Category Archives: Goings On In Baldwyn, Mississippi

The Dumbest Thing I’ve Done

A few weeks ago, I declared that I was right 98% of the time.  I even went further to suggest that, if my four sons would always simply agree with me, they’d only be wrong 2% of the time.  I don’t really have statistics to back that up, and in fact empirical evidence lately would go a long way towards disproving my assertion.

Nonetheless, I do pride myself in making sound decisions.  I’m an engineer by trade – an analytical thinker, a guy who likes to solve a puzzle, a guy who likes to fix a problem – but today, as I write this, I am prepared to make a full confession of … the dumbest thing I’ve done.

Perhaps this story will make me a sympathetic character in the eyes of the reader.  That’s my best hope.

black-frigidaireToday (which is some day in the past as you read this), I decided to purchase a basic refrigerator for The Claude Gentry Theatre.  The Claude Gentry is a wonderful old building I own at 110 West Main Street in Baldwyn.  On Saturday, August 11th, the historic structure will host an exciting new radio program called 2nd Saturday Live, and all the folks at Six Shooter Studios and Bidacaga Enterprises have been scouring the place for several weeks, making it spic and span for the upcoming event. 2nd Saturday Live is going to have notable Mississippians as guests, people of honor and accomplishment.  So, we figured they might want a Coke or something before they went on stage, and we figured they’d probably want it cold.  Thus, I decided to buy a refrigerator.

After checking several places, I choose the path of least resistance, cranked up our Ford F-250 work truck, and headed to Lowe’s in Tupelo to select a nice basic model, something they had on the floor … in black, to match our backstage décor at the theater.

I found an 18 cubic foot Frigidaire on the floor and haggled the sales clerk down a few bucks – I do that.  We made a deal, and they said to pull the truck to the exit, and they’d load the unit, packed in Styrofoam and shrink-wrap, for me.  I complied.

When I reached the loading point, I was greeted by my new refrigerator and two Lowe’s employees, some kid and his grandpa.  Maybe they weren’t related.  I really can’t back that up, but they did seem to work seamlessly as a team.  The kid and I deferred to grandpa, given his age and obvious wisdom, as to how exactly the refrigerator needed to be positioned in the bed of the truck.

“Vertically,” he said.  “Standing up.  Not supposed to lay these down.”

Now I had come in the work truck to pick up the refrigerator because it had an 8-foot long bed.  I could lay any refrigerator known to man down in the bed of that truck.  No refrigerator I’d ever seen was taller than eight feet.

“You don’t think we should lay it down,” I asked.  Every fiber of my being said to take that vertical, rectangular monolith of cooling and just tip it over on its side, where it would nest neatly into the horizontal, rectangular opening of the truck bed.  A perfect fit.

“Nah, I wouldn’t,” grandpa answered.  The kid said there was plenty of twine over by the door that I could use to strap the refrigerator down.  And they disappeared into the darkness of the closing doors of the Lowe’s exit.

It was very hot today (which is some day in the past as you read this), pushing a hundred degrees.  And there I stood, sweating, a couple strands of twine in my hand and the Washington monument upright in the bed of my Ford F250.  Every fiber of my being told me that two strands of twine weren’t really going to be enough to stabilize Frigidaire’s finest, towering above me, blocking the hundred-degree sun.

“I’ll go slow,” I said to myself, and I cinched the unit against the bed of the truck.

Approximately five miles later, somewhere between Barnes Crossing and Saltillo, I went something faster than slow, and I felt a slight shift in the way the Ford F250 was handling.  I glanced in my rearview mirror, and I saw an 18 cubic foot black Frigidaire refrigerator perched across the closed tailgate of my Ford F250.  And the real world instantly shifted to super slow motion.

The refrigerator rocked back and forth about twice and then launched like a trapeze artist that had gained momentum to make the big jump.  I think the fridge did a one and a half with a twist before sticking its landing dead center of the north bound lane of Highway 45 somewhere between Barnes Crossing and Saltillo.  There was a cloud of Styrofoam particles back there behind me.

One car was forced to stop.  Only one.  That was the miracle.

