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Observer visits Hell, Valhalla

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The Observer is prone to think about Hell when it gets this hot: that smoky, nigh-bottomless pit where Ol' Splitfoot holds sway. We're not as prone as we were as a lad to take all that brimstone stuff literally — does the Pope even believe in The Lake of Fire as a real place anymore? — but living in Arkansas in July, one does tend to ponder on what it would be like to be caught up in that subterranean land of endless summer until the mountains turn to dust.

This is all to say that on a trip to one of those Big Box stores over the weekend, we were delivered a vision of our own personal hell, clear as the one had by that fella who wrote Revelation: An eternal 103-degree day. A never-ending trudge across a parking lot stretching as far as the eye can see, The Mobile Observatory lost somewhere there among the ocean of cars. No water. No shade. Just the smell of oil and exhaust and hot pavement, garnished with the dim hope that sooner or later — if we just keep plodding and don't eventually sink up to our ankles in the liquefied asphalt — we'll find our ride.

If anybody needs us, we'll be somewhere praying.

Moving on from Hell to Valhalla: The Observer visited Pea Ridge National Military Park this weekend — its terrific visitors center was updated just a couple of years ago — and learned a lot about mini balls, hollowed out cannon balls, solid cannon balls, cannons, and of course the history of the conflict on March 7-8, 1862, between the Rebels and the Yanks. It didn't hurt that the ranger answering our questions was a handsome former Marine who was happy to tell us what he knew. 

A tour of the 4,300-acre park (which, when it's 99 degrees outside, one is grateful to be able to make in a car) provides, at a stop on a bluff, a view of the vast field below where 10,000 Union soldiers massed for their final, successful drive against men led by a vainglorious Confederate general who left ammunition supplies behind so his soldiers could move more swiftly into a position behind the federal line. Bad idea. 

A film, which used diary entries from soldiers who survived, and battleground mockups that explained the progress of the troops and the various skirmishes were just the thing for The Observer, who knows almost zip about the Civil War, a lacking we blame on our fair sex. We found the whole story fascinating, if bewildering — it's hard to grasp the notion of tired hungry men standing in a field shooting cannons into the rocky bluffs to send shrapnel into their tired hungry brothers on the other side. 

When we were leaving, we signed the visitors register and noted the ravings of someone who had visited a few days before us. President Obama, we were warned, is conspiring to take over the farms of the South to create a "New World Odor." Smells like fruitcake to us.

Our friend, seeing the note, wrote next to her name: Love the exhibit, the preservation of the battleground, the helpful interpretation from the ranger, and glad to pay taxes to support it. 

People who share our friend's gratitude for how the government spent her tax dollars to honor history would most likely not see eye-to-eye with factions who fear agricultural subjugation by the president — a black man, no less, whose election would have confounded the Rebels of Pea Ridge. But taking up arms — let's hope — is now understood not to be the answer to conflict.

The Observer went down to old Union Station in Little Rock a few weeks back to interview Susana O'Daniel, with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. She's one of the good'uns — a lobbyist who works on behalf of the downtrodden. In the midst of our interview, Susana got around to telling us that one of the most precious things she owns is the framed graduation certificate from her pre-kindergarten Head Start program, which she has held dear to her heart for around 25 years now. She keeps it in her office, she said, to help her remember why she does what she does.

As we thanked her and rose to leave, The Observer's knees pushed our rolling chair back, into the bookshelf. Down, down, down — like a slow-motion nightmare from which we could not awake — went her Head Start certificate, to smash into a fairy ring of glass and shame on the carpet.

There are times when The Observer wishes we could jerk up our shirt, mumble a little Latin, and swirl away down our own bellybutton, disappearing from this plane of existence with an audible pop. That moment definitely qualified. Sigh. Sorry about that, Miz O'Daniel.

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