An Unlikely Road from Ole Miss


In the staircase of the Student Union at the University of Mississippi, there were was a brief excerpt from a poem, the Heart of Ole Miss. And part of that excerpt was this – “The University gives a diploma and regretfully terminates tenure…”
 
Last month marked 23 years since that diploma was given and my tenure there terminated. Ole Miss did what it good for me and set me free. For those two decades and change, I’ve been proud to be an alumnus of the University of Mississippi.
 
So it was incredibly heartwarming and validating this year to have the Ole Miss Alumni Association look back on those years and say, hey, we’re proud of you, too.
 
 
When I was an undergrad at The University of Mississippi
, I never dreamed the direction my career would take me. My ambitions were that at this point in my life, I’d be a weekly newspaper publisher. To say that helping to put tiny spaceships on giant rockets sending people to the moon was not on the map would be understatement.
 
And yet, those years in the journalism school at Ole Miss were the foundation for everything since. Reporting and writing professors like Joe Atkins and Robin Street taught not just the basic knowledge of the craft of journalism; they taught something far more valuable – how to become knowledgeable. A journalist had to be able to go into any unfamiliar situation and quickly gain the ability to communicate competently about it. Like schools or courts or county government. Or rockets.
 
In my younger days, I dreamed of winning the Silver Em award, the highest recognition Ole Miss gives its alumni for their accomplishments in careers in journalism. My career has long since taken me in a direction that doesn’t lead to a Silver Em, and I joke that I, instead, want the award for least-likely career for an Ole Miss journalism grad.
 
And that’s kind of what this article is.
 
The funny thing was, when they contacted me, I actually had the most recent issue of the Review on my desk, because I was about to write and tell them they should publish a feature about Chris Cianciola, the deputy program manager for NASA’s Space Launch System, which ain’t half bad for an Ole Miss engineering alum. (There’s a lot lot of Mississippi State alums on the SLS program and not a lot of us Ole Miss folks, and I love that all the State grads answer to a UM alum.) When they contacted me about an article, I immediately told them I was flattered, but they’d really rather write about Chris. They took down his name for a future article, but said they really wanted to write about my unlikely story.
 
And, I gotta say, they did a pretty decent job with it. Nobody’s ever written my story like this before, and I’m not displeased with the result.
 
“The University gives a diploma and regretfully terminates tenure, but one never graduates from Ole Miss.” – Frank Everett, UM BA’32, BL’34

Indianola, Mississippi, and the Moon


One of the biggest things I learned at The Enterprise-Tocsin in Indianola, Mississippi is that the world is a small place.

Our job was to cover Sunflower County, Mississippi. That’s it. Not Ukraine or New York or DC or Greenwood, Mississippi. Just our one county – the longest in Mississippi and the birthplace of B.B. King – and it’s 30,000 inhabitants.

And yet, someone, in the process of covering our little postage stamp of native soil, as Faulkner put it, we covered the world. The exchange student from Ukraine. The local native who fled the World Trade Center after the planes hit.

Indianola was a relatively small city of 12,000 people, and yet somehow those 12,000 people were connected to the entire world. For a young kid fresh out of Ole Miss, it was a powerful lesson to learn.

This week, because the world is a small place, I’m on the front page of The Enterprise-Tocsin.

I was back in Indianola a couple of months ago, and, of course, visited The E-T, and talked with Bryan Davis, the Editor currently very ably stewarding the community’s newspaper, and the topic of space may have come up.

It turns out that expats of this tiny Mississippi community had connections to putting people on the moon 50 years ago, and, now, to putting people on the moon again.

The front page of The E-T this week has stories about Indianolans who were involved in Apollo, about Sunflower County native Stephen Clanton, who’s at Marshall today, and about a former news editor who went on to do space stuff.

Stories like this aren’t unique to Indianola. You can find people anywhere connected to anything.

Because this blue and white orb we all live on really is a small place.

Not a bad lesson to learn, whether you’re in Indianola, Mississippi, or looking back at it from the moon.

Sk8er Thunder – The Compelling Evidence That “Thunder” and “Sk8er Boi” Are the Same Story


In this divided and contentious time, there are few things on which we can all agree, but I’d like to propose an item on which we should be able to find consensus:

It should be national head canon that Imagine Dragons’ Thunder is the same guy as Avril Lavigne’s Sk8erBoi.

It’s worth noting that Dan Reynolds is 31 and Lavigne is 33. While there’s no reason to believe they knew each other, they’re coming along in the same zeitgeist.

But let’s take a look at the textual evidence, shall we?

Fact One: “He was a boy, she was a girl.”

Can I make it any more obvious?

Fact Two: Aforementioned boy is a rebel.

Lavigne describes him as “a punk” and a misfit.

Thunder tells us he’s a a young gun with a quick fuse, not a “yes sir,” not a follower.

