by Jay Mitchell
For many people, William Faulkner is a god, an icon of literary genius who should never be defamed, but the truth shall set you free. In late 1945 I had an accident, putting out my left eye. My family was a group of poor share-croppers in the Mississippi Delta, and the small town near where we lived pitched in to send me to Oxford, Mississippi, for treatment. The infection was also causing me to lose my right eye. At that time, the University of Mississippi Medical School was on the Ole Miss campus, and one of the world's greatest eye surgeons taught at Ole Miss, Dr. B.S. Guyton. Dr. Guyton removed my left eye but saved the other one.
Now, this is not self pity (thank God for small favors), but is being told to let you know how an illiterate family got to Oxford and met William Faulkner.
Here is my story:
World War II had ended, and in Oxford anyone who could drive a nail could get work on the Ole Miss campus. With the War over, the GI Bill of Rights allowed veterans to go back to college. Many were married and needed a place to live, so the government was building veterans' housing. My Dad could drive a nail. We were now off the farm.
Dad, not a veteran, could not find a place for us to live. We stayed in one-room basements and had to move every few months to let veterans have our room.
But when school started in 1947, I entered Oxford Elementary School. I was so out of place - all the other kids were town's people, and I was country red-neck. They had grown up together and knew each other; going to first grade was not a big deal to them. It was the scariest thing I ever did! Not only was I different, but I was one-eyed, with a new prosthetic, and children can be very cruel.
I don't remember having many friends, but one kid stands out. (I have changed names to protect the innocent, but we will call him "Butch.") Now, of all people, Butch was the short, fat son of the richest man in Oxford. He and I became fast friends - maybe the other kids didn't like him any more than they liked me.
Along about the second or third grade, Butch invited me to spend the night with his family. Dad, knowing who his father was, thought this was a great idea. I accepted, and on the eventful day we were picked up in front of school by his chauffeur in a big, black automobile. We sat in the back and were driven by a large black man by the name of "Bong." We got to Butch's house - or, may I say, mansion - and were met by Bong's wife, Ollie. We drove into a four-car garage and walked into a mudroom, where I saw two cases of cokes. (Back then all bottle drinks were called cokes.) Some were grapes and some were oranges. I couldn't believe somebody had not drunk them; why were they there?
We walked into a kitchen that was bigger than our apartment, and on the kitchen table was a large bowl of fresh fruit. (Why hadn't somebody eaten that fruit?)
Bong and Ollie were so nice and wanted to know if I wanted a snack. People, I thought I had died and gone to Heaven.
When Butch and I got settled, he brought out a double barreled .410 shotgun and said, "Let's go squirrel hunting." Right then I would have followed him into Hell! We walked across the road into some great woods and started squirrel hunting. We had moved into maybe two or three hollows, when Butch said, "Be really quiet. We're in Faulkner's woods."
That didn't mean anything to me, but I was quiet. As we moved slowly into the next hollow, I noticed to my right a large house with a big front porch. On the porch sat a man in a rocking chair. (Little did I know that this man was a drunken William Faulkner!)
Butch and I saw the squirrel at the same time. Butch raised the .410, and I said, "Don't shoot; he's watching!" But Butch shot anyway, and William Faulkner did the same. He had a .30-.30 on the porch with him, and he shot at me two times. I am sure he was shooting at me because nobody would shoot at Butch.
William Faulkner was a lousy shot. He missed me. (Thank God!) Well, that is the way I remember it.
"My family was Scots-Irish on all sides, and we don't want anybody telling us what to do. We will fight at the drop of a hat if we are questioned. I'm not bragging, but that is the way we are. Yankees would say we are hard-headed and ignorant. Let's fight.
"My favorite writer is William Faulkner, although I hated him when I was growing up. The only thing I have in common with Faulkner is that we were both high school drop-outs. Now I have said it. Kick me out, throw me away, tell me not to submit another story. I understand.
"Without much formal education and growing up in Oxford, I felt inferior. My classmates went to Ole Miss but I couldn't afford it. Looking back, I now know that I could have, but I had no family support. I had already gone further than anybody in my family. (Thank you, God, for small favors.) I did audit a few courses so I could chase good-looking girls at Ole Miss. I caught a few. Great times.
"God has blessed me to move around the world and find my calling. I have done it all. (No ego intended.)
"I am self-educated; I can't stand not knowing something. I spent over twenty years working with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and most of the local State departments of Archaeology. I'm bragging now: Many consider me to be among the most knowledgeable people in Southeastern Archaeology. I am a past president of Mississippi Archaeology Association and was awarded its highest honor, the Calvin Brown Award. My greatest triumph, however, is my wife of almost 50 years!"