I enlisted in the Navy on Monday, December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. I think I chose the sea because it was exotic and having been on a farm all my life, I didn’t particularly like the idea of humping around the hills of North Carolina where the Army recruiter told me I’d be sent for basic training.
I lived in Ohio and had to get to a Navy induction center in New York, so I hitchhiked across the Ohio River in Cincinnati, cut across Kentucky even though I had five hundred dollars, my entire life savings up to that point of my existence, in my pocket. I withdrew the entire amount, closed the account on Tuesday before saying goodbye to my parents and sticking out my thumb on the highway early Wednesday.
Thursday dawned beautifully and I had to admit I admired the fields of blue grass even if it still had a reputation, at least among school children, of being a notoriously blue law no liquor on Sunday state. Nowhere as exotic as the Navy.
I found a used car lot in downtown Louisville which the locals didn’t pronounce like it reads at all. They had a nice selection of 30’s Fords and Packards, but the one that caught my eye was a Chevrolet someone had kept in immaculate condition with white side walls and skirts. It was only two hundred dollars, but when I told the dealer where I was headed and why, I didn’t even have to ask and he knocked fifty bucks off.
It got maybe ten miles to the gallon on the highway which was basically a two lane gravel road between farms in Tennessee. There were hundreds of miles between filling stations, gas was fifteen cents a gallon and the tank held 20. I could fill it for three dollars and drive most of the day. I had two weeks to get to New York, so I detoured south to a small town I knew was somewhere in Mississippi.
I took it slow, several more days, and entering Oxford was a little like walking into the pages of Tom Sawyer come to life.
The mansion was not hard to find. Everyone I asked knew exactly where it was and offered advice or insight such as, “Just knock once then wait.” Or, “He’s come back from Hollywood now.”
The front entrance was as imposing as Roan Oak itself which is just south of the town square. Two tall Doric columns two stories tall framed the screen and front doors.
A black man in livery opened the door but left the screen in place. “Yessir? May I help you?”
“Mr. Faulkner, please.”
“I’m afraid Mister Faulkner is working at the moment. He has a standing rule never to be disturbed between the noon hour and five o’clock tea. May I suggest you have a little over an hour to wait.”
I asked where I might spend that hour and was directed to the rear of the building by way of a path that led to an outdoor gazebo. I admired the garden which was well kept and profuse and felt cool despite the sticky Mississippi humidity and late afternoon heat.
At length, a short man in casual apparel which included a smoking jacket with leather elbow pads opened the rear door and stepped out onto the lawn. He paused to light a pipe, then continued his pace toward me. There was a look of concerned surprise on his face. Obviously he expected someone else to be waiting for him.
“Avery said a young man, so I thought it was the neighbors’ boy come about the tree trimming.”
I stood and introduced myself, stuck out my hand and he shook it. I told him I was a fan of “The Sound and the Fury” and was on my way to Navy boot camp when I thought I’d stop by and say hi.
This seemed to satisfy him and he took a seat beside me.
“Yes, well, we are at war,” he said succinctly. “Again.”
He had a very soft breezy Southern accent that would not betray him as from the south so much as a gentleman. I told him I liked his patio furniture.
“The gazebo is nice, but I like the bougainvillea covered walkway. It’s called a pergola, from the Latin for protrusion or projecting eave I believe. That’s one thing I miss when I’m in Los Angle-ease.” His pronunciation of the city was purposefully and pointedly incorrect.
The manservant appeared carrying in his white gloved hands a tray upon which were two tall drinking glasses with mint sprigs on their lips and a pitcher of cool brown liquid.
“And this is another,” Faulkner said lifting both glasses from the tray and pouring first into mine, then to the top of his. “Branch water. Bourbon, branch water and mint leaf. Simple recipe.” He took a sip. “Introduced the julep to the late Douglas Fairbanks who liked it a lot. Here’s a question: How long dead ya gotta be before they stop referring to you as the late?”
I had no idea and said as much.
“Then there’s that Errol Flynn. ‘In like Flynn.’ Now there’s a good line.”
I said, “Flynn: the man on whom the belles told.”
Faulkner laughed into his glass when he got the joke.
“Can you beat that? Man fucks two girls at once and this increases his reputation. ’Bout as bad as what started the fight between Cabot and Fairbanks.”
I had to ask: “What was that?”