It took me about five minutes to circle back to the probable final resting place of the refrigerator.  I crossed in an emergency vehicle crossover to get to the southbound lanes.  Every fiber of my being told me that, if ever there was an emergency, this was it.  By the time I returned to the scene, some kind soul had moved my now-uncrated refrigerator to the side of the road.  I hopped out, and with the contents of my veins, by this time, being about 50% blood and 50% adrenaline, I just hoisted the refrigerator into the bed of the truck – horizontally – like a shoebox.  And I headed for home.

I could conduct the necessary autopsy on my once prized purchase in the more-friendly confines of Main Street Baldwyn.

The dumbest thing I’ve done is purchase a refrigerator, stand it up in the bed of a truck held only by a couple of pieces of string, and go carelessly fast enough so that it flipped out, slamming against an asphalt highway in a stream of oncoming traffic.  When I knew better at every step, in every fiber of my being.  Clearly, this disaster goes in the 2% category – times I am WRONG.

But, get this … the refrigerator works – only a couple slight scrapes and a repaired power cord.  That’s the second miracle.

Still … it’s the dumbest thing I’ve done.

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The Last One

Aunt Erma was the last one – the last sister.  She was the baby.

She was ninety when she died last week.

Erma was my grandmother’s sister, and her husband of seventy-two years, Jack Hamblin, Jr., was my grandfather’s nephew.  So, uncle and nephew married sisters three quarters of a century ago, and the resulting two descendant branches from great-grandparents Mark Lafayette Rutherford and Mary Emma Copeland were eternally double-dipped in kinship.

Aunt Erma’s and Jack Jr.’s daughters Becky and Christi are both my second- and third-cousins.  That’s Mississippi closeness.

IMG_8689 (1)Erma Jean, born in 1928, was a child of the Great Depression and the last of nine Rutherford children – four boys and five girls.  Times were very hard early in the Rutherford family.  In fact, Aunt Erma was only ten when her father Mark was killed by a train on the M & O Railroad.  It’s unclear whether Mark Rutherford’s death was a suicide or an accident.  Without exception, Aunt Erma always proclaimed her father’s death accidental, fiercely.  I suspect that if the determination and concrete composition found in the Rutherford sisters was evident in my great-grandfather, in any small part, then my Aunt Erma’s assessment was the correct one.

IMG_8689Ruby, Edna, Delia Mae, Geneva and Erma Jean – those were the sisters.  They laughed and loved one another, and visited, and fed each other, and fed each other’s children and grandchildren.  They each one represented the epitome of a well-defined type of Southern woman from their generation.  Not the ones who began life with means.  No, their starting point on this earth – from a purely financial perspective – was essentially void of any reason to retain even a basic hope for the future that was about to unfold on each of them in the back half of the twentieth century.  But they, and their brothers, had fight in them.  The Rutherford’s didn’t quit in 1938 when their father was hit by a train.  They dug their fingers into Mississippi dirt and climbed.  And every living soul that exists at the tips of the smallest, newest limbs of their unbowed family tree is the beneficiary of the unyielding will and tenacity exhibited in those brothers and sisters.

I can’t tell their stories with specific detail.  I’ll get them wrong.

IMG_8688I know they all had gardens when I was a boy.  Not because they enjoyed gardening as a pastime, but because they developed the habit back when they had to insure they had plenty to eat.

Aunt Erma fell out of a knotty pear tree on my grandparents’ place one time, and she hurt herself badly.  Each year, the sisters put up pear preserves.  Truly, Aunt Erma was well settled and secure enough in life, by the year she fell, to buy ten rooms of pear preserves at Big Star or Cunningham’s Grocery.  But she climbed up in that pear tree anyway that summer – because that’s what she and her siblings did.  They didn’t rest.  They worked to secure life for their families, in every way they knew how.

I contend today that the stuff that Aunt Erma was made of is a foreign substance in modern life, extinct.  Who routinely cooks for twenty people these days?  No one.  She did.

