The West Randolph Ballroom
Novel Excerpt by Mary Youngerman
year gone…sixty altogether…this would be the last. Fred Harrison, semi-retired postmaster (he still delivered
mail to the multi-purpose home), city manager, road maintenance supervisor, chief building inspector and general good citizen
of Randolph gathered the two ends of the Alloy Grade 100 Chain,
pulled them through the door handles and caught the ends in the hook of the heavy Yale padlock.
“A memory museum.” He said the phrase after every inspection, at least two a week. He
could not stay away and if he had been soberly honest with himself would call it an addiction. Today as always, he thought
of the fading history, the pristine interior, and added, “These chains have kept you in, the world out. Has security
caused you to die?” The grief he carried was heavy. Alloy Grade 100, American made, like the chain still clutched in
his fingers. He stopped to catch his breath.
He extended a massive wad of keys from a retractable ring attached to his belt, careful to stop mid
tug to compensate for the arthritis that has become ever more bothersome. As the pain subsided, he drew the clanging mass
toward his eyes. Closer by the week, he thought and made a mental note to check on, maybe purchase, a pair of reading glasses
with stronger magnification. Three hundred, he considered his calculation as he tossed the number from one eye to the other.
A stronger conjecture followed, I better make a note to myself. He sighed, pulled a pencil and a spent envelope from the breast
pocket of his seasoned fishing vest, scribbled “300” on the back; then on second thought added, “Glasses.” Another sigh, perhaps a bit too deep, as he creased the already soft folds that allowed
the envelope to slide into place emulating a pocket protector. He rested his left hand against the door and waited for the
light-headedness to subside as he settled his mechanical pencil between the ridges of the envelope, ran his closed eyes across
the length of his extended left flannel sleeved forearm and single-handedly located one key―the key―before
snapping the lock shut.
“Sixty years,” he said as he marked another off on his mental annual calendar and rested
the top of his balding head against the cool thick glass inset in the door. His eyes fixed upon the worn piece of oak at the
base of the doorframe. The thick black high-gloss enamel that still shown on the three panels surrounding the top and sides
of the doors presented only as scuff marks from years of use. For a minute, maybe five, he ran through myriad shoes and boots
and their owners who had crossed the threshold of the ballroom. The soldiers had danced with equal enthusiasm to Ethel Harrison,
his one-room schoolmarm, and her accordion, to Elmer Haas’ Banjo Band, and to anyone else who could play a lick of music
willing to sit, at ungodly hours, on the stage at the far end of the noisy, busy, smoke-filled room.
Elmer ran the local cotton gin but was keen on visiting Beale
Street looking for talent ready and willing to play for the boys at the West Randolph Ballroom.
Following a tip from his pal, W. C. Handy, Elmer had visited Itta Bena on his way back from his grandfather’s home in
Indianola. For a reason unknown then and now, Elmer was at home in Negro juke joints, and he established friendships over
the years with T-Bone Walker, Bukka White, Rufus Thomas, Charlie Christian and Riley B. King. Local lore had it that Elmer introduced Riley B. King to Beale Street―or “introduced Beale Street
to the man whose name would become an American legend,” as Randolph Ballroom purists relay the stories. King played
the Ballroom and brought many of his friends up for riffs and though the pay was sporadic, King’s loyalty to the GIs
was not. It was the GIs who brought the bands and, along with Randolph’s
above average share of southern belles, the music brought the GIs. The music satisfied the soldier’s affinity for dancing
or sitting, talking, and reflecting aloud, to anyone who would listen, on the meaning and infinite possibilities of life.
“Everybody wants me to be happy,” one soldier said as he studied the plate of fried chicken
Fred put in front of him. “Hell, do they think just because they don’t say the word, I’m not constantly
thinking of death?” The music allowed melancholy. The Ballroom provided willing ears and ample opportunity to wax poetic
or cry into the bootlegged beer. Mississippi Delta Blues and the West Randolph Ballroom were a special religion. Good for the soldiers’ soul.
