By Travis Newton
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
— Corinthians 13:11
The roads that weave to and fro along, over, and underneath the craggy peaks and shattered-looking bluffs of the Greater Ozark Mountains are reminiscent of typewriter ribbons, pulled asunder. Ribbons of pure and inky darkness that carry a sheen when wet with midnight's gleaming condensation. They carry you between the towering pines, through the hollers and valleys, and ultimately plant you at your destination feeling more alive than you had when you began your journey.
I've had a penchant for steering and veering through these roads since I could see above the wheel, but for the first time in my 30 years, I wasn't put at ease by the low whine of my tires against Arkansan cobblestone. I wasn't swayed by the gentle breeze blowing in my open windows, nor was I calmed by Faron Young's warm refrains from my truck's speakers.
Nothing could've solved these jitters, and the three quart-sized Mason jars of coffee, blacker than the aforementioned highways, sure as shit wasn’t helping anything.
It had been an awfully long time since I'd been home, and an even longer time since I'd seen my faith-healer-by-way-of-backwoods-evangelist of a father. He wanted to buy my truck, though, and lord knows I needed the money. As I flicked the last ashes from the thousandth cigarette I'd smoked out into the collapsing pine sprawl and snuffed it into my ashtray, a family of deer leapt out directly in front of me. I swerved off to one side, barely missing them. As I sat there along this Ozarkan typewriter ribbon in the dark, cussing the woodland creatures trying to move away from their previous domain, just as I had done, I knew exactly what kind of trip this was going to be. A quick one.
Mena, Arkansas is sort of an awful place. Sure, it has its redeeming qualities, like the low-rent Mexican place with the 1972-era bean burritos I still dream about, the incredible archaic backwoods churches still clinging to a thread of the way things used to be, all the way down to snake-handling in those same towering pines. And there is more photo-worthy ruin than you could document in a thousand lifetimes.
It's a beautiful place, but it has more ghosts and demons than any collection of supernatural stories you could conjure. Being raised here was like being raised in a constant inside joke, ’cept a punchline never came around. Tucked away into the hills conjoining the two mountain ranges, it was the perfect place for heinous acts of nefarious motive to go unnoticed. In other communities peppered across the Ozarks and Ouachitas, there was often talk of the Klan and other sordid affairs, dabbling in murder and hatred. Usually, these stories were swapped by old men who sat in coffee-stained gas-station booths every morning and lied like they were handing out money for it. In Mena, hatred is what they ate for dinner, set out right next to the sweet pickles and coleslaw. There ain't no doubt in my mind that 80 percent of the people I grew up with around here were part of this awful sect. Their forefathers sure as hell hadn't pulled any punches or feigned much civility when Mena was named "one of the last remaining sundown towns," and then was finally forced to take their sign down in the ’80s.
Those same vitriolic heathens? They just begat generation after generation, and now they govern the town from the Walmart to the sawmill. As soon as the gravel underneath my truck gave rustle, I wanted to be gone again. No amount of well-intentioned exploration or halfway-decent childhood memories (there weren't many, if I’m being transparent) could ease the tension I held in my gut as I climbed out of my truck, and into the mouth of that ancient graveyard marked by the statues of two chipped and weather-worn women, arm in arm, still staring at the sky.
I'd made later plans to meet Dad for breakfast, but if I was coming all the way to this town, I was going to see something that has been on my mind since the first time I laid my eyes on it, when I was only 12. I was going to confront a ghost of my past. I was looking for some truth.
I was looking for Pete Berryman.
Here's a little textbook history for y'all, before I delve too deeply into it: "A Black community called Little Africa developed on Board Camp Creek east of Mena. The community was small, with a population of 152 in 1900.” Several instances of racially motivated hate and violence toward Mena's African American community were noted. These, combined with declining job prospects after the railway shops left town, led many blacks to leave Mena. By 1910, just 16 remained.
The Mena Star advertised the town as being "100 percent white" in its March 18, 1920, edition, and a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was organized in 1922. In 1927, the Mena Commercial Club created advertisements which stated Mena, in addition to having "pure soft water" and "beautiful scenery," also had "no Negroes."
Like many other communities in America, Mena had become a sundown town. In the 2010 census, 0.2 percent of Mena's population was black.
When we were children, a common tall tale circulated around campfires, spoken in hushed voices by errant 12-year-olds wanting something adventurous enough to land us in the pages of a Twain book. It was the tale of ole "N****r Pete" and how he had overcome great adversity to go on with five other white men in the Civil War to overtake a bloody and hard-won ambush, nearly winning the whole damn thing by his lonesome. He was a ferocious fighter, he was a man of great grit, and he was a damned hero. These tales were driven into our psyche by everyone from teachers to preachers to policemen. We grew up hearing of the reckless abandon Pete displayed, which overtook the Union army by sheer tact and hellfire. This man not only survived an ambush but killed 13 men using only a tree limb and a knife. This man was a savage war hero, and that was the only reason he was allowed to be buried within the distinguished perimeters of good old Polk County.
