It was August, 1991. I was 12 years old. It was at the tail-end of the summer mentioned in An Origin Story (of sorts). My memory isn’t so fantastic that I can recall actual months and years this far out but, since this story hinges on the morning of the release of Metallica’s Metallica, I looked up the date.
My father flew me out to visit him in New Orleans, and decided I should spend two days with my grandfather (we called him “Da”) and half-brother (Tommy) out in Mississippi. I’d only seen my half-brother a few times when I was really young, and I barely remembered it. My grandfather lived in Phoenix, not far from our house, about a year before (and for a few years after) my parents divorced. The morning after my first night at Tommy’s, he decided to drive me over to Da’s place since he and his wife both had to work. Since he was a contractor (or something of the sort), the drive happened before dawn.
When I got to Da’s place, he was still asleep. I sat in his living room watching TV, bored and trying to think of things to do. As luck would have it, I was watching MTV when they played Metallica’s Enter Sandman and they put a little banner on the screen “New Album – Metallica – is released today!”. Since it was still only 6am in the morning, I figured if I could find a damned record store nearby, I might actually be able to get a copy. My grandfather woke up shortly thereafter, and we had a brief chat before I anxiously asked “is there a record store around here?”. He said there was a mall a few miles down the road, and they probably had a record store. He gave me rough directions which amounted to “get onto the main road, turn right, walk 3 miles”, and off I went.
I remember walking along this road that looked more like a 2-lane highway than a road like I was used to. But it is Purvis, Mississippi — population 2,100 people — so it was pretty barren. The road was lined with thick forest. In front of me, and behind me, the road just disappeared into the distance. I remember thinking that, maybe, my grandfather was delusional and forgot where the actual mall was. As a WWII vet in his mid-late 70’s, that’s not an absurd theory.
Since it was just a straight road, I wasn’t in any danger of getting lost so I figured I’d just walk until I saw something resembling society and if it wasn’t a mall, I’d just turn back and wait until I was home in Phoenix to get the new album. In the meantime, it was worth a try.
The road finally revealed something of merit in front of me. A huge opening, with a parking lot, and… is that a mall? Yes, it was. Not much of one, maybe 1/10th the size of any mall I’d ever seen, but it was a fuckin’ mall. I walked in, checked the directory, found the Sam Goody and walked in to get my hard-earned prize.
It’s a funny thing that I felt like I was asking for some obscure punk album at the time – this being the first Metallica album I was buying on release day, and frankly the first Metallica album released since I’d started listening to them – but this was an album that was anything but obscure. It sold 650,000 copies in its first week and is currently 16x platinum in the U.S. alone. But in Purvis, Mississippi on the morning of August 12, 1991, the clerk said “Metallica? Hmm…” and found two unopened boxes of them in the back that he’d forgot to unpack onto the shelves and sold me the first copy he pulled after opening one of them.
I had my prize. Now, to make my way back to Da’s. That’s where I fucked up. You see, in all the excitement of “oh look! a mall!” I had neglected to note from where I entered the mall. Being the fuckin’ idiot I am, I thought “well, I’ll just walk back to the long road lined with trees”, not realizing it’s Purvis, Mississippi and there’s nothing but long roads lined with trees.
After about 30 minutes of walking, and the road curving around more than I recall on my walk to the mall, I found myself in unfamiliar territory. An actual neighborhood. I figured I should swing back around to the main road and try to find that mall again and maybe take a different path. Now, I was in the thick of a small Mississippi neighborhood. In the summer. Sweating like mad, confused.
I was walking down a street and I saw this little black child playing in his front yard. I tried to ask him how to get back to the main road, but he just looked at me funny and yelled “DADDY! THERE’S A CRACKER IN THE FRONT YARD!”. I thought “jesus, his dad’s that strict that he gets angry about crackers in the yard? shit, ants take care of those! and why’s this kid narc’ing himself out? Why not just crush the cracker with your shoes and try to hide it so you don’t get in trouble?”. It all seemed so weird. I just stood there, confused, until his dad came out and yelled “CRACKA OFF MY LAWN!” and the kid echoed “GO ON, CRACKA!”. I realized they were talking about me, but I didn’t understand the phrasing at all. It was probably 2 years before someone explained to me what they meant by “cracker”.
I ran away, and happened upon the parking lot of a grocery store. I went inside, trying to find someone who knew how to get back to that main road. Instead, I found a hippy couple selling newspapers. They said they’d take me to the police station, where they could get me back home. I know how ridiculously stupid I seem for accepting a ride from them at the time, but it worked out fine. I sat in the back of a beat-up jalopy for a quick drive around the corner from the grocery store to the police station (I was in their car for maybe 2 minutes) and they dropped me off. I didn’t know where I needed to go, but I knew my brother’s name and in a town of less than 2,000 people that seemed to be enough. They got in touch with his wife (my half-sister-in-law?) and she picked me up and drove me to their house.
When I got there, Tommy was furious. He couldn’t understand how I ended up at that grocery store and that police station. And why did I get in a car with strangers? And what was I doing walking through a black neighborhood? He showed me a map, and explained the distance I travelled, and how it would’ve taken me 6-7 hours by foot to travel that far. I had no answers. He said if I was his kid and not his kid-brother, he’d “whoop” me for lying to him.
I still have no idea how far I walked, or why that was surprising. All I know was I was safe, I learned about deep-south racism, and I had my new Metallica album. Everything else was details and conjecture.