My mother told me that she remembered when Aunt Erma and my grandmother wrung the necks of a hundred chickens by hand, dressed those chickens, and put them in a deep freeze to use later in that year.  She remembered the plucking.  And frankly, she remembered it as it would probably be perceived today – a bizarre, surreal scene, a squawking feather tornado, and the children running and screaming through the carnage.  It’s practically impossible for that event to occur any other way.

When I consider that archaic moment now, I come to the quick realization that my grandmother’s and my Aunt Erma’s task on that day was no more palatable than it would be on this day.  Yet, there stood two wives and mothers, in feathers and beaks, two Southern women who would do anything for their families – for their comfort, to sustain them, because they loved them.  And because of the fight that resided at their cores.  As God is my witness.

All the Rutherford brothers were gone by 1991.

My grandmother Delia Mae died of cancer in 1998.  It seems like yesterday.  Aunt Edna died in 2001, Aunt Ruby in 2008, and Aunt Gen in 2011.

Erma Jean Rutherford Hamblin – Mother, Gran, Aunt Erma – died on June 26, 2018.  She was something else.  She was the last one.

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2nd Saturday LIVE at The Claude Gentry Theatre

Something really neat is about to happen.

Last Monday night, a group of excellent singers and musicians gathered at The Claude Gentry Theatre in preparation for an upcoming production called “2nd Saturday LIVE.”  In total, there were eleven of us on hand.

And over the course of two and a half hours, those assembled hammered out faithful renditions of the classic songs of Pontotoc-native Jim Weatherly – a member of the Songwriter Hall of Fame – including Midnight Train To Georgia, Neither One of Us Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye, and The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me.

Why, one might ask.  I’m happy to answer.

Web_2NDSATLIVE-01“2nd Saturday Live” is a new live radio show which will broadcast once a month (every second Saturday night, hence the name) directly from the stage of The Claude Gentry Theatre.  The program will air, as it happens, on WFTA Power 101.9 in Tupelo, a musical sister station to the SuperTalk Mississippi radio group.  Each hour-long production will start at 6:00 pm, and local admission to the event will be free.

See, neat.

A wild idea formed, just a few months ago – an inevitable offspring of the growing body of theatrical, film, musical, and radio & television broadcast life experiences I’ve had, both as an observer and as a participant.  We could start a live radio show, one to showcase the talents and artistry of successful Mississippians … and we’d do it monthly … and we’d do it live.  We could have guests and a house band and a host … like The Tonight Show, except that we’d be in Mississippi … specifically, we’d be in Baldwyn … specifically, we’d be at The Claude Gentry Theatre at 110 West Main Street.

The light bulb brightened.

I placed a call to a local radio station manager named Steve Knight and made a proposal.  I talked fast to hide the holes.  I used my greatest power on him – the ability to sound like I knew what I was talking about whether I did or not – and he listened.  Then he came to Baldwyn and visited the theater, and we talked some more.  Then, after I sent him eighteen more emails and text messages, he said he liked the idea … he actually said he liked the idea “a lot.”  He was particularly keen on the fact that we would put on our big show from our little, rural Mississippi town, in our little theater that seats eighty-eight.  We could be the unexpected, he said, the thing that comes out of nowhere.  I took note that another good power, which Steve recognized in my proposal, was the ability to turn a weakness into a strength.  People always root for the underdog.  I didn’t realize I was the underdog, but I’ll take it.

Steve said go, and I started running.

And now with a little help from my friends, on August 11, at 6 pm, the first broadcast of 2nd Saturday Live at The Claude Gentry Theatre will occur.  Special guests appearing on our very first show will be star singer-songwriter Mr. Jim Weatherly himself along with the co-author of his new book “Midnight Train,” Ole Miss journalist and author Jeff Roberson.  Nashville recording artist and Tupelo-native John Milstead will also appear, as will Dick Guyton, the executive director of the Tupelo Elvis Museum.  And a house band, made up of local musicians Don Anderson (bass), Jeff Spencer (guitar), Dan Davis (keyboard, saxophone), Richie Lomenick (drums) and Terry Hayes (guitar), will back our special guests as needed, ably accompanied our own vocal group The Claude Gentry Singers – Toni Johnson, Clint Reid, Amye Gousset and Kiswana Green.

