Early Years Down Life’s Highway
“Those old cotton field’s back home.”
The roots of my raising in low cotton and the knowledge of mankind has fast-forwarded to unbelievable heights in the span of one lifetime.
When I was a lad in the Cajun country in the late ‘30s and ‘40s, South Louisiana was no paradise. The heat and dust, along with the humidity, were almost unbearable. Dust so heavy it filled your nostrils, your body became covered with the mixture of dust and sweat. You could have raised cabbage in your belly button. Dirty work in the field was a way of life for Mom and me.
When August came around, it meant cotton-packing time. I’ve always believed the Lord didn’t intend for cotton to be planted in this part of his world. I’m thankful, however, that He chose to put the Cajun and the crawfish down in the same place. The cotton grew back, breaking short; a half bale to the acre was considered a bumper crop.
Mom and I would rise early; fix some kind of lunch that we brought to the field in a syrup bucket. I toted the gallon water jug as we made our way the mile or so down the dirt road to the cotton field. I would place the jug under cotton plants to keep it from boiling. In my mind, I can still taste that extra warm water. We would nurse that jug all day, wasting a little only to wash the dirt out of our eyes.
Mom wore a feed sack bonnet, long dress with long sleeve shirt. I wore a straw hat and went barefooted, but the rest of my body was covered. We put cotton leaves in our headgear to prevent heatstroke. The straps on the cotton picking sacks went around one shoulder and the neck. We dragged those long sacks behind us row after row until they were full. Then we would take them to the weigh-in man who marked down the weights and dumped the cotton in the wagon. When the wagon was full, he drove it to the mill, mule-drawn, and had it baled.
The backbreaking chore was mastered by some, but not Mom and me. The pay was 35 cents a hundred pounds, but we seldom went home with much more than 50 cents for picking from sunup to sundown. Even in the sorry cotton field, some people picked a couple of hundred pounds. I’ve seen some of the black women walk up and down those rows on their knees dragging the sack. At the end of the day, they earned maybe a dollar each. Sounds like a lot of work for little money, but a little money bought a lot back them. Two gallons of coal oil cost a dime, sugar a nickel; 15 loose eggs were 10 cents. Flour and corn meal cost just pennies.
We picked six days, so two or three dollars went a long way toward feeding us. Our clothes were made from feed and flour sacks, and my britches usually were hand-me-downs donated by someone. I recall wearing knickers that were popular in the 1920s, and this was 15, maybe 20 years later. They were new to me. I wore them proudly.We didn’t have electricity or any of today’s conveniences. We had a hand pump water well that we would prime and draw our water from. The sand settled in the bottom of the bucket, and we carefully scooped the water from the top for drinking and cooking. I still have that old pump and it’s one of my prized possessions. Bathing was a different matter. The water was drawn in a No. 3 wash tub. If it wasn’t a cloudy day, the sun would heat the water for bathing. We got our major baths on Saturday night. My grandmother, Availa, checked me out. If I didn’t pass inspection, she would nearly draw blood with a bristle brush from my neck, ankles and knuckles. We used homemade lye soap. It burned like hell when it got in the eyes.
I never was fond of cotton picking but I never complained. I was guilty of feeling sorry for myself at times, but I do recall some fun times in the cotton patch. The black pickers sang and told funny Cajun stories. Mostly what was important was Mom and I doing something together — the morning walk to the field. Just she and I are memories that live on. Sometimes when we helped gather the cotton at other farms three or four miles away, they would pick us up, along with a dozen or so others, in a mule-drawn flat wagon. Often we arrived back home at dark.
Cotton farms are no more in Vermillion Parish. Sugar cane fields have replaced cotton. Working the cane fields in October was my favorite farm job. Picking cotton was hard and dirty work, but I’d do it all over again just to share those times with Mom one more time. Until her death and before her Alzheimer’s sickness slipped past those memories, we would often relive those times.
A million incidents have occurred to me down life’s highway since those long-ago days. I’m not sure of the value I may have gained from living a life of poverty and hard work. I just know it was essential at the time, and you do in life what you have to do. I decided back then that I wanted to be the guy who drove the team of mules and wagon to the gin, bailed it and collected the money from the crop someone else had picked.
Life wasn’t easy for a lot of people during those depression years but for a single Mom, it was awfully difficult just to provide the bare necessities. Often she didn’t make it.
The flickering light from the coal oil lamp glowed brightly with love in our little one-room shotgun shack. From my pallet on the floor, I dreamed about tomorrow and a better life. I left the cotton fields as soon as I could get away, however the family values and the importance of pulling together that I learned have followed me all of my days down this trail.
Strange as it may sound, I feel blessed to have lived then. When summer comes around each year, my thoughts turn to a simpler time with no frills, when a little money that didn’t come easy meant so much. A time when crime and molestation didn’t exist and honoring one’s parents was a way of life.
Sometimes today I catch myself complaining about the heat and small difficulties of the day and repent by thanking the Lord for our many blessings that this easy life has led us to take for granted. I regret that we have become a shameless, lazy society that takes rather than gives. I marvel at how the world has changed. No one in my youth could have imagined it. I learned from those cotton days that even unpleasant things have a benefit. If the cotton crop was late, we got a lagniappe (bonus). We didn’t have to start school until all the cotton was gathered from the fields. So we should always look for something good from all the bad, as difficult as it seems.
Having traveled this long trail into the fourth quarter I’m most thankful for the many people I’ve known and for all the loyal friendships that I have been fortunate enough to have accumulated. So many have moved on to the Beyond and although I’m saddened, I recall each individual that meant so much to me Down Life’s Highway.