Mamas, Do Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Plowboys

Lil John McKee behind the levee near Friars Point, Mississippi. Photo by DB

Lil John McKee behind the levee near Friars Point, Mississippi. Photo by DB


CLARKSDALE, Mississippi

He was fastidiously arranged; his tailored Italian suit was nearly as shiny as his $1,000 Ferragamos. Like his jacket, his coiffed mane appeared a bit too grand for his diminutive frame. His limp-noodle handshake had left me with a slight sensation of hand lotion on my palm. He leered up at me through a delicate pair of horn-rim glasses with a Donald Trumpish sneer that bespoke of generations of Manhattan aristocracy. He assailed me with, “So you are a farmer in Mississippi, are you?”

New York City is a fun and vibrant place, but this venue was one I would have never chosen except for the wedding of a close college friend. This party was so Brahmin that even the waiters snickered when I opened my mouth. I was becoming sensitive that I sounded like Gomer Pyle, even to myself.  I glared down at a little waif of a man, responding, “Yes, I am.” His sneer widened, and he mocked, “Yes, ah AY-um!”

Suddenly, in a flashback from the movie, Animal House, my late father, ever more the Scotch-Irish brawler, appeared on my left shoulder and implored, “Knock a snot bubble out of him, boy,” while my sweet mother appeared on my right, urging, “No, son, these are nice people. Be a gentleman.” Before I even had a chance to respond with some country-bumpkin witticism, a friend of the waif appeared over my shoulder; and my little aristocrat flitted away. That was it– another dose of humility taken in stride.

There are two kinds of farmers, those who are humble, and those who are going to be humble. One of my best friends is also a farmer, and I consider him something of a philosopher because he often sees things so clearly. He once told me, “Johnny, we’re lucky to be farmers — farming keeps us humble. Look at those folks in the cities; they’ve got nothing but money to chase. Money is their god; they don’t have a clue.” He is right; floods, droughts, tornadoes, pests, freezes and mechanical failures remind every farmer annually that ultimately there is a greater force than ourselves, and this translates to a clearer understanding of our own mortality and our purpose on this planet. On the other hand, Lord God, I have experienced all of those things, and although I am quite aware that You are in control, could You maybe hold off the catastrophe this year?

My father-in-law is a brilliant man. He was a lifelong Mississippi farmer and retired in 1994 while still on top. Though he loved what he did, like all of us who farm today, he realized how difficult and risky it is. He forbade both of his sons from farming and encouraged them to seek their fortunes elsewhere. It ended up being good fatherly advice, since both of them have done well on their own while maintaining a love for the home place. I think he forgot to say the same thing to his daughter.

I got the farming call in my late twenties one September while working as an engineer in the oilfield. Things were really tough at home within the family, and soon Dad would be dying of cancer. “I need your help,” he told me, and I was home on the farm in a jiffy. It was a move my mother said I would regret the rest of my life. “The Delta is a dying place,” she said. She was both right and wrong.

As a child in the Delta, it was normal to want to be a farmer when one grew up. For my fourth grade career assignment, I wrote “I want to be a farmer when I grow up. In the morning I will go out into the fields and check the soil. If it isn’t good, I will run a cultivator in the fields. I will go to the gin and see if the crops were pretty good.”

It all sounded easy then, but as I grew older I realized the world was a big and interesting place. Through the eyes of east coast college professors and students from around the country I saw Mississippi differently from the outside, particularly regarding the question of race. As one whose great-grandfather fought with Nathan Bedford Forrest, it was a disturbing and transforming view of my world through new eyes. Going forward, it would be far easier to avoid the issue and stay the hell away from the farm altogether. Thank God it didn’t work out that way.

Ten years of family hell and a boatload of life’s lessons later, I emerged with a beautiful family and a farming career still intact. It is difficult to imagine anything in the city so rewarding as the daily commune with nature we farmers enjoy and the abundance of life in its amazing forms. No Jackson Pollack painting will ever inspire me to the degree that a single sycamore tree does. In fact, the notion that it could compare seems ridiculous and even haughty to me.

No, I think the Delta is still alive, not only in the natural sense but also in the human one. As we wring our hands over the myriad of problems we still face, we forget just how far things have come in half a century. My friend the philosopher once told me that as long as we are blessed with the opportunity to leave every once in a while to get a dose of “civilization,” living here in the country is as fine a life as there is in the world. The view I have now of Mississippi and the farm is one that melds together a patchwork of experiences, both from within and without, but mostly, it all just feels like home.


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  1. hayden hall says:

    Great! Thanks for the perspective.


  3. Wonderful piece. You might just become the next Tom Wolf! Keep up the good work.

    • There you go Doom. We’ll have to pick up one of those nifty white Tom Wolf suits for the swamp dweller. Then we can nominate him for best dressed farmer in the Delta 2011.

  4. John, you are one eloquent spokesperson for the Delta! Enjoyed reading a piece from the perspective of a dedicated desperado who is still riding the turnrows. As a Delta Dog Dilettante/ Photographer (and farmer’s daughter), I sometimes like consider myself as the voyeuristic version of a farmer. Love those back roads! The beauty of the Delta is without equal, and thanks again for writing this to remind us.
    PS Know what you mean about the “aristocratic” Manhattanites, God love ’em.

  5. Ruby Cavallo says:

    Great article Lil John.

  6. Uncle Boopie says:

    One of my favorite stories from our sister in New Jersey upon an encounter with a “Manhattanite”.

    “That’s a nice Ferarri you have. My two brothers spent twice as much on a cotton picker and only use it three months out of the year.”

  7. I remember a city slicker friend coming to visit and taking him out for a day at work. After stepping out of the truck into ankle deep dust the consistency of talcum powder at about 8:00 AM in late July he exclaimed “it’s hot and dirty here”. He hitched a ride back into town after a couple hours drenched in gritty sweat. LOL

  8. Cal, I had a guests who couldn’t stay in her room because of ONE ladybug (It was the infestation season and there were everywhere outside) being in there! 🙂

  9. Still a better man than myself J.B. My Great Grand Father too fought with N.B.F. But the “Redneck” in me would have no doubt, challenged me to “Stomp A Mud-Hole” in the NYC boy’s Ass and “Walk It Dry”.

    Jeff “Full” Greer

  10. J.B. , Send my your cell # and E-address to [email protected]. Thanks! JLG

  11. Is that a “Real Miller High Life”, John?

  12. And to think, I always thought you were some back-woods Goober. Shazam, Shazam, you are one articulate little devil. Must be the product of a fine liberal arts edumacation.

  13. Good point, Willy. Some things are best left a mystery.

  14. preach on brother!

  15. Alex Lundy says:

    Enjoyed reading this. Keep writing!

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