It’s funny how things get remembered and forgotten. Johnny Cash singing “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” takes me back to one wet, chilly Sunday morning in Tupelo, Mississippi after a Saturday drinking.
We’d made a weekend run from Memphis to Tupelo, four of us Marines, in Joe-from-Glendale’s beat-up ‘60 Volkswagen. We rolled out of base about a half a minute past our 2:30 PM Friday sneak-out. It’d be my first time in Mississippi, a TV land of rednecks and water hoses on blacks. Until this trip, I’d blown my paycheck in Memphis, everywhere but Beale Street, off-limits to jarheads.
Anyhow, Joe got his car shipped to him last month and had already made a local friend, girl-type, down in Tupelo. He charged two buddies fifteen bucks for the ride there and didn’t want anyone else along. I bugged him for the final seat. If I didn’t meet some real civilians soon, I’d go crazy. At last, he relented. Charged me twenty-five, but I got to sit in the front.
Joe’s little bug struggled to hit 50 on the upside of the rolling hills on the north-south highway, but we made it into the Mississippi town while light still lit the autumn sky.
I ragged on Joe about the high markup on the ride – I should get something else for the extra bucks, like meeting one of his girlfriend’s friends. He caved and called his girl when we arrived. After some sweet talk, she agreed to get a double date for Saturday night.
Joe left about eight o’clock to meet his date. The other three of us hit the nightclub, across the street from our motel, a place with a red neon side on the roof, The Midnight Hour. I peered hard into the shadowy area beyond the faded rope where all the black people congregated, but I never spotted Wicked Wilson Pickett. There was a rocking trio of singer, guitar, and drums. Lots of couples danced, but us three just swigged down some beers. After five, I quit although the guys ragged me about being a sissy. They had nothing else to do, because no southern chicks gave them a chance. I wanted money for whatever tomorrow night brought.
Saturday evening when Joe and I left the motel, our other buddies headed back to “The Midnight Hour”. After Joe stopped for a fifth of Southern Comfort, we picked up the girls. Joe’s girl was cute. Mine was too.
When I said, “Hi, how you doing?” this attractive brunette with a flip hairdo looked at me as if I’d spoken a foreign language. She said something back that had a “ya” in it. We laughed at the same time, because neither of us could understand the other.
Joe didn’t have that trouble. At the drive-in, him and his girl whispered and cuddled. We all drank Southern Comfort from paper cups. The movie was “God’s Little Acre”. It was supposed to be a hot number, but damn it was black-and-white and earnest in tone.
My girl, whatever her name was, and I drank. Sometimes we kissed, but our little whispers confused rather than intensified things. When we talked real slow, we could understand a word or two, but it was like communicating in Morse code.
I figured the only thing we could do was make out. I leaned over, kissed her and slid my hands up her arms, trying to establish a close physical contact.
Her emphatic “no” was heard not just by me but by Joe and his girl, who shot me a deadly look over the seat. A silence descended between me and my date lasting until the end of the movie.
Joe said the club, THE MIDNIGHT HOUR was nearby. He would drop me there then take the girls home. Disappointing, but he was right. He had no trouble getting on with his girl. Why should he have to suffer because I flopped?
At the bar, I bought a round for the guys. I told them vague lies about the date and the movie. They were still going strong when I ambled back to the motel where I drank a tall glass of water, plopped onto the sack, and conked out.
Hours later, Sunday morning church bells rang loudly. I pulled my pillow over my head, trying to stay asleep, but it was in vain. I got up and dressed.
I needed coffee and fresh air. Leaving the room, an acrid smell assaulted my nose in the motel hallway. In front of the next door, dead asleep, was one of my fellow Marines. He was hunched over in the rifle range two hundred yard crouch position, puke between his widespread legs and the trail of a long, dead cigarette burned onto the cheap green carpet below his right hand.
With care, I reached over and rapped on his door, not too loud because I didn’t want the motel management to see this. His drinking pal pulled opened the door. His buddy fell backward with a thud into their room. I rolled my eyes and grimaced. The guy nodded, shook his head sadly, grabbed the other guy under his armpits and pulled him into their room.
I went out into a surprisingly cold, windy, and damp southern Sunday morning. When a wind gust hit me, it felt ice sickles against my cheeks. I zipped my jacket all the way up. The electric sign above the Tupelo bank flashed 47 degrees. Another set of bells pealed, announcing yet another southern church service. I covered my ears with reddened hands. My hangover added a tilt to every sense.
I walked around town until I found an open diner. On the jukebox, Johnny Cash sang,
Well I woke up Sunday morning,
With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt
“Coffee,” I said to the counterman. I opened my wallet. It was empty. Damn, blew it on that last round. I was cold, wet, and couldn’t even afford a cup of coffee. “Never mind,” I muttered and went back out.
When “Sunday Morning Coming Down” played this morning, it took me back to that Tupelo morning and gave me a chance to see today’s not so bad.
Image of drunked man : Carl Van Vechten / Public domain