2005: David Barham, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Little Rock
Award for Editorial Writing

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Three daughters

Crosses at the intersection

March 24, 2004

THE STRANGEST thought came to mind as we stood at the intersection of Arkansas Highways 5 and 89 early Monday afternoon: What were their nicknames?

All daddies give their daughters nicknames, don’t they? Maybe just the standard "Princess." Or, around these parts, "Darling Girl," or "Baby Doll," or "Sweet Girl." We liked what Paw called Laura in the Little House series: "Half-pint."

It was the strangest thought. Here we were looking at the memorials, and we were thinking about their nicknames. What goes on in the human mind . . . .

If you haven’t seen the papers lately—the news section and the obits—or watched the local news, or listened to any talk radio, or been to church, or shopped at any store, or got a haircut, or stepped outside your front door, or your back door have missed it: Three young ladies—girls, really—were killed Thursday at the intersection of 5 and 89, right outside Cabot, at the Pulaski County/Lonoke County line.

Jae Lynn Russell. Alicia Rix. Taylor Hall. Cheerleaders.

Going fishing.

Spring Break.

3:54 in the afternoon.

All wearing seatbelts.

Jae and Alicia were 16. Taylor was 15.

We stood on the west side of Highway 89, and looked to the left, north, up Highway 5. We were on the military crest of a hill. The cars simply disappeared as they drove north, and the south-bound vehicles coming at us had appeared out of nowhere. A driver going east on 89 has to stop at a stop sign before crossing. But if a truck or car is going south on Highway 5 . . . . You couldn’t see it until it was right on top of you. You couldn’t see it any more than Jae could on a Spring Break afternoon at 3:54.

We know a girl whose daddy calls her "Squirrel."

The intersection is so perfectly Arkansas. It’s surrounded by pine thickets. There’s a bit of litter in the ditch. Advertising signs are nailed to trees, complete with local phone numbers: "Cabot Truss, Inc." and "Clegg’s Welding" and "Diamond Machine Shop." On one side of Highway 5 is a sign that says, "Lonoke County." On the other, "Pulaski County."

There’s a man with a camera standing next to us this afternoon. He’s a member of one of the extended families, which everybody seems to be in Arkansas.

Good gosh, look at the traffic, the inky wretch and the man with the camera say to each other. And at 1:30 in the afternoon, on a Monday no less! And look how fast they’re going.

We wondered if one of the girls had ever been addressed as "Puddin-n-pie."

Somebody had put painting supplies under one of the crosses. One of the girls must have liked to paint.

There goes a full dump truck. Must be going 60 miles an hour, too. It’s going south on Highway 5, just like the truck that plowed into the girls. It doesn’t take long for an accident to be forgotten, and for truckers to floor it again. After all, the boss is waiting. Got to get the gravel to . . . wherever gravel goes.

One of the signs says only: "We love y’all."

Not "We love you." Whatever kid wrote that one knew the language Jae Lynn, Alicia and Taylor spoke.

Muffin? Short Stuff? Little Wiggle?

It must’ve been a devastating wreck. After all, the girls were wearing seatbelts. We could see the tire tracks where the poor truck driver—forever linked with these girls—did his best to stop.

We notice the glass on the side of the road, too. Is it from this wreck, or another? There have been several at the intersection of 5 and 89. Fatal ones. But the state hasn’t got around to putting up a stop light. Just a yellow blinking light, which might as well be another pine tree for those who’ve gone through the intersection more than a few times. Just part of the scenery.

The Highway Department says it held some public meetings, got some federal money, and it expects it can hire a contractor to improve the intersection and make it safer by the end of the year.

By the end of the year.

"How many more?" reads another one of the signs by the side of the road.

By the end of the year. . . .

Nicknames. When we got back to the office, we thought about calling one of the families, just out of curiosity. They had to have nicknames. It would add something to the editorial, give it a personal touch.

But we didn’t call. Not now. Not ever. Some things can stay just between the daddies and their girls. Forever.

