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A love letter to The Forge

Truths, lies and Tareytons

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TIMELESS: Regulars gather at the Levy dive for pool tournaments, dominoes and tales that get taller with each beer.
  • TIMELESS: Regulars gather at the Levy dive for pool tournaments, dominoes and tales that get taller with each beer.

Just exactly how old is The Forge, anyway?

Nobody drinking or working today at this ancient cinder-block tavern in Levy seems to know the answer to this question. Beverly — the bartender since pretty much forever — can't recall the date. Both interior and exterior are faded and worn, offering no evidence of updates beyond a new TouchTunes jukebox and a newish smoke removal fan. When it comes to pinning down an opening date for this establishment, the collection of irregular regulars around the cushioned bartop can only loudly proclaim how long it's been since they started holding down a seat here. Consensus verdict? It's been "a good while."

I'm no more accurate with the date myself, but The Forge has seemingly always been in my consciousness. My grandparents lived up the street for decades, and raised a passel of baby boomer kids from the late 1940s 'til sometime in the early '70s. Family lore has it that, on more than one night, Memaw Hooks would drive my young dad down to The Forge and send him in to fetch Papaw Hooks when Papaw was having too much fun to come home on his own. Memaw was a force to be reckoned with when she was steamed, and she knew it would be better for everyone if she didn't go in and grab Papaw herself.

In later years, Papaw would take the little kid version of me to The Forge, where I'd munch Fritos while watching old men smoke Tareytons, drink Black Label beer, play dominoes and tell lies. Those were times when I felt like I should try to speak a little more deeply and sit up a little bit straighter, maybe shake hands a little more firmly. As the Union Pacific trains rolled by just outside the walls, I'd lean back in my chair to watch smoke ribbons lazily curl their way around the Stag Beer sign.

As an adult, I've had my own important moments at The Forge: A few Christmas Eve nights bending elbows with a collection of divorced dads and long-haul truckers away from home, some particularly memorable birthday happy-hour gatherings. One tense night, I stood up, politely but firmly, to the whole bar in defense of President Obama. There was a long night with a good friend, commiserating about our girl troubles and challenging each other to play the single saddest song on the jukebox. I've listened to patrons quietly spilling their stories of job losses, legal troubles, new grandbabies and complicated custody battles over dogs. This place matters to me for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the free entertainment.

There are bars that hire consultants and strategize clever ways to achieve an "authentic" feel, and then there's The Forge. Happy hour means slurping $1 drafts from an icy goblet while you pat a wandering dog named Freedom and listen to Merle Haggard songs. If you want dinner, it's gonna be a Slim Jim or bag of chips from behind the counter served with a generous helping of " why your friendly stoolmate's old lady is actually the crazy one." It's a place for pool tournaments, friendly trash-talking, occasional shuffleboard games and figuring out how you and that guy next to you know each other. It's a place where it's oddly busy on weekday afternoons at 4 p.m., and emptier shortly after the five o'clock whistle blows.

The clientele is the real deal at The Forge, the kind of folks who've raised their share of hell, work with their hands, maybe served a little time now and then, and have the stories to share. Like plenty of our families here in Arkansas. My partner likes to tease me about my love for "Grampa bars," and she's not wrong. I like 'em real.

When my sons were born, I liked to imagine a time in the future when we might all get together and have a drink together as grown men. Sometimes I envisioned it being on my front porch, other times I envisioned it happening at The Forge. My recently legal son, Jacob, accompanied me there for the first time this year, becoming the fourth generation of Hooks men to help darken The Forge's already dark door. We caught up, played the jukebox, laughed with the regulars and had ourselves a meaningful moment talking to each other as grown-ups. Where my Papaw sat and drank, and my dad sat and drank, we now sat and drank — and planned our return trip soon.

So, how old is The Forge?

It's as old as family, as old as barstool friendships, as old as my Papaw's Tareyton smoke that's probably still bouncing around inside its walls. Here's to hoping it's around for the next generation or two of Hooks men to haunt.

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