Dennis Vannatta


stringfellow3.jpg (39410 bytes)There were holes all over Little Rock that long summer. In, for instance, the muffler of my father's Chevy, the one with the squeaky rubber bushings, which, I came to find out, embarrassed him even more than me. Then there was the hole in the chicken-wire fence at the rear of Mimm's Grocery on Markham Avenue, which led Dickie Knox and me to a cache of pop bottles, thence to Squires Pool Hall and Old Bob, last name unknown, the first Negro who'd ever acknowledged my existence or I his, to the best of my recollection. And of course there was the hole in the privet hedge that separated the Knox and Adaire backyards, through which Dickie squirmed his way one morning, and then out again, taking me with him into the fresh young world where waited freedom and its attendant joys and dangers. Including, yes, death.

It's been over forty years since that annus mirabilis of 1957 and the Little Rock school integration crisis. Orval Faubus calling out the National Guard, Ike sending in the 101st Airborne, nine scared young black people walking with all the dignity they could muster—and it was a lot—up the front steps of Central High. I was not quite seven years old then and didn't know anything about integration or separate but equal. My parents didn't talk about politics, at least not in front of me. All I remember them talking about was money, or the lack thereof: the impossible mortgage payment; the life insurance premium, which my father wanted to let lapse because, "What do I need life insurance for? I'm going to be around forever."

I had heard of the 101st Airborne, though. That was Van Johnson in "Battleground," which my father, an army vet himself, had taken me to see at the Heights Theater on Kavanaugh. For weeks afterward in reply to virtually any question I drawled, "That's for sure, that's for dang sure," like the Southern boy in the movie and pretended I was General McAuliffe saying "Nuts" to the baffled Germans. What on earth did those wise-cracking, tobacco-spitting heroes, feet wrapped in rags stamping through the snows of Bastogne, have to do with my own sunny Little Rock? I didn't know, didn't much care. Of more immediate concern to an almost eight year old: what was the world like beyond the borders of our back yard?

I was an only child, and my parents were perhaps overly protective. I'm not sure if, until then, I'd ever ventured out of my yard unattended. My mother had often taken me next door, though, to play with Dickie Knox, and Dickie had often been to my house to play. He was my first real friend, and I should not have been so shocked, one summer morning, to see him emerge an inch at a time from the gap at the base of the privet hedge. Friend or not, boys in my experience simply did not emerge from hedges unaccompanied by their mothers.

I can still see him wriggling out now—dirty hands, sandy blond hair, and slender face with that sly grin. Was he the snake in the Adaire family garden corrupting innocent little Tommy? I think I must have feared so then, hence my feeling of transgression as I followed Dickie back through that narrow gate to the world. But guilt was soon behind me as we turned our sights on the glorious dangers of Sequoia Street.

I have hardly a single memory of anything north of our house on Sequoia. Rather, gravity pulled Dickie and me south down the long sloping street toward the hustle and bustle of Markham Avenue. At the beginning, though, Markham was just a noisy vision far in the distance. More immediate perils had first to be confronted, most especially that lurking Polyphemus three houses down from the Knoxes': Arnold Brand.

Arnold Brand! His very name rang in our ears as hard and unyielding as a hammered anvil. "Look at them knuckles of his! They're as hard as granite!" Dickie would marvel as we peeked through the Johnsons' honeysuckle-festooned fence at Arnold, standing straddle-legged on his front porch, hands on hips, a scowling giant two or three years, at least, our senior. I wasn't altogether sure I knew what granite was, but I assumed it was hard indeed and had no desire for Arnold to test those knuckles' effectiveness on my tender person.

Arnold wore a knife hanging from his belt. I kind of thought it might be one of those rubber ones you could buy for a quarter at Ben Franklin's—black handle and silver blade in a black rubber scabbard—but when I mentioned this possibility to Dickie, he was properly incredulous at my naiveté. Naw, naw, it was a real knife, all right, and not just any knife but a special knife made from the same sort of meteorite steel as Jim Bowie's famous Bowie Knife. "Sharp enough to cut out your gizzard in one stroke," I was assured. I was no more certain of the precise nature of gizzards than I was of granite, but I knew, wherever and whatever mine was, I wanted it left in place. We had three compelling reasons, then—knuckles, knife, and that knee-weakening scowl—to avoid Arnold Brand.

