Friday, April 1, 2016

She Walked On High - Arkansas's Tightrope Walking Cook and Waitress, Elie Misham.

Elie Misham didn’t plan to become a cook. The former Little Miss Ouachita started out with much higher aspirations.

She wanted to be a tightrope walker.

In 1982, she made her first attempt to break into the business with a breaking and entering charge levied by Barnum and Bailey Circus. The then-14 year old bubbly blonde managed to get over two security fences and into Barton Coliseum before breaking
her collarbone attempting to get out of an alpaca enclosure. Charges were dropped by the circus in exchange for eighteen pounds of homemade cheese from the Misham family, and the incident was forgotten.

Through those Reagan-era years, individuals reported seeing her tiptoeing across the fences alongside Interstate 30 near Caddo Valley. Those instances earned Misham stern lectures from local law enforcement officers, who convinced her the heavy steel wire strung between posts in front of Bowen’s Restaurant to keep cars from entering the wrong way was superior to the barbed wire she had been utilizing for training.

In 1990, Misham got a gig on the college baseball touring circuit. She would appear sporadically at games throughout the Mid South balancing on back walls, safety cages and dugout beams. Unfortunately, she had not been invited to or employed by these events; she frequently ended up chased off-park or, sometimes, in the custody of local sheriff’s deputies.

It was after a fourth arrest on charges of reckless self-endangerment that Misham ended up at the Southeast Arkansas Correctional Facility for Women in Pine Bluff, and where she discovered her true talent. At the minimum-security facility, inmates are given training in vocational skills to help them find placement after release. For Misham, that was supposed to include spot-welding and car mechanics. Instead, she ended up switching out for kitchen duty, on the sole premise of being able to make cornbread.

Now, Misham had never explored the culinary arts before. Her mother gave up on that when Misham was six and scaled the kitchen counters to perch atop the refrigerator, destroying an entire collection of ceramic canisters save the one for tea that was only really used for used bread bag twist ties. The young girl was banished from the kitchen, but her love of cornbread was strong, and with an entire well-supplied prison kitchen to work in, she made up for lost time quickly.

Indeed, several inmates received early release from confinement after bombardment with puck-strong hot water cornbread circles. Others were given light duties or even bedrest after an attempt to make Yankee cornbread ended with a sickening syrup of cornmeal, water and motor oil that had been mistakenly drizzled over box-mixed mashed potatoes at one lunchtime. One woman reportedly withdrew her complaint of cruel and unusual punishment after being offered a block of butter instead.

But Misham managed to improve, despite broken ribs that beset her after an accident involving soap in a washroom. She listened to other women at the facility, learned the value of flour and salt and generally quieted down to create something both edible and attractive on the plate.

After her release in 1993, Misham set out to find a place for herself. Armed with a new set of skills and a continued desire to walk barefoot over traffic, she found herself in need of new experiences.

Enter Marvin Hallowschmidt. The longtime Oklahoma-based diner operator was looking for an expansion opportunity in Arkansas, particularly within the Ozarks. His purchase of the highwayside Yellow Rose Motel near Simpson meant an opening for a new restaurant along Highway Seven.

Hallowschmidt caught sight of Misham one blurry winter’s eve in Russellville, about an hour before midnight. Pulled over for a break at the PDQ on Exit 81, the entrepreneur was downing a machine-produced cappuccino substitute when he saw a flurry of activity coming from the overpass. With newly focused eyes, he managed to see her about halfway across.

Misham, by this point, had secured employment with the nationwide chain Waffle House, and was double-dipping between working at the location on the north side of Interstate 40 and the outlet on the south side of that same road. Her northside shift ended, Misham had walked the block to the overpass, popped off her shoes and proceeded to walk the railing across the interstate to get to her southside shift, which started at 11:30.

Hallowschmidt was mesmerized, and once he had finished his frothy, sugary beverage, he pulled across Arkansas Avenue and into a slot outside the newer location of the franchise. He walked in, sat down on a stool and waited for the barefoot lady to make her appearance – which she did, after washing her feet in the bathroom sink and reapplying her footgear.

The restaurateur’s first offer was met with a laugh, being not any better than the hourly wage of $3.15 an hour Misham was already receiving. But a second offer, which included a hazard pay of $100 a day for “antics befitting a canyonside waitress,” got her attention, and the following summer she relocated northward to begin her job.

Now, Hallowschmidt’s original offer for a cook who cooked and a waitress who was up to something wasn’t very clear at first. But within a week of starting, Misham realized this location had potential. Located on the edge of the highway overlooking a valley way below, she found she could enjoy hours of balancing and relaxing on guy wires cemented into the canyonside that kept the restaurant from falling into the abyss below. She also learned how to properly balance a tray between her shoulder and wrist while hopping up and down from the short doorway on the back of the kitchen. She convinced Hallowschmidt that back patio service would give the best view of the Ozarks, and the opportunity to utilize the long thin deck without having to compromise for service space.

It took some time to get the crowds to come, but come they did, especially once the folks down at Booger Hollow started sending reference. Soon, Elie Misham’s famed omelet flips and cherry turnovers were displayed in action along the guy wires, while her banana flips and sloppy joes hit high orders at lunch. She eschewed doing dinner service, eventually convincing her boss to hire in a cook for dinner so she could practice on the evergrowing web of twisted cables she had convince him to install behind the restaurant. She would continue until the sun went down past the ridge, since moonless nights rendered her cables invisible against the sky.

