Special to The U-R
I think there is a song somewhere that has a line in it that goes like this: “I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten – Look away…”
In the deep recesses of my memory banks that line brings on nightmares for me because there was a point in time when daddy decided to become a gentleman cotton farmer. To the best of my recollection, however, I don’t think it was actually a cotton plantation but more like a cotton field. Mind you it was an immense patch of ground, at least to a ten-year-old, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t qualify as a plantation by the standards of that day. Come to think of it, I’m also pretty sure daddy didn’t qualify as a gentleman farmer. I do not believe gentleman farmers work as hard or sweat as much as he did over that piece of ground.
I think that the general idea went something like this. Pack as many cotton plants as possible into this humongous acreage, nurse it along, keep the weeds out of it, and then pick the cotton to sell for a tidy profit. I suppose that made sense to daddy but I was not actually included in the philosophical or financial planning of the enterprise. My role was destined to be that of a manual laborer, though I was not aware of exactly what that ultimately would entail.
As I look around at the modern art of cotton farming it seems diametrically opposed to the process that we went through. For example, we did not have mechanical monsters that rolled through the field sucking and plucking the cotton balls off their stalks and sending them back into a storage unit. As you might imagine our method was much more basic and might best be described as primitive. We pulled the cotton balls off by hand and stuffed them into burlap sacks that were slung over our necks.
I also seem to recall that a mule played one of the crucial roles in our version of agricultural entrepreneurship. Although I was not deemed old enough to actually have a working relationship with that filthy, ornery beast, I did witness some of the uses to which the mule was put. Best I could tell that typically meant pulling a heavy plow down the rows in order to keep weeds under control. I seem to remember that Daddy and the mule were in charge of that part of the operation.
Now, I was fortunate enough to become familiar with a farm utensil commonly known as a hoe. One of my jobs was to go down the rows after Daddy, the mule and the plow had done their thing and to destroy any and all weeds left behind. I think that was one of the definitions of manual labor to which I was assigned.
I also remember quite clearly that my first impression upon seeing the field full of young healthy plants for the first time was that of awe. Not only were those rows arrow straight but more importantly they stretched completely out of sight. Those rows extended over a hill and on into a neighboring county. Quite frankly I couldn’t see from one end to the other without the use of high-powered binoculars which had not been invented at that time.
The next phase was seeing those beautiful white balls of cotton burst out of the plants and it was a remarkable sight. Little did I know what the next task would be in terms of my role as a cotton plantation assistant.
That job turned out to be a picker of cotton. I was given a brown burlap sack and strict instructions to start down one of the monstrous rows and get each and every cotton boll off the plants. If I actually got to the end of a row my directive was to then turn around and come back down another row. As I headed out daddy said he would see me at sundown.
While navigating that first row I quickly discovered that cotton balls, while soft, were protected by some very sharp little protrusions that would stick tiny holes in my fingers making the job aggravating and painful. I also learned later on that for my efforts I would be rewarded by receiving pay in the amount of 5 cents for every pound I picked. At the end of that first day I brought my sack in to be weighed and it came in at 25 pounds giving me a grand total of $1.05 for my efforts. It became obvious to me that cotton sure was light.
That was nothing compared to my little brother who got a late start that day due to a doctor appointment he had been forced into. He only picked a pound, thus getting a single nickel in payment. I’m not sure he got to crying because he only got five cents or because his fingers were bloody.
Anyway my experiences in rural cotton farming taught me that from a labor standpoint there were probably other fields of endeavor that I would prefer to go into. I also quickly figured out that from a financial standpoint somebody might have been making a killing growing cotton but it sure wasn’t me.
So as the song says, “Look away,” and I think that’s probably good advice.
Alvin Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.