Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cotton Pickin' Wasn't For Me

Jilda and I attended the funeral of my first cousin, Glenn Parker last week in Huntsville. As we drove on I-565 I noticed fields of cotton just off the Interstate, the boles bursting open like popcorn. 
It looked as if a light snow had fallen. 
I have some experience in the field of cotton (pun intended). It only took one day for me to realize that I wasn't meant to be a cotton picker.
The only job I liked less was catching chickens in those huge chicken houses, but that's another story.
I was about 13 when mama hooked me up with Big John Watson (no relation) to spend an autumn day dragging a canvas sack, trying to fill it with something that weighed just slightly more than a sneeze on a cool morning.
The temperature was in the 50s as I climbed in the bed of the cotton-picking truck (I'm loving these puns).
I tossed my sack lunch in the back, found me a spot, and then slapped the side of the truck to signal Big John that I was situated. He eased out on the clutch and we wobbled down the red-rock road toward the fields.
I immediately wished I had worn a jacket, and pulled my flannel shirt up around my ears to block the wind. The morning seemed a lot colder in the back of that open truck.
By the time we rolled through Sumiton, there were several folks in the bed of the truck, but Big John made one last stop to pick up another picker. 
This lady looked as old as a Greek ruin, but now that I think back, she was probably younger than I am now.
She wore a long dress to her ankles, a sun bonnet, and a sweater. Apparently she had seniority, because she rode in the cab.
Once we reached the fields, Big John handed out the pickin' sacks. My sack was a six-foot canvas sack that was big enough to put a full grown man in if you needed to. 
The sack the older lady got was a nine foot sack. I wasn't sure why she got the bigger sack, but after an hour or so, I understood.
She was thin as a fencepost with long spider-like fingers that wrapped easily around the cotton boles. She moved quickly down the middles, her hands almost a blur, picking two rows at a time. 
I tried to keep up, but my inexperienced hands felt like I was wearing baseball gloves. I barely managed to get the cotton from one row. 
When the sun came up, the morning warmed up quickly. I pulled off my flannel shirt, tied it around my waist by the sleeves, and worked in my cotton T-shirt. 
Later in the morning, she had picked to the end of the field and had started back toward me. When we met, she paused for a moment and stood up straight to stretch her back and wiped her brow with a handkerchief. 
Her bag was almost full, and mine wasn't even half way. I told her that she sure did pick fast. 
"It's best to pick faster in the morning while the dew is on the bole" she said, "because it weighs more."
At that she winked as if she'd shared a valuable piece of information with me, and then she got back to her work. 
I upped the pace and filled my sack before the sun dried the dew off the boles.
We knocked off around 3 p.m. and I had picked the grand total of 101 pounds. At 3 cents a pound, I took home the grand total of $3.03. 
I don't remember exactly how much the lady picked, but I remember being a little embarrassed at my performance when measured against hers.
I will say that I've never worked harder, or been more proud of a payday in my life.
Trying different kinds of work was important to me. It gave me a chance to decide what I wanted to do with my life. 
Bad jobs were as valuable as good ones in those days, because they gave me incentive to work harder in school so that I could find a good job -- one that paid well even when the dew wasn't on the bole.


  1. My mom, my sister and I used to pick blackberries and raspberries for local farmers. Mom bought the berries at a discount because she picked them. We girls got paid for piking. I think it was a nickle a quart.

    It sure smacks you in the face with how hard it would be to make a living doing that work.

  2. I don't believe picking cotton is anything I'd like to do. I do remember baling hay for farmers when I was a kid though.

  3. My brother, his father-in-law and I would go out in the evening to a local golf course and pick worms. We got a penny each at a bait store. A back-breaking way to supplement one's income!

  4. I helped pick cotton on a farm in SC when I was a kid. It was my first real experience with manual labor. The same day I was caring for 300 coon hounds and 200 hogs that were stuck in their pens when the conveyor for the feed was left running. Even now when I go south, I can't seem to escape those smells. (CR)

  5. Nice post. I loved the cotton puns throughout but the old lady really made the story. Makes me appreciate a good denim shirt!

  6. I think everyone needs some experience at crappy jobs to appreciate the good ones.


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