We were in South Carolina, west of Savannah, for nearly two months while my father checked coordinates on a topo mapping job he’d finished earlier that year. When he was done, we headed down to Georgia, Dad’s home state. He was assigned, with his team, to map the Okeefenokee swamp on airboats.
In July of 1965, I was twelve years old. We moved into a rental home that was better than any house we’d ever lived in—a brick ranch house. It had huge glass doors at the north side. Mama called that “The Florida Room” for some reason. Dad’s big radio went into his study. He told us we could dance in there if we made sure not to scuff up the floors.
“Sock feet only,” he instructed.
My sister and I shared a bedroom with two beds! We’d had to share a bed in all our other homes. We didn’t mind sharing but it drove Dad crazy, with us giggling and laughing late into the night. Separate beds might keep us quiet, our parents hoped. Wrong they were!
After exploring our new three acres, which included a pier that pushed into the swamp, we three kids decided to walk up and down the main road. It led to Waycross if you went east and Hoboken if you went west. We were in the countryside with few homes nearby.
Across the street from our house, though, was a big old white clapboard farmhouse. A large sized woman came walking across the road as we were standing there trying to decide on what to do next. She was carrying a pie. Bob, Kathi and I waved and said “Hi.”
“Well, hey there, young’uns. I made ya’ll new folks a pie.” She pulled back the white and red checkered towel and we inhaled the delicious scent of apples and cinammon.
“I put up apples so I can make pie year-round.”
We followed her to our house, opened the door and yelled, “Mom! Pie!”
Mom always had a pot of coffee going, so she and Mrs. Anderson sat down with pie and coffee. We kids got glasses full of milk and slices of hot pie.
“I’m fixin’ to harvest me some tobacco, so ya’ll will see a number of trucks and cars pull in to my place soon. Don’t let that worry you none.”
I had no idea why we should worry about a bunch of cars and trucks.
In South Carolina, I had begged a neighbor girl to let me pick cotton on her parents’ farm. She’d told me, “Lordie Dixie, you don’t want to do that! Cotton thorns hurt real bad.”
But I insisted, so we went out into the field and I did quick, slim fingered picking, tearing the bolls out of four thorns on each head for about twenty minutes. Yes, she was right. My fingers were bleeding after just a short while picking. But I yearned to experience real life wherever we moved, which meant shoveling snow in Wyoming, rafting on the Mississippi and now, tobacco!
“Can I go pick tobacco on your farm?” I asked.
“Honey, you are just a little ol’ thing. It takes hard work pickin’ tobacco.”
“Please, please!” I begged, hands clutched together.
“Gosh almighty, Dixie, you’ll get a sunburn.” Mom was right. My pale skin always blister-burned if I was out in the sun too long.
“I’ll wear long sleeves, jeans and a hat!” I promised.
“Now why in the world would you want to do that dog-hard work?” Mrs. Anderson was truly mystified. “People generally do this just to pay their rent.”
“I’ll take half pay!”
“My goodness,” our new neighbor had a hearty laugh. “If your Mama and Daddy say it’s all right, you can come over tomorrow morning and I’ll get someone to teach you how to hand tobacco. It’s easier than pickin’. Fifty cents an hour is half pay.”
“YAY!” I shouted, dancing around the dining room.
“Get these dishes washed and when your father comes home, you ask him if you can work on the farm.”
The minute Dad walked through the door that night, I rushed up to him,
“Daddy, can I please work on Mrs. Anderson’s farm tomorrow!?”
“Jesus Christ, we just barely got moved in here. How did you find out about that job?”
“She came over. With Pie! And she was talking about harvesting her tobacco. She said I could learn to hand it.”
“You’ll get sticky mess all over your hands. Tobacco is a hard crop. Do you think you’re a slave or what?”
“No!! I just want to see what it’s like.”
“If you agree to do this, you can’t quit in midstream. If it’s hard, you’ll just have to tough it out.”
I thought about my bleeding fingers from not even an hour of picking cotton. But tobacco didn’t have thorns. “I can do it!” My natural born mania had kicked in. All I could think about was joining in the harvesting work.
The next morning, I jumped out of bed when I heard Dad get up just before dawn. I rushed into the kitchen, guzzled down a glass of milk and sat at the table to eat eggs, bacon, toast and jam. I stayed silent. Dad hated talk at the breakfast table. He rattled the newspaper as he ate. A photo of Mars on the front page was amazing. I was all excited about the space race. But I had work to do. So I rushed through brushing my teeth and then raced out the front door and across the road, up to Mrs. Anderson’s.
There were five pick-up trucks, old ones, in the driveway. Some cars, too. 1940s Fords and Chevys. Big enough to live in. I went up onto the porch, where people were gathered, sitting on the steps, awaiting Mrs. Anderson’s instructions.
She came out her front door, in a flowered dress, aproned and wearing a big straw hat like mine.
“Welcome, folks. I hope ya’ll had a good breakfast. Your dinner will be served at noon. I’ll clang the skillet. Jason here is your boss.” She nodded toward a tall, heavily muscled black man. He nodded back. “We’ve got a new worker here. Dixie, stand on up.”
