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Robert F. Jones
August 10, 1970
At 81, Artist Thomas Hart Benton, one of the founders of the Midwest Regionalist School of painting, still carries on his long love affair with the roily Buffalo River in the Ozarks
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August 10, 1970

The Old Man And The River

At 81, Artist Thomas Hart Benton, one of the founders of the Midwest Regionalist School of painting, still carries on his long love affair with the roily Buffalo River in the Ozarks

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There is something about flowing water that makes for easy views. Down the river is freedom from consequence. All one has to do is jump in a skiff at night and by the morrow be beyond the reach of trouble.... This is an old and beloved sport of the country."

Thomas Hart Benton wrote those words in his autobiography, An Artist in America, nearly half a century ago during a float trip down the Buffalo River in Arkansas. A lot has happened to both man and river since. Benton went on to achieve fame, along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, as a founder of the Midwest Regionalist School of painting. Wood and Curry are long dead, but Benton at 81 is still painting, although as far as the art critics are concerned he is something of a living fossil. The Buffalo River, which in the old logging days of the Ozark Mountains used to carry gigantic rafts of timber—cedar logs for the pencil industry, white oak for railroad ties and whiskey barrels—is now threatened by damming. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would like to add the Buffalo to its "beaver complex"—that spreading network of dams that has already drowned eight Ozark rivers. A bill that would make the Buffalo a "national river" has passed in the Senate, but an equivalent House bill is gathering dust in the Interior Subcommittee. Meanwhile, the corps waits: sooner or later the river lovers will give up and then the river-straighteners will go to work.

Thus time is working against both Tom Benton and the Buffalo River. Every spring, when the weather has warmed enough for his ancient bones, Benton and a group of his Kansas City cronies rendezvous on the Buffalo for an exercise in freedom from consequence. The "old and beloved sport of the country"—floating down a river—has been modernized somewhat. Benton and his pals run the river not in skiffs but in sturdy aluminum canoes. When they camp out, there are folding chairs and canvas cots, iceboxes a-slosh with Glueks beer, hard ham and fresh-baked bread and clumps of crisp radishes. And there's plenty of bourbon, though when the jug is passed Benton as often as not declines with a sorrowful nod. He suffered a coronary in 1966 and his ration is four weak ones a day.

This year the confluence of Benton and the Buffalo occurred at Ponca, Ark., on a sunny spring morning with the river just falling from flood. Benton looked like an ad for dirty old men: unshaved, ruddy-eyed, with a drooping mustache stained tan at the lower edges from the Days Work tobacco he has chewed since the age of 14 (he also chews Parodi cigars when he can get them). Mottled and wattled, he studied the river in silence. A hard rain during the weekend had driven the Buffalo over the low-water bridge on State Highway 74 just above Ponca, and by Tuesday, when Benton's band was ready to put in, the level had fallen to a swift but floatable three inches of daylight under the concrete slab. Benton's guide, Harold Hedges, an expert canoeman, had run the upper Buffalo only once with the water this high. "In a way it's easier at this level," said Hedges as the group scanned the first chute prior to putting in. "With lower water the river becomes more of a slalom course—you have to dodge gingerly to get through the boulders. There ought to be enough water today to give us a clear ride—but watch it if you upset. With this weight of water, you're going to be rolled like an empty barrel."

Hedges is a character in his own right. A retired Kansas City livestock feed executive, he had discovered the Buffalo's charms in the early 1950s, and the river promptly changed his life. With his wife Margaret and three sons. Hedges began spending every available weekend on the Buffalo, canoeing, bird watching, learning to read the vees of the white water with one lens of his consciousness while another was analyzing wildlife signs. He is one of those rare canoeists who can call out in the midst of roaring haystacks, the boils of water that form over boulders, "Listen to the wood thrush!" Hedges took early retirement at the age of 55 and now, at 57, he is tall, spare, crew cut—and looks 10 years younger. He and his wife ransacked a dozen old barns to procure the weathered beams and siding that make their house on the upper Buffalo one of the loveliest in the Ozarks. (If the Buffalo becomes a national river, as Hedges hopes, his house may be torn down. He accepts that.) Margaret Hedges, 52, is nearly as competent a canoeist as her husband—and much nicer to look at. Lithe, shapely and compellingly feminine despite her outdoor prowess, she led one member of the party to comment: "If every chick were like Margaret Hedges, there'd be no need for Women's Lib."

Canoe pairings for the day's run were the first order of business—and crucial, as it proved. Benton and Hedges were matched in one 17-foot aluminum Grumman, with the heavier, stronger Harold in the stern and Tom in the bow. That was both safe and sane, as was the match-up of Fred McCraw, 38, a river-wise Kansas City computer executive, and John Callison, 35, a husky stockbroker ("I'll take the Buffalo over the market any day," he said after a particularly rough run. "The river's gradient isn't near as steep"). Two other teams were well-matched, but the last canoe—well, you know the phrase that ends "and Tyler, too."

Sternman in the tippy canoe was Bernie Hoffman, a gravelly voiced, 61-year-old Missouri chain-store magnate who is also a superbly fit outdoorsman with experience on white water from the Wisconsin Dells to the Ozarks. His bowman, however, not only outweighed Hoffman by 40 pounds (thus giving the canoe a bad trim forward), but had never been in a canoe before in his life. Sammie Feeback, 56, is an ex-wrestler, a peerless raconteur, a splendid camp cook and reputedly the best movie cameraman in Kansas City. Also the worst canoeist. Massive and gnarled, with an upper body like one of those white-oak whiskey barrels, Sammie is built all wrong for white water: his center of gravity seems to lie somewhere in the vicinity of his Adam's apple, and it moves just as erratically. The B & S Show, as it came to be called for its stars, Bernie and Sammie, previewed a few seconds after the put-in.

When the river is lower the water just below the bridge is a gentle riffle, but at this level it was a fast chute bulging with small haystacks. B & S had barely shot clear of the first willow stubs along the bank when they spun out of shape: the canoe whirled clockwise, twice, then wobbled down the river backward with Sammie digging manfully toward Ponca as if that were the way he'd wanted to go all the time. "Whoops," said Benton as he watched from the bridge. "Well, maybe the bodies will wash up down by Pruitt."

Half a mile or so downstream the river bent 90 degrees to the right under the first of the bluffs—a black and cream forehead that seemed to frown with puzzlement as B & S winked past—then plunged over a chute called the Big Drop. Normally it is a swift but straightforward run. "the first little thrill on the river," as Hedges calls it. Today it was impressive: haystacks high as a house on the right-hand side, a concave slick as viscid as oil down the skinny side to the left. As Benton approached the Big Drop, with the B & S canoe already out of sight, a shrill cry came from the willows along the left bank. It was Margaret, wading upstream and screaming to her husband, "Go back, go back! Bernie and Sammie spilled twice coming through. We don't have any business taking an 80-year-old man through water like this."

Harold held the canoe against the bank with his left hand and stroked his chin with his right. The top joints on the first two fingers of his right hand were slashed off years ago by a saw, and the maimed gesture was powerful. "Well," he finally said to Tom, "I think we can handle the skinny side. Don't you?" Benton nodded and they dug in.

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