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Letter to Europe

Special Delivery from Osama

April 18, 2004

DEAR EUROPEAN pig-dog radical Zionist crusader goat-faced sons of jackals: In the name of Allah, the merciful, the beneficent, we send affectionate greetings, death and destruction, etc. Or, as they say in rotting American hovels like New York and Washington, Howdy. (Did I get that right?) Forgive me if it’s been a while since I’ve last communicated with you. I’ve been rather busy. I can’t tell you how much time and planning it takes to avoid the commando raids, and dodge those pesky predator drones, and brush off the scorpions. Then there’s the business of switching caves every night and always having to hire new food tasters. Good help is so hard to find nowadays. The best caves have a 30-day waiting list, the cost of bribes is skyrocketing, and don’t get me started on the cooking around here.

But enough about me. Onto business: Have I got a deal for you!

How’s about a truce? Europe isn’t the enemy of Allah. America is. And Israel. And Turkey. And Australia. And Britain. And, oh, yes, Poland. And Ukraine. And the Czech Republic. And Denmark. And Italy and . . . . Well, the real Europe isn’t our enemy. You know, the romantic, storied Europe of Vichy and Buchenwald, Malmedy and Auschwitz. Oh, those were the days, my friends, those were the days. European civilization was at its peak then, except of course when our hordes stood at the gates of Tours and Vienna ready to liberate you from your folly, property, and lives, O unbelieving ones.

What I mean to say is Europe no longer has to be the enemy of the true faith. Not if you buy my almost new truce offer. It’s on sale. Today only. Worry beads thrown in free.

Al-Qaida will declare its war with European nations over—capital-O Over—if you Europeans will kindly agree to pull out of all Muslim countries immediately. As for the citizens of your countries who were lost on, after, or in connection with the glory of September 11 th, we’ll agree to let bygones be bygones if you will. If you’ll stop defending yourselves, we’ll stop killing you. Eventually.

How can you pass up a deal like that? Get out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, the holy land of Saudi Arabia, and maybe Spain and the Balkans, and every other true Realm of Islam or face the wrath of God just as the Spaniards did and we’ll kill every last one of your sons in the Mother of All Wars and spread their rotting corpses over—Ahem. Excuse me. I get carried away on occasion. Don’t take it personally. I still dream of the gardens of Cordoba and yearn for the olives of Andalusia. I miss the golden days of the Inquisition and the auto-da-fe. Those people knew how to live, or rather kill. And then that heretic Ataturk comes along and abolishes the Caliphate without even thinking . . . . But don’t let my idle musings distract you, O, my brothers. Go about your business, enjoy your decadent pleasures, turn your back again, enroll my little friends in your flight schools. . . .

And don’t listen to those imperialist, colonialist, mass-marketing Americans. They just want to keep the good Muslims of the Middle East under their boots, so they can have all our oil, defile our religious sites, and stare luridly at our top-totoe veiled women. They can’t be trusted. Me you can trust.

The big problem is that the unilateralist Americans have too many allies in this war. So we are prepared to offer a separate peace until the Great Satan is destroyed. Then, of course, the whores of Paris and the charlatans of London and the entire Western world will convert to Islam or feel the wrath of a thousand deaths as the blood of their children—(Cough.) Ahem. Sorry about that. Control. Must learn control.

If America’s allies will pull out of the Middle East, America won’t be far behind. That Bush! Do you really think he means business? Don’t be fooled by his cowboy talk. He’s weak! Weak, I tell you! You can take it direct from those of us cowering in my little cave. A few more months of this war, his poll numbers will drop, and he’ll run from here like a scalded dog.

And once America is gone, proper order will be restored in the House of Islam, i.e., the Middle East, and adjacent areas, i.e., the world. We can overturn those liberal regimes in Turkey and Jordan, and the one to come in Iran, form approved Islamic governments, kill our heretics, keep our women home where they belong instead of in school, cut the throats of the infidels, drive our economy into the sand, and produce still more terrorists! Only then will we come after you in Europe. But that’s years from now, decades maybe, so don’t give it a second thought. In fact, I shouldn’t have mentioned it. Forget it. That’s an order.

And here’s an Extra Added Bonus: By pulling out of this war, you get to embarrass the United States! Isn’t that your real purpose in life, your raison d’etre—to escape America’s clutching hegemony and let the United Nations handle all our little problems? Hey, I read the papers. This would be an easy way to spit at the feet of your long-time ally and occasional liberator. That’ll show the Americans! Let no good deed go unpunished!

