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Friday, August 26, 2011

In Them Old Cotton Fields Back Home

                You can get the tan of your life in them old cotton fields.  I think back to the days when Carol and I would spend our summers hoeing (chopping for those of you don’t know what hoeing is) cotton in short shorts.  We would roll our shorts up as high as we could get them without getting yelled at from our Mamas and go hoe cotton.  My granddaddy didn’t question why we always wanted to hoe cotton.  He was just glad to get the help.  Of course, now, we didn’t roll those shorts up until he was out of sight.   The best way to get a good tan was to work in the cotton patch.  We worked from sun-up to sundown.
                One summer I convinced my Uncle Wilson to hire my friends and me to hoe cotton.   One of the girls was a city slicker who was visiting her Aunt Raye from Chattanooga.  Raye was the local postmaster and I spent a lot of time with her in the post office.  She would let me sit in the back of the post office where her office was.  I got to help her sort the mail.  She introduced her niece to me and my friends so that we would hang out with her.  We thought we were something to have a city slicker hangout with us for the summer.  Being from Chattanooga was like being from New York City to us.  And, like us, she was really anxious to fit in and was excited to get the opportunity to make a few dollars. My Uncle was a little reluctant to hire all us.  But, being the good soul that he was, he gave all of us a job.    All of us included myself, my cousin Carol, my friend Nancy and the city slicker from Chattanooga. 
We thought we were in high cotton getting to go to work.  Early on the morning of our first workday, we started out down the old graveled road to Uncle Wilson’s house.  We had our hoes slung over our shoulder.  The sun was just coming up over the mountains.  We each carried a brown paper sack filled with our lunch.  I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a canning jar filled with ice water.  The field was beside Uncle Wilson’s house.  We walked up into Uncle Wilson’s yard.  He was standing there with a few other field hands.  Uncle Wilson always wore a wide brimmed hat.  He tipped his hat to us and grinned, “You girls do know how to hoe?”
Of course, we all nodded that we did know how to hoe cotton.  I remember being a little insulted that he would ask.    The city girl shuffled her feet and looked down at the ground.  That should have told us something.
Uncle Wilson started walking toward the cotton patch.  I wondered what the city girl thought about Uncle Wilson’s overalls and dusty old work boots.  His hat had sweat stains on it.  Uncle Wilson was a hard working man. 
 Uncle Wilson showed us where to start.   Each of us had our own row to hoe.  The field looked like a road map with cracks running here and there.  It hadn’t rained in awhile. I raised my hoe and began to dig away.  I can still hear the metal of that hoe hitting against the ground..  I knew that this was the first hoeing so I had to thin some of the cotton out, along with getting rid of the weeds.  I took it for granted that our city friend knew what she was doing.  The rows were long and started at the edge of Uncle Wilson’s yard and went all of the way out to the highway on the other side of his farm.  That was a long row to hoe.  Have you heard of the old saying, “long road to hoe?”  Well, I know where it came from.  I bet your botton dollar that someone hoeing in a cotton patch some where came up with “a long road to hoe”. 
By noon, I am not sure how many rows we had cleared.  Unfortunately, when I say cleared, I do mean cleared.  To say the least, Uncle Wilson was a little bit ticked off at us.  The city girl had hoed everything in site, weeds, cotton and all.  So, at twelve o’clock sharp, when we should have been finding a cool shade tree to eat our lunch under, we were unemployed.  Uncle Wilson fired all of us.
Our tails were dragging as we trudged along towards home.    None of us bothered to put our hoe over our shoulder.  We just let the hoe hit the gravel as we slithered along with our tails tucked between our legs.  Dragging along with full of despair, we all felt pretty darned bad..  We were not so anxious to get back.  I didn’t want to blame the city girl but I wondered what the heck she could have been thinking.  I didn’t realize that she did not know the difference between cotton and a weed.   It was hotter than a witches brew.  It was so hot that the tar in the pavement was bubbling.  Finally, Nancy broke the silence. “I don’t know why he fired me, I always thought I was a good hoer.”
We all sniggered.  Carol told her that didn’t have thing to do with us getting fired.  I don’t think she got it..
                Uncle Wilson later told my Granddaddy that he would have kept me on, but the rest of the girls were chopping all of his cotton down.  He felt bad about letting me stay and firing all of the other girls, so he just fired us all.  At least, that is the way he explained firing me to my Granddaddy. 
Uncle Wilson’s farm was across the road from an old cemetery.  Some of the graves were dated way back before the Civil War.  A few of the graves had stones piled on top.  Memma always said that the Indians buried their people like that to keep the animals out of the graves. There were lots of stories about that old cemetery.  People used to tease and say that one of the girls that hoed with us that day had an experience in that cemetery.   Supposedly, she went home one night and told her Mama that her back hurt.  Her Mama pulled up her shirt and replied, “Says here you died in 1949.”  It seems that some of the kids would frolic in the cemetery.  And, frolic is just a nice way of saying that they did the wild thing.   I think that was just a joke. 
Me and Carol used to go back to school after a summer of hoeing cotton and our classmates would ask where we got our lovely tan.  We would always say, “Panama City”.  Panama City is also known as the Redneck Riviera.  Must of the people from Alabama go there for vacation and weekend getaways.  We didn’t know of any other exotic places.  Florida sounded good to us. 
To get a really great tan, Carol and I would mix iodine and baby oil.  We would spread it all over our bodies, and lay out in my back yard on a towel.  Sometimes we would be butt naked if we thought no one was around.
                And, the girl from Chattanooga – my guess is that she never saw another cotton patch in her life.   But, to this day, my husband and I have been back to Alabama or driving down interstate in South Georgia and when we pass a cotton patch, I just get the itch to get out of the car and pick me some cotton.  I can tell you, when I am back in Alabama, I have done just that.  I cannot pass up that fluffy white stuff. 



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