We wouldn't have stayed away from him for a Mickey-Mantle-autographed Louisville Slugger. For days on end in the early summer of '57, we were consumed with the goal of simply making it past Arnold Brand's house. Alive, preferably. In the beginning, just getting close enough for a fairly clear view of the Brand front porch was enough to send us shrieking back to the safety of Dickie's house. Finally we made it to the Johnsons' house, then the fence between the Johnson and Brand yards, where we knelt among honeysuckle leaves, the air cloying and resonant with bees.

Generally, Arnold would spot us then and come bounding off his porch, arms windmilling, screaming like an Apache smelling scalps. But he couldn't always be on guard, and on those occasions we'd make it on down the sidewalk a few more steps before being overcome by the enormity of what we were doing, and, hearts failing us, we'd sprint back to Dickie's.

We were growing bolder, though, and we were heading for a fall. In fact, I quite literally fell on our next attempt down the sidewalk. Arnold wasn't on the porch but had obviously been lurking just inside the screen door. He rushed out at us bellowing madly, arms whipping the air, at which point Dickie took off, not back to his house as I'd expected but on south. I hesitated, then as I turned to run home my slick-soled Buster Browns betrayed me. My feet went out from under me, and I went down. Arnold was as surprised as I was, I think. He hesitated long enough that I almost made it to my feet, but then he was on me, pulled me like a squealing pig onto his lawn, left arm around my neck. I saw quite clearly the black scabbard of his knife dangling in front of my nose. Then he gave me a vicious wrap on the top of my head with his granite knuckles, and I, stunned, crumpled into a quivering mass of bawling boy.


After my ordeal, it took Dickie a day or two to coax me out of my back yard, but soon we were heading south again. We approached the Brand house warily at first, but when it became apparent that Arnold was taking no further interest in us—he had his scalp, I suppose—we sprinted joyfully on down Sequoia Street until we found ourselves on Markham Avenue.

Those were the days before Little Rock began its great westward expansion, taking much of the life of the city with it. In '57 Markham was an important thoroughfare with trolley tracks running down the middle and businesses of all descriptions lining its sides. There were the fire station two blocks east of Sequoia and my father's insurance agency three blocks west. There was Trantham's Toy Shop, where Dickie and I would stand noses pressed against the front glass as if we were auditioning for the next Norman Rockwell as we stared wistfully at model planes and ray guns and erector sets. And there was Nadine's Notions with its lace and ribbons and life-size Raggedy Ann sitting in a Shaker rocker. We wouldn't be caught dead in Nadine's Notions.

Mimm's Grocery next to Nadine's was a different story. How we happened to be in the alley behind the stores on that block I don't remember, but there it was—the chicken-wire fence with the boy-size hole where the fence connected to the garage behind Nadine's. Across the grassless yard beyond the fence was a covered porch that led into the back of the grocery store, and on the porch were stacked, case upon case, pop bottles. Through the fence would go skinny little Dickie followed after the most cursory hesitation by slightly pudgy Tom. Then back out we'd skedaddle, each with his war prize: a six-pack of empties.

We'd take them around to the front and sell them right back to old Mimm himself for two cents a bottle. Even at the time I half suspected that Mr. Mimm knew what was going on. He was a good-natured old boy, though. Besides, he was in the Masons with my dad.

We were very precise in the disbursement of our twelve-cent booty. Five cents would go for a Chick-o-Stick, a Valo-Milk, a Cherry Mash, bag of sunflower seeds, or roll of Necco Wafers. Two cents would go for Chum Gum, three sticks for a penny. Or maybe one penny for Chum Gum and the other for laying on the tracks for flattening as the trolley came clanging and squealing down the rails. Even I, his best friend, would never have guessed the use to which Dickie intended us to put that remaining nickel, though: Squires Pool Hall.

