The 2011 Express is soon to wheeze into the station, so it's time once again for our annual Best and Worst issue, the Arkansas Times' roundup of all the news that was fit to print (and some that probably wasn't) in the Sovereign Asylum of Arkansas this year. On the menu this go-round: dying blackbirds, tax breaks on rubber pants, justice from above (twice), home circumcision and coach Bobby Petrino's sideline meltdown in the wake of the loss to LSU. It was a full year, folks. As my dear old Dad used to say: Thank the Lord we made it, and thank Him twice that it's almost over.
Best signs of the impending Apocalypse
On the night of New Year's Eve, Beebe residents heard the pitter-patter of carcasses on their rooftops as over 5,000 blackbirds mysteriously dropped dead mid-flight and fell to earth. This was followed soon after by a spontaneous die-off of over 60,000 drum fish on the Arkansas River. Tinfoil hat sales skyrocketed as conspiracy theorists scrambled to pin the smitings on everything from aliens to double-secret testing at the Pine Bluff Arsenal.
In January, Miss Arkansas Alyse Eady came in first runner-up for the Miss America crown, which we believe to be a blatant, unmitigated theft after watching her talent: ventriloquist yodeling, featuring Eady and two wooden-headed friends belting out fellow Arkansan Patsy Montana's "I Want To Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart." Her spunk got Eady and her dummies a guest spot on David Letterman a week later.
The Harps grocery store up in Mountain Home caused a nationwide furor back in January after a manager blocked the covers of Us Weekly magazine showing the singer Elton John and his new baby with an obscene material placard — a rectangle of gray plastic imprinted with "Family Shield. To protect young Harps shoppers." A customer snapped a photo of the blocked magazine and uploaded it to Twitter. After being deluged with angry e-mails and calls, Harps had the shield taken down.
Citing fear for the safety of his customers and employees, the owner of Jim's Razorback Pizza on Stagecoach Road in Little Rock closed down in January after the place was robbed seven times in five years — including twice when the joint was full of customers. Little Rock Police Chief Stuart Thomas told reporters that in his 30-plus years on the force, it was the first time he could remember a business shutting down solely because of crime.
The mayor of Marshall decided to honor the birthday of Gen. Robert E. Lee in January by flying the Confederate flag over city hall through the long MLK Day weekend, including on the holiday devoted to King.
A week after the mayor's dubious decision, the Marshall City Council convened an emergency session and voted that henceforth only the Arkansas flag and Old Glory can be flown on city property.
In February, a taxidermy shop in Romance that specializes in freeze-drying dead pets so they can keep their owners company forever announced they were in talks to get their own reality TV show on Animal Planet. "American Stuffers" debuts Jan. 5.
Snowlocaust, Snomageddon, Snowpocalypse — whatever you called it, the snow storm that blanketed the state from border to border in early February was bad, especially in the Northwest corner of the state, which saw snow totals of up to two feet and a real, non-wind-chill-assisted temperature of 20 degrees below zero in some areas. Brrrrrrr.
Best evidence that teachers might need a raise
A math teacher at Little Rock's McClellan High was put on administrative leave in February after the district learned she was one of those swept up in a 2010 prostitution sting. The teacher said she had been working as an escort to help make ends meet after falling on hard times.
Down in Union County in March, a man was booked on a charge of first-degree battery after he stabbed his uncle multiple times during an argument over a pig.
In March, a smash-em-up on Broadway near downtown Little Rock sent an SUV careening into the wall surrounding Mount Holly Cemetery, one of the city's oldest and most storied burial grounds. The ensuing crash wasn't enough to wake the dead, but it did do thousands of dollars worth of damage to the wall and an iron fence.
Worst ignoring ignoramus
The oldest bridge still in use in Arkansas — the 130-foot, circa 1891 Solgohachia Bridge over Point Remove Creek just outside of Morrilton — was pulled off its foundations in April after a gas drilling company truck driver ignored weight-limit warning signs and tried to cross in a rig weighing nine tons.
In April, two men entered a convenience store in Little Rock, asked for a box of condoms, then put a $50 bill on the counter as if they were about to pay. When the clerk opened the register, the robbers pulled pistols, grabbed the cash and fled. Left behind on the counter: The $50 bill and the condoms. The take from the register was apparently light enough that the crooks came close to going into the red on the transaction, though felony charges were thrown in for free.
