OXFORD—I was initially nervous about being on Mississippi Public Radio, but my wife kept reminding me that I have the perfect face for radio. So here we are.
Thacker Mountain Radio Hour is a live variety show with music, singing, literature, fun, and Arnie the Magic Chicken who can tell your fortune by lifting his tail feathers and dropping “chicken magic” onto giant bingo cards.
No, I’m only kidding about Arnie the Chicken. Though I wish I weren’t because even a chicken could do a better job on the radio than I can.
Tonight I am in a “time slot.” This is an industry term. A time slot is basically the same as being interrogated by military intelligence personnel while on the air. You speak only when spoken to, give direct answers, and if you talk longer than allotted the stagehands drag you into the alleyway where you are assaulted by a gang of fortune-telling chickens and their ringleader, Arnie.
I am reminded often that I must be BRIEF on the air. But the thing is, I am never brief, I am the opposite of brief. I am boxer shorts.
During sound check the stage manager with the clipboard is walking me through how things will go. She is extremely clear about this long winded business. She says, “When I hold up three fingers, you’d better be wrapping up, or else.”
“Or else what?” I ask.
“See that red smear on the floor? That was last week’s speaker, he went sixty seconds over.”
Anyway, what I like about Oxford is the relaxed vibe. It’s like many college towns. Ninety percent of the people on the sidewalks are young, energetic, and have no joint pain. These are known as students. The rest of the town population looks like the cast of the 1985 movie “Cocoon.” These are college faculty members.
Rumor has it that most University of Mississippi faculty members looked very young when they started working here. They aged rapidly after only one semester of dealing with stressful kids who are notoriously hard to handle because they all refuse to—even when professors hold loaded chickens to their heads—look at a syllabus.
A local band is opening the radio hour tonight. The musicians are running through a quick rehearsal. They play familiar songs. Their music is a mixture of soul, funk, rock, and an aviation nuclear strike. But they are a great band from what I can hear through the jets of blood leaking from my eardrums.
Ten minutes until showtime.
I slip backstage to use the bathroom. Also, I’m thirsty, so I’m looking for water. I see a two-gallon Mason jar with a spigot. The jar is filled with—this is true—what I mistakenly believe to be water. I fill a cup with this clear stuff. I take a large swallow and my throat is on fire.
This is definitely not water. This stuff is a highly flammable fluid that could power commercial agriculture equipment.
I am coughing, gasping, wheezing, and my head is starting to swim.
One of the college-age stagehands laughs. “Dude, that’s our SPECIAL water.”
Another stagehand raises his SOLO cup. “Welcome to Oxford, bruh.”
Then they high-five each other and openly set fire to a school syllabus.
When the show starts, the host reads announcements. The audience is applauding. I’m sitting in the front row feeling absolutely no pain. My wife sniffs my breath. “What’s that smell?” she says.
“Smell?” I say. “I don’t (hiccup) smell anything.”
While I’m waiting for my time slot, I am gazing around the room, smiling. And it dawns on me that most of the people on this show are basically children. The stagehands are barely old enough to shave. God, I feel old.
You know, sometimes I can’t believe I actually made it to adulthood alive. It’s a miracle, really. When I was a kid, all I ever wanted was to make it past the Festering Zit Stage into the grown-up years. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy growing up that much. Sure, there were pieces of childhood I liked. But all in all, I don’t know if I would buy another ticket to do it again.
The hard part about growing up is transitioning into a non-kid. Life smacks you around and you get tougher whether you want to or not. People cheat you, some folks climb over you, and others make you cynical.
But here in this room, surrounded by all these happy kids, I’m realizing that growing up wasn’t all bad. Because along the way you meet people who love you. Who stand behind you. Who remind you that no matter how ugly you feel, you have the perfect face for radio. These people make you a better person.
So the host asks me a few questions and I start to get a little long winded until the lady with the clipboard gives me the Look of Death. She holds up three fingers. This is my cue to either shut up or become a skidmark.
When the show ends, the band plays “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Which happens to be my favorite song. The audience sings along and a lady in the back stands and starts twirling in circles. There’s a Pentecostal in every bunch. Almost everyone, both young and old, is singing. I’m singing. My wife is hugging me. Happiness comes out my eyes and rolls onto my cheeks. All that’s missing is Arnie the Magic Chicken.
I’m on the radio, Mama.
Someone get me some more of that fancy water.