I have a vague, dusty memory of my Dad and I as we rambled down a dirt road in his old Ford truck. I remember that we were headed for Camp Robinson, an old WWII POW camp in Arkansas that had housed German prisoners.
For a 5 year old, the explanation of POWS and wars was perplexing, but one thing I did know, Camp Robinson was a special place. You could go there and get things for free.
In the early summer we went there for blackberries. A slice of blackberry ice box pie required suffering four things, mosquitos, ticks, chiggers, and snakes. In what I considered a very scary talent, Dad assured me he could “smell” nearby rattlesnakes and he would warn me not to follow him into the worst brambles. I would stand outside the thicket, small and trembling. Since I had no idea what rattlesnakes smelt like nor did I have any idea what direction a spooked rattlesnake might run, I just stood there perplexed as Dad beat the bushes for berries. I sniffed the air occasionally, double checking for any newly acquired ability to sniff out snake smell only to be greeted by the odor of squished blackberries underfoot as I spilled them batting another mosquito.
But this day wasn’t about berries, it was about rock. Dad was taking me to quarry bedrock.
Dad explained that there were places in Camp Robinson where big, flat sheets of rock lay just below the surface of dirt. Bedrock, he continued, was good building material.
I sat on the passenger side of his truck, just big enough to see out the front window as the heat and dust billowed in through the open windows.
We pulled up to the homemade quarry site and for the next several hours, Dad labored over his private mining.
The reason I have that dusty old memory is the very clear recollection that I caused a problem: I lost the truck key that day in the quarry dirt.
I don’t know how that problem was resolved.
What I do know is that it was only later that I came to appreciate the value of the rock Dad toiled over that day.
You can go back to our old house in Arkansas and still see the large, hand hewn pieces he fashioned as he used the rock around our home, pulling a ‘little Egypt’ to get stones in place that weighed more than he could handle.
What I have come to know, is that at the for the 40 years previous of Dad and I mining bedrock, a soft spoken, deeply religious African American named Silas Owens, Sr. mined his own rock.
A little bit north of us, Mr. Owens produced a legacy of ‘mixed masonry’.
The son of slaves, born into a segregated society at the turn of the century’s in Little Rock, Mr. Owens had ‘rocksense”. In his hands, the creativity and artistry that was his trademark produced houses sought after by all. He mixed beautiful iron-stained Arkansas sandstone with cream brick and brought beauty and permanence to farm homes in rural Arkansas.
I saw Mr. Owens legacy for the first time this Christmas. House after house, sprinkled around neighboring counties, the signature stone work was a testament to a soft-spoken man’s life and work. Age hasn’t had much effect on the beauty and integrity of those old houses but much has changed in culture and society.
I am sure Mr. Owens didn’t consider that his houses would be the National Treasures that they are today or that his architectural legacy would be preserved on a world wide information source. I do think he must have felt a certain blessing indulging his talent and quiet passion for rock art and sharing it with his crews and the young men he taught, gracefully combating the racism he encountered.
Legacy is about remembering. It’s about someone giving you a reason to remember and reflect, to find worth and meaning. From all I can tell, Mr. Owens was a fair and kind man, who made a difference on the landscape and in the lives of his community. In one of my late nights, I realized something very comforting, a legacy to count on in a world that changes… Mr Owens and Jake and my dad are sharing the legacy of Heaven. If Heaven is paved in streets of gold, I clearly picture those three appreciating the art.