Here We Stand

A walk-off hit to go to the state championship, the first Ivy League acceptance, a perfect high note in the finale of American Idol…it’s all the same for a town in need of a win.

To the untrained eyes of anyone outside of Monroe County, Mississippi, Hatley Road seems a bland representation of Rural America, with aging and abandoned houses on either side of the road, only interrupted by empty plots of grass, Baptist churches, and the occasional Dollar General. But to me, a proud insider now living outside of the confines of Monroe County, Hatley Road represents the repetition of rural life, and how a group of unusual teenagers thought for once, change was bound to happen one night at the baseball diamond.

On one hand, Hatley Road is an open grave, sucking in the dying soul of rural America one breath at a time. It’s the first road the night-shift workers of ITT, a local valve factory, turned on to after another long Tuesday work night in the fall, ignorant that a layoff would strike the next day. Train tracks lie just beyond the road. Trains once held up lines of cars at sunrise, high noon, and sunset. Now, a lonely train horn echoes once a week on Wednesdays to an empty audience.

In another glance, Hatley Road is a battlefield — a war-torn land between monotony and the forces of change.On the left, signs read “say no to alcohol! It’s for our children!” To the right, signs read “Check yes to alcohol sales to save Amory!” They are warring ideals, fighting to either keep Amory a town where the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol is illegal, or open the doors to booze to accept the financial gains that come along with it.

Looking forward, Hatley Road is a bridge between the tight knit community and stardom. Three miles dead ahead, Frisco park bursts out from a horizon of quiet storefronts. It is a sizable patch of green grass in the center of Amory that houses a 100 year old train car that FDR rode through town, but I remember it as the place where I met the first man who made it out: Mitch Moreland, the first baseman for the Texas Rangers and later the Boston Red Sox. 

Now the public reverence for Mitch is overshadowed by a sea of blue shirts, signs, and announcements to vote for Trent Harmon, a new face representing the mom and pop steakhouses on the outskirts of town who had found his way into the finals of American Idol.

On that fateful morning when it seemed as though all the stars were set to align in the middle of nowhere Mississippi, Hatley Road was going to make me late to school. I screamed onto the street, speeding to show who was boss. Confidence was the name of the game—it was Yale decision day. Two and a half years earlier, I enrolled at a boarding school 45 miles away from home with the hope of a better chance of being admitted to a top university. Two months into the school year, I decided that the boarding school route wasn’t for me. On an overcast evening before Halloween, I packed all my belongings into the trunk of my 1998 Ford Taurus and headed north back to Amory High School, pushing the criticism into the recesses of my mind.

As a meandering tractor forced my Hatley road speed trip to a stop, the vitriol of my boarding school peers re-emerged in my thoughts.

“What the hell are you doing? You are literally ruining your future.”

“You are fucking stupid for this, Luke.”

“You won’t ever be accepted to a top school without our diploma, especially not with Amory’s.”

The words of a few of the boarding school students (it is important to note these were not the feelings of all) were pounding in my head, unmistakable and impossible to drown out with the radio. 

As the tractor finally moved out of my way, I couldn’t help but feel utterly alone. I could only blink away the tears and pray the old saying was true — the road to the top, much like Hatley road, is lonely.

When I pulled into the parking lot, an angled slab of old concrete a stone’s throw away from the school front door, I felt any sense of loneliness fall away. It was a big day for the town’s youth, and spirits were high. In mere hours, an eclectic crew of us would be in Jackson for a school competition, Trent Harmon would be competing in the finale of American Idol for the crown, Kaylee Brooke McCollum would be taking the stage for the Miss Teen Mississippi pageant, Yale acceptances would be released, and Amory would vote on its status as a dry town.

Success, ambition, and change had been largely uncharted territory for Amory. We couldn’t help but feel as though we were not only going to succeed, but we were also going to change this rural slice of Americana forever.

And as the sun danced over our heads, it looked like we just might be right.

“Congratulations! We are happy to inform you of your acceptance to Yale University.”

