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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Being back home

by Mike Masterson | June 18, 2022 at 2:55 a.m.

"Hey, it's good to be back home again.

Sometimes this old farm feels like a long lost friend"--John Denver, "Back Home Again"

_____

Some still ask why I, after living and working in some of the nation's largest cities, from San Diego to Chicago, and beyond, would choose to complete life's adventure by returning to the scenic Ozarks and my birthplace of Harrison, population 13,070.

It's a legitimate question. Not everyone has my sentimental streak or desire to become immersed in the place they arrived kicking and wide-eyed over 75 years earlier.

Through experience, I've realized daily life and journalism in a metropolis is a young person's career dream, a siren's song for those with the stamina and drive to endure the demanding pace that's required as a smaller fish in an oceanic pond.

Sure, you earn considerably more money. And a reporter calling from the Los Angeles Times draws far more regard and reaction than, say, one from a rural paper in Arkansas. In other words, folks in the land of fruits and nuts almost always return your calls.

But those seemingly lucrative big-city salaries are quickly absorbed by the inflated costs of everything, so one's standard of living remains pretty much unchanged. And the hectic pace demands far more energy than most folks I know have after they reach 50.

In contrast, Harrison, which truly has received such an unjustifiably bad rap in the media over the decades, is not only manageable but among our state's most beautiful, friendly and caring communities.

And that's not just some old homeboy talking. There is a palpable spirit of belonging and sense of purpose that circulates through this community.

The biggest difference I see after returning by choice in 2015 lies in the display of caring that people have for their community and each other. And, valued readers, when all is said and done, isn't that a valued aspect in most our lives? That we honestly cared, and were cared about?

Since my return, I have united with a remarkable lady and fiancée Jeanetta, three years younger, who says she once had a secret crush on me in the Harrison Junior High School hallways. I was preoccupied with those my age and never knew she was alive. Turns out that's for the best, considering how our paths crossed as adults seven years ago.

I still gather in a spring reunion with three former Goblins from the class of 1965 where we spend a weekend reminiscing and celebrating that we still are able to gather.

A recent morning I was walking through the weekly farmers market on the courthouse lawn of Harrison's historic square with two gazebos (one created for smokers). This event regularly draws a variety of people from throughout the city and surrounding Boone County.

People come and go by the scores, often hand-in-hand and pushing strollers. They wave, smile and speak to each other and strangers, often pausing at a vendor's table to chat and admire handiwork, piles of home-grown produce, artisan crafts and baked goods.

I always stop by Shirley and Jack Cooper's table to pick up two loaves of her sugar-free banana-apple and zucchini-apple bread with raisins and pecans.

She prepares them for ol' diabetic me. Charge? Not $10 a loaf, or $8. Try $5, and she won't accept a penny more. I've offered. Sometimes, when I can't make it to the square, Jack and Shirley will even deliver her bread to our house. And man, can that Shirley ever bake.

Think that would happen in Los Angeles or Phoenix? Think I'd ever find friends like this kind, warm and helpful couple in those mega-cities?

Memories are everywhere along the city streets and atop nearby Gaither Mountain en route to Compton and Ponca where the stunning vistas span 70 miles of mountains and valleys.

A couple of times each week I'll find myself driving past the downtown bank parking lot where Dr. Henry Kirby delivered me in his long-demolished office attic and cared for much of the town when it had about 4,000 population.

There's something deeply comforting in being able to observe and reflect on your personal history, even though Dr. Kirby and his clinic are decades gone. The nostalgia seeps deep into my spirit when I pass homes in Harrison where family and friends once lived, and we shared special youth church events, carport parties and even hayrides.

In his golf shop on the square, Rob Mapes is always ready and willing to handle whatever anyone needs to play the game, including lessons, and to carry on in a way friends do. He doesn't expect anything from me--except visiting.

Each weekday morning in the popular Townhouse Cafe on the square, our coffee group of anywhere from eight to 10 of us silverbacks gather to solve the woes of our nation, state and community for an hour or so of camaraderie and teasing.

Think I would experience anything like any of this in the impersonal and callous big cities? Think again.

Everything we need--from the hospital, post office to supermarkets, Dollar Generals, Walmart, eight-screen movie theater, restaurants, rental businesses, stockbrokers, furniture, liquor and hardware stores, the famed beauty of Maplewood Cemetery or the thriving NorthArk Community College--is within five minutes from our driveway.

The nation's first national river, our magnificent Buffalo, is within 30 minutes of downtown, as is Bull Shoals Lake. I can be reeling in trout along the tranquil White River in 45 minutes.

As with other Arkansas communities of this size, Harrison might not have five stores or services peddling the same products, but it likely has at least one.

And should we want more, including first-class entertainment and attractions, Silver Dollar City, White Water water park and Branson are just over 30 minutes north on U.S. 65. Springfield's only another half-hour up the same highway, or about as far as Fayetteville to Bella Vista.

Beyond the physical necessities and amenities we need and want for life, I'm able to wind up the hill to the immaculately kept Maplewood Cemetery (probably the most beautiful in Arkansas during the fall) and visit regularly with my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, as well as old classmates and friends like Pebble Daniel, Bill Hudson, Jim Phillips and Sheridan Garrison.

Weren't these people important parts of our lives here only a year or so ago? Sure seems like it to me.

Near the cemetery is the widely known and respected Hillcrest retirement and care home where so many of my generation and those before have enjoyed first-class care. It's difficult nowadays to even find a bed because of their reputation for caring.

There's that word again.

This city cares so much that it's busy creating a first-class community center alongside Crooked Creek (aka smallmouth heaven where as a child I often waded in its spring-fed water and coaxed crawdads from beneath flat rocks. Soon the center will offer an indoor pool and much more. The children's splash pad in the town's family park alongside Lake Harrison has just opened.

Harrison's House of Hope Cottages offer safe and clean residences for mothers, along with training and assistance in becoming employed and self-sufficient.

In evenings I sometimes detect the faint yet familiar cries of a meadowlark searching for love in one of the city's open fields (or the protected Baker Prairie) along with the "bobwhite" melodies from nearby quail nestled in knee-high grass.

The many veterans in and around Boone County have a special and caring home and beneficial services at the recently christened Camp Jack near a community pool and across from a food truck that puts any taco I tried in Phoenix to shame.

My wish is that everyone reading today might also have such a community environment and comfortable sense of belonging, especially as they approach the latter years of life, which by all rights should be golden for all of us.

I know returning to my roots has meant that for me.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.


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