This past weekend I went back to Oxford (with my younger sister) and saw the town and the friends I hadn’t seen in 4 or 6 years, depending on whether I saw them the last time I was there. I took the route from Waco through Shreveport then Vicksburg to Jackson to Oxford. Crossing the Mississippi River from Louisiana to the Vicksburg side is like passing through a Narnia-esque portal. The river not only holds in the pastel polos and the wallabees, but also the dense forest that I best remember from Mississippi. The trees are totally different. The pine is predominant, though, and they stick out of the earth like feathered arrows from Sagittarius (you know, the archer who has a constellation named after him?).

Driving in to town we passed John Grisham’s farmhouse on the right (I actually remember him at our church growing up, his kids were a couple years older). He lives mostly in Virginia now, however. The first night my sister and I went to Oxford High’s graduation, which was a hoot, literally. This is the school I went to for kindergarten to 10th grade, and it’s about 60/40 white/black. Every time a black kid walked across the stage, their family and friends would stand up and compete with the other kids’ entourages as to who could yell and holler the loudest. I saw a lot of people I knew, and the parents would often not recognize me until I introduced myself, which was kind of funny to see how long it took.

The next day I toured the town and re-familiarized myself with the town I lived in for 10 years. A lot of mainstays were still alive and well, local and popular restaurants like Abner’s Chicken, Handy Andy BBQ, the original McAlister’s Deli, and the Bottletree Bakery. The Bottletree Bakery is a favorite of many and is a bar-style bakery where you come and get breakfast and read the papers. They have cinnamon rolls and blueberry muffins the size of your face. (This bakery was on Oprah once, though I hate that show with a passion). There were also many, many new eateries and homes and buildings. The town was about 20,000 when I left, and now it’s about 28,000 (and half that population is Ole Miss). Shepard Smith, of Fox News notoriety, had just purchased a place downtown in fact.

I had lunch that day at Handy Andy, which has lines out the door during the week, with Tyler Little and Martin Brown (see below). Handy Andy is a place that hasn’t changed in 15 years, the pictures on the menu are orange and faded from age, but the pulled pork BBQ is still some of the best I’ve had.

In the afternoon I stopped by the home of William Faulkner, considered to be one of America’s and the 20th century’s greatest writers. He wrote from the 1920s-1940s, but came to fame with his Nobel prize in ’49. Nearly all of his novels were set in a town and county based on Oxford, which he called Yoknapatawpha. He wrote in a style that contrasted with his contemporary, Hemingway, and wrote on complex, emotional topics involving class in the Old South. Anyway, his house is a tourist destination and pretty interesting. I saw his boots on the bedroom floor, his typewriter in the drawing room (not for drawing), and most unusual, the storyboard outline for his novel The Fable written on one of his study’s walls. He still has a lot of family and descendants in Oxford. I was childhood friends with one of his great nephews.

Later that night I hung out with Stephanie Little, Josh Townsend, Marcos Cerdeira, Jenilyn Vick, Hunter Haney, Hank Buchanan, and Austin Howle out on the square, which means mostly bars. It really is ridiculous how wet of a town Oxford is. It’s unofficial slogan is “A drinking town with a football problem”. There are 60-70 bars in the town (I’m serious). (And yes I did say the town was only 28,000 earlier). In high school I would say the majority of kids got drunk on the weekends. This is part of the culture. Bourbon and Ole Miss football games are inseparable. In fact, going to Ole Miss football games for the majority of my youth has made the smell of whiskey a nostalgic experience. Let me tell you a little about Ole Miss games: on game-day weekends the town swells to about 100,000 people, and if you go, you gotta be dressed like it’s church or better…Here’s an excerpt from The New-York Times:

Ole Miss’s stadium accommodates 60,580 people, and devotees of the Grove argue that the Grove accommodates more. It is every kind of party you can describe, at once: cocktail party, dinner party, tailgate picnic party, fraternity and sorority rush, family reunion, political handgrab, gala and networking party-hearty — what might have inspired Willie Morris, one of Mississippi’s favorite sons, to declare Mississippi not a state, but a club.

Speaking of the culture, Sunday morning was my first time back at my old church in six years. It was also Memorial Day, so the service started the strange mix of nationalism and Christianity with a medley of songs like America, the Beautiful . A color guard made up of church members presented the American and Christian flags, with a bagpipe accompanying. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance, the Pledge to the Bible, and the Pledge to the Christian Flag. I would be surprised if anyone outside of the Deep South knows all of those. The sermon was by the new pastor, and had very distinct nuances that I knew from somewhere, but couldn’t place it. Perhaps it was just the way of southern preachers that I never noticed. The message was sound and had many good points, yet was an interesting intertwining of Joshua 4 and America’s memorials to WWII displayed on the screens.

So, on a whim and a weekend I caught up with old friends and visited the culture that I grew up in. I have to say it is the richest culture I’ve ever experienced. The atmosphere often seems to have the aristocratic Old South underneath it all, but that’s because it does. I miss that place, but I’d have to admit that I’m glad I left when the time came. Sometimes culture can be stuffy.