Thursday, April 12, 2012


He hasn’t always been like this. So old and frail; a prisoner held captive by his failing strength. His hair now silver was once coal black. He has kicked a can down the road in front of him as he walked to his first day of school. He had hopes and dreams and was excited about all the possibilities that lay ahead. He played baseball, rode his bike, chased the girls and skipped school now and then to go fishing.
As time went by he worked hard and played hard. He felt pain when he lost his mother and felt pure joy when he fell in love with mine. He was a handsome man, slender with wavy black hair, a swagger in his step and a twinkle in his eye. He hasn’t always been this old.
When America was in grave danger he answered the call. The Greatest Generation they call them now. They went without hesitation and saved the world. My how we needed him then but now he will rest for a while.
He has known the joy, apprehension, pleasure and sheer terror of raising five children. He has known the love of an angel from heaven who gave him his children – my mom.
He has been a telephone man, a fire chief, a fixer of all things broken and a pretty good dad. He was once a child, a teenager and a handsome young man. He hasn’t always been this old.  
No, his hair was not always white and he has not always needed help to get out of his chair. He used to remember things better and smile a lot more. He hasn’t always been this old.
He used to laugh as he ran to find the most Easter eggs. He shot off fireworks on Independence Day. On Christmas Eve he was too excited to go to sleep. He worried about the math test and wondered if he would grow up tall. He dreamed of places far away and wondered if he would ever go there.
When you look at him, see him for all he has been ; remembering all the people he took care of in his lifetime. Now we will take care of him for a while. He may be a little slow getting up out of his chair now but he was never slow to help someone in need. I’ve heard men say, “He would give you the shirt off his back.”
  He has climbed poles in rain, sleet, snow and dark of night just to make sure our telephones always worked.  When he got sick or hurt himself no one knew. It was not in him to complain. Everything would be OK in a day or two. He will rest a while now but he hasn’t always been this old.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


I loved to smell the smoke from his pipe as it drifted across the front porch to where I sat on the steps. It was a peaceful, comforting and disarming scent. He had taken my two older brothers and I to Plainview for a couple of weeks to "help" him at the stave mill where he worked. I think he was actually helping my parents out after the arrival of the twins, Bill and Janet. The stave mill made the oak slats used to make whisky barrels out of short oak logs called "bolts". The first thing they did was to cut both ends off the bolt to make them all exactly the same size. Our job was to help him pick up the ends and other scraps and pile them up to be sold later as fuel for the wood stoves in town. We had put in a hard day and came home to one of Granny's famous country meals. Now there he sat, still in his overalls and long sleeve khaki shirt, leaning back in his rocking chair with one foot propped up on a post silently puffing clouds of blue smoke; his mind drifting like the smoke to pleasant far away places. I think this was his favorite time of the day and I knew for sure that it was mine.
This trip he had planned to only bring my older brothers Gary and Gene back home with him. I guess he didn't think he could handle all three of us and keep us safe around the mill. He could tell that being left out hurt my feelings so he decided to take me too. Plainview was a long way from Waldron and the roads were crooked and steep in places. I got terribly carsick when I was little so they always had to let me sit by the window for obvious reasons. I tried all the remedies and none worked so it was just the price I paid to be able to spend a week or so with Grandpaw.
The stave mill was loud and hot but it was great fun for us. Grandpaw let us think we were really a big help. I usually got sawdust in my eye the first day and it seemed to stay in there until I got back home. It was not all work though. He would sometimes load us up in his old red pickup and take us fishing down on the Fouche River. Other times he would take us swimming at Lake Nimrod. It was fun to play on the giant sawdust pile at the mill while we were supposed to be working. Granny always packed us a fruit jar full of ice water wrapped up in a brown paper bag. It sure tasted good on those hot July days.
Grandpaw's house was a happy place for us boys. Although he lived in town, he had a big garden and room for a horse and some chickens. He even had a small pond we could fish in but we found out the big pond across the street with the NO FISHING sign was a lot more fun and had bigger fish. We often walked barefoot up the long sidewalk to town to get ice cream or a coke at the drugstore.
Sunday night was sort of special because Bonanza was on. It was one of the few times he ever turned his television on. We would usually plan ahead and have a Pepsi and a candy bar stashed away for the big event. His ritual was to attach a paper bag to the hanging light bulb to direct all of the light towards the TV while we sat in the dark side of the room. Someone had told him that was better for your eyes. Grandpaw passed away in 1966. I still miss him and I'll cherish forever the memories we made together.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Anchors Aweigh

