Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
As of Feb. 15 it had been 15 years on the dot since The Observer's Dear Old Pa, then only 51 years old, shuffled off his mortal coil and flew away, a moment that made Yours Truly feel like we might not survive it. Survive it we must and did, however, as we are here to tell the tale.
It is a hell of a thing to lose your father, maybe especially when he is so young. The Observer was 26 at the time, now grown into a disagreeable old crank of 41, wrinkled and gray bearded, bittersweet as apple cider on the cloudy days. As we've told people on occasion, we sometimes imagine the line of our blood as a literal line — men standing chest to back, Those to Come stretching back behind us, Yours Truly only with Junior's young hand on our shoulder for now. In our mind, the head of that line is the edge of a high and treacherous cliff over the sea, a windy place. As the ones before us have died, they stepped over.
For a while now, The Observer has been standing at the head of that line, toes over the treacherous edge, nothing but the waves far below us and the wind in our face. It can be terrifying to stand there. But it can be freeing as well, knowing that you are the product of decent people, all their love, passed down through the ages, passed back from you to Those to Come; to Junior's hand, and from him to the unseen hand that may yet rest on his shoulder. Knowing that the people you love once stood there, and that others you love will stand there yet, makes it easier.
Knowing Monday was coming, The Observer has been putting some memories of dear ol' Pa on Dr. Zuckerberg's Fantabulous Book of Face in the past few weeks. Little things he said or did, bits of wisdom. Justin Booth — the once-homeless poet whose work The Observer has championed ever since we bought a terribly printed chapbook from a strung-out man on a street corner downtown in 2012 and was absolutely poleaxed by the loveliness of his verse — commented on one post that some of Pa's advice, passed through his son, helped him through a bad patch once. To which The Observer replied that Pa's wisdom is the only reason we were having that conversation in the first place, The Observer having stopped for a chat and to buy a book back in 2012 instead of sidestepping our friend like he wasn't there, as so many did. As we further told Booth: The Observer saw Pa give his last $20 to a homeless person once, at a time when he had a quarter-tank of gas and three cigarettes. He was a four-packs-a-day man. That's sacrifice. But his son was watching.
Another story we've told, surely to the horror of some, is this: The whole time The Observer was growing up, Pa had a list of people he planned to kill — and at least one building he planned to burn to the ground — if he ever came down with terminal cancer. Not a long list. But a list, full of people who probably damn well deserved it; people who had been unfathomably cruel to those he loved or himself when he was younger. He talked about it fairly often when The Observer was a teenager, in that joking tone people use when they ain't joking in the least. Let's just put it this way: After Pa called us in the fall of 2000 to say he was dying, The Observer watched CNN reeeeeeal close for the next few days.
Most of the folks on the list were dead already by the time Pa got sick, and the rest have, to our knowledge, died of perfectly natural causes in the years since he passed. The ones who outlived him, however, never knew how lucky they were that The Observer's old man learned to let it all go and forgive. Because he was serious as a heart attack about the list, and, like all people who are worth a damn, he usually did exactly what he said he would do.
A gift before dying, then, to those he believed deserved it the least. We've always thought there was something beautiful in that. Rest in continued peace, father. Your son is still standing the line.