Ah – the beautiful and historic bathhouses of Hot Springs, now a National Park Service managed area. It would be exactly 40 years ago that this area used to be my stomping grounds. As a 20 year old, I was stationed to Little Rock AFB back in 1978-1979 as my first duty station out of basic training. A lot has certainly changed in 40 years (like my youthfulness), yet some of it has remained the same. It was an interesting week of reminiscing and reliving parts of my youth.
Where It All Began
So from my camping spot in Hot Springs I took a day trip to Little Rock and North Little Rock where I had once lived and worked for almost two years. I went to the front gate and visitor center of Little Rock AFB, and tried to talk my way onto the base. I indicated I was a veteran stationed at this base some 40 years prior, and wanted to drive around to see my old barracks and work building, and to just overall reminisce. Well, the armed security Airman were having no part of that, and despite my best efforts, I was not getting onto the base. I actually figured that would be the case, but I wanted to give it a try anyway. Oh well, I gave it a shot! There were a few things in and around the immediate area of the front gate that seemed somewhat familiar, but mostly everything was foreign to me. Try as I may to dust off those 40 year old memories, they were just too far buried to come forward.
From there, I drove along highway 67/167 towards North Little Rock. This was a route that I had taken many, many times. My roommate Scott (who I caught up with when I was in Bushnell, FL back in Feb) and I both worked part time in North Little Rock. We would make this drive to our part time job hundreds of times. We both worked as projectionists at a movie theater named the Other Center Cinema (pictured left, lower left). But alas this too had succumbed to the effects of time, and is now a Barnes & Noble bookstore. But, the large signage that sat along side the highway that housed the marque where Scott and I used to update by dragging handfuls of plastic letters and a suction cup on a stick, sill remains (well, not the marque, but the overall sign structure). I sat in the parking lot for a bit and thought about the old days. I remembered driving my hot orange Pinto there to work, and I remembered all the faces of the wonderful people we worked with from the owners of the theater to the ticket and concession girls. I remembered private midnight showings of many movies just for the employees, the projectors that Scott and I ran, and the catching of a shot of homemade white lightning from grandpa Nick. Ah those were wonderful times that I will forever have fond memories of. In fact, I was privilege to also catch up with Pam just a few months ago when I was in Dandridge, TN. 40 years ago, she was a sweet 16 year old concession girl here at the theater, and now remains a sweet 50+ year old woman today. Sadly, despite my best efforts, I was unsuccessful in meeting up with any of the other folks who worked at the theater back then, and who are still in the Little Rock area today. Like Scott and Pam, it would have been wonderful to see these folks again after all these decades. But it was apparently not meant to be.
Playing & Re-Playing Tourist
Given that I lived in the area for almost two years, some of the tourist areas were actually places I frequented back in the day. Downtown Hot Springs would be one of those places. However, it seems to have gotten a much needed and long overdue facelift. I don’t recall it being as nice back in the late 70s, as it does today. Kudos to the National Park Service for doing a stellar job as caretakers. Several of the bathhouses along Central Ave remain fully functional, and include NPS presence throughout. Lots of amusements, shops, and restaurants line the opposite side of the street – making for a very fun day of walking and visiting. There are many fountains and bottle fill locations throughout the downtown. The filling stations allow for everyone to take some of the “healing waters” home with them. A very nice amenity.
One of the area attractions I don’t recall visiting in my past was the Hot Springs Mountain Tower – notably as it did not exist when I was in the area. At 216 feet above the ground, a quick elevator ride, or for those more athletic-type a walk up 20+ stories worth of stairs, takes you to two observation areas. The very top is open, breezy, and perhaps makes you a bit squimish if you have height fears, yet offers some very natural and unobstructed views of the Ouachita Mountains, Hot Springs Mountain, and Diamond Lakes area – all at 1,256 feet above sea level. Just below that is the second observation area, fully enclosed, and filled with historical information and artifacts related to the Hot Springs and the surrounding area. This tower, built in 1982/83 was actually the third tower to sit upon this location. An original 75 foot wooden structure was erected in the 19th century, but burned down when it was hit by lightning. In 1906, a second 165-foot steel structure was placed here, and was in service for 69 years until it was shutdown in 1975 due to structural concerns.
Here is a brief video of my trekking up the mountain to visit the tower, and also a brief drive through downtown Hot Springs.
There is a lot of interesting history in this area of Arkansas. Hot Springs is the oldest federal reserve in the US, having received its federal protection designation in 1832. In addition to its success as a Spa Town, it would also become the Las Vegas town long before actual Las Vegas came to fruition. Gambling, drinking, bootlegging, prostitution, and gangster activity was commonplace in Hot Spring going back to the mid 1800s. I even visited a Gangster Museum in town that told lots of stories of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s where the likes of Al Capone, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, and Alvin Karpis – America’s last official Public Enemy No. 1, all spent time in Hot Springs, and even were supported and to some extent protected by the local law. That eventually all came crashing down when the newly elected republican governor Winthrop Rockefeller called in the state troopers to close the casinos and burn their gaming equipment.
Hot Springs also played a major role in professional baseball having been the go-to place for spring training for many professional baseball teams in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some have called Hot Springs the birthplace of baseball’s spring training. But after many many years of spring camps, the inconsistent weather and more importantly the plentiful availability of distractions in the way of booze and woman, all teams moved their training camps to other locations such as Florida and Arizona.
One of the other National Park Service managed areas I visited was the National Historic Site “Little Rock Central High School”. This was ground zero for a heated battle between states rights, and the federally mandated supreme court decision requiring school desegregation in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. Like many southern states at the time, they were not happy with the new federal law thinking it represented reaching beyond their scope and restricting states rights. On the first day of school in 1957, following a failed attempt to fully and safely integrate 9 black youth known as the Little Rock Nine into the classroom, a showdown ensued between the Arkansas Governor Faubus and then President Eisenhower. The president eventually ordered several Army divisions into Little Rock, and also federalized the entire 10,000-man Arkansas National Guard, in order to remove them from the control of Governor Faubus. The Little Rock Nine eventually got to school with the help of federal protection, but escalating tensions and continued mistreatment of the nine youth persisted. The state continued to resent what they saw as unconstitutional interference by the federal government. Little Rock citizens voted in referendum to close city schools in 1958 rather than desegregate, then blamed the closing on the federal government. That resulted in a tumultuous school-free year for students, teachers and the state. The schools were reopened the following year in 1959, and desegregation was in full swing. All of this played out under the watchful eye of of the entire country and around the world. Certainly a series of historic events that occured during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
Again, only a short week in central Arkansas, with lots to see and do. I was reminded though of the existence of legacy blue laws. I was doing some grocery shopping in Krogers on a nice Sunday afternoon, and happened to pick up a couple bottles of wine. When I was checking out, the nice cashier informed me that they are not allowed to sell beer or wine alcohol on Sundays. Geez – I thought we had long since done away with those old laws. Well, apparently not in Arkansas!
I’m off to the great state of Texas next where I’ll spend the better part of the next several months hunkering down for the winter. A quick one week stopover in Mount Pleasant will then lead me to a month in Waco, a month in Austin, two months in Corpus Christi, then a month in the area of San Antonio. It will be nice to slow down a bit in my travels, and have some leisure time checking out all there is to see in this huge state. There will be lots to see and do in the upcoming months, so stay tuned. Till then, safe travels!