One More Row To Go
An early life in the hot days of August on bad cotton land has kept me humble and my feet firmly planted.
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 a scorching sun with row after row of backbreaking 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, the Brazos bottom and Rio Grande valley cotton grows to shoulder high.
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 a dollar between us for a day’s work.
It took a bar of homemade 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. A number three wash tub filled with water warmed by the sun all day was waiting for us.
I always had last turn in the tub. On Saturday I got scrubbed all over with a brush.
Our day started early, as soon as the dew started to evaporate from the cotton. My 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 shuck 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 out in the evenings, we burned 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 noonday 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 boils weren’t pulled; all the cotton was picked, leaving fingertips often bloody and sore. That was long before cotton fields were defoliated. 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 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 burst out laughing.
The times I enjoyed the most were at lunchtime when everyone gathered in the shade of the mule-drawn cotton wagons. After getting our little something to eat, someone pulled out a harmonica, another a Jews-harp. Someone always had a pair of bones made from cow’s rib.
The men usually started the singing of old Negro spirituals, all in French. Few people knew English. The women and men joined in clapping hands 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 that sound and music duplicated.
The times were simple, the living hard. Blacks and whites worked side by side in complete harmony. A child 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 and poor blacks. There was no middle class in the cotton fields. Men and boys and little girls all went barefooted and the sun-baked sod was just as hot regardless of color.
A welcome 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 shirt. 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. However, i seldom showed it.
As I sit here today, with the air blowing right on me, recalling days when we didn’t have transportation and little else, I realize what a spoiled nation we have become and how little our offspring know about sacrifices. I’m thankful that life for them is better than the road mom and I and many others traveled through those hard years.
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. Mom is gone now; through picking. I’d pull that sack under that August sun tomorrow just to hear her say one more, “Keep pickin, only one more row to go.”