(Excerpted from Chapter 15: Back to the Land: The Grateful Unrich…)
A man is rich in accordance to the number of things he can leave alone – Henry David Thoreau
The 69’ Reliant runs like a top all the way to a cheap Indian-run hotel in Hays, Kansas. Through a canopy of frozen fog we enter the ghostly Ozarks. We careen down ribbons of twisting highways in search of land. We sleep one night in the cramped car behind a repair shop. On Day #2 we sign a contract for deed on ten acres and an old mobile home fronting Highway 62 between Gateway and Eureka Springs in the northwest corner of Arkansas.
The asking price is $29,900. We offer $20,000 with $10,000 down and the balance payable monthly over five years. They accept – fully expecting with one glance at our old car full of everything we own in this world that we will never be able to pay off the remainder and they will get the property back, along with our ten grand. We later have a feeling that happened to some before us on this piece of land.
We move in immediately and have just enough left of our Japanese grubstake to buy 400 gallons of propane, hook up the power and phone and stock our old refrigerator. Furniture will have to wait.
With the passage of a right-to-work law, Arkansas is the bottom rung of the American wage ladder. For $5.00 – $6.00 an hour poor country folks are lured into the industrial cities of Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville, which are increasingly connecting into one big nightmarish sprawl. Most work as temporary employees at monotonous and technically difficult assembly work, one step away – due to its complex nature – from being farmed out to some Mexican maquiladora.
With no money left and our first $250 mortgage payment due next month, I hit the ground running. I sign up with Manpower and get instant temporary work assembling BB guns at Daisy Manufacturing in Rogers for $5.75/hour. I drive thirty twisty miles one way to work the night shift. On Christmas Eve the company big shots show up for a factory Christmas meal. After dinner they announce that over 100 workers will be laid off, since the busy Christmas season is over. I don’t have to wait for the pink slip to know that I am one of them. Merry fucking Christmas!
Jill gets a job selling ads for a radio station forty miles away in Fayetteville. We borrow $4,000 from her parents to buy her a late-model Mazda pickup for her commute. I quickly get a job tending to exotic deer and sheep near Garfield. For $6.00/hour, I clean ibex barns, mend oryx fences, haul pails of grain to mouflon sheep and water red deer, fallow deer and water bucks. The animals are miserable and unhealthy. Several suffer from foot rot. A virus kills several more. They need to be back in their native African, Himalayan and South American habitats. They were not meant to live like this.
Sensing my alarm at the animals’ conditions and leery that his stay-at-home wife has taken a shine towards me, the owner Frank James decides he could “use” me at his Rogers’ construction site hauling concrete. My job is to mix concrete in a wheelbarrow, then push the overloaded cart of mud down a narrow 2×6 to the masons. I also keep them supplied with concrete blocks, tossing them ever higher as the walls go up. When the mud runs out I mix more, at the same time trying to keep a steady supply of concrete blocks in their largely inert hands. While Frank and his buddy Joe lay mud with a trowel and place blocks, Duane and I do the humping. Joe is paid $20/hour, while Duane and I are promised $6/hour. Frank is increasingly absent from the job site.
Duane is Frank’s full-time whipping boy. At age 20 the Arkansas native prides himself on being a “super-nigger”. He has more energy than most folks care to come into contact with, but a good heart. Being a “super-nigger” is a coping mechanism for desperate Ozark youth wishing to somehow rise out of poverty in a place where opportunities do not abound. Duane’s loyalty to Frank is unbending, feeding into Frank’s notion of himself as some sort of God/King. In Duane’s mind, Frank is like the father he has never known. In Frank’s mind, Duane is a mind-controlled easily exploitable super-nigger.
My first paycheck is short $50. I suspect Frank does this regularly to Duane, who can barely read. I confront Frank at his home in front of his wife, Duane, Joe and the ibex tribunal. He gets defensive and I home in, delivering ever sharper accusations as to his questionable business practices and even more questionable wild animal preserve. Frank suddenly realizes he has underestimated me. I am an educated super-nigger. When I mention that the Arkansas Labor Board may find interest in his multiplication deficiency, he quickly hands over $50 in cash. I grab it and tell him I quit. I hope a watchful Duane has learned something.
High on this windy Ozark ridge we meet soul-to-soul with the Trail of Tears. Hardship and suffering whistle through the dense sassafras thicket, up and down steep hollers, through the swaying tops of white oaks old enough to have witnessed the cause of this sadness. Very near here – maybe even right here at this very place – the Cherokee Indians were driven on a brutal forced march to reservation concentration camps in Oklahoma. Their land was stolen by white settlers. They walked through rugged terrain in the middle of a winter not unlike this one. And on this most brutal stretch of the trail, many died or were left to die on the cold dolomite glades and limestone ridges of the Ozarks. Locals talk of hearing crying voices in the night, restless spirits appalled at forgetfulness.
