Thursday, December 6, 2018

Child Labor

I imagine when people walk by me on the streets of Oviedo, they say to themselves, "Uuuuuuu, look at Mr. Fancy Pants, look at Mr. Smarty Pants, Mr. Bookworm, Mr. Know-It-All! What a skinny old guy, probably a delicate precious little snowflake. Uuuuu, take care of the earth, give money to lazy poor people! Ol' Mr. Socialist who's never done a lick of hard work in his life. Always had his nose in a book! Mommy did everything for him! Everything given to him on a silver spoon! Born with a golden platter on his head! Probably going somewhere for a cup of tea and a kale sandwich! No wait, I meant 'born with a silver spoon in his mouth,' but anyway my point is well taken!"

These imaginary people are partly right, but not about work!

I had my first paying job when I was 8. The back part of our old house was used by a black sharecropper (Google "sharecropper") as a place to take cooked (also called "cured") tobacco off the stick, then arrange it in doughnut-shaped piles and tie it up in a huge sheet before tossing it on the back of a truck to be taken to Madison where tobacco companies would buy it. 

The black sharecropper was Nat Thomas (called Nay-THAHN by his wife Lula), and he sharecropped with Granddaddy, and the tobacco in my house came freshly cooked from the barn across the road. 

Cooked or cured tobacco

That same barn burnt down twice in a period of about eight years. (Once when the barn burnt, my dad was working on the transmission of our pathetic yellow English Ford Consul when the fire broke out and, even with a bad back, he picked up the transmission and rushed it across the road to safety as if he were carrying an endangered and very heavy baby.)

Nat did not have a cell phone or any other kind of phone, so someone had to drive up to his house and tell him his barn burnt down or wait for him to drive over and see it for himself.

One summer day I was hanging around in the back of the house talking to Lula, a short, thin woman who had the coloring of movie Indians, always in a straw hat and a loose fitting dress. I saw some of the stuff she was doing, so I started doing it because, I don’t know, I liked to feel productive: things like sweeping up loose pieces of tobacco leaves or handing her the next stick of tobacco to de-string. I must have done this all afternoon, so when Nat came by to pick her up, she took on over (i.e., exaggerated) what a big help I’d been to her. 

Nat was a huge man, with a broad face, high cheek bones, piercing dark-yellow eyes, with a wide mouth and big lips that stretched practically across his entire face. After Lula bragged on me, he cocked his head and said, “Sho nuff?” Then he fished around in the pockets of his khaki work pants and handed me a fifty-cent piece. “Here’s ya some money to buy ya some can’y wit.”

So in 1958, a black man who kept his tobacco in the back of my house gave me my first salary. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t allowed to buy “can’y” wit it.


Not long after that, working in tobacco became a real job.

One day, perhaps a year or so later, our neighbor Van Hinton 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 Joyce 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 which means we handed leaves of tobacco to someone who tied them to a stick. My mom was our 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 Joyce. 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 Joyce. 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 chewing gum. She still wasn't 91 years old.
Tobacco in the field

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 (croppers picked the ripe leaves off their stalks) 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, allowing him to take another step up the ladder of manhood. No guy wanted to be a hander for long, or he would be called a sissy. 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 two: a baloney sammich and a PBJ made with Welch's Concord Grape 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.

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, and workers would say stuff like this:

“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."

Let's stop here for now, so y'all might as well get yo' mines off readin'!

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