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Charles Gillespie
January 12, 1970
This branch-water bon vivant and world champion marathon water skier is accused by some of having entered his second childhood. Shack and his fun-loving friends deny this with vigor, asserting that, at 34, he has never left the first one
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January 12, 1970

The Wet, Happy Life Of Marvin Shackelford

This branch-water bon vivant and world champion marathon water skier is accused by some of having entered his second childhood. Shack and his fun-loving friends deny this with vigor, asserting that, at 34, he has never left the first one

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Shackelford admits a lot of his friends were visible only after his boathouse was completed, but he shrugs off suggestions they might be taking advantage of him. "I'm flexible," he says. "I don't care about dating and taking a girl up to the picture show or feeding her or anything like that. I just like for people to come on down."

And come they do. Even when Shackelford isn't home, there's usually a spare key around someplace; callers on the telephone are greeted with a congenial recorded message in the Shackelford twang: "If you would be good enough to leave your name and telephone number, I will return your call as soon as I come back. But if you don't, then be assured that I won't call you." When he is home, he is wont sometimes to answer the telephone with, "Hello, I'd like to speak to Marvin Shackelford, please." Most people hang up and try again.

It is no surprise that, to a man who knows he can ski a thousand miles without pause, the parlor tricks of water-ski acrobats are unimpressive. "I can do all that stunt stuff," he says. "I took the time to learn all those tricks and run the slaloms. I can ski barefooted, but it's just not worth it. Once in a while the Memphis Ski Club needs somebody to fill in and do tricks or something and I'll do it just to help them out."

For a local promotion Shackelford and a female skier once donned rubber suits and plunged into McKellar Lake on an afternoon when snow still clung to the bluffs and the thermometer was hanging around 15°.

Claims that he is not the champion marathon water skier amuse him. He displays on request two newspaper clippings mailed to him by friends, one from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that details the feat of a man from Belleville, Ill. who skied 75 miles in two hours, 10 minutes. Another is from an unidentified publication that confers the one-ski championship on a 17-year-old Finnish girl who went 203.8 miles in six hours, 59 minutes. Shackelford only smiles.

Before he took up water-skiing, he moonlighted at the old Rainbow Roller Rink in Memphis as a kind of handyman watchman on wheels, keeping order on the floor, repairing skates, teaching, painting signs—"just a general flunky." During that period he entered his first marathon, a 26-mile roller-skating race in Little Rock that he says "I finished, and that's about all." Several of the Shackelford clan skate in the wintertime, renting the Skateland-Frayser rink after hours, then holding football games on skates and making other unorthodox use of the facilities.

"When I was working at the Rainbow, Elvis used to come over. He once brought all the Miss World contestants from L.A. for a week as his houseguests, and they came out to skate," he recalls fondly. "Elvis used to ride motorcycles with us once in a while." Then his voice drops in register, and he adds regretfully, "I don't know what's happened to that boy. Since he got married, he's got old, or settled down, or something...."

Shackelford's unorthodox life style probably has its roots in his own youth in rural Tennessee. "I guess we were just old middle-class people," he says. "We didn't have a new bike or anything like that every year, but we were never hungry, either. My daddy worked as a clerk in the post office and during the war he had two jobs, but my mother never worked. It was just a typical old country-boy life.

"We hunted and fished and played baseball and messed around with old junky motorcycles and cars, and we raised our own food—killed hogs and things like that. I didn't make any big scholastic advances or anything. I just got by. I thought about college, but I got this job working for the Air National Guard just before I got out of high school and started out driving their fuel truck. I was making so much money I couldn't afford to quit and go back to school."

While still in high school, Shackelford bought his first set of wheels, a worn motor scooter that he repaired and sold at a profit. He bought others, repeating the process of trade and improvement until he could afford a car. But four wheels is two too many for Shackelford, and in 1959 he loaned his car to a friend who left a motorcycle as a loaner. Shackelford has been riding two-wheelers ever since. Automobiles, he claims, are "too dangerous."

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