Saturday, October 21, 2017

On the Road to Tupelo... see the King, his birthplace and the Tupelo museum devoted to his early life when he lived in Tupelo.

Cliff and I left Columbus, MS, heading west toward Starkville and then turned north, which took us through West Point, MS. We had a straight shot to Tupelo about 50 miles away. It was a beautiful fall day with clear skies, and the land opened up into small farms on both sides of the highway, with cotton bursting to be harvested, grain of some sort being harvested with combines, and the ever-present rolls of grass hay drying out in the morning sun. Beyond the small farm plots, trees languidly stood, growing ever closer to dropping their leaves. But even in mid-October the land was green.

The Chickasaw County Courthouse dominates this
portion of the Okolona downtown
As I've observed, Mississippi is a state with small to medium sized towns, and with it's 82 counties ensures that there are at least that many county seats. The counties are small compared to New Mexico's, since New Mexico is almost one-and-a-half times larger than Mississippi and only has 32 counties, and within just a few miles we crossed from Lowndes County into Clay County, the outskirts of Monroe County and then into Chickasaw County, where we saw signs for the county seat of Okolona. It was a beautiful day, we were in no rush, and so when it came time to exit the highway for Okolona, we took it.

Okolona is a town of about 2,600 people. It has a small downtown running east and west along Main Street. I was glad to see that on that Thursday morning the downtown was busy, with cars parked up and down the street. The county courthouse sits on Main.

Wisteria arbor provides a nice
place for shoppers to sit awhile
Yes, as in many of the small Mississippi towns there were empty store fronts. Perhaps there was also an area of big box stores, which might have accounted for the businesses that had moved away from the downtown area, but we didn't explore that far. From what we could see of the small town, there were nice old homes, both along Main as well as on side streets. We got out and walked up and down. We discovered a wisteria arbor, with benches beneath it and we could both imagine how beautiful it would be in the season when the blossoms were full. The arbor is right on Main Street and during hotter weather it would be a good place to get out of the sun.

We had parked on Main, right in front of a cafe called Generations Sizzling Griddle Cafe. We kept it in mind for a break before we left town. We had arrived around 11 a.m. and we figured we could dawdle awhile, since from Okolona, Tupelo was less than twenty miles up the road.

This is the family that owns the
cafe. Left is daughter Maggie.
Middle is Mother Dena, and right
is Granddaughter Callie.
I took a few more pictures, but eventually we decided to check out the cafe, sitting prominently right there on Main, and the only cafe that we could see. Over the course of our stay in the cafe, we learned that it had only been open since February of 2017; Dena's son-in-law had done all the renovations. All the menu items were based on recipes from both family members and friends. The day's special was lasagna, which I got along with a delicious broccoli cheese soup and potato salad—each a special recipe. Cliff got the salad trio of pimento cheese, chicken salad, and tuna salad, which came with Club crackers and homemade pickles. The cafe is located at 253 West Main Street, Okolona, MS. It's open for lunch from 10:30 - 2 p.m., Monday thru Friday. It's open for dinner Monday and Tuesday from 5-8 p.m. If you want a nice outing, you can call the cafe at (662) 401-1752 or (662) 631-0734. Visit their Facebook page for more information.

Dena, her daughter, and older granddaughter are friendly and accommodating, and Cliff and I had a great lunch, interesting conversation and an overall pleasant impression of Okolona. We really hadn't planned on stopping in Okolona for lunch, but that's just the way things happen when you have leisure time and a beautiful day to travel.

Again, towns are much closer together in Mississippi than they are in southern New Mexico. Instead of having to drive 60 miles between towns, here in Mississippi, there are little towns 10, 15, or 20 miles apart, which allows for frequent stops if you choose.

Of course, our real destination that day was Tupelo Mississippi, a mere 64 miles from Columbus, and the entire drive is beautiful and green. We were intent on visiting the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum, which also includes Elvis's family home and the church he went to as a child. There is also a gift shop, theatre, and lots of memorabilia from Elvis's thirteen years in Tupelo, before his family moved to Memphis. Coming into Tupelo from the south on Highway 45, it's easy to exit off onto East Main and go directly to Elvis Presley Drive and the museum. There are a thousand pictures on Google images of Elvis's home and even the church that was moved into the museum grounds. It was a good day for contemplation of the King.

