We drove late Friday afternoon to Camden, Arkansas, where my parents live. The drive required four and a half hours, so that we arrived at nine thirty p.m. We stayed at a Holiday Inn Express because our coming was a surprise for my mother, who celebrated her seventieth birthday this week. When we checked in at the Holiday Inn, the desk clerk knew, of course, who I was when he heard my surname, because it is a small town and my father was a family doctor there for years. I could see him biting his tongue to avoid asking why we weren't staying in my folks' house.
Our stay at the Holiday Inn passed pleasantly, but we arose quite early to hit the "24 hour a day" Wal Mart next door. My sister's daughter just celebrated her seventh birthday, and we wished to get a present. I pondered what gift might have made me most intrigued when I was seven. I decided "Lite Brite", that curious rectangle with a light behind it, into which one sticks transparent colored pegs to generate a pattern of lighted color. Sure enough, Wal Mart had "Lite Brite", and it was only 14 dollars. The store also had a Spirograph set for only six dollars. We added to these two items a huge gift sack featuring those guardians of peace The Power Puff Girls. We soon were quite gift-heavy.
We headed over to my sister's place bright and early on Saturday morning for what amounted to a birthday brunch. My mother seemed duly surprised to see us, although she
is one of those experts at living who would make us feel she was surprised even had she not been surprised. My sister and her husband cooked up a breakfast of scrambled eggs, those canned biscuits which are flaky in layers like rolls, sausage patties, bacon and Concord grape juice. I usually eat raisin bran with non-fat milk for breakfast these days, but we partook freely of the food, all of which was grand. We belatedly presented my father with his Father's Day gift, a 1900 topological Ouachita County map (reprint) I picked up on eBay and then we got framed at a Garden Ridge store. He liked it, and pointed out to us communities he had called by differeent names growing up in the 1930s. We gave my mother for her birthday the blouses my sister had suggested she might like, which also seemed to work out well. My niece soon was playing Lite Brite, making a pattern of a giraffe with the aid of her teen step-sister.
I loaded up my 7 year old niece and 10 year old nephew for a trip to the Arkansas Natural Resources Musuem, coupled with some light fishing. My nephew dug worms, and we took the "kids' fishing tackle" with which to fish. We headed to the Natural Resources Museum. The Natural Resources Museum used to be called the Oil and Brine Museum, but nothing exists these days without grandeur and euphemism, so brine gave way to resource.
The museum is located twenty minutes away from Camden in Smaokover, Arkansas. Smackover was a little farm town, population 90, until 1922. An oil gusher well was discovered in the "Smackover Field", giving rise to an oil boom. By 1925, the population of Smackover exploded to 25,000,as people rushed in to work on or huckster the oil. The boom faded, and the Smackover field now is in "tertiary production", which roughly means they have to work like heck to squeeze the oil out. At the same time, it turns out the Smackover Field is the largest brine field in the world, so they do pump up brine, which apparently can be used to make bromide.
The name "Smackover" tells an Arkansas tale. Although it sounds as though it is derived from the oil boom ("done knocked the town smack over"), in fact, the French, who had a way of spending time in Arkansas just to leave place names for later mispronunciation, named the area "chemin couvert", which means something like "covered road". After the French left, though, the locals began to pronounced "chemin couvert" as "smackover", and the name Smackover stuck. The Smackover Buckaroos, the local high school football team, no doubt spend no time worrying about "chemin couvert". Smackover is a nice town in river bottom country, whose current population is 2,002.
The folks at the museum were really nice. They told us to go ride the elevator exhibit. On the way to the elevator, we saw fossil snails, fish and ammonites. Oil comes from organic matter under high pressure, which leads me to conclude that not only are we all made out of stars, we also have reasonably satisfactory octane. The elevator was a curiouus ride in which a narrator assured us that the large plastic animals outside the elevator "window" were the microscopic creatures from which oil was formed. The elevator ride ended overlooking "boomtown", a replica of the way Smackover looked when the boom made it go smack. We watched a filmstrip which showed the way folks looked in their charming, curious 20s garb, when roadhouses sprang up overnight and people slept in tents and barbershop chairs.
We walked around on the little footpath outside, where antique drilling rigs and pumps were located. The kids shopped in the gift shop, with my niece spending 2 dollars and 11 cents on a bit of raw iron pyrite mineral made into a necklace with a piece of plastic cord cut by the gift shop staff with scissors. The "brochure" for the musuem said "fishing nearby", so I asked the people at the store where the fishing nearby might be. They said that there wasn't any, really, but that people did fish on the nearby bridge over Smackover Creek. As my nephew was looking particularly forward to fishing, we went to the nearby bridge over the creek, to see if we could drop a line in. The sides of the creek were fenced there, though, and the day has not come that I will cross a fence onto another's property to drop a line. We drove into Smackover, hunting open access to the creek. I realized that I needed an out of state temporary permit, so we looked for a store at which to buy one. Before we got to one, I saw a little Smackover City Park, that actually had a footpath. As we had not gotten enough exercise, I thought we could walk the path; this idea did not meet with universal acclaim. Soon, though, I saw a Western Auto, and proposed that we walk over and get my fishing license there. I was assured, as we walked, that my wife's car could have made that journey deftly, but we walked over anyway.
In the Western Auto, they sold us a fishing license in due course, and my nephew got a Mug Root Beer, which somehow ameliorated his walking (or creeping) dissatisfaction. We got back on Highway 7B and went in search of a fishing creek. Soon we found another of Smackover Creek's many outlets, a space of creek by a highway bridge, just over six feet or so wide. We decided to give it a try. My 7 year old niece soon hooked a sporty bream (the local term for about 15 different species of sunfish is "bream"). We realized we were fishing in a real fishing hole, and we spent the next hour catching fish, losing bait to capable worm-stealing bream, and tangling our lines in nearby undergrowth. When the last worm my nephew dug went from plastic tupperware box to hook to capable bream, we flirted with using susan flowers as bait (fish seemed to like them, but they have no hook-staying power) and headed home.
We drove in by the old, abandoned International Paper mill, past the now-abandoned juke joints on Adams Boulevard, and went to my sister's place. My parents had picked up barbecue at Harvey's BBQ, which we all consumed, pork with a wonderful sauce. I had a slice of my niece's birthday cake. Later, my mother and I went to the local remaindered bookshop, which was having a 75% off sale. I got a biography positing that the poet Yeats' latter-life personal life could be divined by his young wife's automatic writing, as well as a few other books, all extremely inexpensive. We paused to view the new mural downtown, which paid tribute to Camden's many distinguishing historical roles, such as its role as the birthplace of Grapette Soda, a wonderful sweet grape drink. They now sell Grapette again, as if it were a gourmet repast. When I was a kid, one bought huge bottles of syrup and made Grapette rather like Kool Aid. For years, only people in South America could get Grapette, but it moved from the Amazon River back up to Smackover Creek. We at fried catfish, the regional delicacy, at Wood's Place, where they serve wonderful fish amid posters of by-gone days when the Wood Manufacturing Company manufactured bass lures.
We rose early today to drive home, as I have work to do for tomorrow. We saw many herons, some hawks, and more tractor-trailer trucks than anyone could imagine. We listened to cassettes of Yes' Fragile and Deep Purple's Machine Head. The words to "Roundabout" still don't make any sense, but I love to sing them. We arrived in good time, and I'm glad to head home.