A couple of weeks ago, we were out cutting bushes. It had rained the night before. It was wet, and the humidity was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Then the sun came out and it turned into a sauna. Sweating and miserable, I thought to myself, “Well, at least I’m not in the tobacco field.”
If you are around my age or older and were raised in rural Sampson County, you know what I’m talking about. Starting around July 4th, you were barning (harvesting, for you city folk) tobacco. We normally finished the crop on another holiday, Labor Day. My daddy said, “That’s what’s you’re supposed to do on Labor Day – labor.” He thought that comment was funny. I didn’t. And the laboring started for most of us at a young age.
My sister and I started working in tobacco when we were around six or seven years old. It began as handing leaves of tobacco to the person tying it on a stick at the barn. It later progressed as I got older to driving the tractor in the field, then back and forth to the barn and finally, to cropping (or picking the leaves, for you city folk) tobacco in the field. The hours were long. By the time I was a teenager the day would start sometimes at 5:30, if we had to take out a barn of cured tobacco and would end late, usually around dark.
Tobacco barning days were hot, sticky and hard, especially when I started cropping tobacco in the field. You would get soaking wet first thing in the morning from the dew on the tobacco leaves. Then as the day progressed, the baking sun would turn the field into a sauna. Later in my teenage years, my father purchased a small tobacco harvester, which made it somewhat easier.
Many days when we were not barning our tobacco, we were helping our neighbors or relatives with their crop, since their kids were helping us. And those few days when I wasn’t barning tobacco during the summer were spent taking out cured tobacco, cleaning up around the barns and catching up on other stuff, like mowing. The only “lazy, hazy days of summer” I knew growing up were from the old song by Nat King Cole.
But it wasn’t bad. It was my childhood and the childhood of most of the kids I grew up with back then. So you didn’t know that summers were spent any other way. And working in tobacco with your friends and cousins, while hard, could be fun. Putting tobacco worms on the girls and watching them scream and run, and drag racing down the drag row of a tobacco field on daddy’s Super A Farm-All tractor did make the days more bearable. When caught I said, “Hey, I thought the drag rows were for drag racing.” I thought that comment was funny. My daddy didn’t.
Some misguided people may think, “What a travesty! Children shouldn’t have to work like that. What about the educational opportunities they were missing during the summer?”
Education? Trust me, I received an education during those summers.
First, that hard work never killed anyone. Well, that’s what I was told many times. I wondered about that often those summers, especially while cropping sand lugs (the lowest tobacco leaves on the stalk, for you city folks.) And it didn’t kill me.
Second, responsibility. You were given a job to do, even at six or seven years old. And even if the job was small, it needed to be done. And if you didn’t do it, someone else would have to do it. As I became older, the responsibilities became greater. If you couldn’t handle cropping your row, someone else would have to help you, or you would slow down the whole operation.
Third, the value of a dollar. That was a very important lesson. Most of what little amount I would receive while working was used to help buy school clothes for the Fall. When you realize that a couple of dollars extra spent on an item is another hour out in the field working, you shop a little more carefully.
There were other lessons learned. But the most important one was embedded in my being almost every day in that tobacco field. Simply, get an education so I won’t have to do this when I get older. Maybe they can replace one of the many dropout prevention programs with a summer in the tobacco field program. Who knows how high the graduation rate could go.