Dega's allure strong for adventurous
OXFORD, Miss., and TALLADEGA, Ala. -- I let William Faulkner's Missy down. I waited one Talladega race too late to bring her these mere 238 miles, this four-hour drive.
To Dean Faulkner Wells, the niece the Nobel laureate called Missy, "Talladega was one sort of last mystery to be peeled back," her husband, novelist Lawrence Wells, said last week. Around him, in their living room, the walls were lined with hundreds of books, many by writers she'd known and nurtured.
In this highest of American literary bloodlines, there was a yearning for a different kind of sound and fury that the rest of the Southern literati had mostly ignored, largely looked down upon, through the decades.
Indeed, historically, no one despised NASCAR quite like genteel Southerners did. "Only old sorry people go to stock car races," my own mother had told me, from my earliest childhood memories in Mississippi.
But Deanie had been asking me for years to take her to what she perceived as "An Alabama madness when nothing matters but speed, danger, courage and winning."
I always warned her she might find herself amidst tens of thousands of Snopeses -- from the rapacious Flem and the slippery Mink to mostly incarnations of the likes of Montgomery Ward Snopes and Wallstreet Panic Snopes, just plain old boys trying to make their way.
But she loved the thought of all that.
Finally, last spring, we planned for this weekend of Oct. 23. Talladega Superspeedway would provide VIP seating for her and Larry. NASCAR would provide garage passes. ESPN would load an extra golf cart onto the trucks so I could take them around the campgrounds and the infield.
Everybody involved, especially on the Alabama side of the state line, sensed the significance: "The Last Living Faulkner," as Southern Living magazine had headlined a recent story about her, wanted to be among the seas of commonfolk so disdained by so many of her peers.
Plus, she was something of a hot news item, what with her new book, "Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi."
"Her father was a pilot and a barnstormer," Larry said, "and she had that in her. She loved speed and daring. She loved a contest that could be decided by life or death.
"And in fact her father died during an air show."
William Faulkner had raised her from birth after his youngest brother, her father, died in the crash, four months before Deanie was born.
Overwhelmed by chronic feelings of guilt -- he had given his brother the plane -- Faulkner pampered her throughout her upbringing in his household.
"That was his penitence," Larry said. "He was always going to take care of Dean. He was always very gentle with her. Never got angry with her. Never."
This in contrast to Faulkner's own daughter, Jill, who died in 2008 in Virginia, long estranged from Oxford.
Teary-eyed, Deanie once recalled to me her cousin's 15th birthday. Faulkner had finished a novel, and as usual, the family could feel the storm gathering, the drinking binge beginning.
"Jill said, 'Pappy, please don't get drunk. It's my birthday. All my friends are coming.' "
The author grew subtly contemptuous, took another drink, "and said, 'Nobody remembers Shakespeare's child,' " Deanie recalled. The implication was, of course, how dare the daughter question the moods of a genius for the ages?
In the 25 years I knew her, I never heard Deanie raise her voice. Even her expressions of glee were barely more than forceful whispers. Gentle Deanie, literary matriarch, was always kind to every writer she ever knew, from the living titan Cormac McCarthy to the moody genius Willie Morris to the storytelling maestro Barry Hannah to the popular novelist John Grisham to my most brilliant ESPN.com colleague, Wright Thompson right down to an old NASCAR writer who was always somewhat embarrassed to speak of his blue-collar beat to anyone in Oxford except Deanie.
Her brown eyes always radiated warmth, joy and a little mischief. She was always slim, an avid tennis player, five-feet-four. She let the gray streaks come as they might to her dark hair, but they arrived only late in her life.
Her fascination with NASCAR had begun when her eldest daughter from her first marriage had gone to Talladega and camped out with Dean's future son in law
"That, to Dean, was so romantic it immediately became connected with their romance," said Larry, her second husband, whom she married in 1972.
Then there were the times they would pass through on Interstate 20 when Talladega races were going on, and see the legions in the vast campgrounds with clouds of wood smoke rising. I always thought the scene was reminiscent of the two armies camped at Gettysburg on the morning of the third day.
"It had a certain sort of historical appeal to her, I think," Larry said. "It did make her think about a lot of people coming together with one intent in mind. She liked football games. We went to horse races over in Hot Springs [Ark.]. Talladega was another sporting event she wanted to sample, and see what it was like."
Too, "She was a bit of a daredevil herself. "
Larry once was dumbfounded when she told him of an incident as a young woman in Oxford, after her first marriage.
She had been to nearby Holly Springs, then the drinking hangout for Ole Miss students, "and it was late, and she'd had a couple, and her date was passed out in the seat next to her, and when she turned down University Avenue she was going 100 miles an hour up that hill.
"This was Dean going 100 miles an hour. I can't even think of a car going 100 miles an hour on that street. It was deserted, and luckily for her, the cops were somewhere else."
These two little Deep South towns, close as they lie, are almost antipodal.
Oxford is Ole Miss with its perennially stunning coeds and its chronically hapless football team that attracts sports media largely to experience the Grove, the storied tailgating plot, and then move on to the Square, rapidly becoming one of the South's hottest nightlife destinations.
