Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Saved from the Bear

In a previous post, I recalled an act of blatant racism during a dinner* break in the tobacco fields. That incident was not intended to be a representative example of white-black relations in my particular corner of the pre-Civil Rights rural south. In fact, I included it because of its sharp contrast with what was typical.

No one got any favors because of color. Tobacco farmers separated us into good workers and bad workers, not into black and white
 except at lunch . As far as I know the pay was the same for blacks and whites. We mingled freely at the barn and in the fields.
The rows I weeded were WAY longer than this.
Most of the workers I remember best were black, and most of them worked for Mr. M.C. Herring: Tommy Lee Alexander, a lanky, rubber-band man, who seldom said anything that wasn’t funny – he served in Vietnam and I still don't know if he survived; his brother Curtis, a stone-faced fellow who never cracked a smile but was not without joy – we loved to hear him sing “Chain Gang” with Sam Cooke and the bass sections of Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl”; Cooter Pea, who I think had another real birth-certificate name, a lovely twenty-something who engaged me in conversation as if I were a grown-up, and who flashed a gold and silver smile at my bad jokes; Lilie Mae, a looming, stern matriarchal figure, her bottom lip always jammed with Railroad Sweet Snuff.

Lilie looked like she’d take no crap off nobody, but she took a load of it off her bratty son Joe Henry. That kid got yelled at more than anyone I’ve ever known. He came into the world for verbal abuse, and he might as well have been a counter-surfing, furniture-chewing, floor-pissing, leg-humping mutt for all of it he received. But he almost always smiled his way through it. He really was just around (on the planet) for the fun.

And then there was Joe Henry’s dad, Joe Williams, Mr. Herring’s right-hand man, who looked like a leaner, reed-legged version of Morgan Freeman. I wish there were an original way to say “he always had a twinkle in his eye,” because he really did. He was a rarity among human beings, a hardworking, gentle, enduring man of decency, and he didn't seem to give a crap if you were black or white. Here's an example of Joe's character:

On one typically scorching summer day, I was pulling some weeds in the fields with Joe and some teen-aged boys, some black, some white, who were all a little older than I. We were weeding cotton, if my memory is correct, but we weren’t allowed to use hoes for fear of damaging the roots. So we worked on our hands and knees in that hot, soft, tilled Florida soil, essentially crawling from plant to plant. Even as young bloods, when we stood up we felt like old people, with aches in our knees and back.

For most of the morning, my group, including Jerry Herring (son of M.C.), Tommy Matheny and LeRoy Watkins, stayed in a cluster and fought off the heat by shooting the bull and telling jokes. Idle chatter proved an effective distraction from the heat, and it sort of broke the charm for someone to mention, even as an aside, that “it’s hotter’n hell out here.” It seemed like if we didn't think about it, it couldn't hurt us.

We were having a reasonably good time until Tommy started talking about what he’d brought for lunch. He stood up, put his hands on his lower back, and smiled meanly down at us (something that would later be called a “shit-eating grin”): “Yep, it shore is gonna feel good to sit in the shade and sip on some of that lemonade mama made me.” That pretty much broke the spell, and soon we were all talking about our lunches and about what time it was, about how much longer before Mr. Herring let us stop and about just how goddanged hot it was out here.

We compared how wet with sweat our shirts were, and Tommy, always the best “sweater,” won easily, his entire shirt being drenched a darker shade of blue. Then we started up with the inevitable stories of people who got “bear caught” in the fields, meaning they turned pale (unless they were black) and quit making sense and started seeing things that weren’t there and got dizzy and sometimes puked.

You'd only see this in the cotton fields if you were bear caught.
We talked about some of the funnier cases, like that time Jackson Brodie, the youth minister who talked almost exclusively about saving our souls, “just stood there, pale as a ghost, at the end of his row. He had to grab hold of a tobacco stalk to keep from fallin’. It was funnier’n hell!”