But the Yellow Rose had opened at a time when Highway Seven had already seen its best days. Once Dogpatch USA closed up shop, traffic started to dwindle. While Misham’s food was still good, it was hard to market against the Cliff House Inn up the road with its Company’s Comin’ Pie. Even Booger Hollow had to downsize, letting go four of its eleven residents and employing its resident coon dog part-time.

The Yellow Rose Motel was sold off in 1999, and Misham and Hallowschmidt parted ways. She drifted for a while, finding temporary work as a field guild for squirrel hunters and contract hire with the electric company. Residents around the Simpson community did find from time to time a jar of preserves or a basket of cornbread she had managed to put up on their doorsteps, but rarely saw the diminutive blonde.

I’d heard about Misham and her remarkable popovers and flips when researching my second book. While few could confirm actually seeing her in the past decade and a half, her legend had grown. Some told me she had been spotted with a makeshift wire and rope hookup with a pair of self-owned wreckers she would set up for berry-picking in Newton County ravines when blackberries were ripe. An older man in Harrison told me he once hired her to paint the underside of the Pruitt Bridge, though I have serious doubts to that, since it has always been and still is quite green.

But this latest month-long trip took me through the Ozarks several times, and this particular past Wednesday night I found myself teetering on the edge of exhaustion, hurling down US 65 at 54 miles an hour, wanting a chocolate roll at 7:32 p.m. Well, there’s only one place you can get a chocolate roll at that hour of the night, unless you have a good set-up. You have to stop in at Misty’s in Leslie.

Out to the south of the station, there sat an older man in an open-sided Jeep and what appeared to be a hat on the dash on the passenger side. After purchasing my chocolate roll and stepping back out into the humid air, I noticed the hat was attached to something. That something was the platinum blond head of hair belonging to one Elie Misham. I thought I recognized her from the research I had done previously, but I wasn’t certain until I got over to the other side.

Yeah, I asked. Or at least I meant to, until I made it around and saw those heavily calloused feet dangling out the open doorside of the Jeep. There was no doubt in my mind this was heard.

“Are you Miss Elie?” I asked.

She looked over at me, pulled the cigarette from her lips and gave me a crooked smile.

“I know you some-er?”

“I’ve heard of you.”


I didn’t understand the question, just shook my head. “No ma’am. Are you the woman from the Yellow Rose Motel?”

She dropped the cigarette to the concrete below and swung her arm out, catching the mirror and swinging to the ground. She may have been five feet, if your ruler is bent and your focus is short. She hobbled over and looked up at me.

“You stalkin’?”

“No, ma’am. I’m a writer.”

Her hand snaked away from the side of her body and back at me like a whip, a proffered handshake that caught me off guard. I noticed her chipped nails. I shifted the chocolate roll into my left and grasped her fingers with my right. She nodded.

The older gentleman in the car started to speak as the wind caught up, but one look from Misham and he immediately silenced.

“I done been to jail once,” she said in a cracking voice befitting someone 40 years older. She looked old and hobbled, which made me sad, since she only has five or six years on me.

“Yes, ma’am. But you cook.”

“Yeah, I cook! I still do! I bet I make the best cornbread in this whole damn county.”

I imagined my step-grandmother Shirley rolling in her grave, but still managed a smile. “Where are you at these days?”

“Here,” she said, looking me dead in the eye. For the briefest of moments, I could imagine some insane story about how she traveled to the Far East to perform culinary acts on the tightwire, or married for money, or got a job at a Vegas show. But she didn’t offer anything else more, not then.

“You’re looking pretty good,” I lied, and she knew it.

“I’m not feeling pretty good,” she acknowledged, and I felt my chance for an interview slipping away.

The awkward silence was blasted by another gust of wind, with a storm system evident over the ridgeline. I shuffled my feet, wondering how to properly make up for whatever oddness I had conveyed.

And then, that grin broke out again, those fine yellowed teeth almost luminescent in the light from the store.

“You’re harmless. I been workin’ for Shelley Abernathy and that gang over at Lost Mountain.”

I nodded, having not a clue who Shelley Abernathy or Lost Mountain might have been. I could look them up later.

“Them new ziplines, they done been the death of me. Whizzzz!” she yelled, demonstrating with her hands above her head. “Whizzzzz! And pow, they’ll take your toes off!”

I didn’t get what she was saying, I just kept nodding and smiling.

“But if you mess up, you don’t get that harness right, you’re a goner.” She pulled her hands down sharply and then spread her fists into wings flying to the ground. It was like she was cackling and crackling at the same time.

“You fell off a zipline?”

“No! I get people off the zipline!” And she proceeded to tell me about the day in 2009 when she was out in the woods looking for mushrooms and there was a guy hung up in a tree, and how she managed to climb up a rope and rescue him.

And the whole damn story made no sense at all. Ziplines? In Arkansas? In 2009? They’re a recent phenomenom, right?

The gentleman with her started waving his hat, and she waved her hand, and he called out to her. “Willow-bean, get in the car. Come on, Willow-bean.”

She grabbed that mirror and swung up into the seat, agile yet aged, somehow cracked in both skin and mental faculties. He waved his hat at me and pulled out, leaving me there with a chocolate roll in my hand as the rain started to spatter onto the cement.

I think it was Elie Misham. But heaven knows if it’s right. I’ve heard that her heart had been broken when the “no shoes, no shirt, no service” motto had come into general acceptance, but who even knows. She was a character in her own time, and I doubt I shall see her like again.

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