Mississippi is the fourth most rural state in America. Only Maine, West Virginia and Vermont are more so.
In addition, Mississippi ranks fifth in the nation in terms of homegrown population with 72 percent of its population having been born in Mississippi. Only Louisiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have more natives.
That makes Mississippi the most rural, native-born state in the country.
Right now, being rural is a disadvantage. Almost all the growth in the United States is coming from the mega urban areas.
We really have two distinct cultures in our country. One is a corporate career culture where you move wherever is necessary to further your career. The other culture is one of hometown and deep roots. Your home is your home and you find the best job you can in the place you call home.
Certainly higher pay has its monetary rewards. But there are also rewards for staying in one place and growing roots.
As author Willie Morris wrote, “Mississippi is not a state, it’s a club.” Having been born in Mississippi and lived nearly 40 years here, I’m really beginning to relate to Willie’s words.
This really struck home this week when I read of the deaths of Paul Ott Carruth and Brad Dye.
Not only was I friends with both men, I am friends of their sons as well. That’s some pretty deep roots.
My father knew Brad Dye well. When my father died leaving me the head of his Mississippi newspaper company, Lt. Gov. Dye went out of his way to make me feel accepted.
As it turns out, decades later his son Rick and I became friends and tennis buddies. I remember when Rick invited me over to watch the Ole Miss-Alabama game a few years ago. Ole Miss won and he decided I was good luck and proceeded to always invite me over again to watch the big games (until I lost my charm).
Last week I told Rick I would love to have been a fly on the window when Rick’s dad was a young driver for Sen. Jim Eastland. Rick proceeded to tell me a funny story about how Big Jim would tell his young driver to come interrupt his brief campaign stops within 10 minutes.
Brad dutifully followed his orders at which point Sen. Eastland would upbraid the young Dye. “I can’t believe you would try to interrupt me while talking to these fine important citizens.” Then back at the car, the senator would say, “That was perfect, son.”
I remember meeting Sen. Eastland when I represented Mississippi in the Senate Youth Program at age 17. He was chomping on a big stogie and smiling, “So you’re Oliver’s boy,” he said repeatedly, referring to my grandfather, his good friend.
I met Paul Ott Carruth decades ago when I played tennis tournaments. There was something charismatic about his personality and we soon became friends. His tennis claim to fame was his ability to hit forehands with either arm.
In one tournament, this ability completely vexed one of his opponents. During a sweaty changeover, Paul’s opponent said, “I been watching you. You’re the fastest white man I ever seen. No matter what I do I can’t hit it to your backhand.”
Years later when I injured my right shoulder, I emulated Paul and learned to play left-handed. To this day, I can play either way.
Paul’s son, Bert, moved to Jackson in the ’90s and we became regular tennis buddies grinding out three-hour matches that inevitably came down to tiebreakers. Back in the day we were a couple of the top 4.5 singles tournament players. It was a sad day when he moved to Birmingham.
Paul Ott had a TV show and one day he played a video of Bert at age 8 or so singing a “Little Drummer Boy” solo. No doubt, this was hugely embarrassing to Bert.
So one day during an epic match with a third set tiebreaker, we were sitting sweating during a changeover. He had two match points. I was desperate. So I started humming “Little Drummer Boy.” I won the next four points and the match.
At Gov. Dye’s funeral I ran into Connie Cossar, a lifelong friend of my wife Ginny, and her father Bill (aka “Geezer.”) Bill and Brad grew up in Charleston where many of my Buntin ancestors are buried. Ginny, Connie, Brad and Bill would meet for drinks at Cristo’s in the building that now houses Fenian’s.
I mentioned my Charleston roots to Bill. Turns out his farm in Charleston is bordered by Buntin Creek, named after my family.
I was the last to leave the funeral, talking to state senator Hob Bryan about how the Republican leadership has gutted the committee system in the Legislature. Hob didn’t think much of my politics back in the Fordice days, but we both now agree the Republicans have made some serious missteps.
I looked up to see former state auditor Pete Johnson from Clarksdale. “Hey Wyatt, I can’t get my Uber to work. Can you give me a ride to the airport?”
He was in for a treat. My 1965 Mustang was running well.
“When did you buy this?” Pete asked. “Oh, about 45 years ago,” I said. “I’ve driven it to every end of the continent.”
We chatted about airplanes and politics of yesteryear until we pulled up next to his plane at the Madison airport. I took a photo of him in front of his Cessna 340. He took a photo of me in front of my ’65 Mustang.
The next night, the Knights and the Emmerichs convened at Bravo to celebrate my mother-in-law Dottie Cole’s 70th birthday. I remember 25 years ago when my friend and neighbor Jeff Good started Bravo, raising money from local investors, including a tiny sum from me.
We looked up and saw Bob and Kaye Archer, our dear friends, who just happened to walk in. Next to us was Bob Potesky and Ann Somers who had just married. Ann bought our old house on Pinevale Dr.
Our waiter at Bravo was Matthew Nooe, the son of my good friend Grant. I watched Matthew grow up.
Matthew’s mother, Marian, played at our wedding. Turns out she taught Melissa Archer guitar until Melissa came to her lesson without her instrument because she had lost it, at which point Marian suggested maybe guitar playing was not in her future. “Your mother saved us hundreds of dollars in useless guitar lessons,” Bob Archer laughed.
We sat down and within no time had struck up a conversation with Arthur Clark and his wife at the adjacent table. They’re from Indianola and longtime subscribers to the Enterprise-Tocsin which I publish. He said he had read my column for years.
They practically joined our party until his wife got worried that they were taking over our family dinner. That made us laugh.
The Bravo special was redfish with remoulade sauce on fried green tomatoes. Divine. As always, the service was the friendliest in town. Other restaurants close early, leaving customers in the lurch. Bravo stays open until the last minute and welcomes late-night customers with a smile. I texted Jeff late that night complimenting his restaurant and asking if he could join the regular crew for golf the next day. Turns out I had forgotten he had cut off the tip of his finger while gardening. “No power tools for Jeffie,” I texted.
I couldn’t resist a midnight slice of Smith County watermelon hand-delivered earlier in the week by Bo Eaton, whom my wife used to babysit in Taylorsville. His last election as state representative was tied so the state House, following its rules, had the two candidates draw straws and Eaton won. But the Republican leadership really wanted a supermajority so they went back after the fact and threw out five affidavit votes for Eaton. Eaton’s supporters sued and won in federal district court but the appeals court said it lacked jurisdiction to get involved in a state election matter.
Bo was philosophical about it all. “As my daddy said, ‘The only bad clique is the one you’re not in.’ ”
And this is just a fraction of unending everweaving local connections I experience everyday. It makes life magical. You know how it is. Like Willie said, Mississippi is not a state, it’s a club.
Wyatt Emmerich is publisher of The Northside Sun in Jackson.