Jewish World Review Oct. 24, 2005 / 21 Tishrei, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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The balm of time | The last time I saw Dave Wallis, who was an institution in Pine Bluff, Ark., it was at another local institution — the Sno-White Grill. That figures, since I try to stop by for a cheeseburger whenever I'm back in Pine Bluff, where I spent 30 years writing editorials for the local paper.

Dave was in the back at what I still think of as the lawyers' table. Not that a law degree is required to sit there and assert the most improbable things, but it helps. Having solved the problems of the world with his buddies, Dave paused on his way out to say hello and pick up my check. When I protested a little longer than was polite, he gave me a firm look and settled the matter: "You're in Pine Bluff now." Meaning I was in his town and there would be no question about who would play host.

They know how to put an expatriate in his place in Pine Bluff.

What was it we talked about that day besides the usual things — shoes and ships and sealing wax, cabbages and kings, why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings . . . .

The only subject I remember Dave Wallis mentioning was a friend's vast collection of local photographs, and what a treasure those photos would be for local historians now that his friend had passed on — if anybody could organize them.

Now that Dave's passed on himself, others are doubtless talking about how best to preserve all his many pictures. Because ever since he'd been a combat cameraman in the Second World War, he'd been snapping away. I still treasure a picture of him decked out in his uniform in 1945, looking out over the moat that surrounds the Emperor's Palace in Tokyo. Whether taking pictures or being in them, holding political office or smiling over the antics of those who do, Dave Wallis was always involved in his city, his polis. He'd been mayor of Pine Bluff back in the early '80s. Nobody would have to explain the essence of Athenian democracy to Dave, or any other species of small-town politics. His agora, his forum, was the back table at the Sno-White.

When he was mayor and I was writing editorials for the Pine Bluff Commercial, I'm sure we gave him more than his fair share of trouble. I can't remember what we said about him — ah, the memorable prose in which editorials are written! — but I'm confident we went too far on occasion. (Bluff was our middle name at the Pine Bluff Commercial.)

While we spoke that day at the Sno-White, I tried to remember whether we were mad at him back then, or he at us, or both. I couldn't.

It had all ceased to matter long since. Time will do that. All I recall of our last conversation is what a pleasure it was to sit there and bask in his welcoming smile. They do love you in small towns once you leave.

Our differences decades ago no doubt seemed important at the time. But they had faded with the years, as differences tend to do. A while back, I got one of those snippy little notes from a friend — well, an acquaintance — in response to one of my snippy little columns. Weeks later, she happened to spot me around town and, almost the first question out of her mouth was why I hadn't answered her letter.

On the contrary, I assured the lady, I had answered it, but then realized my reply — however clever it sounded in the heat of the moment — wasn't worth mailing. And I'd promptly forgotten about it.

Imagine: She'd been carrying this thing around with her for weeks.

I was reminded of a Zen story. Two monks set out on a long and perilous journey to a holy site. Wanting to arrive pure in spirit, they vow not to speak or enjoy any feminine company. Early on, at a muddy crossroads, they come across a lovely young thing in an exquisite kimono, her small feet in delicate slippers. She just stands there, obviously hesitating to cross lest she dirty her attire.

One of the monks tells the young lady not to worry, picks her up, carries her across and the two monks continue on their journey.

Long days later, when they've arrived at the shrine, the other monk scolds his friend for breaking his vows of silence and self-control.

"What?" says his friend. "I put the young lady down on the other side of the road. Have you been carrying her ever since?"

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. All the quotations in this column were culled from Tuesday's edition of the Democrat-Gazette. Send your comments by clicking here.

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