We all laughed as if we were immune to such a thing, but 
just picturing the ailing tobaccovangelist sent up sinister gurgles from my belly.

After a while we got too hot to talk, so we just quietly pulled our weeds and thought our private thoughts. Heat and humidity lay on us like a quilt, and the air wouldn't stir a bit. Whatever sound a root makes being yanked up out of the dirt was all we heard.

Finally, we saw Mr. Herring’s truck pull up at the edge of the field, and he came trudging across the rows. He didn't tolerate any slacking or goofing on the job, so when we saw him, we turned it up a notch, snatching at those weeds like they were trying to run away from us.

“How you boys doin’?”

“We doin’ alright,” Jerry said. “It’s gettin’ pretty hot out here, though.”

“Reckon when we can stop and eat?” Tommy asked.

Mr. Herring put his hands in his pockets and scanned the field. “Looks like you been takin’ it mighty easy already. Y’all oughta have half this field done by now. You just keep goin’, we’ll stop d’rectly.” And he left.

We went back at it, quietly again. The dirt was getting awfully hot on my hands, and sweat was dripping off my nose like snot. The heat from the sand radiated through my boots. I began to fall behind.

The voice in my head started drifting off on strange, dream-like tangents. I fought off this creepiness by repeating to myself, “It can’t be that much longer. It can’t be that much longer.” The other guys finished their rows, and were about 30 yards into their next one by the time I finished mine.

I tried halfheartedly to catch up, but I couldn’t stay focused. The ground started to lose its stability and the cotton field tilted and there was no tobacco stalk to hold onto. I dropped back down on my knees and tugged at some weeds.

I looked up, and Mr. Herring was back, talking to the guys way up ahead of me. When he left, I walked up to get the news: “He said 30 more minutes,” Jerry told me. Well, we weren’t stupid, so we slowed down a bit, I more than the others, because we knew those 30 minutes would end whether we worked hard or not. I knew I could hold out for 30 minutes. That’s how long it takes to drive to Monticello from Madison. That ain't nothing.

I was hungry and then I wasn't and then I was again. Lunch, lunch, lunch. A ham sammich and a glass of ice tea. Couldn’t be more than 20 minutes now.

Maybe 15 minutes left, and I be danged if Mr. Herring doesn’t come back again. This time he walks up to me first: “Just finish this row, and we’ll go get dinner,” and he walks off and tells the others. I watch him tell them. Then I watch them tap into their energy reserves and start hauling ass toward the end of the row which is a long, long way from me.

I, however, have no energy reserve, and I stare down at my row with despair and disbelief. This is not gonna be possible. My heaving chest warns of an onset of unmanly crying – something that had never happened to me in the fields and never would again. I bitterly yank a few weeds while the sweat runs into my eyes, and I start feeling trembly and nauseated and I picture an actual bear, a grizzly, catching someone, and my face feels flushed and feverish, and I have a long, long way to go, and I know I’m not gonna make it.

When the older guys finish their rows, I can see them grabbing their Styrofoam water jugs and heading for the shade, but I can’t see the end of my row. The damn thing gets longer every time I look at it.

After pulling a few more pathetic tear-soaked weeds, I look down the row again and I see ol’ Joe Williams, who’d been on the other side of the field, stride over to the end of my row and start working his way toward me, pulling my weeds. 

He didn’t have to do that, this old guy who was probably hurting from the heat more than I was, but there he was, inspiring me to get my ass in gear and meet him halfway.

When we met, I thanked him and mumbled something like “I didn’t think I was gonna make it,” and whatever he said in response, he was smiling when he said it, one of those smiles – what are they called? – when you look down and shake your head and say “Lord, Lord. Lordy me,” and what he said wasn’t mean, nor did he mention that I was weak and slow.

Then he patted my scrawny little back and walked off to eat with the other black people.

*In the country, we call the midday meal "dinner." At night we eat "supper." You got a problem with that?

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