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.

RIP, B.B. King: “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”


B.B. King at his final homecoming concert in Indianola, Mississippi, in 2015

B.B. King at his final homecoming concert in Indianola, Mississippi, in 2015

“Did you ever hear a church bell tone?
Then you know old B is dead and gone…”

B.B. King has stopped touring.

I haven’t looked, but I’m sure there are folks today posting variations of the obvious “The King is dead” or, of course, “The Thrill Is Gone.”

But it’s just not true. As I’m typing, I’m listening to B.B. King. And I will for decades to come. As prolific as he was, I’ll even probably still keep discovering new music, new performances.

B.B. King, the King of the Blues, lives on.

A good man died last night.

I don’t recall ever hearing anyone call him Riley in person. To people talking to the performer, he was B.B. or Mr. King or Dr. King. He bristled at the latter one; while he was touched by his honorary doctorates, “Dr. King” was the Reverend Martin Luther King, and B.B. felt unworthy to be called by that name.

To friends, when he wasn’t B.B., he was, more casually B. And that’s who the world lost last night.

I didn’t know him — he certainly wouldn’t have known me — but we had mutual friends, and I had the privilege that I had more direct experience with B than with B.B. King.

I went, once, to see him in a true and proper concert, here in Huntsville at the Von Braun Center five years ago. It was a bucket list item, and I’m glad I had the opportunity.

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But most of my experiences were when B came home. He was born in Berclair, Mississippi and died at his house in Las Vegas, but Indianola, Mississippi is where B.B. King considered to be home.

Home being a relative concept. B.B. spent far and away most of his time on the road; I honestly thought he would die there. He nearly did, and probably would have if he could have. He bought some property in Indianola many years ago and long talked about building a house there, but never did. I’d hoped the building of the B.B. King Museum might make it more appealing, it was pleasant to imagine him sitting in a big chair at the museum talking to visiting children. I think he could have been happy, but it’s not who he was.

But for a couple of days each year, who he was was the man who grew up in Indianola, picking cotton and playing gospel on a street corner and hanging out with his friends. His visits home involved long visits with good friends and often food that the well-known diabetic really didn’t need to be eating but that it wouldn’t be home without.

Over the years I lived and worked in Indianola, my job with The Enterprise-Tocsin newspaper gave me glimpses of this side of B.B. – one of the friendliest, most good-natured men you’ll ever meet, loyal to his friends and humble and accessible to strangers. It wasn’t hard to imagine, if he ever could build that house, passing him in the vegetable aisle of the Sunflower Food Store like anybody else in town. He was so real, so genuine, so friendly. He enjoyed being B.B. King, but he never let it go to his head.

T-shirt I designed for the 1997 homecoming festival, signed by the man himself.

T-shirt I designed for the 1997 homecoming festival, signed by the man himself.

And then at the heart of it all there was the annual homecoming concert. Every other night, he performed for other people. On that one night, he performed for himself. He indulged himself, he had fun, he did what he wanted. He didn’t make a dime that night, and anything that was charged for tickets went to local parks and later to the museum. He didn’t make anything, so he was beholden to no one. He played a few songs, he let his band riff, he held a dance contest for kids. People who came to see the King of the Blues sometimes left disappointed, but that’s not what it was about. It was about B.B. coming home.

I saw him there many times over the years. When I moved to Alabama, it became harder to make it back, but on rare occasions I did. Last year, they announced that it would be the final time B.B. would play the homecoming festival. It seemed an odd decision, since he was still touring. The concerts recently maybe hadn’t been as good as they’d once been, but he was still performing and people still wanted to see him. Why decide then that it would be his last? I read something just this week about the festival being held at the end of this month, for the first time without B.B. And then, this morning, that he was gone. Whoever made the decision last year, it appears they were right. Or maybe a road that didn’t go through Indianola was a road nearing its end. Either way, B.B. King died 10 days before the Indianola Homecoming Festival was to be held for the first time without him.