Highway 62 parallels the Trail of Tears between Rogers and Harrison. Our ten acres fronts this busy highway full of 10-mph curves and negotiated daily by RVs, travel trailers and tour buses that frequent the area. Eureka Springs – twelve miles east of here – is the epicenter of the tourism boom. It has always held an allure. In times past people came to Eureka from all over the world – drawn by the promise of the cleanest, purest water anywhere – a proverbial Fountain of Youth emanating from the many springs in town. In the 1970’s the area was invaded by back-to-the-land hippies who discovered that they could grow almost anything here, especially the marijuana, which they openly smoked on Eureka Springs’ main street.
It is late January and there is light at the end of the deep tunnel that we have plunged ourselves into. Sometimes in life it is necessary to reach down inside, taking strength from pain and hardship that gnaw at your stomach, using that reservoir of burning flame to become yourself a burning ember. It is 5:33 AM, time to arise from this $5 lumpy auction mattress and step onto the cold floor of our fiberglass hillbilly castle. I rustle together the daily rations – a couple of bologna sandwiches. I empty the coffee pot and walk out into the cold dark Ozark morning.
The Valiant fires right up. This morning that new heater core will come in handy. I traverse crooked Highway 62 as it crisscrosses various ridge tops before plunging down into the White River Valley. The sun is waking up a few minutes earlier each day, casting an expansive band of corals and maroons upon the dark silent Ozark hilltops. I ask my Dad and my recently deceased Grandpa – who once visited me in Montana as a grizzly bear – to help me through another day. In the majestic sunrise I read their response, “Stand tall”, they say, “Help those who need help”.
At the Beaver Dam construction site that would be pretty much everybody. Steve – the quintessential Missouri hillbilly pig farmer – is two hours late again this morning. Charley the big boss is waiting for him. He tells him for the umpteenth time to not let it happen again or he’ll be out of a job. Here in these Ozarks, where the quiet Third World of America unfolds before me, that kind of talk has been known to strike terror into some. Arkansas’s long history of poverty and right-wing Southern politics make it ripe for Clinton’s economic miracle. But Steve is from Missouri and I am beginning to learn that despite its proximity things are quite different in the Show-Me State.
Two brothers named Clayton and Quinn are also from Missouri. They are also always late to work. The threats of the bosses just bounce right off them. Last week they just quit showing up all together. These Missourians have great dignity. Maybe it is because they fought with the Union, while these bended-knee Arkansans fought with the British-backed Confederate slave-owners. Maybe it is because one may purchase liquor in Missouri. The border town of Seligman, MO is five miles from our place and fills up each weekend with dry-county Arkansans looking for a drink.
At $7.00/hour this jobsite offers the best pay in the area. I work 70 hours per week, racking up the overtime. I am a roustabout for the operator of a 6’ diameter diamond drill bit, boring through Ozark limestone in an attempt to fix a leak that has developed far beneath Beaver Dam. The goal is to drill a series of 300’ deep holes, then dump a sealant to the bottom in hopes that the fissure will be filled. The workers here are all poor locals, while the equipment operators are regular employees of an Italian-American multinational. The Italians are generally more agreeable than the Americans, who are extremely condescending towards us laborers.
Today the boss’s son – a tall rude yuppie named Steve – begins dumping bentonite into Beaver Lake. I have become a leader of the laborers because I work hard and have the quick mind necessary here to avert any number of looming disasters. I quickly confront Steve and scold him for polluting the lake, telling him to show some fucking respect for the place where I live. He is taken aback, not used to being lectured by a lowly laborer. He stalks away to complain to Daddy, who knows better than to say anything to me. He knows I’m right and he knows I carry the load of three or four men on this job sight.
It’s March and I’m growing tired of this work. Jill couldn’t take her job anymore and has already quit. We’ve paid off the $4,000 on her pickup and decide to sell it. We get $4,600. I go to Bill Trotter’s office and ask him how much we owe on our place. I am shocked when he tells me we owe more than my records show. I had been deducting $250 each time I made a monthly mortgage payment. He explains the wonders of amortization, the biggest scam the bankers ever created. I write him a check for $4,000 on the spot and resolve to pay off our 5-year mortgage by November.
Dean Henderson is the author of four books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries, Das Kartell der Federal Reserve & Stickin’ it to the Matrix. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @ www.deanhenderson.wordpress.com