The entire compound takes up many acres, including a high-ground overlook with benches. The gift shop is a compendium of every conceivable trinket with Elvis's name and image, from cigarette lighters to key chains, T-shirts, billed caps, and even clothing. What struck me was none of this so much as the fact that Tupelo loves it's famous son, naming streets and building after him, as well as creating and maintaining the quite extensive museum. On the grounds is a bronze statue of Elvis at 13 years old, the year he moved to Memphis with his family.

The Baby Boomer generation of course can claim Elvis as is own, and sometimes it's difficult for me to realize that we're now all senior citizens and grew up on Elvis's innovative blend of blues, country, and rock 'n roll. In Tupelo, at least, Elvis is forever young. To really get into the visit at the museum and birthplace, one has to buy tickets to see inside his family church as well as his family home. But maybe that's for another day when family comes to visit us and we can take them around the state or at least the sights within a 60-mile radius. We have yet to visit the gulf coast, which is quite a bit farther from Columbus than even Memphis, which is where Graceland is located and contains a much more extensive collection of Elvis memorabilia.

The day remained beautiful, and so we drove over to Tupelo's main downtown, which is also Main Street. The courthouse, here is north of Main. While the outside is impressive, the inside has been insensitively renovated. Oh well...Across the street from the courthouse was a coffee shop and dessert shop, called Crave, where cliff and I also stopped, as it was coming up on mid-afternoon. There you can get anything from muffins to candy to ice-cream and a variety of coffees and teas. And so we did.

Elvis had 30 number 1 hits in his career, and it is really difficult to find a particular song that captures so much of his talent. So I've chosen Blue Suede Shoes to end this particular post (followed by a two-hour selection of songs from another enduring great in the blues field.

Any time I drive around in Mississippi I am aware of the birthplace of the blues, as well. All over Mississippi are plaques and places where renown blues greats performed, even if some of them are not particularly from Mississippi, and so I leave you with a two-hour video for your enjoyment of B.B. King's greatest hits.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

It was a dark and stormy night...

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in Columbus, Mississippi, that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. 

                             Edward Bulwer-Lytton in the opening sentence of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. wasn't dark the day we discovered Eggleston Hall, nestled in among overgrown trees, set back aways from Third Street North; nor was it stormy, since Columbus seems to be caught up in a mini-drought. Nonetheless, unless you're looking for this old ante-bellum two-up/two-down, you probably will pass right by it. As the sign says it was built circa 1847, which just might make this old house one of the oldest in Columbus. But it's one of the forgotten, hidden historic houses that has seen much neglect and ruin in the last few years. It was obvious (from the satellite dish) that it hadn't been completely abandoned too long ago, and there is also evidence that someone had made emergency repairs to the back of it, probably to make it habitable (barely) for whoever the last tenants were.

I couldn't find any extant photos of the house as it must have been in its heyday or later when photography made it possible to capture images for newspapers. Like many old homes in the antebellum Columbus, it survived the Civil War.

There are Egglestons in Friendship Cemetery, as well as references to Egglestons in Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi. But I've been unable to find any other information about this house. There are other Eggleston Halls in the U.S. and the U.K. Whether or not there is a direct family history (ancestor immigrant) to the Eggleston Hall in the U.K. and the home in Columbus is obscured by time—at least as far as access through Google goes. I'm not much of a researcher on genealogy, so I hope this post will inspire those who are to do so. And if any Eggleston family members have more information on the house here in Columbus, contact me through this blog and I will expand the information.

I could imagine a multitude of stories when I saw this house, a film perhaps with Gone with the Wind music and the drama of a young Eggleston daughter awaiting the arrival of another prominent family of Mississippi for a few weeks of visiting (as Southerners were wont to do), because she had met the young man of that family in a colder month, and the two families were betrothed through their daughter and son. Maybe it was cooler here in Columbus than it was down near Vicksburg, and so the visiting family came to escape the harsher heat. Maybe one of the Eggleston daughters attended the Columbus Female Institute, a private school founded in 1847 and the future site where the Mississippi University for Women would be established in 1885. Eggleston Hall, whatever its condition is today has seen a lot of history, even though it now crumbles quietly and forgotten amid the overgrown trees and bushes along 3rd Street North.

