscription in the form of Power Purchase Agreements (“PPA”) or other contractual obligations. Most significantly, the entire process for this proposed project has been discriminatory from the outset.

Specifically, for a project that would create a huge corridor that cuts the state of Arkansas in half, this project has denied participation of citizens that would be affected outside the proposed corridor, which as planned would cut across every major watershed in the state.

Just as with the negative impacts resulting from the previous largest eminent domain takeover of the state’s watersheds (the Depression-era establishment of the Lower White River National Wildlife Refuge, as well as the 1938 Federal “Flood Control Act” which resulted in dams along the Upper White River) this proposed project ignores impacts on Arkansans living outside the actual corridor route.

My family and countless others had their way of life destroyed, their homes taken, and their property destroyed or taken during the previous eminent domain takeover of the Great Depression, which resulted in degradation of the White River biome and extinction of native fish and mussel species.

When I reached out to officials at the Department of Energy to request public information sharing during the outreach process, I was denied. The official stated that the DOE “has done enough for YOU PEOPLE.” I was therefore unable to travel the hundreds of miles I would have had to travel to get to any of the public meetings concerning this ill-founded project. There were NO public information meetings within the southwestern quadrant of the state, nor were there any in the Delta.

For the Federal Government to discriminate against the citizenry of a state like Arkansas, a state with the highest rate of hunger and poverty registered nationwide, is a heinous act that echoes the injustices of a century ago. Withholding public participation concerning a project that will (like the previous eminent domain takeover) impact Arkansans outside the proposed corridor is therefore discriminatory.

It is an act emblematic of cultural and environmental genocide. This project should be abandoned before any further irreparable damage and harm is perpetrated upon the citizens of Arkansas.

I call for the DOE to refuse all support for this destructive, discriminatory and unnecessary project.

Sincerely,
Denise White Parkinson

****emailed to: Angela.Colamaria@hq.doe.gov on July 12, 2015

Being Here

Casey made a birdhouse!

Casey made a birdhouse!

The nomadic life offers beguiling mysteries, but until one comes home, a full sense of homecoming remains unfelt. I never knew until now what home feels like, except for fleeting childhood memories of the White River and the old houseboat at Clarendon, our family’s summer place.

My great-grandfather’s houseboat made a cozy retreat, set up on the riverbank— a vacation home of fishing and campfires and cookouts. At least it was until the Corps of Engineers washed it away. The Corps exiled my family, the same as other families of River People.
Our city place in Little Rock was a red-brick Craftsman bungalow with a shiny green roof made of row upon row of semicircular clay tiles. We lived there thru the best years of childhood. The roof being so spectacular against the red brick (especially after a string of Pine Bluff rentals), my sisters and I promptly made up a song that went “Nipple roof, nipple house, dum-da-dum-dum nipple house!” repeated endlessly.

This was during the 1960s-70s. The neighborhood had been built during the Depression along the old trolley route, now disappeared under layers of asphalt. We liked to sit on the terraced front yard and watch cars go by—a purple car was worth 10 points back then.
My childhood home rented for all of $100 a month the whole decade we lived there. It was solid and familiar, but it wasn’t ours.

Now, after a slew of addresses over intervening decades, all of them rented (none for $100) Team Parkinson has come home to what our youngest named Parkinsaw. The house overlooks a creek: artesian, spring-fed from the mountain ridge above. The multi-level cabin is built above a waterfall that sends the creek (Cherry Creek) rushing downhill in an S-curve. So far, we count tadpoles, minnows and frogs in the creek. Neighbors say they have had to kill a few ginormous rattlesnakes over the years. They also mentioned bears… !

My husband is reborn, reinvigorated and filled with the zest, zeal, vim and vigor for which I married him and love him so, even more now that I see how happy he is to live in a place that he can call his and ours and our three children’s home.

Parkinsaw is a monument to the visionary family of artists that designed and built it more than a decade ago. The cabin and studio, linked by a trio of descending decks and patios, have come alive again after several years’ vacancy. The timing is all, says the bard! Gratitude is the attitude. (There’s no place like home, she typed, as the Hubbie downstairs began happily tuning his Strat in the Man Cave…)

Our youngest foretold of Parkinsaw one afternoon several years ago. We were at the dining room table in our old rented place, absorbed in making a village out of clay, just for fun. As we molded the clay into blue houses, green trees and red fences, I asked our little boy, “What’ll we name this place? Parkinsonia?” He thought a second. “Let’s call it Parkinsaw,” he said, and so we did. The Hubbie promised then and there to get the Real Parkinsaw.

