By Bill Kirk
It's early morning and the air is still cool
In this patch of kudzu heaven between Jackson and Yazoo City;
Not yet thick and heavy with river delta humidity
Which gets pulled into the air by the heat of the sun.
Leaving Mollie's, I strike out at a run across highway 49
And pick up Dover Road for the first two miles.
Mostly rolling hills lay before me
As I hug the edge of the asphalt—
My shoes find chance purchase in the loose gravel and sand.
Holding my steady pace, in just fifteen minutes,
I make a left onto Neely Road,
Leaving my open exposure to the morning sun behind me.
I wonder if that’s how long it took Daddy—
And his brothers and his cousins--
When they ran these roads bare-footed 75 years ago?
The road is paved at the turn
But it quickly changes to gravel mixed with powdery Mississippi clay.
Sun flashes unpredictably through the thick canopy,
Dappling the dusty road at my feet.
“Come on Woodrow, keep up,”
I can hear my Daddy call out over his shoulder to his big brother.
“Last one home slops the hogs before supper! Souuuee!”
In unison, quiet foot strikes kick up the road dust into a cloud
Like some kind of shook-up reddish talcum powder.
In wet weather the powdery dust would be Mississippi mud.
But on this day, a fine layer of red clay covers the bare feet and legs
Of a half-dozen young farm boys
Out for a good run after a long day in the fields.
Now that was entertainment!
Someone, it could have been anyone, coughs out between breaths—
“This sure beats pickin’ cotton by a long shot.”
Then it was Daddy: “Yeah, ‘cept when I slung that whip snake
At Woodrow four rows over while we was pickin!’”
That got a good laugh out of everyone, hard as it was to laugh on the run.
“Not a lot of cotton got picked that day!”
Back in the moment,
I feel the first traces of the morning heat on my face—
Sweat streams down my back.
There, before me, I can see those boys
As they must have sprinted down
What would one day be the very same road—now Kirk Road--that I find myself on.
The thought of running on a road named after my own extended family
Tugs the corners of my mouth into a smile.
At the next left the pack would leave Kirk Road.
With few trees for shade, Fletcher’s Chapel Road
Would take them home--
Past the very fields they had worked all day.
Imagining the tight group of runners ahead of me.
I pick up my pace. Can I catch them?
My high-tech running shoes seem no match
For the six sets of calloused feet ahead of me.
Those feet know the feel of every inch of these country roads.
I can say I know them, too. But not really—
Not like they do.
The old home place suddenly pops into view.
I may think I can take ‘em. Yet those farm boys have an edge.
They are clearly running for more than bragging rights.
The first one through the gate gets the first slice
Of Mammaw’s chocolate cake after supper.
Less than a quarter mile away from that sweet confection,
I know I have to make my move to catch the virtual runners before me.
It’s time to see what kind of a kick they have.
Keeping time with a silent cadence caller,
The boys stretch out their strides—
Their threadbare over-alls flapping in the breeze.
Jockeying for position on the inside, each aims to be the first
To cut the sharp left corner into the gravel driveway.
Then, in an instant, Daddy swings to the outside—
Farther to run but more room.
In my mind’s eye, I fall in behind him.
For a split second, stride for stride we make for the gate.
In a final burst, Daddy breaks away from the thundering herd,
Slicing through the front gate opening,
Just inches ahead of the pack.
On this night, like many others, to the victor go the spoils:
The first dipper of cool well water and, of course,
That slice of chocolate cake.
Oh, yeah. And the others can fight over who gets the hogs tonight.
As for me? I relish the feast before me—
Rich memories of an earlier generation of young runners,
Fleet of feet in times gone by, long before I was born.
Thanks for the run, Dad.