Reflections on a small hometown

Friday, June 27, 2014

I've thought about Marked Tree and Poinsett County many times since I left there more than 50 years ago and my memories always focus on people who influenced my life. People like my high school English teacher, Mrs. Earlene Pace; my Agriculture teacher, Mr. Oscar Holt; a former editor of the Tribune, Mrs. Dorothy Stuck, and many others.

As a regular reader of the Tribune, I tend to pause when I see articles about youngsters growing up there today and hope they enjoy the same positive influences I had because getting an education and then landing a good job is getting harder and harder nowadays.

Like many others of my day, my parents were hard working country folk. My dad left school in the ninth grade to cut timber and work on roads being built in that area before purchasing a small farm near Payneway. As many women did back then, my mother dropped out of school in the seventh grade to work in the fields.

During and immediately following World War II, there was little mechanization and farmers like my Dad used mules to pull farm implements. Much of the work was done by hand and I remember long hours of chopping cotton, picking cotton, pulling corn, and feeding farm animals. We didn't have much, but didn't dwell on it.

As a youngster, I remember seeing houses every quarter mile or so along the gravel roads that crisscross that area filled with families like ours. When I visit now, it's distressing to drive long distances without passing a single house and I often wonder what happened to all those people I once knew.

In those days, everyone worked hard during the week, but on Saturdays, nearly everyone went to town. No one had much money, so there was little shopping. Instead, Saturdays were more of a social event. From around 1 o'clock in the afternoon until 9 or 10 at night, the streets of Marked Tree and surrounding towns were filled with people. They'd be milling around and talking with friends they didn't see much of during the week.

Those were fun times for a kid like me. I loved to tag along with my dad and one of the places we always stopped was known as Schonberger's Dry Goods Store and that's where I first met Mr. George Crowell. He was a young man then, fresh back from the Pacific Theater where he served as a Navy pilot during World War II.

The thing I remember most vividly was that no matter how busy he might be he'd always find time to put his arm around a poor farmer's kid and hug me tight. His words were always encouraging. He'd ask questions like, "How are you doing in school? What's your teacher's name? Are you keeping your grades up?" He never seemed rushed and I was so happy that an adult of Mr. Crowell's stature paid attention to me.

Mr. Crowell loved to hunt. Out on our farm, we had an old squirrel dog that lost one of his rear legs after being hit chasing a car, but he learned to get around quite well on three legs. Many was the time that Mr. Crowell joined my dad and me in the floodway; walking through the woods and talking. The thing that most impressed me was the fact that he always seemed to be talking with me and not at me or down to me, a fault that many of us grown-ups have when we talk with youngsters.

As I got older, his messages became more age specific. He'd still hug me tight but would say things like, "Are you keeping your grades up? How's football practice? Do you think we have any chance of beating Osceola this year?" Then, somewhere about my 10th grade year, he became even more focused. He'd ask questions like, "Have you decided where you're going to college and have you started saving your money?"

Do you understand what he was saying? He wasn't asking whether I was going to college. Instead, he assumed I was going and wanted to know if I was planning for that event. Most Americans don't plan what they will be doing this afternoon or tomorrow, much less next week or next year, but Mr. Crowell was trying to get me to focus on the rest of my life.

When I graduated from high school, I wasn't going to let him or my parents down, so I enrolled at Arkansas State because that was the only place we could afford. Even then, I pumped gas and washed cars every Saturday and Sunday at a Mobil station that was located on Main Street in Marked Tree to help pay my way.

Although he bought gas elsewhere, every 3-4 weeks or so I'd see Mr. Crowell pull up out front. I'd walk out and we'd talk for a while. He'd ask about school and about my plans for the future. What he was doing was checking on me, making sure I was keeping my head put on straight. Because of his influence, I've gone to school most of my adult life and still take courses to keep up with the technology that's exploding all around us.

