Donald W. Bell is a proud McGehee, Ark. HS grad, Univ. of Ark. BSBA, Univ. of Northern Colorado MA. A USAF Maj. (ret.) he flew 188 combat missions (555 hrs.) during the Vietnam War as a Tiger FAC (1971), earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses and thirteen Air Medals. He flew as an exchange pilot with the Marine Corps and was a first to attend TOPGUN ('76). A major contributor to the F-16 Multinational Test Program ('78-81), he continued as a test pilot until April 1987. During Hurricane Katrina he helped open and manage the largest Red Cross shelter in NE Louisiana since the Great Flood of 1927, after retiring from middle management in the Defense Industry. He and his wife, Kay, live in Monument, CO. For more information see the author's author's real website at donbell.us or donaldbell.us
One boy's story of growing up in the Arkansas Delta
by Donald W. Bell
One boy's story of growing up in the Arkansas Delta
by Donald W. Bell
Published Nov 20, 2013
Genre: BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Adventurers & Explorers
From 1945 until 1962 the life-shaping experiences and coming of age accounts of one World War II orphan as he develops into manhood serves as poignant reminder for all of us of what was good, bad, and ugly about those times. In this recantation, readers may find an occasional suggestion for some of the cultural, moral, or social problems plaguing a troubled country of apathetic oldsters, confused Baby Boomers, and educated Generation X-ers. Some may, through the eyes of a little white war-orphan, experience the personal turmoil generated as an oppressed and subdued “Negro” culture rose to claim its rightful place in our society. Some may even catch glimpses of Arkansas politics and how it affected the lives of the people in these stories. A southeast Arkansas - Mississippi Delta memoir reminiscent of “Angela’s Ashes”, by Frank McCourt, or “The Body” by Stephen King and later adapted into the movie “Stand by Me”, you will enjoy this journey into small town McGehee and Desha County, half- white and half-black. Experience things which could not have happened – yet did. Catherine’s Kid is a fearless and revealing recollection, brutally honest, about a kid growing up, mostly on his own, fighting to retain his dignity. Regional culture, innocence, legacy, humor, oppression, religion, fishing, hunting, sports, surrogate dads, gangs, sex, violence, love, angst, KKK, racial bigotry, and hijinks, with a triple-jigger of F-16 fighter jet test flying, and much more await the reader.
On one of our expeditions to the Outer Limits we discovered a winding dirt road which led into the woods northwest of town. We explored it, of course—and struck pure gold. At the end of the road sat a gray wood, ramshackle house with contrasting red and white petunia flowers on the front porch and a list, which contributed to its overall unbalanced look, like a picture not hung straight. Both the house and porch roof was covered by rusted corrugated sheet metal with patches of tin and tar. A wood fire smoldered outside under a large half-sphere cast-iron pot suspended by an iron tripod. With no sign of life nearby other than a dog, we poked around investigating the place. The grey muzzled yellow dog raised its large head briefly and went back to an unconcerned snooze. Where the road merged with the yard, a wooden horse trough sat, exactly like the ones the movie-matinee cowboys ended up in during fights outside the saloons. A rusty red hand water-pump stood at one end and, although green stuff lined the insides, the water was clear. We were very thirsty but afraid to risk a drink. Little Bill claimed that horsehairs fell into those troughs and before long they grew into snakes and eels. I didn’t believe it but his dad was a Bubba and knew about such things and I didn’t want to risk having a snake or eel grow in my belly. We pushed our bikes into the woods behind the house and left them hidden in the underbrush. We followed a stream along what seemed to be an old power line right-of-way or logging road. Sunning cottonmouth water moccasins slithered from banks and branches into the slowly flowing water and turtles plopped from logs to start a crescendo of aquatic activity. About a half mile later we came to the end where the stream turned south at a fence line separating the alfalfa field on the other side. The trail widened to a mound covered with thick spring-green grass which looked as though it had been mowed. The stream fell about two feet from a natural logjam, creating a waterfall which flowed into a small pool where sunfish and perch were swimming. We named this place “Green Mound” and vowed to save it only for us, and the occasional special friends, and celebrated by wolfing down the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches which had been carefully packed away in Little Bill’s Army-surplus backpack. We lay on the inviting grass carpet laughing about how all those snakes had come from horsetails and manes. That led us to wondering how we came about and I suggested that God had waved a magic wand over our parents, and that if He was in a good mood a good and nice little person came about. If He was having a bad day an ugly and mean person was born. Little Bill didn’t have much of a response to that idea, but I liked it just the same. The woods to the north were unusually open and free of underbrush. The trees were generally about three inches at the trunk with perfect climbing branches. We climbed to the very tops until the young trees gave way and began to bend. As they bent, we grabbed onto another small tree branch, and then repeated the cycle, sometimes traveling this way across ten trees before descending---another technique perfected at the Malco watching Tarzan and the monkeys. We had