Fact Three: The other kids at school don’t get him.

“All of her friends
Stuck up their nose
They had a problem with his baggy clothes”

“Kids were laughing in my classes
While I was scheming for the masses
Who do you think you are?
Dreaming ’bout being a big star”

Fact Three And A Half:

One of the particular insults hurled at the guy in Thunder by his classmates is that he’s “always riding in the back seat.”

Which seems odd until you realize he’s in the back seat BECAUSE HE DOESN’T HAVE A CAR, thus all the skateboarding!

(I could pretty much declare QED and drop the mic there, but we’re not done.)

Fact Four: The boy goes on to become a star, she’s just a fan.

“they’ve all got tickets to see his show
She tags along
Stands in the crowd”

“Now I’m smiling from the stage while
You were clapping in the nose bleeds”

You might note that the narratives diverge with the absence of the girl character from Sk8er Boi, but the text justifies this.

While the girl is still hung up on “the man that she turned down,”* the guy has moved on with his life, thus to him she’s just one of the many other kids in his classes.

And with that, I rest my case.

Thank you for your consideration, and let the healing begin.

*It’s worth pointing out also that Sk8er Boi is technically a meta-narrative, not actually from the point of view of that girl, but projection from the guy’s current significant other onto that girl, so it can’t be treated as wholly accurate.

Me And John Grisham


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One of my favorite brush-with-fame stories over the years has been the time I got invited to John Grisham’s private screening of his first movie, The Firm.

The story goes like this: I was in school during the summer semester at Ole Miss, way back in ’93. Grisham, who has a house in Oxford, was a favorite son, and was riding high after the release of his fourth book, The Client. So the release of an actual movie based on an actual bestseller by a local guy was a Big Deal locally of the type we’d not seen since the Faulkner days (which, lets face it, most of us couldn’t remember anyways).

In fact, it was so exciting that I’d gone to the matinee show during the day on the Wednesday it came out at the theater in the local mall. I went back to the newspaper office afterwards, to discover I had an invitation waiting for me: Would I like to come that night to watch the movie at Grisham’s private screening at the other local theater, The Hoka?

Um, yes.

(I wrote a lot of stories about The Hoka and movies playing there, and the owner figured it would be good publicity to have us cover the event. I was certainly willing to do so.)

And so there I am, at the theater, with John Grisham and various local notables, watching The Firm. Which, to be sure, was kind of cool.

But you know what would be cooler?

So this was during a period when Grisham didn’t do interviews. Like I said, he was at a pretty high point with four huge bestsellers behind him and now a movie, and he decided that interviews just weren’t worth the trouble.

To the best of my knowledge, he only did two interviews during a half-year period.

One, for Parade Magazine, was with himself. He agreed to the article, but got to ask and answer his own questions.

The other —

I approached John that night, and told him I knew he didn’t do interviews, but told him who I was and that I was with the Ole Miss paper, and asked him, if he’d be willing to answer just one question.

He said he’d never met a reporter that could ask just one question, so if I could do it, he would answer it.

So I did.

I can’t tell the story without being asked what the question was, and really, the story demands a question that lives up to that situation. My question wasn’t that epic, but it worked. “When you watch the movie, can you detach from the process of writing the book and enjoy it like any other movie, or are the two too tied together?” Again, not brilliant, but I figured it would require him to talk a bit about the book and the movie and the writing process, etc., so I could cover a lot of ground with one question.

And that’s how I became the only person in the summer of 1993 to interview John Grisham.

The End.

Except …

I hadn’t seen the story in probably 20 years. If I still have a copy, it buried in a box buried in a closet with countless other newspapers. The story of what happened and the story that came from it, for me, both existed only in my head.

Until Lain came across it randomly recently and sent me a picture of the story, which ran exactly 23 years ago today.

It’s interesting to note that the story ran a week after the screening, which I don’t understand, unless it was around the school holiday schedule. (Which might also explain why I didn’t try to submit what seems like a decent exclusive to the AP.)

But every time I’ve told the story, I’ve never been able to share what he said. Here, then, is the printed answer to The One Question.

A Cool Home for “Homesteading”


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A year ago today, the inimitable Rick Houston sent me that picture of my book “Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story” with a note: “Can’t tell you where I saw this yet … but when I do, it will be one of the most impressive places you’ve seen it. I promise.”

 

Rick, for those that don’t know, is the author of “Go, Flight: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control” and of “Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle 1986-2011,” which is the “sequel” to my “Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986,” picking up the story of the shuttle where my book leaves off.

 

Two months go by, and I hear nothing, so I ask Rick if I’ve missed the news. “Nope. Not yet. But I’ll tell you where I saw the book.” Yeeeeesssssss? “Chris Kraft’s house.” As in, like, NASA’s first flight director ever, the guy that basically invented mission control, and former director of Johnson Space Center. During a launch countdown, when you hear people say “Go, Flight,” Kraft was the original Flight. So, yeah, that’s more than a little bit cool. “Just don’t say anything yet,” Rick says. Awww, OK.

