On a recent trip to Mississippi to take care of the last of my mother’s estate, while driving at about 80 MPH down I-57 through Missouri and Arkansas I noticed white stuff along the grassy edges on the shoulder of the road both on the outside edge as well as the center of the road.
My first reaction? I thought boy-oh-boy this state needs to get the Oompa-Loompas out to pick up trash along this stretch of highway. You know the Oompa-Loompas? They are the people assigned community service rather than jail time, dressed in orange jump suits, picking up trash along the highways.
As I slowed a bit to investigate this unsightly white stuff along the side of the road, I realized it was cotton. Yes, fist size wads of cotton and lots of them caught on the rough grasses lining the roadway.
Then, I noticed the farm fields on the other side of the hedgerows were cotton fields and some of them were being harvested as I drove past. By this time of year, the cotton has ripened, dried and the pods burst into fluffy white bolls giving the look of a winter landscape. The sight of a cotton field in the fall is quite lovely; the plants are a little taller than knee high, all creamy white with rusty reddish brown stems. When looked at from certain angles, the fields were almost totally white with a wintery-snowy appearance even though it was 72F the day I traveled.
Huge round bales of cotton wrapped in yellow or pink plastic dotted the landscape waiting to be loaded onto truck beds and transported to the cotton warehouses. These round bales weigh upwards of 500 pounds and contain 17 cubic feet of cotton.
Watching the huge harvesting machines lumber through the fields, I was grateful for the process of cotton picking today; grateful that machines do the work of many people. You see, my Grandpa was a cotton picker for only 1 day. He said it was the most difficult, unrewarding, physically exhausting work he ever did and my Grandpa knew hard work. In the late 1920’s when he was about 18 years old, Grandpa tried his hand at picking cotton thinking it would be a great job – outdoors, working in a garden, how hard could it be? Well, he said it was back-breakingly difficult. Each cotton picker was given a large canvas bag to fill; so big a human could crawl inside the bag and not be seen. I pictured it much like the size of a sleeping bag with a shoulder strap. The average man should have been able to fill at least one possibly two of these bags per day.
Grandpa said you were expected to cart this huge bag behind you through the rows as you progressed through the field. Each person was assigned a certain area and expected to pick both sides of each row completely cleaning their assigned area of the field. At the end of the day, you were paid by the weight of the cotton in your bag. Grandpa explained the cotton bolls are fluffy and easy to hold but the pod when dried is hard and sharp, cutting into your fingers with each fluffy boll of cotton picked. He also said they docked you for getting blood on the cotton. He worked all day, never even getting close to filling one bag, tearing up his hands with scrapes and cuts from the dried pods. At the end of the day, when he was paid the overseer suggested that Grandpa should find another line of work…he just wasn’t fast or efficient enough. Grandpa was always so happy when talking about the machines that pick cotton. He knew first hand just how much pain these machines relieve and he always said, “pickin’ cotton was the worst job ever.”
The sight of all that cotton lining the roadways reminded me of my Grandpa, how hard he worked and the lessons he taught us appreciating the work of others. I know I look at life differently because of Grandpa’s experiences, his unfailing love for us and because he cared enough to hand down these stories blessing each of us with his years of experience.