I was just leaving Starbucks as the sun was rising this morning, and some woman I'd never seen before walked up to me, handed me a card, said "Merry Christmas" with no exclamation point, then walked away. It was a $10 Starbucks gift card.
And I remembered what Christmas was about.
And I remembered a Christmas I had one July in the early Sixties.
On a scorching hot day, I was pulling weeds in a cotton field for my dad's best friend, M.C. Herring. I was part of a crew of workers, all of them older than me. M.C.'s son Jerry was there, and a couple of dudes I'll call Tommy and LeRoy.
We worked on our hands and knees in that hot, soft, Florida soil, essentially crawling from one cotton plant to the next, yanking the weeds from the dirt and tossing them over our shoulders.
Even as young bloods, when we stood up, our aching knees and backs made us feel like old people.
For most of the morning, my group 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 casually, 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: “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 dadgummed 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 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. There's probably a medical term for "bear caught."
After a while we got too hot to talk, so we just quietly pulled 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’?” he asked.
“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 sand's heat radiated through my boots. I began to fall behind.
The voice in my head started drifting off on strange, dream-like, unmarked roads. 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 moving under my feet like those people-movers at airports. The earth was no longer stable, 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 over 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. Thirty minutes. That ain't nothing.
I was hungry and then I wasn't and then I was again. A ham sammich and a glass of ice tea were waiting on me. 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 racing toward the end of the rows.
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 dang thing gets longer every time I look at it.
Maybe 20 rows away from me, I see an old black man rise up off his knees and put his hands on his aching back. I recognize him as Joe Williams, Mr. Herring’s right-hand man.
Joe was a hardworking, gentle, enduring man of decency, and he didn't seem to give a crap if you were black or white.
He 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 always smiling but with a smile that had a kind of sadness to it, maybe resignation is the word.
Like he was saying, "Life's hard but we alright, just keep on at it. Can't understand everything, can't make heads or tails of it, but that's just what it's like. Mercy me, mercy, mercy. Being sad ain't gonna change nothing, being mad ain't either."
Like when you look down and shake your head and say, "Lord, Lord. Lordy me."
And, after I pull a few more pathetic tear-soaked weeds, I see him headed my way. He goes to the end of my row and starts 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 butt 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 his Joe smile, and he was kind, and he didn't expect anything from me in return, that's not why he did it.
He saw suffering and tried to heal it.
When he left, he patted my scrawny little back with his old black hand.
It was 95 degrees out there in the cotton field, and there was sand instead of snow, dripping sweat instead of icicles, but so what? Santa and the generous spirit of Christmas were present, clearly visible through my blurry eyes.
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