Hatfield, Hicks and HaytiI too shall lie in the dust when I am dead . . .
The difference struck me as soon as I crossed the border. Although it was less than a mile from Fulton to South Fulton and for a change no river separated them, I knew I had entered a new state. The aromas had changed. Kentucky had a strong masculine scent of tobacco and horses and fertile soil. Tennessees fragrance was feminine. A heady redolence of magnolia and honeysuckle pervated the soggy air, as if someone had spilled a bottle of cheap perfume like Evening in Paris. The kind I always bought my mother for her birthday when I was a kid and didnt know better or couldnt afford better.
Something common in all the states I had passed through was that no matter how small the hamlet, there was always a tanning salon, a dance studio, or a video-rental parlor that sold pizza and stromboli. Several miles down the road in the middle of nowhere, I came across the latter and stopped for a cold drink. I was famished, too, but this video shack didnt sell pizza or stromboli. Another unique feature was that not only didnt the old lady running the place own a TV or a VCR, in her whole life she had never even seen a movie.
By early afternoon, the same as every day since I resumed my trek, rain clouds threatened. I was close to Union City, but not so close that I could make it to a motel before the rain came. An oasis appeared just in time. As the cloudburst began, I hurried into Dots Place.
The proprietor, one foot on the floor and the other out in a grotesque arabesque, was stretched halfway across a pool table, sighting down her cue stick at the eight ball. Focused like a pointer on prey, she didnt look up when I entered. "Have a seat," she said. "Ill be right with you . . . just as soon as I take these fellows money." Two men stood beside the table, leaning on their pool cues as I was now leaning on my staff, watching and waiting. They smiled at me, as if to say, "Sure. But you just might have a long wait." Crack! She drove it dead-on into the corner pocket and was behind the bar before I could even take my pack off.
"Whatll you have, Darlin?" I ordered a beer, and she went back to hustling the only other customers in the place.
A few minutes later a young man dashed in and shook the rain off. "Damn, its wet out there," he said dryly. "Im supposed to be out delivering a load, but I cant do it in all that mess. Dot, gimme a beer."
When shed finished clearing much of the table, she strode to the bar and served him. Her opponents were not her equals. She hurried back to the game. Her turn again.
Since I hadnt intended coming through Tennessee, I didnt have a road map. Now that I was here, I thought I might as well stop in Jim Butlers hometown if it was nearby. I knew it was close to the home of Sgt. Alvin York, the WW1 hero, but I wasnt quite sure where that was. "Excuse me, do you know where Oneida is?" I asked the young man who had seated himself on the stool next to me.
"Sure," he replied. "We used to play football against them in high school. Its on the other side of the state, near Jimtown. You headed that way?" I explained why Id asked and said no, that was out of my way. When I told him where I was going, he said, "Man, I sure do envy you. I love doing stuff like that. I used to do a lot of spelunking. Discovered several caves over in eastern Tennessee. My names Mark Hatfield."
I introduced myself, and asked, "Are you by any chance related to the Hatfields of the famous feud?" He laughed. "Yeah, thats us! Youve heard of us, huh?" "Hasnt everyone?" I said. "They even made a couple of movies about it: Romance at Rosy Ridge and Roseanna McCoy. One starred Farley Granger and a pretty girl named Joan Evans, and the other was with Van Johnson and . . . I think it was Janet Leigh. Its so long ago I dont remember."
"Roseanna McCoy was about us all right," he said. "But I never heard of the other one." "Well, that one may have been about the Martins and the Coys. Like I said, it was so long ago. There was even a popular song back in the 40s about that one: Feudin, a Fussin and a Fightin. Those McCoys certainly were a busy bunch." He chuckled. "They sure were. But the feud with the Martins was with a different branch of the McCoy clan." I said, "It doesnt much matter, does it? Seems the only thing we Irish are really good at is drinking, fighting, and writing poetry."
He laughed again. "Yeah, you got that right. But the movie got it all wrong. They said it was some dumb shit about a pig being stolen." "You mean it wasnt?" I kidded. Not that I ever thought the movie was accurate, but as legendary as this feud was, I still didnt know what really caused it. "What was it all about?"
