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The best and worst of 2004 

A couple of presidents take center stage.

click to enlarge WORST ESCAPE: A handcuffed man buying bolt cutters at the Magnolia Wal-Mart.
  • WORST ESCAPE: A handcuffed man buying bolt cutters at the Magnolia Wal-Mart.
As we have noted before, the 21st century is not off to the best of starts. We were hoping the short line on the century-quality graph might upturn slightly in oh-four. It did not. GWB was president and clueless when the year started, and the situation hadn’t changed at year’s end, except there was no longer any end in sight. He’ll be president for life if he wants to be. Republicans were riding high when the year started, and even higher at its conclusion. Both the pogrom and the inquisition should be getting underway any time now. Expect Bro. Jerry Falwell to be named the first Secretary of Church/State Amalgamation and Hating Homos, a new Cabinet department. With both Arkansas senators voting aye on the confirmation. At the start of the year, at the end of the year, Iraq looked like the same bloody quagmire with no way out. You know, we could’ve declared victory there a year ago and got out — instead of declaring mission accomplished and not getting out — and everybody except Saddam Hussein and Baghdad Bob would’ve been happy, and more than a thousand of our young people who are now dead wouldn’t be dead. The media found themselves in the absurd position of not being able to quote the vice president directly for fear of being charged and convicted of obscenity. What did we get for the million-dollar Nutt salary uppage? The weather in 2004 was totally crazy, another troubling omen. Hurricanes, volcanoes, eclipses, Scalia. It all suggests the End Times. The Beast of Revelation and the Antichrist should be along by this time next year at the latest. Woe, Woe, Woe unto you, the angel said, if you don’t have Pat Robertson to pray them onto a detour path around your doublewide. But maybe the rapture will finally come, too, giving sane people a chance to regroup. So there’s hope. Well, no, there’s not, really, but you have to stay positive in this new order or you’ll be denounced as a pessimist, which means you’ll be designated for re-education a la Winston Smith or assigned to armor-lite Humvee duty in you know where. On the plus side was the library. And on the plus side of a relatively large minus, NRA ’04 successes at least offer the assurance that if the bastards come and try to force us to move to Cabot and live there optimistically, they by damn better bring a bigger arsenal than our’n. On with the winners and losers. BEST spotlight Just about all the glitterati who matter were in town for the ceremonies marking the opening of the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock the week before Thanksgiving. It seemed an even bigger whooptedoo than ’92 and ’96. Great fun, even with the rain. WORST embarrassment at the big do Gov. Huckabee’s stupid cell phone call to God as an invocation at the Clinton Presidential Center ceremony seemed to embarrass even President Bush and probably killed any chance the lame-duck governor might have had of nabbing one of those plum fed sinecures in the Bush second term. WORST kidders Forty-four per cent of Arkansas voters in the general election in November voted for Jim Holt of Springdale, whose name is listed in the contemporary-usage dictionaries under synonyms for “nut.” That many people voting for a candidate so obviously seriously deranged was either an impressive tribute to the persuasive powers of that horde of homo-hating preachers who visited the land like a plague, or nearly half the Arkansas electorate was just kidding around. Pretty scary either way. Holt decided after the election to be his own news media henceforth, having discovered during the campaign that all the regular media types are Commie atheists. Really, that H should be a D. WORST prospect The legislature will be meeting again next month, and already just-elected state Rep. Frank Glidewell of Fort Smith, one of those goody-goody Republicans, is pre-filing morals legislation. One of his stupid bills would require property owners to disclose to prospective buyers whether illegal drugs were used, sold or manufactured on the property in the last five years. The Arkansas Blog wondered, “Does this include when Junior fires up a big blunt while you’re out of town? It will sure spice up real estate listings: ‘3BR/2BA, Cabot, former crank lab.’ ” BEST automotive body shop in Hot Spring County According to a big billboard near Malvern, it’s “Gordy’s Body Shop … voted best in the county two consecutive years.” What would you bet that a large number of the people who cast ballots in this competition were Gordy, Gordy’s relatives and people who work for Gordy? WORST fire safety En route to a fire-safety demonstration for children in October, the Magnolia Fire Department accidentally set fire to a residence, seriously damaging it and killing the occupants’ dog. BEST cool It was so cool on the evening of July 26, traditionally the hottest day of the year, that you needed a blanket, or two of them, to sleep under an open window. WORST jaunt A 10-foot alligator ventured a jaunt across busy Highway 165 near Dermott one evening in July, and