Following a tour of Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner’s home, I asked students in my creative writing class how the great writer felt about mankind’s capacity for endurance.
A student replied, “He summed it up in one line from his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech: ‘I believe man will not merely endure; he will prevail.’”
My boyhood best friend and mentor, Jaybird, defined man’s capacity for endurance by living it, day by day.
When I was ten years old, Dad turned me over to the old black man and told him to teach me to work. I didn’t even know what endurance meant, and certainly didn’t have enough of it to withstand long workdays. I learned; Jaybird saw to that.
Few tasks test one’s endurance more than chopping weeds out of crops. Enduring sweat, dust, monotony, and the pitiless gaze of an unrelenting sun, Jaybird and I spent many days working our way down long cotton rows on my father’s Mississippi Delta farm.
With patience but not pity, Jaybird would help me catch up when I lagged behind, and then return to his own row, quietly singing a favorite ditty: “We have come a long way togeth-o, but we got a long way to go, though.”
Often he’d say, “Get used to workin’, boy. It’ll be the biggest part of yo’ life, and if you face it like a man, the best part.”
One day while we were chopping, Jaybird was limping.
“Got a hitch in your git-along?” I asked.
“Naw, just a rock in my shoe.”
When I asked why he didn’t remove it, he said he would when we stopped for a drink of water.
“If I had a rock in my shoe, I’d dump it right now instead of waiting until we got to the end of these long rows,” I quipped.
Chuckling, he replied, “Then you wouldn’t have sumpin’ to look forward to.”
Years passed before I understood what he meant. Because he was a man of unfaltering Christian faith, Jaybird viewed all of life as a process leading to something to look forward to. From that premise, he developed the ability to make the most onerous tasks endurable, even chopping cotton.
When we finished the rows, he dipped a cool drink from the water keg, drank his fill, and sat down to remove the rock.
“Whoo, that feels so much better,” he sighed as he tossed the rock to me. “Let’s git back to work. We got a long ways to go before sundown.”
So many of Jaybird’s teachings are imprinted in my mind, especially his lessons about enduring and prevailing.
Recently, I came across the old aluminum cigarette case that was in his shirt pocket on the day he died of a heart attack.
Inside, I found a symbol of what Jaybird was really referring to when he said, “sumpin’ to look forward to”: eternal existence with Jesus Christ.
It was what he tossed me in that cotton field so many years ago: the rock.
Oxford, Mississippi, resident, Ole Miss alumnus, Army veteran, and retired Mississippi Delta cotton farmer Jimmy Reed is a newspaper columnist, author and college teacher. His latest collection of short stories is available via Squarebooks.com at 662-236-2262.
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