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April 22, 2005

In memory: Berlin Carlton

My earliest memories are of visits to my uncle at Diamond Cave in Jasper, Arkansas. The cave's now closed down, having been purchased by some enviro-nut who wants to preserve it for her fellow bats. My great-great-great-grandfather on my mother's side, Samuel Hudson, discovered the cave and his cabin and barn still stand near the site, fortunately, as historical structures, protected from being torn down by the new owner, like the other buildings there have been.

My dad worked as a guide there at the cave when he was younger, and my cousins were guides through the 70s and on. My aunt Bonnie ran the cafe there, and I can still smell the hamburgers cooking and the quaint look of the old Panther Inn.

My Uncle Berlin was always a friendly, unassuming man, typifying the best of old-time Arkansas quality and charm. In his typical attire of overalls and work boots he managed the cave for 37 years. I can't seem to recall seeing him when he wasn't smiling, nor when he wasn't chewing on a plug of tobacco. He and Bonnie and my two cousin's Kirby and Clifford lived there at the cave and Berlin seemed to love working there. Kirby and Clifford eventually went on to work for the Forestry Service.

Berlin spoke in a thick Arkansas accent that flowed out like homemade Arkansas gravy and melted on your ears about as easily and that same gravy'd melt in your mouth. I've always loved the Arkansas accent and unlike most regions of the nation where television has made accents disappear, Newton County residents for the most part have retained theirs. In spite of the softspokenness of his manner, Berlin loved to talk. Sometimes he'd head in to town in the morning for a quick errand, and not return until well into the afternoon. When asked what took him so long, he'd reply, “I’s a visitin’” If you ever spoke to him you'd see quickly that Berlin knew full well that half of talking was listening. Listening is an art form, and Berlin was a master in that art. He'd look you in eye long enough to make sure you knew you had his attention then look off, his head tilted forward and his face showing rapt attention. He'd nod his head at every thing you said, and almost every nod would be accompanied by that deep throated “Mm-huh” It's human nature to want to talk when you feel you have an enthusiastic audience, and Berlin was always that.

Some people try acting like they're interest, because they think it's polite, but you can always tell when the interest ends and politeness begins. Berlin seemed to never need to do that. Regardless what you were saying, he seemed interested and enthused to hear it.

I can remember a hog butchering when I was boy. I went along when they killed the first hog, and had absolutely no interest in seeing any more, but the butchering process was fascinating. Many of the neighbors (You can live 15 miles away in Newton County and still be called a neighbor) would hold off on butchering and let Berlin do it for them. That time there were about a dozen hogs hung up on ropes strung between the trees at Diamond Cave. I later found out that Berlin never charged a dime for doing this — it's what neighbors did for each other was their attitude.

Clifford's health began failing some time back and he moved back home with his parents. He was up and down over the years, but eventually a few years back he died. By that time Kirby, married with growing kids of his own had moved Bonnie and Berlin across the road from his own house so he and his wife could better be of help to them, that was their intention, but with Bonnie and Berlin you never gave without being given back to many times over. All three of Berlin's grandkids got to see them on a daily basis, and so they grew even closer than most kids ever have a chance to with their grandparents.

Berlin's health had also been failing. He'd been suffering from emphysema after years of smoking, and had been in and out of the hospital, but had hung on well enough to continue visiting with people.

Last Monday, when Bonnie needed to do some shopping she took Berlin along. From what I'm told he was sitting in their truck, talking with his long time friend Billy Carter (my mother's father's sister's husband's brother) when he gasped and collapsed. Someone with CPR training was nearby and started on him. Bonnie was found, and in the process the entire store was emptied as concerned friend came to see if they could help. A woman with a baby also knew CPR and had someone hold her baby while she helped. The two of them worked on him until the ambulance came. They eventually flew him by helicopter to the nearest hospital.

Wednesday night they had the viewing. We couldn't make it until the funeral Thursday morning so we missed that part. My mother's sister went along with her husband. I sat and talked with him when we arrived the next morning. They'd gone early to the funeral home, figuring to avoid any crowd. They found a line of people stretched out the front door of the funeral home, across the driveway and well into the parking lot of the Post Office next door.

My aunt Bonnie said they started letting people in at 6pm and there was a constant stream of mourners for a solid hour and 45 minutes. The next morning the funeral opened with one of the best bluegrass/gospel music I think I've ever heard. Passion does that to music, and the three musicians, typical local men, one in overalls, did fine until the last song, when the leader said a few words, his voice almost breaking with tears.

Two pastors eulogized my uncle, the first, crying the whole time. Then it came time for people to give condolences to the family. I sat behind the immediate family beside my dad, and watched an almost equally long line of people walk past. Big ole farmers, in overalls and work boots, their fingers as big as sausages from the hard work they did on a daily basis, — Forestry Service members in uniform — housewives in their Sunday best — many, including the toughest looking men, cried openly and loudly as they hugged every member of the family. The line went on and on and on. Jasper, Arkansas has a population of about 452. The best guess is that there were 200 some odd lines used in the guest book, almost all of them for families of at least two, a good number even more than that.

I grew up with the unspoken acknowledgment that my parents, as many people in and from that area, were painfully aware of the stereotypes associated with people from the hills in Arkansas. Hollywood generally has a shallow view of anyone outside their immediate, insulated bubble, but that's how many people perceive the world. It's a tough drive getting in and out of the towns in Newton County, your brakes get hot going down the hills and your engine gets hot going up. But if you ever do think about making the trip to enjoy the fishing, the crafts or even the beautiful scenery, remember also that even more special to that area of the nation are the people. And I don't think there's anyone that ever exemplified that quality better than my uncle. The world is a much poorer place now that he's gone.

Posted by Danny Carlton at April 22, 2005 05:31 PM

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