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. 

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