was hit twice before he reached the other side. Wrecked both cars; killed the gator. WORST baby toss A Rogers woman was arrested in July for repeatedly throwing her baby high into the air in a Wal-Mart store in an attempt to make the child stop crying. Shocked and frightened fellow shoppers called police, who arrested the woman in the parking lot. BEST mug shots of idiots Police arrested four Jonesboro teens in July who were in possession of a stolen digital camera and were discovered to have used it to take pictures of themselves committing the theft. WORST billboard Seen in Southwest Arkansas in April, a closeup of the bloody, thorn-crowned face of the crucified Jesus, captioned “This Blood’s for You.” BEST whupping When two armed hoodlums on a mission of robbery and perhaps murder — part of a gang initiation, they said — broke into the home of a frail 53-year-old Jonesboro woman and her 23-year-old daughter, the two women calmly defied them, disarmed them, beat them up and sent them running. Of the older woman, a Jonesboro policeman said, “She put a pretty good whupping on one of them.” WORST clemencies The worst of several rounds of gubernatorial clemencies announced for some of the state’s most vicious criminals might have been the one in July, when the nominees for the governor’s sympathy and early release included a murderer who had beaten a pregnant woman to death. The governor further imperiously proclaimed that he wouldn’t explain any of his clemency decisions — or comment on them, or answer questions about them — because he was too busy and had other things to think about. The resulting outcry, especially from victims’ families, obliged him to rethink this matter, and make minor concessions. BEST explanation It rained at our place only three days in the first week of June, but then it rained every day the rest of the month, and the first four days of July. Moreover, the temperature never once got as high as 90 degrees in June. A friend of ours, Mrs. Ruby Brown of Pine Bluff, used to have a handy, all-purpose explanation for weird happenings of all kinds, especially those involving weather. “It’s the end of the world,” she would say. If it rained frogs or snowed blue snow or if a tornado made off with somebody’s boar hog and left the sow standing right beside it, it signified the end of the world. June’s strange weather apparently was no such portent — the world kept on turning and the usual summertime hot and dry soon returned — but it sure was peculiar. Oldtim-ers said they’d never seen a June like it. WORST rain for cotton The weird weather continued with heavy rain in late October and early November, usually the driest time of the year in Arkansas, and was estimated to have damaged the cotton crop by at least 15 per cent. WORST sports A brawl broke out between coaches, players, spectators and officials at a Concord-Pangburn high school basketball game at Pangburn in February. “It was near-riot conditions,” a policeman on the scene said. Concord players and coaches had to be escorted by police through an angry mob to their waiting bus, and the bus made such a quick getaway that it struck one of the escorting officers in the butt, injuring him. Pangburn school officials subsequently enacted a policy to ban known rowdies from attending games, including a female relative of the police chief who was said to have brayed threats at him for trying to restore order during the brawl. BEST postmark for your valentine Romance. BEST tomatoes We bought a 25-pound lug for $5 on July 16 at a roadside produce stand in Grant County. There were 52 tomatoes in it ranging in size from baseball to softball. Tasty, tangy, red, fairly thin-skinned. The attendant said they were being sold that cheap because they were “just ol’ canning tomatoes,” by which he said he meant that there might be a bad one or two down at the bottom of the box. There were in fact four stinkers that we donated to the Backyard Wildlife Fund. The other 48 went mainly into BLTs — a pretty bodacious bargain at about a dime apiece. WORST choice of words When several states approved gay marriages early in the year, Gov. Huckabee said Arkansas would not follow suit. “We’re not going to let states like California and Massachusetts push this down our throats,” he said. BEST air Voters in Fayetteville passed an anti-smoking ordinance in February adding all enclosed work places except bars and tobacco shops to the list of establishments where smoking is banned. WORST toke A man awaiting trial at the Franklin County Courthouse in Salem in February on malicious mischief charges stepped out to the front stairs for a smoke break, and was promptly arrested by officers and charged with possession of marijuana when the “cigarette” he fired up turned out to be a joint. BEST website for gay Republican porn John Boozman, the Third District congressman, was more than a little miffed to learn early in the year that someone had bought the boozmanforcongress.com domain name and turned the website into one featuring gay porn. WORST knight Mothers Against Drunk Driving handed out Blue Knight awards in February to lawmen with good records getting drunk drivers off the road, and they made Gov. Huckabee an honorary Blue Knight — this just a couple of days after he’d outraged authorities in Van Buren by