It was 1967 and my senior year at Waldron High School. Graduation was upon us and everyone was excitedly making their plans for college or whatever their next adventure would be. No one had talked to me about college and I had no idea how important it was at the time. There was no way my folks could have afforded to send me and my grades were not good enough for a scholarship. Besides the Yates men were Navy men. My Dad had served on a PT boat in the South Pacific in WWII. My brother Gary was in the Navy Reserve and my brother Gene was already in Vietnam on the USS Ranger. So I went down and signed up under the 120 day delay program. The 120 day delay program gave you 120 days to get all your affairs in order, get your 90 lb weakling body into better condition and most of all it gave you 120 nights to wake up in a cold sweat wondering what they would do to you when you got to Boot Camp. My brothers had casually mentioned one or two terrifying events and I imagined a few more.

The 120 days were a blur and I found myself down at Denver Plummers gas station that cool October morning watching the bus pull in and stop. With hugs, handshakes and nervous smiles all around I stepped on the bus and chose a seat on the left side so I could have one more wave out the window as the bus pulled out. As the bus topped the hill I had a clear view of Waldron. It was the only town, the only family and the only home I had ever known. I was embarassed to feel tears welling up in my eyes and it was hard to swallow. I quickly looked around to make sure no one had noticed. I had heard that, since the war was heating up, they were sending some guys straight to Vietnam out of Boot Camp. I wondered if I would ever see Waldron again.

The bus lumbered through Boles and by the time we turned off at Y-City I was starting to look forward to my big adventure. We picked up another nervous looking recruit in Hot Springs and I felt much better now that there were two of us. After spending the night in the old Lafayette Hotel in Little Rock they loaded us up for my first plane ride to San Diego. I don't remember much about that first plane ride but I imagine it was pretty exciting.

What I do remember is getting off a bus at the Recruit Training Depot in San Diego. It was rather late in the evening and I was tired and hungry and there was this man screaming and yelling at me for breathing perfectly good air that a worthy sailor could be breathing. We were shuffled off to a temporary baracks for the night and would begin processing the next day. I woke up very early the next morning in a room full of strangers with some guy banging on a trash can with a club and explaining in a very loud and animated voice how it would be in our best interest to be dressed and lined up outside in exactly five minutes. The food was pretty good and I felt much better about my unfortunate circumstance after a good breakfast.

The next few days and weeks were spent in formation, marching from one endless line to another on the other side of the base. I was poked, prodded, sheared, given at least 20 shots in each arm and 2 giant shots in the hip. We washed our clothes on long concrete tables with a brush and a bottle of Wisk, then tied them to the line with pieces of string tied in perfect square knots. The square knots seemed important to Chief Shot because my granny knots made him scream bad words at me and his face got all red. The Chief often reminded me that if I didn't swing my arms when we marched that he would be required to rip them off. I took him literally.

My brothers had warned me about the big shakedown but it was worse than they had described. Just when we started to feel sort of cocky and that maybe Boot Camp was not so bad after all, they came in to inspect our barracks. They proceeded to yell and holler at us while they were turning our bunks upside down and dumping all our neatly folded clothes on the floor. I will never forget the image of the guy from Hot Springs standing at attention but with his arms extended with dungrees draped over them and underware on his head yelling over and over,"WHY AREN'T YOU BUTTONED BUTTON". As terrified as I was It was hard to keep from laughing.

