Monday, December 14, 2015

My Summers in Tobacco Fields, Part 2

Matt & Kitty would never mislead us.
During the summers, I could see black people working in tobacco across the road from my house, and all I could see was the fun. I heard loud talking and loud laughing often accompanied by loud clapping of hands and hilarity seizures – that is, in fits of laughter, and hooting, their shoulders shaking with glee, they would collapse into each other, and it looked like they might fall into one big pile. I saw more of that during dinner breaks – their midday meals – more laughing and gossiping and swatting away of gnats. They were having a better summer than I was. 

One day, perhaps a year or so after my first salary from sharecropper Nat Thomas, our neighbor Van Hinton (husband of the famed Avon Smoker’s Toothpaste teacher) dropped by and was talking about his tobacco crop, and my eyes lit up. My mom said to Van, “This one thinks he’d like to work in tobacco, but I expect he’d change his tune pretty quick if he ever got out in the fields.” Van said he had room for a couple more in his crew if my sister Martha and I wanted to try it. Well, I thought this was the greatest thing ever, as I always do when I hear something I interpret as being good news involving me. My heart leapt up.

Me, working in tobacco! I could already envision my little arms become brawny and tan, the hair darkened by tobacco tar, a straw hat with a John Wayne tilt, and some of those cool brogan work boots farmers always wore, and my own water jug and everything! And I could pack a lunch! And get up before daylight! Oh God, this was just absolutely too rich!

When tobacco harvesting season finally came round in June, Mama woke Martha and me at about 5 a.m. and we put on our most worn-out clothes, tried to force down a bowl of Cheerios, and walked with her the half mile up the road to Van’s tobacco barn, and my career began in earnest.

On the way to Van’s, Mama gave me some advice she’d repeat many times over the years: “Remember: The boss is always right. Earn your money. Put in a full day’s work. Act like somebody.” Van said he would start us out at $3 a day, and if we worked out okay, he’d give us a raise to $4. My mom, who had worked in tobacco back in the day, was lucky enough to start out at $5 a day.

Mule pulling tobacco sled

Martha and I were handers. My mom was a stringer and she was lightning quick. If we didn’t get the stuff to her hands in time, she’d be snapping her fingers. “Come on, now, get it to me! They ’bout to bring in another load.” At first, of course, we looked like a couple of idiots, actually counting the leaves, arranging them neatly in our hands, then holding the cluster somewhere in the general vicinity of Mama. That changed quickly. 

After a while, we learned how the right amount felt in our hands – say, four small leaves or three regular leaves or two large leaves with one small one – and we were able to pounce on them, then stylishly slap the leaves against our thighs as we passed them back to Mama. We got that rhythm going: grab, slap, hand off to Mama, who, always a knot of intensity, would snatch them from our hands while she chomped on and popped her Juicy Fruit.

More than anything, we wanted the grownups, especially Van, to refer to us as “good workers.” No one wanted to be called “lazy” or “dreamy” or “half-assed,” or, worst of all, “sorry.” We knew if we pleased Van, we could soon be making $4 a day, and I knew that if I made a good impression by good naturedly doing everything he asked me to, quickly and correctly, I could be promoted to cropper and get to hang out with the big boys in the field -- better yet, I could be one of the big boys.

Becoming a cropper was a country boy's rite of passage. No guy wanted to be a hander for long, or he would be called something relating to cats. No guy ever wanted to be a stringer: Even though it was strenuous and stressful work, that job was just for women.

These were wonderful days, but sometimes they were too long. By the time we actually started working, it was daylight. It got hot in a hurry; we kept a thermometer under the barn’s awning and we’d watch it crawl up toward 100 degrees day after day. We only got breaks if we happened to finish a table full of tobacco before the next sled came in. That rarely happened.

“Dinner” was at noon. When I worked for Van, we all just found a shade and ate our sammiches. I usually had one baloney and one peanut butter and jelly. Other favorites were Vienna sausages, sardines, and banana sammiches (recipe: bread, banana slices and mayonnaise). For dessert, one guy always brought a honey bun he bought at Hanson's general store, and I always craved it. Van’s wife Elizabeth, also my third-grade teacher, brought us sweet iced tea to wash down our food.

In later years, when I worked with Aaron Williams and Joe Buchanan, their wives prepared a huge spread of southern food for the workers: field peas, butter beans, creamed corn, sliced tomatoes (freshly picked), mashed potatoes, okra, fried chicken and always homemade cornbread and/or biscuits. Many of us believed that the Tobacco Feast (as I now call it) made the whole dang day of hard labor worth it.

After we ate, just as we began to feel the sweet urge to nap, it was back to the fields, and sometimes we didn’t stop until it was too dark to see: “Somebody ax Mr. Hinton when quittin’ time.” “Tommy Lee done axed him. He say at least two more sleds, so y’all might as well get yo’ mines off goin’ home."

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, Madison, Florida, 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. It was always on. Perhaps because our choices were limited, I don’t recall there ever being any argument over what to listen to. 

The workers rarely insisted on listening to the country music station from nearby Valdosta, GeorgiaWMAF had nothing but junk – the gospel hour, a call-in swap shop, a farm report, “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. Sure, listening to this music was a communal thing, as some of the workers would sing along with it, and talk about how much they liked or didn’t like a particular song, but for me it was a means of a dreamy, personal escape. I pretty much took all the songs seriously and literally, and, while I was grabbing, slapping and handing, I rode their sentimental lyrics into daydreams of romances and naive pre-pubescent desire.

I heard Ray Charles sing “I Can’t Stop Loving You” God knows how many times in the course of a day, but 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 imaginary "lovers" 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, through sheer repetition, 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 and 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 inordinate 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.

Anyway, when the roar of the rain on the barn’s tin roof dwindled to a dibble-dop and the thunder faded into intermittent 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.

When 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.

While we wait for the field of streams to dry out, I'll work on a post that reflects on how great talent can be simultaneously a gift and a destroyer, but we're not done with tobacco stories just yet.  

*It is.


  1. Great story! I caint hardly wait fer the book.

  2. Well, I reckon I'll git to that directly. Thanks fer readin.

  3. Love your posts, Roy!! The only thing missing is how much our eyes would sting when the water from the tobacco got into them.