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Cotton Picking

May 2, 2006

My sisters who are all much older than me used to get out of school to pick cotton. Not many white children still picked when they did. They hated it. It was hard work and terribly hard on your hands. My mother they tell could pick as many pounds in a day as most any man. That was a source of pride.

This reminds me of a passage from an essay my sister wrote while living in Austrilia

In my fourteenth summer, I was astonished one day to find at my door three of the popular kids who had walked the mile from town to my house. 90 degrees and humid — you must offer callers a drink. If I visited their town homes, they would give me a coke from the refrigerator. At my house, not even kool-aid, just water flat-warm from the tap. One of those turning points in a life.

My parents were prosperous, close enough to what passed for ‘aristocracy’ in a small town not too far from a city. But they believed that austerity builds character. ‘The Rockefellers rear their children this way’, we were told again and again. No indulgences. Learn the meaning of work. My mother set us to work in the fields alongside black day-labourers. Those people could work, and laugh, better than any I’ve seen since, for five dollars a day. I count those days among my most hated and richest memories. Picking cotton in early morning. Heavy dew soaks the long-sleeved shirt and gives the broad, astringent leaves a stickiness to wrap stings across the face. By eleven o’clock, the sun high, my mouth begged for a drop of that dew. Then the cry, ‘Lunch’ and I could lift the yellow plastic top from my water thermos.

When someone gives a guest lecture, I ask if a glass of water would be welcome. I can sort them into two camps, generally, from the replies: eager yes, adamant no.

I always take a glass myself. Usually left on the lectern untouched. Yet a glass of water, I know, can be leaned on.

My love/hate memories are usually surrounding cows. That knock on the door at 3 in the morning when someone tells you your cows are out and it turns out to be someone elses cows. Or the memories of working alongside my favorite worker when I was young. He called me “Chap” and I would watch him in wonder as he would roll cigarettes and as he would eat in our gargage but refused to eat in the house with us. We picked him and his wife up once, (my father loves this story) and he got in the cab of the truck with us and he put her in the back. I asked who she was and he told me it was his wife. I matter of factly said, “She sure is ugly”. and he replied, “Don’t I know it, Chap!”.

On the photo, who picks cotton in a coat?
And if you can notice the hands. I remember the hands that tell of a hard life. Makes me want to put mine in my pockets.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2006 3:44 pm

    Brings back memories of my childhood in north central Arkansas.

  2. May 2, 2006 11:04 pm

    Tommy –

    So sorry I’ve been away for so long. I’ve caught up a bit with your posts while I was out of commission and read a lot of the comments, but need very much to go back and re-read some of those posts from last week and try to comment on them when I can find the time.

    As for your question:

    “On the photo, who picks cotton in a coat?”

    I would say, “A man who is cold.”

    I don’t know where exactly that picture was taken or when cotton was ripe for picking in Tennessee as you were growing up, but out in West Texas (Abernathy, to be more exact), cotton wasn’t harvested until late fall into the cold winter months, sometimes, and it could be anywhere from in the 60s to down below freezing, with snow, hail, ice – you name it, Ive seen it and been in it at harvest time.

    So I would imagine that most likely the gentleman in the picture was cold and was wearing his coat (his only one, perhaps?) to keep warm out in the cold late fall/early winter weather. It wouldn’t have been a matter of stylishness, but necessity to keep warm.

    I can remember just a couple of times that my dad had anyone hand picking our cotton when I was very young and that was only (if I remember correctly) when the crop couldn’t be harvested by machines or else bad weather had left a lot of cotton on the ground where it couldn’t be machine harvested. Or it may have been (it seems so to me, but I’ll have to ask my mom) that some workers came looking for work to live and he took compassion on them and hired them so they could eat.

    As for what your sister recalls – I never did pick cotton, but I think my younger brother may have just because he wanted to because my uncle and dad had told him that whatever he could gather that was left behind they would pay him for.

    We both DID, however, spend several summers all summer out in the cotton fields hoeing cotton with our Mexican (their families had come from Mexico and they were Mexicans. There was no such thing as a “Hispanic” back then) hired hands. I was junior high age and got paid the going rate – same as the other workers – 60 cents an hour!!

    We had to get out in the fields at 6 a.m., which I thought was horrible, but by 7 a.m. or so we’d all be singing and telling jokes and talking and laughing and looking back I see that it was good for me to be working like that. To appreciate the value of those workers and the value of money and to learn to work for a “living.”

    We’d get off for lunch and then work until 6 p.m. Some of my “city” (okay – town) friends would ride out on motor scooters (we were like in 8th grade) to visit and hang out for a while. Boys, of course. Can’t imagine what they were interested in, but it could have been the shorts and summer attire (which was quite different than what girls wear today, let me tell you).

    Have you ever read James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men?” – with photos by Walker Evans? Did I show you my copy when you were down?

    You absolutely MUST get a copy to look at all the photos and to read, or at least have to keep close by. All your photos of the past few days have reminded me so much of that book and of pictures my mom has in her photo albums from growing up in the 20s and 30s in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. My dad, too.

    Gotta run. Way too long here and way too late and I’m very tired. Long day tomorrow with doctors all day and tons of errands inbetween.

    Later. Looking forward to more.


  3. May 2, 2006 11:21 pm

    David’s dad used to have to pick cotton in Mississippi, and — from what I hear — it makes me feel guilty about wearing cotton tees…

    Polyester, baby.

  4. May 3, 2006 8:30 am

    I have heard cotton picking stories. Seen those cotton picking fields. Never been a cotton picker(in the truest since of the word).

    I hate it too when those cotton picking cows get out.

    Well, I will hush now and also put my cotton picking hands in my pocket.

    Thanks T, great series.

  5. May 3, 2006 5:27 pm

    I picked cotton, well mostly I played in the cotton while my Mom picked, seemed like fun to me.

    My love/hate memories have to do with chickens, but you already know some of that story!

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