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From Tramp Stamps to Body Art

I’ve always enjoyed reading “My Turn” for the personal insights and common experiences shared by those of us associated with cotton. While cotton experiences serve as the warp of these personal stories, the weft is always enriched by individuals who color and give texture to the fabric of our individual lives.

Most often they are relatives who help shape our personalities, attitudes and world outlooks. This mentoring comes through lessons learned in the cotton fields as well across dinner tables, church pews and sometimes classrooms. A common thread is the shared love and use of cotton experiences as examples to prepare us for life changes.
The cotton industry has transformed significantly since my childhood. The open ground of our 40-acre peach farm was planted with cotton every year. Cotton was the cash crop that along with harvesting dryland grains paid the bills until the orchard came into production. Our cotton patch seems insignificant compared to the scale of farms I worked with over my career.

For me, scale didn’t matter. I walked the furrows with my father and rode the old planter while my great-uncle kept the fuzzy-seed flowing. Summer was a special time to enjoy cool well water flowing down the furrows, followed by playing in the cotton trailer during harvest.

Even though a small farmer, my father thought big. Seeing the end of hand-picking, he purchased one of the earliest two-row pickers in Madera County. The 1959 harvest was machine picked where years before a small crew of pickers took about a week to bring in the crop. My job of helping at the weighing scale and watching the pickers haul their full sacks up to dump into the trailer was over. So was the joy of performing acrobatics into a trailer of clean, hand-picked cotton.
If shared cotton experiences can shape our attitudes, then mine helped prepare me for my life-changing judgment of tattoos. Growing up in a small rural community, my first exposure to them was from seasonal hired help on the farm. The only adult I knew with a visible tattoo ran the gas station on the edge of town. A former Marine, he proudly sported the traditional insignia on his forearm.

From this limited exposure, it became a game for me to guess if a tattooed adult male was an ex-Marine or a sailor. My criterion to separate the two was sailors’ tattoos were usually of less respectable subjects. My family has a long history of Army service, so my bias toward other military branches runs deep. If a tattoo was not military related, the default category of “tramp” applied. Hence, my reference to tattoos as “tramp stamps” evolved. Until that is, my daughter, my princess, my buttercup came home with a tattoo on her arm.

Bruce Roberts’ daughter, Amelia, has adorned her arm with an “anatomically correct cotton fruiting branch” tattoo.

Upon close inspection, I noted her tattoo is an anatomically correct cotton fruiting branch. Her explanation for this choice is it reminds her of our shared times in cotton fields. We spent many happy hours walking through every stage of the season. From counting seedlings, or finding first flowers (her favorite), to assisting as a canopy height reference, she was a true helper.

When she was real little and the plants were over her head, she would call out, “Daddy I can’t see you!” and I would reply, “Just keep walking straight down the furrow, I’m here close.” These experiences helped shape her into an independent young woman, confident in her abilities to guide whitewater rivers or relocate to where her heart, career path and future furrows lead.

Her cotton body art has changed my attitude to where I’m considering getting one myself. As I prepare for life’s autumn, my tattoo, in plain script, will read: “If found, return to 5634 West River Bottom.”

Bruce Roberts
Professor, California State University, Fresno
Fresno, California
baroberts@mail.fresnostate.edu