Church Stories by Sam Morton

The kind of heat that makes wiggly little lines appears before your
eyes as you walk. The kind of heat that makes walking barefoot in hot
gravel rocks a feat for only the brave or the unfortunate. This is the
heat you miss in the winter and dread in the last faltering days of
spring. This is the heat of Starkville, Mississippi, my home town.

Starkville is not a famous place to anybody unless you are from
Mississippi. For those of us who live there, it is either the
greatest place ever or the armpit of west hell. Opinions do vary and
either could be right on any given day. Perspective is everything.
Being born in July, I have a love for summer time Mississippi. Who
could blame me? The Fourth of July, summer break from school and
my birthday. That list is only my personal highlights. When you
consider the framework for these events, you cannot help but be drawn
to the “great state.”

Summer time in Mississippi is the time of year when our cousins, who
escaped the state’s gravitational pull, are shipped back down across
the Mason-Dixon Line to reacquaint with family. It usually consists of
some Yankee-bred cousin being soaked in a moss-filled pool or screaming
in terror from the cicada that somehow “landed” on their shoulder. As
I recall there were always tears involved and a fair amount of running
and screaming. And laughter — at least until we had to explain the
circumstances that now required the aforementioned cousin to be coaxed
from the bathroom or closet. Innocence: “I was just showin’ ’em how
catch bugs mama! It’s just a bug!” (Spoken with eyes open wide and
eyelashes aflutter). Yep. That’s how we rolled in the Ville.

“Summertime…and the living is easy.” ~ “Porgy & Bess,” George Gershwin
& DuBose Heyward

A rite of passage for a young man in summertime Starkville was the
building of the bicycle you would ride through the heat of the city.

The undertaking was quite necessary as transportation was needed to
traverse the distances between Westside and McKee parks, Wal-Mart on
highway 12 (before they became super-
sized), and the campus of Mississippi State University. While it
was true the distances could be managed on foot, who wanted to walk
when you could ride knifing through the warm breezes like a clipper
ship slicing the Atlantic tides? The more affluent among us could
purchase a brand new bike from Wal-Mart, Fred’s or Western Auto, but
the true aficionados built their bikes from the remains of last year’s
makeshift model adding pieces that were refurbished, scavenged, traded,
or “found”.

We all felt our self-tooled bikes were faster, better than anything
pre-made by Schwinn or Huffy. Some kids used copious amounts of Krylon
spray paint to personalize their swift beauties; I preferred the
mismatched, roughhewed, no-painting-my-bike-allowed look. If someone
were foolish enough to challenge me to a race, they would have to

contend with the Jedi-mind screw of my post-apocalyptic, 20” wheeled
nightmare cycle’s visage. A hell bike for the hellish heat of central
Mississippi…or something like that. We rode a lot of miles in that
unrelenting summer heat.

“End of the spring and here she comes back.” ~ “Hot Fun in the
Summertime,” Sly and The Family Stone

She stood there at the top of the lane.

She wore braided pigtails, a salmon colored spaghetti-strapped top,
cutoff blue jean shorts with the tips of the front pockets peeping
below the frayed denim and red five-and-dime flip-flops. I had known
Linda Denise Brown ever since I was six years old and she was always a
pretty girl, but standing here in the fullness of her pre-teen years
she was the most beautiful girl in the world – at least as far as my
thirteen-year-old world was concerned anyway.

I, with the awkward bravado that comes with early teens, approached
her with my coolest Richard Roundtree strut and prayed I did not trip
on a lose stone along the way. She stood there, buffered from the
August heat by the elms, dogwood and sycamore trees nestled among the
thick kudzu that lined both sides of the lane. Her hands were casually
behind her back, her almond-shaped caramel brown eyes locked on me and
me alone. I could see the start of smile playing across her full,
naturally pink lips. The closer I came, the more the silk smoothness
of unblemished, honey brown skin came into focus. One thing I learned
in that moment and confirmed in my world travels as an adult is that
there is nothing in the world as fine as a girl raised in the South.

The lane had to be a full ten degrees cooler than the black asphalt on
either side of it, but the subtle temperature drop was of little use
in cooling the heat that started in the pit of my stomach and radiated
throughout my gawky teenage frame. “Hey Linda Brown,” “Hey Lil Demp,”
we greeted each one another. At her acknowledgement I tried not to
grin like a village idiot; had to play it cool like Freddie “Boom-Boom”
Washington on Welcome Back Kotter.

Our conversation was as inconsequential as expired breath; content
irrelevant, context immeasurable. I hung onto and played off every
word that passed between her beautiful lips. Each syllable had been
dipped in the thick batter of her hypnotic Southern drawl, deep-
fried and served to me in savory morsels: I ate it like grand momma’s
ambrosia. At the time, I did not know that this and several more
conversations would lead to our lives being entwined forever, but you
can never tell what will happen in the Southern heat.

“It’s like a heat wave burning in my heart.” ~ “Heatwave,” Martha and
the Vandellas”

I was raised to be a good Baptist, but I was born into that all-
inclusive Southern religion of SEC Football. Being born in Starkville,

my team choice was easy: them Dawgs, baby, the Mississippi State
Bulldogs. I was ringing a cowbell before ringing cowbells was cool.

Loyalty to the Dawgs is an implied thing. No one will tell you per se
that you have to be a Bulldog fan. I mean, Mississippi has quite a
few teams to choose from, but I’m from Starkville and the university
is walking distance from my house. Any other choice is sacrilege.
Although I grew up in Starkville, I couldn’t afford the price of
admission to a game, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t find my way to
one. A couple times a football season, my church youth group operated
a concession stand on game day to make money for our activities. I
always volunteered to walk the stadium aisles and hawk foot-long
hotdogs, roasted peanuts, thirty-ounce Cokes and Sprites. The trays
were heavy, the people were rude and the tips were sparse, but I got
to see my Bulldogs play live! The heat during a day game could exceed
one hundred degrees; night games in August and September weren’t much
better. But to see my Dawgs in their home jerseys clash against our
rivals was always an experience.

The Ole Miss Rebels were the worst. I absolutely hated everything
about the Oxford team from their mascot, the Colonel, to the
Confederate battle flags they brazenly waved at each game. I disliked
no opponent more…until the Alabama Crimson Tide came to town. Bama’s
Tide was the spawn of Satan and had to be defeated in the Egg Bowl
every year, no matter if we didn’t win another game. The heat
served to broil the players and the fans in the stands to the right
temperature bringing Scott Field to the brink of eruption; every game,
win, lose or draw. Days after the game, you had to go to Starkville
Café, Petty Barbeque, the Lil Dooey restaurant or Fleming Barber Shop
and parse the wisdom of Coach Emory Bellard in leading his team, our
team. The Dawgs didn’t always win, but they always played hard in the
stifling humidity and omnipresent heat that was as much a sentient
presence as any living person in my Starkville, Mississippi.