Why Dickie was so determined to partake of the pleasures of the pool hall, I don't know. I do know I had no burning ambition to become another Minnesota Fats, yet there I was, following him into that Stygian world—air reeking of cigar smoke and the sweet smell of whiskey, the entire east side of the establishment taken up by a long bar, spittoons at either end, where sat men hunched protectively over shot glasses and beer mugs. I'd heard of such things, but we Adaires were Baptists, and until that moment I'd never seen a man dare to put an alcoholic beverage to his lips.

"We want to shoot pool!" Dickie announced as I hid behind him, one hand on the screen door, ready to bolt.

There was a moment's silence, and then laughter erupted from the shadowy figures I was too shy even to look up at.

Then a voice—the bartender's—called out, "Sure, kid, go shoot you some pool. Bob, rack 'em up."

At that a Negro slowly emerged from the darkness, rack in hand. We never heard anyone call him anything other than Bob, but Dickie and I always spoke of him as "Old Bob." A child's estimate of age is not to be relied upon, of course. I thought my father was old, after all, because he was almost always too tired to play catch with me, and he'd come home after work rubbing his back and moaning, "That desk has been riding me hard." I didn't see how sitting at a desk could make you tired and sore unless you were old. Bob must have been fairly old, though. At least he was mostly bald except for a frosting of gray hair over his ears and around the back of his head, and he shuffled along as if plagued by arthritis, and his shoulders were rounded as if from years of great labor. Or maybe hopelessness. I don't know. In truth, I hardly thought about him at the time, except when he'd limp over to rack up the balls, saying, "You young gentlemen ready to shoot you some pool?" I sure did like the way he called us "young gentlemen." Dickie was a good deal more forward than I, though, and one day he asked him, "Old Bob, how did you get to be so old?"

Old Bob settled the balls tightly into the rack, then lifted it off.

"It's just time going," he said. "Wait'll you get you some years, you'll see then. Time's a big ol' mill wheel that grinds on you, grinds you down."

I didn't know what the heck he was talking about, but he must have thought Dickie did because he shook his head and frowned like maybe he'd gone too far and said, "Aw, don't you pay no attention to me. Besides, what happens when that mill wheel grinds? You get you some flour, right? And what do you make with flour? Make you some bread, right? And remember, young gentlemen, bread's good."

Then he shuffled off to, well, wherever he shuffled off to. I didn't look. Didn't much care. Instead, I hefted my cue and had at it.

We were the pets of those serious daytime drinkers in Squires, who would swing around and sit backs to the bar to watch us play. I had to use the bridge on about every other shot, but at least I was tall enough to reach over the side of the table to wield my cue. Dickie dragged a bar stool around the table and knelt on the top to shoot. Fairly often someone would pay for an extra game for us, and once in awhile someone would slap down a couple of RC's and say, "Have one on me, boys."

It came to an end during the latter days of that summer, return to school looming. A stranger in Squires—or at least Dickie and I didn't remember him—thought we were about the funniest thing he'd ever seen. After laughing at us for fifteen minutes, he came over to our table and said, "You two are a couple of real sports, ain't you?" and sat a mug of beer on the table next to the bar stool Dickie was kneeling on. "Shooting pool's thirsty work, ain't it, fellas? Drink up."

I looked at the beer, looked up at the man with the broad, sweaty face, hair shaved up the sides of his head and short flat-top like a wire-bristled brush. Thinking of Reverend Vought's censorious gaze beaming down from the pulpit of the Emmanuel Baptist Church, I could feel myself breaking into a sickly, shamefaced grin.

"Come on, boys, drink up, drink up. Hell, when I was your age I could handle two or three beers, nothing to it."

That's when Old Bob appeared across the pool table from us.

"Leave them boys alone, Mr. Wilson," he said.

The man called Mr. Wilson looked up in surprise, then stared at Bob for the longest time like maybe the whole thing was a joke and he was waiting patiently for the punch line. But he didn't laugh.

