Every morning of the workweek, The Observer walks by the tidy blacksmith shop at the Historic Arkansas Museum. We relish those mornings when the doors are open, white smoke curling from the brick chimney, the sharp tak-tak-tak of hammer on anvil issuing from the dim maw of the double doors. Even in the summer, it puts us in mind of the fall, probably because The Observer's Ma and Pa always put off our annual trip to Old Washington State Park over near Hope until the fall of the year. Pa loved to haunt the blacksmith shop there, a log hut hung with crusty old tools, a fire pit, anvil and leather bellows in the middle, worked at all times by an overall-clad Hephaestus.
Walking past the shop at HAM some mornings, we've been moved many times to chuck work for an hour and go into that dark cave, where sooted men hammer orange steel. While we haven't quite worked up a good enough excuse to go inside to the fire — if there's one thing we hate more than being lost, it's feeling like a tourist — we may yet. We may yet.
There's an attraction there, equal parts manly-man curiosity and jealousy. We get a melancholy feeling sometimes: the little voice that says precious few of the things we've devoted our life to so far are going to stay. Iron, my friend, stays. It will stay until the rust worms gnaw it to pits and flaking red, or stay forever if you and your daughter and your daughter's son and your daughter's son's son keep it slathered down with Marvel Mystery Oil. Words, meanwhile, only stay sometimes, so rarely as to be within elbowing distance of never. But, still, we keep on walking by, on our daily way to this desk, to this office overlooking the street, to this rubbed-shiny keyboard, then home after work to our bare huddle of books and papers in the corner. These are the places where we make our continual attempts at roping the moon. We may never get a leash on it. But as Sir Galahad and many a good English prof has said: The quest, young squire, is always the point of the quest.
Speaking of moons, for over 100 years, students at Hendrix College have marched, sung or danced — or have performed some combination of the three — in little more than underwear and ties. These days they call it Shirttails, a nondescript name for what is perhaps the best-attended spectacle of underdressed young people south of the Mason-Dixon line.
You might better appreciate the tradition's age by making note of the football victory that sparked it. Hendrix topped Ole Miss 8-6 on Nov. 7, 1913, leading a few hundred young men to march over to what was then the Arkansas State Normal School — now the University of Central Arkansas — and present-day Central Baptist College "seeking praise from administrators and professors at the schools," according to Hendrix's Shirttails web page.
"By the 1920s, the parade had been reenacted a few times and morphed into a 'Pajama Parade' where male students traveled to the all-female Central College to serenade their lady friends." This became unnecessary after Hendrix constructed its first female dorm, Galloway Hall, in the 1930s. Women joined the serenades themselves for the first time in 1984, dubbing their own version, "Long Shirts, Short Shorts." Over the course of the last 30 years, a Saturday night dance competition in Hendrix's brick pit has come to supplement the Wednesday night dorm-patio ditties, and last weekend it drew Yours Truly out from The Observatory and into a half-light of half-naked ebullience.
Over the course of the week leading up to Saturday night, each dorm's worth of freshmen rehearsed a dance choreographed by an upperclassman for two hours every day. Then, when night fell on Aug. 30, the dorms competed against one another, dressed in nothing but well-pressed button-downs and underpants. Before a crowd of their upperclassmen peers, a few bold (or perhaps naïve) parents and occasional randos like Yours Truly, they crawled, rolled, flipped and twerked, egged on by roars of pleasure and applause from the crowd. At the end of the night, the judges determined the men's dorm Hardin and the women's dorm Raney had done it the best and awarded them their respective golden Shirttails trophies, now displayed in the school's Student Life and Technology Center.
Boy, it's fun to be a kid, and if Shirttails is any indicator, it has been for some time. Regardless of how near or distant you find your own college years, The Observer encourages you, Reader, to check out the 102nd annual Shirttails sometime next August. Recommended dress is extremely casual.