— Ruth Stout
Jogging along the asphalt surface of the leaf-strewn Huff’n Puff Trail at Oak Grove, I again rounded the curve that served as welcome mat to the frozen oval’s wooded end.
Greeting me on this western edge was the elementary school playground. Sitting quietly in the 14-degree cold and eerily void of laughter from children and the games they play, the swings, slides and colorful monkey bars stood as testament to a change of season and to the serenity of a calmer day.
Flanked on both sides by a forest of towering oaks whose bare limbs stretched like wings, the barren toyland spoke a familiar truth on this late afternoon of the polar vortex. It was cold ... so very cold.
Yet, I willingly ventured into its icy embrace. Looking ahead, I envisioned a set of tracks in the light snow ... a single set, one sculptured by the small booted feet of two young boys. One was 11, his little brother only 8. The youngest boy walked behind, stepping carefully in the same steps carved by his big brother.
As the blustery wind burned my eyes and tickled my nose, and as my feet kept cadence with a journey of long ago, I remembered the day. Though their adventure came 50 years earlier, these sons of Falkner, Miss., have never ventured far from mind nor have they strayed any distance from heart.
They were my past. Their stories are my present. Their memory is my future.
Chuckling at my frozen breath while bouncing down the trail, I reminisced to that beloved time of innocence ...
In the early ’60s of rural North Mississippi, parents didn’t caution mischievous little boys about the polar vortex. If their plan was to step into the cold — whether to hunt, collect firewood or just to ramble — they were instructed to wrap up warmly, to keep their feet dry and to take care in toting light firearms. This included .22 caliber rifles and Daisy-brand BB guns.
As described last week in the opener of this two-part retreat into yesteryear, my brother Jim and I were like most country lads of our boyhood. Ours was an outdoor kingdom, one whose limits were best measured by time of day and fatigue of foot.
Season was not a preference. We walked the neighboring woods in search of small game and big adventure in the scorching heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter. On this Saturday, which followed a light January snow, we bundled up, grabbed our .22 and BB arsenal and set foot for distant pastures.
Bringing home a rabbit, perhaps a pair of squirrels or some type of fowl was our goal, but not one Mom rested her supper plans upon.
Dad provided last-minute instruction, telling me to stay behind my brother when the rifle was in use and ordering us both to stay off the ice-covered pond.
Looking back, I believe we accomplished both. Any wet feet that made their way home did so from hand-me-down boots whose souls had trekked a few too many miles and whose labeled warning of “Not Waterproof” went unheeded; the latter being symptomatic of boyhood.
As an 8-year-old, nothing exhilarated me more than winter and any time my brother stepped outside was reason enough to follow. Being three years my elder, he tolerated my company but mostly his was a babysitting chore.
It’s what big brothers did. It’s the straw of life he drew. It’s what surviving in the country was all about. And all came by parental order.
“Where we headed this time?” I asked, my smaller feet matching his larger footsteps from close behind.
“That way,” Jim pointed into the distance.
Looking up, I saw snow-covered trees on the horizon. In between us was a dirt road flanked by bare-banked ditches, Granddaddy’s rickety old barn, a couple of fences, two drooping gates, a white pasture with sprigs of brown grass poking up from beneath and a rut-lined tractor bed that served as main artery for pickups, wagons, tractors, rusting bicycles and little boys on foot.
At that age, we could walk for miles and still have time for side trips to ancient Indian mounds that were long ago excavated, abandoned sheds and open fields lined in stobs of corn. One of our favorite adventures was traversing the width of a creek by tiptoeing across a felled tree. On the good days we didn’t fall. On the better ones the creek was dry.
Our midmorning adventure began after collecting some firewood for the living room hearth and the dining room’s cast-iron stove. Both were the old house’s key sources of winter heat, along with a couple of space heaters Dad had found at salvage stores or Fred’s.
Our morning hunger curbed by Mom’s fried eggs, bacon, toast and jelly — if there was enough flour we’d sometimes have biscuits — Jim and I finally set about our journey. Blue skies greeted our departure, but by afternoon the clouds rolled in.
Dad had said something about “... more snow,” so we knew to keep an eye on the sky. Not that a little snow ever hurt anybody, but the folks wanted to make sure we stayed warm.
Our adventure was always the fabric of a country boy’s dream. It was just us, the woods, a little snow on the ground with more on the way, and it was a January cold that warmed the imagination. We just did what little boys do. We made fresh tracks in undisturbed snow. We climbed an oak. We crossed a creek. We got hung in a sagging, barbed wire fence. We fired a few rounds at small game ... but the game won. We slipped on banks and slid off stumps. We pulled an old empty, blue bottle of Milk of Magnesia from the frozen ground and used it for target practice atop a tired old fence post. We shot down mistletoe from a big ole tree for Mom and we laughed about jug fishing with Dad.
As the low clouds spread like spilled paint and the heavens grew dark, we headed home. Neither of us wore watches, but we figured it was midafternoon. Mom’s hand-sewed knapsacks for rabbits and squirrels were empty, but our pride in the hunt was full.
The thrill of returning home grew as snowflakes began their fall. We caught a few on our tongues. We wrestled in the stir of the chilling breeze. We rejoiced at the thought of a snow-covered Monday.
Crossing the narrow dirt road to the wooden-frame house of simple design — the only house we had ever known — we smiled at the white smoke curling from the red-brick chimney. The living room would be warm, though the patterned and faded linoleum would be cold. And supper would be soon in coming.
Our adventure had come to its end. Yet another always laid in wait.
My run now complete, I stood at the Huff’n Puff gate and watched as a setting sun painted the western sky a shade of orange and red and yellow that I had never seen before.
Fifty years earlier, that pair of little boys would have stood in wonder, too.
And never could they, nor I, have imagined that time nor space nor polar vortex could create such a marvelous day in life ... then, or now.