In a rare lapse into bad taste, Delta Magazine has published one of my tales in their November/December 2011 issue. That's the Delta Magazine about the Mississippi Delta, the center of the cultural universe, not the magazine about the insiginificant airline. (I'd sent them another article, but a hunting magazine accepted it first.. I asked if they were interested in anything else. They replied "750 words about Christmas". I sent them this one night and they accepted it the next morning.)
My great friend Patricia Starnes (soon to be Farrish) took the pic at Leo Allred's store on Beale Street in Memphis.
Here's how it looked in the mag, as opposed to what I sent in. Hope you folks like it. Merry Christmas !!!
I can only remember one white Christmas from my Mississippi Delta childhood. Not because of the snow, which was the largest we’d ever seen, not because the snow was particularly beautiful on our plowed-under rice fields, which looked like someone had sprinkled a thin layer of white sugar on a Mississippi Mud Cake, but because of how my father decided to celebrate the snowfall.
He took us snow skiing.
The Mississippi Delta is flat and snow skiing requires a hill. Our nearest hills were the on-ramps for the I-20/Highway 61 intersection in Vicksburg. Eudora Welty once complained that the Mississippi Delta was maddening, and couldn’t imagine spending days with nothing to see but the horizon. (I tell friends about the time my dog ran away, and three days later I could still see him.) It’s flat.
So Delta natives water ski.
My father probably taught two hundred kids how to water ski. During summers for a couple of decades, he tread water in Beulah lake, supporting his students through failed attempts until they “got it” and skied. After each success, he would dog-paddle back to shore with his wet comb-over hanging triumphantly past his left ear lobe, grab something to eat, and then get back in the lake to teach another one.
But when my little brother Steven came along, teaching had become a challenge. Keeping unwieldy skis and someone else’s fat child on top of the water was no job for a 40-year-old. When Daddy saw a pair of “training skis” at a sporting goods store, he bought them.
Imagine a pair of skis, much shorter and wider than usual, connected at the toes with an 18-inch long board. A traditional ski rope and handle went from this board to the skier’s hands. We could tie this thing behind a boat and pull a screaming child all over the lake on the first try. Steven was no more than four years old the first time he got on them, and he instantly got the hang of it.
Back to our White Christmas…. We enjoyed playing in the snow, but we couldn't go into town to see our friend.
After the mandatory snowmen and snow angels, we went inside and dared to say that we were bored. Our mother shot back at us with one of her anecdotes about growing up dirt poor in Yazoo City, and spending her winters sitting in a semicircle with her sisters, spitting on a radiator to see whose saliva would disappear first.
Daddy told us to stop our bellyachin', get dressed for the snow, and come outside. Waiting for us in the rice field in front of the house were the training skis tied to the back of a Massey-Ferguson 1800 series 4-wheel drive tractor.
The Massey Ferguson 1800 series could pull anything. They didn't get stuck, no matter how deep the mud.
We’d long suspected this, but at that moment we knew. We had the greatest… father…. ever.
I got on the skis first, my younger siblings crawled into the cab with Daddy, and we were off. The tractor took off across the frozen field, and I was towed along about 30 yards behind. I could feel every frozen clod underneath the skis, but Lord Have Mercy, it was fun. Once we got up to the cruising speed of 35 miles an hour, it was downright exhilarating.
I could lean back against the rope handle and go wide left or right. When the tractor made a quick turn, it would fling me past the “wake” like a slingshot, and then snatch a knot in my neck when the slack disappeared. The other downside were the unplanned exits from the skis. Hitting frozen mud at 35 miles an hour HURT.
My sisters and brother got their turns, and soon the field had been rutted enough to give us some nice jump ramp opportunities.
(I just got off the phone with my little brother, who is now a history professor at Mississippi College. He remembers us doing this, but was too young to remember details. However, he says that when he sees the "Jackass" show on TV, where a deathproof gang of idiotic males attempt ridiculous stunts and expose themselves to bodily harm just for fun, he thinks to himself, "Yep. That's how we grew up.")
We rode those skis for hours. If YouTube had been around, movies from that day would've been passed all around the world, titled "Mississippi Ski Slope". Why no one suffered a broken leg is a mystery. The gravel road we lived on didn't get much traffic, but anyone who saw us stopped to watch.
There were families who went to Europe that Christmas. There were young Olympians skiing down the Matterhorn. Aspen Colorado was probably swarming with what would soon be called Yuppies, wearing thousands of dollars’ worth of special clothing and equipment.
We were zipping around a muddy field of frozen mud behind a tractor, in the flatlands between Merigold and Drew Mississippi. We wouldn't have traded places with anyone in the world.
Merry Christmas ! It's what you make of it.
Put down this magazine till tonight. Go outside. Find some kids and a field and nail some skis together.