Berl, The Dynamite and The Marshal

Blast fishing on Ha Long Bay

I first met Berl about a year ago at an auction near Gravette, Arkansas.  I recall it was a hot summer’s evening and the crowd of potential bidders who gathered inside the metal building were talking and discussing the merits of each and every item to be sold.  All at once a loud, distinct and gravelly sounding voice rang out.  It was a voice that could not be ignored and, as I turned to look for the source of that voice, I saw an older gentleman walking as if with purpose in my direction.

The grey haired man extended his right hand and said, “Are you related to Floyd Fine, the former Noel City Marshal?”  “Yes,” I said, as I grasped his hand and shook it.  “He was my grandfather, my name is Stan.”  “Berl”, he blurted out as he introduced himself.  “Your grandfather once arrested me.”  I paused not knowing how to respond but eventually, and clumsily, said “I’m sorry to hear that.”  With no more than an instant passing Berl laughingly and succinctly responded, “Don’t’ be sorry, I deserved it.”

For several months I made an appearance at the Thursday evening auctions where I always saw Berl.  He always laughed and smiled as he said, “Hello” and shook my hand but didn’t speak of the once mentioned encounter with the old City Marshal until one cold evening.  “Did I tell you why your granddad arrested me,” Berl asked.  “No,” I replied.  As if he needed to find some sort of relief through confession and believed sharing the story with me would bring that inner calm Berl said, “Well here’s the whole story.”

Berl completed boot camp at Fort Chaffee in August of 1957 and the army rewarded the seventeen year old from Gravette, Arkansas with a ten day pass.  There were things to be done and friends to see before the seventeen year old boy who was born and raised in the small Northwest Arkansas Ozarks town would leave his youthful years behind and become a soldier and quickly transition into manhood.

After sharing boot camp yarns with his family, Berl got in touch with four of his Gravette High School friends.  They talked about life after high school and it was decided that they needed a night away from their families and Gravette so a plan was formulated.  The five decided to drive to a place they often frequented during their high school years.  It was a place on the Elk River just outside of Noel, Missouri.  The five would acquire some beer; take sleeping cots to avoid the sharp beach covered rocks and tow a small boat which they would use to float on the calm Elk River waters.

The five, as they had done many times before, climbed into a car and made the ten mile trip into Missouri and the outskirts of Noel.  A brief stop was made along the way to obtain enough beer which would hopefully last the night.  It was the beginning of evening and the orange sun was aglow on the horizon when the five arrived at the place on the river which was located just below the old concrete dam.  The day had been a predictable sweltering hot Ozark August day but the evening and its accompanying breeze offered the promise of cooler temperatures.

Berl was determined to enjoy a swim and cool off in the slow moving water while the others unpacked the car.  Berl waded out until the water deepened and he began to swim.  He saw that others on the opposite side of the river were also enjoying the cooling waters.  Berl watched the strangers when, without warning, something exploded in the water not far from him.  Berl quickly turned his head in the direction of the noise and saw water falling from the sky and into the river.  The other four were laughing and slapping each other’s backs.  Unbeknownst to Berl, there were two sticks of Hercules Dynamite in the car’s glovebox.  One of the sticks had been lit and thrown into the river.  In 1957 dynamite wasn’t hard to find and could be purchased at local hardware stores.

Berl didn’t find the act as humorous as the others and left the water with a scowl on his face.  The four friends explained that two sticks of dynamite were found in the car’s glovebox and tossing one into the water was merely a prank, and a funny one at that.  Berl made it clear that he didn’t appreciate the humor so the others decided that they would go to a place near the dam and toss the remaining explosive into the water there. Berl stayed at the campsite and the sound of a second loud boom was heard a few minutes later.

Berl recalls that no more than a few minutes passed when the four explosive detonators returned to the campsite followed by the arrival of a car driven by Noel City Marshal Floyd Fine.  Berl once worked for Aubrey Johnson at his gas station and liquor store that was located on the Missouri/Arkansas border between Gravette and Noel and knew the marshal, as he was a frequent patron there.

The four law breakers and, at least in Berl’s mind one who was mistakenly accused, were nabbed and summarily taken to the Noel jail.  There was little conversation by any of the Gravette five and Marshall Fine said only, “You boys are under arrest, get in my car.”  He did however ask where the blast victims, the fish, were located and as they could not be brought back to life he wanted to donate them to a family that could make use of the food source.  Berl assured the marshal that no fish, deceased or alive, had been taken from the river.

The five were briefly confined in the old Noel jail after which they were taken to the County jail in Pineville.  The jail had one large cell where Berl’s four friends were placed.  Berl was escorted into one of the two smaller cells.  The five remained in the county jail overnight until around 6:30 a.m. the following morning when the door to Berl’s cell was opened by Deputy Earl Spears.

The stern faced Spears said, “Come with me boy.”  Spears walked Berl to the sheriff’s house and residence and up the back stairs where the two were met by Sheriff Dennison’s wife.  Berl was handed a box with five plates of scrambled eggs, bacon and toast.  “Take the box and carry the food to your friends,” Spears gruffly said.  Berl did as he was told and served the breakfast to the four hungry prisoners.

Later that same day the five lawbreakers and there attorney, Jim Paul, appeared before the judge and after pleading guilty the five were fined $125.00 each.

Berl returned to civilian life and his hometown of Gravette in 1960 and frequently talked to my grandfather, Marshal Fine.  Over the years Berl, now a successful N.W. Arkansas businessman, and the aging marshal became good friends and occasionally when they spoke the conversation turned to the incident on Elk River.  The two laughed about the five boys and the dynamite but the marshal often asked the same question, “What happened to those fish?”

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