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Jun 02 2011

My Little Town 20110601: The Hackett Hoodlums

(8 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Those of you who read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River.  It was a redneck sort of place, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.

I rarely write about living people except with their express permission, but may make an exception or two here because I do not know for certain that two people are not dead.  If not, they will be approaching 80 years of age.  Hackett was relatively calm in the early 1960s, but that began to change in the mid 1960s.  A group of hooligans began to take over the town, and they pretty much ruled it for a couple of years, at least at night.  I do not know the names of all of them, and some might even still be alive, but too old to be reading this, so I shall name names.

I wrote about Agnes and Pete Holloway some time ago and their little cafe where I would get ice cream and milkshakes.  They finally got too old to run it, and rented it to someone else.  That probably was the starting point for the era of what we called the Hackett Hoodlums.  This was a mixed group, some from far away, many local.  This was an extremely interesting time to be a kid.

Agnes’s and Pete’s little cafe got transformed into a pool hall (it was small, so only a couple of tables) and essentially a bootleg alcohol bar.  Hackett was dry, in that alcohol sales were illegal, and still is dry as far as I know.  Bootlegging was always a problem, but usually more like Cannabis sales are today:  underground, people coming one by one to a private individual.  In this case, it was pretty much an open secret, and only the tough folks went to the pool hall.

This was around 1968, give or take a year or two, and lasted for around two years, once again give or take a year.  Since I was only 12 or so, I had to observe vicariously because I was not allowed to participate, nor did I have any desire to do so.  To understand how it worked, I must describe the layout of downtown Hackett at the time.

Our house was on the west side of the street in the south part of town.  It was the most northern residential building.  Across the alley to the north was an old, two story cut and dressed sandstone building, erected in 1890 according to the stone near the top.  When I was really, really little Plim Forbes lived in the top story (he owned the building), and there was a furniture factory in the ground floor.  The building was pretty long, and for about 100 feet there was more factory, and a connected two story contained a number of businesses over the years.  Then there was an open space, in deep into that lot was the old gaol.  It was a sandstone building, one cell, with bars sunk into the mortar for a window and the door removed.

When I was little my friends and I used to play around it, and because of a big walnut tree, on top of it as well.  We preferred to stay outside, because the inside was covered in hay that reeked of urine.  I am told that Uncle Dan used to go there to hide and drink, but it had been decommissioned for official use long before that.

There was another open space, and then John Mackey’s little candy and sundry store.  I shall do a new piece about him, because he married Ma. I loved John like a real grandfather, and he loved me like a real grandson.

From my yard to the corner, just after John’s store, was perhaps 100 meters, at most 120.  On the other side of the street was Farmer’s Bank, in an old sandstone, one story building.  We are working from north to south now, the opposite of the previous description.  Next to it was a sandstone, single story building that the Dummits (swear that this was their real last name, and I can not remember either of their given ones) had a cafe, a little arcade with a pool table and a pinball machine.  They were nice people, and ran an ethical operation.  As far as I know, their sole son was the first person from Hackett to earn a Ph.D., and it was in chemistry, just like mine many years later.  They did not the most sanitary operations, and Ma quite eating there when she found the cockroach fried to her chicken fried steak, but that is quite different from bootlegging.

There was another open space, then a series of buildings that were crowded together, storefront style.  Some of these were two stories, with outside stairs.  It was that way all the way to the street just across from my house, and the only other business was Arthur Holloway’s garage, discussed previously.  I go into this amount of detail because it is important later.

When Agnes and Pete rented their cafe to a group from California, things began to go to pot, so to speak.  As I said, they put in some pool tables and started selling beer pretty much in the open, or probably like the speakeasies of old.  They did a little short order stuff, mostly burgers and fries.  Later on, a neighbor’s fatted calf was found dead, with both hind quarters removed.  It was finally determined that these folks had been rustling cattle to use to make their burgers!  It turns out that this cafe was pretty much the hub from which the hoodlums operated.

One of the local hoodlums was Billy Israel, a big, burly guy with a wife, two kids, and a hot car (remember, this was the era of the muscle car).  Billy liked to shoot guns, and needed targets.  One Saturday night he decided that the street lights would make fine ones, and he proceeded to shoot out every street light in downtown Hackett.  Billy also had an eye for the ladies, or what passed for ladies in the hoodlum bunch, and was chasing a couple of girls up the outside stairs that I mentioned a while ago.  I do not know if they were actually trying to get away from him or just playing coy.  He made it to the roof, still chasing them.