After four years spent searching for the Real Parkinsaw, we had seen sharp disappointments—one forested property was to have a powerline cut right through the middle; another was located past a neighbor’s fencerow decorated with macabre mannequin heads, and so on – we considered giving up the ceaseless quest for a home, at least temporarily. There seemed no escape from the degradation of “renter,” the tyranny of slumlords.

And then the house on the creek appeared like a ship on the horizon. Finally, Parkinsaw is a reality, one that we strove for and achieved, that we can leave to our three children. What finer thing can life bestow than a realized dream?

As the waterfall’s endless music sounds below, the bass notes of a bullfrog blend with the splashes of our Lab mix jumping around in the creek. Buzzy the Wunderdawg, the gladdest rescue dog in Garland County, loves to fish for minnows where the pool deepens below a little cascade.

Buzzy loves Parkinsaw. Perhaps the only thing sweeter than realizing a dream is having a happy dog. If so, we are doubly blessed.

Buzzy in Cherry Creek

Buzzy in Cherry Creek

History in the Making

On my day off from MidAmerica Science Museum, I drove to Stuttgart’s Museum of the Grand Prairie toting the last pieces of the puzzle: the exhibit “Delta Rediscovered: Arkansas County.” After putting together easels, setting it up with the help of the great folks at the Museum and touring the grounds, I am happy to report that Helen Spence has led us to a beautiful place. The Lost Archive of Dayton Bowers is home at last, among dear friends!

on the way to the museum, this pecan grove caught my eye

on the way to the museum, this pecan grove caught my eye

The Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie is so much fun to explore!

The Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie is so much fun to explore!

IMG_1617 (640x1024) A classic church and one-room schoolhouse are located next to cabins, a gazebo, and a molasses-making operation

there's an entire model main street inside one part of the huge interior

there’s an entire model main street inside one part of the huge interior

we arranged the easels against a backdrop of vintage farm equipment!!!!

we arranged the easels against a backdrop of vintage farm equipment!!!!

thank you to my friends and fellow history-lovers, Gena Seidenschwarz and Nancy Hancock! Looking forward to May 22 opening reception!

thank you to my friends and fellow history-lovers, Gena Seidenschwarz and Nancy Hancock! Looking forward to May 22 opening reception!

Delta Rediscovered: Arkansas County, will be exhibited through July at the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie in Stuttgart. Opening reception Friday, May 22, 5-8 pm. Wine and light hors d’oeuvres.

This traveling exhibit is made possible in part by generous grants from the Morris Foundation and Arkansas Department of Heritage, Heritage Month Grant Program. For more information, contact Denise White Parkinson, 501.276.6870

RECALLED TO LIFE

shell grave

Untitled-7 12x20  Edited (1024x647)

Today, driving out of the Ouachita hills to come to Little Rock and pick up the most important flashdrive of my life, I reflected on the wonderful folks I have gotten to know over the years, fellow lovers of Arkansas History.

The road back to the White River, my lost family history and the rediscovered photographs of the Arkansas Delta — it’s been a wild ride, thanks to my forever buddy LC Brown and our unsinkable muse, Helen Spence.

The most recent kind soul to add to the list is named Ken Hastings, a Little Rock-dwelling Brit who has worked for a quarter century at his craft: photographic restoration. At his workshop (Cantrell Video & Photography, which is stuffed with computers, printing machines and countless frames and mats, yet still conveys an aura of the workshop) Ken performs magic.

“I enjoy bringing history back to life,” he told me today, as we stood gazing at the prints he’s enlarged for the upcoming Heritage Month Exhibit “Delta Rediscovered: Arkansas County,” showcasing photographs by Dayton Bowers of DeWitt. Using a silver halide process on photographic paper (not sub-par dry or inkjet processing) Ken transmutes tiny, brittle, 3 X 5 photographs more than a century old, enlarging prints to 16 X 20 inches. DeWitt photographer Dayton Bowers, whose studio thrived from 1880-1924, can finally be appreciated! The resulting exhibit opens a window on lost worlds.

See for yourself in the juxtaposition of this magnificent image of a lost ceremony of the River People: the decoration of graves with White River mussel shells. View in person at the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie in Stuttgart from May through August. This travelling exhibit is made possible in part by grants from the Arkansas Department of Heritage, 2015 Heritage Month program, and by the Morris Foundation.

The public is invited to an opening reception for “Delta Rediscovered: Arkansas County,” at Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie, from 5-8 pm Friday, May 22nd, at 921 East 4th Street, Stuttgart, Arkansas. For more information, contact Denise Parkinson, 501.276.6870.

who are these young, laughing dancers, fresh as springtime yet from another era?

who are these young, laughing dancers, fresh as springtime yet from another era?

