The Jell-O Rule

By  |  February 28, 2020
The Jell-O Rule Charles Portis (Larry Obsitnik / Arkansas Democrat Gazette)

A Eulogy for Charles Portis


The funeral service for Charles Portis at Second Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, on Tuesday morning was unpretentious and straightforward, as I imagine he would have liked. The 23rd Psalm and “Amazing Grace” were on the program, Rev. Steve Hancock’s homily touched on the Presbyterianism of Mattie Ross (who abandoned the Cumberland Presbyterians for the Southern Presbyterian Church because the former were “not sound on Election”), and Portis’s niece Jane gave a moving reading of II Timothy 1:8-14. The “Words of Remembrance and Appreciation” delivered by Ernie Dumas, Portis’s longtime friend and colleague from the Arkansas Gazette, was, like the man it honored, by turns hilarious, insightful, wry, and affecting. We are grateful he has permitted us to publish a version of it here. The flag-draped coffin before the altar would later be taken to Portis’s hometown of Hamburg, Arkansas, for a graveside service with full military honors.

—Jay Jennings


 

Good morning to the Portis family, friends, and admirers.

The awful thing about doing this—eulogizing Buddy Portis—is that I can’t help but wonder what Buddy would think about it, or say. It wouldn’t be very much. 

“Dumas?” he would say. “All right, all right.”

So I’m conscious that Buddy is listening to every word and is just slightly disapproving. He won’t make a big thing out of it.

One thing I know he would not want is for me, of all people, to take on some literary pretensions and try to talk about the artistic qualities of his work. That has already been done beautifully by so many—Jay Jennings, Phil Martin, and all those marvelous stories and obituaries about him the last week in the Democrat Gazette, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Arkansas Times, Arkansas Business, the New Yorker, and many others.

Buddy, I think, would be embarrassed (appreciative, but embarrassed) and just slightly critical, of course, of each of them. But I am going to venture one little observation. The immortal value of True Grit, all the other quirky yarns, and all the unscrupulous or super-righteous characters he wrote about and talked about is the unspoken message about the importance of leading the moral life, of just doing right, doing right with all your fellow creatures—humans or animals, no matter the species. Mattie Ross, of course, Rooster Cogburn—you know all the others. They were peculiar, but they always tried to do the right thing by people.

 

I thought I would tell a few Buddy stories about the eccentricities of people—the people he wrote about, met up with, his friends and colleagues, and, of course, himself.

You all may know that Buddy developed Alzheimer’s quite some years ago, and a couple of years back got into pretty bad shape from natural illnesses and the advancing Alzheimer’s. He was at the Veterans Administration hospital and declining every day, his body resisting treatment, until he was semiconscious and they said he had only a couple of days to live. They moved him out to hospice, and everyone started preparing the advance obits. Then, I think, something deep inside him said, “Now wait a minute!” Buddy, like Sergeant York, was just too tough to go so easily.

So, he rallied and lived out there another couple of years—staring out into the woods or at the TV.

I visited him a couple of days before Christmas. He was asleep. An orderly came in and awakened him and said he had a visitor. I babbled on for a little, hoping to say something that would trigger some ancient memory.

“Buddy, Ernie Dumas. Remember, we grew up nearby down around El Dorado—Norphlet, Mount Holly, Champagnolle, Calion—and we worked together at the Gazette . . .”

He muttered a bunch of stuff that I couldn’t comprehend and finally said, I thought fairly clearly, “Been to Mexico lately?” Then drifted off asleep again.

I want to say that Buddy and I were somewhat contemporaries, being reared in the woods and oil patches out from El Dorado. My aunt Ruby Armer, a schoolteacher who lived about a half-mile down the road from us with her sister and mother, proudly told me after the first True Grit movie came out that she had taught Buddy Portis how to tell time and tie his shoes at the school at Mount Holly. I told Buddy how proud Miss Ruby was of that.

“What’s that to be proud of?” he said. “She was supposed to teach me to read and write.” But then he said he liked Miss Ruby. His daddy was the superintendent out there.

Anyway, on the way home from the hospice, I told Elaine about Buddy’s Mexico remark, and she remembered the time when she rode with Buddy down to Prescott to go to the wedding of one of his nieces. He was driving that big Jeeplike Chevy. He told her that pretty soon he was going down to Mexico again, where he seemed to get some inspiration.

So Elaine asked how long it took—four or five days?

“No,” Buddy said, “I drive straight on through.”

“Well, you spend the night someplace, of course?”

“No, no, I just drive all the way.”

“Well, you have to stop to go to the bathroom, get something to eat, and so on?”

“No, no, I just eat while I’m driving. I don’t stop.”

“How do you that?”

And he showed her. He opened the glove box, where there was a stack of Vienna sausage cans. He pulled a can out and a little package of saltines.

With one hand on the wheel, he peeled the lid back on the Viennas, poured the liquid out the window and plucked the sausages out one at a time and ate them, without ever slowing down, taking his eyes off the road, or dropping a Vienna.

There had been a time earlier when we had some kind of Gazette party on a Friday night at our house. Elaine and I hadn’t been married long—so it was sometime this side of fifty-seven years ago.

