Just Missed Ole Miss

Gentle Fusioneers, allow me to tell you the story of how I just missed becoming an Ole Miss Rebel.

It was February, 1991 and I was nearing completion of my residency in Nashville. Number One Son had just turned two years old, and Eyegal was very pregnant with Number Two. We barely subsisted on my meager resident’s salary, but we were young and dumb and didn’t know what it was like to have money, so we were happy. Number One has early memories of us pushing him in the stroller through Green Hills Mall, looking in the windows and not buying a single thing. It left an impression on the little guy; to this day he’ll pinch a penny till Lincoln screams.

Still, with another mouth to feed on the way, it was high time to get serious about leaving my poor student days behind and getting a “real job.” I caught wind of an ophthalmologist, a cutter (that’s what we optometrists called our surgical colleagues) with a fine reputation down Mississippi way who was a “Member of The Church.” He was looking for a young, hungry buck of an OD like me who didn’t mind getting his hands dirty with a little eye disease and could “speak the language” to referring optometrists.

Since I fit that bill to a tee, off Eyegal and I drove down to The Delta, where the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha Rivers meet to form the Yazoo, to a town we’ll call “Graywood,” to meet with Dr. C., a dead ringer for Archie Manning, and his lovely wife who had no doubt held her own in some Miss Magnolia pageant in the past, and truth be told, probably still could.

Now remember, Eyegal grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, and while my roots were rural, I had been more of a bookish, “inside boy” and had fired a gun exactly one time in my life–the kick of that .410 had startled me so, I swore I never would again. We had spent the last 5 years in Birmingham and Nashville, aka “The Big City,” and we knew that the prospect of becoming small town, Deep Southerners for life was a bit of a stretch for us. But we were open-minded, and Dr. and Mrs C, as charming as Ashley and Melanie Wilkes at a Southern soiree, did their best to make a good impression and set our minds at ease.

The Ashley and Melanie shout-out is no exaggeration. Dr. and Mrs. C’s home, you see, was a Gone With The Wind, fat Corinthian-columned, antebellum classic. It was a many-roomed mansion, the centerpiece of which was a ballroom complete with a sparkling chandelier, grand piano and a large, custom Persian rug that covered nearly every square inch of floor space.

They drove us up and down Graywood’s picturesque, historic boulevards and implied that if we moved there and I worked hard and diligently for Dr. C., that we too might someday own a stately Southern home, albeit a somewhat smaller one with narrower columns.

We toured his state-of-the-art office, and by the looks of the whiz-bang eye-gadgets and the machine-like efficiency of his staff, it was obvious that Dr. C was serious about offering top-shelf eye care to the denizens of Graywood and the surrounding Delta.

Despite our differences, we seemed to complement each other, like shrimp and grits. Eyegal and I, locked in telepathic gaze, read each other’s mind: Ya know, maybe we could pull off this Deep Dixie gig after all, y’all.

But that was before dinner at the country club. Oh, don’t get me wrong, our hosts and their friends were fine, well-heeled ladies and gentlemen, among the most upstanding and generous in all of Graywood. But when the conversation turned to the upcoming turkey shoot and strange words like “snood” and “wattle” began floating through the air, things turned Big Country in a hurry. Now I didn’t need a dictionary to tell from the men’s animated voices and the wistful look in their eyes that the bigger the “wattle” (for you Yankees, the “beard”), the better.

The women were no less enthusiastic. It was apparent that each was hoping that her husband or son would bag the biggest tom at this year’s shoot. They went into great detail about how they would gut and dress the poor bird and the type of cutlery they would use to make ready for the feast. Julia Child would have been proud.

And they did all of this sans wry smile and without a trace of irony, as if we knew exactly what they were talking about and were excited too. We weren’t so much, and unfortunately for Tom Turkey and pals, they were dead serious. Eyegal and I looked at each other–and blinked.

After dinner, we retired to the sitting room at the many-roomed mansion. Dr. C’s son, a high school student who worked part time as a visual field technician at his Dad’s office, ran into the room with a whoop and a roar. He’d just been to Walmart where he’d spent some of his hard-earned cash on a gleaming, foot-long hunting knife, and he wanted to share his joy. I would have expected Dr. C to rise from his chair and make over his son’s latest addition to his collection. But that shows how much I know.

No, it was Mrs. C who leaped to her feet. She took the knife from her son and held it up in admiration. As the light from the chandelier (smaller than the one in the ballroom) bounced off the blade and reflected a gleeful glint off her corneas, she smiled broadly, Miss Magnolia-style, and exclaimed “Now, that’s a knife!”