In my year plus four months in Columbus, I'm always discovering new places, but among the very best are those that are obscured by the overgrowth around them, lending an air of mystery and the passage of time from a languid and deep history. I've seen two other antebellum homes of the same era as Eggleston Hall rise from the ashes of decay and ruin when they were renovated, which now stand proudly, imbued of new life through the hands of dedicated renovators who love the old homes and buildings here in Columbus and Mississippi as my partner and I do.

But about those dark and stormy nights, there will be those, along with lightning and thunder and the sirens of tornado warnings, and maybe I'll be caught out in such a storm and when lightning illuminates the hulk of a building in front of me...abandoned and forgotten...I will think of stories to tell about it.

A little more about Mississippi...Enjoy.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Poets, Storytellers, Writers, Books

Thursday Nite and Friday Nite Events in Columbus, Mississippi...

As I might have indicated in earlier posts, there is virtually something going on in Columbus, Mississippi, and many other cities and towns in the state every weekend of the year—but the best part is how easy it is to get to many of these events within a five-minute walk, a short jaunt to the next town, or an hour or so drive time. Sometimes, the problem is that it's difficult to decide which event to attend to the exclusion of other events.

Looking out from the Coffee Shop at the back of Books &
Boards during a busy night.
Thursday night, October 5, at the Books & Boards venue on Main in Columbus was Open Mic Night, where poets, storytellers, and writers read their work before a nice crowd, filling up all the chairs and tables in the store, as well as standing in the aisles. During this entire time, people kept the pie and coffee shop at the back of the store busy, as well. The readers covered all manner of genres, from poet-rap (with audience participation) to dystopian poetry read with a soulful cry to one reader bursting into ribald song as his piece called for, which delighted the audience. I took advantage (again) of open mic to read from one of my published works. I've been doing this once a month as I work my way through Book I of the Summer's Change trilogy. My purpose for these readings is to introduce many of my character sketches.

Friday, October 6, at the Rosenzweig Arts Building, several writers of the Columbus Writers and Storyteller group presented writing, in poetry and stories, in front of an appreciative group of listeners about "Livin' Mississippi." Angie Basson introduced the program to the audience and then read her piece "Mississippi You're a Crazy Quilt," and then because Deb (another writer in the group) couldn't be there, she read Deb's contribution to Livin' Mississippi. Jeanette Basson followed her daughter and read her piece about how her family came to Columbus, when she was a preteen and living on the west side of Columbus, and even how she ended up marrying the annoying boy on a church bus. Jeanette's piece took us back to a different time and evoked memories in the listeners, no doubt, of their own past. Jamella followed with an autobiographical sketch of her life and how she made it through as an adult, with beautiful daughters, after a lifetime of physical challenges, operations, and was inspired to be strong. I'd worked on my piece for several weeks and on the day of the presentation, I threw out everything I'd written and just spoke from a set of quickly jotted notes, which I used to initiate a thread that I could follow. It worked, and so I could spend more time engaging the audience than keeping my head buried in text. Donna Both, a retired teacher and grandmother used her time to read a poem she had written inspired by a local southern writer who had collected writings of her high school students into a book. Donna's poem, "I Know Things," hinted at a student in deep trouble, with a kind of cry of the lost, trying to brave her secret pain with bravado. And Donna's second entry was a children's story she had written for her grandchildren, complete with pictures about "Santasippi," a Mississippi version of Santa Claus. If I've left any of our writer's group readers out, I will correct this story.

Both events back to back on two nights is just one of the usual kinds of weekends we have around Columbus. This coming Friday at the Elbow Room Lounge is a free music night by a renowned blues musician—and this is just one venue.

I launched an ebook last September called Slices of Real Life, which is a collection of my essays written over several years and appearing in several literary anthologies. This year, this month, I launched a paperback edition of the same book. I worked for Amazon for many years, and now I am using their unique publishing venue to take care of a few of my writing projects in a way that makes them accessible to readers and to permanently capture them in book and electronic form. One reason I published this collection was to show readers of my fiction that my Common Threads in the Life Series, now seven volumes long (and finished) is not autobiographical. Slices of Real Life is autobiographical, and if anyone who likes my fiction wants to discover who I am (in part, maybe) my collection is now available. Slices of Real Life and the rest of my published work is available on Amazon. I'm currently working on spin-off novels for my Common Threads series and the next books in my fantasy series Twilight of the Gods.

One of the long-established southern bands from Houston, Texas, is ZZ Top. Their musical range spans several genres, including rock and blues. Enjoy!