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Fall Travel Issue: A pair of Oxfords

The sounds and the fury -- down home with Ole Miss, beauty queens and literary greatness in Oxford, Mississippi

Down home with Ole Miss, beauty queens and literary greatness.

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By Bill Thomas
Sunday, September 12, 2010

A line of heavy thunderstorms up from the Gulf is moving across the Mississippi Delta. Driving north on Route 49, I'm hoping to beat the rain to Yazoo City, but 10 minutes out of town, a monsoon begins. In a part of the country famous for floods, getting off the road suddenly seems like a good idea, which is when I spot a rundown building with a sign on top that says Clancy's Bar B-Q.

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By the time I make it inside, I'm soaked to the bone. "Poor darlin'," fusses the waitress. "What you need is the rib special." Clancy's has more mismatched dinette furniture than a neighborhood yard sale, and when a guy at the next table hears I'm headed to Oxford to see Mississippi play Alabama, he predicts, "We gonna beat 'em."

There's not much doubt about the meaning of "we." For the next hour, people are reminiscing about past Ole Miss greats and big games, such as the one in 1969, when legendary quarterback Archie Manning passed for 436 yards and ran for another 104. Forget that Mississippi lost in a 33-32 heartbreaker, or that the 2009 Ole Miss Rebels are no match for the same Alabama Crimson Tide, ranked No. 2 in the nation. In Clancy's, the only team that matters -- maybe the only thing that matters -- every football season is Ole Miss.

"You'll find that's pretty much true all over the state," another customer says. "We love our Rebs."

***

There is some question, I'm told, about the exact dimensions of Mississippi's delta region. One theory is that it starts in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends 200 miles downriver in Vicksburg's Cat Fish Row. The vast alluvial plain in between, full of cotton fields, bayous and stately plantations, encompasses as much fable as it does actual real estate. There's Clarksdale, the town where blues pioneer Robert Johnson is supposed to have traded his soul to the devil for a life of fame and fortune, and the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County, "surveyed and mapped" in the fiction of William Faulkner.

But the delta, however it's measured, is the heart of Dixie. Everywhere you go, music and literature mix with the turbulent history of the Civil War and civil rights to surprise visitors, especially Northerners such as myself, with how different Mississippi is from what they imagined.

Several years ago on a business trip, I met Hiram Eastland, a lawyer from Greenwood and nephew of the late Sen. James O. Eastland of Mississippi, staunch defender of the Old South during his many decades in Washington. Hiram, 60, seemed to know everyone in the state, an accomplishment made easier than it sounds, he explained, since tens of thousands of them show up in Oxford whenever the University of Mississippi plays a home football game.

They pitch tents in the Grove, a wooded area in the middle of campus, set up bars and sumptuous buffets, hire their own live entertainment, and basically turn the occasion into a giant reunion. The partying continues until game time and, win or lose, resumes afterward, frequently lasting late into the night.

"You've got to see it to believe it," said Eastland, an Ole Miss grad, who soon had me persuaded to join him, his family and friends for a football weekend Mississippi-style.

So here I am. When I arrive in Oxford, it's just getting dark. Hiram's wife, Gail, and her sister Debbie are waiting for me in front of Abner's, a fried-chicken landmark already crowded with customers placing carryout orders for tomorrow's game. The plan is to rendezvous with Eastland, then go to a party at a friend's house near campus. On the way, I get a chance to take in some of the sights as we drive down tree-lined streets, past columned mansions and the old county courthouse in the town square with its stone statue of a Confederate soldier.

Named after the university city in England, Oxford (population just over 19,000) is so much a part of Ole Miss it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Oxford also occupies a unique place in American literary history. William Faulkner lived here for most of his life, using the town as a setting for many of his novels and short stories. Willie Morris, whose own work explores the strange hold his native state has on Mississippians, wrote that Faulkner's "physical and emotional fidelity to Oxford ... was at the core of his being, so that today Oxford [is] the most tangibly connected to one writer's soul of any locale in America."


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