"It was a border dispute. When the clans left the stockades and moved out into the wilderness, there werent many surveyors. So it was hard to tell whose land was whose. There was a particularly fine parcel they both wanted, and so they took a shot at each other every once in a while. But it wasnt as bloody as its been reported. My granddad made sure we all learned about it. He wanted to keep the family tradition straight."
"Youre not still fighting it, I hope?" It wasnt a serious question. "Nah," he smiled. "It took three generations, but we finally gave it up."
"Are you related to Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon?" "Yeah," he replied. "Hes my uncle. Im his namesake. Hes from another part of the family, one that moved out west. My family wanted me to be like him, so they groomed me to go into politics. They sent me to college, but I wasnt interested. I dropped out after a year. I liked wandering through the woods and spelunking around my granddads place and listening to his tales better. Those were the best times of my life. The family was disappointed in me, but Im happy.
"Maybe you shouldve stuck with it," I joked. "It looks like one of you Tennessee boys stands a good chance of being the next vice-president. It could have been you." He didnt laugh at that. "Nah! Thats not for me. I like my freedom. Now Im a mechanic. Im married and have a kid, and it suits me fine. It sure beats hell out of sitting around an office all day with a bunch of other godamn politicians."
After our second beer wed become so friendly I was hoping he might offer me a place to stay the night. By the third, no invitation came so I asked if he knew a place to eat and stay in Union City. He told me of a motel not too far away, and that there was a restaurant about a half-mile before it. "Be sure and try their vinegar pie," he said. "Its a specialty in these parts." "Vinegar pie? I asked. Id never heard of such a thing. My mouth puckered just saying it. He said, "Its the same as key lime pie, but you use vinegar instead of lime juice." I told him that Id be sure to try it. I love key lime pie, and if vinegar pie was anything like that, it had to be good. The rain had ended and it was getting late. I got up and put on my pack.
He said, "Hey! You going already? I was hoping youd stick around to help me unload." He was joking I think. But just in case he wasnt and there would still be no invitation to stay after the job was done, patting my pack, I said, "No, Mark, Ive already got enough load to carry."
As I staggered off down the road, I soon realized I was carrying more of a load than I thought. Lately unaccustomed to both, I wasnt sure if it was due to the beers or the long break.
I bypassed the restaurant Mark had mentioned. It was too early to eat, so I went on to the motel. The owner was a strikingly handsome woman several years my senior. While I registered, I jokingly asked if she gave a discount to old folks. From beneath her immaculately coifed silver strands, her merry eyes sparkled like sapphires. With a voice warm and smooth as Southern Comfort, she said, "I prefer to call myself a recycled-teenager." I laughed. "Oh, thats wonderful. Far better than senior citizen or golden ager. More politically correct, too. Do you mind if I use it?" Her demure smile turned coy. Waggishly, she replied, "Not as long as you give me proper credit." I laughed, and assured her that I would.
Business done, on my way out I turned, slowly looked up and down her slight frame, winked, slowly shook my head side to side, then not entirely in jest said, "If only I were twenty years younger."
Rippled laughter attend me to my room.
The Tennessee road map Id picked up in Union City showed the four-lane divided highway I was walking changed to a limited-access superhighway halfway to Obion. It also showed that Obion was less than halfway to Dyersburg. Since there was no other road, there was nothing I could do about the thruway, but with luck I could do something about the distance. Dyersburg was more than thirty miles away.
I got off the thruway on the exit to Obion, and sat on a guardrail to ponder my possibilities. It would be difficult, I knew, to make it all the way to Dyersburg with less than one jug of water left. Truly, in this heat and humidity it would have been murder to attempt it even if I had a gallon. So far there hadnt been so much as a gas station where I could refill. Judging from the map, there wouldnt be. Obion was my only hope, and it didnt look too hopeful. The dot on the map was slightly larger than some other dots but it was still only a teeny black spot. What if there was no place to eat or sleep? What if there wasnt even a phone? It was two miles away, and if there were no place, I would add another four miles to an already near-impossible task.
To make matters worse, now that I was finally headed downhill the toes of my soles had worn as thin as the heels. It was too late for Dyersburg, but I must call Cynthia to send me another pair, and I had to do it soon so she could get them to Carruthersville in time. Actually, I didnt know for sure if there was a shoe repair shop in either place. Anymore, theyre scarcer than teeth at a Johnny Cash concert.