announcing he’d grant executive clemency to a penitentiary inmate from there with multiple drunk-driving convictions. BEST names Barley Buckeye Oates was charged in a prescription drug fraud case in Fayetteville in February. Ulicious Glymp Jr. was charged in a Grant County battery case in January. He died later in the year. Weather’by Dot Com Chanel Fourcast Sheppard was the subject of a custody and proposed-name-change hearing in Washington County in April. BEST nickname Richard H. “Knothead” Mitchell of Fordyce died in August. WORST nickname The Pine Bluff Commercial in June carried the obituary of Toyrie “T-Murder” Bremmer, 25, of that city. WORST prosecuting The state Supreme Court in June ordered a rapist from Benton released from the state penitentiary because of prosecutorial incompetence in the case. The man was properly convicted of raping a 12-year-old girl, but the prosecutor fiddle-farted around and never brought him back to court for sentencing. That task was left to the derelict prosecutor’s successor, who finally got the rapist sent to prison six years after the conviction, during which time he had committed a variety of other crimes. The high court ruled that the sentencing didn’t come speedily enough after the conviction, and ordered him freed after having served less than a year of his 24-year sentence. He walked in late summer. BEST giving For the second straight year, Arkansans ranked second nationally behind Mississippians in percentage of their income devoted to charitable contributions. WORST omen A double murder occurred in Little Rock within the first hour of the new year. BEST omen The first week of the year was positively balmy, with record high temperatures on three of 2004’s first four days. WORST toll Five Arkansas servicemen were killed in Iraq in a day’s time the last weekend in April. WORST BS Showing some real class, someone dumped a load of cow manure on the site where marchers in a Gay Pride parade were to gather in Conway in June. BEST horse Smarty Jones, Philadelphia’s greatest underdog hero since Rocky Balboa, won a $5 million bonus in May from Charles Cella of Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs by winning two stakes races for three-year-olds at the Arkansas track during its spring meet and then going on to win the Kentucky Derby. BEST bet Charles Cella, who made that $5 million bonus offer mentioned earlier, had the good sense back last winter to buy an insurance policy to pay off half the debt should a horse come along to claim the money. That policy saved Cella more than $2 million. Then at the last minute, Cella, convinced that Smarty Jones would indeed win the Kentucky Derby, insured the second half of the bonus, saving himself $2 million more. He also made up the cost of those insurance premiums by placing what he called a “substantial” win bet on Smarty Jones in the Kentucky Derby. Meantime, Arkansas bettors at Oaklawn on Kentucky Derby day put so much simulcast win money on Smarty Jones that the track ran out of cash to pay off winning tickets and had to write checks for more than $1 million to those winning ticketholders. WORST keynote When Gov. Huckabee wasn’t turning murderers loose, he was keeping company with similarly disreputable types, as when he attended the Arkansas Leadership Prayer Breakfast in April, along with John and Patsy Ramsey, parents of the 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, murdered in 1996. John Ramsey was the keynote speaker at the breakfast, and his topic was the need for religious faith in trying times, such as when pretty much everybody involved in a high-profile murder case, and also everybody else in the world, figures you for the killer or the No. 1 accomplice. BEST day to fly a kite March 21. WORST sign that Butthead will always be with us To advertise its policy of playing 10 songs in a row without commercial interruption, a Little Rock radio station posted a billboard with a banner that said “Another Ten in a Row” and illustrated it with a gigantic closeup photo of 5 pairs of scantily-clad women’s breasts. Get it? Ten in a row! Heh-heh. BEST taters Ornamental sweet potato vines planted in barrels outside the Colonial Arms Apartments at Malvern by Ludie Rice and Trilby Jones produced some monster yams, including one shaped like (and as big as) a snapping turtle, and an eight-pounder said to be the size of a basketball. WORST news from the wonderful world of gasoline pricing Pump prices rose 29 cents in the first three months of 2004, to an all-time high of $1.80 a gallon for lead-free regular. At the first of May, they crept up to $1.90 a gallon and crossed the $2 barrier just before the end of May. After falling back into the buck eighties during the summer, they settled in again at around $2 a gallon in October. BEST library speech President George W. Bush, fresh off his first presidential-race victory, was gracious, neighborly, respectful and might near eloquent in his tribute to his predecessor, President Bill Clinton, at the ceremony marking the opening of the Clinton Presidential Center at Little Rock in November. Must’ve been really disappointing to the little knot of tireless Clinton-haters there at Capitol and Scott, who, sure enough, were back at their speciality again the day following, pissing on the collective