Growing up on a small West Tennessee cotton farm, I remember many good and bad experiences. I was born and raised in one of those big white frame two-story houses with my brother and me sleeping upstairs.
In the summertime, it was usually so hot that we slept or tried to sleep with just the bare minimum of clothes on and all the windows open. Since our bed was next to a window, along about daybreak it would cool off enough to finally get some comfortable sleep.
However, about the time when things were getting halfway pleasant, I can still remember being rudely awakened in the cool morning breeze by the horrible sound of my father standing below the window next to our bed sharpening my hoe to be used that day to chop cotton. What a greeting for the new day! It had to be the worst sound, ever.
Since my brother was older, he got to drive the Oliver 70 tractor, and before that, during the war years, he drove the steel wheel John Deere B. But me being the younger, I ended up having to plow with the mule or join the other “hands” chopping cotton. Boy, was I glad when my brother finally went to college, and I was promoted to tractor driving.
After I was up and going for the day, chopping cotton was not the worst job in the world for me. Picking cotton held that distinction, and I cannot think of any situation or condition that would alter my feelings about it. Despite the hot sun and the hot ground on my bare feet, chopping cotton was bearable. At least I thought so at the time.
In the field with the other hands chopping cotton was the main place I heard the local gossip and news. I was entertained with all kinds of jokes and stories that I otherwise never would have heard under most any circumstance and where I received a lot of my “extracurricular” education.
Each day, my father would go into town and get hands, both men and women — but mainly women — to chop cotton for the day. The workers usually stayed together in the field and seemed to chop with such ease and accuracy with a rhythm of its own as they strolled down the row. With one easy quick lick of the hoe, they cut out the perfect spacing to thin the plants in the solid stand of cotton and chopped the grass or weeds that grew around the saved plants.
Occasionally, they would stop and lean on their hoe handles to finish a sentence in a conversation or a joke punch line. In watching them, it really didn’t seem like they were doing much hard work at all.
Whereas, with me, no field work was easy. It was a constant struggle to keep up with the other workers. However, that was most vital for me to do to reap the benefits of hearing the news and gossip, being entertained by their jokes and stories, and finding out what each had planned for the coming weekend.
I also learned what each one had “accomplished” either on Saturday night or at church on Sunday of the previous weekend. Hearing about Saturday nights was much better and more educational than hearing what happened at Sunday church.
So growing up working in the cotton fields had its unpleasant moments but also some good times. Being awakened in the morning by my father sharpening my hoe to chop cotton that day was not one of the good experiences. However, hearing about Saturday nights from the field hands almost made it worthwhile.
Some people seem to long for the “good old times” in whatever they are currently doing. However, my father always said, “The people who say that must not have grown up in the place and time I did, because the present times are my good old times.”
So be it for those cotton experiences from back when. Both good and bad times are fun to remember and talk about. But with modern equipment, chemicals and technology in present-day cotton production, those “good old days of the past” are best to remain just that — in the past.
— Lee Todd