I sit here, watching the fading sun over the Ozarks hills, not too far from where I was raised.
Last night, we had an annual birthday bash for an old family friend, and I got the opportunity to sit and visit with many of the older generation that I grew up around. The most notable, a long visit with a family friend and our talk about time and the changes that it brings to our lives. I am now a mid-30s man with a home and family, and am extremely busy, as everyone is, making a living and trying to do my best to record and preserve our history. Growing up in the storied hills of Newton County, Arkansas, God Himself blessed me with a rich heritage and an even richer (in life and legacy) people to be raised by.
Everyone has a story, some good and some bad. Some in between and some unknown. I could type out countless pages of short snippets and recollections I’ve gleaned from conversations with folks about those who have gone before, those who now sleep with their fathers in eternal rest. My land is an old land, and legends have (thankfully) been handed down largely intact. The question becomes this: Whose story should you tell and pass to your children? Who is worthy of remembrance? Thankfully, I know many who are.
Dennis Ray Holt was born on August 13, 1939 in Vendor, Arkansas, where I was raised. He quickly was nicknamed ‘Cotton’ due to his blonde hair being so light as to seem white as cotton. I came of age knowing him as ‘Uncle Cot’, as he was my grandfather’s brother (older by two years).
I spent many years growing up riding his three wheeler and in the old white CJ5 around the house. I was always amazed at how if anything broke, Cot would fix it with ease. He was a natural born mechanic and became the ‘go-to’ if anything broke around home for folks. He did a business and fixed local folks’ rigs and small engines. I was always amazed at how he could tear down anything complex and make it seem so simple. He was truly a genius at this art.
I was the first great-grandchild, born in 1987, and was spoiled far beyond reason by my people. Cotton had a life-long wild streak of drinking and became locally known as ‘the man to beat’ in local brawls at the pool halls and establishments in and around home. He carried this streak up in years, continuing to drink and carouse around until I was born. My folks all tell me that something about my birth made Cot decide to quit drinking cold turkey. He laid it down and never looked back. I never would know the rough ‘hell raising’ Cot that so many tell me about, but I did get to know the later life Uncle Cot, who was warm, loving, and understanding, but firm.
I took to Uncle Cot and soon came to be his best buddy, riding around the place and ‘helping’ feed the cows and pigs. I still vividly recall his ‘hog call’ that he would break out when I was into something I shouldn’t be! I’d be fooling around with something and he’d break that call loose and I’d quickly abandon my wayward ways! But, he was a great role model. One who turned his life around and wanted to tell you about life and always willing to share his experience. He straightened me from many a crooked road.
Cot was a good man by anyone’s standards, and a great one in my estimation. He never failed me. He showed me what being a man was. He put down his vices when the time called for it and fixed his neighbor’s vehicles and rarely ever charged for it, always saying ‘we’ll get it next time.’ He was a man who walked the crooked road and then went back and straightened it out. He was a Newton County legend in his time, and even today I have people talk about him. My people have a long memory, and I will be forever thankful for that. Cot lived out his days on his farm in Vendor, the one his son manages and maintains today, as he would want it. He was a son of the soil, one who grew up in hard times and would talk about his experiences. He was immensely political and always on the forefront of any political movement about the county. He cared about his family first and foremost, and always looked after his son and daughter.
My father was gifted with the ability to fix things, and Uncle Cot and he formed a special bond. One day, as they were working on something, he told my dad ‘Nicky Lynn, you better learn this! I ain’t gonna be around for ever!’ He taught us mechanics and how things worked and ran. He truly had the touch.
I was a young man in the early 2000s, and Cot was aging. A life long smoker, when the doctors told him they found a spot on his lungs, he laid cigarettes down and never touched them again. Two vices, quit cold turkey. He was a man among men.
But, unfortunately, the damage had been done.
In the fading twilight of my youth Uncle Cot was always there, but not as vigorous as before. I took to walking the hill I grew up on, and one day saw Uncle Cot walking up the other way, since his ‘fix’ on a rig didn’t work. He looked at me and said ‘hills didn’t seem this steep when I was a young ‘un!’ When dad drug home a ’56 Ford, Cot said ‘I’d give anything to feel as good as I did when that car came out.’ He was leaving us, but nobody wanted to admit it. Life without Uncle Cot was a terrible thought.
Cancer was Cot’s diagnosis, and he took treatments. The doctors told us once that it would be some time before he recovered enough to accept visitors, but then later that evening told us that he was ‘tough as a pine knot’ and we could see him.
Seeing Cot in that white hospital bed was something I see so clear in my mind’s eye. We talked with him and left. Before long he was released and went home to Vendor.
He woke up one morning and got dressed, not feeling well. He told his wife, Bobbie, ‘you better call somebody’ before he had to sit down. His lungs had filled with fluid and he was rushed to the Harrison hospital. December 16t, 2004. I remember it well.
When they told me Cot was bad, I left school and went with mom to Harrison. I well remember walking in the room and seeing everyone crowded around him, lying in bed, gasping.
I held his hand and meekly said “I love you, Cot.” To which his daughter lovingly replied “tell him something that he doesn’t know.”
That will forever stay with me. Cot died that day. I could tell you stories about my youth and the country and the beauty of the pristine forests and fields that I wandered about. I could tell you about folks I was blessed to know, and folks I was blessed to NOT know, but nothing, no words at all, can encapsulate what Cot meant to me. He was a role model, a great man, a hard line Arkansas boy who grew up from poverty to give his children and grandchildren a better life. He was Newton County and Mt. Judea proud and our hero.
Sometimes I think about the night he died. We were all up at Cot’s house (up the hill from my parent’s home) and all the people congregating. I left the crowd and began walking home, when it hit me that the spot I was standing on was the same one that I had met Uncle Cot all those years ago, walking home. I broke down right there and then, hearing him speak of the hills ‘not being as steep.’
Cot’s story is one of many coming from the Ozark hills where I was raised. God blessed me with him and his guidance and help in many things. Like General Patton, I say ‘Thank God men such lived.’ He did live. He made many mistakes, and did many things in his youth he would regret. His reputation as a tough guy would follow him through life, but people outside the family never knew just how tough he was. He was a rugged, raw, old-time, Newton County, Arkansas legend. He was tough as nails for his family and soft as silk to his kin. He was a man. Words can never express what Uncle Cot meant to us, and I miss him every day.
I once wrote that if life gave me a crown for my achievements, I would hand it to him. I meant that.
God bless you and yours. Remember your family. Tell their stories. The Ozarks will live as long as you do just that.