Fred was sixteen when the doors opened for the first time. The ballroom, built for weddings, town
meetings and commencement exercises beginning with the forty-three members of the class of ‘42, changed its mission
rapidly when thirty-three boys in cardinal and gold letter jackets caught the first bus to Memphis on that unusually brisk February morning. Uncle Sam, looking stern and pointing from
the post office wall, had lured the boys with the romance of war, the excitement of travel and the promise of a free education.
“Patriotic duty,” the fathers boasted.
“Our heroes!” the mothers, sisters and girlfriends cried.
Fred’s brother, Joey, was on that bus. Joey, everybody’s hero―captain
of the teams, a candidate to Auburn College of Veterinary Medicine, FranAllen’s beau―was the
best brother a guy could have. Fred grimaced at the thoughts that went through his mind that day, a strange mix of pride,
inadequacy, and the one that angered and embarrassed him to this day, jealousy.
“Goddamn immaturity.” The volume of his words startled him. He pulled on the lock, cleared
the knot from his throat and looked around to be sure there were no witnesses.
I wanted to go too.
Fred remembered standing below the bus window motioning for Joey to lower the pane and feeling chafed that once again he was
relegated to his brother’s shadow. He remembered wanting to say something brave and meaningful; a phrase that the town
fathers would ask permission to coin, a phrase that would make the women weep and the girls swoon, particularly FranAllen
O’Shea. But when Joey lowered the window, the winter sun reached in and penetrated every fine strand of his red hair
forming an aura of epic proportion, a “halo” it would be called, is called, in the stories that still circulate.
The entire town inhaled collectively, a catalyst for a second, more profound phenomenon, one that would go unnoticed by even
the most attentive of botanists. Perhaps a tree whisperer would have picked up on the shortage of carbon dioxide, the sluggish
sap, the slowing of molecules through the abundant flora.
The remaining vacuum evaporated as soon as Joey started the Ole Miss cheer, “Are you ready?”
he called to the town.
“Hell yes! Damn right!” the town yelled back.
Passengers on the bus, men and women, boys and girls, colored from the back seats and whites from
the rest of the seats joined in. “Hotty Toddy gosh almighty who in the hell are we? Flim flam bim bam, Ole Miss by damn!” The chant was followed by Randolph’s
version of the Rebel Yell.
But in the brief moment before the cheer, when an appearance of mini-mal seizures were posited on
the faces of everyone standing transfixed in the town square, no one realized the cessation of air exchange; on the other
hand, everyone, or so it seemed, realized they were seeing Randolph’s favorite son for the last time.
Had everyone seen it? Fred wondered. Surely, each resident of Randolph
had a personal ending to the story―a slight variation of “seeing the hand of God and knowing Joey was going
to be with Jesus.”
Why didn’t each resident of Randolph
attempt to yank him off the bus? Fred didn’t remember if he actually saw the halo or if the stories have made it so.
What he remembered was a split second of terror in Joey’s eyes. Fred thought the feeling of never seeing his brother
again had registered ever so slightly in his own mind―for a second, if at all, and was quickly interrupted
as Joey started the cheer that could be heard “clear out to Washington, DC,”
Paul Begley reported in the Desoto Defender, “a noise that will put Randolph on the map.” It was a cheer that afforded each citizen
the opportunity to exhale. But it wasn’t a cheer that put Randolph
on the map. The West Randolph Ballroom and its invitation to introduce soldiers to Southern hospitality and the Mississippi
Delta Blues would put Randolph on the map.
Fred was sixteen when the war started, eighteen when the telegram arrived, eighteen and one day when
he left his silenced parents for basic training.
“Sixty years,” his clear tenor voice lamented as he pivoted his face to the right. He
felt the folds of his loosening skin sag, an appropriate added weight, like the weight of the long list of losses, the weight
of the pending losses. “Aging!” he said aloud. “Losing,” he pushed the word up through a lump on his
“Afternoon, Missa’ Fred.” He had not seen CoraLee sidle up to the wood plank porch.
“Afternoon, CoraLee.” Fred had to clear his throat to get the short greeting out.
“Why yo’ lock that door, missa’ Fred? Ain’t been a thief through Desoto County in a
hundred years. All yo’ doin is lockin’ up all them stories. Good stories. They done suffocatin in thar.”
