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There were no hamsters in early Arkansas. Albert Pike, David O. Dodd and Hattie Caraway never heard of such a creature. Our first documented one turned up at Monticello around 1950. It was thought to be a male, had no companions or associates, and won a small amount of local notoriety only by his involvement in a sociology-psychology class experiment at Arkansas A&M College.
He was called Al, possibly short for Al-i Baba -- hamsters are native to Syria, and the Open Sesame hero also hailed from a dry country over there somewhere — so we know our Ur-hamster had a name, but we know little else about him. Where he came from, how he got here, who got him past the agricultural quarantine banning alien rodents that might threaten the job security of our home-boy moles and cotton rats. Nothing on any of that.
The Aggie classroom experiment in which Al was the guinea pig, so to speak, didn't go well — or perhaps it went too well. It was a behaviorist endurance ordeal, based on John B. Watson. Al wore electrodes. He was said to have been urged on to spinning-wheel prodigies by the vigorous application of a tiny riding crop. Nasty stuff. His minuscule ticker fatally bummed. His remains might've become brunch for the on-campus Aggie goat.
Tales were told anon however that he had survived, with a considerably reduced mental capacity, though with hamsters it's hard to tell about such things. When the first member of my clan enrolled at A&M in the late 1950s, the local legend was still abroad of a deranged or zombie-like hamster, perhaps humongously enlarged by atomic fallout, haunting the spooky pine flats out around Montrose.
This Alzilla legend later melded somewhat with the Boggy Creek legend, so that the Fouke Monster became a kind of half-hamster Sasquatch lurching around on its hind legs, overturning fog-wrapped house trailers including dozens of the Katrina rejects on the tarmac at Hope.
But for all that, Al might have been forgotten even sooner than he eventually was forgotten if not for Boyd Tackett and Clarence Taylor.
A Texarkana congressman, Tackett was our best-known Red baiter during the McCarthy epoch. Imagine his excitement when he got wind of a Semitic outside agitator on the loose in Drew County, assumed the rascal to be Muslim, then called Mohammedan, which meant anti-Christian, which meant, in that strange time, strange in a lot of the same ways as this one, Communist.
Tackett used Commie Agitator Al as a kind of whipping boy in his last campaign, and was invited to regale the celebrity outers at HUAC with wild tales of Al's seditious initiatives, including a plot to poison the Smackover water supply with a mere drop of a diabolical and probably radioactive new toxin, called fluoride.
All pure slander. Al was a hamster, for crying out loud. Most likely a dead hamster. But the Tail Gunner fervor scorned such details, and anyhow Tackett was soon reapportioned out of Congress, and, consigned to political eclipse, he quickly got to be more forgotten than Al was.
Arkies were painfully image conscious for a time after the big Little Rock Central deseg, and one dependable way to rile them was to find and publicize a category in which the state ranked embarrassingly low, 47th or 48th out of the 48 states, or, soon after, 49th or 50th out of the 50. And it's at that point that Clarence Taylor revived the Al B. Hamster saga.
Clarence was farm editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial, and around 1960 he pieced together the old Al story and reprised it as Southeast Arkansas folklore. He included in his account an Extension Service estimate that Arkansas ranked a dismal 50th among the states in the per capita ownership of hamsters as pets.
This was intolerable. It betrayed the official Arkansas booster gospel then in effect, called faugress. So the Arkansas Publicity and Parks Commission got busy cranking out feature stories meant to show that there was no "hamster gap" in Arkansas. Their literature alleged to have found pet hamsters in 15 of Arkansas's 75 counties — a 20 percent showing! Moreover, our hamsters were superior to those in other states in several respects. One, because they had trace amounts of aluminum ore in their blood, their test results showed up better. Two, they could be effectively trained to root up woodland truffles and to tree squirrels. And three, you didn't have to feed them expensive store-boughten bugs-'n'-berries hamster food. Just throw some old pine cones in the cage.
Did Publicity and Parks just make this s—t up? Well, it was at this same time that the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission was making up impressive numbers of new and expanded manufacturing plants. Wholly imaginary manufacturing plants, as it turned out. Two of them in bucolic locales supposedly turning out high-dollar chrome-plated hamster cages.
Coincidence? You tell me.
Last I heard of Al, his name turned up on the Falwell list of people (or non-people) that Bill Clinton had had whacked.
Bob Lancaster, one of the Arkansas Times longest and most valued contributors, retired from writing his column last week. We’ll miss his his contributions mightily. Look out, in the weeks to come, for a look back at some of his greatest hits. In the meantime, here's a good place to start.
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