If you live in the United States and think that child slave labor only exists in other black market countries, you obviously have not visited the South in summer times of the past, nor should you because the humidity sucks, gnats constantly fly around your face and stick to the underside of your nostrils, and some redneck trucks are purposefully geared to sound like an overbearingly constipated hippopotamus. If a Southern speedster isn’t trying to drag race you at every stop light in their beefed up, automatic sports car, you might get lucky and have a prestigious member of an Original Free Will Baptist Church cuss you out over the phone one Sunday then get a lifetime achievement award for their Christian service the next Sunday. One would think that self righteousness was a pre-requisite for calling this certain place home.
I have come to realize that living in the South is like cutting open a fresh onion. It may make your eyes water, yes! It does have different layers, yes! You may dread having to use that specific ingredient when it comes to preparing your next dish, yes! But (I know you’re not supposed to start a sentence with a conjunction, but I had to this one time – sorry!) once you dice it, throw away the refuse, oil up the skillet, and start the cooking process, the smell that hits your nostrils is one you will not soon forget. Living in the South is not easy nor is it for the faint of heart, but I suppose any place that you currently call home will start to lose its curb appeal over time if you stay there long enough.
From the age of twelve until a senior in high school, I had a summer job helping local farmers barn tobacco. This was not an hourly job. This was not an air conditioned job. This was not a job where you put on the fanciest of clothes, spray on cologne, and try to hit on girls that are oiled up and lounging poolside in their low cut bikinis. This was a job that paid you thirty dollars a barn and lasted as long as it took the crew to fill that barn with the farmer’s investment. This was a job that left your hands and skin sticky until the next day when they would get recoated with tobacco resin all over again. This was a job that took more from you than gave back. While other kids enjoyed their summer break from school, slept in, played video games, and ran around in their underwear, I was waking up at the literal crack of dawn and breaking a hard sweat before nine a.m.
One of the biggest perks of being the youngest farm laborer each summer, a young man who was not going to hit his growth spurt until college, was being picked on every day. The hard working African Americans didn’t bother me because they showed up to work and only cut up through their jokes and mannerisms. The hard working Mexican Americans were a breeze to work with when it came to farm labor, even though I could not decipher a single word they were saying. A choice handful of white people, quote on quote Caucasians, were the ones who aggravated me the most, and that’s coming from someone whose rapper name would be Vanilla Crunch.
During my first couple of years on the job, I pulled the tobacco harvester in an open cabbed tractor. The farmer’s youngest son of sixteen thought it would be fun amusement to snap off tobacco stalks and throw them at the back of my head while simultaneously doing his job. If I weren’t trying to focus on keeping the tractor inside the rows and at a speed where the other workers could keep up with the plants, I was dodging four inch celery stalks being hurled at me from, of all people, an entitled farmer’s son. A low level retaliation would have been as effective as building a sea wall out of beach sand and hope high tide did not wash it away.
A couple of summers later, I moved from that farmer’s throng and into another’s. I knew that me leaving was only going to propel my farm laboring career. At this next location, I was promoted from tractor driver to plant cropper. I thought going to a new sweat shop would provide better summer experiences, but that turned out to be an ill fated lie after the first week.
While I snapped off tobacco leaves down below on an old school harvester, one of the punk rackers up above would hurl an endless supply of tobacco stalks at me. The only advantage I had in this situation was the fact that I could throw dirt clods up to the roof above his head and shower him with dirt. The only downside was the fact that innocent workers would get peppered in the process, so I was at a lose-lose in my never ending battle. If that wasn’t enough torture for an army of one, the kids who thought they were big shots decided on who got the notorious water cooler dumped on them at the end of the day. I’m pretty sure you can assume who got the end of that surprise tradition. I don’t think my work shoes ever dried out completely from the previous day.
Today, since the tables have turned, most of the people that did the picking back in those days, bullying as it is now called, have turned out to be the biggest losers this area has seen and will ever see (I’m not implying that I’m the Gucci of the South, but I’m managing). A couple of the hot shots from past high schools have become nothing but a mere byword when you talk about what is going wrong in the community or where the next big screw up can be located. Wherever these people go and whoever they hang around, their mere presence makes everything around them dumber with each passing breath. I realize that I do not have the preserved good looks of Leonardo DiCaprio combined with the Brad Pitt mannerisms, but most of the punk kids from back then are balding at an early age, drinking cheap beer, and are strung out on something. Irony is my soulmate and has a sense of humor. I understand that notion and have never escaped its grip when it came for me, but I find it comforting to know that it does not discriminate.
I always wondered what my parents were thinking when they made me enter the gates of hell each and every summer morning while wearing clothes made out of gasoline cotton. Sometimes, I was angered towards them each time I had to hop in the back of a beat up work truck at seven a.m. All I could see were the whites of everyone’s eyes because the sun was barely breaking the horizon. I now realize that they were doing the best they could with what they had to work with. I look back on those memories now and smile rather than fill my inner spirit with negative emotions and thoughts of disdain. If that grueling experience gave me anything, it instilled a titanium like work ethic at an early age and made me appreciate the common luxuries of my future modern day jobs.
