Understanding a place like Mississippi

By Gary Lloyd 

I’ve spent quite a bit of time swimming deep in the words Henry David Thoreau penned about Walden Pond, the novella Ernest Hemingway authored about a man battling a marlin in the Gulf Stream, and the colorful descriptions Rick Bragg illustrated about Mobile Bay. 

I have not spent much time diving into the words of William Faulkner. His stream of consciousness writing style can be a bit confusing. Fifteen narrators in As I Lay Dying? That’s too many, Bill. However, I recently came across a simple Faulkner passage: “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” In 2010, when I spent seven months living in The Magnolia State, I wouldn’t have understood that quote. Now, more than a decade later, I think I’m learning. 

My first job out of college was at The Magee Courier/Simpson County News in Magee, Miss., four hours from home. I was 22 years old and living in a town of 4,000 strangers. All there was for me there, at the time, was the breakneck pursuit of storytelling, Atlanta Braves games each night on TBS, and a lot of Taco Bell. 

I wrote dozens of stories, often at night in front of the glow of the living room television. I spent my days hunting stories and interviewing business owners, coaches, teachers, city leaders, police detectives, Vietnam War veterans, doctors and many more. My homesickness won out over everything else when I lived in Magee, and I now think it was a matter of unfortunate timing as opposed to not liking Magee. What 22-year-old transitions well from The Strip in Tuscaloosa to the farmer’s market in Magee? 

But now, 11 years after I made the move southwest to Magee, I remember things about that small town that I either didn’t realize or took for granted back then. Like how much shorter Magee’s Taco Bell drive-thru line always was compared with the ones in Tuscaloosa and Trussville. Just kidding. Sort of. 

Anyway, I barely remember most of the stories I wrote from April through October of 2010. When I comb through my Word documents of saved articles, I’m often surprised by what I wrote about. Counterfeit $100 bills found at the city’s main bank? I don’t remember writing about that. The area’s emergency coordinator talking about the upcoming hurricane season? I’m drawing a blank. The dozens of arrest stories about burglaries, contraband, methamphetamine possession and the rest involving handcuffs? No recollection.

But I remember some, and somehow clearer, now. 

Thinking back, I can’t remember a single time a person I needed to interview was late, rescheduled or didn’t invite me into his or her office. I don’t necessarily remember the black ink in newsprint, but I do recall sitting at my kitchen table late into the evening with a man who cooked ribs before and ran the down-and-distance marker during football games for two decades, save the year he endured 40 chemotherapy treatments; talking about undercover prison work with a police investigator who also sang for senior citizens; and stuffing what felt like a 100-pound watermelon in the trunk of my car after one of the best interviews I’ve ever been a part of with a produce stand owner. 

I remember wanting to write something great for the Magee High School senior football players that October, in a preview of their game against rival Mendenhall, a series dubbed the Simpson County Super Bowl. So, for the newspaper the week of the game, I interviewed all 21 of them. They lined up from the end zone to the 15-yard line, each eager to talk football, and I included every one of their names in that story, and I know they were proud. I heard recently that Magee won the 2020 state football championship, its first in 20 years, and I’m proud for that community. 

We are jaded sportswriters now, watching players run wheel routes from catered and air-conditioned press boxes, having game statistics emailed to us within minutes of the clock hitting 0:00. In Magee, while I kept most of my own stats during the Trojans’ games, the head coach still wanted me to have the official numbers, so he left copies in my home mailbox each Saturday. Speaking of that home, I rented it from a wonderful couple for $500 per month, a steal for a three-bed, two-bath home with a large, shaded lot and a kitchen the size of the court at TD Garden. For that price in Tuscaloosa I could have lived in, well, my Honda. 

It was funny, looking back at old articles for this column. I could hardly remember typing those stories and seeing them in print, something all journalists revel in. But I still remembered the names, faces and places, as if they were all stuck in time. 

I suppose I understand now what Faulkner meant.

Gary Lloyd is the author of six books and is a contributing writer to the Cahaba Sun.

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