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Arkansas Vacation Part 1: St. Louis MO and Stuttgart AR

I’ve never known my father’s side of the family very well. When I was younger, I lived thinking that my father’s mother and sister (and her son) were the only Doss relatives I had until my father’s uncle invited him to take over his chiropractic practice in Arkansas when I was 12. We moved down to Stuttgart, Arkansas and I met my great Uncle Ed and Aunt Gene and I was like, “What, there’s MORE of us?” I pretty much had no idea.

It turns out that there are TONS of us. I just never knew them because my father suffered paranoid ideas about everyone hating him, and so he never took us around them. And, it turns out that they’re a pretty close knit bunch who would have welcomed us at any time, if we’d ever shown up. Every year for the last several years, my grandfather’s generation and their descendants have tried to get together for a reunion. My grandfather (Smitty) was the only brother never represented at those reunions. But everyone else was. My Great Uncle Ed has been the one to especially want to have these reunions, and his line has been the most well represented, but the others have all come too. My cousins Michele and Stephanie, who I met when I moved to Arkansas, all know their other second cousins well and have grown up with them. I’ve never met a single blessed one of them.

This year the family reunion was being hosted by my cousin Michele in Arkansas, and she made a point to invite me and make me feel welcome - and I decided to go. I want to know my Doss family better, and for my children to know them. And, also, I’ve been dealing with my father’s insanity for the past years, trying to understand it and reconcile it with what I know about him (which isn’t much.) I wanted family stories. I wanted to know what my grandfather was like (I don’t remember him) and what my father’s childhood was like. If my father and grandfather struggled so much in life and with relationships, what then was my great-grandfather like? I needed answers. If I was ever going to understand my life with my father, and overcome the emotional difficulties I’ve inherited from him, I needed to understand his family.

And, besides all that, it was a good opportunity to go back to the place I spent most of my formative childhood years, since I hadn’t been back there in 15 years.

So, we packed all our stuff and embarked on a Griswold-ish family car trip (23 hours!) to Arkansas. It was a really great time. I got to see my cousins Stephanie and Michele again (who I had known when I lived in Arkansas) and meet other cousins. I got to see my Uncle Ed, who I remember as a warm and kind man (and who was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a grandfather) and who I wanted to see again before it was too late. And I got to have lots of conversations with people about my father and grandfather and even great-grandfather, to know the family history that I never really understood, and begin to put some pieces together. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it was enlightening and good, and I’m grateful to my family for indulging all my talk and questions the entire weekend!

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We started out early in the morning at 1:00, thinking the kids would sleep a lot of the way that way. (Note: that doesn’t work out as well as it sounds it should.) We headed out west through PA to take I 70 through Ohio, Indianna, Illinois, and Missouri. And, yes, that’s as boring as it sounds. In PA, I 70 merges with the turnpike, so we started out on that, and toward the Western edge of the state we stopped at a rest stop and I saw this sign. Did you know that the PA turnpike was the nations first superhighway? Or that it was built on the PA railroad? I didn’t. I love facts like that! They’re so interesting. So I took a picture of the sign. :)

We drove 9 hours to the Western edge of Ohio and stopped for a break at the National Air Force Museum. It was really good: four enormous hangers full of planes dating from the Wright brothers all the way to the Stealth bomber, along with historic tidbits. And it was free! They had a nice picnic area outside, too, and we ate our packed lunch there after we went through the museum. It was a great break.

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There was a section about local residents who had survived or liberated death camps in WWII and their stories. It was very moving, because it was just ordinary local people and their stories. The men who had liberated the camps said that they’ve never forgotten it and still have nightmares about it, that they had no idea about what they would find inside those fences and how they’ve never gotten over being confronted with such massive and brutal deaths. I was touched to see Emily seriously reading the stories.
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The kids pretty much didn’t sleep all morning long, but then finally fell asleep in the afternoon. Aren’t they sweet?
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Our destination for Tuesday was St. Louis. We’d never been there and wanted to visit the arch, and we strangely still had energy enough to do it Tuesday night so that we could get a good start on Wednesday. It was really amazing in person. Impressive.