discovered a really secret and cool place, and we were flushed with our own importance. We returned to our bikes along the narrow footpath through snake-infested waters, which we told ourselves had no doubt guarded this place for hundreds of years. As we pushed our bikes through the old homestead and back onto the dirt road a wooden wagon pulled by a mule with a straw hat on its head appeared. We waited, curious to see who was driving and who lived there. The driver sang, “Old Dan Tucker were a fine ole man; brushed his teeth in a fryin’ pan; Combed his hair wit’ a wagon wheel; died wit’ a toothache in his heel! Get outta dah way for old Dan Tucker; He too late to eats his supper!” The song stopped when he noticed us waiting and he bellowed out, “Well howdy dare, little white boys!” “Ole Nigger Joe,” as he introduced himself, wore a dusty gray felt hat with sweat stains around where a hatband should have been. He had contrasting white hair until he bowed his head and tipped his hat revealing a shining bald head. His face was very dark brown with exaggerated features, a big flat nose, big mouth and lips, big ears, and big black eyes. His eyes were gentle and offset by perfectly white backgrounds and white teeth except for one gold tooth in front. Near-threadbare blue denim overalls covered a faded red-and-white-checkered shirt, and his huge partially laced low quarter boots propped on the buckboard had matching smiles, as their soles had separated. Old Joe’s plump body bulged in all directions, straining every thread of his clothing. “An’ what is you’uns up to taday?” he asked with a smile in his mellow bass voice. Little Bill was not comfortable around Negro people. He ducked his head and accelerated away on his bike, without a word or glance over his shoulder. I smiled and pulled up to talk to Ole Joe, as I decided I would call him. He invited me to his porch where two patched-up rocking chairs sat with shredded coiled-spring cushioned seats. We talked amicably as he watered Trigger the mule, and then unharnessed and set him free in the small field beside the house. Trigger’s hat was carefully hung on a corner of Joe’s rocking chair, the large ear holes frayed and tattered. Ole Joe was a recent widower and lonesome. He had just returned from his weekly trip “to market” which reminded me of Grandpa Bell. He too had a chaw of tobacco stuffed into the corner of his mouth and when he first pulled his Barlow knife from deep within his pocket to cut off a chunk it frightened me a little. I helped him unload his “pro-visions,” flour, sugar, lard, bacon, and two cases of twelve-ounce glass bottles of Nehi strawberry-flavored cold drinks, which were set inside on the dusty cupped and bowed wooden floor. The house could not have had more than two rooms and smelled of hickory smoke and that body odor I had recognized was unique to Negro people. But hey, our body odor was unique to us, too, I reckoned. We pushed the wooden wagon with its wobbly rubber tires, stuffed with rags instead of air, to the side of the crooked house. Finally we sat on the porch and split a strawberry Nehi from two tin cups. Ole Joe made an exaggerated point of specially washing my cup. The drink was warm but somehow it tasted better than the ones at Mr. Avery’s Grocery Store. I knew Ole Joe had a lot to say and if I played my cards just right he’d tell me stories like the ones Memphis Tennessee King told at Grandpa Bell’s. Memphis Tennessee King, as Uncle Quentin came to affectionately call him, and Ole Joe were soul brothers, evidenced by the way they looked and the way they spoke. The previous summer the Callahan brothers had moved on to another farm in Grant County and literally drunk themselves to death. They were buried in the “Black family” cemetery, which was considered very unusual—because they weren’t part of the “family”. Memphis Tennessee King was hired on after that and worked during the week, returning to Pine Bluff on weekends “to treat his woman right!” After dark, in the old log homestead next to the barnyard where he slept, Memphis Tennessee King told us scary stories around a single kerosene lamp. Sometimes he told us things about the old days, and in a way that no white person could. I was not disappointed this time either, and ole Joe and I became great secret buddies. From then on when I saw him riding to market along the only neutral main street where Negroes were allowed to travel, I hung alongside his creaking wagon on my bike and we caught up. Sometimes I took Ole Joe a blanket or a towel or something that mother had decided to throw away. He was always appreciative and grateful for anything I had to offer. Ole Joe told stories of how he was in World War One and how he’d peeled a hundred thousand potatoes and cooked and washed pots and pans. Once Ole Joe dug out a medal with a worn ribbon from a camelback trunk and held it as if it were something sacred. He looked distantly at it through wetting eyes, but never told the story of why. I understood not to ask about some things when Big People were about to cry. Ole Joe mused about how he’d met his Theora and how much they’d loved each other and how much he missed her. He talked about his travels looking for work during the Great Depression and how they seemed to live on love and their faith “in the Almighty.” He taught me about flowers and birds, and weeds, and “critters.” I learned a new appreciation for simple things like fresh breezes, cool sweet water, and the sounds of rain on a rusted tin roof. Ole Joe was, in reality, a natural poet. He didn’t see me as “a little white buddy” anymore and I only saw him as a wise and good friend. Without my being aware, Ole Joe was filling a void left by Granddaddy Gard, one Mother could not, and others did not seem to have the time or inclination to fill.