Nothing would ever be the same again. You must go.
A book was purchased for me called "Mr. Lincoln's Camera Man: Matthew B. Brady" by Roy Meredith by a woman named Grace. Inside the front cover was written,
June 2, 1990
The only reason I that I have inundated you with Civil War books is because I fully believe in your cosmic connection and attraction to that time, those people, and those events; I believe in your absolute, imperative need to make that trip next week; and I believe in you.
Enjoy every joy and pain you take; take everything, see everything, touch everything, take everything you want and need. Take pleasure, take strength, take support, take struggle, take off, but above all, never, EVER take care.
I'm with you ,
heart and soul
The trip next week that Grace was referring to was one I had planned to take only a few weeks after graduating from Rutgers.
And so I would go.
College had been an arduous struggle for me, beginning back in 1981 as a freshman in Gainesville, Fla., at the University of Florida. As a graduating senior in high school, I had been selected as the student who was "Most Likely to Succeed."
Four years into my career at Florida, I was leaving town with my tail between my legs, a 1.9 grade point average, no degree, and a student-loan debt exceeding $30,000.
My folks had moved back to New Jersey after my freshman year in Gainesville, and I had no place else to go but "home" to live with my parents.
Delivering bagels every morning at 4:30 helped keep gas in the tank, so I could drive back and forth to work to do it all over again. With no degree in hand, my future looked bleak.
My once positive attitude had been destroyed. I was not the same person who my high school classmates had thought so highly of anymore. And that bothered me. Terribly.
I was the one who was going to do something with his life. Something big and to be proud of. Here I was down and out.
Through a political connection of my mom's, I was able to get accepted (albeit on academic probation) to Rutgers University to finish my degree.
Because my grades had been so poor at Florida, most of my four years of "credits" were not even considered for transfer. I was practically going to have to start over.
Money always being the bane of my family's existence (they could put new cabinets in the kitchen and buy new carpeting for the house, but they had no money to help me with tuition), I was forced to go, hat in hand, to my grandmother to pay for my college expenses. It wasn't boot camp at Camp Lejeune, but it was Chapter Three of Lessons in Humility 101.
While at Rutgers, I met Grace. She was an older returning student on a mission, much like me. We were kindred spirits with our own sense of having to prove ourselves to ourselves and the world.
We didn't know it at the time, but no one else was really paying much attention to our individual acts of academic heroism.
She and I cheered each other on throughout the two years we spent in New Brunswick finishing up our degrees, both of us graduating at the top of our classes. It was one of my proudest achievements.
And then one day I got an idea.
"I'm going to Oxford, Mississippi," I told her. "I'm not sure why, but I have to go. I got some information about the law school at Ole Miss, and it it seems like a place I could call my own."
Grace was thrilled for me. She knew my passion for things, which bordered on obsession. And she knew that if I had come to this decision, no matter how irrational it seemed (for its sheer irrationality was what made it so rational for me), it was something that one of us had to venture into.
And so I went thinking that it was the law school I'd be looking into.
Why does a man from New Jersey go to Oxford, Miss., upon graduating from Rutgers? What sort of connection could there be? What was it that was drawing me there?
I had never been to Mississippi, had no family there, and certainly knew no one from Mississippi—nor who even lived nor had ever lived there.
But I knew that I had to go ever since that day when I had sat myself down in the square on the College Avenue campus of Rutgers in the dead of winter and wrote down on a yellow sheet of legal paper what I wanted to do with my life.
At the time, I hadn't even been accepted to Rutgers, had essentially flunked out of Florida, and had nothing of any real substance to my name. But I did have a dream.
Where that dream had come from is beyond me to understand. The thing is, I'd never been one of these "believe-in-fate" types with some sort of unconscious connection to the inner workings of my soul.
If anything, I was probably the opposite, believing that good fortune was for others. Nevertheless, I did write down that I wanted to graduate with highest honors. Once that happened, the call to Oxford became a voice I had to listen to.
