Book Price Markdown — Gift of the Season Day 4

new cover Crime skewedObscure laws often become weapons used selectively against people who offend prevailing social sensibilities. This was the case examined in A Crime Unfit To Be Named. In 1949, a local man in this small Bible belt town became the target of extraordinary police scrutiny. Despite his advanced age and the private nature of his activities, if found guilty John William Campbell would face hard time. Swept up in this vendetta, two younger women would also become entangled in the notorious Arkansas criminal justice system.

Now for a limited time, this paperback is available for only $6.95, marked down from its regular price of $9.95. Amazon buy link

“I started reading ‘A Crime Unfit to Be Named’ and just didn’t stop. It’s really interesting and well written. Excellent research, too. Very fine job.”
—J. B. Hogan, Historian and Author of “The Apostate.”

Same Old

ditch copy

Creek another thirty feet down on the right.

Oh, the wringing of hands as the State of Arkansas once again tries to cough up more money for prisons. One of the poorest states in the nation, Arkansas struggles to pay for schools and roads. But those programs are optional. Prisons are not.

That is, you see, because we must punish Crime.

Thus comes the grand news that Arkansas ranks third in the nation in prison population growth. Not only are prisons stuffed, so are the county jails where duly convicted criminals await prison space. Not only are all lockups in the state overflowing, we’ve now exported hundreds of prisoners to Texas where their for-profit system takes all the money we want to send them.

Most recently, the genius that is the current state legislature has passed a law wherein persons on probation or parole can be stopped and searched not only by parole/probation officers but also by any other law enforcement officer. The arguably reasonable rationale behind this law is that a would-be burglar might be gently nudged along a path of righteousness with more authority figures looking over his shoulder.

They actually believe this will reduce the prison population. My prediction is the opposite. More noses in private business means more marijuana arrests.

The disconnect lies in the reality of present day culture. Whether our criminal codes yet reflect it, marijuana is the new beer. Over half the states have now made marijuana legal for medical use and three (so far) have made it legal for recreational use. In those states, tax revenues are booming while teen drug use and crime in general are down.

We’ll have none of that in Arkansas. No sir.

No, here we prefer to rope goats and dip snuff. Here we produce an annual crop of Bible-thumpin’ preachers in jail for molesting children. Here we have state and federal legislators fixated on regulating a woman’s uterus and other people’s relationships. (I can say these things—I’m a native.)

I live on a dirt road. Periodically the road is graced by the passage of a road grader. The road grader moves dirt around, swiping it from the edges and piling it up in the middle where it is spread along to fill up holes and trenches cut by rain. Next time it rains, the holes appear again.

At the worst spot (pictured above), a cavernous roadside ditch abruptly ends. Water has nowhere to go. So it runs across the road. The solution is amazingly simple: cut the ditch another 30 feet to the creek. Like magic, no more bone-jarring trench.

I’ve long pondered this particular problem. I’ve sent carefully composed letters and drawings to the county road superintendent. I’ve chanced upon the grader mid-task and stopped to belabor my point with the operator. He’s always amiable, working a big cud and nodding while I talk and point. “Yes, Ma’am,” he says.

Then he grades the road exactly the same as before.

That quiet shredding sound you hear is me ripping my hair.

Is getting high a crime? If you get high on alcohol, it’s not a crime. If you zoom around all smiles on your script of Valium or Xanax, not a crime. Face it. People smoke weed. Water runs downhill. 

There’s never been a study showing that laws against drugs have been effective in stopping drug use or addiction. All we have to do is look at the status of our prisons to know those laws have failed. We have a greater percentage of people using drugs now than ever before. Great work, guys. Keep filling those holes.

In 2014, Arkansas arrest data show 14,480 crimes against persons (murder, rape, assault) with the largest subset of 8,103 for simple assault. There were 20,329 crimes against property (arson, burglary, vandalism, fraud, theft) with the largest subset of 8,360 for shoplifting.

Drug arrests (in the category of ‘crimes against society’) totaled 13,626 with 6965 for marijuana possession and 797 for marijuana sales or manufacture. The next largest subset in drug crimes was 1748 arrests for methamphetamine possession and 481 for meth sales/manufacture. (The other 1218 ‘crimes against society’ include gambling, prostitution, pornography, and weapons laws violations.)

