— Susan Orlean
(b. Oct. 31, 1955)
Day one of last week’s distorted polar vortex brought warm memories of a cold day in the countryside surrounding a tiny village in rural North Mississippi.
It was named Falkner. As I am told, it still is.
It is where I was raised until mid-year of the fifth grade. Born in Tippah County Hospital in a neighboring town called Ripley about a decade earlier (1955), Falkner is where I learned a love of the outdoors, an appreciation for winter and a boyish zeal for palling around with my brother Jim, three years my elder.
Life was simpler then and January was sometimes bitterly cold. But to boys who loved nothing more than roaming the woods and feeling the crunch of frozen grass beneath their feet, it was an ice crystal paradise.
One such excursion brings a smile to my face almost 50 years later. Every time it snows and any time a blustery front blows in from Old Man Winter, I think back on that journey through a land of the innocent. Last week’s hard freeze that plunged local thermometers into single digits and wind chills into the unthinkable prompted this latest blast into a winter past.
The fact that I was actually out there in it — by design, just like in my childhood — is what probably rekindled the memories.
On Monday afternoon, as the North Pole messenger spread his cold breath across Bradley County, I was out there running in it. Circling the frozen ovals of the Huff’n Puff Trail at Oak Grove, I gave nary a thought as to why I was doing it. Perhaps it was for the same reason that two young brothers set out to blaze a trail across the frozen January tundra half a century earlier.
Layered in four top coats of thermals, T-shirts and sweatshirt, my head packaged within a ski mask and hood, and my hands twice their normal size in padded department store gloves, I was the epitome of wind resistance in running shoes.
Hovering somewhere around 14 degrees, the mercury did little to make me swifter of foot. But that didn’t matter ... because I was outdoors. Approaching a curve that led into the asphalt track’s wooded end, I peered beyond the quiet playground and envisioned the image of two little boys winding their way around a jungle of towering oaks, their powerful limbs still supporting carefully sculptured peaks of snow.
How time has slipped by ...
It was the early ’60s. I was about 8, my brother maybe 11. It was January. The predicted storm had come as expected, but this was Saturday. No chance for a Snow Day on this date. Whether one was given on Friday I cannot recall. If it wasn’t, I’m sure it was the worst decision ever made in the chronicles of public school transportation. At least, that would have been the mindset of snow drifters like these young sons of Falkner.
My brother carried Dad’s .22-caliber rifle, a single-shot, light-duty weapon on which he had been carefully trained for the hunting of rabbits, squirrels and the occasional bird. I toted the BB gun, a hand-me-down from Jim once our father trusted him with operating the rifle on his own.
The BB gun struggled to fire a straight pellet, as did I.
We both carried tiny boxes of extra ammo in our coat pockets. Retrieving them from the deep recesses required removing the cumbersome cotton gloves that were Christmas gifts from one of our parents’ mystery trips to Fred’s in neighboring Holly Springs. Falkner didn’t have a Fred’s. Falkner didn’t have much of anything except a small store with twin gas pumps, a school, a tiny Baptist church and a factory that the grownups called the rubber plant.
But Falkner was home.
And home is where the heart is and where my big brother was.
On this cold Saturday in January we hiked the distant woods. Some belonged to Granddaddy. Most didn’t. Back in those days trespassing wasn’t even a word. Hunters walked for miles and fences had only two purposes — to hold in the livestock and for boys to climb over.
The only rules we knew were don’t shoot anything with two legs and don’t point the rifle at anything you won’t eat.
The snow wasn’t deep, maybe just a couple of inches. In some areas, the ground was bare ... under trees, on the south side of bushes and along the edges of shallow creeks of which Mom told us to steer clear.
Although we toted light firearms, we weren’t on a mission. If we killed anything, it would probably just be time. If a rabbit hopped by, my brother would take his shot ... same with a squirrel. Mom cooked good rabbit and even better squirrel. Both tasted like chicken to a couple of hungry boys.
My BB gun — seems like it was called a “Daisy” — was mostly just for show, and target practice. In my youth, I killed plenty of dry, dead leaves that still clung to tiny stems from limbs above. BB guns were a part of growing up, I guess ... sort of a rite of passage. It first belonged to an older cousin who gave it to my brother who then passed it down to me. I was likely the final generation. And the BB gun was probably in its final days.
Our old boots weren’t waterproof and neither were the socks that lined our feet ... both pairs. Our toes got cold, but neither of us confessed. Boys who whined were sissies. We were not sissies. But we were cold boys with cold feet and even colder toes.
Mom insisted we dress in layers. I wore a T-shirt, a stained old sweatshirt, a flannel and a heavy coat. The latter was handed down from ... somebody. Mom had sewed up two or three rips. It was ugly, but it was warm ... and heavy. How I was supposed to aim my BB gun with this much armor was beyond me.
Morning skies of blue gave way to afternoon puffs of grey. Before long, the whole sky grew the same dull shade as that plastic model that I was piecing together with glue in our bedroom. It was a little battleship, a Christmas gift from Mom and Dad, and probably Fred’s.
My brother and I rarely walked side by side. By choice, I walked behind. It was a game, known only to me. I would carefully step into each of my brother’s footsteps. In the shallow snow it was easy. Once he caught me.
“Why are you doing that?” he asked.
“Because,” I answered.
In boyish years, “because” is code for none of your business.
Shaking his head, Jim continued his step ... and I in his wake.
My brother got off a couple of rounds at fidgety squirrels, but missed. I lined a BB at a bird. Same result. So I killed several dry leaves instead.
Jim did spot a growth of mistletoe high above in a sprawling tree. He fired a shot, reloaded, fired again and reloaded. This cycle continued until a sufficient number of tiny stems lay at our feet. He would give the mistletoe to Mom. After all, empty-handed hunters had better return home with something.
Rounding the Huff’n Puff curve again several laps later, I braked and almost stumbled as a grey blur raced across the asphalt in front of me.
It was a squirrel.
Laughingly, I cocked the imaginary BB gun of my youth and pointed it in the direction of the little ball of fur as it scampered up the bark of a giant oak.
Resuming the run, my thoughts returned to a cold Saturday in January and to a big brother whose footsteps I would follow till the end of days.