I’m so very glad I went last year. I’m glad I got to see him again. I’m glad Rebecca got to see him in person. I’m glad I got to stand by my former editor and my friend Jim Abbott for the historic moment that B.B. King left the stage in his hometown for the last time. And I’m glad I saw that performance. He was old — so very old — but he gave all he had, and that night, he was all he’d ever been. It was worthy of the King of the Blues. No dance contest, just B.B. King doing well what he made his name doing. It was an amazing concert, far better than the one I saw in Huntsville.

There are other stories I could tell, like getting to give him t-shirts on a couple of occasions, or Lucille getting lost in the Mississippi Delta, but I’ll tell instead my favorite story of B.B. King, the story that, more than any other, captured why — beyond being a good man and a great musician — B.B. King matters.

I said the homecoming performances were for him. He had fun. I mentioned the dance contests. They were ostensibly for the kids, but I think they were, even more, for B.B.

There was a section at each homecoming in front of the stage reserved for children. B.B. would play songs for a while, but at some point, he’d start the dance contest. He’d call kids up on stage, the band would play, the kids would dance. B.B. would walk across the stage, hold his hand over each kid, the audience would clap. The kid that got the most applause was the winner. Depending on the year, B.B. would hand out cash.

This could go on for a while. The audience would get bored, some people would leave, but the kids, and, most importantly, B.B. were having fun.

It was important to B.B. to get a diverse group of kids on stage – boys and girls, different races. If it was getting too heavy loaded one way or another, he’d ask for what was needed to balance it out. This was important.

And, let me point out, is not the way things always were in Indianola, Mississippi. In days past, Indianola was the birthplace of the White Citizens Councils, the white-collar, as it were, version of the Klan. It was important to B.B. that today’s Indianola look different than the one he grew up in.

So one night I’m at the homecoming festival, and after the dance contest had stretched on for a while, I decide to walk back home. Indianola’s a small city; home is just over a mile away, and you can hear the festival clearly the whole walk.

I’m walking home, through Indianola, Mississippi, the birthplace of the White Citizens Councils, and I hear a seventy-something-year-old black man call out across town, “I need another little white girl.”

There was a day when that would not have been OK.

B.B. was not a crusader or an activist. He was a man who believed things should be better, and made it inevitable. B.B. King was a force for integration because he made people want to open doors for him. He mattered. He matters.

The world is the less without him in it, but it’s better for him having been here, and always will be.

“It’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you
Please see that my grave is kept clean.”

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Pages From The Past


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I came across an old-ish newspaper in a pile of papers recently.

Old-ish being relative. I have stacks of newspapers that date back decades; this one was only from August.

It took me a second to realize why I’d kept it; none of the big stories meant anything. Was it just one I forgot to read? (Or, perhaps, forgot to throw away?)

And then I saw it, a small bit about a German exchange student coming back to visit Indianola. The piece was in the “Pages From The Past” section — it was a story originally published in The Enterprise-Tocsin ten years earlier.

It was a story I had written. Saskia Kriester had come to Indianola as an exchange student a few years earlier, and had been placed with a family that stole from her. So that she wouldn’t have to be sent back, the city court clerk and her husband took her in for the rest of the year. A few years later, she came back to the U.S. on a visit and spent some time with her hosts. I covered the entire saga for The Enterprise-Tocsin, all those years ago.

I saved the issue with the 10-year recap because it was the last time I would appear there for a very long time. The story about the return visit was one of the last things I wrote for The E-T before leaving newspapers to come work at Marshall.

My career with The Enterprise-Tocsin spanned six years. When I left, it was only four years before my first stories started appearing in Pages From The Past. They popped up intermittently over the next six years, and disappeared again in August. Theoretically, I’ll start showing up again in nine more years, when my first stories start appearing in the 25-years-ago section. If they still publish Pages From The Past then. If, to be honest, they still publish then.

It’s strange to me that part of my life is now more than a decade ago. It seemed like such a long time, like such a defining thing when I was there. Now it’s a footnote. It shows up on my resumé and LinkedIn, and every once and a while I have to write a bio for something long enough to include “a former newspaper editor.” But it seems like a different life now.

