I realize what I’m about to type will cause many people to recoil in disbelief, but I really miss working in tobacco.
Yes, it was hard work, but our crew had fun. Most of the mirth was generated by the wide generational gap, as the workers’ ages ranged from 14 to 70. It was the wrong decade, but it had all the makings of a great reality show. Then again, most reality shows feature ne’er-do-wells doing nothing, so a show about people from disparate backgrounds working together and enjoying each other’s company would’ve been a tough sell for television.
The veterans were my granddaddy (Parrott), aunts and uncles (Kay, Evelynn, Howard, Martha), my cousin (McKeever) a man named L.F. Moseley (brother of former Kinston Mayor Johnny Moseley), and Ronnie and Laura Sutton. The high school crowd included me, The Morgans (Kevin, Nicole and Tyrone), Scott Corbin, and for one day a scamp we’ll refer to as Rubin.
By the time this crew was assembled, we’d graduated from the wooden stick barns to the metal rack variety. With the barn transition also came a different harvester. Gone was the two-story, Silent Flame harvester with its series of chains, clips and any number of features that could maim a man. In came a smaller, one-story version with a series of pans, which was essentially a fan boat on wheels.
The harvester (and an attached trailer for racks of tobacco) was pulled with a tractor. At the end of each row, the croppers would jump up and help unhook the load of tobacco and then hook it to a truck – at least in theory.
In reality, a couple of us would actually put some effort into the trailer switch, while the others would just lay their hands on the trailer and grunt as if the contractions were mere seconds apart.
When someone was caught slacking off on the trailer transfer, they’d be pelted with dirt clogs throughout the next round of cropping. If you’ve led a sheltered existence and never felt the sting of a firm clod of dirt exploding upside your head, you’ve really missed out on something special.
After 20 minutes of taking direct hits to the tater from what are essentially loosely defined (yet well-thrown) bricks, the newbies would get with the program and help out with the trailers.
The aforementioned Rubin’s brief time with us was rather tumultuous. At the end of cropping his first row, he noticed his arm was covered in tobacco gum and thought he’d contracted leprosy. He’d been advised to wear an old, thin long-sleeved shirt to keep the gum off his arm, but instead showed up wearing a (new) Panama Jack tank top. By 10 a.m. that first day, Panama Jack looked more like Lumbago Larry.
For years I’d been a cropper, but this summer in question I’d graduated to the barn. I was 16, and I hung the tobacco with a guy named Peter (22), and my Uncle Howard who was somewhere in his 60s.
One day Peter started complaining that his knee was stiff, so Uncle Howard told him to rub some WD-40 on it. I thought Howard was goofing on Peter, but having a hunch that a few decades later I’d have a column to write, I stood mute and observed.
Uncle Howard was a character and could keep a straight face while relaying the most absurd scenarios, but he really seemed serious about WD-40 being a remedy for knee pain. A few days later, Peter gave in and gommed his knee up good with WD-40 and rubbed it in.
I didn’t know whether I should tackle Peter to save his life or pay attention so my testimony at the trial would be accurate. Was I was witnessing some sort of bizarre performance art, a misdemeanor or a medical miracle?
Later that night I heard a siren off in the distance. For all I knew, it could have been an ambulance rushing Peter to the hospital or possibly the sheriff’s department closing in on Uncle Howard. I’m not proud of it, but my main concern was whether or not I’d have to hang the whole barn by myself the following day.
The next morning as the truck came around to pick us all up, I was shocked to see Peter alive and well, seemingly in perfect health. According to Peter, Howard’s WD-40 cure worked.
A few weeks later my grandma treated a large cut on the palm of my hand with turpentine, which also worked. I guess if you have any sort of secondary ailment, skip the pharmacy and head to the hardware store. Does True Value accept Blue Cross?
My favorite moment in a tobacco field involves a lighthearted felony. Tyrone Morgan – who is now a big cheese with the Town of La Grange – was a longtime member of our crew. Like all of us, he hated the early morning dew on the tobacco that soaked everyone – especially the croppers. To combat this, many of us would wear a raincoat or plastic poncho for the first hour or so until the dew evaporated. Tyrone, however, had an entire rain suit that looked like it had been developed by NASA.
This rain suit became quite the security blanket for Tyrone. We’d all be piled in the back of a truck, hanging on for dear life while Tyrone would be feverishly trying to get this rain suit on before we get to the field. On more than one occasion, the guy driving the truck would pump the brakes in an attempt to send Tyrone flying through the air while he was preoccupied with his rain/spacesuit.
Later, when our crew merged with Sonny Sutton’s crew, the hijinks increased. When my elders were running the show, usually the shenanigans had to take place on the sly. Sonny, on the other hand, loved to cut up nearly as much as we did. This is a guy who placed the top half of an old tractor hull way back in a field so people driving by would think an entire tractor had sunk several feet into the ground. All that was sticking out of the ground was the stack muffler and part of a tire.
It was during this time that a plan was hatched to hide Tyrone’s rain suit. Although it’s never been proven in a court of law, I’ve been blamed for the plan for years. I’ll never admit to it, but I’ll also never admit that I didn’t do it.
We waited for the perfect day. It had rained the night before, so the tobacco would be extra wet. Like clockwork, Tyrone reached behind the seat of Sonny’s truck for his rain suit, only to find a ransom note for his rain suit. He hadn’t panicked yet, but he looked right at me and started laughing.
“This is payback for me getting everyone to call you Kramer, right?” Tyrone said. “Alright, you got me!”
“I don’t have your rain suit,” I said. “You got everyone to yell out ‘NORM!’ when McKeever got out of the truck the other day; why don’t you question him.”
I tried to make McKeever the patsy in this scenario, but he wouldn’t have it.
“You need to go talk to Kramer,” McKeever said.
Tyrone made the rounds, begging, pleading and apologizing for every joke he’d ever made. Eventually, someone took pity on him and loaned him a raincoat, but he was still missing the pants. When the tractor fired up it was time to go to work. By this point, Tyrone was pleading like Otis Redding at Monterey.
“C’mon y’all, please! Where are my pants?” he yelled as that first elephant-ear-sized, wet leaf of tobacco drenched him. “WHERE ARE MY PANTS!? THIS TOBACCO WATER IS COLD!!!”
Around 10 a.m. – when everything had dried off – his rain pants appeared at the end of a row, folded neatly as if they’d just been picked up from the cleaners. To his credit, Tyrone busted out laughing as soon as he saw them. He didn’t think it was funny, however, when the pants mysteriously moved away when he tried to pick them up. It’s amazing what can be done with a spool of fishing line and a dog that likes to chase cars.
The poor guy chased those pants through two acres of corn before finally catching up to them.
Today I live next to the very field where Tyrone’s pants went missing 30 years ago. Sometimes late at night, when the wind is still, you can still hear Tyrone’s cries of “WHERE ARE MY PANTS!!!” echoing through the woods.
I never found out if the WD-40 cure was real or not. Then again, sometimes questions are better than answers.
Jon Dawson’s books available at http://www.JonDawson.com.