As a child, my family lived in a small farm town east of Little Rock, Arkansas called Lonoke. It was named for a famed landmark oak tree near the train tracks whose rails cut straight through the town. Lonoke’s main exports were rice, soybean, and fish. I took pride in the fact that it was home to the largest minnow farm in the world; China being it’s biggest customer. Although we think of minnows as being a form of bait, the Chinese use it as a food source. In fact, there used to be a Chinese restaurant in downtown Norman that served it’s fried rice with whole minnows. As I picked them out of the rice, I would wonder if they came from Anderson’s Minnow Farm in Lonoke.
Lonoke was a town of catfish fries in the park or in the street between my church, First Presbyterian, and the Methodist church. They fried the fresh caught catfish and hush puppies in large drums filled with dangerously hot oil. One time, Governor Bill Clinton attended a fish fry in the park just south of my house. I’ll never forget the warmth and strength of his handshake. There was something reassuring about it in my child’s mind. I’ll also never forget that Hillary introduced herself as Mrs. Bill Clinton. She had received criticism for going by Hillary Rodem in her early years of first ladyship in Arkansas. I recall, a local journalist for the Lonoke Democrat scratching out shorthand for her brief interview with Bill. You don’t see that very often anymore.
Many other wonderful things happened on my street, Center Street, which was the town’s main drag. Every year, the homecoming parade crept passed my house. We were the Lonoke Jackrabbits, and I always looked forward to the Easter Bunny-esque mascot who threw out candy along with the rest of the paraders, but there was something special about getting a Now N Later from the jackrabbit. The most exciting part, though, was that any kid who wanted to and was old enough could ride his bike at the rear of the parade. Then after the parade, my friends and I would search for hidden candy in the gutters.
I also recall a yearly fall hay ride through the streets. However, this event was stained by the tragedy of one of the town’s boys getting crushed under the trailer. There were many such tragedies in Lonoke. A friend of mine’s little brother was sliced to bits by a combine. A kid was killed on a three wheeler. Countless others.
My street being the main drag, teens in Camaro’s, Trans Ams, and pickup trucks drove up and down it at night blaring music often with boosters to give it a kick. I would listen quietly at night from my bedroom and wonder if I would one day do the same. I never did. We moved to Norman in my 6th grade year.
A couple of winters, it snowed so much, that the snow plow piled a huge mountain of snow in the street in front of my house which my brother and I played on for a few weeks. My dad also pulled us through snowy streets on a sled with our yellow Ford Fairmont station wagon.
As fall approaches my new hometown of Norman, I think about the signs of fall in my childhood hometown. The first sign was a change in the atmospheric acoustics. I would usually notice it for the first time when I heard the scream of a buzz saw somewhere in the neighborhood. The sound would be more crisp, more pleasing. This was a town of ancient oaks and pecan trees. The leaves would turn colors in massive patches atop trees that may have been as old as the town itself. And when they dropped their leaves, it was nearly unmanageable. But we didn’t use bags or anything else to haul the leaves away. And what we did do really brought the greatest sense of fall for me. We burned our leaves. The citizens of Lonoke burned leaves in the street in front of their houses, even on Center Street. This wonderful fragrance expressed the heart of autumn for me. I wasn’t supposed to mess with the leaves, but I often poked at the burning piles with a stick or threw acorns in them which would pop like a fire cracker if it burned well enough.
Now that I look back on it, this was a preposterously dangerous practice by today’s standards. I say “today’s standards” because we are a culture obsessed with safety. I don’t recall there being any problem with it back then. I suspect the practice has been banned by nearly every state in the country. Probably for the better. But in that little town when I was a kid, the streets were friendly. We celebrated our community in them. And now in Oklahoma, I get a similar sense of fall when I smell the first fires lit in hearths of Norman, but it’s a really bad idea to throw acorns in your fireplace.
Other posts about Lonoke