What Lies Beneath

Before the waters rose, those islands were hilltops. There were towns and generations of people who called them home.

THE LAST MAN TO LEAVE was well-dressed, wearing lavender, kneeling down, arranging flowers. His hair was white. His hands were red. His face was reddish. Above, there were dragonflies flitting against the gray sky threatening rain, a whole cloud of them, like particles drawn together and flung through the magnetism or attraction of something unseen. He didn’t seem to notice them. Nor did he appear to hear the joyful cries and splashes drifting up from the banks of the lake some 30 feet from the cemetery. He walked among the graves, with two plastic grocery bags, one gray, one yellow, filled with flowers that were weather-resistant, beautiful and fake, the handles gripped tightly in his hands. There was a fine sprinkling of rain, unobtrusive as the dragonflies, making the slightest pattering on the tombstones.

The graves where the rain fell were mostly old, irregularly spaced, adhering to the shape of the bodies and their coffins interred below. In some places, there were just fist-sized chunks of stone used to mark the graves, and it was impossible to know whether it was a stray rock or the last tangible sign of someone who, at some time, had existed and been loved. Most of the graves were normal in size. A few, like an unmarked one just inside the chain-link fence nearest the church, were quite small. In looking over the 300-plus graves of the Buckville Cemetery, it was interesting to think what they would have seen as their small corner of the world changed—what it would have been like, looking down from the cemetery and seeing in that silent vigil not a lake, but a small, bustling town, where a generation of people had grown up knowing their home didn’t have a future.

As the man fished the last of the flowers from the bags, he was joined by a woman in a navy-blue blouse who was many years his junior. Together they placed the last of the flowers on two graves near the middle of the cemetery and left, leaving the lake behind them and raising a cloud of dust that wouldn’t settle for the better part of a minute. Not long after, the shouts that had before carried up from the lake spilled over. Two women, a young boy who couldn’t have been any older than 10 or 11, wearing yellow and orange swim trunks, his hair slick with lake water, entered through a chain-link gate, followed by two small energetic dogs. The dogs ran, and the boy ran, too, the three of them running zigzags along the lines of gravestones, over the plots, the dogs charting wider paths in a broadening gyre that, if seen from above, might have been like the manic choreography of honeybees or the now-dispersed cloud of dragonflies.

Having crossed the cemetery, trying the syllables of the dead’s names on his tongue as the dogs were running and the women idling, he walked up to a large black stone that appeared to be much newer than the others. It had a bright rainbow of flowers that followed the curvature of the stone. Hands hitched on his bare hips, he circled the stone and, with the flat of his palm, slapped its back three times where the flowers stopped. Almost as if to say, yes, you had a good run, old girl. Then, wistfully, he looked off somewhere till something else caught his eye, and he ran after the dogs again. Then they left, never coming close enough to read the historic marker just inside the fence on the north side of the cemetery.

“The Buckville Church and Cemetery stand as visible reminders of the communities that once stood on lands now covered by Lake Ouachita. The church was moved in the summer of 1951 to be above water level, and the cemetery is the only portion of the Buckville cemetery that remains in its original location. The church discontinued regular services several years before it was moved, but each June this site hosts a homecoming for hundreds of people who once lived in the area, their families, and friends. The Buckville cemetery was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.”

APRIL 28, 2016

Standing on the shore of Lake Ouachita, Chuck Thornton describes something he once knew well but can now only imagine. Hands spaced a foot apart in front of his face, palms facing each other as if he were about to pounce on a mosquito or tell a less-than-impressive fish story, he squints at some point maybe 100 yards or so into the lake, where two small islands bristle with trees. In that space between his hands, he says, in that rough spatial approximation, that’s where the old general store used to be.

“You can probably see the island,” he says. “I think that’s where the old church and schoolhouse set, just between the cedar tree and the other trees right out there. … And the town was right there in that valley, in the holler, in here and then here.”

Because there’s nothing. The water is a blue reflection of the sky. If you were to walk to the shore, where the water laps against the land, the rocks are brittle as candy shells, broken easily underfoot. There is no sand. There are polyps of algae and the plashing of turtles and chirping of birds and the regular undulations of the water pushed by the wind ribbing against the shore. Not any sign of the places that had once been there: Buckville, Cedar Glades (once known as Harold), White Plains and Little Georgia, small communities with farms and schools and general stores settled several generations before, largely untouched by the modernizing elements of electricity and paved roads.

But as Chuck says, before the waters rose, they had been there.