He is, to this day, the only man of color buried in that county. His stone was a scraggly old piece of rock with words of disparagement hand-carved across it. We heard of these claims, and lord have mercy did we whisper. We swore to set out and find this fabled stone, and, by God, one day we did. I remember it way too well; it’s seemed etched into my being ever since. It was an August morning, particularly cool as I remember, and we set out into that cemetery just rabid to find that long-forgotten stone. After what seemed like hours of pacing and searching, we hadn't found a damn thing.
When Andrea hollered that she saw something into the woods a ways, I vividly remember getting goosebumps. I gazed out through the branches and fallen trees and saw five quiet graves against the drabness of the heat-wilted foliage. We walked the hundred paces back to the site, and like clockwork affixed our eyes on the solemn and graying grave in the ditch resting beneath the tall, proud monuments. Scrawled across the front, sure enough, was "N****r Pete."
Even as a 12-year-old, I was sick to my stomach. I knew that something here in these tall tales and hoax-ridden gravestones wasn't right, and I hated it. I wanted to leave immediately.
We slowly ambled our way back across town, through the honeysuckle and kudzu grown well past some roofs, past the old purple house on Church Street no one had lived in since God knows when, past the abandoned gas station, and back on toward Steven's house behind the high school, where we would bed down in a tent in the backyard to whisper more egregiously outlandish tales about Pete. That day never leaked out of my thoughts. I knew I had seen something hallowed and something not totally right, but I couldn't put my finger on it.
Little did I know it then, but one day I sure as fire would.
The chill in the air was way too familiar. The sound of the rocks ’neath my feet threw me directly back into a memory. I stopped at the women carved from stone for a moment to gaze upon them. They’ve sat at the opening of the overgrown back corner of the cemetery since before time began. Arm in arm, eyes affixed to the heavens. Hill witches, or a memorial to matriarchal adoration looking over a final resting place. Of course, rumors circulated like a swarm of wasps around their statues, too. I ran my hand across the weather-worn smoothness of their shoulders, and let my arms fall slack at my side.
"Surely the fact that I'm trying to recreate this memory of my childhood means there's something I'm missing," my brain offered. I continued with branches snapping underneath my feet, a thick blanket of the winter's claimed soldiers still lying across the ground and unattended to. I saw the thicket, that entrance, and stopped in my tracks. A glint of bright red poked out through the usual brown and ghostly blanket of leaves and drab foliage. As my foot rose to create another stride, I realized what I had seen. The graves of the men buried there been all decorated with flowers of blood red. I walked back through the wall of overgrowth, pushing aside branches and thorns in my path, and fell upon a glorious scene that looked like it was clipped out of some long forgotten Antebellum magazine of five neatly decorated Civil War graves, sitting high atop a ditch full of leaves with a shine of purple sticking out.
I clamored over to the ditch with the sort of exuberance I wasn't aware I still possessed after that dumbass drive, and began wildly digging in the leaves until my knuckle bruised on a stone, which, when I saw it, immediately set tears to my eyes. Some faithful soul had affixed a stone that had the word “Pete,” simply carved, over that old, hateful marker.
I wept in that ditch, beholden only to the birds, because I felt like the man finally found rest. I audibly spoke blessings to the person who covered up what history had slandered, and walked away from that ditch a better man for it. I had a renewed sense of purpose, and a newfound love for someone among the denizens of Mena, Arkansas.
Somebody in that hate-filled town had the gall to right what history had wronged, and I loved them for it. Faron Young sounded even warmer, singing my exit as I left the cemetery with a brighter spirit, heading back into town.
"Wine me up, turn me on and watch me cry for you."
When I walked into the Skyline Cafe, there was an absolute din. The door swung, and I saw my Dad among the clatter, sitting at the table with his Bible, like he always does. If I were to tell you I didn't feel like running away as fast as possible, I'd be a liar. We sat in weird silence and ate our respective meals while he grilled me about when I'd be coming back to reclaim my rightful place as the man God called me to be, but for some reason this time I just couldn't even be bothered with being annoyed.
I had Pete on my mind.
Dad continued espousing his whole mess until the checks came, and we stood and got ready to head back towards my home of Carbondale, Illinois. Now that I think about it, being sidetracked from my first reason for being there may have been the thing that saved the entire trip. I had no bad taste in my mouth upon arriving home.
But the ride home was an irritating mess. I was driving my father back to where I lived so he could get the truck he'd purchased from me and head back to Mena. It was a plain and simple transaction, which happened only because I was annoyingly broke at the time. We drove back in a lot of silence. Not much conversation was to be had, as we both knew where we stood, and we both knew we didn't much care for each other. I'd be lying if I were to say I didn't kind of rejoice when I left him at his hotel upon our arrival home.
When I got back to my little house out in the Shawnee National Forest, I had a burning urge to dive into the history channels of Mena, to try and find the story of Pete Berryman. I made a pot of coffee, opened a new pack of smokes, and sat right down at my kitchen table in front of my laptop. This was the first time I’d ever thought to dig with a wide-blade shovel, and I was going to make it count.
When we were kids, we had no access to anything like the internet, and there certainly weren't archives, full of threads of history surrounding the territory, and there was no way (conveniently) to prove what sort of thing happened in those hills.
At least, not until now. Now, it splayed before me at a keystroke. Now, there was dirt and blood, by God.
And lord have mercy, was it everywhere.