‘Yesterday, when I was young
The taste of life was sweet
Like rain upon my tongue …” — Roy Clark
ROLLING FORK — I suppose it a function of getting old that more and more things seem to be functions of getting old.
Or not. But regardless, I’ve found myself thinking a lot lately about something touched on once about 20 years ago in this space – the part of my childhood spent in the closest thing to the mythical Mayberry I have ever experienced.
In 1961 or ’62, the Tallahatchie Co. town of Tutwiler was the real life Mayberry, RFD, that a 10-year old had not lived long enough to appreciate. My great grandparents on my mother’s side lived there, in a house so classically Southern Gothic that they could have made a movie in it, except, of course, about the only movies they were making then were westerns and war flicks.
In those days before ubiquitous air conditioning, the most special part of that house was a large screened-in front porch that my grandparents in the best Southern Gothic sense, then referred to as “the gallery.” Shaded as it was, the gallery was cool even when it was hot, and I can remember many a night gazing from its seemingly always in motion swing through street light haze at stars that seemed brighter than they do today.
Another function of getting old, no doubt.
The neighbor on one side was a mean old coot named Hiram Gray, who threw a fit one day when my fungo bat imitation of a Mickey Mantle homer broke his window. That from a man who kept a goat in his back yard.
But the other side neighbors were Jack and Oralee Mahan, who not only cared not a whit when my precious baseball landed in their yard (More often than not I received a lemonade while retrieving it.), but who also owned and operated absolutely the neatest establishment that existed anywhere in the world in 1961 or ’62 – the Tutrovansum Theater. That absent the aid from ad agency name stood for Tutwiler, Rome, Vance and Sumner, all the small towns in western Tallahatchie County, and in the days prior to proliferated television, that “movie house” attracted film fans from all of them.
As the highly favored great-grandson of their neighbors, I was, of course, special and not only got in but also got my popcorn for free, making a truly neat place even neater.
And across the street from that wondrous pleasuredome was another – Walter Ragland’s drug store, which Norman Rockwell unknowingly captured in dozens of prints now considered classic Americana. The soda fountain (another lost treasure) produced the world’s finest limeade and the comic book rack was first rate, and my grandfather always saw to it I had plenty of both.
And in what was critically important to the pre-teen building need for independence, I could walk or ride my bike from the grand ole house to main street – down the street, around the curve, across the bridge and then there. And in the small town way of everyone’s knowledge that kid was the Byrds’ “little Ray,” come again to visit his grandfolks, nobody either desired or dared to bother him.
Pause with that thought a moment tonight as you set your elaborate alarm system.
And like most old men’s more intrusive memories, mine too includes a first love. She lived down the street and had the brightest eyes and the biggest smile and the oh, so period southern name of Nina Jan.
We walked on one of those warm summer nights, down the street, around the curve, across the bridge to the Tutrovansum. We had free popcorn and watched one of those war flicks and in what was infinitely more exciting than any of today’s “erotic productions,” we held hands.
And afterward, we stopped at the drugstore and had a limeade before walking, perfectly safely, home, with at least one of us in the hopelessly complete grip of puppy love.
Like My Fair Lady’s poor Freddie, “all at once was I seven stories high,” and my feet were only on the ground incidentally.
She went on to be a college beauty queen and a wife and mother and I fervently hope all of her days have been as happy as was I on that one magical summer night.
Tutwiler, Miss., right at 60 years ago, didn’t have Andy or Barney or Opie or Aunt Bee, but it was the closest thing to that mythical Mayberry that I, or maybe, just maybe anyone else ever saw. And, of course, there are no more of them.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.