Paul Greenberg

LITTLE ROCK — The old boy walked his bike out the front door in the morning light and realized: The weather’s turned cool. He felt it, but he couldn’t believe it, not at first. It had been hot, hot, for so long. The way it is every summer in these latitudes. So that “Hot enough for ya?” is by now almost a standard greeting during the summer months.

What a relief: October, real October, had finally arrived.

A little late, maybe, but all the more welcome for that. October in Arkansas would give Heaven a run for its money — and then some.

The sun shone off the leaves, which hadn’t really begun to turn yet, although little leaves from the pin oak in the front yard were already making their appearance in the oddest corners around the house. How they did it, how they managed to get in such numbers and in so many places so early … it was a mystery to him. Every fall. He didn’t mind picking them up, not yet. They were still a minor novelty — a welcome sign the seasons would indeed turn in these parts. For a while there, he’d begun to doubt if fall would ever arrive.

He knew it’d been fall for some time up in the northwestern corner of the state: Fayetteville/Rogers/Bentonville/Lowell — aka The Midwest. Fall may still not have come to the southern reaches of Arkansas: Texarkana/El Dorado/Lake Village — aka the True South.

He’d driven through Lake Village just the other day, and in the midday sun the heat still shimmered off the new/old plantation house that was being restored at Lakeport. It rose just off the highway like a throwback to the 1859, when the original house had been built just in time for the ruination called The War.

Those who built it could not have foreseen the devastation shortly to come.

In the late 1850s, cotton was bringing an average 11.4 cents a pound, the highest it had been since the boom years of the 1830s. Optimism was as endemic along these swampy banks of the Mississippi as malaria. Old Man River flowed past the plantation like a super-highway to New Orleans and the world’s markets. All good things beckoned, at least for the cotton aristocracy. Cotton was king and its kingdom swelled with pride.

The high, two-story house set in the midst of the cotton fields is testament to the Delta’s long-ago prosperity and promise of more, with its 17 high-ceilinged rooms, two-story portico in front, tapered white columns, eleven-foot-high wood-paneled doors, all supported by great cypress beams from the adjacent wetlands, complete with 26-foot-long entry hall. … Lakeport could have been used as a setting for “Gone With the Wind.”

How could its master, the good Lycurgus Johnson, have foreseen what the near, disastrous future would bring?

By the time the surrender was signed at Appomattox, the countryside had been torn apart by guerrilla warfare, and those who returned from the various fronts would find little but desolation. The tax rolls from 1855 to 1865 tell the sad story: from pride and plenty to almost nothing to declare. But now, with the grand house being restored, you can almost see the ghosts taking in the last, lost hopeful air of a long-ago summer in he year 1859 A.D….

But today fall had finally arrived up here in Little Rock. Just this mornng. Little Rock is right on the cusp between Mountain and Delta South. Here fall is so new every day would be new for a while. He breathed deep. And shivered. He set the bike outside and went back for a jacket, the first time he’d had to wear one this season. It felt good.

All was perfection and yet … it wasn’t. He should have been delighted. And he was, but only in an abstract way, the way you are when you know how you’re supposed to feel but don’t, not really, not all the way through. He was resentful. He actually missed the heat, the heat he’d been complaining about for months. Since August. Even September seemed stifling this year. Now the heat was gone and … he missed it.

It took him a moment to realize why. It wasn’t the coming of fall he resented, it certainly wasn’t the heat of summer he missed — goodness, no — it was the passage of time. The sun shone, but for a moment mortality had cast its shadow. The beauty of the physical world in its new aspect only brought it home. How he was going to miss all this. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die….

Once he put the feeling into words, it was gone. Resolved. He understood, and to understand is to accept. Now he was free to enjoy the brisk air, the good feel of the jacket on his back, the old neighborhood all new again in the cool air.

All the oh-so-important things he had to do today, which had so pressed on his mind when he’d got up, were no longer of any moment. They fell into place. Ecclesiastes had it right from first to last: Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity. … Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart.

And off he peddled into golden fall. It had finally got here. It was definitely, finally, whole-heartedly October in Arkansas. Heaven had arrived.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.