Picking time revisited

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I occasionally get letters from readers. At times what they write is better than what I wrote, but I don’t tell them that.  Wouldn’t want to lose this gig.
Usually they just want to tell me that what I wrote reminded them of something that happened to them. Usually they thank me.  Those letters make me smile.
I also get letters from folks who are not happy, and it apparently makes them feel better to  tell me so.  There was the sweet lady who jumped all over me because she thought I was making fun of Vacation Bible School.  Another took me to task for refusing to get a hearing aid.  She made a good point, but I still don’t have one.
And there was the guy from PETA who did not like my description of how my Grandmother executed a chicken and prepared it for Sunday dinner.  After singing the praises of his feathered friends, he suggested I become a vegetarian.  I replied with a suggestion of my own.
So it was with a sense of relief, and pleasure, that I read the responses to my column on “Picking Time.”
As I read them, I realized how many folks who today seem far removed from cotton and cotton picking, have a history that includes both.
Now I can understand the fascination of a “formerly Northern” friend who recalled “driving through the cotton fields on our way to Florida when I was little.”  Seeing “the cotton sacks the pickers wore, the snowy fields, the women and children picking” may have set her on a course that today has made her more southern than a lot of folks born and reared here.
Another old friend recalled pickers who “sang their hearts out” while they worked, and reflected on how since then he has “paid to see entertainment that was not half as good.”
A couple of writers came from families that once raised cotton, turned to soybeans or cattle, and are back in the cotton raising business again.  One even wrote of having a “cotton pickin’ birthday party,” an event that was not repeated the next year.  Up in Northwest Georgia where there has not been much cotton until recently, fields of white are a new experience for many. Now families bring their children out to be photographed between the rows.
For many of my generation cotton picking was something of a rite of passage, as well as a way to earn a little, a very little, extra money.
Dragging cotton sacks that had been cut down to their size, they went into the field for an experience that would teach them, as a childhood friend told me, to “seek other ways to earn income as I grew older.” He and his contemporaries also remember the heat, the bending, and the difficulty of picking the cotton without getting the points of the open boll under your fingernails.  Bloody hands were an occupational hazard for neophyte pickers.
Occasionally picking time presented a particular problem for middle class white folks who otherwise would have had little if any association with cotton.  One writer told of overhearing his Mother and her bridge club friends complaining that their maids became “unreliable” when there was cotton to be picked.  It seems that the maids could earn more in the fields than they could cleaning houses. So into the fields they went, and the houses went uncleaned until picking was done.
Since pickers were paid around a penny a pound, you can get an idea how little maids earned back in the days when cotton was still hand picked.
A couple of folks wrote about measuring cotton, like Daddy and I did.  A lady of my acquaintance told me that her boyfriend got money from measuring to buy her engagement ring. (I can tell you that it was money well spent.  I know husband and wife, and he got the best of the bargain.)
Apart from the measuring, my cotton experiences were similar to these recollections.  For reasons he never fully explained, Daddy decided I could not grow up to southern manhood without picking cotton and plowing a mule.  So I did both. Once. I was a poor picker, and as I recall, the mule plowed me. As it did, I saw college in my future.
Many years later, home for a visit, Daddy and I decided to ride about a bit and look for farms we had measured.  We found where the man and his mule once lived.  The house was gone, replaced by a single-wide trailer that had already seen better days.  The barn had caved in on itself.  The once proud cotton patch was a tangle of brambles and locust trees.
Neither Daddy nor I could recall the man’s name. But I remember the mule’s. It was Betty.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

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