Flying into Memphis, I rented a car and drove the rest of the way into Oxford in the summer of 1990. I was scared. Scared that I was on a lark. Scared that I was running from something, trying to reconcile listening to my heart with running away from reality thinking that things were better somewhere else. I wasn't sure what to expect and certainly had no idea what I was doing.
I drove immediately to the Ole Miss campus and found my way to the "Alumni House" (not even sure if it's called that anymore). At the time, it was sort of an on-campus motel for visitors and returning alumni.
I asked the guy at the front desk if he knew of somewhere I could stay while in town, thinking that he'd recommend some name-brand hotel perhaps just on the outskirts of campus.
Instead, to my excitement, he informed me that I could stay at the Alumni House. He said that since it was summer, there were plenty of rooms available, and they'd be glad to have me.
The rates were ridiculously inexpensive, and, when he showed me to my room and told me that breakfast was included every morning, I was even more astonished at my good fortune. And what a wonderful place it was.
It had a 1960s vintage feel about it. Things were "real" inside. Real steel railings. The bathroom was tiled. It smelled like Ole Miss was supposed to smell. I put my bags down, thanked him, and settled in. It was late afternoon.
Turning the television on, I switched over to ESPN (they get cable down here!), I caught the breaking story that Stump Merrill had just been fired by the New York Yankees. It was getting closer to dinner when I finally took a shower and thought about what I wanted to do this first night.
Even with the comfort I initially felt, the fact was that I was alone in Alumni House on the Ole Miss campus in June of 1990. I felt it figuratively speaking. I was away from home, but I didn't feel out of place.
It was eerily quiet when I stepped out of my room and made my way back toward the foyer of Alumni House.
There, still at the front desk, was the same guy whom I had checked in with just a few hours earlier. I again greeted him and struck up a conversation.
He was younger than I first realized. In fact, he told me, he was actually a student at Ole Miss. Working at Alumni House was his part-time summer job.
Even though he was born and raised in Oxford, he still felt a need to work while an undergraduate. And his name was Van.
Van and I hit it off pretty quickly. He told me that his father was a lawyer, who not only had gone to Ole Miss, but had become a federal judge working in Oxford.
I was impressed, not because Van spoke to impress—quite the contrary. It was more matter-of-fact than that. Not ho-hum. But with no sense of pretense at all in the way he carried on a conversation.
Van had a wonderful accent. Mellifluous, but not affected in any way. True and honest in its tone, he garnered my trust and ear immediately. It was just the two of us on that early evening.
Clearly, his position as the front desk clerk at Alumni House was one which didn't require a great deal of high maintenance, especially at this time of year. He had time to talk, so did I, and it was a joy.
I wondered aloud to him where I could go to eat and what there was to do afterward in Oxford. Not that I was in any way looking for the night club scene, but I wanted to find a place to get even more enmeshed into the Oxford/Ole Miss culture even if it was but for a brief period of time.
To my delight, he told me that he would be getting off of work at 10, that he and a friend were going to go out for a few drinks at a local establishment, and that he'd be glad if I would join them.
It was such a good-natured and generous offer that I could hardly restrain my excitement. Of course, I would love to. And so, off I went out to kill the time until my return to Alumni House to meet up with Van and his friend.
Out on the Ole Miss campus on a hot summer's night was something out of my dreams. I was all alone, but, as I made my way around the buildings and grounds of heavenly Ole Miss, I took in everything I could.
The buildings were so lovely, mixing the majestic with the federal style, which only could be pulled off in the Oxford setting. I walked amongst the old trees and heard the sounds of all sorts of night creatures.
I strolled along the streets of Oxford, peering into the windows of the homes, which lined the streets wondering what the people inside were doing, thinking, and living.
I wanted to go up to any number of them and knock on the front door and let in to join them, as I most assuredly knew they would offer me.