Is possession of marijuana an offense equal to assault? Who is harmed? Equal to shoplifting? Whose goods are stolen? Does it make any sense that almost as many people are arrested for drugs as are arrested for crimes against people?

In 2013, Arkansas prisons held 23,384 inmates. Another 29,946 offenders were on probation and 23,227 on parole. The corrections budget that year was $449 million. We can only guess what percentage of the prison/jail population is serving time for drug offenses because the state doesn’t collect that information.

They don’t want to know.

If drug offenders are convicted at the same rate as offenders in other categories, then we could assume that 30% of our prison population is there for drug offenses and 57% of those for marijuana.

There has always been an element of society which believes its duty is to regulate how people think. Its lineage can be traced to the Inquisition and setting witches on fire. No one argues whether crimes against persons and property should be punished. But the idea that the state should attempt to regulate our minds violates every principle of a free society. 

The standard argument in support of drug prohibition involves token concerns about people harming themselves. Worse, people high on drugs can hurt other people. Yes. But people who harm themselves with potato chips or cigarettes aren’t arrested. People trashed on booze can beat up their wives or get behind the wheel and kill a carload of innocent people. But we don’t need alcohol prohibition to prosecute impaired driving or domestic violence.

Aside from trying to arrest our way out of behavior we don’t like, the would-be guardians of our minds have promulgated a flood of anti-drug propaganda. The drug problem flavor of the decade has moved from psychedelics to marijuana to methamphetamines. Now meth is so ’90s. Today the big evil is prescription drugs. (Ironic, considering the incessant television ads hawking drugs for every conceivable human ache and mood.)

By now there’s a nearly-one hundred year tradition of criminalizing certain substances and the persons who use them. The stigma once attached to demon rum has been transferred to a growing list of psychoactive substances. We have no choice. We have to build more prisons.

Let’s keep filling those holes.

Arkansas will be among the last to let go of its attempt to control what people do in the privacy of their homes or heads. These folks are still trying to get back to the 19th century. Even though the Bible says nothing on the subject of drug use and relates multiple instances of Jesus Christ Himself using wine—hey, even making it out of water—religious extremists in control of the state refuse to allow statewide alcohol sales and would fight to the death before legalizing marijuana even for medical use.

The facts have been clear for decades. Any cost/benefit analysis would show the terrible price we pay for this futile effort. We’re stuck with the same old reaction, prisons before schools, before roads, before social services and other interventions that have the potential to actually reduce drug abuse.

How long, oh Lord, ’til the ditch is cut to the creek?

Old Timers

100_0565I’d made it halfway down the dog food aisle when the woman’s words penetrated.

“Hey, aren’t you…? Didn’t you…?”

The woman had turned to look at me. I knew she thought she knew me. I looked at her closely, moving my cart against the bags of dog food so I didn’t block the aisle. She did look kind of familiar. I glanced at the man standing behind her. He looked slightly familiar too.

“Virginia Wilson,” she said. “Dennis,” she added, motioning to her husband.

“Of course! Wow, it’s been so long.” I studied them as my brain clicked backwards through decades. In 1974, when Steve and I first moved to the land his parents deeded us on this mountain, Dennis and Virginia had a place on past ours another two miles down the rough dirt road.

“Yeah, we thought that was you,” she said with a smile. “I hardly know anybody up there anymore. They’re all dying off.”

“I only know a few,” I replied. “Burkart, Northcutt—can’t call them anymore.” I pondered the sorry state of affairs. “After Art died, you know his wife hooked up with a guy named Ron Martin. They had a kid and raised Art’s son Tommy—he was only two when Art died, and he’s about thirty now.”

We shook our heads at the passage of time.

I continued with my story, because at some point it would make sense why I told it. “Ron, he moved out. He lives down there in that little house Williams built for his son out by the road. Lives with a guy named Chris. They work together.”

That brought the topic back to people who lived on the road. Names of people who used to live here. Who lived in their houses now.

