"Memphis Band and Orchestra," date and photographer unknown. Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District. Image Number: 102-11388.

The Middle Distance 6.8.12: Down Home

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Photo by Sean Cayton

When I told my friends in Colorado that I was going to my 40th high school reunion in Memphis, some of them looked at me with that look. You know, oh, poor thing. Everybody knows high school was hell.

I stopped in Kansas City to visit friends and got more of the same. If we went to our high school reunion, the consensus seemed to be, we would have to put up with “those people” whose politics and religious beliefs are polar opposites of our own.

That might have been true, but over two days of reminiscing and trading stories with dear old friends and near friends from my high school class, I’m happy to report that political and religious differences did not make an appearance. We were too busy discussing whose parents had died, whose spouses and brothers and children, and who, at 58, looked most like his or her photograph in the 1972 White Station High School yearbook. We were too busy remembering how love felt in those flushed throes when we were sixteen, and how we had crammed so much life experience into that brief time period. We were too busy being grateful to be alive.

And I was too enamored by the chance to revisit Memphis. A friend and I had lunch at a brightly colored soul food joint in the city’s rejuvenated downtown where tourists in Bermuda shorts sweated mightily as they huffed toward Beale Street and the owner of the restaurant, an elegant looking African-American grandmother, came out of the kitchen to personally kiss every single customer.

Two days after the reunion party, I left Memphis for the Gulf coast of Texas and a visit with family. I had lunch with a cousin who politely offered to eat somewhere near an on-ramp to Interstate 40, assuming I would take the most direct route south and west, swept along by tailwinds of 18-wheelers. Instead, I headed out Elvis Presley Boulevard, past Graceland and the Heartbreak Hotel, to Hernando, Mississippi, then cut across to the Delta and Highway 61, the Great River Road.

I stopped for gas in the tiny hamlet of Eudora, Mississippi, and asked the clerk, a teenaged girl, for directions to Clarksdale, about 90 miles away. She looked at me as if I’d asked for directions to Chicago. “I ain’t never been there,” she said. “I just drive ‘round and ‘round here.” She pointed to the back of the store and an elderly man in a baseball cap and pressed overalls. “He might know,” she said.

The old man frowned and made me repeat myself twice since he couldn’t hear, then brightened once he understood my question. “Take 304 to the Delta and turn left.”

He cradled a cell phone in one hand and a wrinkled sheet of white paper etched with handwritten numbers in the other. “I can find my people everywhere with this thing,” he said. “Rochester, New York! Everywhere.”

The Delta loomed flat and black and Highway 61 wound south past little towns with markers commemorating hometown boys along the Blues Trail: Willie Dixon, Louisiana Red, Muddy Waters. Live oaks to the west, toward the river, waved ghostly flags of gray Spanish moss, and cardinals zipped across the road from tree to tree, a streak of red. Occasionally I saw a car or a truck.

The voices of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Jerry Butler, and Sam and Dave filled my car with incongruous soul songs, happy beats beside sad lyrics.

The next day I turned right at the Acadiana Trail in Louisiana and followed the highway over bayous and through towns with barely pronouncable names. Road signs at diners switched from barbecue and fried chicken to boudin and cracklings. I knew I was in Texas when I smelled the refineries of Port Arthur with my windows rolled up.

Green thicket gave way to flat salt marsh and cattle grazed with white egrets mounted on their backs. The road across the Bolivar peninsula, bordered on one side by the oily Intracoastal Waterway and the other by seaweed dunes and the Gulf of Mexico, seemed impossibly long. Kris Kristofferson and Janis Joplin got me through the long wait for the ferry to Galveston.

I stretched my legs next to a Spanish-speaking family as we chugged across bay waters, seagulls breezing past our heads. Just as we were about to return to our cars, the silver flush and stir of a school of dolphins churned the water nearby and a little boy’s delighted cry rose above the shriek of the gulls. It sounded to me like heaven, like honest to goodness down home blues.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


3 Responses to The Middle Distance, 6/8/12: Down Home

  1. Rose Enyeart says:

    I had a swell time at the reunion. Thanks for taking me along and I LOVED the road trip!!!

  2. Paula says:

    ahhhh, so close to Columbus, but yet so far, missing it from your description

  3. Terry says:

    Kathryn, once again you took me back to great memories of home, the south, and all it’s colorful culture of people, music, food and land, in your weekly essay.

    I agree, when you remember your high school years with your fellow classmates, it’s a warm feeling to talk about the good old days with fondness and gratitude. We have a website on Facebook of the old neighborhood, where most of us went to school from the 1st grade through the 12th grade, where we are able to continue our discussions of those great days growing up together in our safe neighborhood, on the bayous, creeks, and woods, swinging on ropes in trees, riding our bikes all over the south part of Houston, through the golf course and swimming in the neighborhood pool, attending scout meetings and going on camping trips.

    We constantly agree that we were a lucky generation, even though our parents didn’t have a lot of money, we all agree that we wouldn’t change a thing.

    Thanks for another great essay, bringing back great memories of the south, such as the great southern food we grew up eating, and driving down the old River Road along the Gulf, which is so dear to my heart. I surely miss the south and you always remind me through your essays!


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