Untitled-3  Edited (819x1024)

The Homecoming of Helen Spence

lower White River, bayou bridge, circa 1900, by Dayton Bowers

lower White River, bayou bridge, circa 1900, by Dayton Bowers

Helen Spence Buster Eaton (788x1024)

By Denise White Parkinson

I journeyed many miles through this topsy-turvy world of love and loss before I found I did not have to walk alone. When I sought out a wise old river-man I had heard about, I gained a buddy for life. LC Brown shared his story, taking me back to my lost ancestral home (well, houseboat) on the White River, haunted as it is by the ghost of Helen Ruth Spence. I listened wholeheartedly, marveling as something invisible took tangible form.

As a muse, Helen Spence is matchless; as an avenging angel (LC’s name for her), she paid the price. No prison could hold her. She died a free woman. She beat the system in the only way possible, without going mad.

I miss my buddy terribly, but after six years working side-by-side to bring to light Arkansas’s (often dark) past, I can take comfort in the fact LC died at peace, knowing that the work was good and nearly complete. Daughter of the White River is a tribute to LC Brown, as are two upcoming exhibits that feature the Brown family’s archive of lost photos of the Delta.

This beautiful, ephemeral Spring sets a magical tone for Helen to make her debut. Her original photograph joins the traveling exhibit “White River Memoirs” for its Little Rock premiere next Friday, April 10, at Little Rock’s Butler Center Gallery. Reception from 5-8 pm.

In May, photographic archives from the family collection of LC Brown will premiere as “Delta Rediscovered: Arkansas County.” These lost photographs of Dayton Bowers of DeWitt span 1880-1924, depicting the rise of the Delta, its beauty and fertility. Stuttgart’s Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie welcomes this historic exhibit with a reception from 5-8 pm, Friday, May 22, in the gallery at 921 East 4th Street.

Visitors to “Delta Rediscovered: Arkansas County,” can view two dozen iconic images of lost Delta culture, digitally enlarged in a timeless union of past technique and present technology. In colorful counterpoint stands Linda Williams Palmer’s Prismacolor portrait of Arkansas’s Champion Bald Cypress, from her traveling exhibit “Champion Trees of Arkansas.” The state’s biggest tree, a landmark of the White River delta since before the river people came, will be standing long after we’re gone. Encounter a vision of cultural continuity relevant today as Arkansas struggles with looming shadows. This project is made possible in part by grants from the Arkansas Department of Heritage for May 2015 Heritage Month; and by the Morris Foundation.

Champion Bald Cypress of Arkansas County, by Linda Williams Palmer

Champion Bald Cypress of Arkansas County, by Linda Williams Palmer

UNCLEAN

Unclean Line

Unclean Line

Secretary of Energy
U.S. Dept. of Energy
1000 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, D.C. 20585

Dear Secretary Moniz:

I am writing to express my misgivings regarding the “Plains and Eastern Clean Line” project slated to sever the state of Arkansas for the benefit of a limited liability corporation (“Clean Line Energy Partners”) that possesses no track record or accountability. The company’s project to cut across the entirety of the Upper White River watershed, which makes up 3/5 of the state of Arkansas, poses the greatest threat to the Lower White River Delta since the Great Depression.

The process of informing Arkansans about a proposal to cut the state in half has already resulted in marked division. The series of public meetings scheduled to share public information regarding this mammoth project all take place in the upper half of the state. Despite repeated requests that a meeting be scheduled in the lower half of the state, preferably near the White River Delta to inform Arkansans downstream, such reasonable requests were denied.

Historic precedent for this project occurred during the Great Depression when federal eminent domain was used to take control of Arkansas’s most fertile, prosperous region: the White River Delta. Upstream, federal flood control projects and dams resulted in the total destruction of a thriving culture. The White River’s mussel and button trade, as well as its fishing industry, were wiped out due to degradation of the White River, the state’s longest waterway. Families, including mine, lost their homes and way of life.

The “Clean” line project would similarly impact downstream communities along the White River watershed. The White River, proposed as a “National Blueway” in recent years, thus requires a greater level of scrutiny toward a project so vast in scope. To seek the sacrifice of entire systems of Arkansas watersheds for the needs of potential “Eastern” customers also poses a threat to the sovereignty of my home state.

The White River watershed has sacrificed enough to the greater good throughout the past century. The proposed “Clean” line throughway, hundreds of feet wide and hundreds of miles long, compounds an earlier wound still festering throughout communities displaced during the Great Depression’s disastrous eminent domain takeover; a takeover that has made the Delta the most impoverished region in Arkansas, if not the nation.

