|Tupelo of memory
by Alec Clayton
Story telling was always a large part of family life in the Clayton household. When I was a child, the whole family would sit on the porch at our house on Magazine Street and tell tales about “Uncle Halsy” and Mama’s crazy brother “Hap.” Later, at family gatherings when I was in high school and college, everybody would tell tales about me and my brother Bill -- the twins who were always getting into trouble. Later still, when I wrote a newspaper column, I started using all of those stories in the paper. I tended to spice them up just a bit. Some of my relatives would say far more than just a bit. My sister once said of my stories, “You can’t believe half of what Alec writes. Some of those things may have happened, but never the way he tells it.”
My response to her was, “Hey, they’re my memories. Don’t go messing them up with mere facts.”
A lot of those tales -- a happy mixture of fact, fiction, and memory distorted through the years -- involved childish escapades like climbing a boxcar parked behind my daddy’s store and jumping over the fence to sneak into the fairgrounds, or sneaking into Calvary Baptist Church to swim in the in the baptismal pool (we did a lot of sneaking-into back then). Many of these tales have now found a home in my new novel Until the Dawn.
There was never a doubt when I began writing this novel that most of the story would take place in Tupelo, because no place lives in my memory the way Tupelo does.
My father, “Chick” Clayton, was a poultry man. He was born in Saltillo in 1909, back when Saltillo was bigger than Tupelo. He came back to Tupelo in 1943 to open a chicken hatchery, bringing with him his wife, “Toots,” daughters Mimi, Kay and Linda, and son, Buster. Mother was seven months pregnant at the time. She gave birth to twin boys on the same night that Daddy hatched his first chickens. The boys were named Bill and Alec. I was the youngest by six minutes. The hatchery was an instant success, and Daddy was suddenly richer than he could have ever dreamed. The first thing he did with his newfound wealth was to buy a new house. It was a monstrosity of a white house on Magazine Street with eleven rooms, four baths, a full attic and basement, and a wrap-around porch that was so big we could all ride our bikes on it. That house no longer exists, but I have resurrected it in my novel as the home of the Warner family.
When we were growing up, kids were allowed to roam freely all over town. Nobody worried about crossing streets with bumper-to-bumper traffic; nobody worried about kids getting molested. And most of the adults watched out for the kids. It was like we belonged to everybody. Bill and I wandered all over town. There were wooded areas behind houses and stores in the middle of city blocks, and for us these were vast jungles where we pretended to be Tarzan of the Apes. Across the street from our house stood the Cason house. Casey Cason lived there. He was a childhood friend who later became a disc jockey for WELO-Radio (or was it WTUP?). We could dash across the street and cut behind the Cason house to the railroad tracks, where we’d hop onto slow moving boxcars and ride down to Page’s Market on the corner across from that big arrow that proudly proclaimed Tupelo America’s first TVA city. We’d walk downtown and visit all the stores: Reed’s Department Store (our favorite place for Christmas shopping), Mike’s Restaurant, Long’s Laundry down by the entrance to the fairgrounds (Mister Long called us Wiznat and Whistlebritches), and a drug store that I vaguely remember being named TKE. The people who ran these stores knew us, and they would sometimes give us things like packing crates to play with. The best were piano boxes that we turned into forts and castles.
My absolute favorite place in Tupelo was the swimming pool. It was about ten blocks away, and I can remember walking there barefooted, with the pavement scorching my feet. It was the greatest pool in the world. Never since have I seen anything to match it. It was huge, and round, with a diving tower in the middle. It cost ten cents to go swimming. Before going in we had to take a shower -- which I hated because the water was freezing, and walk through a little dish of chlorinated water. The stench of the chlorine burned out nostrils. The diving tower in the middle had a low board on one side and a high board on the other. I remember once marveling at a high school boy named Greasy Grissom who would jump off the back side of the high tower, land on the low board, spring off and cut a double front flip. Or another boy who, on a bet, would do a belly flop off the high board. This pool and all the teenage shenanigans I witnessed there as a child showed up in my book, only the names were changed to protect the insane.
My greatest ambition back then was to grow up to become a star halfback for the Tupelo Golden Wave football team. My hero was Zerk Wilson, star running back at the time whose running style reminded me of the legendary Leroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch. But I never got to play for the Golden Wave.
When I was twelve years old we were hit with a wave of misfortune. Daddy’s business burned down and he went broke. He started a new job, and we moved to Hattiesburg. There I tried to realize my dream of being the next Zerk Wilson, but at five-foot-three and one hundred and ten pounds I was not cut out to be a football player.