The whole shebang will be graciously sponsored by Family Resource Center of North Mississippi, Farmers and Merchants Bank, and Sherwin-Williams.  And a few others to be named later.

And I’ll get to talk a little bit on the radio.  It’s about to happen.

See, neat.  I told you.

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How Do You Know That

I love a puzzle, I love a mystery, and I love history.  The entangled combination of those passions yields hours of enjoyment for me, pouring over old scraps of paper and pictures.  I happily lose myself in the pursuit of some fact that is today largely unknown – regardless of its importance – and in the uncovering of some odd and ironic link between faces and places of the distant past to the here and now.  I like to think, to find out things.

A few years ago, Baldwyn native Al Phillips brought a tattered, old show poster into my Main Street office.  As is the case quite often these days, Al told me I could hold on to his discovery.  He said I could hang it up somewhere or just put it to use wherever I saw a good fit with the rest of the town’s growing history collection.

I cleaned it up a little and had it framed.  It now hangs prominently in the foyer of The Claude Gentry Theatre.

Here’s what it says …

High School Auditorium

Baldwyn, Miss.

Adm. 25 & 50 Cents

Thurs. Nite, Nov. 21, 8pm

_____

In Person – The Original

DELMORE BROTHERS

Alton & Rabon

Makers of Millions of Phonograph Records Including the Famous

“HILLBILLY BOOGIE” King Record No. 527

Stars of

WSM GRAND OLE OPRY For Seven Years

WLW Boone County Jamboree for Four Years

_____

WAYNE RANEY

CBS Harmonica King

Plus

CYCLONE

The Funny Boy That Tickles Everybody

_____

A Clean Complete Show Guaranteed to Please the Entire Family

Singing – Playing – Comedy – Spirituals and Old Time Hymns

Heard Over WMC Daily, 6:00 to 6:30 AM

Don’t Dare To Miss This Treat!

 

That says a lot.  It tells us who was coming to Baldwyn to perform and where the show would be held.  It tells us what the show was all about and even why it would be worth our time to go see it.

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But what does it NOT say?  The answer: it doesn’t say WHEN then show occurred.

Well, sure it does, one might counter – it clearly says right there at the top “Thurs. Nite, Nov. 21, 8pm.”  Certainly, for the original reader of the poster, that bit of information, the one-line blurb, would be enough to pinpoint the date when the comedy of Cyclone could be enjoyed.  It would be the “next” November 21.  The one that was upcoming.  But for us, decades hence, we don’t know the year.

And that’s where I get interested.  Simply because there is something unknown, I want to know it.  Whether or not the desire to know the unknown is an admirable or deplorable trait in human beings, I’ll leave for another story, but for now, let’s see if we can find out what year this show came to Baldwyn.

My best friend – Google – tells me that Alton and Rabon Delmore were stars of the Grand Ole Opry in the 1930’s, actively performing from 1926 to 1952.  I also find that Wayne Raney, our poster’s second-billed star, was active as a performer from 1934 through the 1980s.

I look back at our poster – what do we know?  The Delmore Brothers had already recorded Hillbilly Boogie.  We know that they were stars of the Grand Ole Opry for seven years, but we don’t know if it was the immediately preceding seven years.  The same can be said for their time with the Boone County Jamboree.  Wikipedia says Wayne Raney played with the Delmore Brothers after World War II, but that doesn’t absolutely negate the possibility that they all happened upon the same card in Baldwyn on one odd night at another earlier time.  Rabon Delmore died of lung cancer in 1952.  Obviously, that sets the final range of date possibilities.

I shift gears and get analytical.  Between 1934 and 1952, only three times does November 21st fall on a Thursday – 1935, 1940, and 1946.

The Delmore Brothers became regulars on the Grand Ole Opry in 1933, so by 1935 they probably wouldn’t have been touting themselves as “stars” of the Opry for seven years.  Plus, Raney was the whopping age of 14 in 1935.  1940 seems like the likely year of the Baldwyn show since the Delmore Brothers would have been with the Opry for precisely seven years at that time.  However, coincidentally, the brothers left the Opry in late 1939.  Therefore, the duration of their stardom with the Opry was exactly seven years, and that was a fact they could have used in self-promotion for the rest of their careers.