There are a few remnants. I still use reporter’s pads as my notebooks. I love getting to put on my Mississippi journalist hat for “Mud & Magnolias” magazine.

But it’s been a long time since I left a newsprint stain on something I’ve touched. And, as silly as it is, on some days, I find that fact a little sad.

Mud And Magnolias


20121209-154444.jpgWay back when, before I disappeared from the blog, I wrote a post about doing some reporting. It was still early on, so I didn’t mention yet what I was writing about or who I was writing for. Particularly since who I was writing for only sort of existed at that point.

Back in May, I was passing through Mississippi, and had lunch with my good friend Shannon Johnson, who asked me if I’d be interested in doing some freelance writing. The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, for which she works, was going to be launching a new magazine, and they needed some contributors.

When I said I’d be interested, I had no idea just how much fun it was going to be.

During the time I’ve been offline, the magazine has gone from not-yet-published to having three issues out, so I can discuss it a bit more freely now.

Mud & Magnolias is a lifestyle magazine covering northeast Mississippi, and, in my completely unbiased view, is great reading.

For the first issue, I wrote the article I talked about in my early blog post, a feature about the rebuilding of Smithville, Miss., which was devastated last year during the April tornadoes. It was the first real journalistic writing I’d done in a decade, and putting that hat back on was quite agreeable. And, then, actually seeing the final product — this old newspaper hand has to admit that the magazine folks made my words look darned good. The M&M staff does an incredible job each month putting together a beautiful package.

My second feature, for the next issue, was about Tishomingo State Park. Research for that article involved doing a good bit of hiking, which isn’t a bad thing to get paid for at all, really.

My third story, for the current issue, is about a Christmas light display in Cotton Plant, Mississippi. You should check out both the magazine and the display.

I’m currently working on my fourth article. To be honest, it’s a bit more difficult this time due to the confluence of having a hard time getting responses from the subject and my own increased business, but, even so, I have no desire to stop. I’m incredibly flattered to be both a charter and regular contributor to the magazine, and I want to keep my run going as long as I can.

And to think I believed, after 10 years away, that my Mississippi journalism days were behind me.

Come With Me And Escape


I graduated from college on a Saturday, and I started working on Monday nine days later.

For three years, I was never off work for more than two days at a time. The first exception to that came when I was laid off, and was off work for about a week between jobs. It wasn’t exactly a relaxing time, however.

For many many reasons, I ended up working for an entire decade before I took a week’s vacation for the first time. It wasn’t the most spectacular vacation ever — while the stars were aligned to take the time off for the first time, the money was more of an issue.

In fact, we didn’t even spend the entire week in one place. We started in Mississippi, came back to Alabama for my brother’s graduation, and then went back elsewhere in Mississippi for a wedding.

Those first few days, though, were spent in a cabin in a state park in Mississippi. There was a beautiful lake and a walking trail, and very little else for miles. One night a friend came up with his telescope, and I’d never seen the stars the way I did in the amazingly clear sky overhead that night. For a little extra adventure, I drove around the state, to old stomping grounds and to places that I’d driven past a million times without ever making the time to stop. For most of the time, there wasn’t a whole lot to do, and that was great, because we basically did as little as possible.

Since that time, I’ve been on much more elaborate vacations, like the trip to Vegas and the Grand Canyon, or the week spent at Disney while the space shuttle didn’t launch. I’ve been on work trips that have compared favorably to vacations because I was getting to do fun things in a fun place.

But that first week off, and particularly those first few days of it, will always hold a special place in my heart.

One More Byline


I’d not spoken the words in almost a decade.

“I’m David Hitt, and I’m a reporter…”

But they flowed just as nicely as they ever had.

Just to be safe, I’ll not tell the whole story yet. It’s always better not to announce what story you’re working on until it’s in print, so for the moment I’ll hang on to what exactly I was writing and who I was writing it for.