Buddy had gone into the kitchen and gotten a beer out of the fridge. He called Elaine back into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator door, and took out a bowl of green Jell-O she had made. It was in an ordinary round bowl.

“Elaine,” he said, “you’re from up in Stone County, and I don’t think Ernie wants to tell you this, so I will. You don’t make Jell-O in a regular serving bowl! You serve Jell-O in a form, shaped like a fish or a flower or something. You can get a plastic one at Woolworth or Blass, probably for six bits.”

There was another time, when Buddy had finished his sojourn in London for the New York Herald Tribune, or maybe he was only back in town on vacation. One of us asked him something about whether he ever saw the queen—Queen Elizabeth.

Well, yes, he actually had sort of visited with her. It seemed that he and several other foreign journalists had gotten a royal invitation for tea one morning with the queen at Buckingham Palace. The night before their audience at the palace, Buddy and some others were drinking beer and playing poker. They were all smoking, of course.

One of the guys wanted to show out with a trick. His cigarette had burned down pretty close. He said, “Watch this.”

The cigarette stub was on the end of his tongue. He leaned back, opened his mouth wide, curled his tongue and folded the cigarette back into his mouth, nearly closed his mouth for a second and then flipped the cigarette back out. Buddy, as he was wont to do, scoffed.

“That’s nothing to be proud of.”

“Well,” the other fellow said, “you can’t do it!”

So, Buddy took a long draw off his cigarette to burn it down a little, put it on the end of his tongue, leaned way back, and tried to fold his tongue back. But the cigarette stub fell backward and the burning end stuck to the tip of Buddy’s nose for a couple of seconds. It was terribly painful. His nose throbbed all night.

The next morning, he looked in the mirror and the end of his nose looked like a big red rubber ball. It looked like a clown’s nose. And it still hurt. But he went on to Buckingham Palace feeling self-conscious—that he looked like a rube from Arkansas. He tried to sit away from the queen and hide a little behind the others, so the queen couldn’t see his face, or else he tried to keep turned a little away from her so his bulbous nose wouldn’t be so obvious. He was miserable the whole time.

That was his memory of his historic audience with the queen!

If you read the Arkansas Gazette’s oral histories from the Pryor Center in Fayetteville, there are a lot about the characters at the Gazette, including, of course, Buddy. His roommate down there off West Markham in 1959–60 or so was Jack Meriwether, at that time the assistant city manager in Little Rock and later the city manager, business manager of the Gazette, and, finally, vice president of the University of Arkansas.

Here’s part of my interview with Meriwether for the Pryor Center:

Question: You were talking about Portis being a good roommate.

Meriwether: Portis was great fun. He did this column for the Gazette. One time he did a fantasy column talking about this crippled friend of his, who lived out behind the house at Midland and Markham, who made his living by taking old Christmas cards and clipping them and making gift labels out of them, and that it would be appreciated if folks would, instead of throwing their Christmas cards away, give them to this fellow to help out. And the address he gave was ours. Well, of course, they started coming, and I had sacks, and sacks, and sacks of Christmas cards delivered. I always had to answer the door, because they always came when Portis wasn’t around. And I had to take all that mail and get rid of it. You know, stuff like that.


I can’t talk about Buddy and eccentric characters without talking about Buddy and Patrick J. Owens, who was quirkier than anyone in Norwood, Dog of the South, or Masters of Atlantis.

Owens was a Gazette reporter who came from Hungry Horse, Montana. He and Buddy arrived about the same time, in 1958 or 1959. The only way to describe Owens is that he was a big blob of flesh with a thick mat of unkempt black hair. He was brilliant and a great writer. He took notes with those big brown No. 2 pencils. When he finished, he stuck the end of the pencil against his chest and guided it down into his shirt pocket. By the end of the day, the top of his shirt would have dozens of black marks above his pocket. You can imagine what his shirt was like by the end of the week.

Owens went on to a celebrated career. A Nieman fellow, editorial-page editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial, labor writer for the Detroit Free Press, and White House correspondent for Newsday on Long Island.

In Roy Reed’s oral history with Buddy for the Pryor Center, Roy asked if Buddy was at a party where Owens got drunk and called Amis Gutheridge. I was there that night. Amis Guthridge was the head of the White Citizens Council at Little Rock. Portis replied: “Probably. Pat was a great one for that. At some point in the evening, he would go for the telephone. You know—put-ons, pretending to be some earnest but slightly insane person with some question to ask. Then just spinning it out, pretending not to understand the meaning of simple words. The game being not to laugh, and then to keep the other party on the line as long as possible.”

Another time, one night in the winter of 1962–63, we were all in New York City, in a tiny apartment near Union Square. My old apartment mate from the Gazette, Pat Crow, later at the Herald Tribune and then an editor at the New Yorker, had taken a job on the New York Times copy desk starting the morning that the longest newspaper strike in history began. So he was stuck in his apartment unemployed for months that winter. I was a private in the U.S. Army out at Fort Slocum on Long Island, about an hour by train from Union Square. Buddy was at the Herald Tribune. Pat Owens, by then, was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and had taken the train down to Manhattan for the weekend. We were all in Pat Crow’s one-room apartment.