How clever, I thought, a Crocodile Dundee joke!  But no, she was serious, and you could almost visualize her dreamy reverie in one of those cumulus, thought-clouds above her head and see the turkeys as they hung there, awaiting their ultimate and everlasting evisceration.

The next morning, after exchanging pleasantries and goodbyes, Eyegal and I pointed our high-mileage poor student car toward Nashville and got away from Graywood faster than you can say “Hotty Toddy, Gosh Almighty!” We knew we would most likely never return. We had enjoyed our visit and liked the people and the town, but we realized that if we moved there we might never fully adapt to Mississippi mannerisms and mores.

“Too bad his practice isn’t in Oxford,” I said as we merged onto I-55 North. “I could handle Oxford.”

And we probably could have; college town, literary mecca, home of the Ole Miss Rebels and The Grove where “they may not win every game, but they never lose a party.” I suspect by now that I’d probably be smoking a pipe and reading Faulkner on a bench in front of Square Books.

Eyegal would be there too–when she wasn’t off buying another cocktail dress for her closet full of them and another string of gleaming pearls for accoutrement. Heck, I might have even worked up the nerve by now to sample some of that Ole Miss Kool Aid that they serve in those plastic red cups down at The Grove on Saturday afternoons.

And I have to wonder if I would be a real writer by now and not some wannabe poseur. Think about it–with all those current literary greats walking the streets of Oxford and the ghosts of writers past flitting through the muggy air, with rich, dark Southern Gothic on tap behind every elegant brick building and on every corner of Courthouse Square–how could I possibly, well, miss?

But it is what it is, and what it is, is good. My blood runs Crimson, not Rebel Red.

Roll Tide, Roll.

  1. CarolinaGirl

    It’s so nice to wonder what could’ve been and to remember you’re better off without it. :0)

  2. Jason Bybee

    Great piece of writing, Mike. In my opinion, you are a “real” writer. It’d be hard to picture you rootin’ for the Rebs, though.

  3. JRB

    Having deep and loving experience in these matters Mississippi, let me gently remind you that Mississippi is to writers as Nashville is to singers and Hollywood is to models. Good intentions, high ambition and latent talent do not Faulkner, Welty and Morris make. The vibe is very nice, but you’re better off. I grew up in Tennessee Williams’s birthplace, next door to Eudora Welty’s alma mater, then later moved to her very neighborhood. I even named my daughter after another notable Southern literary character. I, too, have tried my hand at “real writing,” but to my dismay, only boring academic journals and the occasional newspaper have given me a break.

  4. Mike the Eyeguy

    Maybe someday I will come to peace with the fact that “real writing” is that which makes one happy and provides amusement and enlightenment to one’s descendants as they pick through the digital detritus in the years to come.

  5. Kristi Sweeney

    Isn’t the definition of a writer simply “someone who writes?” Not only do you write, but you craft things that make me laugh, and, more often than I would care to admit, make me cry. You’re a writer, Mike. But don’t get all bigheaded about it.

  6. Mike the Eyeguy

    Don’t worry, Kristi, no danger of that as long as Eyegal is around. 🙂

    And thanks.

  7. mmlace

    After reading all these comments, I don’t know what to add.

    They’ve all said what I was gonna say…that you really ARE such a great writer.

    Like Kristi said, sometimes you make me laugh…sometimes you make me cry…

    But always, my day is better after having read what you’ve written.

    Thanks for sharing your gift with all of us here! 🙂

  8. Mike the Eyeguy

    Well, just for that, I’ll be pulling for your Hogs this weekend. Yeah, just for that.

  9. Kristi Sweeney

    Oh come on. We all know you pull for the Hogs so long as they don’t play Alabama and especially when they play Auburn. That said, thanks. I think we can use all the help we can get today.

  10. Mike the Eyeguy

    Woooopiiiigsoooooeee! And Roll Tide, Roll.

  11. Jennifer Baker

    Did you happen to get over to Greenville and drink the water? JRB and I took a trip through the Delta for our 2nd anniversary and stopped in to have a drink of the tap water because so many of the Mississippi writers had come from there.

    If not, get thee over there. Or order it from McCormick Books.

    Actually, you don’t need it. Just keep at it.

  12. JRB

    That’s right! We went to a restaurant and ordered water, but just to be sure they weren’t using bottled water, I sipped some water from the faucet in the bathroom. We finished that trip in Oxford and made a pledge at Ole Miss at sunset that we’d make it to academia. Now, I’m a teacher and a few times published.

    Nevermind all these compliments, you’re screwed.

  13. Mike the Eyeguy

    Gotta get me some of that writa’ wata’…

    Wait, is that the same brown water that Grisham wrote about in “The Appeal?”

  14. JRB

    What’s a “Grisham”?

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