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CALUMNIES

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HOME SWEET (NEW) HOME One of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands goes like this: Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain’t no place I’d rather be Baby, won’t you carry me back to Tennessee... -- The Grateful Dead And it is true, at least for me. Despite the poverty and crime in Memphis (as a letter writer pointed out after my last column), I love it here. There are simply so many folks in the same boat that the contrasts between rich and poor are not so glaringly evident as in some places I’ve lived. Santa Fe, for example, was an education. Native American artists in the town square selling their beautiful pottery and jewelry contrasted sharply with rich white tourists who haggled them down a few bucks. Once, I overheard three customers (all diamonds, ankle-length leather coats, and huge cowboy hats) wart a young woman to death until she finally agreed to sell her wares for half-price. As they walked off with their one-of-a-kind, painted clay figurines, I remarked to the artist, “I bet those coats cost a pretty penny.” The woman sighed and said of the fancy coats, “Yes -- those poor animals.” Or maybe she was referring to the people wearing the coats; I’ll never know. But contrasts between rich and poor seem to be in your face these days. The Commercial Appeal ran a cover story last Sunday reprinted from The Washington Post under the heading “Arkansas Brain Drain.” I recognized the dateline instantly: Bradford, Arkansas, just a widening in the road a mile south of Possum Grape; used to be the “strawberry capital,” with 100 train cars a day sending the tasty fruit all over the country. But that was many, many years ago. The Bradford I visited a few years back seemed to have very little to offer: a tombstone company, a rusted-auto-parts graveyard. Bradford’s biggest resource, then as now, is its people. Some of the coolest folks you’ll ever meet live around Possum Grape, Bradford, and Old Glaize. And, according to the Post article, they are disproportionately getting called to the frontlines in what Donald Rumsfeld calls “the Global War On Terror.” Bradford is losing its mayor, police chief, town librarian, and five other of its 800 residents. This deployment brings Arkansas’ statewide National Guard presence overseas to “more than half the state’s 11,000 guardsmen. ...Only a handful of other states -- Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Washington -- have a similarly large portion of their guardsmen overseas, according to the National Guard,” reads the article. My new role model is “Miss Greba” Edens, 78, who will now assume the duties of mayor of Bradford. She’ll take over from Mayor Paul Bunn, 36, who is reporting for duty. Miss Greba says she’ll “try to get rid of some of the drugs,” while Mayor Bunn has already told his kids to expect anything -- even the worst. The article quotes Bunn as saying, “I’m hard as woodpecker lips when it comes to this. ... I don’t believe in lying to the kids about it.” Now, that’s a true Arkansan and a fine American (with a flair for simile), if you ask me. But isn’t it always the poor who get sent off as cannon-fodder -- stoically, patriotically marching toward a destiny arranged with no apparent consideration of the effects on what they leave behind? And what the folks from Bradford will leave behind is the poorest state in the union (albeit inhabited by some of the wealthiest names in the world -- Walton, Stephens, Rockefeller). Arkansas becomes poorer due to this “brain drain” that has accelerated in time of War. The least our government could do for these people is to allow Congress to do its job and officially declare war. Perhaps I’m just living in the past, but the Global War on Terror is starting to look an awful lot like World War III to me. Nolan Brown, a 57-year-old grandfather of nine, is a personnel clerk in the National Guard. He’s getting sent to Iraq. This detail of the Post article affected me even more than the part about Miss Greba. I tried to imagine what it must be like to explain this to your grandkids, but all I came up with was a memory: my great-uncle Brent, the pride and joy of our family, and what being cannon-fodder did to him. Uncle Brent was a handsome man, still single upon his return from the War many years ago. (These are details I remember from my childhood: his smiling photograph, movie-star looks and twinkling eyes; my grandmother’s facial expression whenever I dared ask about him -- so I honestly cannot remember whether it was the Korean War or WWII in which he fought. They all seemed to be extensions of the same, never-ending war, brought to life on TV before my childish eyes under the heading “Vietnam.”) Uncle Brent was hailed a hero, but he went to the V.A. hospital for treatment of depression -- “shell-shock” was what my grandmother called it -- and he never came back. He was given electroschock therapy, and it electrocuted him. He died at age 29. I would have been named for him if I had been born a boy. Tennessee is “The Volunteer State,” but Arkansas might be a candidate for becoming “The Mandatory Volunteer State,” however stoically the poorest people in the nation accept their fates as cannon-fodder in a place dominated by some of the wealthiest people in the world.

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