By the time he was born in 1933, the rumors had already been flying for the better part of a decade among the communities of the Upper Ouachita River Valley. Beginning in the ’20s, a company called Arkansas Power & Light had been buying up land around Hot Springs with the intention of building three dams along the Ouachita River. They’d successfully erected the first two—Remmel Dam was built in 1925 and Carpenter Dam in 1931, creating Lake Catherine and Lake Hamilton, respectively—but hit a series of snags with the third and largest of the bunch: Blakely Mountain Dam.

Ultimately, after many years of delays, the federal government wound up with the project; however, by the time the dam was formally dedicated on July 4, 1956, the people who lived in those affected areas of Cedar Glades, Buckville and others had been anticipating the losses of their homes for decades, as evidenced by a sharp drop in construction projects and burials. As the Great Depression stretched into the Second World War, more and more residents began to take flight, tearing down their homes, salvaging what they could of the materials, and abandoning what had in many instances been their homes for generations to put down stakes elsewhere. By 1947, nearly all of the structures were gone. That is, with the exception of the Buckville Baptist Church, which was moved a half mile up the road in the summer of 1951 to where it is now.

The Buckville Cemetery, there beside the church, is the only thing original to the site. There were another 16 cemeteries, but per an order handed down by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, those were relocated over the course of three months in the late summer of 1951. (In doing so, the workers were instructed to dig 4 to 5 feet and, if no remains were found, to fill a box with dirt. “It is surprising how little there is,” a worker was quoted as saying in a newspaper article from the time. “In one grave we found a man’s watch, in another a celluloid collar and cuffs, and in still another a mustache cup of ancient vintage. Only in about two dozen of the 1,200 graves we went into did we find any similar items of any consequence.” The article goes on to say that “Visitors during the disinterment have been amazingly few, it was said.”)

For their part, Chuck’s family had left their home in Cedar Glades, just up the road from Buckville, in 1939 or 1940, moving to his grandparent’s farm over in Piney, 5 miles or so west of Hot Springs. His dad used what lumber was left of the Blakely schoolhouse to build a house, and sold the school bell for a keg of nails. The family bopped around the next few years, moving to California for a time, where his dad worked as a welder in the shipyards, and then back to Arkansas after World War II ended. Eventually, after a few more moves and military service in Korea, Chuck found his way back to Arkansas. When he arrived home, he found that his home was underwater.

“You could smell the green stuff,” he says, looking over the lake. “You know, with the water coming in … just moldy. Rotten leaves and this stuff. I don’t know how long it took to back up that full. But they’d had a hard time showing me where I was born down there. I know that. … Some of the [scuba] divers that went down there, they can still see the old railroad track [that] run right in front of our house.”

As he turns away from the lake to face the cemetery, he walks slowly. His knees, he explains, are all but shot, and he’s scheduled to have both knees replaced in October, (“Doctor’s making their money, aren’t they? … I get down, I can’t get up, ’less I got something to pull me up.”)

To look at him, you can see Chuck’s never been a stranger to the sun. On his right arm, sun-chapped and leathered red, he has a tattoo, its finer details lost and faded to blotches over the years. He has to explain it’s a dagger, and that the letters, somewhat obscured on the neck of the handle, are “CWT”—his initials. He got the tattoo when he was 17 years old, recently arrived in California, where he’d enlisted in the Air Force so as to avoid being drafted into the Army as the U.S. prepared to enter Korea. (His mother about “tanned his hiney,” when she got wind of what her son had done to himself, he says.) It comes as no surprise, then, when he explains that he’s been a caretaker here for nearly half his life.

“It don’t seem that long to me, but I guess it has been.” Walking along the side road up to the church, he looks up the hill that runs north of the church. “I used to take care of this up here”—he says, meaning the Cedar Glades Cemetery, one of 16 cemeteries moved when the waters rose—“but David Smith takes care of it now.”

“I guess it’s been longer than that, Chuck,” his wife, Nancy, says.

“I don’t remember, Mama. Too far back. I can’t hardly remember yesterday anymore.”

He explains that in 1967, around the time Nancy was pregnant with the younger of their two sons, he’d been approached by the trustees, a group of town elders who’d taken on the task of providing upkeep for the church and the cemetery grounds. They were getting to be older, however, and they needed someone younger who could help take care of things. He agreed, and he’s been helping to take care of things ever since.

In looking around the grounds, you can see the efforts he and others have put in over the years. There’s the chain-link fence that was strung along the perimeter back in the ’60s. There are the concrete steps he helped pour in the ’70s, leading down to the lake from the cemetery. There’s the new siding up 20 years ago. There’s the new roof that went on 15 years ago. You can see his initials written in concrete with others on the foundation of the old church, replaced in 1981 after it was found to be rotting.