Our greatest fear was getting sent to 4050 (Forty Fifty) Company. The guys that really messed up or refused to submit to the insanity that was Boot Camp were sent there and had to start Boot Camp all over again when they had finished their sentence. While they were in 4050 company their white hats were died red and they had to double time everywhere they went with tough looking SPs in charge. In the chow hall they would get their trays and stand at attention behind their chairs. The guard would blow his whistle and they sat down. He blew it again and they started eating as fast as they could. In about three minutes he blew it again and they stopped eating and stood at attention. Again and out they went. We heard that every night the guards would pour cold water on them or turn their racks upside down every time they fell asleep.

When we were issued our service numbers Cheif Shot told us that if anyone forgot their number they would be sent to 4050 Company. I lay in bed all that night saying my number over and over and over. The Navy later switched our service numbers to our social security numbers. That was over forty years ago but I still remember my service number.

The Navy was big on chemical weapons training so they crammed us all into a small building and flooded it with tear gas. After a while they made us shed our mask and find our way out. Another bad break for me. For whatever reason they put the tall guys in the back so it took us a critical 20-30 seconds to get to the fresh air.

The Navy is also big on firefighting so a couple of times they crammed us into a building and set it on fire. They sort of wanted us to put the fire out before we came out.

Smimming qualification was a fun day for me. My brothers and I had taught ourselves to swim down at the Mill Creek bridge near Y-City. For the nonswimmers it must have been the worst day of their lives. The look of shear terror in their eyes is forever etched in my mind. They were lined up on the deep end of the pool and forced to jump in or were pushed in. After reaching the final stages of drowning, an instructor would extend a long pole to them and pull them to safety. If they panicked and tried to climb up the pole, the other instructors would hit them in the head with volleyballs until they let go of the pole, at which point the drowning sequence would start all over again. We also had to take our pants off, tie knots in the legs, catch air in them and use them for a flotation device. We also had to float using out navy white hats.

The days seemed long and hard but before we knew it the nine weeks were over and we were in our dress blues, orders in hand, heading for the fleet for our next big adventure.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Little League

It was the summer of 1958. There was not a lot to do in my little town of Waldron Arkansas. There was only one TV station, no Xbox, no IPhones and no Nintendo. Kids were outside kids. There was nothing to do inside. In the summertime our lives revolved around Little League baseball. Our parents didn’t drive us to practice or even to the games. We rode our bikes if we had one or walked down to the ballpark.
My older brother Gary was one of the best pitchers for the Pirates. I played for the Bluejays and was the smallest and probably the worst player on the team. My other older brother Gene was real good too and I think he played for the Giants. We never missed practice. We couldn’t wait to put on those nice clean uniforms on game day. We were instantly transformed into Micky Mantel, Roger Maris and Warren Spahn. We walked and ran the mile or so to the park long before it was time for our game.
It was another warm summer night. The bleachers were full of people. Bugs and bats buzzed around the tall bright lights around the field. The infield was raked smooth and fresh lime striped the baselines. The infamous Dave McConnell towered above his Pirates on the third base side. He was a big man and always had a big chew of Red Man in his jaw. He was a great coach and tough as he was, his team loved him. Bill McCullah stood along the first base side with his rag-tag assorted size Bluejays. Bill was an average size man with a heart of gold. All the Little League coaches cared a lot more about teaching and developing young ball players in those days than winning a baseball game.
It was the last inning of the last game of the 1958 Little League season. The Pirates had a 4-3 lead and the Bluejays already had two outs but we had a man on second and Jim Blythe, our pitcher and the best player in the Little League, was at bat. I have never felt as small in my life as when Wendell Henderson, the local postmaster and announcer said, “and batting next for the Bluejays is Yates, Number 24.” Jim glanced over at me and the look in his eyes told me that he just realized it was all up to him. I figured he would get one RBI to tie it up but that it would probably be up to me to get him home for the win. My knees felt weak and although there was a nice breeze blowing in off Bull Creek, sweat was popping out on my forehead. I nervously glanced up towards the announcer and saw the color commentator, Poss Griffin look at me then say something to Mr. Henderson while shaking his head. Mr. Henderson nodded.
Just then I heard the crack of the bat. Jim had sent a long fly ball deep into left field..way back…just foul for strike 2. I was about to pass out. I wished I had drank my milk like my mom had told me. I felt so weak and insignificant. If only Jim would hit a homer the game would be over. If only my family could move to another state or I could at least go to a different school, everything would be different. I would be good at baseball like my brothers. Everyone would like me. The next day at the barber shop and drugstore everyone would be talking about the winning homerun I hit or the great play I made to save the game.
The count was full. Jim stepped up to the plate, confidently took a couple of practice swings and stared my brother down; double dog daring him to throw his best pitch. I was the designated catcher for my brother when he practiced pitching at home. He could throw the ball and throw it hard. To this day I still have a crooked finger to prove it. As I watched Gary start his windup it was as if everything stopped for a moment. I couldn’t hear the crowd or the chatter from the players. Then it was like slow motion as, with a determined look on his face, Gary sent the ball screaming towards the plate. I could see the seams on the ball slowly turning as it crept towards the plate…. and Jim Blythe’s bat. I must have closed my eyes for a second because the next sound I heard was the baseball slamming into the catcher’s mitt. Jim Blythe had taken a mighty swing and completely missed the ball. The game was over.
When I got back to the bench I said, “That’s OK Jim.” Then I told Mr. McCullah that if only Jim had gotten on base we could have won the game. On the warm dark walk home that night I was a little sad about losing but very relieved that it didn’t come down to that final at bat for number 24.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Mother of all Firecrackers

