The Observer was panhan-dled at a gas station downtown. It wasn't the first time, but it was the most unusual. A man using a cane was there when we opened our car door and insisted on pumping our gas for 50 cents. We told him we would pump our own gas, but he hung about and tried to help anyway and so we asked him what he needed 50 cents for. Please don't ask, he said. The Observer kind of laughed.
I'm homeless, he said. I'm hungry, he said. And OK, he said, I'm an alcoholic.
There was something so affable about the guy that The Observer reached into our always full change purse and just grabbed it all and handed it to him. Fifty cents will not get you a beer, much less a pint.
He thanked The Observer and walked away. But then he hailed us and we turned around. He had something in his hand. Surely he wasn't giving us change? No, he wasn't.
He had a tiny silver pin, a fleur de lis, that we'd put in the change purse for safekeeping after it came off a collar. He gave it back. We thanked him profusely, and kidded him that he was now carrying his cane. He said he used it when his leg hurt. The Observer believes him.
The Observer doesn't get up to northeast Arkansas too much, but over the weekend, we felt like a road trip and decided to take off for those far shores. Our rambling led us to the Black River, and Powhatan Courthouse State Park. The Black is a lovely little ribbon of current, with clean, high banks and a strong flow, stitching together the flatland and the foothills, paralleled a good bit of its length by Highway 25. Round a curve on 25, and the old courthouse rears up before you out of nowhere, a brick pile as symmetrical as an open book. Built in 1888 on a hill, out of the reach of spring floods, it's still an impressive sight; 40 feet on a side; three stories high, with a bell tower. It lords over what's left of the little town, perched there inside an iron fence.
Though the Lawrence County seat moved to nearby Walnut Ridge decades ago, Powhatan Courthouse remained, attended by a little gaggle of original frontier structures that grew up there. Preservationists stepped in, and saved the courthouse and many of the buildings in town from ruin. In 1974, the place became a state park. Inside, you'll find information about the little town that once was, who lived there, and why.
The courthouse is lovely, but Arkansas is full of impressive courthouses. You don't often get to see one without the thump of rubber stamps and citizenry shuffling in and out, however. Just as nice for us was a glimpse inside the restored school further down the hill, a two-room affair with the high-falutin' name of The Powhatan Male and Female Academy. Through either of two sets of double doors (the school was originally segregated by sex, our guide told us), neat rows of children's seats faced a stern oak teacher's desk. On one wall are photos of all the matrons who had ruled the classroom there, most of them looking about as cuddly as trigonometry. Ah, the good old days.
Our trip to Powhatan got us thinking about time. Build a building, keep the windows glazed and the roof weather-tight, and who knows how long it will last? Men and women, though, come and go like the spring blooms.
Because of that, maybe, the way we tend to think about time is strange business. The Observer, for example, finds it hard not to see history as something like a great gray block, separating our world from the world that came before. But really, it's not. There really is no “our world” and “their world.” In fact, history is yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. Reel back enough of those, and you can get from here to the end of World War I, or Lincoln at Ford's Theater, or the birth of Christ, all of it connected by an unbroken chain of sunrises and sunsets, the days and nights full of people you never heard of, laughing, crying, cursing their fate, holding their children in their arms for the first time. People coming and going, wearing down the very stones with their ceaseless feet.
Seems a lot more human when you think about it that way, doesn't it?