I was born in El Dorado, Arkansas, way back in '52. My brother and I always felt that our town was odd. Had a sort of uncanniness to it. And some odd people (heh) grew up there. Things seemed colored with melodramatic shades. Like that hysterical, screaming night woman, pounding on our front door -- an unhinged oracle speaking of sudden death on the highway just now...and implicitly forecasting metaphysical doom to come. There were nightly drum beats in the pinewoods and viney jungle distance, giving me and my brother chronic, delicious frights. There was that creature -- half-pig, half-man -- that would occasionally appear at our bedroom window and peer silently. Ghosts came and went; it was problematic being left alone in the house. One night, very loud thumping -- no, more like a linebacker bouncing off the rafters -- in the attic prompted Dad to call the sheriff. He and a deputy showed up but were too afraid to climb up there to check it out. So Dad went up, while the law looked on from below. He found nothing at all up there.
Maybe kids are unusual everywhere, but back then, our friends and acquaintances certainly seemed so. Not anything overt; just an extra, inscrutable sheen. The strangest thing about them -- and adults -- was the fact that they felt entitled to exist. No qualms whatsoever about being real. They obviously never gave it a second thought. When I think back on my very-young to medium-young days, I see that kid who was in almost constant perplexity. Sitting in the monstrous, tank-like Olds 98, while my mother drove through various sections of town, I was saturated with so many fantastical impressions. Every street, every neighborhood glowed with a kind of mystical weirdness. Especially that half-hidden black part of town. Like it was somehow organically disconnected from the rest of El Dorado. Like it was built up on ground imported from another dimension. I think the word is "incommensurable." Just didn't physically or metaphysically compute in the algorithm of our town's normality. Later, I realized that was attributable to the shameful apartheid so prevalent in the South. But for a while back then...when I was a child soaking up all forms of weirdness...the emphatic difference of the black neighborhood seemed almost enchanting, magical. Sort of like turning down a supposedly familiar street and coming face-to-face with a Medieval village. The dilapidation and make-shiftness of those poor homes appeared charming to my little brain...a colorful, crazy-quilt architecture.
Hernando De Soto came through what was later to be Union County (very south Arkansas). Those Spainiards were a grim, determined lot. What in the world were they doing, traipsing through our godforsaken neck of the woods? Ticks, chiggers, snakes, disease, nonplussed, suspicious natives. Guess it was just something to do back then. Europe must have been awfully boring or just too banal. Popes being courted like blushing, wrinkled maidens by one royal nest of rats after another.
In the early 19th century, a trapper stopped in these environs and set up a trading post. From that beginning, a village sprouted and later the town of El Dorado. Toward the end of that century, the town had become a sort of chic cultural center, at least more chic than Smackover and other outliers. It's hard for me to imagine my town as having been such. It always struck me as uncouth and, well, unimaginative. Then in the early new century, a wild shoot-out -- an undignified duel -- took place in front of the court house in the center of town. Must have been quite a dust-up and something to talk about for a long time.
In the early '20s Busey's well came in, and El Do became an overnight oil boom town. Speculators poured in, as well as hordes of workers for the burgeoning oil fields. Here tell, the town was like a latter-day Dodge City. Wild and woolly. Those days must have doused El Dorado's vaunted cultural fire. As the decades tumbled by, oil refineries were built, and my father was a plant manager at Amoco. Before they built the separate managers' building up on the hill, Mother and I would pick him up in the late afternoon down at the main refinery entrance gate. I still remember being dazzled and frightened by the roaring flames and clouds of steam. And, especially, the psychologically disturbing maze of pipes twisting and running off into unknowable dimensions. Looking back, the whole place was like a vast greedy god -- as if the black blood of unseen sacrificial victims was running through those pipes and being refined into unspeakable elixirs.
Growing up in the early '60s was sort of neat. All the clothing stores and banks surrounding the town square seemed more than houses of commerce. They seemed like environs ripped from my young night dreams and plopped down, helter-skelter, in front of the sidewalks. Charming brass spittoons were everywhere, and cigar smoke saturated every establishment. The merchants had an unusual air about them. It was like existence itself was equatable with their occupations. Not as if working was something to be endured to survive; rather, it was their entire reason for being. One couldn't imagine any of them actually having a separate home life. Surely, they lived every moment of their lives in their houses of business. Yes, strange. Even as a child, I felt alienated from this attitude of allowing one's soul, consciousness, or identity to disappear into any activity.
Howard's Newsstand! For my brother and me, it was a house of dreams. And the proprietor, Howard, was our grizzled, morose priest, granting us access to visions of heaven on earth: that full back wall of comic books (or "funnybooks," as we called them). Every Saturday, we'd be driven with our quarters to Howard's. We would stare, stunned each time before that wall of mesmerizing color and beckoning adventure. I'm serious: it always took us a few moments to come to senses whip-lashed by amazement. Then came the delicious agony of trying to choose from among the hundreds of titles. You could only afford five or six, when twenty or thirty were screaming and pleading at you. You know...actually buying and reading them was probably just an after thought. The main thing about funnybook day was just standing there in adolescent bewilderment and awe.
Junior high was traumatic. If you were from the rich side of town, you went to one school. Not so rich, like us, you attended hell on earth: Roger's Junior High School. The main building was three or four stories and had been built waaay back in history. Besides looking haunted and ferocious, it seemed as if it would come falling down like a House of Usher on us young teens. All the toughs went there. Bloody, vicious fist-fights were daily distractions. The teachers were weird. It was less a school than a survival course. In fact, could it be reconstructed, I would recommend it for a Green Beret training facility. The cafeteria food alone was an existential challenge. I bet those kids across town were being served French cuisine on silver platters.
Memories! Oh, my gosh. Please fly from me! 8th-grade science class...I sat a few seats behind Linda Harris. She was no ordinary 14-year-old lass. She looked like and had the aloof, mature, suave grace of Sophia Loren. So how does a pimply idiot-child like me get the attention of a goddess? Well, you aim your No. 2 pencil at her head, eraser first, and send it flying in a flirtatious gesture. But in transit, the thing reverses orientation, and the point-end hits her smack upside the head...and painfully. That look she gave me. No words were needed. Henceforth, I was a metaphorical leper to her. When all I wanted to do was somehow inform her of my love-sickness! Oh, well.
OK. I'm probably making more of my hometown than I should. Most likely everyone's town is strange in certain ways. But if you ever pass through El Dorado, I caution you against driving down East Main Highway. You just might enter an invisible portal, teeming with ghosts and weirdness. You might never be heard from again.