It is moreover a grave injustice to prevent the state’s poorest demographic (residents of the Delta) from participating in a process that (if approved) will affect them. The fact that no public meetings regarding this project are or will be scheduled in the Lower White River watershed demonstrates the inadequacy of the Plains and Eastern EIS from both a historical and environmental standpoint.

I protest this injustice against the citizens of Arkansas and call for termination of this project so that further degradation of the entire White River watershed can be prevented and further destruction of both upstream and Delta communities can be avoided.

Respectfully,

Beverly Denise White Parkinson

PET SOLUTIONS

Pet Solutions

 

 

 

By Denise White Parkinson

 

 

The bypass was doing its job. The concrete divider cupped the ass-end of town, siphoning travelers from highway to strip mall and back. Along the shoulder, a ditch lined with chain link held trash thrown from passing cars. The city’s tacky gray lint screen stretched for miles.

Or was it a seine net? The young woman wondered, gripping the steering wheel. Tractor-trailers thundered by as she took the nearest exit. “An in-seine net,” she punned, smiling down at her silent, shivering passenger. She had spotted the abandoned puppy on the bypass and saw no choice but to rescue it. After all, it was February—spiteful, hateful month. She made for home, somewhat exceeding the speed limit.

“So…you go on a job interview and instead you bring back this fleabag,” Brad said, glancing up from the kitchen table. He was doing their taxes, another reason she hated February. In the silence that followed, an invisible timeline shimmered. The year’s downhill slide from middle-class illusion to flat-broke reality consisted of a miscarriage, layoff, financial crisis, marital conflict, in that order. Documents cluttered the table, details of degradation awaiting official tally.

“I could write a feature on pet rescue,” she blurted. This statement triggered a familiar lecture on insolvency versus freelance journalism. Her husband paced, listing cutbacks necessary for survival of their mortgage. She sat on the couch, daydreaming of dog sweaters and chew toys. “His name is Candide,” she announced, fishing in her purse for a valium.

Tucked in a makeshift bed in the laundry room, Candide slept. The woman left to get puppy food, the job interview forgotten. Her phone buzzed and she answered automatically, “Mobile Media, this is Karen.” A gruff voice growled, “Can we meet at the Walmart by the bypass? We need to talk.”

Recognizing the voice, she said, “Be there in 15 minutes” and hung up. She’d forgotten the old man’s name. Odd; it was barely a year since they last spoke. He was a whistleblower, responsible for the one scoop of her brief journalistic career. Unfortunately, the statewide newspaper (her employer at the time) blacklisted the story. Why did the old man want to talk about a story killed by a paper that no longer employed her? As she drove, Karen recalled the absence of a kill fee, the editor’s insult to injury.

A freezing wind swept the asphalt as she pulled alongside his truck and rolled down the window. The man’s cowboy hat and camo jacket marked him as a good ol’ boy. Karen began apologizing for the unpublished article, but he interrupted.

“No need to say anything, ma’am. I been alive long enough to be your daddy. Somebody way up the chain shut that story down. Nobody wants to talk about a radioactive dump leaking into the river. Nobody but us, I guess.”

He explained that he wanted to show her something at the county landfill, located an hour’s drive to the north. Karen hesitated, not because she didn’t trust him—he was easy enough to trust. It merely seemed a pointless endeavor. Nevertheless, she climbed into the truck and soon the roar of the bypass faded.

The old man droned on while Karen tried to remember his name. As self-appointed watchdog of a leaky dump on the outskirts of town, he was admired in his neighborhood but roundly ignored by local politicians. The man recounted the names of his neighbors, dead from the same cancer that killed his wife, poisoned by radiation spreading underground. “We live in proximity,” he intoned.

Recently, there had come a renewed surge of activity at the old dump. “They started digging and hauling dirt, a dozen dump trucks at a time,” the man said. For three days, the dump trucks came and went nonstop. Curious, the man got in his Ford and followed the parade of radioactive soil. The convoy drove right up to the gates of the county landfill and went inside. This is where he was taking her now.

“What’s so funny?” the cowboy hat tilted. Karen said, “I finally go on a nice drive in the country—to look at a freaking landfill!”

“What you been doing since you left the newspaper?” the man asked. When she replied, “I had a miscarriage,” he fell silent. He wasn’t the type to say “it’s all part of God’s plan”—a phrase Karen loathed as much as February.

After an hour of steep switchbacks over rushing creeks, forest gave way to farm country. They came to a gravel road and turned. An immense clear-cut appeared on the right. “There’s the landfill,” muttered the old man. The muddy place looked deserted. A cloudy horizon of winter-barren trees undulated in all directions.