In the late 50s and early 60s the Fourth of July was right up there with Christmas on our favorite holiday list. We were not burdened down by all the rules, regulations and safety concerns they have now. We would sell our Coke bottles and cash in coupons from Readers Digest at Buddy Grey's Grocery Store, beg for whatever we could get from our parents and head to the Crumptown Store. We were not interested in the expensive stuff that looked pretty. We wanted cheap and above all loud! We could hardly contain our excitement as we headed back down Bonstien hill for home. We would choose up sides and with one unit on the south end of the field and the opposing unit on the north end we would shoot bottle rockets at each other until one unit member cried. It was the most fun after dark. We would also line up all the plastic army men and equipment we had bought at Parsley's 5 and dime in strategic battlefield formations on opposing sides. From ten feet away we launched Black Cats at them until one army was decimated. Our parents would often remind us of the boy that blew his hand off somewhere. We never pressed for details.
I can't remember all who were involved but one day we decided to build a Sputnik Killer. After one more trip to the Crumptown Store, we used a razor blade to disassemble 100 Black Cat firecrackers and wrapped the black powder in a piece of a brown paper bag, like we used for smoking corn silk, but we put a fuse in one end and taped it to a dollar bottle rocket with daddy's black electrical tape. We made a small hole in the nosecone of the rocket and inserted the fuse figuring once the rocket reached it's maximum altitude of over 200 feet the powder in the nosecone would ignite the "bomb" and there would be a big cool explosion that we would be famous for for years to come.
The launch was scheduled for just before supper figuring the moms would all be cooking supper and the dads would be inside reading the paper or doing whatever dads do after work. The "rocket-bomb" was top heavy so instead of a coke bottle we used a piece of pipe stuck in the ground for a launchpad. Having drawn the short straw, I quivered with excitement as I lit a punk and cautiously approached the launch pad. Glancing back over my shoulder I watched the last of my comrades disappear behind the smokehouse.
I touched the glowing punk to the fuse. It seemed to take forever for the fuse to ignite but when it did it ignite, it ignited with great intensity. I dropped the punk and turned to run for my life but tripped and fell flat on my face. Before I could get up again, there was a loud hissing noise accompanied by a huge cloud of white smoke. As I struggled to breath, through the smoke and fire I could see the Sputnik Killer slowly rising into the heavens. 20 feet....25 feet......30 feet .... 25 feet......20 feet........BOOOOOOOOOM!!! Windows Shook...dogs barked....chickens squawked. People came running out of houses....every house. By the time the smoke had cleared I had managed to scramble, crawl and run to join my brave comrades behind the smokehouse. We didn't come out for a long time.
I don't remember what our punishment was or whether law enforcement was involved. I just remember it was one of the greatest summers I can remember growing up in a small town in America.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Waterfall

