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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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Eventually there comes a time in every man's life when he must—however reluctantly—lay aside the toys of his childhood and plunge into the world of grown-ups, known also as the world of commerce, trade, business and by sundry other aliases. If he does well in this world, it is accepted that he may return to the other one, this time equipped with the toys of adult success: cabin cruisers, Caribbean holidays, private airplanes and hand-crafted golf clubs.

These paragraphs concern a man who avoided the tedious in-between and climbed straight into the attic where all the fun is stored. He has been there ever since. He lives in a world of kites, roller skates, fancy motorcycles, radio-controlled model airplanes, motorboats, parachutes, slot cars, girls, exotic talents and corny jokes. He is the oldest non-Establishment permanent floating resident of Memphis and, as it turns out, the world champion marathon water skier. He may also be the state motorcycle-painting champ, and he is unquestionably the greatest shallow-water shark killer to leave the banks of the Mississippi.

Marvin Shackelford lives at McKellar Lake, a gamy outfall of the Mississippi River hard by the city of Memphis. He has lived there since 1961, when he built with his bare hands and certain associated tools the boathouse he now occupies. Aboard this 22-foot-by-45-foot demi-Eden, Shackelford has assembled the paraphernalia of a 34-year-old man growing into childhood: four telephones (he had five until he hurled his pink Princess into McKellar Lake after it began giving him wrong numbers), photographic equipment, several volumes on science, a set of the Encyclopedia Americana, a squadron of radio-controlled model airplanes, photographs of costumed chimpanzees and prize motorcycles, three television sets, a shortwave radio, a stereo system and a Donald Duck night-light in the bathroom. And, through a doorway to his boat slip a few feet away, an 18-foot inboard Chris-Craft.

To truly understand Marvin Shackelford, it helps to know the unusual atmosphere of McKellar Lake. Technically, it is not a lake at all but a still-water bay, a backup of residual waters of the Mississippi River. A few years ago it was a lively place, crowded on Saturday and Sunday afternoons with sailboats, speedboats, water skiers and families who yearned to be near the water. Cars towing boat trailers were backed up for blocks awaiting their turn at the launching ramps. But over a period of years the Memphis city fathers have zoned much of the shoreline for commercial use, which now includes an oil refinery and a sewage facility that contribute to a rising tide of sludge. The effluence from these plants has made the. lake what it is today: a mess. Now the crowds have fled to shores across the state line in Mississippi, and all that's left are the air-conditioned rich and the just-plain-conditioned like Shackelford.

Shackelford's boathouse, identified by a sign reading SHACK'S SHACK, and his inboard motorboat, named Ye'Ont II (which is how Shackelford pronounces the question, "Do you want to?"), lie along the rampway extending from the lake's marina. Strolling this ramp on a summer's night, one hears the susurrus of the Memphis leisure class doing its thing. They sit in their prow-to-prow cabin cruisers, turn on their FMs and quietly or not-so-quietly uncork and unwind.

The unofficial mayor of this lakeside menagerie is, of course, Shackelford. This is only fitting. It is, after all, his front and back yards, his home, his life. He defends the attractions of McKellar Lake, and occasionally its purity, with the fervor of a Texan at the Alamo. "I've never heard of a single person who got sick because he fell in McKellar and got a mouthful of water," he says, and while the listener grapples with that vision, he goes on: "I've fallen in a thousand times and I've never gotten sick. When you talk about pollution and people getting sick, you're talking about typhoid fever and things like that, and I've never known a person who got any of those things."

Although Shackelford leaves the boathouse at regular intervals to eat what he calls "a piece of old dead cow meat," his basic fuels are cigarettes and coffee, which he consumes in staggering quantities. At a time when even tobacco salesmen are having second thoughts about their product, Shack remains the habit's greatest advocate. He does not drink, however—a fact that increasingly bewilders those who spend much time around the freewheeling atmosphere of McKellar's western shore. He sleeps infrequently, not from any lack of interest but because of an overactive imagination. "I get to bed and start thinking of things I want to do," he says, "and I have to get up and do them."

As might be deduced from his diet and habits, Shackelford is not a robust physical specimen. Newspaper stories about him have described his 5'11", 140-pound physique as "skinny," an adjective he professes to deplore. "What can I say?" he adds quickly. "They have pictures of me." Despite his size and build, Shackelford has an abundance of strength of the sort often associated with wiry types and which, in 1960, made him the world's champion marathon water skier.

The first long-distance water-ski competition in the Memphis area was organized chiefly as an assault on the existing long-distance record of 267 miles set by a Floridian named Alan Warriner. Three members of the Memphis Ski Club, including one woman, set out from St. Louis for McKellar Lake, a distance of 420 miles. But when one of them, John Coll, collapsed near the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge—and they had all set a new record anyway—they decided to call it off. This was in 1957.

The World's Water Ski Marathon Championship the following year grew out of that competition. It was designed as an endurance contest in the old laissez-faire style, with a winner-take-all prize of $1,000. Second prize was a dunk in McKellar Lake. Once the competition began, it didn't end until every contestant save one, the winner, had collapsed and been fished out like the loser he was. There was no rest, no partner, no balm for the humiliation of defeat. The difference between this marathon and the earlier ones was that this one was held over a closed course around Treasure Island, a pleasantly wooded mound in the middle of McKellar's turbid waters.

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