Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Ancient Rememberings

Alan Lightman recalls the Memphis Cotton Carnival of 1955

1955. A lady’s pink boa flutters and slips through the air. All down the street, Negro janitors shuffle behind horse-drawn white floats and scoop up the piles of manure. I am carried along by the heave of the crowd, smell of the popcorn and hot dogs with chili, the red-faced men sweating dark rings through their costumes, the Egyptian headdresses, warble of trombones and drums of the big bands from New York and Palm Beach—me six years old wearing a tiny white suit with white tie clutching the hand of my six-year-old date, both of us pages in the grand court, trailing the Ladies-in-Waiting gorgeously dressed in their gowns made of cotton, the white gold of Memphis. Cotton town high on a bluff. Boogie town rim of the South.

Far off through colored balloons, I glimpse the King and Queen, just off their barge on the muddy brown river. They solemnly stride through an arch made of cotton bales. Bleary eyed women and men reel in the streets, drunk from their parties and clubs, Isis and other secret societies. From an open hotel window, someone is playing the blues. Music flushes the cheeks of the coeds and debutantes, dozens of beauties from the Ladies-of-the-Realm who flutter their eyelashes at young men. I am lost in this sea, miraculously picked from a first-grade lottery, candy and glass crunch under my feet, wave after wave of school marching bands flow through the street. Then a young majorette hurls her baton high in the air. Before it can fall back to earth, the twirling stick touches the trolley wires and explodes in a burst of electrical fire. Pieces of baton rain on the heads of the crowd.