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A Turn in the South


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Off to a wedding in Oxford, Miss. Thought I would fly there. But you can’t — you have to go to Memphis, then drive for an hour.

The only other time I was in Oxford, I flew in — to Oxford itself, I mean. The occasion was a Firing Line debate. I was part of the Buckley entourage, you might say. We had flown privately.

But if you’re flyin’ commercial — it’s Memphis for you, buddy.

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Surely one of the best things about the Memphis airport is the smell of barbecue. I’m later told that the joints in the airport are lousy. That they are pale imitations of their counterparts in town. I’ll test one of those airport joints on my return.

Across from the rental-car agency is the Catfish Cabin. “From 11 to 4, you can’t get a place in the parking lot,” someone says. “It’s completely full.”

In the rental-car agency, I hear one of my favorite terms: “ink pen,” with the second word pronounced “pin.”

Nearing Oxford, I speak on the phone with a nice young woman at the hotel. “Just look for the tower on your left,” she tells me. “Can’t miss it.” Ten minutes later, I blow past the place. When I circle back, I count the floors in the tower: eight.

The establishment’s slogan is “The only five-smile hotel in the South.” Nice. But I bet you can get plenty of smiles in hotels across this region.

Everywhere I go, people wave at me. It’s as though they were happy to see me. Cars with green lights stop to let me cross. I’m on foot. I’m waiting at the red light, as one should. But the drivers think it’s more important that I cross than that they proceed.

Remarkable.

Something else I could get used to: being called “baby” (by perfect strangers).

City Grocery, a restaurant on Courthouse Square, is famous for shrimp and grits. That fame is deserved, I can testify. But don’t overlook the chocolate pudding — a kind of bread pudding, I think. It should have equal billing.

Oxford is in Lafayette County, and I like the local pronunciation of that French name: La-FAY-ette, to rhyme (sort of) with “Just say it.”

Faulkner called this county Yoknapatawpha. I remember my professor Joseph Blotner, a Faulkner scholar, telling us, “He always said you spell it like you say it.” And with that, my professor wrote the name on a blackboard.

Do blackboards still exist?

On the campus of Ole Miss there’s a street called Presidential Debate Way. Why? Obama and McCain dueled here in 2008. Well, it wasn’t much of a duel, since one party was essentially unarmed.

Walking around the campus, you might wonder how they pick the beauty queen here. There are so many obvious candidates. They seem almost to be auditioning.

I like seeing black and white working on the same construction crew. Am I like someone who wanders into Europe at this late date and says, “Gee, how nice to see the French and the Germans getting along”?

I don’t like so much seeing the Thad Cochran Research Center. I’m sure that Cochran is a swell guy. (He’s the senior senator from Mississippi.) But I’m always uneasy seeing politicians’ names on public buildings. Are those names there just because their bearers have brought home the bacon? Is that a good enough reason?

Is there anything in West Virginia not named Byrd?

Here is a wonderful name: Luckyday Residential College. The college is part of Ole Miss. They had a residential college at the University of Michigan, too. Don’t know whether it’s still there. I can tell you something about how it was: It made Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow look like Hillsdale.

I have never been able to begrudge memorials to Confederate war dead. I ask other Yankees: Have you? These memorials are moving, no matter the cause for which the soldiers died. This is in part, of course, because those soldiers were on the losing side.

Take the Confederate section in Arlington — I regard it as one of the most moving in the entire cemetery.



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