 

More months go by. I ping Rick again, asking if I can share the pic and offering to pitch his books in the process. He doesn’t even answer me this time. Sigh.

 

The big secret has now been revealed, however. The reason Rick was hanging out at Chris Kraft’s house was for “Mission Control: The Men Who Put A Man on the Moon,” a documentary about the flight controllers that put men on the moon. I’ve yet to see it, but the rave reviews that it got at Spacefest make me very eager to.

 

So, point being, Rick’s an awesome guy, not only because he sent me a picture of my book in what was, indeed, an impressive place, and not just because he writes great books on his own, but because he’s making actual documentaries about space. Check his stuff out.

Europa and Eupora


Europa

This is Europa. It’s a moon.

Europa is a moon of Jupiter. Planetary scientists believe that underneath a shell of ice there may be twice as much liquid water as is on the planet Earth.

Eupora is a town in Mississippi. In the 2010 census, it had a population of 2,197.

Eupora depot

This is Eupora. It’s a town.
(Well, this is the old depot in the town of Eupora.)

What do they have in common? As best as I can tell, pretty much just me.

Sixteen years ago, I was editor of the weekly newspaper in Eupora. Today, I support the development of a rocket that could be used to send a probe to Europa. And I think that may be the only point of commonality between the two.

Last week, I was back in Mississippi around the test firing of an engine for that rocket at Stennis Space Center; the longest I’ve spent in the state in nine years.

Driving down, I had some extra time, so I drove to the Stennis area the slow way. I get back to Mississippi fairly often, and revisit most of my old stomping ground at least every couple of years. But last week I also had the opportunity to pass through towns that were the exception to that, places I hadn’t visited in 16 years.

I stopped at two newspaper offices and met current caretakers of publications I’d been general manager of. You hear a lot about the decline of the newspaper industry, but word hasn’t reached Ackerman, Mississippi. The town has a population of about 1,500 people, and still supports a weekly newspaper. (In those places where the newspaper focuses on local news, the local community still supports it.)

Huntsville is and to some extent always will be home. But Mississippi is and always will be a part of me. Time I spend there is restorative.

My first full day down there last week, someone asked me why I’d gotten in so late. As soon as I answered, I realized that the answer to that question was also my biography — I’d gotten to NASA via a long and winding road through Mississippi with detours through small towns and stops at several newspapers.

I had a great time at Stennis last week. The engine test was amazing, and I was honored to get to be there for it.

But I also had a great time getting to Stennis last week. It was so nice to have the opportunity to revisit places that helped make me who I am.

I’m grateful for where I am.

I’m grateful for the journey that brought me here.

I look forward to the day we reach Europa. But I’ll never forget the days I spent in Eupora.

Interviewing The Man Who Taught Me To Interview


Joe Atkins at his Lafayette County, Mississippi home.

Joe Atkins at his Lafayette County, Mississippi home. Photo by Lauren Wood, Mud & Magnolias

Twenty years later, there aren’t a whole lot of my former professors I still keep up with. And there’s a case to be made that Joe Atkins​ might have been an unlikely candidate to be one of the few, since I failed one or two of his classes, depending on how you count.

But Joe, as much as anyone, is the person who taught me to be a reporter. Not just the technical aspects of how to be a reporter, but what it means to be one. He was tough but fair, and played a huge role in the foundation of the arc my career would follow.

So it was very interesting to get to write an article about Joe for the most recent issue of Mud & Magnolias about his first published novel, Casey’s Last Chance.

Most of my stories for Mud & Magnolias​ are assigned to me, but this is one I asked to be allowed to write. I thought it would be an interesting subject, which is was, and I wanted to be able to help promote his book, which you should read. What surprised me, however, was how interesting the interview prep was. I’ve known the man for over 20 years now, but I’d never actually researched him before. He’s even more fascinating than I realized.

The experience of the interview itself was also interesting. I was a pretty decent reporter back in my day, and even if I’m not in the newspaper business anymore, I do get opportunities to keep those skills from becoming too rusty. It’s been a long time since I’ve been nervous about conducting an interview. But I’ve also never before interviewed the person who taught me to interview someone. Going into it, I almost expected to be corrected on my technique. In reality, we had a really great conversation about the differences between journalism and fiction, the creative process, the future of the newspaper industry, and a lot more. The hardest part of the process was how much I had to leave out of the article.

Ole Miss historically has a great journalism department and produces great student journalists (I read Tuesday that The Daily Mississippian​ just won another regional best daily student paper award), and professors like Joe Atkins are a bit part of why. I was blessed to be one of his students 20 years ago, and am honored to call him a friend today.

And, in conclusion, buy his book.