During my early childhood, the cotton on our farm as well as that of our neighbors was harvested by hand. I picked a little cotton, but not enough to pretend the hot work shaped my outlook on life. However, It was because of cotton that I got my first experience with buying something on credit.
I often went to the field with Daddy to weigh up. There might be a dozen or so folks there who had picked cotton all day. They pulled the fluffy cotton from the burrs and put it into their sacks, which they emptied onto burlap sheets at the end of the rows.
Robert Richardson always had more cotton than the others. His mother, Daisy, was part of the Lawson family. They had a reputation as strong, honest, hard-working people who were also blessed with jovial dispositions. I admired Robert for always picking more cotton than the others.
I’m sure there were days he was exhausted, but it didn’t show in his demeanor.
The cotton was weighed with a scale attached to a sturdy pole about 6 feet long. A man stood on each end of the pole, and Daddy hung one of the tied burlap sheets on the scale’s dangling hook. The men lifted the load off the ground, making sure it cleared. Daddy wrote down the weight beside the name on each person’s sheet.
My approach to picking cotton was quite unremarkable. Because of that history, I was given a short and well-worn sack for my expeditions to the field. It was more than adequate to accommodate my efforts, but that’s not how my young mind worked.
Joiner’s Store was just up the road from us. Uncle Emmett kept charge tickets for Daddy and most of the folks in the Third District community. He wrote down when something was bought, then people settled up with him weekly or maybe monthly. I had some understanding of the concept of credit at an early age. Twice a day, when we were working, we could charge a drink and a snack on Daddy’s bill. A Coke or a Pepsi with a Moon Pie was standard fare.
I’m not sure why I thought a new cotton sack would improve my picking skills, but it was like the call of the sirens that sailors hear on the ocean. I asked Uncle Emmett if I could charge it and pay him back when I picked some cotton. He didn’t try to talk to me out of it or tell me I’d have to ask Daddy. He sent me on my way with that new cotton sack and my own charge account.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out that Robert Richardson’s phenomenal weigh-ins had nothing to do with having a bigger or better-looking cotton sack. What I found out was that long sack got heavy when it was filled, and the highly welcomed breaks from the hot work came less often. It took longer to fill up the sack, so it was longer between needing to empty it on the sheet. It was longer between drinking water from the mason jar in the shade at the end of the field.
I paid for the sack but was glad to retire it when Daddy bought a one-row tractor-mounted picker. I’d had a good lesson about easy credit, a valuable long-term reminder to use caution when spending money I don’t have. But perhaps there was another lesson of even more value.
There’s an old saying, “All that glitters isn’t gold.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but Uncle Emmett helped me understand that adage. I believed the new sack would transform my picking to legendary status. As I look back, it seems quite foolish to think that way even for a kid.
But the thing that strikes me as even more foolish is how easy it is to ignore lessons already learned. It can happen to any of us. We see that new cotton sack and are smitten. We like the fresh scent and smooth texture of the material. If we only had that new cotton sack, we’re certain life would be better.
But I didn’t need a new cotton sack to pick like Robert Richardson. What I needed was a new attitude and more effort. That new sack was seldom filled to the top with cotton, but it was packed full of lessons that thankfully linger on.
— Neil Joiner