So, what else do we know?  The Delmore Brothers were the maker of “the famous Hillbilly Boogie, King Record. No. 527.”  Hillbilly Boogie was released by the King label in March of … 1946.

There you have it.  The big to-do at the Baldwyn High School Auditorium starring the Delmore Brothers, Wayne Raney and Cyclone (I’ll find him later) happened on a Thursday night, November 21st, 1946.

Puzzle finished.  Mystery solved.  Check.

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Free Yodeling During the Ascension

Baldwyn, Mississippi, is a town with a rich history of entertainment.

Multiple theaters, both film and stage, have existed within the four-block downtown historic district from the late 1800’s through present day.  In 2011, when the Claude Gentry Theatre was being created, Bimbo Griffin’s construction crews pulled silent movie posters from the ceiling.  Yes, the ceiling.  That’s when we realized that The Claude Gentry Theatre at 110 West Main Street and its sister building at 112 West Main once had a common 2nd floor.  In fact, an expansive upper floor auditorium across the two buildings housed at first the Baldwyn “Opera House,” where the local high school staged a production of the play “The Deacon” in 1907, and later “The Princess Theater,” where they played the silent films “Love Is Love” starring Albert Ray, “Beating the Odds” with Harry T. Morey, and a serial called “Bound and Gagged” with Marguerite Courtot, all in 1919.

A playbill for the Opera House hangs near the cash register at Agnew’s Restaurant in Pratts, and the posters unearthed by Bimbo Griffin today grace the walls of the Claude Gentry itself.

Somehow things in Baldwyn seem to braid tightly together over time into one strong rope of historic continuity.  That’s how I see it anyway.

“A Big Balloon Ascension and Parachute Jump!”  That was the headline.

IMG_8459Three times on the page the reader is informed that the spectacle to come – on June 15th, the next Thursday – was FREE.

The event was multi-faceted.  Not only was it a balloon ascension, it was a balloon ascension by “the biggest balloon in the world.”  That’s what it said.

And not only was it a parachute jump, it was “a 5000-foot parachute jump by a girl.”

I squinted to make sure I read that right.  Yep, “by a girl.”  I guess in 1939 a parachuting “girl” still had to untie her apron, hand her babies off to her mother, and ask her husband for permission before crawling into a balloon basket for an ascension.  Different times.

And that’s not all!  The Journal boldly announced that “Angelina and her Yodeling Cowgirls” would furnish music for the ascension, at 2:30, and then appear in the Baldwyn Theater (now the Baldwyn School District Central Office) with a matinee at 3:30 and evening shows later that night.

A few clicks on the computer was all it took to learn that “Angelina” was Angelina Cianciolo Palazola Gish Grosswiller of Memphis, who passed away in 1997, after 60 wonderful years of entertaining with the all-girl group she formed.  The “Yodeling Cowgirls” became the “Roaming Cowgirls” in the mid-40’s, when their yodeler quit, but they continued on with radio appearances, USO shows and private events for decades in various configurations.

On June 15, 1939, cowgirls yodeled in downtown Baldwyn while the biggest balloon in the world ascended 5000 feet so that a girl could jump out of it wearing a parachute.

We framed the paper.  It’ll hang in Tom’s Drug Store very soon as a permanent reminder that this town of ours knows how to truly entertain.

My 15-year-old Maddux and I looked at the framed page a few days ago, still in limbo for the moment in the office of Six Shooter Studios.

His fingers moved over the edge of frame as he studied it.

“Isn’t that funny?” I prodded.

“Well, I never saw a balloon in Baldwyn – I think I’d like to see that,” he said.

You know something?  I think I would, too.

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Simon Sez

As the opening of a newly-renovated Tom’s Drug Store & Soda Shop on Baldwyn’s Main Street rapidly approaches, an extensive effort is being made to identify, sort and evaluate the voluminous historic collection of the late Simon “Buddy” Spight.