I read the letter silently in my head; my support crew surrounding me did not. They hooped, hollered, and shouted with joy.  As my confusion turned to jubilation, I joined them. For a second, time stood still, and our unwieldy team of teenagers took one massive step closer to changing the face of the city limits we lived between.

6 hours later, 42 of us were crammed into a double at the Holiday Inn in Jackson, glued to a television tuned into the final seconds of American Idol.

Ryan Seacrest replaced the voice in my head this time around, and we sat anxiously awaiting each of his words. The moment came suddenly…

“The winner of American Idol is….TRENT HARMON!!”

The hotel room exploded in raucous joy, with jumping, shouting, and screaming taking over everyone in attendance. After several minutes of chaos, we all stopped to catch our breath. In that brief moment of silence, one thought seemed to ring universal. One. Step. Closer.

Just moments later, we refreshed Facebook to find that Kaylee Brooke had won the Miss Teen Mississippi pageant. As we watched her receive her crown, we could only glance at each other in awe.

The stars were aligning, and we were gracefully jumping from one to another.

We had one major jump left to make though, and it would have to come through a playoff baseball game. It was a warm night, as though the anticipation of the sparks to come had warmed the field. Our beloved Amory Panthers were in the North Half playoff against Ripley, and the winner would punch a ticket to the state championship, a place Amory had not claimed in decades.

After 8 full innings, we were tied. Batters on both sides walked away from the plate, as our ace Aubrey Gillentine and the Ripley pitcher threw gems. However beautiful as it may have been, the pitching duel had surpassed its crescendo. Both pitchers hit their max pitch count and were relegated to watch the finale from the bench.

Ripley crossed home plate once in the top half of the 9th. The Amory crowd was buzzing in anticipation as the lead-off Panther batter took the box.

Each swing was an opportunity to cement our legacy. Two outs later, batters sat on every base. Up to bat was Davis Helton, and he quickly battled to a full count. Davis called time and nervously took a step out of the box. As he took his pause to scan his surroundings, his eyes fell upon a sea of fans that he knew intimately. In those stands sat his childhood doctor (who was also his girlfriend’s father), his preacher, his neighbors, the gas station owner who sold him a chicken biscuit every Friday morning, and, most importantly, his father, a pillar of the community and the man he looked up to most.

When he stepped into the box to take the final pitch, he wasn’t just swinging to win the game. He was swinging to prove who he was and to become who he wanted to be.

The audience fell silent, and the Ripley relief pitcher responded with his windup. The pitch, a fastball, blistered through the air.

“You know, we were so close to achieving something incredible,” Davis knocked me out of my trance. Bracing the worn wooden bench in the dugout, Aubrey, Kaylee Brooke, and I nodded in solemn approval as we looked towards first base, entrenched in darkness and attacked by the chilled November air. I briefly made eye contact with Aubrey, who now pitches for Southern Miss as Amory’s first Division I pitcher in recent memory, and we flicked our gaze to the Trent Harmon sign attached to the outfield wall. Kaylee Brooke broke the silence by launching forward out of the dugout and gliding towards the pitcher’s mound. It was a walk the community knew well, after seeing it on TV during her 3rd place finish at the Miss Teen USA pageant, the highest placing ever by a Mississippian. Out past Kaylee Brooke, a lonely car passed on the highway headed to Nettleton, still the closest town with a liquor store. As the car faded into the black, Kaylee Brooke shot a sly smile to Davis, lifting the baseball she held in her hand.

He grabbed a bat, rushed to the box, and stepped to the plate for one final time with an audience of only his best friends. He swung not only for who he was, but also for who he had become.

As the ball flew into the outfield, I could only grin.

We didn’t change Amory forever, but we found who we were in the pursuit. And here we stand together on a diamond to proclaim it to the place that matters most to us .

You can typically find Lukas photographing Yale Athletics, in line for pizza every night at Ezra Stiles (he tried his first vegetable a couple of months ago and is still trying to get the taste out of his mouth), or singing country songs in his dorm room because he misses Mississippi.  If you want to obsess over Hunter Thompson books, Taylor Swift songs, or Gilmore Girls, send him an email at Lukas.flippo@yale.edu.

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