A sputtering sound in the distance drew my attention away from the problems. A teenage boy on an ATV putted over the hill and pulled onto the gravel shoulder.
"Boy," I said, pointing to his yellow three-wheeler, "I sure could use one of those right now." The serious looking lad in a rosy tie-dyed T-shirt barely cracked a smile. "Yeah, I expect you could. Wherere you going?" I said, "That depends. Is there a cafe, a motel, or a place where I can get a bite to eat or stay in Obion?" "There aint nothin in Obion," he said sullenly. "There aint anything, anywhere, till you get to Dyersburg."
Suddenly I was greatly distressed. "Not even a place to fill my water jug?" "I could run home and getcha some," he offered. "Itll only take a minute." Seeing the uncertainty on my face (I was still in shock) he paused for a moment, then said, "Or how about some ice tea? My mom makes great ice tea."
That settled it. With some iced tea and the corn-nuts I still had, perhaps I could make it on down to Dyersburg. "If youre sure its no problem," I said, already holding out my water bottle. "I wouldnt want to put you out." "Its no trouble at all," he said. He took the bottle, fired up his mount and scooted off down the hill. "Be right back!" he shouted over his shoulder.
Deliverance at hand, I leaned back and had a smoke. Five minutes passed. No sign of the boy. Ten minutes passed. I was starting to become concerned. Where the hell is he? I was really starting to worry when fifteen minutes later he still hadnt shown. Surely he hasnt ripped off my water jug?
I was just about to give up on him and continue to Dyersburg when I heard the chugging sound of his scooter. With the water jug upheld like the baton of a relay runner at the finish line, he came to a grinding halt in front of me. "Sorry to take so long," he said. "My mom had to make it fresh, specially for you."
Cursing myself for doubting the lad, I gratefully accepted his gift. The tea was the best Ive ever had.
We talked a long time about what I was doing and what he was doing. Like so many other teenagers I had met on my walk, he wasnt very happy with his lot. The complaints were mostly the same: broken homes, nothing to do, no place to go, not much hope for the future, in a word . . . boredom. Excepting big cities, everywhere I had been there wasnt much for young people to do: no movies, no shopping malls, not even a grocery or a drug store to hang out in. I had traveled through towns of three to five thousand people where they had to drive forty or fifty miles on the thruway to buy food.
He told me that after school he kept himself busy fishing. In fact, he had several lines running now and hed better go check on them. It had gotten late, I suddenly realized. There was no way I could make it to Dyersburg now, so I asked him if there were non-posted woods ahead where I might camp. He told me there were. I thanked him and his mother for the tea, and asked if hed pose for a picture. Then I took down his name and address and told him Id send him a copy of the photo when I reached the Pacific.
Id gotten about a mile down the highway when I heard someone calling my name. Surprised, I turned around. No one was behind me.
"Up here!" a voice called. Several dozen yards above the thruway there was a dirt farm road. William Hicks sat astride his ATV, holding up the largest catfish Ive ever seen. "You wanna take this for your dinner?" he yelled.
I shouted that I wouldnt be able to get so much as its head into my little pot. No mention did I make that it was also another five or six pounds Id have to carry until I made camp. I thanked him for the thought, though, and wished him a hearty appetite. Hed need it.
William told me true. There were woods. Lots of them at least for four miles until I passed the exit to Trimble. Then, as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but an expanse of barren fields. Most of the farmers here must have been on the program too.
Still too early to set up camp, I continued down the highway, hoping that a few miles ahead there would be more trees. There were . . . but never more than two or three together . . . and those always grew right next to the highway . . . on the other side of barbed wire fences . . . for fifteen more miles . . . and seven more hours . . . all the way down to Dyersburg.
The Indian desk clerk at the EconoLodge (which wasnt very economical but still cheaper than the Holiday Inn) told me there was no shoe repair shop in Dyersburg. He confirmed, however, my hope that there was one in Carruthersville. It was now almost midnight too late to call home so, worn out as I was I left a wake up call for eight a.m.
After my morning coffee, I called Cynthia. If I reached her before she left for school, she could ship my soles by overnight express. That way I wouldnt have to spend an extra day in Carruthersville. I could pick them up at the post office, have them glued on quickly and be on my way. The machine answered after four rings. I left my message and added that if the post office couldnt guarantee overnight delivery to forget it.