I remember hearing the spiritual intellects say from time to time that, “if you commit murder in yer heart, then tis jus as bad is if you did it in real life.”
I’m already like, “eh, really? Are you sure about that premise in its entirety? You are literally saying that if I off’ed someone in my brain, in my imagination, then it is just as bad if I did it in reality? I mean, really? So if somebody almost made me wreck the other day because they were riding my bumper and total out my truck, which is paid off, and I wished the Coronavirus on them, that makes it just as bad if I purposefully contracted the virus and deliberately sneezed in that person’s eyeball?”
If that is the case then I was a mental mass murdering preteen machine because I nipped someone each day I left the fields of hard labor. If you think Dexter or John Wick knows how to tag up a meat puppet, then you would have been covering your mouth when it came to the ways I used my imagination when carrying out my mental repercussions on the boys that turned me into their kicking can. They say “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Well, there’s a b-side to that. “Hell hath no fury than a boy who just wants to work in peace and make his thirty dollars a day, especially considering he would rather be spending his summer at the beach or poolside while taking in all the beauty that Hawaiian Tropic can provide.”
If I sit really still in front of my laptop, put on my thinking cap, and lightly play Tycho in the background, there are a couple of memories that do wash away the dark clouds of past, modern day, slave labor. I was able to enjoy working with a couple of my childhood friends while barning tobacco. To be honest, me and my friends cut up more than we worked and never got arrested for it. It’s a wonder that I still have all my appendages and did not end up in a body cast. While “pickin baccer”, I was also able to meet my first girlfriend. She was there for me when I failed my permit test for the first time and was the first girl I ever kissed. She passed away a couple years later from leukemia, and it was hard to see her go through that even though we were no longer together by the time of her misfortune.
The fondest memory regarding the tobacco battlefield are the days when me and my cousin would ride to the barns and fields together. He had his license, so it made sense for me to ride to work with him considering he lived across the road from where I lived. He was a decade older than me and listened to the cool music of the times: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Crash Test Dummies, Bush, Beck, and Metallica.
If we ever got off work early, most of the time I would take a couple of showers, go over to his house, and play the Super Nintendo or whatever system was hot at the moment. He had a basketball goal that you could lower to white boy dunking level, and he did not like anyone hanging on the rim. All my other cousins would come over, and we would battle it out on a grass covered basketball court. You’ve never had a true game of basketball until you’ve played on terrain where there is no definite way to control your dribble.
At my second farm laboring job, this one guy kept throwing stalks at the back of my neck while I was trying to crop the leaves and send them up the belt to the rackers. I told the jerk numerous times to quit and that I was about to reach my breaking point. In my mind, I had already killed him six different ways. I didn’t want to throw a dirt clod against the roof and rain pebbles on him because my cousin was up above on the harvester, helping the jerk rack the picked tobacco leaves.
When the sixtieth stalk hit my neck, I got up out of my seat, ripped an entire tobacco plant out of the earth, and harpooned the bully like Moby Dick. He Ninja Warrior’ed down from his high horse and threw me to the ground. Out of the corner of my eye, my cousin jumped to the earth like Thor returning from some distant planet. He wrapped his arms around the boy and slung him to the ground. After yelling out an explicative and readjusting his glasses, the punk saw that he had bit off more than he could chew. It was not my cousin’s normal temperament to lash out like that, and his actions had taken the jerk off guard.
When the dust finally settled and everyone went back to work, needless to say, not one stalk was thrown at me for the rest of the summer. I have respect for my cousin and his actions because people like him are the ones that need to repopulate the world with their own brand of intelligence. I mention this story every time I get the chance to talk to him and thank him because I am still grateful to this day.
Living in the South has its pro’s and con’s, just like any other piece of dirt where one could call home. There are times when I want to move and leave everything in the rear view mirror. There are times when I appreciate the goodness of what I have here. There are times when I remember living on a dusty dirt road until the state finally paved it. There are times when I remember being fifteen years old and still not having enjoyed the services of satellite or cable television.
I reground myself.
I realize that I married my childhood best friend, and she continues to be that today. I realize that I have a healthy son from a previous marriage. I realize that I have a uniquely crazy family, one that will be there for me through the thick and thin. I realize that I have friends placed in spots where I need them, and they know what to do if they need me. I realize that I have gifts and abilities, and I’m somewhat proud to have grown up on land that has been in the family for generations.
One thing a stranger must realize when it comes to the disComfort of the South:
“If you thinks you gunna come down here and show duh South who duh boss truly be, dancin and prancin round like you own duh place or sumthin, then you betta git cuz you got another thing comin yer way, ole buddy boy! Sum people used to could do dat. I ain’t lyin. Dat be me speakin duh truth now cuz sum of dem boys down dere be crazy now! Watcha say? You dun thinkin and typin and lollygaggin now or what? You betta git fore you git in trouble now. You hear?”
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