Although we had moved away, Bill and I kept returning to Tupelo. We had two older sisters who lived there, and we spent all our summers with them -- sleeping at one or the other sister’s house, but spending every waking moment hanging out with the guys, piling six or seven boys at a time into somebody’s souped-up convertible and cruising between Dudie’s Diner and the Dairy Bar looking for girls. My best friends then were Jackie Phipps and Johnny Evans. The last I heard, Jackie was running a hair salon in Tupelo, and I have no idea whatever became of Johnny. When we were teenage terrors cruising the streets of Tupelo -- this would have been in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s -- Elvis was still alive. And it seemed like everybody in town knew him. Everybody had an Elvis tale to tell, and I suspect most of them were made up. True or not, there’s a scene in my book that takes place at an Elvis Presley concert, and everybody in the audience is swapping Elvis stories -- all the stories I heard back then. The only Elvis story I can swear to is one I heard from my sister. She and Elvis were classmates at Milam Junior High. One day she came home from school and Mother asked her, “What happened in school today, Linda?” and she answered, “Oh, nothing. Elvis brought his guitar again.” Seems she didn’t think much of him and his guitar.
As an adult, Linda lived in a little house in Willis Heights. Across the street was a Civil War memorial -- a cannon, if memory serves me right. If I’m wrong ... well, it’s a cannon now. And in my book it serves as a symbol of the domestic war between two of the characters who lived in the house where my sister once lived.
Looking back, I realize that I lived a privileged life. We had a big house, two or three cars, and a boat house up on Pickwick Reservoir. It seemed that everyone in town knew us and liked us. It was an idyllic life. I can’t recall a single bad memory of Tupelo. Yet I now know that there was a whole other part of town that I knew nothing of. There was a large population of black people, but we were segregated to such an extent that they may have well lived in another country. The only black person I knew back then was our maid, Christine. I never even knew her last name. Racism was the dark underbelly to the idyllic Tupelo of memory, but I was too young to be aware of that dark underbelly then. It would not be long, however, before I would begin to discover it.
During my senior year in high school in Hattiesburg, there came a day when some sixty or seventy students marched around the campus as if at a pep rally chanting “Two, four, six eight. We will never integrate.” In that same year, a black man attempted to register as a student at the University of Southern Mississippi. Some local citizens planted stolen chickens in his car and he was arrested for chicken stealing. And he was incarcerated at the state insane asylum at Whitfield. The standing joke was that he was obviously crazy because any nigger who thought he could go to school there had to be insane. A favorite pastime among the boys at school was making fun of blacks in their seemingly hopeless attempts to win civil rights. Another favorite pastime was making fun of homosexuals. Sometimes it went far beyond joking. Some of the guys on the football team bragged about what they called rolling queers, which meant enticing gay people into something like a dark alley, beating them up and taking their money.
I bring up these dark images of bigotry because they are the other side of the coin of memory. In the book I have attempted to weave together the dark and the light into a single tapestry that hopefully paints a true picture of a time and a place in all its complexity.
It took me almost fifteen years to write this book, although for many of those years it sat on a shelf while I did other things. After I had finished the first draft, I had an opportunity to visit Tupelo, which gave me a wonderful opportunity to see if some of the scenes I had described were really the way I remembered them, and to show off to my wife that wonderful old house I had grown up in. The occasion was an exhibition of my paintings at Itawamba Junior College. I got to meet two old friends whom I hadn’t seen in more than thirty years: Ke Francis and Lynn Long, both fellow artists. As expected, some things were still exactly as I remembered them, and others had changed beyond belief or had vanished completely. Dudie’s Diner was still there, but the Dairy Bar had been torn down and replaced with a Kentucky Fried Chicken. I’ve heard that Dudie’s has since gone away. That’s a shame. It was the coolest place. You could get bite-size hamburgers for ten cents. It would take about a dollars worth to fill you up.
The town had grown so much I could hardly recognize it. All the stores and houses were smaller and closer together. That wonderful old swimming pool was no longer in use. Willis Heights, which had been another town, was now simply down the street. Mike’s Restaurant, where we had eaten many a family meal, was no longer there, but I heard that Mike’s son Connie had opened a fried chicken restaurant. But most devastating of all, the house I had loved so much as a child was a parking lot for the state employment office.
Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again. In many ways he was probably right. But you know what? I was able to go home again when I wrote Until the Dawn, and there is a family in that book who will always live in that big old house on Magazine Street.
Alec Clayton is a displaced
Mississippian, now living in the Pacific Northwest. He is an artist
and writer as well as a former newspaper and literary journal publisher.
Clayton's current novel is Until the Dawn.
© 2000, Alec Clayton, All Rights Reserved