You can see how well the place has been taken care of, but you don’t see the hours he and the other seven trustees—their names are listed on the front of the church alongside five other trustees who are now deceased—have spent weed-eating the grass that sprouts among the irregularly spaced graves or blowing the leaves into serpentine berms, which in recent years have been collected by Garland County inmates plied with Pepsi and chicken-salad sandwiches. You don’t see the spate of vandalism he’s had to deal with in recent years—the trash left in the church, the Bible that was burned, the spent 9mm bullet casings littering the ground around the old cedar tree and the branches that were shot off. But more than anything, you don’t see why it is that he and the other trustees come out here—what they mean when they explain they need to get things ready. You don’t see the people whose personal narratives and identities all have the rising of the water as the central tenet in the stories they tell about themselves, about the place they come from—and who, for 75 years (the reunions started a few years before the waters actually started to rise), have come home to this place that, at least physically, no longer exists.

JUNE 12, 1977

Back in 1977, Hot Springs-born author Shirley Abbott came back to the church for just that reason. In a beautifully rendered account published a few years later in her book Womenfolks, she describes what it was like to visit this place when such a homecoming took place—when only 25 years had elapsed since the waters had first started to rise in 1952. On that day, she wrote, people filled the church (“simple as a child’s drawing” as she described it), sat themselves on the unpainted pews and listened as her “cousin Donna skillfully beats out some gospel music out of the tuneless old pile, while a man in a yellow suit and string tie (a Grand Ole Opry dandy) plays a banjo.” She then goes on to write:

Shoes pat the floor, Donna hammers the piano faster, and up go the voices, singing sharp and flat and in all keys. “Just like a tree that’s standing by the water, I shall not be moved.” My two citified little daughters look at me in astonishment as I sing out. The music stops and a very old man, his frame crumpled like a paper doll’s, one eye askew, stands up and voices his thankfulness at having been spared by the Lord to come here another year. And they read the long list, as they always do, of this year’s dead, and from the congregation come a few extra names—“Aunt Hannah Robbins passed in March.” “You never mentioned poor old Mr. Beasley.”

Outdoors, a mammoth dinner is spread on card tables or simply on old quilts laid down on the sparse grass—all the good eats of a country picnic, the vats of fried chicken, and 20 varieties of cakes and quickbreads, the potato salad everybody hopes had not gone bad in the 95-degree heat. We all go around sampling things, fixing plates for the very young and the very old, urging them to eat, trying to get the toddlers to nap for an hour in the shade. We hug each other’s sweaty necks and smack each other’s cheeks. We grope perplexedly for names. “Why, you’re Velma’s daughter!” they exclaim. “Darlin’, I knew your grandma well.”

Over and over again, I tell my maiden name and my mother’s maiden name and Grandma’s maiden name, and they relay the same information about themselves, in the obsessive and peculiarly Southern quest for common ancestry, the urgent hope of discovering mutual cousins by marriage. Someone presses upon me the name of a former resident of the area now living in Scarsdale, New York—in case I ever badly need to see home folks and am unable to come all the way home at the moment. In the backwoods, you learned to love your own and mistrust foreigners, but you tried if possible to make everyone your own, seeking kinship bonds with any and all comers, trying by whatever means to connect yourself with the rest of humanity, raking up ancestral names (“Now, Great-Aunt Addie was a Holloway”), uncovering the secret network of cousinship.

JUNE 12, 2016, 9 A.M.

In most respects, this morning is no different. The cars still follow the same dirt road past the graves where the high grasses have been clipped to crest the same hill that leads to the church. The dust still rises in plumes. Cars and trucks are parked beside concrete picnic tables, some shaded by trees, some shaded by an awning that was procured from a Cadillac dealership decades ago. There are coolers and Tupperware containers and cardboard boxes filled with smaller containers and aluminum tins, all of which offer ample indications that no one will be leaving hungry.

As people arrive, they get out of their vehicles and walk directly to the cemetery, making it difficult not to notice that there are comparatively few young people in the mix. This year as every year, the familiar faces number fewer than they once did, and everyone is older. Most hair has gone shades of gray and white, most voices have gone a little hoarser. But yet despite all of this, in listening to the conversations of people gathered in front of the church, there’s the sense that nothing’s changed, even though it has.