I could have said a lot more about Ron and Chris. How Ron’s back is messed up bad, an injury he’s carried since his days in Vietnam when the 101st Airborne was jumping out of helicopters into jungle, when Ron was a skinny little eighteen-year-old kid with a fifty pound pack on his back. He’s missing a few teeth now, thin as a rail, damn proud of his ‘Nam days and the 101st. He still tries to work, has to work since he’s got a seventeen year old son and his military pension even for a disabled person isn’t enough. He’s not supposed to work.

He’s got COPD, has to use oxygen. Wakes up in the morning in agony. Has to take his pain meds and stand in a hot shower until his back settles down. He had to move out on his wife, Art’s widow. She’s got issues, mostly anger. So he moved in with Chris.

Chris never was in the service. He lost an eye when he was nine, one of those running wild in the neighborhood situations, somebody throwing rocks or using a slingshot. Nobody really took care of Chris. His alcoholic dad did things to him, to all his kids, but Chris loved him anyway. Like kids do. By the time Chris hooked up with Ron, he was in his forties, had done every drug long enough to see himself sliding down a hole. Managed to get himself off heroin, off meth.

But Chris will never give up alcohol. Somewhere he’s got grown kids. Once he had good jobs in construction. The man has an amazing talent—just understands how to put things together. And an artful eye—one. Painter, carpenter, drywall guy—he’s got the skills. But he works to drink. Soon as he knocks off the job for the day, he hits Roger’s Rec. Sometimes he has enough sense to give Ron his money and listen to Ron when he says it’s time to go home.

Sometimes he wakes up in the wee hours with police shaking him awake and pulling him from where he passed out in the bushes behind Roger’s. They don’t even book him. They just call Ron. Nobody can fix Chris.

“Yeah,” Virginia says. “Remember Foster Copeland? Lacy Barrett bought that house after he died. I think they rent it out.”

I remember Foster—tall, sandy red hair, big guy. His house sits across the road from Ron and Chris. Not the house he had when we moved up here. That one burned. Then all the Jehovah Witnesses came up to help their ‘brother’ build a new one, a house raising that lasted a weekend and put him and his family back into a home.

Foster sold tool handles. He’d drive around these parts, I don’t know how far his route extended, selling handles from the back of his car. We’d take tools down there for him to fix. Five dollars. Pitchfork, hoe, shovel, maddock, axe—he had all the right handles made of good strong hickory. Some of my tools still have Foster’s handles in them. He died of a brain hemorrhage sometime in the mid-Eighties.

“I know the guy that lives there now,” I said. “Sammy something. He’s friends with Ron and Chris. He and his wife live in Foster’s house.”

“Is there somebody new living in Randy Northcutt’s house?” Dennis asked. Randy’s house is next door to Foster’s. Next door as in, maybe a hundred yards down the road.

“Yeah, I guess it sold—the realtor sign is down and they’ve cleaned up the place. Too bad about Randy. He really let that place get messed up.”

“Oh, that wasn’t Randy,” Virginia said. She glanced at Dennis and he shook his head. I knew he missed Neal. For years, every day, late afternoon, Dennis’ dump truck would be parked up next to Neal Northcutt’s fence and they’d be inside having a beer and discussing things in general.

“He sold that house,” she continued. “Soon as Neal died, Randy sold it to his sister and left. Haven’t heard a word about him since.”

“She lived in that trailer for a while, the one that used to belong to Davenport?” Davenport was a skinny little ex-military who married a big German woman. He died of cancer, left the place to her. She gave up after a couple of years and sold everything to Neal.

“Yeah, her and her husband. They fixed it up then sold it to Wesley Harris, I think was his name. They added on a really nice house, but that trailer’s still in there.” She paused to scoot her cart over so another shopper could go by. “I think they’re there, but I don’t know. I can’t keep up.”

Virginia’s a cute little woman with a petite figure and friendly smile. I think she’s into Jesus. We never socialized much, even in those early years when Steve, his brother Art, and Dennis got together to drink, smoke, and cuss. The guys hung out while the women went about the business of fixing meals, taking care of kids, keeping house. I saw no reason to buck the system—they never talked about much of interest to me.

