“‘It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day. I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was bailin’ hay.” That’s how the song starts. With a haunting melody, it’s story song about a boy’s suicide when he jumps off the high bridge in their Missisippi County.
The third of June is when Billy Joe McCalister jumped off the Talahatchee Bridge. I write about him as if he’s real. He’s seriously a character of my childhood.
We had this song ‘Ode to Billy Joe’ on a 45 when I was a little girl, and I remember lying on my back on the plush green carpet, or maybe it was still the threadbare, worn brown, my feet leaving footprints on the wall as I listened to the song.
There was no ‘repeat’ or ‘shuffle’ back then. By listening to a 45, I was already dipping into technology of generations before. I had to sit up and start the record over again each time. And then I would listen again, notice more details than I had found before, and ask the quetions so many had been asking: Why did he jump? What were he and his girlfriend throwing off the bridge?
My, oh my. The questions are endless. The mysteries remain.
Somehow, this song is woven into our family folklore. Namely, the opening lyric. This date is etched into our minds, and we honor it every year. Believe me, I know this is silly and ridiculous. But most family folklore is.
It’s not that we take a moment of silence for Billy Joe, or fix black-eyed peas and biscuits in his memory.
It’s just that we annually try to trick each other into forgetting the infamous historical event that (may or may not have) happened on June 3.
This is how it has gone down, for more than 30 years now. Longer than that, I am sure. These are just the nonsense traditions I remember.
“We have a church picnic on June 3. Please mark the calendar.”
“Well, I don’t know if I’ll be able to go. That’s a really rough day,” my dad would say, straight faced as a crisis.
“Why?” My mom asked faithfully, always and always forgetting.
And then a smirk would spread across dad’s face. “Because it’s the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day. Billy Joe McCalister jumped off the Tallahatchee bridge.”
And she would elbow him, and another year of being the first to trick a member of our family would be down the toilet.
Dad has the most points on the Score Card of Billy Joe. He’s gotten us all. He always, always remembers.
When we started to catch on, he only moved up the time frame to throw us off.
“I need to make a dental appointment.”
“Well, I hope you don’t make it for a week from Monday.”
“Because it’s the third of June. Billy Joe McCalister jumped off the Tallahatchee bridge.”
“Creep,” she would say.
One year, my mom woke in the middle of the night, realizing in her half-awake place that it was the night of June 2, and tomorrow would be June 3. This was surely her year to trick him.
“Doyle. Doyle. Wake up. I need you to wake up.”
He grunted and shifted his pillow, yawning. “What.”
“I just wanted to know – do you have any plans for tomorrow?”
Yaaaawwwwwwn. “Well, not really, except it’s the day Billy Joe McCalister jumped off the Tallatchee Bridge.”
Even in the middle of the night he remembers, blast it all!
When Robb and I were brand new and sparkly engaged, we were having a family meeting of the calendars to choose which Saturday might work best for a summertime wedding.
My brother this time, said, “Well, not June 3, of course.”
My mom looked at the square on the calendar, empty and free. “Why?”
“Mom, geez. It’s already a horrible day. Billy Joe jumped off the Tallahatchee Bridge.”
Back when personalized calendars were a novelty and something you had to order far in advance before the start of the new year, we were invited to include anniversaries, holidays, days to remember. So if you visited our kitchen during the month of June, you’d see clear print on the third square in June: Billy Joe Jumped.
My boys are now in on it. But they just keep making ridiculous attempts like, “Mom, what are you doing on the third of June?” Please. Rookies.
Last night, Peter said to my parents, “Well, I’ll be thinking of you guys tomorrow. I know it’s a rough day.”
“What? A hard day? Why?”
And a smile crawled across his face, stretching wide like the Grinch.
“Billy Joe, you guys. Billy Joe.”
There was gnashing of teeth. Fists were thrown into the air.
Peter wins this year.
And so, today on the third of June, our cell phones and Facebook walls are lighting up. Cousins, aunts and uncles, and the far reaching limbs of our family tree and even some leaves married in, are remembering.
Each of us struggles to remember the passwords to our email, but don’t you worry: we’ll celebrate and honor the life of someone who may or may not have actually existed.