Thats strange, I thought. It was only eight-thirty, and she didnt have to be at school until ten. Since I carried no watch, I used the sun as my clock when I could see it. Which lately, due to the cloudy skies and rain, wasnt often. However, the digital clock at my bedside clearly displayed 8:30.
Quickly I turned on the TV and turned to the weather channel. Sure enough, it was 8:31 in Tennessee, that is. In Ohio and points east it was 9:31. I had unknowingly walked through a time zone. And that wasnt the only bad news. Although temperatures would remain high, heavy rains would continue for the next several days.
Dont you just hate it when the weather forecasters finally get their prediction right? They were really right about this one. It had been raining steadily for the last seven hours, and I was just as wet inside my red Gore-Tex rainwear as if I hadnt put it on. But at least the clerk at the motel had been wrong. He assured me that it was only fifteen miles to Carruthersville, though my map clearly showed it to be closer to twenty-five. "For sure, I know," hed said. "I live in Hayti, and I drive past there every day." Still I was doubtful, so I told him, "If you see that Im still on the road when you get off work at five oclock, you pick me up and take me there. OK?"
Well, I should be seeing him anytime now, I thought dismally, when fifteen miles later I approached the Mississippi. "Damn! And it had better be soon!"
What caused my consternation was that there was no pedestrian path on the bridge at least none I could see. But as far as thats concerned, I only presumed there was a river to cross in the first place, and that it was nicknamed "The Big Muddy" because it was. The rain was so dense I could barely make out the bridge, much less anything below it.
Taking a great but necessary risk, I raced across four lanes of traffic, the median strip and the remaining four lanes, hoping that, if I went with the flow of traffic instead of against it, there might be a pedestrian path on the other side. As I drew closer to the bridge entrance I came upon a sign: No Pedestrians, No Bicycles.
"Shit! You mean theres no way for me to get across this goddamned river except to swim it?" I yelled.
Now that I was close enough to read the sign, I would have crossed back over to see if there was one on the other side that did allow us poor peons. However, in addition to the eight lanes of traffic, the median was now a thick, chest-high concrete barricade. I damned Dwight David Eisenhower and his whole mucked-up Interstate System. Screw it! If the state troopers pick me up, so much the better! At least Ill ride across, I thought.
Hugging the steel superstructure (bridgework?) for dear life, I started across the mile-and-a-half long, three-foot wide concrete shoulder. Hoooooonk! Whoosh, whish, swoosh! Traffic sped by shooting shoulder-high sprays that drenched and blinded me. After a few minutes I paid no mind. Sightless, at least I was no longer troubled with vertigo. I was no longer worried about death, either: Hell could be no worse than the miserable situation in which I had placed myself. Halfway across the Mississippi, I added Indian desk clerks to my "do not trust list." And I may have mumbled some unkind things about Ikes mom, too.
When at last I reached the bank in Missouri, the rain slowed to a light drizzle. Over the bridgehead on the farthest side was another sign. I took out my binoculars to see if I could read it. Yep, there it was. Pedestrian and Bicycle Path. Thats great if youre heading east, but what about fools like me who follow Horace Greelys advice? Who was the silly sonofabitch who designed this system, anyway? Now I even vented a caustic curse about Mamie!
My legs were wobbly as I moved on. Coupled with the long hike in the rain, the stress on the bridge had taken a toll. As I slogged along, a couple of miles before the cutoff to Carruthersville I passed a man fixing a flat. He asked where I was going. When I told him, he said, "Im almost finished with this tire. Stick around and Ill take you there." Despite what the purist-Gestapo might think (and to my everlasting shame I number myself among them), it was an offer I wasnt going to refuse. I could always rationalize (something Im an expert at) that Carruthersville was well out of my way. Besides, tomorrow Id be making up the difference.
After pointing out the post office, the shoe repair shop and the Carruthersville water tower (a national monument rightly so), the man named James dropped me at a motel. The only one in town. Owned by Indians.
I rushed to the room and called Cynthia. She told me the post office couldnt guarantee next-day delivery, even by overnight express. It makes you wonder, doesnt it? Perhaps, like "postal service," "overnight express" has become merely another oxymoron? Anyway, I told her to forget it, to just mail the soles to Jonesboro. With luck I could make it there before I became a barefoot boy again.