Early on, we hired Dennis to build us a nice pond below the first pond. He was in the hauling and heavy equipment business. We’d see him driving home, groaning up the mountain with his dump truck in first gear, hauling his bulldozer behind him on a beat-up flatbed. Once the pond filled up, Steve and I took the kids—I think we only had two at the time, late 70s—and drove over to Huntsville to a fish farm. Brought back buckets of fingerling catfish to stock it. Never once caught a catfish out of there, at least that I can remember.

Time changes everything. The dam settled and trees took hold. Now their roots have riven the red clay dam base and weakened it enough to erode. The overflow ditch to the side filled up with fescue and weeds, so water spilled over the top of the dam after heavy rains. A ditch developed across the top. The ditch is big now, maybe three feet across at the top and cutting down into the dam at least two feet. I keep thinking I’ll get somebody up here with a load of red clay to fix all that. I’d have them clean out the overflow ditch at the same time so water can’t top the dam again. But that’s at least $500 that I don’t have. So Dennis’s dam keeps getting worse.

We tried to keep it up. I dug out that overflow ditch. Steve dug it out. The kids got older and the deer population exploded and making a garden down there became a painful futility. Then Art died and a few years later Steve and I fell apart, and then I didn’t have the money or the heart to go down there and walk around in our ghosts.

But things with Dennis fell apart before the pond dam went bad. One day Steve came home from work furious. He’d stopped down at Neal’s. Neal was kind of the godfather of the road, him and Walter Burkart. Both were retired military, hiding out in the Ozark woods after a lifetime of being bossed around. Walter didn’t drink, so he didn’t hang out with the drinking crowd. Neal’s second home was the White Star Tavern, especially after Penny died. He called it his office. Everybody loved Neal and Walter.

So Steve came home from Neal’s where he’d seen a dead redtail hawk in the bed of Dennis’s pickup. Dennis admitted to shooting it, like there was sport in it. Proud of himself.

Steve loved redtails. He loved anything in nature, but especially hawks. When we first got together, he’d tell me the names of trees, types of birds, insects, snakes. I learned a lot in those twenty years until I couldn’t stand living with him anymore. Ironic that because of the kids, I stayed on the land and he moved to town.

Anyway, Steve stormed into the house ranting about the dead redtail and called the game warden. I remember his hands shaking while he looked up the number. Redtails are protected birds. You can’t even have a dead one you pick up off the road. Can’t have a feather off one. Red-shouldered hawks I think are the same, like eagles and other birds of prey mostly killed off by early settlers under the idea of protecting their chickens.

Dennis got in trouble on account of that hawk. I think Art would still socialize with Dennis, but Steve never did. Then when Art died in 1989, the mix of Campbell and Wilson at Mineral Springs just withered on the vine.

We stood there in Walmart, the Wilsons and I, talking about the old timers. We were the old timers now. As we were turning away to go on with our shopping, Virginia laughed and allowed as how I’d probably better not call if I needed anything, because she didn’t do much for anybody anymore. And I said yeah, I felt the same way. Besides, we agreed we didn’t know most of the people who lived up here now and wouldn’t be likely to take kindly to any neighborly overtures unless there was some kind of gawdawful emergency.

Lots of us who lived up here in those early days thought there would be a gawdawful emergency at any moment. Some lunatic would push the button and the world would go up in mushroom clouds. The Ozarks was one of the places where wind drift would save us from the worst of the fallout. We’d be the ones who could still grow food, pull clean water up from our wells, join together in a tribe to share what we had and fend off the savage hordes.

We learned how to raise and slaughter animals, grow and preserve food, and we stocked extra supplies of salt and bullets. Slowly our kids grew up. We started to understand we could never possess enough bullets.

Now we’re the old timers. Until our reunion in the dog food aisle, it had been at least twenty years since I saw Virginia and Dennis. People don’t move to the woods to socialize. We probably won’t live long enough to see each other again.



ID-10090006I admit it. Displays of emotion bother me. I’m not talking about a quick hug or peck on the lips in greeting, or a quiet dab of handkerchief at the corner of the eye. And laughter of just about any level slips past my discomfort zone.

