Confession #11

 I Never Picked Cotton 

Delta Boy by Dorothea Lange, 1936 

When a song gets into my head it tends to stay there and I will listen to it---repeatedly---until it is displaced by another-----much to the annoyance of everyone around me, especially my son, Kenyon, who is driven absolutely mad by my behavior! But what neither he nor anyone else realizes, is that oftentimes as I listen to these songs, in my head I am remembering things I have long forgotten and am separating and sorting memories from long ago.

Several weeks ago, on a road trip from Colorado back to Utah, I stumbled into an old song that I hadn't heard in a million years and it got deeply into my head. The song, Cotton Fields by Creedence Clearwater Revival is a song I knew well from my childhood and youth but yet it had somehow gotten lost and forgotten in the clutter of life and the passing of years.

As I drove the back-roads home that day listening to this song and versions of it by a number of others artists-----the original, by its composer, Lead Belly; an early and rare folk-revival version by Odetta, recorded in 1954 in North Beach, San Francisco; Bill Monroe's bluegrass version of 1962, the The Highwaymen's folk-revival version of that same year; and Buck Owens' polished Bakersfield/Hollywood honky-tonk take on it from 1963 and, of course, the Creedence version of 1969----I thought of all the roads that this song had travelled and all the different manner of people who had been associated with it; from the black sharecropper in the cotton fields of northwest Louisiana, northward and westward to the folk bohemians of Boston, Greenwich Village and San Francisco's North Beach; to the rural "hillbillies" of Kentucky and to the hard-working Dust Bowl refugee farmers in the heart of California's San Joaquin Valley----back to the San Francisco Bay Area and the rock inspired counterculture of the late 1960s and over to our boys in Vietnam. The people couldn't have been more different but the song remained essentially the same and somehow spoke to each, and each group found something for themselves in it.

I remembered that this was one of the songs that my childhood friends and I would sing back in the early 1970s on brutally cold nights riding the Payday chairlift while night skiing in my hometown of Park City, Utah. In fact, it was this and Three Dog Night's Joy To The World/Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog that we would sing on the long cold ride up the mountain. This was in the days before the advent of the Sony Walkman, or any other such personal listening devices----music was social and communal! It was a monotonous ride up the hill----especially because it was repeated several times in a night----and was broken only by the nearly unbearable chill or the chairlift breaking down----which seemed to have happened often. We simply had to sing to keep ourselves warm and amused!

But as the miles wore on that day, more and more began to emerge from the depths of my mind until suddenly it was there: the clear and vivid memory of one particular night long ago that I had nearly erased from my memory.

It must have been 1974 or '75 and I must have been only seven or eight years old....a group of us kids who practically lived at the resort full-time when not in school and who styled ourselves the “The Nordic Stampeders” in an attempt to combine and recognize our Norwegian and American West ski resort lifestyle, were night skiing again; it was my brother, Randy, his best friend Jeff and two step-brother classmates of theirs, Chris and Orville, and me. We spent the night racing each other down the mountain, building jumps and daring each other to go faster and do even more elaborate aerial tricks.

I recalled that as that night and it's cold deepened we retreated to the resort lodge to warm ourselves by the fire, listen to the jukebox and attempt to shake coins and candy out of the vending machines that resided deep in the shadows of nearly deserted hallways. At some point Chris, Orville and I decided to return to the mountain while Randy and Jeff chose to stay behind. The Payday chairlift was a double and the two brothers rode together ahead of me while I rode alone in the chair behind and we chatted, sang and otherwise bullshitted our way up the mountain. At the top, Chris and Orville slid onto the snow and were off like rockets-----I saw Chris getting himself into a “tucked” position in emulation of our great Olympic downhill racing heroes in an effort to gain as much speed as possible across the modest incline that prefaced the Payday run and I knew it was going to take some real skiing to catch him. 

I waited impatiently for my chair to reach the offload ramp and as it did I hit the snow and immediately gave chase, utilizing every trick to build speed that my ski-racing older brother had ever taught me. But no sooner had I gotten started and was gathering velocity when I was confronted by horror: there in front of me was Chris lying limp and mangled like a rag-doll on blood covered snow while his step-brother was desperately trying to unfasten his skis and assist him. It was immediately apparent to me what had happened: Chris had run into that damned wooden utility pole that was placed almost right smack in the center of the ski run. I paused only to comprehend what had just occurred and to hear Orville frantically tell me something about how he had yelled ahead at his brother and that as Chris had turned his head he plowed face-first into the pole. 

I immediately set off for help and abandoning all caution in an effort to help my friend I skied faster than I had ever done before. It came into my mind that there was an emergency phone on the edge of the run halfway down the mountain and I set off for it----but a mogul hidden in the artificial light cut short my haste; I wiped out and was delayed while frantically gathering up my gear from this ill-timed “yard sale”. Skis back on, I made it to the telephone only to find it dead; I dropped the receiver and headed straight to the lodge and the ski patrol station. In shock and crying I tried to explain the situation to the the patrolman on duty----but he just didn't seem to understand my urgency. In fact, he just didn't seem to think much of what I was telling him at all; probably just some high-strung kids who had gotten into a little trouble, maybe a bloody nose or something but nothing that warranted his haste and he told me so; he would "look into it." I was incredulous----but even more so, I was desperate! I had to find Randy and Jeff and I did, eventually----right in the act of committing the robbery of candybar machine in one of the darkened subterranean corridors. Together we returned to the ski patrol office and again I pleaded with the patrolman but to no greater avail. Desperate and disillusioned, we caught the chairlift back up the mountain and skied to the scene of the accident to see what we could do. By then some adults skiers had arrived but it was already too late. It seemed like an eternity before the ski patrolmen finally showed up----and then just to load Chris' lifeless body onto their snowcat for the ride down the mountain to a waiting helicopter. 

I don't recall that we ever sang on the chairlift again after that. 


14 December 2018


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