Monday, August 18, 2014

The Math at Ole Miss

Forty years ago this week, the Colonel packed his meager belongings in the same trunk his father had taken to college a quarter century earlier.  As a vagabond military brat, he had learned to keep his stuff stacked short and tight.  Nearly everything he needed  -- clothing, linens, radio, and a few favorite books -- fit in the trunk.

The two-hour ride with the folks from Columbus to Oxford was a quiet one.  

The Gregory's oldest was off to college.  

Well..., Ole Miss.

The Colonel and his father lugged the trunk into the elevator of his eleven story dorm on the edge of campus.  

Another student joined them in the elevator.  In his arms was a turn table and a box of vinyl albums.

The old Air Force noncom couldn't resist, "Got your noise with ya, huh?"

The kid tossed a mop of blond hair with jerk of his head and answered semi-politely, "Yessir."  His voice was thick with Mississippi.

The Colonel's family had only just returned from a 4 1/2 year posting to the Panama Canal Zone that summer.  The last time he had spent any time in his parents' home state had been nearly a decade earlier.  Mississippi was as foreign to the Colonel as Panama had seemed at the beginning of that tour of duty.  

The Mississippi accent was going to take some getting used to.  

Particularly when attached to a female.

The Colonel's mother was a southern lady to be sure, but she never laid the mouth honey on like those girls at Ole Miss did.

The first week at Ole Miss was the most disorienting of the Colonel's life to that point.  Panama had been culture shock.  Ole Miss was cultured shock.

It became rapidly and readily apparent that he didn't exactly fit at Ole Miss.

His wardrobe was wrong -- jeans and a "hang-ten" shirt had been fine in Panama, but lagged seriously in the race for best-dressed at Ole Miss.

His accent was wrong -- if the Colonel heard "Where are you from?" once that week, he heard it a thousand times.

His verbal expressions were wrong -- "aiee, chuleta!" wasn't a common phrase in the deep south in 1974.  It's becoming one now, but that's grist for another post. 

The Colonel had erroneously thought he was going to just another public university.  

Wrong!  Oh, so wrong!

He wasn't going to college.  The Colonel was going to Ole Miss.

Turns out there were many students there on the most beautiful college campus in all the wide world who were learning to swim in a different cultural current just like the Colonel.  

Owing to the relatively low expense of attending the University of Mississippi, the Department of the Navy in those days steered a great many of the young men and women awarded Naval ROTC scholarships to Ole Miss.  While some of these folks were steeped in the southern culture, in general, and Mississippi culture, specifically; most were in the same boat as the Colonel.  

The Colonel became, for the first time in his life, part of a "counter-culture."

It wouldn't be the last time he belonged to an organization whose ethos ran decidedly against the common grain.

As one of our group put it years later, "We loved Ole Miss, but Ole Miss didn't love us."

The Colonel couldn't wait to graduate and put Ole Miss in the rear view mirror.

And as soon as he did, he couldn't wait to get back.

Ole Miss had marked him, claimed him, chained him.

The Colonel never told anyone he had gone to the University of Mississippi.  He went to Ole Miss

And now the Colonel realizes that his diversity helped change Ole Miss a little bit, too.  

But, the Colonel's diversity didn't subtract from the spirit, traditions, and unique culture of Ole Miss -- it added.

He didn't demand that folks speak or dress or act more like him. But, he taught a lot of folks about the world outside of Mississippi. The Colonel dares to say that there are literally hundreds of Ole Miss grads out there who can tell you a little bit about the Panama Canal Zone, and Morocco, and life as a military brat, courtesy of the Colonel. 

Ultimately, we all want change.  The trick is to change by addition, not subtraction.   



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