Not long before his death, I had an opportunity to thank Mr. Crowell for what he meant to me. I told him I followed in his footsteps during 30 years of military service and more than 20 years in the private sector. I also told him that, every once in awhile, one of the thousands of soldiers and others that I have befriended will drop by to see me, or call, or send an email thanking me for helping them somewhere along the way. Several of them are now doctors, lawyers, and other professionals and they thank me for giving them a boost when they needed it most. I told Mr. Crowell that I now understand the satisfaction he got from helping others and seeing them do well.

Mr. Crowell also helped me make a career choice that I wouldn't trade for anything. When I was a kid, I liked to stand off to the side and listen while the adults talked. As some of you may know, Mr. Crowell was a Navy pilot during WWII and told magical stories about flying. I knew I wanted to fly someday, but wasn't sure how to make that happen. I simply couldn't draw a connection from a cotton patch to a cockpit.

Fortunately, Mr. Crowell encouraged me to take ROTC in college. He told me it would be good experience to serve as a military officer regardless what I might do with the rest of my life, so when I graduated, I went into the Army expecting to only spend a couple of years, but an opportunity for flight school came my way and I grabbed it.

I've thought about Mr. Crowell hundreds of times as I have flown over the rolling hills of Germany, across the great heartland of this country, over the deserts and mountains of our West Coast, and in exotic places like Japan and Vietnam.

I remember one flight while I was stationed in Japan that I'd like to share with you. I received a call to take several passengers down to Okinawa the following day. I got to the airfield about 5 a.m. and it was raining cats and dogs. The passengers showed up just before six, so we hurried them aboard and taxied out to the runway.

The ceiling and visibility were extremely low and we sat there for a long time awaiting takeoff instructions. When we were cleared, we lifted off into a dark, foreboding sky. Rain pounded the windshield and the turbulence was especially bad as we climbed out. After passing through several thousand feet of rain soaked clouds, we popped out on top.

Up above us was the clear, blue sky of early morning and the cloud layer below stretched as far as the eye could see. The sun was breaking over the horizon and was turning the tops of those cotton-candy clouds into all sorts of shades of gold and brown. A few miles off our left wing, Mount Fuji was sticking her majestic head up through the clouds. The top of Fuji was unbelievably beautiful that morning. That perfectly shaped volcanic cone, the pure white glaciers surrounding her top, and the wind whipping snow flurries back and forth.

I've often told folks that you don't need to ask a pilot whether or not he believes in God because we've seen His handiwork many times over. A picture like the one that morning couldn't be the result of some accidental explosion in space a few billion years ago. Oh, that may have been the mechanism that caused it, but it certainly was no accident. What we saw that morning is part of some carefully crafted master plan and a few of us have been lucky enough to experience that kind of beauty over and over again.

We worked our way down the island chain that makes up Japan, over Honshu and Kyushu, and then headed out over open-ocean toward the island of Okinawa. We were soon out of sight of land, so we had to navigate using radio beacons located on tiny islands along the way with names like Ie Shima, Iwo Jima, and others.

It turned out to be a beautiful, sunny day and I was sitting there half asleep when the co-pilot pressed his mike button and said, "Hey sir, what are you laughing about?" Then it dawned on me that I had been sitting there chuckling to myself. I was thinking about Mr. Crowell who had flown in that area too and it seemed unbelievable that two old country boys from Marked Tree had flown in the same airspace, halfway around the world, albeit a few years apart.

Mr. Crowell helped me make a career choice that led to my becoming a military officer and I wouldn't trade that 30 years of experience for anything else I could have done. Being able to serve my country and fellow man while flying airplanes and helicopters was more than satisfying.

I know there are lots of youngsters in Marked Tree and the surrounding communities who come from humble beginnings like I did and I'm sure many are concerned about their futures. In these days when jobs are hard to find and distractions like drugs and alcohol are more prevalent than in my day, it would be easy to get side tracked. No one promises it will be easy, but I would like to leave a message that everyone can make it with a lot of personal hard work and by following the guidance of people like Mr. Crowell.

In closing, I'd like to challenge the grown-ups in my hometown to spare a little time to provide a boost for youngsters who need it. Your reward will be priceless when you see them succeed.

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