The idea of sororities holds stronger in the Deep South than in the rest of the country, and at my alma mater, Ole Miss, in Oxford, Mississippi, the Greek letters on T-shirts foretold a person's station in life. I belonged to XΩ, Chi Omega. Our symbol was the owl; our colors were red and gold, or, in the mythical terms we were taught, "cardinal and straw"; and our chapter, Tau, had been at the top of the Greek order since its founding in 1899. The idea of walking around in anything other than the T-shirts, tank tops, earrings, gym shorts, necklaces, and sweatshirts of Chi Omega was so intolerable that rushees had been known to collapse in grief upon being cut, and to immediately pack their bags and go home.
Chi O freshmen were assigned to dorms, sophomores lived in dorms or apartments, and upperclassmen shared bedrooms in our Greek Revival chapter house, where we were surrounded by evidence of our bygone glories. A generation earlier we had produced back-to-back Miss Americas, whose portraits hung in the front stairwell and had become part of the scenery along with the oil paintings and chandeliers. Our housemother, Mrs. Caldwell, a former First Lady of Tupelo, wore silk blouses, pearls, and a cirrus of golden hair, and her mere presence encouraged us to conduct ourselves in a manner befitting our traditions. Chi Os were not to drink beer from cans. Or use profanity. Or dance on elevated surfaces in public. If we smoked, we were not to crassly stand while doing so, but rather sit, preferably with legs crossed. We were not to cultivate wildness or vulgarity in any form.
Instead, Chi Os were expected to run for campus office, participate in extracurricular activities, maintain the highest collective GPA, date nice boys, and perform community service. Plenty of us could secretly out-drink and out-smoke (sitting or standing) the biggest barfly in town, but we took the other expectations seriously, which is how, on a bright, clear Thursday in the spring of 1987, we arrived at the moment that changed everything.
Socially Awkward and sartorially clueless (purple gel shoes, pink frosted lipstick), I got in to Chi O largely, I suspect, on the lovability of my cousin Jill, the Chi O secretary. While other girls were planning their careers in medicine or education or law, or gathering trousseaus of Wedgwood and linens, I could barely get to class on time.
The girls from Jackson had the glamour of hailing from Mississippi's largest city. (One was an Ole Miss football cheerleader, a form of Oxford royalty. Another played concert-level classical piano. Another had perfected the art of the G-rated stacked date: cocktails with one boy at 6, dinner with another at 8, late date with another at 11.) Girls from Tupelo and Corinth were into tennis and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Columbus and Delta girls were laid-back and fun.
There were about 150 of us, and our stories couldn't help intertwining. Ashley, Mary Helen, and Mary Schiele were all from the Delta. Mary Schiele and Maggie were distant cousins. Maggie and Beth were planning to room together the following year. The two of them had pledged Chi O with Robin, Margaret, Snowe, and Hess; the four of them
had been best friends ever since. More precisely, Robin and Margaret were whatever lies beyond best friends. Inseparable since sixth grade, they were almost one person: MargaretandRobin, RobinandMargaret. Chi O had made their sisterhood official.
I knew Robin and Margaret best because they were from Tupelo, my hometown. Robin played basketball and softball and was as black haired and dark eyed as Margaret, lover of kittens and daffodils, was blonde and blue. Both were cheerleaders, class favorites. Both seemed to live on the balls of their feet. The whole Tau chapter, in fact, fairly glowed with congenital promise. As a guy friend once said, in complete seriousness, "Even the ugly ones are good-looking." This was a 100 percent compliment for a Southern girl, an achievement even, and, in our sheltered Chi O world, part of our insurance policy against whatever trouble might come our way.
Mississippi is a vertical state. Oxford, near the top, sits halfway between the hills and hardwood forests of the east and the hot, flat roads of the Delta to the west. One main corridor, Highway 6, traverses this upper region. On the map it starts near the curling inlets and cartoonish peninsulas of the Mississippi River, crosses Interstate 55, and runs through Batesville, Oxford, and Tupelo, on to the border of Alabama. The road rolls a bit between Batesville and Oxford but bottoms out now and then in soybean flats and cotton fields, cutting past one-room churches, lone brick houses, and landscapes of kudzu, which assumes the shape of whatever it drapes, tree, tractor, or shack.
It's about 25 miles from Batesville to Oxford, four lanes all the way. Maybe it was that near-marathon distance coupled with the alternating challenge and relief of hills and flats that made Highway 6 seem the perfect location for a charity walkathon.
That Thursday morning, March 26, Beth, an honors student with deep red hair, drove us to Batesville in the Nissan Maxima her parents had given her for high school graduation. We piled in on each other's laps, as many as could fit. Beth had organized the walkathon because she was our activities chairman, and she planned to do it the same way the chapter had done it for years: start in the McDonald's parking lot, walk to benefit the Mississippi Kidney Foundation, assign cars to deliver fresh crews throughout the day and take the tired ones home.
In the past, though, we'd always had a state police escort: a blue-lighted cruiser following close behind us. This time the highway patrol had said no. They'd started worrying about safety. The highway shoulder offered no buffer against the 55 mph traffic. Even with lights flashing, a trooper going 2 or 3 mph on a road busy with long-haul truckers would have been almost as much at risk as a person on foot.
Some of us didn't learn about the lack of escorts until we showed up that morning. But having been assured by the highway patrol that we'd be breaking only the laws of common sense if we proceeded, we chose not to change our plans. We were already out there, already dressed. We'd gotten up early and skipped class. The Kidney Foundation needed us and we needed the exercise. Besides, we were 25 miles from home, and we had to get back somehow. We had laundry to do, boyfriends to see, homework to start.
The morning had the gauzy freshness of early springtime in Mississippi, the temperature just shy of 70. The daffodils were out, the forsythia blooming in yellow arcs. I had on red nylon shorts with a fraying rip at the hem. When I walked, the hole opened and closed like a mouth.
Eighteen-wheelers blasted by, spraying the backs of our bare legs with pinpricks of grit. Each wake of air felt like a shove; it parted the hair at the back of our heads, whipping it into our eyes. Every minute or two, whooom,
another shove. The trucks' honks faded like foghorns.
Next: The devastating accident that changed everything