“What’s that?” Karen said, pointing to a modern factory complex rising just beyond the landfill. The man pulled up to an electric gate next to a sign: “Custom Feed Solutions, LLC.” Tall smokestacks sent thick white plumes over the treetops. Karen grabbed her phone and began photographing the incongruous scene. A truck turned onto the road behind them. “Get us out of here,” she cried.

On the way back to town she plunked away at the phone in search of a website for Custom Feed Solutions. They kept passing through dead zones. A link finally popped up to a parent company called TriUnocor. TriUnocor’s website described a vast network of supply chains. Ingredients, seeds, processed foods, pet and livestock feed, “one-stop shopping for food and agricultural needs—E.U. certified,” it read.

An interactive map showed subsidiaries dotting the U.S. while a banner scrolled TriUnocor’s mission statement: “Serving God’s Kingdom by providing solutions to its nutritional well-being.” They drove into another dead zone and the phone went blank.

“Custom Feed Solutions doesn’t have a website,” Karen said. “It’s a subsidiary of some global wholesaler called TriUnocor.” She began rummaging through her purse for a valium. Back at the parking lot, the man thanked her and she took the back roads home, avoiding the bypass.

In the morning, Brad entered the kitchen to find his wife seated on the floor, coffee in hand, freshly bathed puppy in lap. Now fluffed out, Candide had gone from beige to white and appeared to be a poodle/terrier mix. “I’ll talk to my friend at the Humane Society about getting him a checkup,” Karen said. Brad muttered about payday being a week off and left for work.

Karen spent the morning trying to potty train Candide, spreading layers of newsprint (her former employer) on the laundry room floor. While the puppy napped, she emailed the state environmental agency. Subject line: policy regarding landfill waste. Below her signature she added, “Blog Contributer, the Candide Report.”

A reply came sooner than expected. The media outreach coordinator explained that landfill waste was routinely trucked from one place to another—no big deal. Karen emailed back, asking if Custom Feed Solutions, LLC, and/or the county landfill beside it were monitored for radioactivity. The reply: No. Radiation monitoring was exempt from both sites’ permits. Such records were kept by a different agency, anyway. And what exactly was the Candide Report?

Karen turned off the computer and called her best friend. Meg was single and a trust-funder; she did not want to hear about Karen’s “fuddy-duddy hubby.” But at mention of the dog Meg demanded to come over. Karen looked around at the messy house and stretched on the floor beside Candide.

Several hours later, the friends were midway through a bottle of Mad Housewife. “I can’t believe you’re back on the radioactive dump story,” Meg wailed, cradling Candide. “Why can’t you just write for that lifestyle magazine?”

Karen shuddered. “The editors wanted me to sell ads, too, remember? They sent me to a bunch of upscale boutiques, but I got panic attacks. I would run to the ladies’ room, wash my hands like some OCD loser and leave.”

Meg gasped. “Leave a boutique—without even shopping?” Karen walked to the pantry and flung open the door. “I didn’t say I left empty-handed,” she sighed. The shelf displayed an assortment of elegantly wrapped artisanal soaps, hand lotions, potpourri and so on.

“Oh my God—you’re a klepto!” Meg screamed in delight. By the time Brad got home, the girls were dancing madly to Karen’s collection of vinyl, their duet drowning out the howling dog.

The following weekend, the old man called. He wanted to meet at the dump on the edge of town. Karen didn’t want to go. After all this time the place still gave her the creeps. Even so, under the pretext of getting something for Candide, she went.

The road to the radioactive dump traced a historic trade route along the river. A century before, stagecoaches traveled its tracks and before that, Native American tribes. Settlers had homesteaded along the old road, staking hundreds of acres for farms. Over time, generations of families subdivided the land until an inheritance of trailers and shacks littered the view amid a scattering of nicer properties. The nice homes were outnumbered, Karen noted, passing yards filled with more trash than the bypass.

She spotted the old man’s truck parked near the entrance to the dump. The vast place, hundreds of acres of balding dirt screened by trees, possessed no sign or fencing, just a rusted gate and rustier mailbox nailed to a pole.

“Looky here,” the man said as Karen walked up. He opened the mailbox and pulled out a letter. They examined the envelope, which bore the insignia of the state environmental agency. It was addressed to “General Manager, Mineral Solutions, LLC.”

“Is Mineral Solutions a new owner?” Karen asked; the man didn’t know. The dump had changed hands often and with each sale of the company came a new name. Half a dozen acronyms or more were connected to the maze of corporate ownership.

