Columns » Bob Lancaster

The other worst month


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Back in midwinter, when the weather was just as miserable as this, only at the other extreme, I made an impassioned plea in this space to have January officially designated as the worst month. I've changed my mind.

January, with its long nights and punishing northwest winds, is a bad month indeed, but obese people, which, let's face it, most of us are now, suffer more in July. We suffer in the spirit and in the flesh. The marbled tallow cries out for rain, for shade, for larger sizes, for help, for fall.

This July — July 2011 — has been a booger, made worse by the climate change, which some fools still deny, standing on their crates to shake fists at unfeeling science; but the et tu month has a record of hostility and malice toward human beings that goes way back. It doesn't just hate us now; it has hated us forever.

The Indians who lived in these parts a thousand years ago took their summer vacations at mountaintop retreats on eminences that are now named Nebo, Magazine and Rich. Also in the Zigzag Mountains around what is now Hot Springs, which were icy cold springs then, the Great Spirit not yet having turned on the other faucet.

We know the hot springs were cold springs then from pictographs found in caves in the area. The pictographs show shivering Indian children and invalids emerging from the waters, and we know it was July because the surrounding trees are in full leaf and everybody's sitting around eating watermelon. We know it's watermelon because of the ocher meat and black seeds.

Yet even in that pristine time, before a rat had raced on this continent, it was only the privileged few who were able to take to the hills to escape  July. For every heap-big sachem who fled to those cold springs and iced melons, a hundred New World proles had to stay home in the lowlands watering corn and drying jerky. They fired pottery (in July!), and there was always thatching to do. Primitive man, once he'd gone from hunter-gatherer to settled-down farmer, was always behind in his thatching. Every day brought new essential thatchwork, usually something major. And there wasn't any hotter, itchier work than thatching. It got down your back and under your loincloth, causing big old what later igmos who lived in the same area would call whelps.

Hundreds of thatchers for every Big cooling his heels at Cold Springs.

That was prehistoric July, and historic July turned out even nastier.

They say Hernando de Soto died in Arkansas of homesickness after his epic wild-goose chase through these dismal climes, but I suspect that that last July just sapped the last reserves of his want-to. Imagine being root-snagged in the pestilential Arkansas delta in July, not knowing in what direction escape might lie, unsure if mild weather would ever return, wondering whether this was what the Scriptures meant by Hell. He was a bold-hearted man if ever there was one, but July in what is now Desha County burnt the heart right out of him. Boiled it. Baked it. Parched it. Dried it to something you couldn't tell from a black-eyed pea.

Imagine a Civil War bivouac in Arkansas in July, with the omnipresent dysentery and the hardtack like trying to concrete. Imagine being a noncombatant caught in the middle of the border war, starving, with foragers coming at you from both directions, with murderous partisans for one side coming in the same day the murderous partisans for the other side left. Imagine July in the Depression, with the dust blowing, and your having to resort to armed insurrection to keep your young'uns gnawing on something halfway edible for one more miserable-ass day.

Of course I'm more interested — and figure you are too — in the more contemporary indignities that July has visited upon us. At the moment, I'm too Julyed to research the matter to any extent, but here are a few parochial examples that I found just riffling through my in-box.

It was in July when Tim Griffin and Karl Rove got together in the latter's office to fling down the U.S. Constitution and dance on it. It was in July that Justice Jim Johnson dedicated his life to fighting what he called mongrelization.

It was in July when a gay Arkansas person first came out of the closet — but saw his shadow and went right back in, assuming that was a sign there'd be six more weeks of unbearably hot and dry weather.

It was in July, in Arkansas, when the first cattalo was conceived, a hellish looking thing, in the light of a gibbous moon.

Yarnell's premiered the first radioactive-isotope flavored ice cream one July. Hope officially became the Uninhabitable Trailer House Capital of the World in July.

The lyrics in the Johnny Cash standard "I fell into a burnin' ring of far; I went down down down and the flames went har" were inspired by one of the Julys of his youth in Dyess.

The first whorehouse opened in Cabot in July, precipitating the boom — perhaps called the Big Bang; perhaps not — that led to the current proliferation.

The first gnat to homestead a dog peter in Arkansas did so in July.


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