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.
“Only fools think money can solve any problem,” my lifelong best friend and mentor, Jaybird, once told me.
As a boy I didn’t always pay attention to the old black man’s wisdom, but one day, while lolling with my pals on Uptown Avenue in our Mississippi Delta hometown, I learned the hard way to abide by his wise words about money. I didn’t have a cent, and was certain money could solve a problem I had: coming up with twenty-five cents to buy an All-Day Sucker at Peach-Eye’s Grocery.
One fine spring day, on Dad’s Mississippi Delta farm, my boyhood best friend and mentor Jaybird told a story to a group of us children, a story he called “Easter Hands.”
As the old black man slipped into the hypnosis of his bullfrog bass voice, we little ones clustered at his feet, leaning toward him like eager flowers toward the rising sun. He told us the story of Easter.
We had heard Jesus Christ called different names — Savior, Messiah, the Nazarene, Son of Man — and our young minds were confused. Jaybird told Jesus’ story in a way we could understand.
It was a torrid July day in the summer of 1961. On my father’s Mississippi Delta farm, a huge field was covered with 80-pound hay bales that had to be loaded by hand onto trailers and hauled to the barn.
At five o’clock, Dad opened the bedroom door. “Hay time, boys, git up. Jaybird is waiting outside for y’all.”
In graduate school, I memorized material that would likely appear on examinations, and forgot it after taking them, a practice that got me through required courses, but did little to enhance my goal of leaving the university with a well-rounded education.
As a college teacher I don’t want students to cram material into their heads for the sake of passing tests as I did, and mindful that experience is the best teacher, I assign exercises that provide them opportunities to utilize, and therefore retain, learned material.
This strategy works well in developing better word usage. Many college students possess limited vocabularies, and their addiction to text messaging worsens this deficiency. To improve students’ vocabularies, I provide lists of words as semesters progress, and require that they be used in compositions.
Those who are sincerely interested in enhancing communicative skills soon realize that, just as palettes containing the complete spectrum of colors enhance an artist’s capability to imitate nature, a large vocabulary helps students to paint with words, that is, to articulate.
On that unusually warm February evening, a fresh breeze wafted through the window, and no doubt the full moon’s alabaster face gazed down on lovers everywhere. One of my favorite singers, “Babbling” Brook Benton, crooned across the radio waves, and I thought … I’m a romantic!
Why? Women. But since no such creature shares my humble abode, and since the babbler rolled back the years to my youth, I couldn’t resist an overpowering urge to get up and dance. Living alone isn’t fun, but has its advantages. If you want to act a fool, you can, so I waltzed with a broom.
Deep down in his mute, cool, dimly lit domain, the monarch of the Mississippi Delta swamp hole lay in patient ambush while the terrified shiner just inches above him swam round and round in frantic arcs, desperately struggling to break free of its tether to the red and white bobber floating on the surface.
My mentor and boyhood best friend Jaybird relaxed, mopped his sweaty brow, and set his pole aside for a while.
Mark Fratesi, who owns a country store in the Mississippi Delta, is an outstanding perpetrator of practical jokes, a skill shared by my boyhood best friend and mentor, the beloved old black man known by everyone as Jaybird.
At his store, Mark sells all kinds of fish bait, including worms and crickets for bream fishermen. Jaybird and I always bought our crickets from Mark before going after the biggest, scrappiest, best-eating bream of all: the Chinquapin.
This story did not spring from a warped imagination. The events chronicled herein are true, confirming beyond exaggeration, elaboration, or embellishment what Mark Twain said about truth: “Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? After all, fiction has to stick to possibilities.”
One cold winter day while hunting, I came upon a motherless fawn. The emaciated creature was so weak it didn’t even struggle when I picked it up, and its big brown sad eyes seemed to say — help me, please!
Long years of farming cotton in the Mississippi Delta set my circadian clock. I rarely sleep past four o’clock, and take long predawn walks, during which any worthwhile thoughts I have that day are likely to be formulated.
Out walking one morning after Christmas, I ruminated about how I could turn past failures into successes in the coming year. Few things relieve … and delude … the human mind more than those annual promises to oneself: New Year’s Resolutions.
That Christmas Eve, Jaybird leaned on the porch rail, looking across Mississippi Delta cotton fields he had worked for seventy years. In moon-blanched stillness, the rich soil was taking its winter rest.
The old farmer had seen good and bad cotton harvests, but none like the one just finished. The rains had come, plenteous and timely. Summer’s days had been long, hot, and humid, and cotton’s green blood, chlorophyll, raced in a delirium of photosynthesis from sunlight to leaves to soil to fruit, loading the plants with bulging bolls that produced a yield to top all yields.
When I complained to my father that the gin crew and I should not have to work through Christmas, he said, “Son, we finished ginning last year’s cotton crop early, and you duck hunted all winter,” he answered. “Be thankful for that. Fall weather hasn’t cooperated this season. The gin must run nonstop; this dry spell won’t last long.”
Back then, picking two rows of cotton at once was harvesting’s latest technology. It was a time when storing cotton in modules was unheard of. The threat of rainy weather put unrelenting pressure on gin crews. Empty trailers had to be available, meaning we had to work can-to-can’t, sleeping in snatches.
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