Talladega is -- well, hell, Talladega.
It is famous solely for the huge superspeedway that attracts the teeming masses that bring their own good times in coolers.
Oxford has its ever-evolving colony of literati, the epicenter being Rowan Oak, the estate on the outskirts of town where Faulkner poured out news, analysis and commentary on the "cosmos of my own" in his mind.
Oxford is a magnet to America's best writers, most of whom have visited, some of whom have stayed to live and work.
They all began by paying homage to Deanie, and ended up her friends. Some of the greatest writers in the world have sat around her kitchen table, drinking and talking in the Rose for Emily House, built by her grandparents near the Square.
The highest literary gatherings around Talladega were when the old NASCAR media corps, back in the 1970s, used to convene at the Big Bull Motel in nearby Pell City to drink and play poker. Despite being as tipsy as some of them were half the time, they were better writers by far than the current generation.
"More people know where Talladega is than know where Alabama is," a NASCAR publicist said back then, and it's probably even more correct today.
"All I know is, there ain't no Sunday school and church goin' on in that infield," a local old timer, loathe to tread those grounds, once told me from a park bench downtown.
Whatever disregard the genteel class may have had for stock car racing, that doesn't exist anymore, because it is a highly technical sport.
The only local lore of interest is about curses placed on the land by the Talladega tribe as it was driven out by Andrew Jackson's forces. And even that is applied almost totally to the "Talladega Jinx" collection of bizarre occurrences and deaths at and around the racetrack.
"Whatever you say about stock car racing today, it is not the property of the lower class, the uneducated," said the man Willie Morris called "the poet-historian."
Whatever disregard the genteel class may have had for stock car racing, that doesn't exist anymore, because it is a highly technical sport. In fact, it probably is the most highly technological sport we have in America now.” -- David Sansing
Dr. David Sansing is 15 years retired as a professor of history at Ole Miss, but still takes the pulse of the Deep South more accurately than anyone else I know.
He spoke in the Grove, just hours before the rout of the Ole Miss Rebels by the Alabama Crimson Tide, 52-7.
"Whatever disregard the genteel class may have had for stock car racing, that doesn't exist anymore," Sansing said, "because it is a highly technical sport. In fact, it probably is the most highly technological sport we have in America now."
Even as a longtime friend of Deanie's, Sansing didn't know of her fascination with Talladega until I told him the other day.
But after thinking a moment, "It does not surprise me," he said. "The contest. That's what draws the South's blood. That's what raises its temperature.
"And Deanie lived around a man who above all else wanted to compete. He wanted to be the best. He was anxious about being the best."
She would have bridged these two little towns, would have carried the news and the joy back and forth over these 238 miles, brought Oxford and Talladega closer.
"She would have," Larry said. "She would have."
But I waited one race too late.
One morning in July, she wouldn't eat breakfast at that kitchen table we all loved so. "My legs hurt and I'm not hungry," she told Larry.
Soon after, she suffered a stroke and a collapsed lung, and lapsed into a coma. Larry emailed word that she was in the hospital on a respirator. But he didn't elaborate.
Then Wright Thompson emailed me from London's Heathrow Airport: Did I know how bad it was with Deanie? Really bad.
Then Larry sent out a simple message: "Dean is gone." She was 75.
My own wife had died just weeks earlier in North Carolina. She and Deanie had adored each other. Another longtime close friend lay dying down in South Mississippi.
Don't come, a lawyer friend there advised. No matter how others try to convince you to come, don't, she said. That would be three funerals in a matter of weeks -- too much. Editors offered to excuse me from my Brickyard 400 assignment at Indianapolis, but I went on anyway.
It was there, hearing the thunder that was so mundane to me but such a far-off siren song to Deanie, that I realized how I'd let her down.
The plan had been to start with the Ole Miss-Alabama game in Oxford -- we knew that would be a massacre, but Oxford is always alive with parties and conclaves on football weekends -- to portray Deanie in her natural habitat.
From there we would all go straight to Talladega for her immersion in the "Alabama madness."
Even in his grief, Larry insisted that my son, Tyler, and I come to Oxford anyway. Deanie had loved Tyler since his childhood, feeding him chili at her kitchen table, reading to him from her children's book about one of the ducks in the fountain at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, then as he grew up, talking passionately about sports with him.
Tyler is in law school now. He had known for many months how gravely ill his mother was. But Deanie was the grand little lady of Oxford, always staunch and beaming in his mind.
And so, "When you called to tell me Dean was dead," he said, "it was in a way more of a shock than when you called about Mom."
He said this at a barbecue in the backyard of Rowan Oak, feeling Deanie's absence. We would feel it again at the pregame tailgating in the Grove on Saturday, and most of all at her house after the game, where a huge pan of jambalaya was served on the dining table where "Absalom, Absalom!" was completed.
"Dean Faulkner Wells was Oxford," as a local magazine put it.
Now I feel her absence even more at a place she hadn't been, but wanted so to go: Talladega.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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