Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Tobacco Worms and Separate Tables

"But O! my soul is white." 
                                                                  William Blake, "The Little Black Boy"

Our previous post about life in the tobacco fields of north Florida was interrupted by a thunderstorm. 

We were allowed a brief break during these monsters, but 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.

The downside of getting a break during a thunderstorm was that we had to make the time up on the same day. No tobacco farmer was going to pay us an extra day’s work just because it rained. So the day crawled slowly on, the freshness of the rain turning quickly into smothering humidity.

Finally, as the light began to fade, along with our energy and will to live, the boss would bark out those blessed words, “QUITTIN’ TIME! Clean up around your area and let’s go home.” Before we left, he’d walk around with a massive wad of bills and snap off our daily stipend: “Here you go, young fella, one, two, three.” Three dollars! And my favorite sports magazine only cost 50 cents, and for a dollar I could get a 45 RPM of Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” at a record store in Valdosta. And the season was just beginning! I could wind up with $15, maybe $18.

In the next year or so, I wound up with a lot more than that. My dad’s good friend M.C. Herring went all tobacco crazy the next year and planted 20 acres of the stuff (he bought other farmers' allotments, I think, but that's a long story), an outrageous amount. He’d need me and my sister Martha for five days a week, sometimes maybe even six. Plus he gave us a raise to $4 a day. We'd be rolling in dough!

But we only rolled in it till late August when my mom would take us to Valdosta to shop for school clothes. With our tobacco money, we bought some respectability for ourselves, some threads that would put us in the top fashion tier of backwoods Pinetta Jr. High School, one of the finer educational institutions in Madison County. I can only recall one of these cool ensembles: button-down, red pin-stripe shirt, with a loop on the back that you could give to the girl you were going steady with; tight, white-Levi pants; and dang if I can remember the shoes. Hep me somebody!

Somewhere in there I finally got promoted to cropper, one of the proudest days of my then simple, silly little life. I was a pretty good cropper, because I worked as hard as I possibly could. Everyone bragged about how fast this one guy, Tracy Simpson, was, a guy whose dad was despised for having driven “truckloads of [black people]” to the polls during the last presidential election. I wanted to be the new Tracy Simpson, without the ostracized dad.

The fun parts of cropping included having the hair on my arms completely covered in black tobacco tar, a real sign of distinction in the tobacco world. At lunch and at day’s end, we scrubbed this stuff out with a raw tomato or a piece of watermelon or by pouring Coca Cola over our arms. I also got my brogans and one of those straw hats the front part of which is a kind of green plastic shade. When I came in from the fields, I held my arms away from my sides and affected the look of a bowlegged gunfighter walking toward his destiny down Main Street – I was sort of a very short, poor man's version of Marshall Dillon or Gary Cooper.

It was also fun being privy to all the raunchy stuff that went on in the fields, that is after a several-week probationary period in which the other croppers, both black and white, either ignored me or just said mean things to me, ridiculing my skinniness and the fact that I was new at this and not much like them at all in any way they could think of. 

Gradually, the mild hazing ended and they let me attach myself to their goobertorial shenanigans – spitting in someone else's Styrofoam water jug, for example,  taking a dump between stalks of tobacco, and throwing tobacco hornworm caterpillars into the tractor’s radiator fan.
They get bigger'n this.

(I cannot continue without introducing my city-slicker audience to hornworms, which are first cousins to tomato worms. They're truly revolting. Tight, sticky skin, menacing reddish horn, with about 72 leg-like objects that helped them stick to your hand or to tobacco leaves with equal tenacity. They left many dark foul droppings in their wake and made a terrible bright-green mess when you stomped on them.)

Sometimes, even, at the end of a row, under the shade of oaks, when Mr. Herring was nowhere around, we would look at a dirty book -- dog-eared, rumpled, the print smearing -- that Billy Dorfman stole from his dad who, he said, bought it at a whorehouse. 

Something I was never tempted to do.
We all hooted our delight at how extraordinarily explicit and obscene these pictures were, although truthfully, and no one would say this, the quality of the pictures was so bad, and they were so dang grainy, and the bodies so seemingly contorted, we couldn’t tell what the hell lewd acts they were depicting, if any. Sadly, Billy is no longer with us, so I am unable to produce any of those pictures to break up the dreary text of this posting.