“… We come home, and our dogs had [the bear] by the tree, there by the deck. Then about a month and a half ago, I was coming home, and one [dog] ran behind where I keep those lawnmowers and everything. So we had two bears up there. …” Chuck says, addressing a small group of people who’ve already paid their respects. Among them, there’s a man who, like most, if not all, of the older folks, is well-dressed in dark pants, a blue and white plaid shirt and a ball cap. His eyes are large behind thick lenses, his lips tremble just slightly when he speaks. This is Bobby Hatmaker, one of the cemetery’s trustees.

If you were to ask him, he could tell you more about this place than just about anyone else. He could tell you what it was like to be a 125-pound, 17-year-old kid lying about his age to get a job clearing timber. He could tell you what it was like to earn a dollar an hour. He could tell you what it was like to be one of the last two people out there, clearing timber from the floor of the valley that would be a lakebed, dousing piles of brush with diesel, six to eight at a time, that then burned bright in the night, explaining, in vivid detail what it was like coming across the former sites of people’s homes, and how you knew there had been homes there because there was nothing growing where the house had once stood. He could also tell you what it was like to see the waters rise, inch by inch, one night at a time. The family farm was right near the banks of the future lake, and he’d remember how you could put a stick at the water level, and then you’d go out the next day, and it’d be partially underwater. Of course, he could tell you more than that, too.

If you were to visit him at his home, you’d see that it, too, reflects the years. You’d find walls filled with photographs new and old of people he’s loved, and a porch with oxygen tanks stacked upright like milk bottles. Sitting at a table, he’d tell you that he’d been caring for the cemetery just as long as he’d been able to walk—or at least since he’d been able to hoist a rake and help his daddy clear leaves. He’d tell you what it was like, going out there to the cemetery—a place that is, by its nature, unchanging except when there are more people brought to it—and what it was like to find it changed, with the church now sitting beside it. If you ask him, he’d tell you everything. But of course, the folks at the reunion already know all of this, or most of it, so none of it comes up. Instead, they sit and listen intently as Chuck tells the story about a bear. Midway through, a woman named Debbie Garner, Chuck’s niece, comes up to Bobby and says hello and asks if he wouldn’t mind sharing some memories.

“I’ve lost ’em all,” he says, laughing in a way that’s definitely not ironic. “I have to ask [my friend] Peggy who I am sometimes.”

“And these are Hatmakers, too, aren’t you?” Debbie says, turning to two teenage girls near the fence, who are among the few young people to attend.

“Yeah, we’re granddaughters.”

“Granddaughters. OK. Are you Belinda’s or …”

“Kim’s,” the girls and Bobby all say in unison.

There’s a moment’s pause. Debbie sighs. “Next year’s number 75,” Debbie says.

“I wonder how many of us’ll be able to make it,” says an older woman standing nearby.

“Oh, I don’t know. I can’t guarantee me, either,” Debbie says.

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to, either,” Bobby says, leaning on his cane. “If my legs keep going along like this, I’m afraid I’m going to have to use a wheelchair.”

Although there are certainly moments when people reminisce about the days when the lake wasn’t there, conversation mostly circles the familiar. They’re the sorts of conversations you can only have with people whom you’ve known for more years than you can count, and which resume one year to the next without effort. It’s for this reason that it’s not terribly surprising when, a few moments later, conversation returns to the bear.

“Did you see that picture of my bear?” Bobby asks.

“Is that your bear?” Debbie asks, laughing. “Why you’d run him off to Thornton Ferry Road?”

“I got rid of ’im.”

“Well, he was really traveling, wadn’t he?”

“He come across the hill, right there from my house, and come down in the road, come across and went all the way to my gate. And this boy that was sitting there with me, he had a camera, and he took a picture of it. And then [the bear] went and hit that tree, and he started up that big pine tree, and boy, them old claws was tearing the bark up. I went up and started slapping my hands, and down he come and took off the other way. And he went out of the other side of the fence, and then he went back up to the pawnshop across over there. …”

JUNE 12, 2016, 12 P.M.

A few minutes later, just before noon, Debbie announces they’re about to have the business meeting, her voice carrying across the grounds in lieu of a bell that’s evidently gone missing. As people file inside, it has to be said, it’s very different than it used to be—very different than the photos you’ll see from past decades. Structurally, the church is still the same, 30 by 42 feet, pews and an altar. The afternoon light pours in through the doors and windows the same way it did before. The piano is gone, and there’s not any singing, but the key difference between homecomings of the past and present is the number of people who now sit in the church. There are 15 people in the pews where there used to be hundreds, (though it should be noted, a fair number can be seen milling around outside). Looking around, there are many familiar faces. The Hatmakers and Meekses are off to the left; the Thorntons are up front. Dave Smith, the caretaker for the Cedar Glades Cemetery, comes in a little late and sits in the middle aisle, not far from an older gentleman and his daughter. The man is wearing a lavender colored button-down; her, a navy-blue blouse. They’re Leon Dinkins and Karen Dinkins Meredith.

