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Innocence Under the Walnuts
Bentonville, Arkansas, 1972

By John Troesser

Back in the early 1970s, a tornado had come through Bentonville, Arkansas and had ruined a good many trees. Many of them were Walnuts. At that time, Walnuts were being stolen by "tree rustlers" who would come onto property they didn't own (absentee owners) and cut down the valuable trees with chainsaws equipped with mufflers. The trees were then bucked into logs which were sold to middle men who shipped them to Japan to be made into veneer. Since trees didn't have serial numbers, it was a pretty lucrative business for shady characters who were removing the shade - one tree at a time.

The veneer was then laminated and applied to console televisions whereon, it provided a homey "All American" look. The televisions would then be exported from Japan back to America. In theory, a Walnut tree in Blytheville, Arkansas might've be able to look through a window of a "manufactured home" and watch Hee-Haw on a television encased in slices of a near-cousin.

I was in the tree business at the time and naturally, my phone was ringing off the hook after the storm. An Arkansas State Trooper and his wife lived two blocks from downtown Bentonville (which included the original Walton Family Store). The couple's backyard had a line of Walnut trees that towered sixty feet in the air. Walnuts are "leggy" trees with extremely long branches. Since they are very tolerant of pruning, I told the folks that the trees needn't be cut completely down - but by cutting all the twisted limbs, they would be very ugly until they could develop a new crown. The trees seemed to mean a lot to the couple and they were relieved to hear they didn't need to be removed.

A local fireman had told the two that he could cut them down after his 24 hour shift and that he wouldn't charge for disposing of the valuable logs (which the couple could've sold for close to $1000). But two of the twisted limbs were blocking their garage and they were without the use of their car. That made the job a priority with me. Plus, unlike the fireman, I had insurance.

I had left my crew on a previous job and when asked when I could get started, I replied I'd get started by myself. The State Trooper seemed pleased (although he might not be pleased when he'd see the long-haired members of my crew). They may have had long hair, but they had excellent credentials. One of them was a Rice University graduate with a BS in Physics (handy when dropping trees).

The next day we were all there and the trooper was pleased when we were early. He looked at my crew out of the corner of his eyes, but all was well when he left for work. About 11 o'clock his wife brought out "a little something." Sandwiches, cookies, lemonade, pie - and she paid us another visit about 3 p.m. I do believe I smelled a pork roast wafting through her kitchen window.

Arkansas women (of a certain generation) prided themselves on their ability to cook and more than once we were served such feasts that after some lunches, and the resulting nap, it was difficult to get the groggy men back to work. The British, famed for their understatement, couldn't hold a candle to these women of Northwest Arkansas. Their idea of "a little something" would put to shame a trough at Golden Corral.

After the job was over and the last branches had been fed through the chipper, I was invited into the living room. I was just expecting to get a check and leave, but instead, I was asked by the husband to "wash up." I had somehow (silently) been invited to dinner. Indeed, it had been a pork roast I had smelled. From the dining room, I could see many frames on the living room. They were black frames like the kind people used to display insects in, but these covered the walls. Each one contained arrow and spear points - the original "collectables" for generations of settlers.

The walls were covered with them. So much so, that the wallpaper was visible only in the small strips between the frames. It looked as if this "elderly" couple (in their early fifties at the time) had decided to camp out in the Native American Tool and Weapon section of the Museum of Science and Natural History. All that was lacking was a buffalo diorama.

After the plain, but hearty dinner (with peach cobbler), the trooper walked me into the living room. His wife joined us and they called my attention to one small frame that contained a single broken "point" on a bed of cotton batting. It was a chert arrowhead with a white streak through it. Handsome, it was and one could see the workmanship was exceptional. The edges were delecate and translucent. But it was broken - split diagonally. That made it worthless to collectors

I learned that the couple had taken their honeymoon in Arizona back in 1941. Their week was drawing to a close when they heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. They spent the rest of the day half-heartedly picking up points as they talked about how their lives would be changed by the war. As they walked along the riverbed, the woman absent mindedly picked up a broken piece of arrowhead and placed it in her apron with other whole points. Because of the abundance of whole points, they never bothered with pieces - yet there was something about that piece of white-veined chert.

The man enlisted in the Marines and served in the Pacific, earning a purple heart at Tarawa through a leg wound. After he was discharged, he returned to Bentonville, to the modest wallpapered "fort" that his bride had been holding down during the conflict. They celebrated his homecoming with plans for a second honeymoon. They decided on the same spot in Arizona where their first honeymoon had been interrupted.

But their old hunting ground was now fenced off and to get on public lands, they needed to go 30 miles downstream. The pickings were thinner, but they spent a happy time rejoicing in the fact that the husband had survived the war with only a flesh wound. Sometime that afternoon, the woman saw a pointed rock that somehow seemed familiar. She showed it to her husband and they both knew what the other was thinking.

When they got off the train and got to their house, they dug out the shoebox that held their culls, and matched the two pieces together. They fit perfectly, without a single chip missing. Nearly five years and 30 miles apart, the same woman found the two broken parts of an ancient stone weapon.

"We're not sure what it means, and of course, the time doesn't mean a thing" the wife said to me. The husband added: "we reckon we need to add something to the story, like we took an oath we'd come back and find the rest of it or something like that - but that would be fibbing."

He actually said "fibbing" which seemed out of place for a man wearing a Sam Browne belt and a badge. They both agreed that it meant something - they just didn't know what.

"We never had kids", the woman said, and "everybody that's heard the story is dead now, but we wanted to tell you." I had nothing to say except that it was a pretty amazing coincidence. But since they were getting sort of teared-up over the story, I thought the least I could do is remember it. They gave me a check and we said goodbye, the man giving me a bone-crushing handshake.

It was just a coincidence to me, a twenty-six year old, hearing a story of something that had happened twenty-six years before.

Thirty-five years later, I found myself driving through the neighboring town of Springdale, Arkansas, aghast at the growth of the region. The once-separate towns had grown into one continuous mass. I decided to drive around Bentonville and see what had changed. Outside of nearly everything, not much. The house where the "old" couple lived had been replaced by a grander structure, although the walnut trees were still there in the backyard - the only clue to recognizing the place.



August 31, 2014 Column
© John Troesser
More Columns by John Troesser
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