Worst heist (runner up)
In September, a trio of gunmen burst into a Little Rock church and relieved the members of a Sunday School class of their wallets, cell phones and jewelry at gunpoint.
Best spousal charity
In May, Anna Johnson, a 24-year-old hairdresser from Conway, won the annual Toad Suck Daze "Stuck on a Truck" contest by keeping at least one hand on a red Ford F-150 for a record 5 days, 15 hours and 52 minutes. In her entry form for the contest, Johnson said she entered because she didn't think her husband believed she could do it. She also said she planned to give him the truck.
In the Garland County Jail in May, two inmates reportedly got in a fistfight because of a disagreement over which was worse: the prison system in Arkansas or the prison system in Louisiana.
Worst hit and run
It came to light in May that freshman state Rep. Mark Biviano of Searcy was accused in a hit-and-run accident in Little Rock back in April. According to the other driver involved, Biviano's truck hit her Toyota as he pulled away from the Capital Hotel. She said the lawmaker suggested they move their cars out of the roadway, then sped off. Finding him was fairly easy, given Biviano's State House of Representatives license plate, but the case was closed without charges.
Biviano, a Republican swept in on a Tea Party platform in 2010, told his hometown paper the story was part of a Democratic vendetta to discredit him.
In May, on the Fayetteville Craigslist page, a poster offered $6,000 to any taxidermist who'd help fulfill his wife's wish "to be stuffed so she can still watch over me [and] the grand kids after she goes." We're hoping it was a joke, but given that this is Arkansas, it probably wasn't.
In May, Hot Springs Mayor Ruth Carney — the titular head of a town which exists solely because of tourism — commented on a friend's Facebook photo of a sniper by saying: "You know how I hate tourism and all, so I was seeing if [snipers] could maybe eliminate some of the tourists."
Worst Father's Day gift
That would be: a stabbin'. On Father's Day, police said, a Little Rock 18-year-old attacked his father with a knife after Dad tried to break up a fight between two of his sons that started over cigarettes. Dad was punched in the face, then later stabbed. When his son came at him with the knife again, police said, Dad clouted the younger man with a boat paddle. Be happy with that tie you got, pal. Could have been a lot worse.
In June, a hip-hop clothing store on Col. Glenn Road was held up by a trio of crooks, who the clerk identified for police as "three black homosexual males." In the midst of the robbery, the clerk managed to wrestle away a gun and shoot one of them before they fled. Later, after a suspect turned up at a local hospital with a wounded accomplice, police discovered the three desperadoes were actually desperadettes — women, dressed as men.
Worst news for summer
Yarnell's Ice Cream of Searcy abruptly announced in late June that it would close after 78 years in business. The owners cited the ongoing bad economy, high ingredient costs, and a softening (no pun intended) market for ice cream. The assets were bought late in the year by a Chicago company that promised to re-open the plant.
On June 10, a Fayetteville driver who police said found himself disoriented due to low blood sugar ran a red light and hit a Honda Accord, killing the passenger in the car. The passenger in the car turned out to be his wife, who was out searching for him with her son after a call from her husband saying he was feeling dizzy and needed help.
In July, the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration announced the details of Arkansas's August sales tax holiday, providing a short list of examples of clothing items that would be exempt. Among the garments listed by the DFA: "beach capes and coats," bathing caps, girdles, overshoes, garters and garter belts, and "rubber pants." What? No bustles and pantaloons?
In July, attorneys filed suit in federal court on behalf of a black graduate of McGehee High School in Desha County. The reason? Even though she had the highest GPA in her class and was originally told she'd been named valedictorian, school officials later backpedaled and told her she'd be named "co-valedictorian" with a white student. Though the school's student body is nearly 50 percent African-American, there hasn't been a black valedictorian at McGehee High since Reagan was president.
The slighted student's name from the above item was Kymberly Wimberly, which we figure ought to be worth at least 3/10ths of a point on her G.P.A.
Best Gobi Desert impersonation
On Aug. 3, downtown Little Rock hit a real, non-heat-indexed temperature of 114 degrees, vaporizing the old all-time record of 112 in a cloud of steam and misery.
Less than a week after the Little Rock's skyline nearly wilted in the heat, a cold front finally swept through the state, ending Fort Smith's record 36-day unbroken run of 100+ degree temperatures.
