Good Times in Elvis Land
On my school-reunion trip back home, I was met at the Jackson, Mississippi, airport by my childhood acquaintance Rebecca Anderson Sykes, the younger sister of Ferman Anderson, my best friend while growing up. The last time I had seen Becky was in 1957 at her marriage, which was presided over by her newly-ordained minister brother Ferman. So this meant I hadn’t seen either of them for 55 years.
When Becky and I were small (she was five and I was seven) many in our two families thought one day she and I would marry. We even participated in a child wedding that was put on by some of the older kids in the neighborhood.
Becky’s brother Ferman and I were inseparable friends from the first grade through our first year at Mississippi State University. We were truly as close as two friends could get. Then one day he went his way and I went mine. The Korean War was on and he became very fearful of being drafted into the Army. He decided, much to my surprise, to switch from Mississippi State to a small Bible college outside Atlanta, Georgia. Over the course of time he became a Christian Church minister, got married, had several children and became exempt from the draft. As for me, I went into the Army for three years.
While I was back in Mississippi for the reunion, I stayed with Becky in her very comfortable home in Jackson, the state capital. She has five adult sons and 13 grandchildren, several of them teenagers or grown.
Becky drove us from Jackson to Okolona, a little town of 2,000 located in northeast Mississippi—a four-hour drive. Okolona when I was growing up was a moderately thriving community but over the years has faded to the point that it is almost a dying municipality, like many small communities throughout our country.
Our reunion was held in a big, comfortable ranch house owned by Ferman and Becky’s nephew, Andy. He’s the son of their older brother Earl, who unfortunately died in a hunting accident twenty or so years ago.
To kick things off at the reunion, Ferman gave an opening prayer to all those present. It was his and my first sight of one another in 55 years. I worried over how it would go but I shouldn’t have. We picked up our friendship immediately as if we had only been apart a long weekend or so.
Ferman is at present a minister in Amory, Mississippi, about 25 miles east of Okolona. Ferman has four grown children and numerous grandchildren. His first wife died ten years ago and he is now on his second marriage.
The Sunday I was back there, I attended his church in Amory to hear him preach—a profession he has followed for nearly 60 years. His service was your typical Jesus-centered sermon in which he delivered a lively, evangelical shout session with amens being animatedly hurled back by his flock. In our friendship while growing up, I was always the out-going, extroverted partner and he was the inhibited, introverted one. I was absolutely amazed to see him toss out his Jesus edicts so vibrantly. To my surprise, he was a real sparkplug.
After services and a wonderful lunch at his home, he dismissed his wife and family so just the two of us could visit. To my amazement, we chatted away like we were two 16 year-old teenagers eager to catch up on one another’s activities. He didn’t in any way play the Jesus card with me as he knew it was totally unnecessary. We never had a secret from one another during all those years we grew up together and now it was exactly the same. We talked to each other about everything that had happened during those 55 years of separation. I was glad to see that he has done so well, lives in a nice home and drives a big, new Cadillac. We had a great time being 16 again.
Earl and my older brother Paul were good friends but not inseparable like Ferman and I were. Earl’s wife Sarah Nell was one of my classmates. I very much enjoyed seeing her again after 62 years. She was so pretty when she was young and still was. Van, her grandson, is in movies and we watched his film SHILOH about the big civil war battle. Van played the leading southern guy. He is really one of the nicest looking young men I’ve seen in a long time and is six foot three. (He is Earl’s grandson.)
During the reunion, those of us from out of town stayed in a nice motel in Tupelo, a thriving town nineteen miles away. Okolona, due to its hard times caused by no longer being on a main artery highway, doesn’t have a motel or at least one where you’d like to stay.
Tupelo is where Elvis is from. That entire area is Elvis country. Most of us knew the Presley family years back. Vernon Presley was a share-cropper on Mr. Alvis Corley’s farm. His brother Edgar was married to Becky, Earl and Ferman’s Aunt Mavis. Mrs. Presley when they lived on the Corley farm gave birth to twin boys. In order to get in some points with Mr. Alvis, Vernon Presley named one of his sons after him—Alvis Presley and the other son a made-up, rhyming name of Elvis. Alvis died and it left the world with Elvis. Such is the folklore of the south and the area from which I originated.
In the next and last installment of my reunion in Mississippi, you’ll find out if one can go home any better than in the time Tom Wolfe wrote about such things in the late 1930s.