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After a few months of getting nagged by Junior, The Observer and his brother finally took some time on Saturday night to pack up the young'un and take him on that most Arkie of outings: a trip to see the Ghost Light of Gurdon.
The Observer got down to see the Light a few summers back — OK, more than a few. After driving for what seemed like hours up Interstate 30, we took the Highway 53 exit and headed south into the scrub pines. Parking at the railroad crossing, The Observer and friends walked along wavy, heat-warped tracks for over a mile, crossing splintery trestles and keeping a wary eye on the railbed, lest we step on a copperhead. Then, just when we were ready to turn back, we saw it: a quivering, flickering, yellow light that seemed to hover far up the tracks. We've since heard that smarter men than us have determined that it's probably car headlights, somehow refracted from the interstate. At the time, though, we were thoroughly impressed.
It was threatening rain last Saturday night, but around 5 p.m. the storm the weatherman had promised would hit Central Arkansas dodged south and missed the state almost entirely. Bundled up by his mother, Junior — so excited that he kept leaning forward in his seat as if trying to get there a split second sooner — snuggled in between The Observer and Uncle and off we went.
By the time we got there, a low fog had drifted over the tracks. We took a gravel road just before the train crossing on Highway 53. At the end was a kind of cul-de-sac carved out of the dense woods — actually the hearse turnaround for a small cemetery that lies just across the rails. We dismounted, leaving the headlights on for a moment. After a few seconds, The Observer reached in and flipped off the lights.
With the cloud cover still hanging, the night was like a black velvet bag thrown over your head. Even when we turned on our flashlights, the fog swallowed their glow cleanly after about six feet. Beyond that might as well have been outer space. In the darkness, The Observer heard Junior's footsteps as he ran around the truck to where we stood. His face was panicked in the light from his little lamp. “I'm scared,” he said. “Let's go. Please.” He's smart beyond his years, and tall like his father. I sometimes forget he's so young. To tell you the truth, however, The Observer was a little spooked too.
After we were safely in the truck and headed back to Little Rock, Junior shamefacedly apologized to his Uncle. Don't worry, Uncle told him. There will be other weekends, and the Light isn't going anywhere. What we didn't add was that whether we ever come back to Gurdon or not, The Observer got what we wanted out of the trip: a long drive on a dark night with our son, when he was still full of wonder about the world.
The Observer headed to Jun-ior's school one evening last week to attend a PTA meeting. On the agenda: various and sundry. To be honest, while our lovely bride pays close attention in those things, our approach to the PTA is the pretty much the same strategy we took back when Mama dragged us to church: stare straight ahead and endeavor to look interested. When the public school system in America fails and five-year-olds go back to working in the coal mines, you know who to blame.
What we were really there for was the performance: the musical stylings of the school's current crop of third graders, including Junior. The numbers were uniformly fine, featuring quite a bit of synchronized clapping, which is harder than it looks.
For a grand finale, the kids launched into a song about Barack Obama. We didn't pay close enough attention to the words to recreate them for you here, but suffice it to say that the song was glowing in its praise for The Prez.
The Observer isn't going to lie to you, friends. We voted for Obama. Voted proudly. We might have voted for him twice if we weren't afraid we'd be frog marched off to prison. Yes, we believe Barack will come to be known as one of the great presidents. But we couldn't help but wonder: is the guy really song-worthy yet?
On the way home, we asked Spouse: what do you think would have happened if — at some point in the past eight years — that semester's bounty of third graders had risen at a PTA meeting to sing a song of praise for George W. Bush? In response, she just looked out the window at the little clapboard kingdom of Hillcrest scrolling past, and smiled.
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