"Bob? Where are you, boy?" my father asked, when I called him later that evening. I told him I was in Carruthersville and should be in Jonesboro in three or four days. "Man, Im really looking forward to it," he said. "No kidding. You said youd be here by Memorial Day, but I didnt believe it." He went on to tell me about the time he walked from Jonesboro to Monette, a distance of twenty-three miles. "I was only twenty-four years old at the time," he said, "and it damn-near killed me. I had to stay in bed for three days! Now you take your time, you hear? Dont go killing yourself on my account."
I didnt intend to. After those thirty-some mile days Id done in Kentucky and Tennessee, the trip down to Jonesboro should be a cakewalk. Most of the places I could stay were less than twenty miles, and the longest from Paragould to Jonesboro was a measly twenty-two.
Hayti sits on a hill overlooking a big bend of the Missippi River. As I passed through there the following morning I was struck by the squalor, worse by far than any I had yet seen. I felt as if I had journeyed back through time, when much of this part of the country looked this way. Not surprisingly, it was a black community. What was surprising, though, was that this was the first one I had come upon. Something that had often struck me as odd, considering the route I had traveled, was that I had encountered very few black people on the whole trip. Had they all become big city dwellers?
"Hey, man! Wheres you gwine?"
There was another surprise. Except among older people regional dialect has largely disappeared, probably due to the Standard English spoken on TV. Perhaps the reason I was hearing it now was that there weren't many television antennas around.
I turned to see where the voice came from. A small black boy of seven or eight peered through the metal fence surrounding the schoolyard. His tiny fingers clutched and the toe of one shoe stuck through the diamond shaped links.
"Im on my way to California," I answered. "To the Pacific Ocean. Do you know where that is?" "Naw!" he replied.
Then, standing up straight and pointing a finger to his puffed-up chest, he said, "Ise gwine to git me a omans, go make push-push!" I wasnt familiar with the term, but from the way he said it and the lascivious smirk that blotted his young face, its meaning was clear. Times have surely changed. It isnt that we didnt know or think of such things when I was his age (we might have even tried to get a " omans" and made "push-push" if only wed known how), but we would have never, ever, voiced them to an adult, most definitely not to a stranger. Wed have gotten our asses kicked from Sunday to the middle of next week. "Youd do better to spend your time learning where California and the Pacific Ocean are," I reproved him.
At least he wasnt beyond reproach. His nappy head bowed down to his deflated chest for a moment, then, lesson learned and probably already forgotten he quickly straightened up and asked, "Whats at thing on yo back?"
As I began to explain the contents of my pack and tell him some of the sights Id seen, several other students gathered around to listen. It was a motley group, boys and girls of all races, and it pleased me greatly to see how well they were all getting along together. If adults would only leave them alone and not infect them with their prejudices, it might continue forever.
That wasnt to be.
While I was answering a question from a towheaded tyke, a teacher scurried across the playground, grabbed him by the arm and started to pull him away from the fence. Looking directly at me, in a voice filled with loathing and unadulterated scorn, she said, "Get away from here children! Leave this man be!" Then, like an old Leghorn hen, clucking and waddling she shooed her brood into the safety of the schoolhouse.
Its hardly necessary to say that I was cut to the quick by her appalling behavior. But in fairness to the old biddy, my guise may have had something to do with it. After all, head to toe, I was dressed in red. And though children saw me as Santa, she must have seen Satan. In retrospect, I was lucky she hadnt called security . . . or an exorcist.
The highway from Hayti to Kennett was straight and level as a bowling alley. Had it not been for the haze I could have seen fully seventeen miles. But the "Show Me" state hadnt shown me much so far, why start now?
Unlike Hayti, Missouris motto Salus populi suprema lex esto (Let the Welfare of the People Be the Supreme Law) seemed to be at work in Kennett. Just before another downpour began, I saw that the luxurious lodge I was checking into stood next to an 18-hole golf course.
That night marked the end of an era on American TV. Sadly, but with fond remembrance, I watched the final performance of the man on whose show I had appeared during his first few months as its host, when the show was still live from New York. It was hard to believe that thirty years had passed.
