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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Nothing Lasts Forever

You see those wretched pictures of the Middle East, with bombed out concrete homes that always were ugly on their sea of sand, and you wonder, “What happened to the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon?” Or maybe you go to Egypt and marvel at the pyramids and see the chaotic state of life there today, and think “what happened?” Ditto with the abandonments of the Aztec and the Inca in Latin America and the once-Great Wall of China and many more.

We generally don’t think of such cultural decline as applicable to North America, but it can be. I pondered that last week, when we spent time at my sister’s cabin on the Arkansas River. They built it a few years ago – three rooms with a big screened porch – and our brother dubbed it “The River Hilton.” It is determinedly isolated, as they did not create a road. Hubby and I use a high-wheeled vehicle to follow the ruts in the grass, weave around trees, and eventually spy its camouflaged exterior. I love its lonely serenity, but when it’s very dark at night, I cannot help but think of the ghostly presence of people who lived vibrant lives there not so long ago.

Arrowheads and other artifacts still turn up with every hard rain, showing us that the Arkansas River Valley was a natural for indigenous peoples. The valley is about twenty miles wide, separating the Ozarks to the north from the Ouachita Mountains to the south. Prehistoric people who practiced agriculture chose this kind of setting if they could. In the spring, the women would plant corn, squash, and other staples in the fertile river delta. They and their families then moved to the mountains for summer, not only to escape from the river’s mosquito hordes, but also to hunt deer, bear, and other animals that provided their food, clothing, and housing. They returned in autumn, set up camp again, and harvested their untended crops. In winter, the river provided both fish and a highway.

Trailing Tears

In the late 1700s, the native Caddo, Quapaw, and Osage were absorbed by the Cherokee and Choctaw, who were forced from southeastern states after American independence. A massive Cherokee migration in 1808 soon populated the area where the River Hilton now stands, and the land that is lonely now was then a lively commercial area. In the 1830s, however, the Army force marched these peaceful farmers on to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma: My hometown was a center of the notorious Trail of Tears. A few stayed, including a classmate who is a full-bloodied Cherokee and now sits on the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Most left, however, and whites displaced them on the land, including my brother-in-law’s family who came in the 1840s to farm on Sweeden Island in the middle of the river. Some built grand houses on the shores, but because the river flooded almost every spring, affluent people moved further north. They didn’t sell their land, but soon most of the people who lived in the “bottoms” were sharecroppers and tenant farmers of the aristocrats who lived in town.

That pattern was reinforced when the railroad came in after the Civil War, and almost everyone moved from the river’s edge to the center of the valley where the trains ran. By the time I was a child, the river houses were abandoned – and surely haunted. The nearby gravesites, some dating to the 1700s, absolutely were the habitats of haints. A descendant of the Sweeden family proved that by donning a sheet and climbing down into a sunken grave one Halloween.

Changing Course

Geologists will tell you that any river carving out such a significant and flat valley is very old. The Arkansas meanders and bends its way from the mountains of Colorado to the Mississippi River -- but it is straighter now than it used to be. Back in the 1950s, when the Army Corps of Engineers was keeping itself in shape for the coming World War III, it practiced its bridge-and-dam building skills on our river.

I remember dump trucks full of rocks roaring past our house, adhering to the Corps’ strict schedule of a delivery every two minutes. We lived on Holla Bend Road, named for the bend in the river before the Corps’ recreated nature’s handiwork. It also was before the road was paved and before air conditioning, so the trucks made for a very dirty and hot summer. But eventually the rocks and the dams up and down the long river bent the water into a straight line, thus enabling barges to go all the way to Tulsa to pick up petroleum for global export from New Orleans.

As a teenager when the project was complete, I greatly enjoyed the lakes created by this re-arrangement of land and water. Everyone, it seemed, got a speedboat and skied on the smooth new lakes that just a few years before had been swamps and bayous. We marveled at the Corps of Engineers and its power to change the landscape, just as if it were God himself. Today’s environmentalists might well have put a stop to it, but except for a few people who objected to disturbing cemeteries, most saw it as an unmitigated good. And the Corps adhered to federal labor law, providing much better jobs than anyone ever had experienced.

Nor did we question the wisdom of the congressmen who got the federal government to fund the multi-million dollar project. I realize now, however, that at least one of them directly benefited from this taxpayer largess. He was US Senator Robert S. Kerr of Oklahoma, and he had founded the Kerr-McGee Oil Industries before he was elected. That company still is a big player in the petroleum biz. In fact, I just googled it and learned that, under a different name, it is facing pollution lawsuits in three states. None, I’m selfishly glad to say, are in Arkansas.

The point remains, though, that the federal government paid to enrich this private enterprise. Yet low whistles from barges passing in the night is the only effect on the River Hilton, and they don’t disturb the louder hoots of owls. The Corps of Engineers still owns the riverbank land, but has become so environmentalist that we can’t cut trees for a better view – a prohibition that never would have occurred to anyone in the 1950s. Mixed blessings. Everything is, and despite our best intentions, we never know for sure what will be the result of our actions or inactions. Civilizations come and go -- but not within a lifetime, so we must carry on.

And on the Light Side

At the same time that locks and dams were being built south of our town, Interstate 40 was under construction to the north – which again meant well-paid, federally-funded jobs. Hubby’s college buddies were not thinking about that, though, when they got a bright idea one night and buried a bulldozer. It seems there were two at the construction site; they used one to dig a big hole; drove the other into it; and covered it all with dirt. Perplexed workers the next day didn’t know where their dozer had gone.

Everyone took it as a good joke, and no one was punished. On reflection, do you think that would have been the case if this stunt had been pulled at a United Negro College?


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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