Recalling the times and the cotton fields
An early life in the hot days of August on bad cotton land has kept my feet firmly planted.
Roy Dunn – Down Life’s Highway
Columnist For The Record
The roots of my raising are never too far away. The hot summers of long ago are burned in my memory. The month of August meant long days under the sun with row after row of back breaking cotton plants.
I don’t believe South Louisiana land was ever meant to raise cotton on–sugar cane and rice, but not cotton.
In the Delta country and the Brazos bottom, cotton grows to shoulder height, but cotton in Cajun country didn’t grow much past the knees. That meant as a boy I would drag a long cotton sack all day bent over, my mom on one row and me the next. Together we never picked enough to make much money. We would pool our pickings at the end of the day at the weigh-in. Cotton pickers made 30 cents a hundred pounds and a nickel bonus for anything over each hundred. If the cotton produced a half-bale to the acre, it was a bumper crop so it was hard picking for mom and me. We seldom made more than a dollar between us for a day’s work.
It took a bar of lye soap to wash away the dust that had mixed with the all-day sweat that the sun had baked into a hard crust on our feet, necks, arms, ears and all exposed parts. We washed in a number three wash tub filled with water warmed by the sun. I always had last run in the tub. On Saturday, I got scrubbed with a brush.
Our day started early as soon as the dew started to evaporate from the cotton. Our nights, in the little shack house, were spent lying on a corn shuck pallet. The body was so tired that it didn’t know corn shucks from a feather mattress.
The little building with no utilities and little ventilation was like an oven under the August sun. We stayed outdoors until the house was cool enough to be able to sleep. While sitting outdoors, we burnt anything that would smoke the mosquitoes away
As I look back on those days as a kid, I find many blessings, togetherness being the most important. I would rise shortly after 4 a.m., walk a quarter-mile to the Boudoin place and milk two cows, let the calves get their portion and walk back for whatever we could scare up for breakfast. I received a bucket of milk a week for the morning milking. Mom fixed us a meal that we carried in a syrup bucket for the noon day meal in the field, sometimes rice and gravy and other times rice and syrup.
We brought a jug of water that we placed under a cotton plant to keep it cool. At least it prevented the water from nearly boiling. Cotton leaves, while they were damp, would be placed inside our straw hats to prevent a heat stroke. Cotton bolls weren’t pulled; all the cotton was picked leaving finger tips often bloody and sore. That was long before cotton fields were defoliated. We fought our way around all the leaves to get to the cotton. When I fell behind, mom would encourage me. Towards the end of the day she would say, “One more row to go.”
Some fond memories were the singing and harmonizing of the black pickers. One would start singing way off in the field and one by one others joined in until the field was filled with the sound of the Negro workers. Sad songs, glad songs and funny riddle songs that caused everyone to bust out laughing.
The times I enjoyed the most were at lunch time when everyone gathered in the shade of the mule-drawn cotton wagons. After getting our little something to eat, someone would pull out a harmonica, another a Jews-harp and someone always had a pair of bones made from cow ribs. The men usually started the singing of old Negro spirituals, all in French. Few people knew English. The women joined in while some kept time on their syrup buckets. The music still lives in my mind today. I’ve never in all the years ever heard the sound and music duplicated.
The times were simple, the living hard. Blacks and Whites worked side by side in complete harmony. The children of the field didn’t notice color. They were just glad that other youngsters were around. Even though we attended segregated schools and our cultures and backgrounds were a little different, we all shared one thing, poverty, poor Whites, poor Blacks. There was no middle-class in the cotton fields. Men, boys, women and little girls, all went barefooted and that sun baked sod was just as hot regardless of color.
A welcomed time was the coming of September, when the last field was picked and my grandmother had made me some new feed sack shirts that I wore proudly as school began for another season. The girls wore their flowered sack dresses while the boys often wore the same pattern shirts. Our under shorts were made from flour sacks, a softer material.
Everyone worked and had chores after school. I don’t recall anyone complaining even though I do recall feeling sorry for myself at times but seldom showed it.
As I sit here today with the air blowing right on me, recalling days when we had no transportation or little else, I realize what a spoiled nation we have become and how little our offspring know about sacrifice. With the coming of the digital age, internet, smart phones etc. they live an entirely different life.
I’m thankful that life for them is better than the road mom and I and many others traveled through those many years ago but I don’t regret a minute of those times. In my mind, I’m never too far from home, a broken home with a single mom. I’d go through it all again if I could bring back the joy we shared between the tears.
I lost mom in 2005 but the memories we shared will always be with me. She was a special lady that was dearly loved. My thoughts, when things get tough, are mom’s words to me long ago. “Hang in there son, one more row to go.”