Columns » Bob Lancaster

Revised version

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Revisionist history came to Arkansas recently with the publication of a book making Gov. Orval Faubus out to be the much maligned and misunderstood hero of the Little Rock Central High School integration crisis.

In my response, I’d like to tell this historian: I knew Orval Faubus. He wasn’t exactly a friend of mine, but Ma’am, you’re no Orval Faubus. He was not only the parochial revisionist master, he pretty much invented the art in this bailiwick, making it up as he went along. He could revise yesterday into the day after tomorrow, and his own Commie college background into Jethro Bodeen goes to ciphering school.

Just because he said it didn’t make it so, of course, but he was smart enough to realize that it would disarm critics and detractors if he said that very thing before they did — that his saying something didn’t mean it was true and didn’t even mean he thought it was true. Eisenhower didn’t know what to make of such hillbilly squirrel-headedness, but Arkies knew the game and knew the code and knew perfectly well what Uncle Orv was up to. He counted on our knowing it, and going along with it.

And he would’ve enjoyed knowing that such b.s. would still be baffling overmatched would-be historians 50 years later. He would’ve enjoyed that a lot.

I’m personally glad revisionist history has made it to Arkansas finally because I’ve been hankering to practice a little of it myself.

As I understand it, the way it works is by reversing the Faubus analect — you make a preposterous assertion, and then, because you’ve said it, go on to make the case that it is so. Or wrap it in such deadly academic jargon that nobody can tell for sure whether you’ve made the case or not.

My revisionist topic is a history of Arkansas place names. Many of those places, I’ve found as I embellished right along, have much more colorful explanations for their names than the conventional ones. I’m sorry I’ve got room here for only a few examples.

• The town of Benton was named not for T.H. Benton or Brook Benton but for Harvey Benton, Arkansas’ first clinically diagnosed crazy person, asylumed there for most of the 19th century. He was an ancestor of Karl Childers, and was the first local known to have ordered the French-fried potaters at Gary’s.

• The town of Hope got its name from residents always hoping for something implausible to happen there, such as “Boy, I hope Old Man Bright and them will grow giant watermelons someday,” or “Boy, I hope someday this little old hick town will turn out a stereo-speaker genius or a U.S. president or a huckaweasel.”

• The town of Texarkana was so named because it was located exactly a mile from them old cotton fields back home.

• The college towns of Fayetteville and Jonesboro, the ones with the fierce if unconsummated football rivalry, were both named for the architect Fay Jones, who, growing up, had to do a lot of kickin’ and gougin’ in the mud and the blood and the beer about being a boy named Fay. There’s a folktale that Jonesboro was named for Casey Jones, the engineer, but it wasn’t. Nor for Jerry or Caldwell or Jimmie Red or Julia Hughes or Slow-Talking Slow-Walking.

• The town of England was actually named for France, and therein lies a rather long story. The town was originally named Wampoo, for old Leonard Wampoo, whose nephew Flem was a civil war balloonist at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Flem’s craft caught an updraft into the jetstream during Pickett’s Charge, and thus Flem made the first transatlantic flight by accident. The people where he landed were very hospitable — even gave him a parade — but their language mystified him. It was nothing like what the home folks back in Wampoo spoke. He assumed it was the English language he’d heard about once from a schoolmarm, and that’s what he told the people of Wampoo when the hospitable people of France put him on a ship and, with many festive adieus, sent him home.

Some other Frenchmen called coureurs de bos, whom he thought were more Englishmen, only rougher looking, met him at New Orleans and canoed him upriver to within just a few miles of Wampoo, where there were more of those fond adieus at riverside, despite the big misunderstanding about the canoeists not getting paid. It was out of gratitude to those “Englishmen” that a grateful Wampoo changed its name once the matter was settled of Flem’s having been A.W.O.L.

Of course revisionist history can work against you, too, when feeble imagination and an exhaustive lack of research persuades you to debunk a colorful town-name account in favor of a less interesting one. For instance, the town of Hector, according to all the authorities, was named for President Grover Cleveland’s pet bulldog. But my revisionist dissearches insist that it was named either for the baseball player Hector Cruz or the other baseball player Hector Villanueva, both pretty dull guys.

If you think that’s impossible because both the town and its name predated the birth of either ballplayer, well, then, you just don’t “get” revisionist history, and you might do well to avoid it.

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