Simon passed away over six years ago – June 2, 2012 – but the ultimate legacy of the man, who loved Baldwyn, Mississippi, with true passion, may just now be reaching its infancy.  In the back rooms of a few buildings on Main Street there exist ten thousand pieces of paper, pictures, paintings, models, and artifacts of all kinds, collected over a lifetime by Simon Spight.

I have myself already laid hands on framed commissions of famous Confederate officers, a 1903 Blue Mountain College class picture, mugshots from the Lee County Sheriff’s office from the early 1970’s, scaled drawings of Baldwyn streets with the homes marked with resident names at different times in the past century, a 1925 official map of Baldwyn from the Library of Congress, original poems in both hard copy and on cassette tape with Simon’s bass voice reading his works, pencil sketches of our town’s historic buildings as they once existed, and pictures of literally thousands of Baldwyn residents, taken throughout the entire duration of the town’s existence, 1861 to now.  The finds are incredible already … and we have barely skimmed through a quarter, maybe, of the materials the man graciously left this town.

Frankly, I can write from today until the day I die and never do sufficient justice to the tales that are contained in the archives of Simon “Buddy” Spight.  Nonetheless, I’ll try to periodically deliver some of the most notable re-discoveries to you in this column every few weeks.

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Along with providing inspiration for stories of Baldwyn’s historic past, many of the documents and photographs will also make their way to public display in Tom’s Drug Store, which will serve a dual purpose as the Baldwyn History Museum.  One such document that has been re-discovered in Simon’s collection is – I believe –the original layout of the town of Baldwyn.  The map would have been drawn in the late 1850’s or perhaps as late as early 1860.  It’s hand-inked on sepia paper and shows the city blocks of “Baldwyn.”  Simon or someone prior to him mounted the map on a backing board with glue – I do wish that hadn’t been done – but the faded and crinkled lines clearly show the dividing boundary between old Tishomingo and Itawamba Counties slashing at a slight diagonal through the Main Street of Baldwyn, just as the county line does today.

A reference to “Carrollville,” the original community that shifted a mile and a half over to Baldwyn when the Mobile & Ohio Railroad reached this spot in December of 1860, is shown about where the depot once stood.  The other words in the overall phrase written on the map aren’t clear.  I’m working on deciphering that.  I’ll report back if the rest of the notation becomes clear and means something interesting.

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(Just so you know, Marshall J.D. Baldwyn was the Mobile, Alabama, native who proposed the M & O Railroad.  He envisioned a connection between his south Alabama hometown and the Ohio River, suggesting that that connection would make Mobile a commercial competitor with New Orleans.  Baldwyn believed that providing an alternate route for finished goods to reach the gulf coast, other than the Mississippi River, would divert enough shipping to help his Mobile thrive.  Baldwyn himself ceremoniously drove a railroad spike into the track in our Baldwyn in 1860, and this town, sitting at approximately the halfway point of the full length of the railway, took the visionary prospector’s name as its own.)

I would propose that the map was drawn by Charles Wesley Williams, the first surveyor of old Tishomingo County and a founder of Booneville.  In a way, he was a founder of Baldwyn, too.  The records show that it was Williams, along with his close associates and relatives, who bought and sold the original plots of land outlined on the map.  Those friends and relatives included Col. Richard Clayton, Carrollville’s postmaster from 1840 to 1853, and Porter Walker, the sheriff of old Tishomingo County (which is modern day Alcorn, Tishomingo and Prentiss Counties combined).  Charles Wesley Williams is one of my direct-line ancestors, and though he may have been something of an opportunist, as an engineer, I’m significantly proud of the fact that I’m standing on a block in Baldwyn that he created on paper in 1860.  And today, I’m making drawings of things that I hope to create in 2020 and beyond.  That’s the kind of cyclical, generational, uber-coincidence that helps me know that there’s meaning under the surface of all this life-stuff.

I think Simon Spight saw that, too.

So … all this is derived from just one piece of paper, re-discovered in Simon’s collection … and we still have 9,999 to go.