And if you don’t, we will fill your bowels with hell-fire lava and the troops of al-Qaida will pull the flesh from your bones and give your meat to our dogs for breakfast and use your innards for fish bait and, and, and—Anyway, sleep on it. You know you can trust an honest guy like me. Have I ever lied to you? You can believe me when I promise you death, destruction and general chaos—unless, of course, you’re the American FBI and CIA and have no eyes to see, ears to hear, phones to tap . . . .

Your friend (and if you don’t believe it I’ll kill you dead), OBL

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‘You guys’ moves South?

Y’all will stand like a Stone Wall

April 29, 2004

SOUTHERNERS! A call to arms!

A decaying, sinister, and determined force is marching down into these climes from Up Nawth. This force has all the manners of a Sherman. And all the romantic appeal of a Grant. Worse yet, it recruits our children—our very sons and daughters!—in its campaign to change Our Way of Life.

This force insults our women. It attempts to federalize the uniqueness of the South. It believes that overwhelming force—the mere presence of numbers!—will bowl over the states of the Old Confederacy. This force underestimates the fight of the Southern man, by Gawd, and the resolve of the Southern woman, by jingos. From Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Fayetteville, North Carolina, Southerners will fight this battle with all the rage and fury usually associated with something more serious, like football games. (Missouri may waver, but that state has always been on the fence.) Of course we’re enraged, as we know you are, about the dispatches from all fronts that the phrase "you guys" has infiltrated God’s Country. And reports are that it’s spreading, mostly advancing in house-to-house urban battles. And "you guys" is trying to gain footholds in those urban areas to launch attacks into rural communities.

Bring it on.

"You guys" . . . . (Snort, indignantly.) The word around here for the plural You is Y’all, and it always will be. Because we were raised right. Y’all will never be taken prisoner by some green lieutenant of a Yankee phrase.

Another proper and wholly acceptable expression, You All, may be muttered on occasion, but only when addressing more than one person, and preferably by a Southern belle who’s making a kind of art with her conversation, as Southern belles do: Why don’t You All go to the picture show without me tonight? I’m feeling poorly after visiting with Mama, bless her heart.

But Y’all still dominates in these latitudes.

Of course, the left-leaning media help the enemy. Nothing new about that, right? But television is using more subtle techniques than it uses on The West Wing or The CBS Evening News. The tactic these days is to carpet-bomb programming with the Vile Phrase, and hope Southern chillen rally to its colors.

Which, by the way, is another reason to turn off the tube tonight and read to the kids. Preferably Mark Twain. Or Lewis Grizzard. Or, if they’re a little older and in the mood for something serious, Robert Penn Warren.

We knew this war was coming years ago, in the 1970s. That’s when a public television show for kids called The Electric Companybegan its propaganda each day with a shout to the easily persuaded: Hey you guys! We wish now that the South had taken a more proactive role in rolling back this menace before it posed such an imminent threat. What’s next? "Youse guys"? "Lookit"? "Take off, eh"? "Go Yankees"?

We’d druther have snow in May.

WE SUSPICION "you guys" will have a hard time establishing an area of operations in the South. Primarily because of the Southerner’s love of history. Like Faulkner said, in the South, the past is never dead—it’s not even past. And Southerners are good aims when it comes to using history as a weapon. Which reminds us: Guess where the term "guy" came from? According to a dispatch from Newhouse News Service in Sunday’s paper, the word "guy" is thought to come from Guy Fawkes, a conspirator in a failed 1605 plot to blow up the British Parliament. Aha!

Gradually, the word began to be used for any male. But Southerners will give up Moon Pies and NASCAR before we’ll let people use that word of questionable origins to be applied to our mothers, sisters and daughters! We’d just as soon address Mama with "What up, dog?"

Imagine a car salesman approaching a couple at Gwatney Chevrolet with, "What are you guys interested in today?" He may be asked why he can’t help the lady, too.

Or imagine this verbal order as you leave a restaurant—preferably a restaurant that serves greens: "You guys come back now, heah?"

Ugh! On second thought, don’t imagine any of that. This "you guys" invasion ain’t nuthin but a thing. It will not take root. Not in this soil.

Not as long as Southerners paint words into their conversations just so, like artists adding a touch of blue where it’s needed, and a slash of green where it’s not expected. Not as long as those of us in God’s Country recognize the difference between men and women, and the truly educated among us treat our ladies with a little more respect, and class, and never require them to open a door in our presence or see a baseball cap atop a gentlemen’s head. Not as long as we all believe Suthun is a language all its own, and we use it not just to communicate an idea, but to communicate life itself.