It’s the wailing and shrieking of grief that sets my teeth on edge, a face wadded up with tears streaming, shoulders hiccupping. Whoever is suffering to this extreme shouldn’t be watched. Grief on display is, to me, a bit of fakery, or at least exaggeration, an attempt to garner attention and sympathy.

Similarly, I don’t want to observe someone convulsing in pain. If it’s an emergency, I would be the first to summon medical care or do what I could to relieve the injury. But if there’s nothing to be done, if the person is recovering from surgery or an illness and the moans and groans tumble from his lips in a constant agony, unless it’s a loved one who can benefit from my bedside assurances, I don’t need to be there.

It’s not that I deny soul-stirring experiences. But to me, these moments of extremis should be kept private. This was how I was raised, likely a tradition hearkening back to my cultural origins in the British Isles where a stiff upper lip practically goes without saying. I suspect an evolved survival instinct at work here. Indisposed by injury or seized in grief, a person is unaware of a lurking threat who means to take advantage.

And it’s not that I myself don’t wail and sob in sorrow, or writhe with a crushing headache. But I do it alone, behind closed doors, where I’m assured that no one observes. Alone, I am safe to let down my defenses and lick my wounds in solitude.

I’m one of those people who don’t want a hospital stay to become the next big event. I’m very appreciative of new laws requiring the hospital to gain my explicit permission before allowing anyone to wander into my room. Once, years ago, as I lay in a hospital bed in considerable discomfort following surgery, I was set upon by do-gooders from my mother’s church who stood at the bedside and murmured various platitudes as if (a) I could actually comprehend what they were saying through the fog of pain meds, (b) their words somehow provided me important comfort, and (c) we could all pretend that their visit had little to do with anything but a kind of distorted voyeurism. I hardly knew them. I was outraged, but of course I couldn’t leap up and show them the door, which—I think—may have contributed to their pleasure in being there.

Like church do-gooders, many people evidently get off on watching other people expose themselves. This would explain the otherwise incomprehensible rise of various types of television shows where people intentionally throw their bodies through sadistic obstacle courses, or wade into a competition for a love partner, or allow cameras to track their every private moment. Who are these people? And I don’t mean just those crazy or desperate enough to submit to this kind of “challenge.” Who watches this stuff? Who wants to observe someone farting, or gasping for air, or sobbing in humiliation? Ye gods! Spare me.

Is it a good thing that people are recently more willing to exhibit their pathos for public consumption? Some argue ‘yes,’ that it is only when we acknowledge our feelings that we can breathe through the suffering and grow as a person. But please note—I’m not advocating for denial of feelings. I for one am confident I can acknowledge my feelings and ‘grow’ without subjecting those around me to the process. Please explain how exactly internal growth benefits from an audience? If anything, the audience factor dilutes the event’s vehemence and immediacy.

Is emotive denuding a new kind of drug? Are we reducing our most heart-felt moments to ridicule and (excuse me, it’s time for popcorn) commonality as another way to avoid really feeling what we’re feeling? Are we watching gladiators fight for their lives while laughing in the stands? At what point do we connect the dots between routine trivialization of sensibilities and killing without compunction?

But pardon me while I change hats. I am not only an extremely private person but also an author, striving to create stories that someone wants to read. And while I myself will not let my personal emotions slip past my mask, I have to keep in mind that my characters will gain no purchase among readers if they do not spill their guts all over the page. In order to breathe life into made-up people, I must make them laugh, cry, tremble in terror, and contort in agony. Whether the descriptions of these various feelings are torrid or restrained as befits the tone of the story, characters must reflect their intimate experience of love or battle in ways that reflect what the reader would expect of a real person. My bias against overt expressions of passion thus works against me in my writing.

Consolation in this conflict between what I do and what I write lies in the fact that my stories are a private experience between the reader and the page. Even more to the point, the way in which I develop and expose characters to events that wring their hearts and tear their flesh is in itself a private process contained within the scene and its circumstances. Beyond that point, if the day arrived that a story of mine appeared on television or the big screen where all those intense moments were exposed to the scrutiny of large audiences, I myself would not be able to watch.