We read in the newspaper that Jacksonville is trying to find ways to bring tourists to town.
We were a regular visitor to Jacksonville in the 1950s and ’60s. Our grandparents lived there. Our grandfather liked to drive around the perimeter of the Air Force base. It had been his farm, condemned by the government for the war. He liked to visit his favorite oak tree. He crept along at 20 mph and coasted on the downhill to save on gas.
What there was to see in Jacksonville then: A movie theater. The house on the corner with the chicken coop. The child with impetigo next door whom we weren’t allowed to play with. The Jacksonville school — all grades — and the railroad track they were on. A horse in the field across the tracks. The wooden bridge with no railings, out past the Nixon house.
What we loved about Jacksonville, besides our grandmother and grandfather, was the train. We loved hearing it come. We ran to the parlor window at night to hear the sound grow loud and fade. Listening to the train is a favorite memory. The windowpane was cold on our nose.
Now Jacksonville has built an overpass over the tracks, and over Main Street, too. You can’t see the Henry store or any of the storefronts there anymore.
The city hall is on the other side of the highway.
Jacksonville has a military museum. But it needs a center. A place where you can hear the trains. Chickens would be nice, too, but surely they’re gone.
In that sentimental vein, we took a drive around downtown the other day, where we lived until just before the tornado hit. It has been seven years since the tornado wiped out the ancient trees and blew houses off their foundations. Spring Street is sunny and wide, disconcertingly so to someone who once lived nearby but hasn’t been back for a visit lately. But the house on the corner, where a purple handprint appeared on the side of a house under a window, was still there. It’s been painted over. The azaleas we left behind are gone. And so is Hoodlum Priest.
The words Hoodlum Priest were painted across the wall of a brick building at the intersection of 23rd and Arch, across from a funny gas station that sits on the diagonal facing the middle of the intersection. We never took the time to ask, What is Hoodlum Priest? and now we’ll never know. Another thing we forgot to learn, along with becoming fluent in French and a good skier. Too late.
But P. Allen Smith’s garden is still there, still beautiful, and we were amused that our daughter, who’d walked so many times there as a baby, now exclaimed, P. Allen Smith! That’s his garden? Grand houses are still there, kept up by people to whom we all owe a debt of thanks for keeping our city’s history intact.
But we sure miss Hoodlum Priest.
The Observer tries to avoid the subject of birds. Our editor insists. But when a colleague asks, “What’s with all the robins?” The Observer feels obligated to answer.
American robins are common in these parts. You know, red breast, dark heads, gray wings, saying “tut, tut, tut.” Every other backyard has a nest going in summer.
But last weekend, our colleague noticed, robins by the dozens had swarmed into a Hillcrest backyard, and indeed The Observer saw 50 or so fly over the Market Street Cinema in West Little Rock.
Sometimes, The Observer will answer a question whether we know what we’re talking about or not, and we were tempted to satisfy our colleague’s question with our best guess. But instead, we turned to Arkansas’s own Roger Peterson, Mel White. Have our regular robins come together in some kind of mating ritual similar to a school mixer in preparation for the summer of egg? Or are the hoards invaders from elsewhere, scaring our robins off and eating all their food, getting all their jobs?
Getting together in huge flocks is just what robins do in winter, White says. They’ve come to town to eat our photinia berries and chinaberries and holly berries.
Dozens of robins are nothing. Douglas James, the UA ornithologist, has written about finding a roost of 6 million birds in a cedar thicket in Washington County in the 1960s.
Local birds need not worry; most are migrants headed north to become the “first robin of spring,” which is something romantic that we don’t get to say.