leg of all concerned. WORST pets A passerby found a cardboard box full of poisonous African snakes beside the highway near the Little Rock airport in May. They belonged to a mysterious Scottish man who, having had them air-freighted into Little Rock, died after having been bitten by one of them. The Little Rock Zoo found a new home for them in Texas. WORST evidence of racism in Nolan Richardson’s firing In a deposition published in March, the former UA basketball coach cited as evidence of racism in his dismissal in 2002 that while he was head coach the university sent him on speaking engagements to mostly white audiences, and “there was times that I thought, many times, many times I thought that I was looked at a little different.” What did he mean “looked at different,” an interviewer wondered. “Which means just black,” Richardson said. WORST parts A Texarkana man died of rabies in May; unfortunately, the disease wasn’t diagnosed until after several of the man’s organs had been harvested and transplanted into patients in Oklahoma and Texas, and three of those patients promptly died of the disease. BEST tipper A peeping tom at Mountain Home in April left an unsigned note of apology and a $20 bill on the doorstep of the people he’d been spying on. WORST Boo booboo The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published in February a list of contributors to Wesley Clark’s presidential campaign, and listed itself as the No. 1 contributor, with donations totaling $3,521. A mistake, the paper’s publisher said in a sheepish editorial statement the next day. The paper doesn’t give money to political candidates, and the $3,521 was merely payback for some reporters’ transportation costs. Been nice if they’d told the news department. BEST quotes “This is the sorriest piece of legislation ever passed by the United States Congress since it was first convened in the 1700s. It is nothing but an expedited way to make it legal to cheat and steal from old people.” — Marion Berry of Gillett, First District congressman, on the prescription drug benefit law passed in 2003 and due to go into effect in 2006. “I’m not in any form against gays and lesbians. I’m not a homophobian.” — Jim Porter, Pulaski County justice of the peace, in support of a Quorum Court resolution in March opposing same-sex marriages. “In our home Dad taught us to respect Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gov. Orville [sic] Faubus, and our first president George Washington. They were all great men and … good role models for our children.” — J. Troy Massey of Harrison, founding commander of the Arkansas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, on Confederate Flag Day in April. WORST addiction A six-page spread in influential People magazine in February identified North-central Arkansas — and Jackson County in particular — as the epicenter of an epidemic of methamphetamine manufacture and use. One statistic from the People article suggested how widespread meth usage has become in rural America: Authorities estimated that 30 percent of the adult population of Jackson County might be hooked on it. No kidding. BEST timing Spring’s first jonquils popped up in a neighbor’s yard on Feb. 13, just in time for us to filch a couple for our valentine. WORST reply After the Saline County prosecutor wrote to Gov. Huckabee in January to suggest that the governor might want to alter his clemency-granting procedure for major felons to make that procedure a little easier on victims and their families, the governor’s deputy legal counsel, Cory Cox, fired off this response: “The governor read your letter and laughed out loud. He wanted me to respond to you. I wish you success as you cut down on your caffeine consumption.” WORST chair Electrocution was officially concluded as a means of execution at the state penitentiary in January, after nearly a century. The electric chair that had been in use in recent years was removed to a museum at Tucker prison. The electric chair replaced the gallows in Arkansas in the early 1900s because officials considered it more humane. Lethal injection, our only remaining method of capital punishment, replaced the chair for the same reason. BEST gigs for a super A state Department of Education study published in January showed that the two highest-paid Arkansas school superintendents, at $167,000 and $162,000, were those at Springdale and Cabot. Newport had to pay its superintendent nearly a quarter of a million dollars in April to get rid of him after what students and faculty described as a reign of terror and thuggery. WORST nose news The Jackson Cookie company in North Little Rock, which for years had filled the morning riverfront streets of Little Rock with the delightful aroma of cookies baking, was closed in January by a Texas firm that had bought 20 bakeries nationwide the year before and shut them all down. BEST golf John Daly, the beer-drinking, chain-smoking, oft-married, messed-up, beloved, trailer-trash former Arkie, made a beautiful playoff sand shot to win the Buick Open in February, his first tour victory in nine years, in what all his fans hoped would be the start of a storybook comeback. WORST diet craze Bunless hamburgers became available at the first of the year at several of the big fast-food chains hoping to