— Bill Cosby
U.S. Comedian & Actor
(b. July 12, 1937)
Forty years before reality whiz kids Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst debuted the popular “Survivor” series on CBS-TV, my older brother Jim and I were already living in our own carefree world of survival as imaginative boys, and neither of us was ever voted off an island.
One of us was always getting knocked out of a tree, wrestled to the ground, bumped out of the way, raced through the woods or pushed into a ditch — and always by the other. But never were we forced to pack our belongings and leave the tribe. We just staggered to our feet and started over.
It was our world of survivor because we were kids and survive is what boys in rural north Mississippi of the early- to mid-1960s did best.
In the summers we wore cut-off blue jeans, no shoes and hole-splattered, white T-shirts that had not seen the white of day in years. Most were too small from too many washings in hot water and hanging on the clothesline in the hot sun to dry. Our boyhood growth accented their shrinkage.
Three years my elder, Jim was generally a little taller, faster and far more experienced in the arena of worldly mayhem. After all, he was 8. He had seen everything. At just 5, I was yet a tike who longed to be older, bigger and stronger. But my shortcomings never shortchanged my desire for a good scrape with the big brother.
In our youth, Jim and I wrestled like bear cubs, chased one another for no apparent reason, and challenged the other to leaping contests featuring Granddaddy Norton’s bottom-land creek whose deep banks were wide enough apart to be scary yet just close enough to tempt a boy’s desire.
I lost most jumping competitions and placed second in far more foot races than I can remember. But I could wrestle my older brother to a stalemate on occasion. Most matches continued for hours until somebody cried “uncle” or we heard our mother’s voice yelling from the house announcing that supper was on the table. We were late for few of her country meals.
Now in its 24th series — with seasons 25 and 26 already in the hopper, so I am told — “Survivor” traditionally features 16 to 20 grownups of varying ages whose physical attributes are tested to their limits. They are routinely asked to run, jump, swim, climb, tango in all elements of weather, fight in the mud, piece together mind-boggling puzzles, climb trees to retrieve nourishing coconuts and chase wild chickens whose fate, if caught, is often a hand-hewn spit and open fire.
Their prize is $1 million, perhaps a national advertising contract and maybe even their own TV show as host, hostess or featured star.
Heck, Jim and I used to do all that for free. No frills. No expectations. No reward challenges. No immunity necklaces. Ours was true survival in a style that was nothing more than “American boy.”
Had someone suggested pay, we could probably have wrestled harder, run faster and jumped farther. But this was the rural Deep South of the ‘60s, a time and a place where money was scarce, farm chores came early each morning and late every afternoon without reminder and with no expectation, church was a Sunday morning tradition, school was a given and meals were harvested from our fields or raised in grandpa’s pastures.
Our milk was taken from the cows and strained into an old glass pitcher through Mom’s clean dish towel. Our morning sausage, crisp bacon and Easter ham were once a pig in the pen that Jim and I slopped every day, and our eggs were rescued at sunrise from the chicken house whose rusting tin roof earned shade from the shadows of the barn.
Gardening wasn’t kept to a garden. It was a field and it was big because it fed us fresh vegetables through the summer, many more of which Mom canned for the approaching snow-cold months of winter.
We ate three meals a day seven days a week. Our family sat down at the same table and we talked. Mom and Dad would discuss grownup stuff and what they needed us kids to do the next day. We did a lot of listening, but enjoyed our share of talk as well.
Life was all about survival. But we didn’t call it surviving. We just knew it as living.
Had some fancy city slicker offered me a million bucks to go climb a tree, I’d say in my Mississippi twang, “Shoot mister, I can climb that tree without you spending one red cent.” As a boy, I never knew what a red cent was. I still don’t. Perhaps it was a shade less than one thin dime.
But that’s not at task. I never owned a million dollars then, nor do I now. But I did climb plenty of trees.
We were survivors. Our days were hard. Our nights were soft. We reigned as tiny kings in a private jungle that might today be called paradise. And we ruled in a world of puffy clouds, patchy skies and evergreen forests where life was good because we knew no other way.