I stood. There was muffled laughter from all the black and white grown-up workers.
“Tell them what you want to do.”
“Well, everywhere we go–we move around a lot. Anyway, I just want to learn about ya’lls crops. I want to pick tobacco.” I picked up the lingo wherever we went. It didn’t help to talk Yankee when you were Down South. So I used the proper term: “ya’ll.”
Loud laughter from all the workers.
A heavily muscled, dark skinned man took off his hat and said,
“Miss Dixie, you shore do Not want to be pickin’ no cotton. I’d be surprised and shocked if you made it to noon even just handin’ them leaves.”
I frowned. “OK, I’ll learn to hand. But I will make it way past noon!”
More laughter and people slapping their hats on their knees.
“Jason, show Dixie how to do handin’. We’ll see how she does. And Jason, set this here radio to whatever music it is ya’ll like.
My new boss turned the dial until “What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am)” came on. He turned up the volume and pointed to me. He led the way over to a weathered, wooden shed.
“So this here’s her dryin’ shed. Once there’s a bushel o’ leaves, we start to handin’.
He went to the field, which was only a few feet away from the shed, and picked three different-sized leaves off a tobacco plant. The stems dripped a white juice down over his deeply dark hands.
By now, the song was “Every Little Bit Hurts” by Brenda Holloway. I hoped it wouldn’t hurt to hand tobacco.
“Watch me close now, child.” He stood at the long table and laid down a big leaf. On top of that, a middle sized leaf, slightly tilted to the left. Over that, he lay a small leaf, tilted to the right. He held the bunch by the stems and handed it to a size large woman.
She took it and quickly wrapped twine around the stems. She waited for a few more hands, then tied them all together. She handed that bigger bunch to the guy standing on her right. He tied the end of the string onto a pole. It was an assembly line.
It didn’t take long before the field workers had big bushels full of leaves, sorted by size, filled up at the far end of the work table.
Nervously, I selected a big, then medium, then small sized leaf, laying them neatly on top of each other just like Jason had done. I handed them to Martha.
“Perfect, little girl,” said Martha.
We all kept going, working in the sweltering heat of a July Georgia day. Time passed quickly as we all toiled together. The radio kept us moving to the beat of songs I’d never heard until that day. I became a big fan of soul music while working on Mrs. Anderson’s tobacco farm.
Suddenly, the skillet was clanging. Dinner already!
Jason took off his hat and shouted, “This little girl lasted all th’ way to Noon.”
He did a twirling dance in the dry dirt. Miss Rosie joined him, laughing. I stuck out my elbows and did a stiff few moves myself.
“Oh, Lordie. She doin’ th’ chicken dance,” Rosie laughed her head off.
We all moved as one toward the big house. Mrs. Anderson and her lady friends had a huge meal prepared, all laid out on boards placed over sawhorses, with clean table cloths over the board. It was just like Uncle Edward always set up for my great-aunt Miss Tempie’s meals.
There were field peas with collard greens, cooked to soft perfection. Huge hunks of corn pone slathered in butter. Ham and fried chicken, take your pick or take both said Jason, laughing. To drink, pitchers full of iced sweet tea. And pie for dessert.
Jason stood at one end of the biggest table. “Lord, we thank thee for this thy bounty. In Christ Name Amen.” And we all said amen.
“That little Yankee girl out worked you, Mr. Daniel.” Rosie aimed her fork at a skin and bones old white guy.
“Deed she did. I reck’” He shook his head while shoveling collards into his puckered mouth.
“I am not a Yankee! Daddy was born in Damascus.”
“She got you, Rosie. Damascus. Where your Mama from?”
“Lord in Heaven, how they meet up? By parachute?”
“No, my father was making a map of the Rocky Mountains and he met her in a saloon.”
Loud guffaws at that one. “Saloon about th’ best place t’ meet a lady. That or church.” Rosie was the most outspoken of us all.
We ate to our heart’s content, then went back to the fields or over by the shed to finish up the day. My back was sore and my fingers covered in white, sticky tobacco goo but the shade of the shed helped me not faint. I was a well-known fainter.
When the day was done, Mrs. Anderson stood on her porch and we workers filed up the steps in a long line to receive our day’s wages. She handed me four, worn dollar bills. I couldn’t contain my excitement! Four whole dollars!
I raced home and showed Kathi my stash. Then gently lay my hard earned dollar bills into the cigar box Uncle Johnnie had given me. With money made from shoveling snow and doing chores around the house, I had eight dollars. Mom and Dad insisted that one fourth of all we earned be put into savings. That meant I’d have to do some math later on and stow part of my money in the wallet Dad had given me for that purpose. Saving up for college.
That night, when I closed my eyes in bed, I could still see my hands glowing in front of me, placing tobacco leaves carefully together in the harsh Georgia sunshine. I worked for Mrs. Anderson until the entire crop was picked. Then school started, eighth grade. More adventures to come!