Meridian Star

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April 24, 2011

Be home before dark

MERIDIAN —     It was a sleepy decade, Ike seldom in the White House, mostly playing golf.  Somehow Meridian, too, sprawling in the shadow of the Appalachians’ last foothill, seemed rather somnolent, especially during  warm months.  Leaf-dappled residential areas fell languid after noon.  Downtown drowsed around its oak-shaded City Hall, a few pedestrians and automobiles dawdling along as though tip-toeing.  A pretty town, visitors would comment, and indeed I remember the Meridian of our younger days as such, streets arched by huge old oaks, lush with azaleas and dogwood in spring, blue and purple hydrangeas, pink and crimson roses in summer.  Not one of Mississippi’s oldest towns like Natchez or Columbus, its bygone era lingered in historic sections of tall gabled Victorian houses set in lawns fronted by mossy brick sidewalks.

    Against such a backdrop as un-sleepy teenagers of the early 1950’s, we created much of our entertainment — no local television channel and few television sets existed, their screens usually gray snow — and creative we were.  We recalled legendary antics at Meridian High School Class of 1953’s nineteenth consecutive reunion recently held at Meridian Community College’s Magnolia Hall.

    Our imaginations manifested themselves largely in mischief and roaming. As we reconvene at more than a half century’s zenith, gazing back down the colonnade of years, old time whispers of  long-ago spring days, evoking vignettes of that eternal seventeen-year old gamin, covert within each of us, emerging silhouetted against decades, ebullient, aspiring, a slim paradigm in that era’s casual modish garb.

    We are dashing somewhere in my mother’s silver-gray Chevrolet, windows down, hair blowing,: blondes Beth Brandon, Louise Matzner; Jackie Hopkins, dark-curled; reddish-gold topped Virginia Ann Peter.  Intermittently we sing along with the radio, medium-toned so at intervals we can talk.   Innocent, curious, we probe religion, sex, everything tantalizingly clandestine beckoning ahead.

    We’d take lunches and ramble to Sand Gully, a deep, wide, red-clay  gash a hundred feet long  plunging into wooded countryside northeast of town, a little spring at bottom trickling through  beige sand; or to Dunn’s Falls, high above amber Chunky River.  Perhaps Jerome Stephens, Tony Sansone, and Jack Jackson are with us.   We’d stand under or behind the falls in our bathing suits, afterward picnic on ledges descending toward the water.

    From a lofty point secluded in woods up on Sand mountain we could view through a leaf-fringed ellipse the town’s lights flicker on, a silver dot glinting from the east edge, then red, blue, green specks scattering at random, like bejeweled pendants in a giant Gypsy necklace, yellow rectangles checkering the Threefoot Building, its tower puncturing thin mist.

    “…seems like yesterday…”   

    “We used to walk home from Ray Stadium after ball games, singing the Wildcat Song,” recalled Janice Harmon Eatman. “It was several miles, but we weren’t afraid back then.  After a party at Sylvia Jones McMinn’s, Ann Bradley, Randall Woods, some others, and I decided to walk to Ann’s house on Davis Street.  It was a long way, late at night.  We thought we knew how to get there — wandered for hours. I don’t know where all we went. A carload of nice guys in hunting clothes asked if we were lost and took us straight to Ann’s. Things were different then.”

    “Ain’t it funny / How time slips away…”  

    “Do you remember Sadie Hawkins Day,” reminisced Charlie Smith, “from Al Capp’s comic strip ‘Lil Abner’?  In Dogpatch once a year, women chased men, and whoever got caught had to marry the girl.  When we were seniors, we had our own version, guys at the north goal line, feet hobbled.  We ran all over the campus, through the grove.  Girls chased and caught whoever they wanted to take to the dance.  Of course everyone knew who they were supposed to catch.”

    “We were proud to be Southern,” someone recalled.  “One Saturday, a bright pre-spring day, we celebrated Robert E. Lee’s birthday, wearing gray Confederate caps, renting a horse and old wooden wagon.  We clopped down Twenty-Third Avenue, singing ‘Dixie,’ flying a Confederate flag, cheering the General.”

    “Then a crowd of us gathered at the entrance to Northwood subdivision,” another added, “cheering as ‘Doc’ Rainey, a class or two ahead, stood on one of the brick pillars,  presiding over an unauthorized changing of the name to ‘Southwood.’”

    On humid, seemingly interminable summer afternoons, we’d drive in someone’s family car — for virtually no high school student had  his own vehicle — crammed with as many as could be jammed in, just meandering.  We’d veer off paved highways onto leafy woods-arcaded clay roads, once all girls, to a rocky ridge west of Meridian, dead-ending at a moonshine still, its big-bellied proprietor swaying, threateningly toward us.  Frantically, whoever drove backed in a sputtering curve as we locked doors, raised windows, since cars weren’t air-conditioned then, finally speeding off in a whirr of tires spattering mud.

    For what during those ventures were we seeking?  They were more than roving adolescent escapades, though we did not then conceptualize such.  Metaphorically, we were launching our odysseys.

When you start on your journey to Ithaca,*

…pray that the road is long,

full of adventure, full of knowledge.

Do not fear … Cyclops and the angry Posidon…

…pray that you…enter ports seen for the first time…

…purchase mother-of-pearl…coral, amber and ebony;

visit hosts of Egyptian cities…

Do not hurry the voyage…

It is better…to last for long years;

to anchor at the isle when you are old…

With the wisdom you gained…the experience,

you must surely have understood…what Ithacas  mean.

                                                                                              — C.P. Cavafy, “Ithaca”

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