After reviewing the state of the nonprofit’s finances, Debbie goes to read the names of those who’ve died. She says, “This was the first year that I had below 10 memorials. We had been averaging losing folks 15 to 20 a year.” As she reads the 10 names from the list, ending with, “And just the other day, Troy Tucker, 85, passed away June 6, 2016. I’d say that’s probably the smallest memorials I’ve had to read in 15 years.” As she says this, there’s the sobering reminder that fewer people are dying because there are fewer people left to die.

JUNE 12, 2016, 12:30 P.M.

Sitting down to lunch after the meeting’s been adjourned, there’s the sense, the feeling, that it’s been done many times before—that it’s more than habit or rote, more something innate. There are some tablecloths, but for the most part, people place their paper and Styrofoam plates of fried chicken, ham, deviled eggs, salads, banana pudding and so forth on the concrete slabs. There are bottles of water and Pepsi. It’s not at all difficult to imagine what it used to look like even a few years before, when hundreds of people were gathered along the benches, when some were waking up at 6:30 in the morning to fry chicken, and others were out here early, arriving with chicken and dumplings and putting out the ice chest. The reason memory is so peculiar is largely owing to the way people talk about the past. But the past and its memories are curious things at the reunion.

It’s because, oddly enough, for as long as Buckville has been gone, there are still people who can see it, who were born decades after it was lost to the waters of Lake Ouachita and, despite or perhaps because of that, are able to form an enduring and meaningful connection to this place. They’re people who want to see the memories of the place given shape and passed along to the generations that follow. Karen, the woman who later this afternoon will join her father to place flowers on the graves of people she knew and knows only by name, knows this better than most.

“I can imagine—well, I’ve been told so many times—the school was on that hill,” she says, extending a hand out toward the lake. Standing in front of the church, she goes on to describe the layout of a place she’s never known—how the road slopes downward when you get to the very end, and how if you keep going down, you’d get to her grandfather’s cow pasture, and then beyond that would be the general store. And even though she’s never laid eyes on the place that she now speaks of, she connects to it somehow. “So, I can imagine, but I really would loved to have seen it.”

“It is pretty incredible,” she continues, asked how she connects to a place she’s never known. “It was just instilled in me, just how important it was—and you know, this place used to be so full. There’s no way that you could even find a parking place. You’d park all the way down there, up there in that field. Full. And my mom knew everybody. And my grandparents knew everybody. It’s even down to where you eat. Like, we always ate at that table (gesturing to one of the first tables nearest the church), and the Browns ate at this table. And we’re still eating at the same table. And I don’t even want to go up there because that’s not my table.” Gesturing at a nearby table covered with a tablecloth, she says, “That’s* my table. And that’s my bench.” As she’s saying this, her father, an older man with white hair and a reddish face who’s wearing slacks and a lavender button-up shirt, comes over from the cemetery. He’s a tall man and speaks slowly and clearly; he bears a passing resemblance to Charlton Heston. “And this is my dad here,” she says before turning his way. “I was just telling him about how we eat at the same table every time. And we sit at the same bench.”

“Well, that’s right,” he says. “First time I came up here in 1958, spread out under that table. That canopy came from …”

“… a car dealership.”

“A Cadillac dealership in Hot Springs.”

“A long time ago.”

Though it goes unspoken or at least unremarked upon, in that exchange there’s the realization that her father never knew the place, either. Her mother, Patsy Jean Bradley Dinkins, is the only one who did. She’s buried here now alongside so many other members of the family. As they’re speaking, there’s a young family who makes their way across the far edge of the cemetery. They’re carrying a long garland of rainbow flowers, which they leave over the curvature of a large black stone. It’s newer than many of those around it. The name on the grave is Inez Bratton Brown, who died on July 24, 2015. To look at them, the father and mother and son and daughter, you can see they would have known very few people interred in the cemetery. But they knew her.

After a time, Karen’s dad returns to the cemetery. She joins him a short time later. The clouds are threatening rain. There are dragonflies in a cloud. And as Karen and her father leave, and there are joyful cries drifting up from the banks of the lake, where there’s been water for a while but not forever, there are ripples where there never used to be, and you know there will be people here next year, come once more to the lake.