Instead, he said to Old Bob, "Get your black ass out of here. . . . I'm not going to say it again. If you don't get your black ass out of here right now, you're going to be the sorriest son of a bitch in Pulaski County."

If it'd been a movie, this would have been the time for old Bob to straighten up and, with consummate dignity and defiance, stare down the bully. Or for some young, right-thinking, milk-drinking hero to appear, give Wilson the old one-two and out the door with him. But it wasn't a movie; it was Little Rock, Arkansas, the summer of 1957. No one in the pool hall said a word, and instead of staring down the bully old Bob backed away and, shoulders more rounded and back more stooped than ever, shuffled back to his accustomed place, in the shadows where no one took notice of him.

I looked over for Dickie's reaction and found his barstool empty. I turned and saw him for one brief moment silhouetted against the harsh afternoon light of the open doorway, and then he was gone. And then I was gone, too.  


It was a little after that that my father's '55 Chevy acquired a hole in its muffler.

This was the same Chevy 150 with the one paltry strip of chrome and the rubber bushings that, in hot weather, squeaked like rusty bedsprings. I could hear it when my father rounded the corner at Sequoia and Markham, a long block away. It embarrassed me no end, and my embarrassment infuriated my father.

"It's a great car. It's had one tune-up in two years—that's it. What's a little squeak? You kids today are so spoilt."

When the muffler developed the hole in it, though, his true feelings about the Chevy came out.

"Squeak squawk! Rumba rumba!" he'd screech and roar, squeezing the steering wheel like he was trying to throttle the car into silence. "Squeak squawk, rumba rumba, you son of a bitch!"

The only times I ever heard my father curse were in reference to that car and gimp-armed Stan Musial, who was having trouble getting the ball in from the outfield. He couldn't do anything about Stan the Man, and he couldn't do anything about the muffler, either, because his insurance business wasn't doing too well. We were eating a lot of bologna for supper that summer. I don't remember ever complaining, but my father would harangue me like I was the most ungrateful wretch in the world. "There's nothing wrong with bologna. At least you have meat on the table every day. Every day. When I was a kid in the Depression we'd go two weeks at time without a smell of meat, and let me tell you, if we got a little fatty pork in with our greens we thought we were eating high on the hog."

It came to a head after he tried patching the muffler with bubble gum. He had me run down to Mimm's Grocery for one piece of Double Bubble, which he chewed with great solemnity. Then he laid down an old table cloth and, still in his tie and white shirt but with the sleeves rolled up, crawled under the car and huffed and cussed for the longest time. But it didn't work. The next day, he refused to drive the Chevy to work.

"I'll walk it," he said.

It was only a few blocks to his office and back, but my father was overweight and took to exercise like a cat to water. Dickie and I were burning ants with a magnifying glass out on the sidewalk when we saw him at the bottom of Sequoia, slogging his way up toward us. Under the brutal sun he looked like a Sisyphus who'd abandoned his rock and, if he once made it to the top, never intended to descend that hill again.

It was my idea to hide behind the Johnsons' honeysuckle-draped fence and ambush my father when he passed.

"Yowza! Wallawallawallawallawalla!!" we hollered, leaping out and waving our arms maniacally, at which my father flinched and threw up his hands as if to ward off a blow.

Shocked by that momentary flicker of fear on my father's face, I stopped hollering before Dickie did, but he stopped too when he saw the fear change to rage.

My father grabbed me by the shoulder and jerked me two or three steps on down the sidewalk before releasing me and pointing back at Dickie.

"What are you hanging around all the time with that kid for anyway?" he said. "Don't you know his father's a lawyer for all those nigger lovers?"

Then he turned and walked off toward our house. I watched him the whole way. I guess after what my father said I should have been reminded of Mr. Wilson, but instead, watching him disappear into the house—white shirt gray with sweat, back bent as if the suit coat slung over his shoulder were a great weight—I thought of Old Bob. I felt awful. I'd frightened my dad, I see it now, when he was worried and scared in a way I'd never understand until I was grown and had children of my own.

