Be forewarned, today and for who knows how long, the detour from I-20 to I-22 through Birmingham is one hot mess! If you have ever driven to Memphis, Tennessee from the PTC/Fayette/Senoia area, you have most certainly seen the signs to Tupelo, “Childhood Home of Elvis Presley,” and you have then driven by New Albany, “Childhood Home of Bill Horton,” and for a very important few years in my life, what was my home also. Some years ago, you would have driven right downtown on Bankhead Street (Highway 45) before the I-22 bypass was built. Now you will miss the charm of that small city, like so many other little towns along the way: Gu-win, Carbon Hill, and Hamilton, Alabama.
This morning, while our family was otherwise engaged, Bill and I slipped off to revisit the old haunts that were part of his childhood and part of both of our young adult lives. We met, courted, and married in this pretty little town in North Mississippi where the population has doubled to approximately 8,500 since we swam in the city pool, ate at the lunch counter in Roger’s Drug Store, and plunked five cents in the parking meters in front of the Western Auto Store.
We drove around searching for landmarks which reminded us of those halcyon days when our biggest concern was what to wear on Saturday night, date night. “Look! That’s where Moose Phillips grew up. Across the street there is Dr. Beaver’s old office, and on the corner is where Mary Nell Baggett’s mama’s house used to be.”
Bill and one-third of his classmates from the Class of 1957 gathered last Saturday night for their yearly reunion. Bill had lost his two best friends, Robert Owen Russell and Claude Smith, in just the last four years. The group had decided to meet every year after their 50th, recognizing that they were indeed not immortal and that each summer’s reunion might be the last time they would gather to share tales of Friday Night Lights, of that remarkable touchdown pass from Jerry McCardle to Wayne Terry Lamar, to tell stories of the Band Trip to New Orleans where a photo shows Bill and three friends at their first Night Club, or of the legendary Senior Trip to Washington, D.C. where all 32 classmates rode on one big, ole Greyhound bus, and so the reunion has become an annual event.
The morning after, we drove by the deserted Greyhound station and I was reminded of the once harrowing race when the brakes on my 1955 Pontiac failed! Out of control, I bumped across the R/R tracks (whew! no train coming), then crossed on-coming traffic before coming to a crashing stop at the fender-high concrete bus stops!!
From there we crossed the famous Tallahatchie River Bridge where Billy Joe McAlister “jumped off” in Bobby Gentry’s 1962 pop song; then we went in search of Russell’s Drive-In where teens converged every Friday and Saturday for cokes and burgers, and where the car-hops skated from window to window which blasted Rock n Roll music into the summer nights.
Russell’s was gone. It no longer existed—there were now several commercial buildings in place of Russell’s whose iconic Milk Shake sign once zapped and spit flies and mosquitos off its chocolate frosted mug.
We saw many new shopping venues, nail salons, the big new Reed’s Grocery, a boon after years with major chains coming…and going. We turned around in the very same bowling alley where once I practiced almost every day after school and then mercilessly wiped the floor with Bill on Saturday night when he came home from Mississippi State. “I just must be lucky,” I laughed, and coyly looking over my shoulder, threw another Strike!
Back across the bridge, we turned to the right and found where the tennis courts and pool used to be. A giant playground occupies that spot now, but on the hill above stands the little brick community center where Bill took me to Saturday night dances and where I went with a guy friend to the prom because ONLY juniors and seniors were allowed—no college boyfriends or sophomore girls! I still have the black and white dress I wore to a later formal, escorted by my then and forever “Steady” boyfriend, Bill. I also wore his ring around my neck on a gold chain…just not with formals.
“Look! They have painted our little house bright orange,” I hooted as we turned the corner in front of what had been Mattie Thompson Elementary School but is now some kind of government office complex. The little house which we had rented after Bill got out of the army was indeed a crazy shade of orange; it looked like a giant Dreamsicle! A large bolt of lightning had once danced up onto that very porch, opened the screen door, and scared us nearly to death.
The little duplex around the corner where we later moved was in need of some TLC. It was littered with trash and the roof looked like it would cave at any minute. What once had been a cute little brick bungalow was now an eye-sore! Such a shame.
We were happy to see that my girlhood friend Andrea Lee’s house and many others on that street were being bought and refurbished, bringing them back to the days when they stood proudly with rockers on their Victorian or Craftsman-style porches. Bill’s home, built in 1945 just as WWII ended, was also in good repair. These things seemed somehow important to us now, as we drove about—trying to recapture our youth, I guess.
Saturday evening, when we arrived at the Masonic Lodge, the site of this year’s reunion, there were only 10 of the 32 left who had climbed on that Greyhound bus. Only 10 left to tell those sweet, sad, funny tales. Seven men and three women from the Class of 1957—with their spouses—filled only one, long, banquet table.
And we had a Ball!!
*Greyhound still serves over 3800 destinations across North America.