Oftener, the owners would simply re-name the dump instead of selling it. Research for the story had revealed a common practice: companies that invented new names to dodge regulations or avoid fines, get fresh permits. Promising to research Mineral Solutions, Karen hurried to her car. “I can’t get cell reception out here,” she lied. The man waved forlornly as she drove away. She hated that place.

On payday Brad came home to find another puddle on the kitchen floor. The dog pranced about in a bright red sweater; Karen and Meg were in their cups, reggae blasting. Brad strode to the rear of the house where he had a man-cave in the spare room. The girls ignored him.

By the time Karen woke up, Brad had already left for work. Meg was gone too—the couch unoccupied save for a wine stain and some kibble. The hangover was a bad one. Reaching for the phone, Karen found several messages from the old man. It was too early to hear his voice. Tossing the phone at the wine stain, she staggered to the coffeepot, slipping on a puddle.

Later, Karen stood in the backyard watching Candide sniff around. She could not bring herself to leave the dog outside, despite Brad checking the fence for holes. The house was equipped with a doggy door but it was currently taped shut. Her record with pet rescue was bad. Sipping coffee, she reviewed her disappointing score: baby birds buried in shoeboxes; rodents that met a similar fate; flushed goldfish, aloof stray cats that came and went. She no longer kept houseplants, either. Not since the miscarriage.

Karen was dry-heaving in the bathroom when knocking sounded at the front door. Opening it, she roared “This is not cool!” into the anguished face of the old man. Ignoring her bloodshot eyes, he pleaded, “The dump trucks are back and we should follow ‘em.” Karen slumped in the doorway. “If I go, will you buy breakfast? I’m starving.”

Over a spread of pecan waffles, cheese grits and scrambled eggs, Karen listened as the man spoke of the mysterious dump trucks. She had confessed to a massive hangover that could only be cured by comfort foods. He had responded compassionately, ordering ham, bacon and sausage. Karen buttered a biscuit, fighting back tears of gratitude.

“I been hearing rumors,” the man said. “I went to one of those Patriot Club meetings.” Karen paused in mid-bite. Patriot Clubbers, an embittered bunch of white-haired tax reformers and dyspeptic retirees, believed the worst of any controversy concerning politics and big business. They were usually right. But she distrusted any group whose fundamental anger bordered on spite; a mob indistinguishable from the worst politician.

The man said it was no secret the local Patriot Club chapter was targeting a proposed bond issue. It concerned the radioactive dump and property rights. Millions of tax dollars were at stake. There was to be a referendum. It was all being put to a vote: to buy or not to buy the old radioactive dump.

“Why would the city or county want to own it?” Karen sputtered. “Those companies keep passing it around like a hot potato!” The man nodded, pulling a piece of paper from his jacket and unfolding it on the table. It was an invoice from something called “EnviroTest, Inc.”

Karen read from the list: “Radioactive Bismuth, Thallium, Thorium, Radium 226, Radium 228, Vanadium, Radioactive Lead… total gamma radiation: 65.2 picocuries per gram.” She stared at the paper. “That’s more than ten times the limit.”

The man cleared his throat. “I know a fella, a dump truck driver. He says there’s something not right about this hauling job. They got strange rules, and the men ain’t stupid. Some of that dirt fell off the truck on the way from the radioactive dump to the county landfill. I sent it to a buddy of mine to get tested. This here’s the results.”

“But that still doesn’t explain why…” Karen trailed off. The man produced a different piece of paper, this one clipped from her former employer. The headline, “Dump Site Ideal for Soccer Mecca,” announced a bold new plan to revitalize the area along the historic stagecoach road. A local politician explained, without mentioning the dump or radioactivity, how the site’s “empty acreage” could be redeveloped into a network of soccer fields.

Plenty of room atop the site for a multimillion dollar soccer complex for kids; perfect for the state Brownfields program. Grant funding even guaranteed a liability clause. The article ended with the politician’s quote: “It’s almost too good to be true.”

“Let’s go follow some dump trucks,” Karen murmured. Their stakeout was brief. A line of tri-axle dump trucks emerged one by one past the gate. As they rumbled by, the old man fell in behind and for the next hour Karen dozed. When they neared the county landfill, the man slowed and nudged her awake.

“They’ll be backed up a while at the entrance,” he said. “We’ll drive by in a sec. Have your phone ready to take pictures.” After a few minutes, they continued on.

“Where’s that guy going?” Karen cried as the last dump truck in the convoy steered past the landfill entrance. They followed as it downshifted noisily at the gate of Custom Feed Solutions. “Quick, take a picture,” the man snapped. She got several shots of the dump truck entering the factory yard. The license plate, caked with mud, was unreadable, but the doors were stenciled with the words “God’s will be done.”