Best spider-attack-fueled crash
A garbage truck managed to hit a glass-enclosed skywalk in downtown Little Rock in August, causing thousands of dollars in damage. The driver told police that during his last trash bin pickup before the crash, a spider had come into the cab and scared him. He was so flustered by the eight-legged hitchhiker that he failed to remember to lower the truck's raised lifting arms before driving away, with the arms and steel dumpster striking the skywalk a few minutes later.
On Aug. 19, Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols — A.K.A. The West Memphis Three, who supporters say were wrongfully convicted in the 1993 murders of three 8-year-olds — walked out of jail free men after prosecutors agreed to a deal which had the three plead guilty in exchange for their immediate release. By then, Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin had been incarcerated for 6,648 days, with Echols spending much of that time in solitary confinement.
Jason Baldwin originally nixed signing off on the plea deal — an all-three-or-none proposition — because it would force him to plead guilty, but changed his mind after he was told of Echols' failing health. When Baldwin gave up his dream of jury-confirmed innocence for his friend, he had reportedly only spoken to Echols once in 18 years: When he whispered a few words through the tray slot of Echols' cell door while part of a cleaning crew brought in to mop the floor on Death Row.
Best winged justice
In August, a Craighead County man who went up in a friend's light airplane to shoot some aerial photos of his house was surprised to see a pair of burglars down below had broken in and were loading his worldly possessions onto a trailer. He called police, then had the pilot follow the men as they sped away, directing the earth-bound cops to their location. Two men from Jonesboro were arrested.
Best winged justice (runner up)
In September, a Fort Smith resident told police that Charlie, his pet Macaw — a large breed of colorful parrot — attacked two robbers who came into his apartment and beat him while trying to steal prescription drugs. The man said Charlie bit them repeatedly with his powerful beak, and managed to take a chunk out of one man's arm before the thieves fled empty handed.
Best alternate reality
On the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Hot Springs Mayor Ruth Carney — yes, the same Mayor Carney who joked about having snipers thin the tourist herd back in May — told her local paper there never would have been a 9/11 if her sons had been on the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers.
In September, a man armed with an assault rifle went on a shooting spree at the Crawford County Courthouse in Van Buren. Though the man apparently began firing randomly after being told the judge who had presided over his divorce decree was out sick, only two people were slightly injured before police shot the gunman down on the courthouse lawn.
Best evidence of the hand of God at work
Though the shooter's assault rifle was later test-fired successfully by investigators, during the rampage at the courthouse the weapon jammed and misfired up to 25 times, undoubtedly saving lives and giving police precious minutes to respond.
White County Medical Center in Searcy announced in September that they would no longer consider smokers for employment, and would use random nicotine screening to make sure employees don't use tobacco anywhere, even in their own home on their day off. While already-employed puffers were grandfathered in, officials said, anyone hired after Oct. 1 who tests positive for nicotine will be immediately fired.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 6, employees of the new Apple Store in west Little Rock who had come to the store to hang a mourning wreath in memory of company founder Steve Jobs found the front door shattered and a gang of burglars inside. The thieves fled, but managed to get away with tens of thousands of dollars worth of Apple laptops, iPads and iPhones.
Best Too Much Information
The obituary for Chan Holcombe, a resident of Fort Smith who died Oct. 13 at age 72, proudly noted that he was an Air Force veteran, an avid fisherman, and had been circumcised with his dad's pocketknife.
Worst cave to special interests
In October, the Lovely County Citizen newspaper reported that the Holiday Island Elks Club Auxiliary planned to add biscuits and gravy to the menu at their annual Pancake Breakfast, due to the previous years' complaints that the Pancake Breakfast served only pancakes.
Worst sore loser
After watching his Razorbacks get demolished 41-17 by the LSU Tigers on November 25, coach Bobby Petrino was caught by TV cameras pointing across the field at LSU coach Les Miles and shouting what even an amateur lip-reader would suspect was an obscenity. To add insult to asshattery, during the post-game coaches' handshake, Petrino managed only a token grasp with Miles before huffily turning his back and walking away. UA Athletic Director Jeff Long later said he complained to the SEC because CBS replayed Petrino's cursing.
Best superhero origin story
When a defendant fled his courtroom on December 5, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Barry Sims hopped off the bench in his robe and gave chase through the gallery, out the door and down the hallway. His Honor reportedly managed to deliver several applications of judicial discipline upside the guy's head with his gavel before bailiffs were able to subdue the suspect.