By DAN WHITTLE
At five years old, I knew I would not choose to be a cotton picking farmer.
Some folks today ask why this town boy is a bona fide official card-carrying member in semi-good standing with the Woodbury-based Middle Tennessee Mule Skinners' Association.
While it has been 60 years since I drove a team of mules through a corn field, I've always appreciated the history of mules that helped make America what it is today.
However, my love for a mule pales compared to Cannon County "farm boys" Buddy Black, the late Bill Smith and "farm newlyweds" Jeff and Cindy Haley Odle.
Mr. Bill was proud of his farm boy heritage, dating back to when his Cannon County farming father, Stanton Smith, taught him how to safely skin a mule, which has nothing to do with actually skinning a mule.
For benefit of city-fide uneducated types not versed in mule talk, skinning a mule means getting the big strong animal to do what you need done whether logging or pulling a plow.
"I would not take anything for my boyhood spent on a farm," noted Mr. Bill in an interview he honored me with about 3 months before his passing on Oct. 30, 2015 at age 97. "It was a big day when Dad judged me strong enough (at age 12) to handle a team of mules out in the field."
Mr. Bill was able to plow with a team of mules on up into his 80s.
Farm boy Buddy Black, now in his 90s, reigns as the region's most famous mule skinner and still plowing with mules on the sunny side of a hay field.
"I've always been proud of my farm boy heritage," Mr. Black confirmed.
How famous is Mule Skinner Black?
Mr. Black has served as the grand marshal, not once, but a record 35 consecutive years at the famous Columbia (TN.) Mule Days, recognized as the largest mule show in America.
Mr. Black and Mr. Smith are founding members of the Middle Tennessee Mule Skinners group that promotes the heritage of mules. Cindy Haley Odle is also a Mule Skinner in good standing.
When Cindy is not feeding, grooming and showing mules all across America, she's writing about mules in her Dixie Longear magazine and showcasing them in parades throughout Tennessee. Her prized mules will be featured this week at the Tennessee State Fair in Nashville.
"My love for mules goes back to my father, Jimmy Bugg, who worked mules on the old family farm place that remains in our family," Cindy shared. "As a child, I've always loved showing mules, horses, cattle and pigs ... I love them all, but mules are mine and Jeff's favorites.
"And yes, I'm proud of being born a farmer's daughter," Cindy confirmed firmly.
It was on a book-signing tour back in native Missouri farming country two years ago I realized it was truly a blessing to have been born a farmer's son.
The point was driven home when Vincent Nichols, a boyhood hero of mine, showed up already holding one of my books: "Canalou: People, Culture, Bootheel Town."
"Danny (my boyhood name) I want to thank you for paying tribute to us farm folks in your book," Vincent acknowledged
I was saddened to learn Vincent, now nearing 80, is blind.
So, I asked Vincent: "How do you read my book with your failing vision?"
"Farm neighbors take turns, and come each week to read me another chapter," Vincent replied. "I especially like your old farm stories and memories."
Some things never change in farming culture ...
It's obvious the late Paul Harvey, a radio broadcast giant, had respect for farmers, with his recitation of "So, God Made a Farmer."
"And on the 8th day God looked down on his planned paradise and said, 'I need a caretaker!'. So, God made a farmer.
If you've never heard Mr. Harvey's emotionally-charged recitation, you owe it to yourself to go to Google and take a listen.
Last decade, Nashville country music stars Connie Smith and Marty Stuart penned "Farmers Blues" as a tribute song to hard-working farm families across America.
"We wanted to pay tribute to those people who work so long and hard in the fields of our beloved nation," Connie credited during a performance at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
And I'm proud of being born "a farmer's son."