Sometime long after midnight, Pat Owens “went for the phone.” He was trying to make long-distance “collect” calls to a few people. He tried to get Governor Ross Barnett at Jackson, Mississippi, to accept a collect call from a big supporter in Manhattan, but Mrs. Barnett kept asking “who?” and wouldn’t accept the call.

So Pat called Professor James D. Bales of Harding College, who for many years wrote weekly letters to the Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat warning about the Marxist plot to take over American institutions. They were a fixture in both papers.

It was probably two in the morning and Mrs. Bales accepted the call and handed the phone to a sleepy Professor Bales. Pat Owens claimed to be an author who was writing a book on the philosophy of Karl Marx, and he had to have the manuscript to the publisher in New York the very next day. But he was hung up on a crucial passage from Das Kapital.

Pat Crow and I had been down at Union Square that afternoon listening to a shabby old guy on a little stool shouting about his hero Karl Marx to anyone who would listen. We expressed some interest and persuaded the old fellow to give us his dog-eared copy of Das Kapital that he waved around.

So Pat Owens opened the book to a page he had selected and began to read to Bales a long, indecipherable couple of pages on something in the chapter titled “Intellectual Production.” Pat read it v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.

“What is Marx trying to say?” Owens wanted to know. Bales was flustered, so Owens read it to him again, this time even more slowly. Finally, after two or three slow readings, the sleepy Bales was helpless. He asked Owens to give him his address in New York and he would study the passage the next day and send him his explanation.

Everyone was snuffling, but I could tell that Buddy was a little uncomfortable.

There was a long story that week in the New Yorker or somewhere on the controversial cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, who lived in Manhattan. She had made a talk about sexual mores in the South Pacific, or something like that. Owens got her number in the directory and called her up. This was about three o’clock in the morning. Remember, she was a little old lady.

She answered and Owens began to plead with her that he had some sexual transfixions that he needed her help with.

Buddy didn’t say a thing. He shoved his chair back, yanked up his coat, put on his cap, strode out, and slammed the door. You don’t treat people like that, even as a prank.

Owens hung up. Everyone sobered up. As far as I know, Owens never made another prank telephone call. But, with Pat Owens, I can’t be sure.

Finally, one more story. I got a telephone call one day, I think from our friend Bill Whitworth (Bill can correct me, privately, if I’m wrong.) Like Buddy, he was at the Herald Tribune in New York by then. He told me this story about Buddy.

It seems that everyone was down at the favorite hangout of Herald Trib and Times people, a bar somewhere around Times Square. There was a giant New York Times copy editor, a big, loud muscular guy. He was arm-wrestling everyone in the bar and putting them down very quickly. The guy was pretty proud of himself.

Buddy scoffed. He muttered something about arm wrestling being no big deal.

Well, the guy said, you’re afraid to try. Familiar story, daring Buddy Portis.

Buddy lit a cigarette and went over to the guy’s table. They grabbed hands and strained for a minute. Then suddenly there was a discernible pop! The guy’s hand hit the table and he fell to the floor with a loud whelp. His upper arm had snapped. The ambulance carried him away in shock. The story circulated quickly around New York newsrooms, as you can imagine, and reached the Gazette the next day.

Buddy’s brother Richard Portis was on the Gazette copy desk—this was before he went to medical school. I motioned him over. I told him the story about the arm wrestling.

“Can I use your phone?” he asked.

He dialed up Buddy in New York.

“Hey, Bubba,” he said. “What’s this about you breaking the arm of a Times guy arm-wrestling?

“Hello? . . . Hello?” Buddy had hung up on him.

That was the essential Buddy Portis. He wanted no acclaim for causing a friend’s or anyone’s suffering in a moment of bravado. He wanted no one to even know about it.

 

I think Buddy’s rule—like his Jell-O rule—would be that you always have to end a eulogy with a poem, at a Presbyterian service anyway. So I’ll take my cue from Buddy, who apparently was a fan of William Butler Yeats. The Herald Trib sent him out one time to enroll in a smoking-curtailment program in some pastoral place outside the city and to write about it.

The Herald Tribune came to the Gazette library and sometimes Betty Jo Bittinger would clip a Portis piece and stick it on the bulletin board in the newsroom. One piece that week began with this sentence: 

“Another day of lethargy in this bee-loud glade trying to kick the smoking habit.” 

He had lifted a phrase I recognized from Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”

Then his story related how he had spent part of the day repeatedly beating a little kid with short arms playing Ping-Pong and doing equally pointless things. He didn’t kick the smoking habit.

I was once in County Sligo, Ireland, and there was a boat slip where you could hire someone to take you out to the Isle of Innisfree. I wanted to see what a bee-loud glade was like.

So I think Buddy would think it was OK to end this with Yeats’s description.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

 


See more tributes to Charles Portis here


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Ernie Dumas is a columnist for the Arkansas Times and former associate editor and reporter for the Arkansas Gazette. His most recent book is The Education of Ernie Dumas: Chronicles of the Arkansas Political Mind.