Of course, Billy was quite intoxicated.  After all, it was Friday or Saturday evening during the chase.  Billy chased them to the next set of steps and they were still ahead of them.  As he took to the steps, he lost his footing and fell the two stories to the hard ground.  I do not know if an ambulance came for him (county ambulance service had yet to be implemented) or if some of the other hoodlums took him to hospital, but the next day he was walking around town with BOTH arms in casts and slings!  It was sort of fitting that he had to look so ridiculous for the six weeks that the casts were on him, and I am sure that it cramped his style to wear them.

Billy did lots of other outrageous things, but those are the two of note.  Another hoodlum was Richard Hamby, who finally grew up (although in his hoodlum days was pushing 30) and became responsible, to a degree.  More on that later.  I knew Richard fairly well, because my dad befriended him and did a lot to get Richard to straighten up and act responsibly.  But before that, Richard was quite the hellion.

Richard liked to get liquored up and do stupid stuff.  He also had a hot car, and he and Billy would often drag race on weekend nights in downtown Hackett.  Richard drove FAST, regardless of where he was.  I do not know how many tickets he got, but never in Hackett for those couple of years, because Hackett was essentially without law, at least at night.  I well remember the most outrageous thing that he did.

One evening, drunk and crazy, Richard “appropriated” a D3 Cat bulldozer from about three miles south of town and drove it into downtown.  Other than the damage that the steel treads do the the road, that would not have been THAT big a deal, other than grand theft (the felony limit for theft at the time in Arkansas was $500), but taking out the three miles, of fences heading into town just made it worse.  He parked the bulldozer just north of my house when he was done, and it was novel to see such a device in the middle of the street.  He got into trouble for that, because both the ‘dozer owner and the property owners whose fences had been destroyed pressed charges.  I do not know what his punishment was, but he never went to the penitentiary, but did serve jail time, so I assume that he pled to one or more misdemeanors.

With the encouragement and help of my father, Richard slowly began to change his ways.  He quit “calling” fish after he got busted for that and lost his commercial fishing license for several years, if not forever.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, it is possible to stun fish so that they will surface and you can just pick up the unconscious animals and throw them in the boat.  Thus, one can catch fish even when they are not biting.  The term “calling” is used because before modern electronic equipment, the favored device for this was an old fashioned, crank type telephone (the kind you see in Laurel and Hardy features).  When that crank is being turned, it puts out quite a jolt.

Richard finally got a pretty good job, with a company truck and good pay.  His job was to inspect the numerous gas wells around the area to make sure that they had not been tampered with and that all was in order.  There were a LOT of gas wells there at the time, and there still are.  One night, and out of season, Richard just could not resist shooting the deer that he had in the spotlight.  As misfortune would have it, the game warden just happened to be close enough to observe what was happening, and he arrested Richard.  Richard lost his rifle, a nice one, his job, and obviously his company truck.  If he had been in his own vehicle, he probably would have kept his job, but the company for which he worked did not like the idea of their truck being used, as it could have also been forfeited.

Dad was disappointed with Richard for that, but never gave up on him completely, but they were never as close as before, probably because my dad set up the deal for Richard to get the job.  I do not know what happened to him after that.

There were many more activities in Hackett during this era, and I do not understand why they were allowed.  Now, at the time, Hackett did not have any police force of its own, so the county had the primary responsibility for policing, and next the state.  But state troopers were few and far betwixt at the time, and for some reason the county did not want to get involved.  By that time Dee Kirkendall was no longer a deputy (I wrote about him and his death from transfusion mediated AIDS some time ago in this series), so there was no deputy who actually lived in Hackett.  I suspect that it might have had to do with Dee challenging Fred Hayes, the elected sheriff for Sebastian County and losing.  Fred was known to sort of spiteful, so it may be that he just said to himself, “Fine.  I’ll not do anything for that town on account of Dee”.  I do not know that; it is merely speculation on my part.

In summary, Hackett was a rough little town for a while.  I was too little to participate (a good thing, but would probably not have anyway), but I could stand in the corner of my yard on Friday and Saturday nights and see to downtown (only about 50 meters) and watch the whole thing.  I did not see Billy fall off the stairs, and came in when he started shooting out the streetlights.  Those days are now gone, Hackett has its own, albeit small, police force, and is much larger than it was in my day.

If you have stories about growing up, please share them in the comments section.  You do not have to have come from a little town, just let us know some of your experiences.

Friday at this time we continue our Popular Culture series about The Who with the first half of Tommy.  I hope to see you here.

Warmest regards,

Doc

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