The gray-haired, black-skinned woman dropped her gunnysack on the porch and after rummaging through
it produced a harmonica. Every Sunday afternoon and most Friday nights for nearly eighty years, she had provided a musical
score for the dramas, comedies and tragedies of Randolph.
Today she started her concert with “Beale Street Blues.”
Fred knew CoraLee was right. In an effort to preserve and protect the stories…Have I caused them extinction? He imagines the voices of the past screaming in pain as the wrecking ball strikes.
Have I enabled, or worse, become the wrecking ball?
A practice football field and a gravel road away, residents are shuffling and wheeling through the
front and side doors of the nursing/retirement/assisted living home, known locally and none too affectionately as the multi-purpose
Two o’clock. He knew the time without checking his watch. “Daily Outing,” the staff
called it. The residents, those who still knew where they were, called it “Daily Air-outing.” Fred scheduled his
visits at these times―outside, away from the permeating smell of urine and bowel disorders and old.
Several men and women stopped and stared through various degrees of blurred vision. MayBelle, Monte, Maxine, Morris―the
“Four M’s” they called themselves―stood watching, sniffing the air, each sense straining
to make up for physical failures. They had heard the music for so long even the hearing impaired could feel it.
A dust devil skipped across the grass-spotted ground, remnants of a defunct cotton field, carrying
a small percentage of the odor that did not cling to their person or the walls and asbestos linoleum of the home. He had not
made his usual daily visit for a week. How could he? What would he say? The Ballroom’s mission was built on dreams at
a time of life when real and ideal blended well, when an entire country worked to preserve life and liberty as quintessential
to the pursuit of happiness, before the dreams yellowed and the dreamers died. If the Ballroom held their dreams, wasn’t
he their trusted caretaker?
“I’m goin’ to the
river, maybe by-and-by,
Yes, I’m goin’ to the river,
and there’s a reason why.
Because the river’s wet
And Beale Street’s done gone dry.”
Except for the words, there was little distinction between CoraLee’s harmonica and her mellow
Fred patted the ballroom door. “You done gone dry, too, Ole Girl.”
The harmonica returned to CoraLee’s mouth wailing out a history, a blue history, broken and
fragile. The high, steady, even, mournful notes produced an ache in Fred’s heart, a burning in his eyes and a salty
taste on the edge of his mustache. The taste of grief slid into his mouth with the last melancholy cry. CoraLee set the instrument
on her lap and continued humming.
At once a monumental strength and determination enveloped the place where Fred stood. He unlocked
the YaleŽ, pulled out the chains and opened the door. And as he walked to meet his friends at the multi-purpose home, a breeze
from the Ballroom whisked past his ear sounding just like a Mississippi Delta Blues revival.
was the first state to ratify the 18th Amendment and one of, if not the last, to ratify the 21st Amendment.
The exact origin of Hotty Toddy is not known and appears
to be a cheer developed from the 1930s. The exact sound of the Rebel Yell is unknown.
About The West Randolph Ballroom:
During the Second World War, a big-hearted, patriotic people in Randolph, Mississippi, encouraged U.S. soldiers who
made their way through Memphis en route to the European and Pacific theatres to hop on a Greyhound Bus to The West Randolph
Ballroom. Thousands came for the dancing, the fried chicken, the mothers, the
southern belles, the boot-legged beer and the Mississippi Delta Blues. No “colored” signs pointed the way to outdoor
toilets or alternative water fountains, and the tables and dance floor were shared by anyone willing to serve regardless of
gender, creed or race. The West Randolph Ballroom integrated small town southern people, a rich Negro musical heritage, and
soldiers’ hearts and souls in a time of segregation and prohibition.
Years later, when BebeAnne returns to Randolph to find its “greatest generation” and its prized icon dying,
she grudgingly joins an unlikely group of survivors determined to preserve the town’s legacy.
A native of Mississippi, Mary Youngerman directed a Newspaper in Education program in Iowa, creating educational materials
for three statewide programs. She currently lives in Nebraska where she coaches students with learning disabilities in reading
and the written language.