Tupelo, Mississippi

Yesterday a tornado struck Tupelo, Mississippi and seriously damaged the town and killed one person. It’s a small town and could probably be called a “farm town” as I don’t know that there is much in the way of industry there. You don’t hear much about the place so hearing it mentioned on the news was unexpected and it brought back a memory from fifty-six years ago.

I was in the Navy and attending Aviation Electronics “A” School in Memphis. Actually, I think the base was in the suburb of Millington and we had rented an upstairs apartment in a private home there. Pat was working in the accounting department of Kroger Grocery Stores in their corporate offices in Memphis. The building was located on the bank of the Mississippi River.

Pat and I had been adapting to one change after another. We had been married November 9, 1957 thanks to a 3-day weekend due to Veteran’s Day. At that time I was attending the Naval Aviation Prep School in Norman, Oklahoma, just south of Oklahoma City. (I have no idea why a Navy base was in the middle of Oklahoma.) Pat was working in the Accounting Department of Sears Roebuck at the Wichita, Kansas store. On Friday afternoon I got out of school and to conserve money hitch-hiked to Wichita. We got married the next morning and headed for Claremore, Oklahoma for an overnight honeymoon and a visit to the Will Rogers Memorial. Then, it was back to Wichita and on Monday evening Pat dropped me at the bus depot and I headed back to Norman and school and Pat would be back at Sears the next day.

The next week I graduated from the Aviation “P” School and was shipped to Memphis to the Aviation Electronics “A” School. Pat remained in Wichita, working at Sears while we figured out what we were going to do and accumulated a few bucks to do it with. In mid December I rented the apartment in Millington and Pat packed everything we owned into her1952 Chevrolet and drove to Memphis. One of Pat’s good friends rode to Memphis with her and then returned to Wichita on a bus.

Getting back to the story, it must have been in February or March because it was still cold and there weren’t any leaves on the trees and we decided to explore the area. Neither of us had been in Mississippi before so we headed south and enjoyed the ride.

After a time, we came to a large sign saying “Tupelo, Birthplace of Elvis Presley”. That seemed pretty cool and we were getting hungry so we decided to stop for lunch. We were still on the outskirts of town and spotted a restaurant among some trees at the side of the road. We went in and sat down at a table and waited for a waitress to come and take our orders. We talked and killed time and minutes went by and nobody showed. By this time, we had started looking around and at about the same time, we realized that all the other patrons were black and didn’t really look too friendly. About now, I’m thinking I’ve really got us into a jackpot and had better get ready to fight our way out.

Pat and I had come to Memphis totally naïve about segregation. In the 20 years I had lived in my home town we only had one black family and they had only lived there for a year or two. Pat’s home town had a few black families and as far as I know there wasn’t a lot of open bigotry. What this all boiled down to was that Pat and I were too innocent to handle the current situation well.

Getting back to our predicament, we all sat there and stared at each other for a few more minutes and then a man came out from the kitchen and suggested that Pat and I might be more comfortable somewhere else. We left and considered it a lesson learned.

Dave Thomas
April 29, 2014


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