Reunion in Okolona, Mississippi
The phrase “you can’t go home again” has entered American speech to mean that once you have left your country, town or provincial backwater city for a sophisticated metropolis, you cannot return to the narrow confines of your previous way of life. The author Tom Wolfe made this expression popular via his novel of the same name. In it, he described the life of a person trying to return to his town after having achieved recognition as an author.
So many of us grew up in small towns but realized early on that our lives were not destined to be tied to a conformist society. For one reason or another, we didn’t fit in with local thoughts, customs and ideas. We had a choice: we join the passive parade or we break out of our coop. If opening your brain up to new ideas and liberal practices were what you had in mind, you realized you’d have to do that elsewhere. One thing was certain—your present environment did not plan to change. You could conform to it or leave. I left.
I grew up in a small town of 2,000 named Okolona, Mississippi. As a child, I loved so much of the atmosphere of the Old South—the colorful people, the food and its timeless theatricality. But after puberty, people like me discovered that we just didn’t fit in. For one reason or another, tolerance of being different was not to be tolerated. So upon graduation from Okolona High School in June of 1950, I left the nest in which I had been hatched. We’re talking nearly 64 years ago.
A miraculous thing happened in September of 2012. The sister of my best friend while growing up organized a high school reunion built around a gathering of her family. She and I had loosely been in contact over the last ten years due to her being an avid reader and discovering my novels. She invited me to come back home for a week—and I accepted. I had been back to my small town only once in the last 38 years and that was for my mother’s funeral. After she died, I had no other relatives in Mississippi and, therefore, no reason to return.
So off I went to Mississippi on August 30, 2012, for 9 days. What were some of the things I learned via this trip? Was it possible to go back home again in spite of Tom Wolfe’s admonition? Would I, a party of one, be able to hold my own back there in a sea of intransigence? How had things changed —if at all?
In some ways I found out you could go back home, but culturally and socially many things I saw had stood still in my absence. I on the other hand had been doing the dance of change since I left there in 1950.
Two things became painfully obvious on this trip: (1) I could never go back to Mississippi and live; (2) so much of my home state remained permanently etched in my psyche and thus felt good and natural—like my taste buds for example.
The events of this trip were truly bipolar in nature. A friend of mine suggested that I share these thoughts with you. I hope in fulfilling his request, you might see a bit of yourself when you in one way or another attempt to “return home.” These reflections are too much for one blog, so I have spread them out over two future blogs.
Overall I really had a wonderful 9 days in Mississippi: good food, interesting people, and plenty of that old-south theatricality. When I left over 60 years ago, I was glad to be running away from a set of people who were unreasonable and far out in their dealings with Jesus and religion. Both were forced down one’s throat like they do with those paté- producing geese in France. That alone got me running out of Okolona as fast as I could.
Upon my return 60 plus years later, I saw the old Jesus hold and squeeze was still going strong. They just couldn’t get over that I wasn’t as scared and fearful of religion as they were. Everyplace we went, I saw people holding hands and praying over their tacos and burgers at MacDonald’s and Taco Bell. I couldn’t remember a time of ever seeing the same thing happen here in California. That alone made me glad I got out of there when I did.
More next blog.