We spent an entire day driving through Arkansas. From Texarkana in the west to Blytheville at the northeast tip of the state, it takes at least six hours of windshield time. That’s all freeway driving. The three of us took frequent breaks along the way. Karin and I needed to go to the bathroom often, and our little grandson, Asher, needed to burn off some of his limitless energy. He gets restless in the child seat.
We planned to find a place to stay once we crossed the state line into southern edge of Missouri. There was a Drury hotel located at Exit 19 in Hayti. We thought we could spend the night there. It was late in the afternoon when we drove along I-55 past the cotton fields. The fields were flat and level as a billiard table, and many of them were covered with puffy white balls of cotton. Some people were harvesting the cotton. Massive machines rolled the white puffs into cylindrical bales that were almost the size of our garage at home. Some people were burning the stubble. We could see pale brown smoke blowing eastward toward the Mississippi River.
We arrived at the hotel at exactly the wrong time. They had just given away the very last room in the place. This was a great disappointment to us. We had taken Asher out of the car seat, and he was not interested in going back into it for any reason. Drury hotels are self-enclosed environments. The hotel provides customers with both a dinner and a breakfast. A person staying overnight at a Drury hotel need not venture forth for any reason. In a town like Hayti that is a great advantage.
Across the overpass, on the other side of the freeway, was a Quality Inn. We forced Asher into the car one last time, and we went there to get a room. There were very few cars parked at the Quality Inn. The lady at the front desk was a middle-aged Black woman. She was very friendly, and she had a pleasant smile, remarkable because of two gold teeth. There was a wide screen TV in the lobby showing reruns of “Family Matters,” a Black sitcom from the 1990s. The woman got us a room, and we settled in.
The room was okay. It was inexpensive, and there was a reason for that. There was a closet that had a door that wouldn’t close. The curtains at the window wouldn’t close all the way either. They should have had a clasp to keep them shut, but that was broken off. There were just a few small flaws in the room that needed to be fixed but weren’t.
The hotel had a side entrance that was supposed to be locked and only opened with a pass key. The lock was broken, and the door could be opened by anybody at any time. I asked the lady at the desk about it.
She told me, “They were supposed to fix that this week. I guess they didn’t get to it.”
Asked her, “Do you have problems with stray people walking in here during the night?”
She shook her head, and said, “No Sir, we don’t.”
Considering that the hotel was surrounded on three sides by cotton fields, they probably didn’t have too many strangers wandering the halls. It still made me uneasy.
There was a stark contrast between the Drury hotel and the Quality Inn. The Drury was new and fancy. The Quality Inn needed some tender loving care. The population at the Drury was almost exclusively white. Our hotel’s staff and guests, except for us, were all Black, as far as I could tell. Coincidence, probably not.
Karin wanted to get something for supper. As far as we knew, there was only one real restaurant open nearby. There was a McDonalds and Burger King on the main road, but we wanted a sit-down dinner. We drove to the one and only Mexican restaurant about half a mile away from the hotel. I noticed as we drove down the street that at least half of the buildings were boarded up. A lot of small-time entrepreneurs had failed in this little town. One of the few survivors was this Mexican place. It was a Friday night and Los Portales was packed.
We got a booth in the restaurant. I wasn’t hungry, but I wanted a beer. Karin ordered something, but I forget what. We ordered mac and cheese for Asher. The food that was served to us was, well, interesting. Karin got a plate with something wrapped in a tortilla that was submerged in a red sauce. I couldn’t recognize it as any type of Mexican food that I had ever seen before. Asher got a plate with noodles swimming in milk. I never thought it possible that somebody could fuck up mac and cheese, but apparently, I was wrong. Asher refused to eat it. I couldn’t blame him.
As we sat in the booth, Karin did some research on Hayti. She read off her phone, “Median family income is $24,000 dollars per year.”
“Median home value is about $40,000.”
I said, “Yeah, that sounds right.”
I am a stranger to rural poverty. I didn’t realize until that moment that we had landed right in the middle of it. I am very familiar with urban poverty. I have seen enough of it, and I experienced a taste of poverty as a kid. Urban poverty is blatant, in your face. Rural poverty seems to be more hidden. That doesn’t make rural poverty any less painful. It’s just that the folks speeding along on the freeway don’t notice it.
When I was a kid, I really didn’t realize that we were poor. I thought we were normal. We had enough food. We had enough clothes, although sometimes hand me downs. My six younger brothers and I had what we needed, but often nothing extra. For a while our family was without a car. There was no money for one. When we went shopping, we pulled a coaster wagon to the grocery store. The fact that we didn’t have much money didn’t completely register until I wanted to go to college, and my father made it clear that I was on my own regarding tuition. That was a major reason for me going to West Point. It was pure economics.
Poverty means a lack of everything. It means a lack of choice, a lack of opportunity, a lack transportation. Why was the Mexican restaurant so busy on a Friday night? It was because the locals had no other choice. Why do the locals make so little money? Probably because the only work is in the cotton fields. Why don’t they move to another city? Maybe because they don’t have the means to do so.
We left Hayti the next morning and drove the rest of the way home to Wisconsin. Karin, Asher, and I left poverty. The residents of Hayti didn’t.
Frank (Francis) Pauc is a graduate of West Point, Class of 1980. He completed the Military Intelligence Basic Course at Fort Huachuca and then went to Flight School at Fort Rucker. Frank was stationed with the 3rd Armor Division in West Germany at Fliegerhorst Airfield from December 1981 to January 1985. He flew Hueys and Black Hawks and was next assigned to the 7th Infantry Division at Fort Ord, CA. He got the hell out of the Army in August 1986.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.