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The Gorilla Girl’s Relative Importance

“Come inside!  See her change before your very eyes!  The strange and beautiful girl becomes a terrifying ape!  Discovered in the wilds of darkest Africa, see her transform.  See the hair grow!  See the muscles swell, behind iron bars, placed there for your protection. Come!  See!  The Gorilla Girl!  If you dare.”

That’s what the carnival barker for the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show boomed, through his crackling microphone, just outside her tent.  A mystified kid of 14 and his friend stood slack-jawed on the east side of the midway.  An exchange of nervous glances and false bravado swirled in crescendo, culminating with the purchase of tickets to see this spectacle.  Our sweaty hands handed over our last crumpled dollars, and we huddled inside the square canvas enclosure with a dozen other lost souls.  How could such a shocking miracle of nature have come all the way to Tupelo, Mississippi, in September of 1978?

They are building an office building today near the spot where my friend and I stood spellbound by the Gorilla Girl forty years ago.  Four stories, they say.  The first of a matching pair planned for the ever-expanding Fairpark area of Tupelo, perfectly designed with its future mate to fit neatly into the aesthetically-pleasing architecture already in existence.  It’s a beautiful place.

At the south end of the fair’s midway, the “Himalaya,” twenty or so linked cars on a circular track, loudly blared rock music on a loop, coaxing passers-by into that high energy attraction.  Centrifugal force drove any passenger who sat to the inside of the ride outward into the passenger who sat at the edge.  It was crushing and irresistible and undoubtedly unsafe.  I remember how my arms felt straining to hold the lap bar in a futile effort not to drive the air from my friend who had mistakenly sat on the outside.  Once the ride started, it was too late.  And then it went backwards.

There’s now a statue of Elvis Presley, Tupelo’s most notable son, at the center of Fairpark.  Elvis was already a national phenomenon when he came to the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in 1956.  He was the King of Rock ‘n Roll, and his September trip to the fair that year was historic, an electric homecoming by a poor Tupelo boy who’d gone out into the world and made it big.  Those who were there on that day still remember it.  And they still talk about it.

Today, because of the perpetual love and adoration of Elvis, that one moment in September of ‘56 overwhelms all other moments in the history of the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show.  That’s an injustice, I think, to all those other years, decade after decade, that impacted impressionable Mississippians like me.  In 1978, my friend and I had not one thought of Elvis in our heads when those drum beats started inside that dark tent and a scantily-clad, long-haired girl writhed inside a cage in apparent pain.  Our hearts did beat fast though, probably even faster than the girls who squealed at The King twenty-two years earlier.

My mother took me on the “Zipper” when I was about five.  It was always set up near the south end of the fair, too, just northwest of the Himalaya.   The Tilt-A-Whirl, the Scrambler, the Octopus – they were all in that general area.  I assumed my mother was a mature adult when she put me on the Zipper, a vertical track of enclosed bench seats that went both up and down and rotated head over heels.  It’s hard to explain the motion.  It was like turning flips on a trampoline while on a Ferris wheel.  I was five.  She was twenty-five and today would be immediately arrested for child endangerment.  The thing had a “safety” restraint, which fit my mother nicely but allowed me considerable freedom of movement.  I’d say … sort of like a loose sock in a clothes dryer.  That’s about right.  She did try to catch me every cycle or so.  We never rode a Zipper again.

She changed.  The Gorilla Girl.  In dim lighting behind iron bars, a girl became an ape.  And we freaked out.  We didn’t talk tough.  We exhibited zero swagger.  When the gorilla grabbed the cage door and ripped it off its hinges, my friend I poured out of the tent back into the midway of the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show with the other dozen lost souls, like one homogeneous liquid, through every flap available, under tent walls.  We squirted out.  The drum beat had stopped, and the barker had screamed at the ape in a terrifying voice, “Get back! Get back! Get back!”  We heard it somewhere far, far behind us.

They are building a beautiful pair of office buildings in Fairpark today, near the statue of Elvis.  I’m sure they will be wonderful.  Almost as wonderful as the Zipper, almost as wonderful as the Himalaya, almost as wonderful as the Gorilla Girl.

Almost.

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Filed under Goings On In Baldwyn, Mississippi, Just For Fun, Mississippi History