As for Dickie, when I looked back for him, he was gone. I think I knew at that moment that our friendship was over, although for days afterward I'd look for him through the privet hedge behind the house. But then school started, and I was a grade behind Dickie, and I made new friends. He and his family moved the next spring, and in truth I didn't miss him much. Funny. I miss him now.


And death, too.

It was a couple of years later, though, not 1957. No matter. Memory isn't a seamless tapestry but a kaleidoscope of shifting, jagged, mismatched pieces, and I can't see '57 as a whole unless death is given its place.

It was summer, at least. Hot. I was ambling up Sequoia Street, no longer that gauntlet of perils and adventures but simply a way from here to there, when I glanced over and saw a boy sitting on a porch in the afternoon sun. He was sitting in an old wooden rocker, and he wore, of all things, a greatcoat, much too large for him, buttoned high to the collar. His small face, unnaturally gray, perched upon the coat's absurdly broad shoulders. Then I realized who it was, no longer standing straddle-legged, hands on hips, armed with knife and scabbard, glaring down at poor little me but looking like some weathered doll its owner had perversely dressed and then abandoned. Arnold Brand.

We stared at each other a long moment, and then he smiled a smile that shocked me by its, well, I can only describe it as affection, and his right arm lifted that massive sleeve, the thin fingers protruded, and he waved: once, twice.

I turned and ran for home.

Some days or perhaps weeks later at the supper table my mother said to my father, "Oh, by the way, did you hear that the Brand boy finally died?" And my father said, "No, I hadn't heard. Well, that's really too bad."

Yes, it was really too bad.

Of all the cruel, stupid, cowardly acts I can conjure up from my youth, the one that sickens me the most was the day I fled from Arnold Brand's terrifying gentleness. Was it merely a childish, innocent thing to make a bogeyman of Arnold Brand? Or do we have such a need to be distracted from our very real fears—poverty, the depredations of time, death—that we'll substitute a more manageable scarecrow of our own invention? I don't know. I'm not even sure what really happened, now that I think of it, that time Arnold caught me on the sidewalk, sent me bawling for home. Did he stun me with a blow from his huge stony knuckles, or did he give me a playful knuckle-rub across the top of my head, much as I sometimes do with my son Tommy, even though he's two inches taller than I am now, letting his old man pull his head down and rub his knuckles across his crown as he pleads in mock pain and fear?

Even now I can feel Arnold's knuckles across my head, but I feel no pain. And that horrifying knife in its scabbard dangling down from his belt a few inches from my face? I see it clearly now, and, yes, knife and scabbard are rubber.


They still call the area Stifft Station, after the trolley stop nearby, now long gone. Plagued by these memories, when I should have been taking my son to shop for a new ball glove I detoured over to Markham to show him where the trolley rails had run. I turned on to Sequoia and parked, and Tommy and I got out and stood side by side leaning back against the trunk of the car, staring down at Markham. All we saw of course was a bare asphalt slab much the same as every other asphalt slab in Little Rock.

Tommy snickered. "So, rails ran here, huh, Pop? Gen-u-wine rails. I'm impressed. Totally. Why'd you wait so long to share this with me?"

I tried to think of some retort, but couldn't. Really, if you're going to take a trip down memory lane, there's no sense in Shanghaiing an innocent bystander into going with you. You have to have been there.

We got back in the car. As we drove back up Markham, Tommy began whistling and making "tooting" noises, trying to sound like a trolley, I guess.

I looked at him. A wise-ass teenager who spends far too much time anymore snickering at his dad, true, but on the whole a good kid. Hell, a great kid. Big, strong, good-natured, just goes out into the world with a smile on his face, this world that's so much more frightening than the one I grew up in, its bogeymen all too real. Just goes right out into the world, an easy-going kid with a lot of friends, among them Roland Ellard, who's a fair pitcher on Tommy's baseball team and a hapless guitar-player in their garage band and who, as we would have said in '57, is "colored."

Yes, Old Bob, bread is good.


(Photo by C. Stringfellow)