At the top of the hill where my great-grandparents lived, there was a dusty, black and white picture on a shelf. It could’ve been my grandpa or great-uncle, but it didn’t look quite like them. It was a dapper dressed young man leaning over the fender of a ’59 Ford car, posing. I never asked about this picture but it was kept in a back bedroom, somewhat out of sight from my great-grandmother, who I have no doubt spent many hours gazing at it, wondering how life could have been different.

My great-grandparents were married on December 20, 1936, in Vendor, Arkansas. They were to have five children: Stanley, Dennis, Glen, Shelia and Joyce. Stanley Wayne was the first born on September 29, 1937. He was a tall, lanky and somewhat scrawny kid. His family affectionately nicknamed him ‘Tom’, but around his ‘running buddies’ he was to get some more appropriate nicknames.

Due to his high pitched voice, some called him ‘Squeaky’, but the one that stuck was ‘Wild Man.’

Stanley soon found he loved to run around, hot rodding big block Ford cars and drinking moonshine whiskey. He had a habit of starting fights, even though he couldn’t whip his way out of a wet paper sack! This led to some memorable stories from my cousins, who (along with his younger brother, Dennis Ray) took up the battles for him. They proved to be more than capable of handling anything you could throw their way in a bar fight or a bare knuckle street brawl. They were hard men, but they were fair and good to their families. Their mother, Edna, was extremely proud of them, and often ‘made a fuss’ over them, even though she worried about their habits and would admonish them on drinking and their tendency to street race everything with wheels!

When I was born in 1987, I spent many days at my great-grandparents’ white house at the top of what we call ‘Holt Hill’. It was here I found the picture. It always seemed there was a sadness in my grandmother’s eyes. She was aging then, and she always seemed a bit lost, as if there was something she could never change, but wished she could. The name ‘Stanley’ or ‘Tom’ was always mentioned in a hushed tone around her, if at all. I saw his graduation picture among the others on her living room wall, but knew I’d never seen this man in person. Like the winds whipping through the white oaks outside as we waited out a summer storm, Stanley’s life would be a rushing whirlwind.

Stanley was dedicated to his family, and soon went off and married. He had one young son, Jimmy, but the marriage was rocky and Stanley’s running around didn’t help. They were to divorce, and this, I’m sure, was always on his mind. He took several jobs out of state, going into Kansas and Missouri, working at quarries and driving trucks, doing whatever he could to make a living and provide, but he always returned home to the hills, where his parents would welcome him, their proud eldest, back with open arms and an open seat by the wood stove.

Stanley, in an ironic twist, bought his last car off of a man who was to become my grandfather (on my mother’s side) in the late 1960s. It was a beautiful, bright red 1961 Ford Starliner with a 390 and a standard on the column. He was proud of that car.

When I was a little one, I remember my great-grandfather sitting for hours on the front porch. He would sit there, spitting Red Man and holding his cane, observing his kingdom. He made his living in the woods and was always truly at home there, digging ginseng, trapping, fishing and hunting to make a living. Only the bleakest winter would force him inside. I remember him spending hours staring down the gravel driveway. I never gave it much thought then, but now I wonder how often he sat and wished for that old red Ford to climb the hill one more time.

But the old Starliner DID climb the hill one more time. The last time.

As a kid, I would ride the Jeep or three wheeler with another great-uncle to feed cows. On the way we would pass that car, sitting in his field. It always gave me chills, looking at it, with the crushed in top and torn apart door. I seem to remember him remarking once that it was Stanley’s car, but I know he never seemed to even want to look at it. The passenger side had a wiring harness that hung down under the dash, like someone had pulled it out. The scratches around the painted keyring showed that someone would occasionally miss the key hole and mar the paint. The car is still there today.

On December 20, 1968, Stanley picked up two of his friends, Donald Eugene Reddell, 19, and James Darwin Flud, 20. Stanley was 37 at the time. The boys took off on a rainy, stormy night to cruise around.

My great-grandfather, Stanley’s dad, was coming back from a coon hunt when he saw the headlights shining out of Big Creek, right by the large overhang.

My cousin, Leon Middleton, told of diving in the water and pulling them out. It was too late. He said Stanley never knew what hit him, as he was likely knocked out. When the car went over the bank, it rolled on its top, crushing the roof into the backseat, and pinning Donald, who was trying to get out the back window, which had spit out. James was known for holding his breath longer than anyone, and Leon said he would have gotten out, but he became hung up on ‘the dash’ and couldn’t get loose. I shuddered as I remembered the wiring harness hanging down on the passenger side.

All three were dead. How the accident occurred was a hot debate, but no answer ever came forth.

All three funerals were held at once at the Mt. Judea (pronounced “Judy”) school gym. They tell me it was packed nearly to standing room only. A huge blow on such a small community.

My great-grandmother never recovered. She, unfortunately, lived to bury all three of her sons, in 1968, 2004, and, the last, my grandfather Glen, in 2007.

In 2009 my grandmother passed away and I began to clean out things in the house. Underneath her bed I found a box with a bunch of items wrapped in tissue. I unwrapped them to find a comb, some change, and a wallet. I opened the wallet to find a driver’s license that read ‘Stanley Wayne Holt.’ I got chills as I checked the dates on the coins. The newest one was minted in 1968. Stanley’s personal effects were always near at hand.

As I sit here in the shade of an oak, listening to that old familiar wind that haunted my childhood, I can see him still, leaned up against that ’59 Ford, smiling like a devil in his slippers and stylish shirt. A man who was part of my people, but one I never met. A man who, even though he was gone nearly 20 years before I was born, was still there in stories and spirit.

As my people aged, they became more open in discussing him, perhaps to keep the memory alive and warm. I began to know this strange man in the black and white photo, and found he was no stranger at all.

My great-grandfather passed in 1998. My Grandpa Glen told my great uncle, Dennis, that they would have to really watch after their mother. ‘You remember how it was last time’ was as all he would say, and the two sets of troubled, knowing eyes met and agreed without a word.

My great-grandmother died in 2009 at age 89. She is buried only a few feet from Stanley’s grave.

I write this in memory of those who came before me; those I learned from whether I knew them or not. They are my people, and they shall always be remembered.

My great-grandfather would always tell his kids and grandkids ‘Careful out there on them roads. It is so dangerous.’

Truer words were never spoken.

Travis Holt

Travis Holt is an independent farmer and historian in Arkansas.

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