"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
If you've never done it before, stepping off a ladder two stories above the pavement is a scary experience. I'm the son of a roofer, a man who believed in sweating his three sons into the white-collar world with a lot of blue-collar summertime labor, so I learned early.
My father said that like any dangerous activity in life — driving, fist fighting, shooting pool or love — stepping off a ladder was all about care. Too careless, and you might get hurt. Too careful, and you were bound to. The trick was finding the middle; enough fear to keep you thinking about what it would feel like to hit the cement at the bottom of the ladder, but not so much that you froze.
It's simple, really:
Put your hand on the butt end of the ladder rail. Don't look down.
Take one foot (smart foot, right foot) off the topmost rung. Swing it around to the edge of the roof.
Then, like a man stepping up to a high curb, make that simple hop — that deft shifting of weight and balance that leaves you, for one breathtaking second, a creature of the air.
I was born in Little Rock but I didn't live here until I was grown. My parents were both born here too, but the itch for space meant I spent my childhood orbiting the city like a moon. When I was a baby, we lived in a falling-down plantation house south of Fourche Dam Pike. At two, we moved to Crystal Valley Road near Lawson — an acre with a fishpond and a spot for my mother's garden. At 12, we joined the white flight to Benton.
Because of how my father earned his living, a living that usually kept us hanging onto the hem of middle class by our fingernails, I spent my summers making daylight forays into Little Rock to work. I learned to know it as he did, as both a native and an exile.
My dad was a Charles Dickens-grade ragamuffin from College Station who grew into a Hollywood-grade hood — black jeans, primered Ford sedan, and a knife in his sock. Though he had settled into semi-sensible fatherhood by the time I was old enough to know him, his was still very much a hustler's Little Rock, a town within a town. He knew all the shortcuts; the back alleys and holes through fences. He knew where they served fried buffalo fish off wax paper on Wednesdays; which corner store still sold RC Cola in the big bottles; who was having a sale on 16 penny framing nails. At any given time, he knew how much scrap copper was going for at Sol Alman's, and where a man could lay hands on the driver's door from a '51 Buick, and who to see about laying a bet on the Cowboys.
While I've thought a lot about my father's place in the universe since he died a few years back (when I'm whiskey stupid, I'm prone to think a lot about him, and to think that a roof is the only thing separating the human race from misery) life on a roof isn't at all romantic. These days, though, when I think back on that time of my life, it's not of sweat and itch and toil, but of how free it felt. Like being a bird. Like being a puff of dust.
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