I made dry camp on high ground above the falls. I unsaddled Badger, rubbed him down with some dry grass I found, took his halter off and let him graze in the tall grass nearby. I put more grass under my bed roll cause the ground was hard and rocky. Walter laid down against my saddle and closed his eyes. I knew I could count on both of them to alert me if they sensed danger. I was hot and tired and the water coming over the falls into the clear cool pool below sure looked good but I couldn't risk getting trapped in the open. The air was still hot with no breeze at all and my shirt was wet with sweat. There was no sign of movement around the falls but it was pitch black with no moon and I couldn't take a chance. I could see lightening off to the west but I couldn't hear the thunder. I laid on my bed roll and watched it til I drifted off to sleep. I had always loved to watch storms. A loud rumble of thunder shook me awake and I instincticly bolted upright with my gun in my hand. A rain cooled breeze hit my face and I realized it was the storm I had been watching when I fell asleep. The cool air was refreshing and with the flashes of lightening I could see Badger 50 feet away facing into the wind. I had rode him hard and I know the cool air felt just as good to him. Walter had moved in under a big cedar tree behind me so I picked up my saddle and joined him. I taken out my slicker, spread it over my bed and climbed back in. The rain came in sweeping torrents and it felt good on my face. It would wipe out any tracks we may have left and I could get to the caves from here without getting on the main trail. For some reason I thought about the last time I had been to Paw's cabin. It was raining just as hard as now and he was sittin lookin out the back door at his critters when I walked in. He was drinkin strong coffee and eatin a doughnut. I said,"I'm your boy." He looked at me long and hard and said,"Ain't got no boy." I smiled at the thought and drifted back to sleep.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

It was a week ago Sunday me an Walter rode to the cemetery to clean up the graves some an pick some fresh flowers to put on em. I borrowed a rake from a man there an got all the leaves an sticks off Mama's grave an smoothed out the dirt from where the rain had washed out some places. As I worked my mind went back to when we was all just kids. I could see Mama weedin her tomatoes and okra an singin about the old rugged cross. Or in the late fall wearin her sweater and headscarf hangin clothes on the line. "The chimes of time ring out the news", she reached into the basket for another shirt, shook it out and pinned it to the line. "Someone slipped and fell", she worked quickly so she could get back in the house to check on the pot of beans. Times were hard for her and sometimes we didn't have any money but she always had a song in her heart an made sure we had what we needed. In the winter time we had a magic wood stove that was always glowing red when we woke up so we would have a warm place to get dressed for school. Part of her nitely ritual was checkin ever kid in ever bed to make sure we had plenty of cover. She always tucked us in an felt of foreheads to make sure we wern't sick. Likely as not she would go get one more quilt and spread it over us just in case we might get too cold. I can still feel that puff of air on my face as she shook out the quilt an let it settle over us. I've not felt that peacefulness since. An now it was my turn to tuck her in, a knowin she was safe and happy in God's hands. I mounted Badger and turned back for one last look, brushed away a tear and headed back home.
And now I was ridin for the caves. Darkness was commin on an I would have to stop an make camp for the nite. I could hear rushin water so the falls were close ahead. The caves were about twelve miles beyond the falls. I could tell Badger was winded an I was dog tired so we would stop an make camp at the falls then move on at daybreak. .