"You guys" will last about as long as a hush puppy in an Arkadelphia buffet line. Right, y’all?

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Where Arkansas leads

Schoolresults.org is the real deal

May 1, 2004

INSIDE the meeting room were the usual suspects. By which we mean a handful of journalists, a handful of PR types, a handful of educators, and Stacy Pittman. (She always seems to be where education reform is being committed.) The projector was set up, the Internet was on the big screen, and people were passing out business cards all around. We could see it already: This is gonna call for some serious caffeine.

Not that we’re against education reform, mind you. It’s the endless talking about it, without ever doing anything, that unnerves. See the Arkansas Legislature, circa 2003-2004. This was going to be just another meeting, to espouse just another idea, to blather on about another Technical Revolution in Education (how many have there been now?), and how Arkansas could benefit by it if the state would just get on board. The PR types and Education Experts would explain how bass-ackwards Arkansas is, what must be done to reverse that, how expensive it’s going to be, how the future of our children is suffering because politicians and superintendents (but we repeat ourselves) stand in the way, how the lack of modern technology is hindering progress in the schools. And so depressingly on.

We dusted off Old Fogey Editorial No. 138, which starts like this: (Clear throat.) In the Internet age, computers are becoming more and more important. On the one hand, children must learn basics like reading and math. On the other hand, try getting a job today without knowing how to Google somebody without getting fired for harassment. Arkansas must quit fighting technology, and, instead, get more of it into the classroom.

For too long now, Arkansas has fallen behind in several education categories. How long will Arkies allow their children to fall behind the nation? How long until they demand immediate accountability from their schools, and—We had most of the editorial written when Jacqueline Lain, director of some outfit called Performance Evaluation Services, said the strangest thing: "Arkansas is a leader."

Was that a jolt, or was the coffee kicking in?

Now, OFE No. 138 is a safe editorial, complete with the on-the-one-hand-buton-the-other-hand prerequisite of any good, boring opinion piece. But the longer we listened to Ms. Lain describe, explain, and show off this new website called schoolresults.org, the more we began to realize No. 138 just isn’t accurate anymore.

Arkansas is leading the nation.

PARENTS, educators, taxpayers or anybody else who’s interested in education in Arkansas, do yourself a favor: Fire up the old computer, and surf on over to www.schoolresults.org. (Dot org, not dot com!) Notice that only a few states are blue, which indicates the state is online. Notice that Arkansas is one of ’em. A click on Arkansas (the state between Missouri and Louisiana), and a world opens up to the curious.

The website is full as a tick with stats, stats, and stats. And not just stats, stats, and stats, but numbers you—parents, teachers, etc.—can use. You can use them to improve your school, use them to find a home in a decent school district, or use them to bang over the heads of your local school board members.

We cracked our knuckles and began looking, er, typing around.

Lessee . . . . We know a couple of kids at College Station Elementary in Little Rock. What’s the level of reading proficiency there?

It took less than 20 seconds to find out. The number of kids making what educators call Adequate Yearly Progress is 85 percent. Not only that, but the number of kids who are, quote, Economically Disadvantaged, unquote, is 50 percent.

Which makes us wonder: What is College Station doing right with these poor kids that 85 percent can read on level? And how can other schools copy that?

Lessee, No. 2 . . . . We know some children at Nevada County High School. It’s in poor and rural Nevada County. So we already know it’s economically disadvantaged. But how does it compare to other schools in the same economic category?

A minute later . . . . There are two other high schools, besides Nevada County, with an exact 59.2 percent of economically disadvantaged kids: Bruno-Pyatt High and Lakeside High. Nevada County is between the two in reading proficiency, and well ahead in math. How can the math program there be improved and copied by others?

Hey, this is neat! Now this is transparency. Which leads to real accountability.

Lessee, No. 3 . . . . What about that massive Springdale High? How’re they doin’? Go to the school’s site, click on Quick Compare, and in a second, voila!

Yep, we guessed right. It’s the biggest school in the state, with more than 2,500 kids. Its reading proficiency is on target at 61 percent, but—uh, oh—it’s math proficiency is right at 31 percent. Are the kids there having trouble grasping algebra? Or is it geometry? Is it just 10 th-graders holding down the scores, or are most kids at the school having trouble? And, more importantly, who can fix this?