Just for the record, I believed Billy’s dad, also named Billy, did in fact go to whorehouses because, one, he didn’t go to church; two, his wife was massive and did go to church, a lot; and three, he drank. So of course he went to whorehouses!

One morning when I was cropping in the tobacco fields of someone I will call Semolina Pilchard, the tractor pulled up with what appeared to be an empty sled, and a little black boy, maybe five or six years old, popped up out of the thing – he’d sneaked in and hidden in the bottom just as the tractor was pulling out from the barn. The kid was so pleased with himself for successfully escaping his mama – who was too busy stringing tobacco to notice – that he busted into squeals of laughter. That delightful sound, like the one babies make when you put your mouth on their belly and make flatulent sounds, coupled with our surprise, got us all laughing, too.

Pilchard's right-hand man, Jackson, who was sort of our overseer in the field, told the boy he better get his self back to the barn before his mama whupped his behind, but the little guy didn’t scare easily. He’d pretend to leave, then would sneak back through the towering stalks of tobacco and pop up next to one of us like some sort of field sprite.

He bedeviled each of us, partly with our indulgence, crawling through the stalks to untie our boots, sticking tobacco worms on our shirts, knocking our hats off, and after each of his tricks, he’d dart off like a water bug, howling with laughter. If our culture’s symbology allowed it, I would say that on a merciless white-hot morning, he was a ray of darkshine, a mercurial imp of black joy that blessed us with innocent laughter the way only kittens and puppies and small children can.

When the sled was full, Jackson started up the tractor. “Come on, boy, I’m takin’ you back to yo’ mama,” he said. At the barn, the kid got some scolding, but Jackson defended him: “What the hell? He ain’t doin’ no harm, let’im come back out with us.” So the little black boy continued to entertain us till dinner by which, of course, I mean lunch. 

Back at the barn, the horseplay continued while we washed up. Wherever we croppers went, he went with us. We washed, he washed. We got our paper plates, he got his paper plates. We went over to the picnic tables under a pecan tree with the other white people, and he went with us. We started to eat, he started to eat.

“You better run go find yo’ mama, boy,” Jackson told him.

“Nah, you better go find yo’ mama,” the kid shot back, then threw his head back and laughed.

“I ain’t kiddin’, boy. Git back over to the shed with yo’ mama!”

The kid pointed a fork full of mashed potatoes at Jackson. “Nah, I ain’t kiddin’ you, Mr. Jackson man,” he said, clearly wanting to drag out this joke as long as possible.

Jackson put his plate down, bolted from his bench, walked over to the kid just as he was putting those potatoes in his mouth, yanked him up by the back of his collar, and said, “You git your black ass over there with yo' mama right NOW! You don’t belong over here! Now GO, and don’t come back, you hear me?!

There was a momentary hush at the white people's table. At the black people's table, the kid got a scolding of the "what-I-told-you?" variety.

We felt a little awkward for a while, and the food didn’t go down as easily as it could’ve, but it didn’t take long for everything to get back to normal. Jackson had done a difficult thing. He had restored order, keeping the links in our community's Great Chain of Being in their assigned places. Someone was going to have to tell that kid sometime, and the situation forced that duty on Jackson.

I don’t think he enjoyed it.

After we finished eating, the afternoon fields were white-hot again until another damn storm started building, and the croppers’ laughter was of the sordid, bitter variety, and I’m guessing that it was not my laughter alone that sprang, as the poet William Blake said, from excess of sorrow, not of joy.

It was 1962. What else were we supposed to do?


  1. Your gift of observation is only exceeded by your perception of what you see. Best wishes and a shiny new year! Your cousin

  2. Your gift of observation is only exceeded by your perception of what you see. Best wishes and a shiny new year! Your cousin

  3. That's a beautiful compliment, cuz. May your New Year be shiny as well. Perhaps one day we'll actually see each other again. I remember you only as a 12-year old.

  4. I worked many years in tobacco, most of them with the Herrings. Those were tough but fun days. At least one of those summers I worked there along with you and Martha Jo. Fun times!

  5. I worked many years in tobacco, most of them with the Herrings. Those were tough but fun days. At least one of those summers I worked there along with you and Martha Jo. Fun times!

    1. If you're who I think you are, I cropped/handed to you on one of those harvesters.