Once, I even arranged for the band, the best band in the land. Although the arrangement was not overly difficult, it did require more musical subtlety than the band was used to. After the performance Tony Mottola, Sy Berger, Phil Bodner and Derek Smith came to me to apologize. They all knew they could have played better, but due to the hectic rehearsal schedule they were allowed only one run-through. I was honored that these superb musicians would even bother to explain though that sort of sensitivity is exactly what made them so good.
Now both the band and the host were retiring. As the sky outside my window wept, the host gave his signature golf swing. Ed Shaughnesseys drum ruff launched the band into Paul Ankas Tonight Show theme, then to thunderous applause the final curtain closed on Johnny Carson.
Rumbles of thunder persisted into the following morning when I crossed the St. Francis River into Arkansas. This wasnt the thunder of applause. As with every day since I resumed walking, the tune was still Stormy Weather.
At the end of the bridge I stopped for a break. Though rain was on the way, it was so hot that I removed my rain jacket. Whenever possible I like to take a break next to a tree, a boulder or a body of water. I find I can draw energy from them. The larger the tree, the bigger the boulder or the body of water, the more energy I gain. Man, I should be an absolute dynamo when I leave here, I thought. The river was so swollen that the banks had totally disappeared. Instead of flowing underneath the bridge, the St. Francis was running its length. Encircled by muddy waters, like a damsel confronting a puddle, tall trees reached their branches down as if to lift their skirts.
When I finished the break, I discovered that instead of giving me energy the river had drained it. Without a loading dock, there is usually a step or two to the side when I sling on my backpack. This time considerably more steps were taken. Too, although my legs and back are usually slightly stiff for a while after a break, especially late in the day, this time they didnt care to bear the load at all. I staggered like a muskrat on cheap muscatel. To make matters worse, either the Governor (Bill Clinton) of the "Natural State" liked to keep things "natural" or else he owned some gravel pits. The two-foot wide shoulder was covered with the stuff, and under my threadbare soles the rough stones hurt like hell. To save my soles and my sanity whenever no car was coming down the flat, straight, two-lane road, I crossed over the white line painted at its edge to warn drivers they'd run out of road, and walked on the pavement.
From the time I finished my break and left the bridge, way off in the distance I had noticed a car coming toward me. It couldnt have been moving more than ten miles an hour, because by now I had gained my land legs. Careful not to step on the roadkill which for some peculiar reason had become exclusively crawdads and turtles I walked on the road until the car was a couple of hundred feet away. Not wishing to alarm the driver, without changing stride I sidestepped over to the shoulder.
A little old gray-haired lady started honking her horn and began weaving all over the road. Then, like little old ladies everywhere, she headed straight for me. As was always the case, directly beside me was a steep decline. Hoping to divert her, I quickly grabbed my red jacket. With my staff clutched underneath it, I started to wave and frantically jumped up and down like a banderillero at a bullfight.
The tires toed the line as they neared. Then they crossed it. Thank god the car wasnt as old as she was and had no running board.
Whoosh! With a half verónica that would have made Manolete proud, my muleta followed through. It was only with the greatest restraint that I didnt also deliver the moment of truth.
I was finishing another break when a pickup pulled over. Two men and a boy got out. They introduced themselves: Derek, Phillip and Bruce Avery. Though the eldest was younger than I am, they represented three generations.
When I told them I was on my way to Jonesboro, Derek said he went to the university there. The current semester was finished, but he was going to take summer courses starting next week. I told him that, except for a one-night stopover in 1956, I hadnt been to my hometown since we moved to California in 43. "I bet the place has really changed, hasnt it?" Of course he wasnt old enough to know, but his father remembered it back then. Phillip told me of all the changes that had taken place, so we talked about how things used to be. Rector was only ten miles away now and I was in no hurry. But after a short chat they said they had to be going. They were on their way to the St. Francis to do some fishing. I told them the St. Francis was flooded when I crossed it a couple of hours ago. "Youre going to need a rowboat. 'Course you can scoop the bait up right off the road!"
While I was taking another break at a gas station three miles before Rector, I noticed that there was a great deal of activity on the CB radio. I was busy talking with the owner so I didnt pay much attention. It was probably nothing more than motorists in need of service, although there sure were a lot of them.
