Monday, August 4, 2008

Why Tupelo "Rocks!''

I do not know what it was that turned my attention to my hometown. Maybe it is the uncertain nature of my current prospects. The clouds of my childhood are white and fluffy; those on the horizon, bleak and foreboding.
Maybe it was just a random thought that popped in my mind and snuggled in for a while, you know, sort of like a tune that keeps playing in your head.
Maybe it was something I ate.
Whatever the reason, I’ve been a little preoccupied with pleasant thoughts of home, which in my case is Tupelo, Mississippi.
As is often the case with hometowns, I realize that Tupelo is a great place to live if you don't actually live there anymore.
If you have heard of Tupelo, most likely it is because Tupelo is the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Also, Tupelo pops up from time to time in song lyrics, which suggests it must have some lyrical quality that my limited training renders me unable to identify.
When I lived there 30 years ago, the population was around 20,000, which qualified Tupelo as a major city by Mississippi standards. That meant that Tupelo residents were adorned with an air of big-city sophistication that people in Pontotoc or Booneville or Baldwin could never claim.
Tupelo was designated as an “All-America City’’ in the early 60s. Also, Tupelo was the first city to get its electric power from the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s. There was a Civil War battle there, but I don’t remember who won.
But most of all, Tupelo takes inordinate pride in being the “birthplace of Elvis.’’ He is not the only famous singer from Tupelo, though. Guy Hovis, Jr. is from Tupelo. He was a singer on the Lawrence Welk Show. But perhaps the best singer, judged solely on the quality of voice, is Jan Grissom. I went to high school with Jan, but I didn’t find out until recently that she went on to become a world-renowned soprano, a member of the Metropolitan Opera who sang with Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo and a lot of other famous opera stars I never heard of.
Of more prominence, at least in my view, is that she was not once, but twice a guest on the “Prairie Home Companion’’ radio show with Garrison Kellior. Let me state now that I would do anything - including contract killing - to be on the "Prairie Home Companion'' show.
Yes, like most folks from Tupelo, I am proud of my hometown.
It has little to do with the honors it has received or the talented people who call it home.
Instead, it is the city’s healthy self-image. Tupelo is a great place because the people there believe it is. It is a town that takes some things very seriously - education and community service - but doesn’t take itself too seriously. People there are as inclined to embrace their quirks as quickly as their virtues.
As evidence of this quality, I submit this story about Tupelo:
Long before I came along, there was a pedestal outside the entrance of the Leake & Goodlett building supply store on East Main St. On it, there was a large oval stone. This, too, was a point of pride for the community.
There was an inscription on the pedestal that identified the stone as “The Tupelo Meteorite.’’
The inscription tells how the 1,100-pound meteorite fell to the earth near Nettleton, Miss., in 1870 where it was discovered by a farmer whose initial thought was likely to have been, “Great, another big, stupid rock I have to plow around!’’
Now, people in that agrarian part of the world are familiar with rocks of all shapes, sizes and hues. But there was something about this rock that suggested it was unique, even other-worldly. For one thing, there was its symmetry; rocks are rarely as oval as this one. The other thing was that, at least according to the farmer, the rock wasn’t in the field one day, but was the next. Your average, every-day, run-of-the-mill rock generally just doesn't show up in people's fields unannounced.
So based on such empirical evidence, the rock was proclaimed to be a meteorite and was brought to town and given a place of prominence. After all, there aren't many towns that have their own meteorites. Memphis doesn't have one. Neither does Atlanta or New Orleans.
The rock that suddenly appeared out of nowhere didn’t always stay put, though. Over the years, it could be found on the top of Dudie’s Dinner, in the foyer of the high school and at numerous other inappropriate venues around town. I confess that I had a hand in pilfering the meteorite and placing it in the foyer of the high school in 1977. I can say that now because the statute of limitation on such an offense has almost certainly expired by now.
But in 1980, a Dr. John Harris (a Yankee, I strongly suspect) happened to come across the meteorite as he was driving through Tupelo on the way to Ole Miss to give a lecture to whatever sober students he could round up.
Harris was a NASA chemist and nuclear physicist, so the Tupelo Meteorite was of great professional interest. He asked someone, probably Mayor Ballard, if he could borrow the meteorite to take it back to Houston for closer examination. Well, given the fact that people had been "borrowing'' the meteorite for years - and for far less edifying purposes - Mayor Ballard could hardly object.
Well, he should have, because a few months later Harris returned and pronounced that the meteorite was, uh, meteor-wrong. “It’s just a chunk of concreted sandstone,’’ he said.
It is at this point, where the true character of Tupelo was best exhibited. In fact, I consider it the town's finest hour.
I suspect that most towns, upon hearing that for more than 100 years they had been being paying homage to a chunk of concreted sandstone, would have taken great pains to quickly distance itself from the matter and hope that everybody else, especially those rubes in Pontotoc or Booneville or Baldwin, would eventually quit laughing.
But that is not the course that Tupelo pursued.
Instead, they quietly took possession of this giant rock and simply placed it back on its pedestal.
Furthermore, the inscription on the pedestal was not amended in any way.
It strikes me as an act of quiet, dignified defiance.
That is why, in the highly unlikely event that you happen to find yourself on East Main St. in Tupelo Mississippi, you will see The Tupelo Meteorite sitting proudly on its pedestal out front of the Leake & Goodlettt building.
Unless of course, it’s on the top of Dudie’s Dinner.

1 comment:

whitehawk said...

keep writing - that's what brings you to where you need to be. cristina