OKAY, ENOUGH about numbers. What was that about Arkansas being a leader?

Well, not every state has its information up and running. It looks as though several others, in yellow, are in the process, but Arkansans can find out about the good, the bad, and the ugly test scores right now. And compare them to others across the state.

Arkansas is one of the nation’s leaders. In a technical area of education, no less. (Mike Huckabee must be behind this.) And, more important, this website is something real, something tangible, something that parents and teachers and home buyers and anybody else can use.

Texas folks don’t have this. California folks, either. Nor do those smarty-pants up in Vermont or New Hampshire or most of those other Canadian states.

"Arkansas is a leader," kept echoing around the room. It was a pleasant sound. Of course, it’s not a perfect world yet. You can’t compare Arkansas schools and districts to those in other states, because Arkansas and those other states don’t use the same tests. That should change. Why the feds don’t strong-arm states into taking the same test—or why the feds don’t strong-arm a little harder—we don’t understand. We’d rather compare Arkansas kids to kids around the nation, and then the world, than compare Texarkana kids to those in Jonesboro.

But that’s another editorial. (Old Fogey Editorial No. 141.) Right now, we’re just proud to point out this website to parents and taxpayers, and do a little bragging about our small, wonderfully technical state.

For now, No. 138 just has to go back into its file.

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Taking a stand

Oct. 13, 2004

EDITORIAL writers must take a firm stand on the issues of the day. And after pondering this particular news story for most of a perfectly good morning, and after debating the pros and cons, the advantages and disadvantages amongst ourselves, and after doing our in-depth research and weighing the great effect that our opinion would surely have on all of society, we have to say we’re foursquare against giant hornets.


Did you see Chris Branam’s story last Thursday? The European hornet—did we mention it’s originally from Europe?—is also called the Giant Hornet because it’s a big ’un. It’s wingspan is 50 feet long, or at least 11 / 2 inches. And people just began noticing them in this maybe too Natural State in 1999.

The article said this particular hornet is not threatening. But you know how the media lie.

This breed of hornet was first found in New York more than 150 years ago, and it’s just now getting to God’s Country. You want to talk about unwanted immigration this election season, let’s talk about unwanted immigration. (Gee thanks, New York.) "They are said to be mild-mannered, and not prone to attack, but they will defend their colony when their nest is threatened," according to the graphic that went with the story.

What does that mean, "but they will defend their colony when their nest is threatened"? What is threatening? Walking by? Trimming a tree? Throwing a football in the back yard and accidentally hitting the neighbor’s hedge? Simply existing? How’s a mere human to know?

Excuse, please, Monsieur Arkie. But I must say to you I consider such actions threatening to my nest. En garde!

Reports from the northern part of the state haven’t been encouraging. These so-called mild-mannered suckers have been dive-bombing people in orchards and banging themselves against house windows at night. The "experts," a word that should always have quotation marks around it, say the dive-bombing thing is just a function of the bug’s attraction to fruit, and the window-banging thing just its attraction to light.

Does it matter? They’re still dive-bombing and window-banging.

Achtung! Vee vill attack, attack, attack und resistance es useless!

And this from a Mr. Jeffrey Barnes, curator of the Arthropod Museum at the University of Arkansas: "I don’t know of any reports of it being detrimental ecologically, but that doesn’t mean it’s not."

Aha! That’s all the proof we need. This critter is obviously a Menace to Civilization As We Know It. (And have you ever noticed that when scientists are quoted in the paper they always sound like whitecoated actors in a B sci-fi movie circa 1955?) "If this thing is taking up tree holes, it’s certainly going to affect bird and squirrel populations," Mr. Barnes added.

Aha, again! This so-called mild-mannered hornet is picking off the bird and squirrel population! What next? Deer? Cows? Third graders? Attention must be paid!

And all this comes just in time for hunting season, when hundreds of thousands of Arkies are preparing to take to the woods. Our advice: Along with your mosquito spray, your tent pegs, and your doe scent, you’d better pack a can of Raid. Make that the over-sized, industrial-strength can. Take no chances. Say, we wonder if our taxidermist could mount one of them thangs . . . .

Stories copyright 2004 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Reprinted with permission.

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