capitalize on the low-carbohydrate diet craze. BEST ambassador Jennifer Wu, 17, of Arkadelphia won the $75,000 top prize in the Teen Jeopardy tournament in February on the ABC television network. Her bright smile and sparkling personality and obvious love for her hometown made her everybody’s favorite in the competition. The best ambassador Arkansas has sent abroad in a long time. WORST hunting companion During a hunting trip last December, a Cleburne County man shot and killed his 14-year-old son, saying he mistook the boy for a deer. The same man, during an earlier hunting trip, had shot and seriously wounded another hunting buddy, having mistaken that one for a turkey. Sympathetic authorities charged him only with a few minor hunting infractions in the killing of his son. They did suspend his hunting license, though. For a year. WORST place to advertise There are only a few private places left that advertising slogans haven’t penetrated. One of them is the obituary. Or it was until the first of the year when a Little Rock mortuary started adorning its obits with the funeral director’s name and his slogan, “Only Heaven Can Serve You Better!” BEST recognition It was announced in September that Heifer International, the Arkansas-headquartered organization that donates farm animals to poor people around the world as a way of fighting hunger, had won the $1 million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the world’s largest and most prestigious humanitarian award. BEST day for hickory watching They were at their golden peak on Nov. 19. WORST appointment Well, maybe not the worst, since the governor always makes this an extremely competitive category. But the first of the worst in 2004 was the governor’s appointment to a Gubernatorial Task Force on Racial Profiling of a former campus police chief at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff who had been charged with 22 felony counts of misusing information from a crime database at UAPB. WORST consequencing The second of Gov. Huckabee’s worst appointments was that of W.R. “Bud” Harper to the Arkansas Tech University board, just seven months after he’d pressured for Harper’s resignation as state Department of Emergency Management after Harper had sent around an e-mail message that ridiculed ethnics and emigrants. Huckabee had called that e-mail “indefensible” and “racial stereotyping” and said such actions “must be consequenced.” His appointment soon thereafter of Harper to the ATU board must’ve been his idea of consequencing. WORST session The purpose of a special session of the state legislature, which lasted a record 60 days, into mid-February, was education reform, ordered by the Supreme Court. The lawmakers got precious little accomplished in the way of reform, but they did raise the state sales tax (the one that hits poor people hardest). The governor was an unindicted co-conspirator in that tax hike, allowing it to become law without his signature. BEST mix One evening in early February we had four kinds of precipitation falling at the same time — snow, sleet, rain and hail. WORST buzz Slapped the year’s first mosquito — one of a small swarm that came up from Big Creek — on Feb. 22. WORST escape plan A clerk at the Wal-Mart store in Magnolia got suspicious when a man wearing police handcuffs came into the store one day in February and asked about buying some bolt cutters. Police came to the store and arrested the man, who had escaped from their custody a short time earlier. BEST evidence trail Two Cherokee Village men who lived near a convenience store and were regular customers there decided to rob the place in January. They were halfway through the stickup when one of them, who had just cashed a check with his name written on it, decided it might be a good idea to try to hide his identity by donning a handkerchief mask. Police followed a trail of scattered small bills to their apartment, and found the handkerchief outside the front door and the rest of the money and the holdup weapon inside. It wasn’t reported but you just know the one with the mask asked the police in amazement, “How in the world did you figure out it was us?” WORST ethics The Arkansas Ethics Commission fined and reprimanded state Treasurer Gus Wingfield early in the year for having in effect opened the trough at the treasurer’s office at the Capitol the year before and invited his immediate family to come and get it. WORST leads Probably not many readers got past the eighth word of a very long feature story in the Sheridan Headlight in February about an infamous Depression Era crime spree. Here’s the story’s lead: “The year was 1935. Theodore Roosevelt was president. …” An op-ed column by Mike Masterson in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette early in the year began this way: “It has become virtually impossible in 2004 America for citizens to express their honest convictions or support truth over illusion. As a nation, we are suffering from the corrupting influences our homage to dishonesty fosters. Can I say it any plainer?” Plain wasn’t the problem here, Mike. Not making any sense was the problem. WORST bus ride A Tunica-bound tour bus overturned near West Memphis in October, killing 14 Midwesterners and injuring 16.
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