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Friday night fights

Novel excerpt: A boomtown brawl from Richard Mason’s story of a South Arkansas Christmas.

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Richard Mason, a geologist by trade and a naturalist at heart, was marooned on drilling rigs in the deserts of Libya when his thoughts began to turn to his boyhood in Norphlet, Ark., and to writing.

What was there about the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, as Colonel Gaddafi named his country, that could trigger musings about Union County and yearnings to write about it? Proximity to the great outposts of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations?

Probably not. More likely it was all that oil and all that nearby poverty. Norphlet and the piney plain around it in the Depression and World War II would have had those in common with Libya, and maybe nothing else.

So Mason sketched out a novel about Norphlet in its salad days as a brawling boomtown, after discovery of oil in 1922 in what become known as the Smackover Field. But he packed it away until he was back home in El Dorado several years ago and heard Studs Terkel on TV tell the secret for successful writing. Reminiscence, Terkel said, reminiscence.

That's when Mason got the idea that became “The Red Scarf,” a little novel about his youthful days at Norphlet around the end of World War II that August House published this fall. The book is marketed as a Christmas story for adolescents, probably because it ends so preciously and touchingly that flint-hearted critics would give it a pass if it was for youngsters.

Mason, who engineered the historic redevelopment of downtown El Dorado, first sent the book to a New York publisher, who said it was charming but that the first-person narrative sounded like it was written by a grandfather, which Mason is, not by a boy of 12. So Mason channeled his youth, reread Huckleberry Finn and rewrote the whole thing in the trite and slightly cleaned-up vernacular of a country boy in 1944. The exclamation of choice is not “cool!” but “dang!”

He might have read some Charles Portis, too, for there is in “The Red Scarf” some evidence of the same ear for authentic but absurd dialogue found in novels like “Dog of the South” and “True Grit.” As it happens, Portis was reared about the same time as Mason at Mount Holly, 12 miles across the woods and oilfields from Norphlet.

The thread of the story is young Richard's infatuation with the prettiest girl in school and his obsession with raising the money to buy her for Christmas a red scarf from Samples Department Store in El Dorado that he had been told she coveted and that he had checked out on a visit with his dad to the county seat. It was priced at $15, which seems like a steep tag for 1944 but not a surprising one since Samples was much too upscale for most people in Union County. My own family, which lived a few miles through the woods and an income bracket or two from Norphlet, bought a single item at Samples, an exquisite brown wool sweater acquired for me in 1957 when I headed north for school and that I still break out on rare occasions. When ordinary people needed store-bought clothing they went to West Bros.

But the plot to sweep the fetching Rosalie off her feet with a scarf from Samples is a way to string together a bunch of stories from Mason's youth, not all of which Mason says happened exactly the way he records them or happened to him at all. He said recently that he wanted people with long memories to know that he was not the kid who did one or two of the things that his character in the book did. For a youngster who lied, cheated and stole as remorselessly as his fictional counterpart Richard did, Mason now has a stellar reputation. He is president and CEO of Gibraltar Energy and was three times president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation.

Norphlet, Ark., not surprisingly, got its name from poor penmanship or postal carelessness or both. It was supposed to be named for Mr. Nauphlet Goodwin but people in the Postal Department saw the name written out in longhand in the 1890s and misrecorded it officially as Norphlet. No one ever cared enough to set it right. Geologists gave the name to a common sandstone formation where oil and gas are found — the Norphlet Formation — after the discovery of oil in the Smackover Field.

Thousands came to work at Norphlet in the 1920s, when crews sometimes brought in three or four new wells a day, and it was a raucous and often lawless town of thrown-up shacks, tents and honky-tonks. Half a mile from the town square, Macmillan Petroleum put up a refinery, which became the prime employer after the boom subsided. By the end of World War II when Mason was making his way into town every morning to deliver the El Dorado Daily News, Norphlet was a far more placid place, though for some of us who were reared in the woods farther south it could still seem like a Mardi Gras of diversions when we visited cousins in the summer. It was not quite as exciting as the slightly more distant El Dorado, which had three movie houses, including the proletarian Ritz, where for a dime on Saturday you could see Boston Blackie and saddle up with Hoot Gibson, Bob Steele and Chief Thundercloud.

By the '40s, Norphlet could only offer an occasional band of liquored oilfield toughs, crippled legatees of the badder days like the one-legged saloon proprietor and rumors of misbehavior. A country boy on a farm at the edge of Flat Creek Swamp relied on his own imagination and the natural world for diversion, together with maybe an egg-sucking hound. Mason's stories are the stuff of growing up on a country road, matching wits with raccoons, possums, skunks, snakes or wildcats in his case, or else setting hooks or gigging frogs and carp from a shallow creek, and the relentless and fruitless pastime of trying to knock a woodpecker from a chinquapin tree with a bean shooter made from the fork of a hickory.

The nice Christmas message of “The Red Scarf” is that providence will reward a boy's unselfish kindness. Better is the subtle subtext. Two white boys in a world as segregated as it could ever be enjoy an earnest and mutual friendship with an aging black man that is uncomplicated by the fearful prejudices of their elders, which you suspect will arrive soon enough for them.


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