THE TRAGEDIES OF DIXIE
When I was in high school, I could’ve been a stunt double for Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles. (I had a buddy who, when drunk or stoned, would get me to say “Can I borrow your underpants for ten minutes?” and would bust a gut laughing every time.) One of my classmates was a young woman named Mary Pat Langford, bright-eyed and kinky-haired in that cute ’80s Flashdance kind of way. We were only close in the way that people who spend five years (my high school started in eighth grade) in the same bio classes, football games, and folks-out-of-town parties are. But I remember with perfect clarity one chilly November Friday night in my senior year when our Riverwood Raiders reached the playoffs. An armada of station wagons left the north Atlanta suburbs and descended on a stadium in the heart of the city. And that night in the stands, I found myself sharing a blanket with Mary Pat. Nothing naughty took place, just a little platonic celebration and some shared hot chocolate. It was one of those little moments where absolutely all was right with the world.
Fifteen or so months later, Mary Pat was at Ole Miss, a pledge at the Chi Omega sorority. She and her sorority sisters were participating in a charity walk-a-thon, walking along a lonely, dusty divided highway in the piney North Mississippi hills between Batesville and Oxford. A truck driver–I don’t know if he was drunk or just stupid, but I hope he burns–plowed into the walkers. Five of them died, including Mary Pat. Ten years later, I stood at the monument that’s been erected on the spot of the tragedy. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life.
I cannot imagine a group of people more revered and sheltered than Southern sorority girls. And the fact that horror could so casually strike even them seemed both obscene and, for the South, sadly appropriate. This entry was originally going to be a review of the book Dixie, by Curtis Wilkie, which–among other themes–hits on the way tragedy of near-gothic proportions lies just beneath the surface of Southern life. But it strikes me now that using Mary Pat’s story to set up a book report would be, to put it mildly, disrespectful. So I’ll close off here with a thought and a prayer for Mary Pat, forever young and beautiful in our memories. We should all be so lucky.