Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

An oasis in the Mississippi Delta

Last Wednesday took me down to Sumner in the Mississippi Delta to give a Lenten devotion for our congregation there. Sumner is not very far down into the Delta, but it was far enough that in the two hours or so I was with those good people, all the aura and traditions of the Delta came washing over me. I miss it, but am getting used to “the hills” after having been here for 18 years.

Driving down I went by way of Marks mainly for the sake of remembering good times of yore. The sun was setting as I was passing through — a time of day I call “the bewitching hour,” when under just the right conditions the sun casts a certain glow that reminds me of the light in an El Greco painting. I always wish for my camera at such moments, though I have no idea if the effect could be captured on film. Vadah Cochran knew this light and it is distinctive to so many of his pictures.

Anyway, at just this magic moment, I turned off Highway 6 South onto Highway 3, and was making my way to the stoplight — the only stoplight, I suppose, in all of Quitman County — (Tallahatchie County to which I was heading is said to have no stoplights) — and musing on such silliness as all that, I found myself transported by an ethereal sight that cause me to wonder if I was still living, or if I had crossed over into another life. It was the glow of golden arches. A pair, in fact. Then as I adjusted my bifocals I realized it was true: Marks, Mississippi now has a McDonalds!

Yes, it is true. Right there between the funeral home and the Mississippi Power and Light Co., in sight of where the old picture show used to be, Marks has a McDonalds! Civilization has dawned. I had to stop!

You see, I am of that generation that grew to its maturity before there was fast food. Small children look at us and shake their heads in wonder. But I grew up before color television, when a.m. radio and 45-r.p.m. records were all the rage, when telephones were black and were anchored to the wall by a short unpluggable cord, when houses were cooled by an attic fan, when the “frozen food” section at the store consisted of English peas and French fries and nothing more — in fact when the “super market” in our town was still on Main street and could not have been 40 feet wide, when ATM machines were unheard of and small boys could not take money from their savings accounts unless you told the teller what you were going to use the money for, when passenger trains still came through twice a day, and when everybody started and stopped work according to times announced by the compress whistle.

I am too old and too fat to be excited now about McDonalds or any other fast food chain. There was a time when I would have thought that Nirvana had arrived if such a sight had greeted my eyes. For when I grew up, the closest McDonalds was in Greenville, 45 miles from our home. In fact, that was our definition of a “big taste” — to take the family car and drive with your sweetie down to Greenville to visit the McDonalds there.

I got through my first two years of college without anything like a chain restaurant in our community. It was boring, but somehow we got along.

Growing up in the Delta we went to Memphis as often as you do here. It’s just that for us it was an all-day trip. (I remember the first time I went to Memphis and back in three hours from Holly Springs and what a feeling of exhilaration it was to have the city so close by. I still do.) Because Highway 61 was so treacherous with two lanes and all those trucks, we’d go a bit out of our way from Cleveland to Memphis by Marks, via Highways 49-W and 3. When I-55 was new, we’d go on over to Sardis or Batesville to pick it up — mainly for the novelty of riding on an interstate, but also to enjoy “Southland Mall,” which was absolutely without parallel then.

Of course, there was no place to stop if you went to Memphis via Marks. No place whatsoever. Well, not quite. There was a little coffee shop in Lambert that just sold coffee. Daddy could get a cup there. No carry out, either. You had to sit down and drink it from a china cup. But the tiny cafe dispensed only coffee. No Coca-colas, no doughnuts, no nothing.

I would complain. So we’d make a second stop at the service station in Marks to get me a Coke and a package of Nabs — that’s the first place I remember ever eating those delicious peanut butter and cracker sandwiches (when was the last time you ever saw that name on the wrapper? But everybody still seems to know what it is.)

And if you needed to make a comfort stop, you would do that at our friends Mary Margaret and Howard Langford’s house (Howard was the mayor and ran the “picture show.”).

Their back door was always unlocked, and even if they weren’t home, we’d just stop in, use the facilities, leave a note, and probably stop back by for supper on our way home! That’s just the way it was in the Delta.

But now Marks has a McDonalds! So there is no need to stop by your friends and neighbors to find sustenance and conversation.

The same thing has happened here — not one of those eateries on the south side of Holly Springs was here when I first arrived. It is progress, I suppose. But there was a time when rural life had its charms.

I suppose there’ll be a Wal-Mart in Abbeville before we’re done.

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