I will say it involved spending a day in Mississippi, which just made the whole thing that much better.

For those that don’t know, many many moons ago, I was a newspaperman. I was a Mississippi weekly newspaper editor at one point, and in those days thought I would go to my grave as a Mississippi newspaper publisher. NASA intervened, and the ink gradually left my veins. Or, at least, my fingerprints stopped being permanently smudged with newsprint ink.

As best as I recall, I’ve only written for one (non-book) print publication in the last decade, and I didn’t do any original reporting for it. And while my writing for NASA and the books involved at times extensive research and interviews, they weren’t quite journalism in the way I’d had been used to.

But over a month ago, I was talking to a friend while visiting Mississippi, and my friend mentioned knowing someone who might be looking for a freelance writer for an upcoming project. My information was passed along, and jumped at the opportunity when it was offered.

Earlier this week, I submitted my first news feature for a print publication in almost 10 years.

Making it even better, while some of the work was done remotely, I spent a day in Mississippi last week doing research. I explored a town. I interviewed people. I introduced myself as a reporter.

I carried my reporter’s notebook and pen.

I was happy. It felt right.

Really, it was amazing how easy and right it felt. A decade is a pretty good chunk of time, and yet it was natural. If there was any rust there, I wasn’t aware of it. To be honest, I don’t know that I wasn’t better at it last week than I was 10 years ago — the old skills were still there, enhanced by a decade’s worth of greater confidence and better narrative awareness. And working again in Mississippi, even for a day — I felt like a Mississippian again, even just for a day. I’m pretty sure my accent changed while I was there. It still fit.

The article was a one-off thing, and I’m not sure if there will be more opportunities from the same group. I really hope there will be.

There may be a little more ink left in the veins after all.

Song Challenge Week 5 — A Song That Reminds You of Someone


OK, I started this quite a while back and then dropped the ball, but I’m going to try picking up the 30 Day Song Challenge again as a weekly project.


Week 5 — A Song That Reminds You of Someone

“Time After Time,” Cyndi Lauper

When I first came to this one, I skipped it and moved on to Week 6. Hard to pick a person I wanted to single out. This week it’s a little easier.

“Time After Time” was “our song” for Nicole and me because I was selfish.

When we started dating, we subjected each other to a bunch of favorite movies, including one of my all-time favorites, Strictly Ballroom, which uses the song to powerful effect and which, when I first saw it, gave me a renewed love for it.

And so I kind of pushed it as “our song” because of my love for the song and the movie, rather than letting something develop organically. Which didn’t stop it at all from taking root and becoming something beautifully “us.” It may have been mine to begin with, but there will never be a day that I will hear it and not think of her.

It was a dumb choice, in a way, more break-up song than love song, but it sounded sweet and had sweet thoughts in it. “If you’re lost you can look and you will find me, time after time.” I meant the words, and tried to live up to them. Even until the end, when she called me, when she needed me, I tried to be there for her as much as I could.

There were a few particular stand-out associations, like the signed copy we bought of the album it’s from, or the time that I tried, rather badly, to make a video of me singing it for her.

But the memory that stands out most —

We were both living in Eupora, Miss., the summer we got engaged. I was the editor of the newspaper, she was working at the Shell station and interning with the Department of Human Services. Reading the newspaper one day, I discovered that Cyndi Lauper was going to be playing a concert in Tunica, two and a half hours away that very night.

I picked her up from Shell, and just told her to get in the car. No explanation, nothing. And we drove to Tunica, with her passing through the middle of nowhere for hours with no idea where she was going or why, just amiably along for the ride.

Making it even better, she didn’t even notice the signs outside the casino where the concert was being held, and had no idea what was going on until I was actually buying the tickets.

She was happy. It was all worth it.

The concert was good, a small, intimate and very beautiful performance. But, yeah, when we got to hear her play “our song” live — that was a special moment. One I’m glad we shared.

Years later, that early memory is still one of my all-time favorite romantic gestures.