A Confusing Sign, Posted at the Entrance to My Local Library


I just returned home from a visit to my local library, and was so bewildered by this sign at the entrance that I felt compelled to take a picture of it. Helium doesn’t react with anything at all . . . so why would a library want to ban helium balloons? It’s not like helium can damage books!

Fort Smith? Pine Bluff? What’s the Difference?

Fort Smith is Pine Bluff

Unless you also live in the American state of Arkansas, you may not have even heard of Fort Smith and Pine Bluff. For those who grew up in this state, though, they’re considered (by our peculiar standards) to be major cities. Fort Smith is on the far West side of the state, on the Oklahoma border, while Pine Bluff is in the Southeastern part of the state, also known as the Mississippi Delta.

I didn’t learn Arkansas geography in school. Instead, when I was a child, my family traveled, mostly within the state — a lot. By the time I was ten years old, I’d been in all 75 counties of Arkansas, and knew quite a bit about where things are here . . . except for these two cities, Fort Smith and Pine Bluff.

If you’re from Arkansas, you know these two cities are nothing alike. What I noticed in childhood, above all else, was the fact that the two cities smelled so different from each other. The reason is simple:  Pine Bluff has a lot of paper mills, and the smell near paper mills is not entirely unlike being locked in a small closet with several dozen rotten eggs. Fort Smith, by contrast, is relatively odorless.

What perplexed my parents, though, is the fact that I would consistently confuse these two cities. I’d refer to the “horrible smell of Fort Smith,” or, if I knew we were going to Pine Bluff, I might ask if we’d be crossing the border into Oklahoma. My parents always corrected these mistakes, but I kept making them, repeatedly, which is not like me at all. When young, I never had more than a 50% chance of correctly identifying either of these cities. Once I figured out what I was doing, though — at around age twelve — this repeated error made perfect sense.

When I try to understand something, I examine it, and consider it, mathematically. Often, I’m not even conscious I’m doing that — it’s simply how I think. Both Fort Smith and Pine Bluff are two-word city names. To make matters even worse, the first word of each city-name has four letters, and the second word in each has five. Once I realized these parallels, though, it all made sense:  no wonder I couldn’t tell these places apart, with names which, examined through the lens of childhood mathematics, looked exactly alike.

To my knowledge, no one else has ever had a long-term problem confusing these two Arkansas cities. However, when those who know me well hear this story, they are never surprised that I would do such a thing.