I wanted to sit in their living rooms and dining rooms and talk about their lives in Oxford. Talk to them about their families, their hopes and dreams, heartaches and joys.
I wanted to be them, be with them, and part of them. I felt that night as I walked alone and about that I already was.
When the time came, I made my way back to my new temporary residence at Alumni House, where I found Van handing over the keys to the kingdom for the late night manager.
Inside was his friend, sitting on one of the comfortable chairs, which lent an even more comfortable sense about the place than I had initially felt. She was a dark-haired woman named Anna.
We were introduced by Van as if we were old friends. Like Van, she, too, had a wonderful Southern accent that belied her roots, which I soon discovered to be from New York state. Sloatsburg, N.Y., to be more precise. Ironically, Anna's hometown was just over the border from New Jersey into New York.
I also discovered that her actual accent was more of a learned trait after so many years of living in Oxford. She too was an undergraduate at Ole Miss, and she was just as excited to meet me as I was to meet her.
So the three of us gathered our things and went out for some drinks at a place called (if my memory serves me correctly) "The Gin," named for the old gin mill which had once sat upon its current site.
It was an old two-story stone building, and we made our way to the upper floors, where the bourbon and Cokes flowed the night away.
We talked and talked as the best of friends would, laughing and learning about how much these three seemingly unconnected individuals were actually connected.
Afterward, we went back to my room in Alumni House where I took one bed, Anna the other, and Van the floor. As innocent as could be with not the slightest batting of an eye. It couldn't have been more natural.
The next day, the three of us went out to Anna's apartment and spent the afternoon at the pool just hanging out.
That night, Van invited me over to his house to meet his folks. We watched TV together and chatted it up some more.
It truly was a surreal two days as the two and three of us were forged together in that summer crucible of youth. I swore to myself that this was a meeting of fate and that we'd three be lifelong friends.
During my week long stay in Oxford, I'd make my way to William Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, where I would ask the museum's curator what it was that had established Faulkner as one of the greatest writers in the English language.
He'd tell me that it was because he had written about the "great verities of life" (the title to a previous post) and he'd recommend that I go to Square Books in Oxford to get myself a copy of The Portable Faulkner as my starting place for what would become my life long journey with Faulkner leading the way. And I would do so, returning with it to my room to read what, at first, made little sense to me and which had little initial impact as well.
It was only that when I stumbled upon "An Odor of Verbena," taken as a chapter from the novel The Unvanquished that things turned upside down for me.
Never before had what happened to me after reading that story had anything like what happened to me happened. I can clearly remember sitting up (for I was lying on my back in my hotel room bed) and literally stopping and thinking to myself, "What just happened?"
Something had happened, but I wasn't quite sure what. The reality of "great art having the ability to move you even when you don't understand it" was part of it.
It wasn't the story of a character that hit home with me. It wasn't about some event that I could necessarily relate to either, which I sensed had moved me. It was something else. Something deeper and more profound. It was, quite frankly, difficult to put into words. But I was sure that something had changed.
My last day in Oxford was spent again walking around campus, alone. I had lunch in the student union. I walked on to the field at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. I even strolled the perimeter of the campus as a sort of way of "peering into" another world. My last stop was here:
The Lyceum. The main administration building on the Ole Miss campus. It's the signature building on this out-of-the-world place in the world. And I took a picture very much like the one you are now looking at. Fronted by "The Grove," it's the quintessential college building.
Afterward, I met up again with Van for a last goodbye. I snapped a picture of him standing outside of Alumni House and standing next to his Volkswagen Beetle. Thinking that what we had established over the past few days would be the start of a long-term friendship, I hardly wondered if and when I’d see him again…
Back in New Jersey, I sat at my desk and wrote a letter of thanks to Van for his kindness and generosity during my visit to Oxford. Once mailed, I began to anticipate his response.
That anticipation continues to this day because I never heard again from the ghost of Ole Miss.