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This was the tiny little door into the cable car that took us to the top of the arch. It was really really small! If you’re at all claustrophobic, don’t go in there.
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The kids looking out the windows at the top of the arch. Did you ever read the Percy Jackson books? Do you remember the part where they’re at the arch and he has to escape a monster so he has no choice but to jump through the windows into the Mississippi River? Yeah, well, I’m betting Rick Riorden never actually went to the arch. There’s no way someone could jump out of those windows, not to mention the fact that the river isn’t underneath the arch: only hard concrete. Oh well. Literary license, I guess. (but I suggest he does his research a little better next time.)
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On Wednesday we travelled to Jacksonville, outside Little Rock, to visit my old friend Colleen. She was one of my closest friends in high school, but I haven’t had much contact with her since then, and it was really great to see her. And I’m kicking myself that I didn’t think to get a picture with her before we left! I really really really regret that! So you’ll just have to take my word for it that she’s still beautiful and has a beautiful son and daughter and husband, and that they’re all very nice and hospitable. Emily says she wishes Faith (Colleen’s 12 year old daughter) was her cousin too, and said “I wish we could go back and spend a week at Faith’s house!” I also got so see Colleen’s parents, who gave me a home to live in the summer after I graduated after my parents moved to PA. I’ve always appreciated their warmth in taking me in like a daughter at a time when I really needed someone to do that, so it was wonderful to see them again and be able to say thank you after all these years.

Thursday, we left Colleen’s house and headed south to Stuttgart, where I spent my teenage years. On the way we had to stop at Craig’s BBQ in DeVall’s Bluff, which - hand’s down - has the absolute best BBQ I’ve ever tasted anywhere. And we ate at quite a few BBQ places while we were there. None compares to Craig’s. It looks like a hole in the wall.
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It’s the kind of place that you’d be totally terrified to stop and eat in if you didn’t know what it was. The inside isn’t any better. It’s paneled in wood paneling circa 1979 that’s coated in grease and grime and scenic woodsy pictures and the floor is a slightly crumbling concrete/tile mix. Several tables have newspaper shoved under one leg to keep them from wobbling (which is pretty thoughtful, actually) and the “menu” is a small yellowed board hanging lopsidedly behind the small counter. They only take cash, too, so fortunately we had some. But...oh, my goodness. SOOOO good! I’m still thinking about it and wishing I could have some more. Just like you can’t get a good cheese steak outside of the Philly area, you can’t get good BBQ outside the south, and this is really one of the best. Tim finished his sandwich...and then quickly ordered a second one.
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Okay. so it looks a little gross. But that’s just because it’s so messy. It comes wrapped in wax paper because it starts to fall apart the minute you bite into it, but the paper keeps it all together. And when you’re done you’ll want to lick off every morsel from the paper, it’s that good. Okay, I need to move on now because I’m starting to get hungry.

Then it was on to Stuttgart, where I lived as a teenager. It was...sad. It wasn’t anything like I remember it. I remember it as a thriving, if small, little town, but now it just seemed like a dying dusty town, the kind that doesn’t seem like it has much future. Apparently the farmers have had bad crops for several years in a row, and the fate of the farmers determines the fate of the town. The town is completely surrounded by farms for 1/2 hour in any direction, and they come to town to spend money...but if they don’t have money to spend, none comes in. Uncle Ed told me that his CPA has about 300 clients who are farmers around Stuttgart, and only 15 - FIFTEEN - of them earned enough money to pay any taxes last year. On top of that, a bad tornado went through the town two years ago that really destroyed a lot of it. The Kroger is completley gone - just an empty parking lot - and the mid-town area looks...empty. It just makes whole town feel sad. The word is that if there are two more years like the the town will completely fail. This is so sad to me, because it’s not the Stuttgart I remember at all. I have mixed feelings about going back there. I’m glad to have seen it again - but it’s completely destroyed any nostalgic memories I had. It’s a shame.

Here’s my father’s clinic. Or what was his clinic. My Uncle Ed started it and sold it to my father. My father sold it to his cousin (Uncle Ed’s son) when we moved. (There are a lot of chiropractors in the family.) Now it’s a Realty. That was kind of sad.
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The kids did have a good time in the park in town, which was actually in decent shape. We’d just gone through the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie across the street, and the kids wanted to play. We let them, but it was
HOT AS HECK so we didn’t stay long. Man! I’d forgotten what that heat was like! Oppressive, and the grass all crunched under foot, and the dirt was dusty and hard packed and hot. No wonder the farmers are having a hard time if the ground is like that and it’s only June!
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Next I have pictures from the reunion and the trip home...but I think I’ll put it in a second post since this is getting long.

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