I grew up in Starkville, Mississippi and have many old friends there. Long ago, when I was a slacker college student at Mississippi State and dreamed of being the next Casey Kasem, I worked at WSSO radio (on equipment that came over on the Mayflower) and produced ads each November for the annual Christmas Open House event in the downtown area. It’s a concept you’ll find in many small towns and communities across the fruited plain, with a whole cluster of businesses along the town square (or Main Street) opening their doors–usually on Sunday afternoon–and letting it be known that with Christmas just ahead, your best bet is to shop early and often and put some money back into the local economy.

So it was an honor to be invited to sign books at my hometown bookstore, The Book Mart, as part of Christmas Open House 2011. I was joined by Stuart Vance, who has a brand-new book about the history of aviation in the Golden Triangle, Nancy Dorman-Hickson, who co-authored a book called Diplomacy and Diamonds: My Wars from the Ballroom to the Battlefield with Joanne King Herring, and Starkville pastor Bert Montgomery, a delightful man who’s written two books, including the recently-released Psychic Pancakes and Communion Pizza: More Musings and Mutterings of a Church Misfit. It was a bright, beautiful day, and all we needed was a bunch of folks strolling up and down the sidewalks ready to spend money–specifically on books. That request was answered and then some, as folks poured through the doors of The Book Mart all afternoon. In addition to selling over two dozen books, it was great to meet new folks and see some old friends…including my 12th grade English teacher. And that’s a story in itself:

Way back in the fall of 1982, I was a senior at Starkville High School and didn’t bother to read the Charles Dickens classic, Great Expectations, even though it was a class assignment. And when it came time to take the test, well, there was no point in trying to bluff my way through an exam that was 100% discussion. So I strolled to the desk of the teacher, Mrs. Billie Hood, trying not to disturb anyone in the otherwise quiet classroom, and leaned over and whispered words to the effect that I, in fact, hadn’t read the Dickens book and there was probably no point in me trying to continue. As I’d told my thirteen-year-old not a month ago while telling this story, I suppose I expected Mrs. Hood to say, “Well, now, Joe, why don’t you read the book this week, maybe finish by Thursday night, and be ready to take the next next Friday.” But Mrs. Hood simply thanked me for letting her know, and that was that. Except I got a 0 for the test…and made an F for that six-week term…and just barely made the lowest C possible for the whole year.

As I told Mrs. Hood when she very kindly walked up, reintroduced herself, and bought my new book, the Great Expectations saga was a teachable moment for my son, who better read his assigned reading. Mrs. Hood assured me that I was a better student than I was giving myself credit for. Well, I’ll take her word for it. As I tell people, neither Mississippi State University nor Starkville High School have named an academic scholarship in my honor. But maybe they will one day. (And maybe I’ll find oil under my house.)

Me and Carolyn Abadie, a really nice lady and the manager of The Book Mart, one of my very favorite bookstores.

Author Bert Montgomery and me. What a nice guy.

Always good to see my friend Bethany Waldrop Keiper.

That’s my old friend Margaret Ann Chandler, who was kind enough to buy from both Bert and me.
I haven’t seen my friend Sandy Bennett Simpson in at least 25 years. It was great to visit.

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