If you look in the back of the Arkansas Times this week, you'll notice something missing: The Observer's pal and spiritual Yoda, the great Bob Lancaster, retired from writing his weekly column a couple of weeks ago, which means he has retired from journalism and a career that stretched all the way back to the reign of Orval Faubus, who once hated Bob so much for something he'd written that Faubus personally saw to it that he was fired as editor of his college newspaper. We'd call that a badge of honor.
When The Observer started at the Arkansas Times, we took Bob's old desk, a shaky affair with a chipped top that sat in the corner of the newsroom, backed up against a wall of bookshelves heavy with Arkansas history and lore. I honestly believe that knowing that we were sitting at Bob Lancaster's old desk was the only thing that got us through that first year and a goodly number of the ones between 2002 and now. Sometimes on payday, Bob would blow through the office while picking up his check, and he never failed to stop and chat with us to ask us what we were working on. Every once in awhile, he'd send an email to say that he liked something we'd written, and we always printed those emails out and stapled them to the wall beside our desk. Why? Because when Mickey Mantle tells you that you had a good game, you print it out and staple it to the wall beside your desk.
The Observer loves writers. Good writers, bad writers, mediocre writers. It's the Try and Want To in a writer that matters. But if The Observer could be any writer in the world, though, we would be Bob Lancaster. That is no fooling. We would write like Bob. We've felt that way since before we started working here.
Back when we were in college, we read a story in the Times called "Requiem for Oklahoma City," which was the product of Max Brantley packing Bob off to OKC in 1995 so he could point his amazing eyeballs and brain at the ruins of the Murrah Federal Building. The story featured passage after passage of amazing writing like this:
"When a youngster sallied up with a boom-box thumping under his big umbrella, the man beside me, after just the right amount of time had passed, said to him, 'Shut that son-of-a-bitch off.' It was a way of saying, 'Let's have a little respect here. There's dead people up there yet.' A message equivalent to the one Moses got at the burning bush when he was told to put off his shoes. The youngster shut the son-of-a-bitch off, too. This man was a bread-truck driver, come down on his day off to view the monumental thing. Told me his name but what would you care about that? Brought his boy, who brought binoculars. Twelve years old this boy was. Offered to let me look through the binoculars as long as I wanted, no charge. So I looked through them for a while, gazing at the monolith, room to room, floor to floor, making mental notes, an inventory of identifiable items still in one piece, until two growing sensations obliged me to desist. One, I thought I might throw up. Two, I thought I might break down and start to cry."
We still consider that piece to be one of the best things – maybe THE best thing – ever printed in the Arkansas Times. We were amazed that a writer of such power and grace could come from pretty much the same place we did. It's part of why Yours Truly is a writer today.
We're planning to reprint at least an excerpt of that story in a few weeks as part of a retrospective on Bob's work. Keep an eye out for it. As for Bob himself, he's doing OK down at the homestead in Sheridan, relaxing with his books. The Observer heard from him via email the other day, in fact.
He's a lot less bombastic in person than in print, an introvert who refashioned himself into a backwoods Vonnegut by force of will, but who reverts to his humble self when he doffs his cloak of paper. In his email, he told me his one regret is that he didn't get to go out repeating his favorite Shakespeare quote, from Richard II: "Words, life and all, Old Lancaster hath spent."
There you go, Bob. Happy trails.
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