Columns » John Brummett

Words of truth and tears


The well-used written word was celebrated over the weekend in Little Rock's mildly bustling River Market. This was the first-ever Arkansas Literary Festival, proceeds to attack the tragically high incidence of illiteracy in the state. I darted from author's session to author's session, from one side of the soon-operating light rail tracks to the other, from the library to the piano bar, and cried twice, once from laughter. When not drying my eyes, and even then - especially then - I was made to ponder injustice, fathers and sons and the use of humor to tell otherwise avoided truth. The tears of laughter were the work of Roy Blount, noted humorist of 17 books. What brought him to town was his old contributor relationship with the dormant Oxford American magazine, which after a brief new lease on life in Little Rock stands on the verge of resurrection by the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. His wit, so casual as to seem effortless and coincidental, regaled a Friday afternoon audience that included one of his heroes of funny writing, Little Rock's mostly reclusive Charles Portis. Blount told what he called the quintessential Southern joke: A fellow asked a Southern boy if he believed in infant baptism. The Southern boy replied, "Believe in it? Why, I've seen it done." That, as Blount explained, provided the intersection of "faith without evidence and evidence without faith." And do you suppose a humorist could parlay such a joke into political commentary? Why, yes, as Blount managed when he said, "This administration believes in faith without evidence." Everything in the South gets to be about race, of course. Blount said he is always put off by those who say Southerners are better story-tellers because they lost a war. He said somebody said that at a conference once and an African-American woman stood up to say she didn't lose any war. Beware the stereotype. Blount said it was like the time the grasshopper walked into a bar. The bartender told the grasshopper they didn't get many of his kind, but that, actually, they had a drink named for him. The grasshopper asked why they had a drink called Steve. Dale Bumpers, reading the next day from his memoir that is more about every-day stories from Depression-era Charleston than nearly running for president, because that's what interests him more, made himself and me cry. A 20-year-old chicken catcher from Springdale named Bill Elderton was with the 18-year-old Bumpers on the bus carrying new Marine inductees in 1943. Elderton was about 6-feet-3 with Hollywood good looks, an 8th grade education and an all-consuming fear he might never get to see the child his new wife was carrying. Then one day another of the Marines decided he was going to whip Bumpers. Elderton stepped in and knocked the fellow flat. The fellow told Elderton it wasn't his fight. Elderton said he was making it so. Months later Bumpers learned that Elderton's widow had received his Purple Heart. Then came 1970. Bumpers traveled Arkansas with 1 percent name recognition in pursuit of the governorship. He dropped in on the old Springdale News and asked for the editor, who was out. He was sent to the assistant editor, a nice-looking young man. And that was how Dale Bumpers got to talk about Bill Elderton to Bill Elderton's boy. That my own departed dad was born like Bumpers in 1925 in the western part of Arkansas, and like Bill Elderton had an 8th grade education, and got inducted at 18 into the Marines like Bumpers in 1943, and got dumped on Okinawa to dare and somehow survive Bill Elderton's fate, and like Bill Elderton had this boy who went on to write or at least type for a living - well, let's just leave it with the understatement that a good story relates. An illiterate man attending this festival surely would have been inspired to learn to read forthwith, maybe even to put stories to paper himself.

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