A few minutes after I resumed walking, the kinks were straightened out and I had my timing down. Whenever I saw a vehicle approaching Id wait until it was a few hundred feet away, angle myself onto the shoulder, then, as soon as it passed, I would ankle on back to the pavement. For a while, all went along smoothly until a sheriffs cruiser passed. It drove a couple of hundred yards ahead, made a U-turn and stopped. An officer got out. Hoping that on his way by he hadnt noticed me preparing my excuses in case he had I grudgingly edged back onto the gravel. Arms akimbo, he stood stiff as a statue of Smoky the bear. Like my hope, doubt about whether or not he had seen me quickly disappeared.
"Good afternoon," he said. "Im the sheriff. Ive had reports of a drunk staggering out on the road causing all kinds of mischief." Oh, shit! Now Im in for it. "Ive been looking for hours, but youre obviously not intoxicated so you cant be the man." Whew! "Have you seen anybody fitting that description?"
Since he had been looking for hours undoubtedly covering every road in the vicinity and hadnt seen anyone else, it must be me. Hoping to distract him in case he realized the same thing and changed his mind, I told him that Id seen very few people walking ever since I left New York. "Besides," I said innocently, "there hasnt been a place to buy alcohol for several counties." That broke the tension and he smiled. "I did see a couple of men earlier today," I added. "But they didnt appear to be drunk."
"Well," he said. "We get these crank calls ever once in a while. The old woman who made it doesnt see too good anymore, anyway." He got back in the cruiser. Just before he drove away, he smiled and said, "Oh, by the way, just in case youre interested, you can get liquor in the next county."
Thats good to know, I thought. I also thought that after his description of the drunks antics and the crank caller, I was certainly the culprit. I walked on, regretting that I hadnt explained the circumstances to him. Then, parodying Danny Thomass classic routine, I should a said to tell the old bag to pay more attention to her driving and less attention to other peoples morals! But he was John Law, and he might not remember the routine. Still, "I should a said."
Same as the night before, I reached Rector just before the storm broke. It was one-helluva storm, too. In a way I was glad. I was hoping that this finally would end the rain for a while so I wouldnt have to wear that hot, sweaty jacket. That was not to be. A cold front moved in overnight. When I left for Paragould the next morning I had to wear it to keep warm.
I was now headed south on Rt. 49. Except for a slight bend in the road at Marmaduke which really is all Marmaduke is the road was as straight as it had been since Hayti. The shoulder was still gravel, but there was so little traffic I spent most of the time on the pavement. It was slightly uphill for a change, and that, coupled with the cool air, only made walking easier.
Just past Halliday I froze in my tracks. A tractor towing some sort of farm equipment was heading my way. I dont know what the hell it was pulling, it appeared to be some sort of harrow without center blades, but whatever it was the two shiny steel discs on either end of the axle looked like gigantic buzz-saw blades. They were chest high, and even though the driver was almost straddling the centerline, one of those blades extended halfway across the shoulder. That shouldnt be too big a problem, I conjectured. I'll crowd over close to the fence and he can move more to the center, right? Wrong!
I heard a sudden noise behind me and turned to look. Here came a tractor-trailer . . . pulling a house! There was no room for the two of them, much less the two of them and me! I suddenly became aware of the true meaning of the adage: Twos company; Three is a crowd. The timing couldnt be worse. It was too late to run back, too late to run forward. No matter what any of us did, we were all bound to meet at some point. And no matter how far over we edged, I was still going to be the center of that point, with the blades edge pointed directly at and soon to be running roundly through the center of me!
The tractor driver looked more terrified than I felt. Fingers and eyes wide open, he raised both arms up from the elbows in that worldwide gesture that means, "What the Fuck can I do?"
I dont know what he did. I dont know what the driver of the tractor-trailer did. I fell flat-faced in the furrow and groveled in the gravel.
The hurried prayer I uttered while prone beside the pavement was answered. The sharp blade sailed smoothly over my pack. There wasnt so much as a scratch on it. I wish I could say the same for my hands and knees.
Shaken and rattled from the harrowing experience of having so nearly been rolled, I found myself desperately in need of a drink. Shortly before sundown I plodded into Paragould, the micro-metropolis named for the railroad robber barons Paramour and Gould, and I set out in search.
Signs showing the availability of brew abounded, yet destinys duplicitous digit denied me relief. My search was without luck. My look, sans success.
Today was Sunday.
© copyright 2001 Robert Bowers
This page was last modified April 12, 2002