It’s funny how life has those distinct moments, those flashes of reality which stick in your mind like spare change rattling in a console cup holder.
I can remember the first time I came to Arkansas. I was supposed to be in on a Friday night, but it was a Saturday morning when I crossed the river at Memphis. I’d had to stop on the way in from Nashville to change out a turbocharger on a twin-engine piston plane which had, well, blown a turbocharger while at the Jackson, Tennessee airport. This was one of those what are now old-school airplanes, with a turbocharger the size of a Corolla engine, and I got most of the way through the job before fatigue took over and I slept a few hours in the airplane’s cabin before waking up the next morning, finishing up the install, running the thing and double-checking all the connections, and getting in the pickup and heading for Little Rock.
I had a friend there. He’d gotten a pretty good job working on turbo prop airplanes and they were looking to hire people who knew which end of the airplane was the front. He wanted to show me around, and Monday I was going to talk to his boss about a job.
Coming across the river there was a big sign on the bridge welcoming drivers to Arkansas. “Land of Opportunity” they called it, and I recall giving an internal “huh, how about that” knowing I was going to interview for a job, nerves jaded on coffee and not enough sleep, pre-noon light shining over my shoulder. I lit a cigarette (it was back when everyone smoked). “Huh,” and kept driving across the Grand Prairie. Rice fields out to the horizon and still a few hours to Little Rock (speed limit 55).
I got the job.
The money was good and gave me the liquid assets to be able to pursue my hobby/passion, skydiving, something I’d taken up in Tennessee, exchanging airplane maintenance for skydiving lessons. I to pursue the sport once I became an Arkansan, pitching myself out the door of various beat-up Cessnas over that same Grand Prairie.
I can remember the first time I came to Van Buren County. It was, say, five years after that “huh” moment. We had a skydiving demo for Fairfield Bay over July 4 weekend. I met up some friends down in Little Rock, and was going to fly the jump plane up to the Clinton Airport which would be our base of operations for the event.
There was a bit of fog in Little Rock that morning, so we hung around the Little Rock airport, having flown in there from a nearby grass strip, after getting the fuel needed for our adventure. This was back before GPS, and, backing up with a chart, you could follow the Interstate into Conway, then Highway 65 - at the time much twistier - into Clinton, there, on the edge of the lake. Nice airport, quiet, I’d fly a load of four jumpers out over the swimming area at Fairfield, let ‘em out, and circle down and land at the airport. Smoke a cigarette, watch the wind blow through the fields. Wait for a van or whatever to bring everybody back. Do it again. I was a skydiving bum and Clinton was an airport.
A few years later quit smoking, went back to college. Found out writing, and newspapers, was something I loved. Used airplanes to help pay the way. Wound up coming to the Clinton Airport, that same airport, to do some airplane inspections for people I’d met through the Little Rock job, making a buck here and there.
Got through with college, kept the airplane licenses intact, still coming to Clinton some nights, some weekends, messing with airplanes. The skydiving gear was (is) in the corner of the bedroom gathering dust. Worked on a career track in tech, was a big shot, took phone calls and fired people.
My health went south, then the economy, Clinton needed somebody who knew which end of the airplane was the front to start showing up full-time. Working in Clinton and a friend of a friend knew I could write, needed a guy to help out at the newspaper in town some, freelance stuff. “Hey, could you write a column?”
Got some work, got some more work. “Hey, could you be the editor?” That was a little over a year ago, just before July 4, just before that same time, so many tobacco-stained years earlier when I first saw Van Buren County through the windscreen of an overloaded Cessna.
Just got word Monday, two days before this issue hit the press, that I’d won second place in column writing and honorable mention in photo essay for 2016 by the Arkansas Press Association.
Land of Opportunity.