“Why did he go in there?” Karen wondered. The man said, “That’s not the first dump truck to do that. They weigh the dump trucks before they take ‘em to a loading dock. You can’t see what happens after that because it’s behind a metal siding.” Karen shivered. “Too bad you don’t have a buddy working for Custom Feed Solutions.” He made no reply.

On the drive back to town they avoided the subject at hand. Instead, Karen confided about her year of unfortunate events. The old man was sympathetic. He talked about his son, a boy Karen’s age who didn’t stay in touch, just drifted from place to place and job to job. “I think he’s on drugs,” the man mused as Karen dug through her purse for a valium.

Karen left the house at dawn, ignoring Candide’s whimpers from the laundry room. Today she would show everybody. She would come home with a job! After driving around town all day filling out applications, she had achieved two things: an empty tank and a splitting headache. The phone buzzed—the husband was sending a rare text. At the next red light, Karen scrolled through the message, humorous and touching. Brad had picked up some dog food “for Candy” and pizza for dinner. He missed her and hoped she was on the way home. Karen smiled for the first time that day.

Merging onto the bypass, she turned up the radio in time to catch a breaking news alert. Something about pets—a pet food recall. A discount brand of puppy chow had poisoned thousands of dogs nationwide. At the announcement of “contaminated mineral additives,” Karen cut the radio, laid on the horn and floored it. One by one, cars pulled over to the shoulder and got the hell out of her way.

“I’m glad you’re home, honey,” Brad called, hurrying to embrace his wife. He stopped and stared at Karen’s purse and keys scattered on the kitchen floor. There was an odd sound coming from the laundry room, a sound he had not heard since last February. He opened the door to find Karen holding the dog, its face and neck spotted bright red. “What’s wrong with the—with Candy?” he stammered.

Karen whispered, “It’s part of God’s plan.” As Brad reached blindly for a blanket and they gently wrapped the tiny, inert body, an invisible curtain seemed to part. Straightening her shoulders, Karen said, “After we bury him, I’ve got a story to write.”

 

[Author’s note: I have been researching the subject matter within this story for six years. After my journalistic efforts were blacklisted, I re-worked it as a short story for entry in a statewide fiction contest. It was rejected on the grounds that it is NOT fiction, but rather a work of “creative non-fiction.”]

 

Pet Solutions LLC (766x657)

BLURRED LINES

a close shave

a close shave

who will stand for the Natural State?

who will stand for the Natural State?

