Wednesday, October 10, 2018

When I Picked Cotton – About 70 Years Ago

The ole cotton fields back home . . . well, almost. Just down the road from my house, anyway, in this picture. But I did pick cotton. Once. Not quite ten years old and a city girl, I was envious that my cousins slung interesting cotton bags across their chests every morning and headed out to the fields to make some money. This was in the cotton-pickin' days in Oneonta, Alabama, in the late forties, when schools were on cotton-pickin' time--closed so most kids could contribute to their families' major source of income. My four cousins were considered responsible enough to work in the fields, but my uncle said I was too citified. What he meant, I thought, was that I just couldn't handle the job. One day, I wanted to go with them. I begged and pleaded and even pouted a little for the privilege of spending the day in such an adventure. Finally, he relented and handed me the bag, a long off-white sack with a wide strap. He also found some overalls and a long-sleeved shirt that almost fit and put a large straw hat on my head. (Where was my cellphone!) I'm now pretty sure that my beloved cousins were snickering behind my back at their visitor’s naivete, but I was too excited to notice. The boys hitched Ole Joe to the wagon and we climbed in for the brief journey to the field, with large woven baskets, water bucket, tin water dipper, and sandwiches. After a brief tutoring session, I eagerly set out to prove that I was worthy.

I quickly learned that a soft white cotton ball grew from a vicious cotton burr with sharp spurs that deliberately pricked fingers, with special awards for blood. I also learned about sawbriars and cockleburs. Sawbriars are cruel vines that grow in cotton fields and sprout tiny sharp teeth and intend to saw your arms off, even through a long-sleeved shirt, and cockleburs are sadistic plants that produce evil creatures that collect on your clothing in an attempt to scratch their way into any exposed skin. I soon began to feel their sharp spikes under my shirt. I also learned that a straw hat doesn't protect your skin from the boiling water dripping down your chest and that the field uniform does not in any way protect you from the savage heat or the fiendish insects that discover your neck. The gnats’ hotels in my eyes made me half-blind, and of course I rubbed two pounds of dirt on my wet face. I was a sweating mess. After dipping more than my share from the bucket, I soon needed to pee. Or was that just shorthand for a short walk over to the trees to stand panting in the shade? My cotton sack, intentionally long enough to be dragged across the dirt, was woefully thin, almost weightless, but it pulled me off balance. And my callous country cousins were singing! I'm sure now that they were laughing at me.

And my uncle thought I couldn't do it. Hmm. Well, he was right. But they had to pick cotton. And I didn't. I slowly walked the long distance back to the house, somewhat dejected, but looking forward to a long, comforting soak in the tub. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Snipe Hunt

Backstory of the Idiom

A snipe is a slender-billed bird of the sandpiper family. Its coloring makes it well-camouflaged in marshy areas. A snipe is so difficult to catch or shoot that sniper refers to someone skilled enough to shoot one.

In a snipe hunt, experienced people make fun of gullible newcomers by giving them an impossible task. A snipe hunt usually takes place within a specific work environment or social group; the task is part of a tradition, similar to hazing.

The phrase snipe hunt originates from a practical joke within a camping context. Inexperienced campers are encouraged (rewards or threats) to catch a snipe, which moves around in the dark from tree to tree. A snipe can be a bird or an animal, depending on who explains the rules. The dupes are given sacks and told the ways to attract a snipe, such as banging rocks together or whistling a specific way, while the other hunters push the snipe toward them. Of course, after getting the greenhorns lost in the woods, the old-timers just go back to the campfire and wait to see how long it takes the newbies to give up and show up.

Meaning of snipe hunt: a futile search or endeavor

I have personal ownership of this idiom. When I moved to a new Girl Scout troop in the sixth grade, the five greenhorns in the group were included in the invitation to a weekend camping trip at a farm in Gold Hill, just outside Auburn. With brand-new sleeping bags on our shoulders, we emerged from family cars feeling both adventurous and apprehensive. None of us had ever slept outside. Overnight. In the dark. But soon we were having fun cooking over a large campfire, with the help of our leader, her husband, and her son. We sang songs and told stories and learned about constellations and petted the two farm dogs.

Then the husband announced that we were going on a snipe hunt. The older girls cheered and talked about how much fun we were going to have. But this time, the new girls would have the most fun because we could catch a snipe, a harmless small animal that traveled in small packs from tree to tree, only in the dark. The son told us that snipes are attracted by a certain kind of noise, something like whistling. When a snipe hears the right sound, it stops to listen. Each of us was given a feed sack, and the older girls demonstrated how to whistle up a snipe. Our leader announced that the girl who caught the snipe would get a great prize, but we were encouraged to help each other. Because that’s what good Girl Scouts do. And the older girls generously said they would try to drive the snipes toward us.

Off we went, away from the fire and the cleared area, into the woods, led by the lanterns of the husband and the son and the barking of the dogs. Somehow, the lanterns disappeared, and we couldn’t hear the dogs. In the increasing darkness of the woods we suddenly noticed that only the five rookies were left. We giggled with semi-fear and tried to tell jokes to keep from freaking out. We walked for what was surely nine or ten hours, whistling. Not for a snipe. Bagging a snipe wasn’t on our minds. I don’t remember how we managed to get back to the campfire, but we were too tired to enjoy the laughter that greeted us. I had no problem sleeping on the ground that night. And I had learned what a snipe isn’t.

My Cousin Billy's Joke

If I close my eyes, I can almost   .    .    .

hear the sounds of Grandmama's switch red-striping Billy's legs. Ten-year-old me chortled, but restrained myself from peering around the corner of the back porch. Grandmama believed that punishment should be private. But I wanted to see him suffer. Lord knows I was suffering. I ran my tongue tentatively around my mouth, wincing as blister met blister. 

Jimmy, sitting listlessly on the porch steps, wiped his nose on his sleeve and sniffled; his mouth was blistered too. Sprawled on the black wicker swing, her head pillowed on her arm, Betty tried to cry herself to sleep.  Bobby noisily ate the cold biscuits and slurped the buttermilk that Grandmama said would ease the burning.

My cousins were totally absorbed with the pain in their own bodies--I was much more interested in Billy's pain, in Billy's punishment. Did the switching hurt? Bad? Would he have to do our chores? All of them? For how long? Smiling at the steady sounds of switch justice, I could hear Billy's bare feet dancing as he jumped up and down on the back porch in rhythmic thuds, trying to avoid the switch, yet not daring to move out of Grandmama's reach.

Maybe next time he'd think twice before he set me up--talking about how good those elephant ears tasted! Who would've thought that those pretty green leaves could raise such blisters! Maybe next visit I wouldn't be dumb enough to fall for another one of his practical jokes.
If I close my eyes, I can almost   .    .    .

hear the sounds of Mama's switch red-striping my legs and the rhythmic thudding of my feet dancing up and down on the kitchen floor. Why was that dumb little kid across the street stupid enough to believe me when I told him about those good-tasting elephant ears?