Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Tobacco, Radio and Rain

Let us now continue our agrarian saga (Google "agrarian").

How did we not go crazy during the course of a 10-hour summer day? One answer lies in an advertising jingle frequently heard on WMAF radio, MadisonFlorida, coming at you with 5000 watts of power: “Take a constant companion wherever you go / Take a PORTable RAdioooo!” 

Sitting somewhere on that tobacco table was a cheap transistor radio with a crappy speaker and it was always on. Perhaps because our choices were limited, I don’t recall there ever being any argument over what to listen to. 
Transistor radio

Hardly any of us wanted to listen to the country music station from nearby Valdosta, Georgia. WMAF had nothing but junk – the gospel hour (very bad church music), a call-in swap shop ("I have a used Timex with a scratched crystal. Could somebody gimme a bird dog for that?"), a farm report about weather and the price of hogs, and the truly boring “Easy Listening with Stewart” – until 4 p.m. when “Downbeat” started, an hour and a half of rock’n’roll. 

Our most constant companion was about the only other station we could pick up: “This is the Big Ape, the Mighty 690, W-A-P-E, Jacksonville!” This was pre-FM, so we heard all our favorite songs through the crackle of static which grew worse during afternoon thunderstorms. 

Once I shifted into my rhythmic cruise control as a hander, I left the tobacco table and went wherever the songs from the Big Ape took me (not literally). I might as well have been wearing earplugs.

I heard Ray Charles sing “I Can’t Stop Loving You” God knows how many times in the course of a day, but I never tired of it, and I always sang along with it – to myself, when I couldn’t hit the notes – and I always aimed it directly at my imaginary girlfriends (it should be noted that these were actual human beings I went to school with, but who were pretty much unaware of my existence). Sing the song, children!

This was also the time of funny or novelty songs sung by Ray Stevens ("Ahab the Arab" and "Guitarzan") and Roger Miller ("Dang Me" and "Chug-a-Lug"). We memorized these songs long before they quit being funny and began to drive us insane.

As the day grew longer and hotter, sweat trickled down into our eyes, and we’d blot it with the back of our hands, the fronts being covered with black tobacco tar. We had to keep our Styrofoam water jugs handy, and drink frequently of the Styrofoam-tasting water, little bits of ice still rattling around in there at the end of the day.

Some days, Van would run into Madison and come back with a crate of cold Cokes, in those little 6.5-ounce bottles. God, those things were good. 


And some days he’d be good enough to bring a couple of watermelons from his fields, and we’d stop working long enough to bury our faces in their sweetness, and the juice would be steady running down our chins.

Other days, we caught a nature break when a thunderstorm would chase the croppers in from the field, and we’d all huddle under the awning or inside the barn and swap stories about people getting struck by lightning.

For me, these yarns triggered a special kind of terror. When I was just a wee thing, hardly a toddler, I was leaning against the railing of a baby bed during a particularly vicious thunderstorm. When lightning hit a tree just a few feet from the house, I was jettisoned, by fear combined with a desire to fly, out of the baby bed and onto the floor, head first.


Since this was before infants were required to wear crash-helmets and flack-jackets to bed, I was knocked senseless, and, not only did I never quite recover, but I was cursed with a lifelong fear of lightning, as if it were the number-one weather-related killer in Florida.*



I "jumped" out of one of these.
So when one of those storms visited the tobacco fields (and they inevitably did), I grew a bit uncomfortable. I was left to pray to the good Lord that if someone must be struck dead, please let it be someone else, say, that one guy who'd been getting on my nerves a lot lately by singing those funny songs that we were all sick of.

Anyway, when the roar of the rain on the barn’s tin roof dwindled to a dibble-dop and the thunder faded into off and on grumblings in the distance, we emerged from the shelter, and the weary croppers climbed into the sleds and were dragged back into the now muddy fields.

Before the storm began, their clothes had been drenched in sweat and lay heavily on their skin. Now they were about to be saturated by the rain-soaked tobacco leaves, and their grimy, muddy jeans would be drooping halfway down their butts during the day’s long final hours.

Those wet tobacco leaves often gave me nicotine poisoning, by the way, but I don't have the stomach to tell you about that right now.

While we wait for the field of streams to dry out, I'll work on some brief tales of my career in cropping. 

*It is.