The Big Lie vs. the Natural State

by Denise White Parkinson

Three years ago, my husband and I found the perfect place to call home. As longtime renters, we knew a good deal when we saw it: a vintage A-frame house in our price range, with 10 acres, woodsy, on the outskirts of Hot Springs and (miraculously) in our son’s school district. There were even some cute little chicken coops on the property—our dream of farm-fresh eggs was finally within reach.
So we made an offer. But the property owner, who had moved out-of-state, regretfully informed us that a high-voltage transmission line was planned to run straight across the acreage; did we still want to buy the property? My husband searched out the information online and there it was: a planned Entergy transmission corridor, 100 feet wide, stretching for miles past the base of Mount Riante. The map showed it cutting the property in half, plowing right through the chicken coops. We withdrew our offer. We are still renters searching for our “forever home,” as folks are wont to say.
Recently, I heard the transmission line was finally being cut. So yesterday I drove to Mount Riante to see for myself. I headed out of Hot Springs on (formerly scenic) Highway 7 South to find a huge swath littered with ground-up wood chips and bark stretching as far as the eye could see. Where there was once thick green forest and secluded properties, now there is a naked, empty corridor. In places, the scar comes within a few feet of homes. Thanks to eminent domain, more than a picturesque view has been lost. Property value vanished too, along with the million or so oaks and pines.
Entergy’s so-called “Woodson” line through Ouachita Mountain forest may be a foregone conclusion, but the prospect of a much bigger transmission line looms for families living across the northern tier of Arkansas. This proposed high-voltage transmission line is not like Entergy’s. For one thing, it would be twice as wide (200 feet of passageway taken by eminent domain) and hundreds of miles long. It would cut the Natural State clean in half. Ironically, that’s the name of the proposed transmission line: the “Clean Line.”
Unlike Entergy’s line, the “Clean Line” would merely use Arkansas as a conduit to carry electricity across the entire state. The “Clean Line” would originate along the north Texas panhandle, crossing Oklahoma before carving countless Natural State watersheds in half. Its final destination would be Tennessee’s TVA. The company that launched this unprecedented plan is not a public utility like Entergy. Instead, it is a privately-held venture capital group of wealthy investors. Even the company name—“Plains and Eastern”—is a misnomer; “Plains and Watershed” being more accurate.
The Ozark Mountains are home to a savvy strain of Arkansan unafraid to stand up against threats to the Natural State. Sometimes these hill-country heroes lose the battle, as in the case of Cargill Corporation’s factory hog farm upstream from the Buffalo National River. Sometimes they win: the volunteer group “Save the Ozarks” announced a major victory this week in the years-long battle to stop yet another high-voltage transmission line through Ozark watersheds.
That transmission line was proposed by Southwestern Electric Power Company of Louisiana, aka Swepco. If the name Swepco sounds familiar, these are the same folks that saddled Arkansas with the Hempstead Coal-Fired Power plant. The coal-fired plant prevailed, despite a hard-fought legal battle against the project.
But at least Arkansans can rejoice this New Year at Swepco’s withdrawal of the planned “Shipe Road to Kings River” transmission line. The 60-mile line was supposed to run from Benton County to Carroll County, Arkansas. However, after much public outcry, the company has deemed the line “not needed.” The plan was withdrawn only after Swepco had already taken and clear-cut countless acres of forest via eminent domain. Swepco’s corridor to nowhere leaves behind ugly, useless metal poles standing amidst private property. Swepco’s needless land-grab also destroyed portions of a popular safari park, resulting in deaths of animals due to stress.
I called a friend in Tennessee, a longtime environmental activist. I wanted to hear his take on the “clean line.” At first, he didn’t want to talk specifics and rambled on about a group called Beyond Coal, saying the organization has been stacking Sierra Clubs nationwide with paid staff. He described the staffers as Ivy League-spawned policy wonks.
“Beyond Coal is controlled by big investors,” he explained. “It’s causing volunteers and local environmentalists to be pushed aside.” When pressed for his opinion of the Clean Line project, he responded with the Sierra Club party line.
“It’s a great idea, because it will result in wind energy that will replace coal-fired plants,” he said. When I pointed out no wind farms yet exist to power the proposed Clean Line, he got a little agitated.
“Sierra Club is looking at the big picture,” he snapped. “Clean Line is just one little segment of a bigger energy plan.” I persisted: How can Clean Line be a little segment if it cuts Arkansas in HALF?
Exasperated, he replied, “Look, as far as the Sierra Club is concerned, the Plains and Eastern Clean Line is a great plan, okay?” I never did get his personal opinion on the whole mess.
This daunting conversation brought to mind something a friend confided several years ago. I was interviewing the state’s leading environmentalist for a magazine article. I had interviewed her before, as she was something of a shining star in Arkansas—a true “bioneer.” Her name was Nao (pronounced “now”) and, like most everyone that knew her, I adored and admired her.
From her witty blog, GreenAR by the Day, to her inspiring work on behalf of sustainability groups and Audubon, Nao was a force of nature. She walked the walk, whether raising her own chickens and bees, wild-crafting herbs and native plants, or bicycling all over Little Rock instead of driving a car. A font of information on all things green, Nao was a great interview subject. So when she suddenly asked if she could tell me something off the record, I stopped taking notes and listened.
“I want to tell you the real reason I’m going back to school to become an environmental lawyer,” Nao began. (She’d resigned from her position at Audubon after the settlement involving Swepco’s Hempstead Coal-Fired power plant.)
“Arkansas was winning the court battle against Swepco,” she explained. “But the national Sierra Club sent their legal team in from the coast and ordered us to stop fighting the coal-fired plant. They cut a deal with Swepco because they consider Arkansas expendable.”
I sat in stunned silence as Nao added, with a bitter laugh: “The Sierra Club calls Arkansas a flyover state. But when I pass the bar, I plan to fight on behalf of Arkansas. I won’t be the one to sell out.”
Her words come back to me now, along with her trademark lisp that I always found enchanting. Spring 2015 would have marked Nao Ueda’s graduation from law school and the beginning of an important career by a dedicated public servant—except for the fact that Nao is gone. She was found dead in her home less than a year ago.
Her off-the-record message can finally be shared. It is, moreover, the only explanation I have found for the stance of Arkansas Sierra Club toward the planned Clean Line. The local Sierra Club chapter not only supports this proposed 700-mile-long path of destruction across Natural State watersheds and forests, it approves Clean Line’s unprecedented eminent domain land-grab.
The tragic and inexplicable death of my friend can never be accounted for, in my very humble opinion. But perhaps that is simply because (like the blatant apologists for the Plains and Eastern Clean Line) I am fated to see the Big Picture.
In this case, the big picture only requires you, dear reader, to imagine a 700-mile-long clear cut that is twice as wide as what you see in these photographs I took yesterday in my hometown.