“The back-breaking and knee-dirtying job of picking them brought pay in the amount picked, something in the range of 50 to 75 cents a bushel. A full day in the field for me usually put only $2.25 in my pocket. Annie and the Greer girls did considerably better, earning up to $5.00. Myrtie made something less than they. The womenfolk were much better hands at the job, my brothers doing little better than I. The first picking meant more money. The second or third resulted in diminishing returns for the labor expanded. My days in a bean patch produced little money but great sympathy, later, when I saw the job fall to migrant workers. Bean-picking is a tough way to earn a living.” John Idol, Chapter Eight of Deep Gap Days: A Crazy-Quilt Narrative of My Boyhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the book from which these columns are excerpted.
Out to Pastoral
By John Idol
BURLINGTON North Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—11/19/2012—Although much of the farming in Deep Gap during my boyhood and youth consisted of crops meant to feed the farmer and his stock, patches of corn and potatoes, small meadows and smaller fields of grain, large gardens, now and then a small patch of sugar cane brought food to the table, manger, or trough. But there was some commercial (or truck) farming, mostly centered on cabbages, beans, and potatoes.
Those cabbage and potato patches and fields of green beans put a little change in our pockets when Jake Moretz or Cliff Ray needed help. Raising a patch of cabbages began with preparing a bed for sprouting seed in Stoney Fork, where the first fingers of spring pushed out of Piedmont North Carolina and brought temperatures warm enough to coax the seeds into growth.
Once sprouted, the seedlings had to be thinned to allow for stronger plants to grow. Thinning demanded patient, backbreaking work.
Plucking a seedling (or set) from its cozy bed in Stoney Fork and plugging it into the chilly soil of Deep Gap was tough on backs and knees as well. The timing of transferring seedlings from Stoney Fork could be a tricky affair, for, even though a cabbage plant can withstand a little frost, it withers with a freeze. Deep Gap was notorious for its sneaky freezes. If a freeze did occur, then a second (or third) trip to the Stoney Fork seeding bed came into play. More back-breaking labor!
When the plants took root and began to grow, back to the cabbage patch we went, hoes in hand, to chop away weeds and build little mounds of soil around the plant’s root. These mounds helped the plants stand upright.
But they needed further help if they were to grow to suit a grocer or housewife. Before a human had a chance to enjoy them, insects saw an opportunity for a feast. That meant dusting the plants, not with sprayers on biplanes, not with tanks of pest control fastened to a boy’s back or the bed of a pick-up , but with dust shaken from a cheese-cloth over each plant. Again, back-breaking work. Labor-intensive work. Work for boys who were willing to do the job for a nickel or dime an hour, the going rate in Deep Gap.
Getting the mature cabbage head off to market proved less back-breaking. But again the job was labor-intensive. It meant returning to the patch with Cliff Ray or Jake Moretz and bagging cabbage heads as they squeezed heads for proper firmness and then cut the chosen ones off with a sharp knife.
The heads went into a green bag of meshed threads, the bag remaining in the patch until all the mature heads had been harvested. We next loaded them onto a truck or moved them to a warehouse for later packing with other produce. Cliff and Jake needed help loading their trucks, and they liked having someone accompany them on their runs to Landis, China Grove, Kannapolis, Concord, and Salisbury to deliver cabbage, beans, and potatoes. Since making their rounds with them meant a few extra nickels or dimes and a chance to see something of the world beyond Deep Gap, they had volunteers aplenty. Two stories about my own trips with Cliff remain vividly in mind.
The first, when I was about 13 years old and had not gone so far as Wilkes County to the east to help shovel gravel onto a truck for the W.C Greene Construction Company, took me beyond Wilkesboro to China Grove, Salisbury, and Concord.
Our job of distributing orders for cabbage, beans, and spuds to small grocers in those piedmont towns over, Cliff said, “It’s time to eat.” That suited me fine, since I’d worked up a hardy appetite with our early morning labor.
He led the way to a small café, chose a table, and waited for a waitress to come take our order. Never having seen a menu, never having eaten anywhere but at home or the homes of neighbors, I took the safe course and ordered what Cliff did.
When our order came—bacon, eggs, toast and coffee—I settled in to eat. No problem there, but I did fumble around with tiny jars of cream, milk-bottle shaped jars hardly larger than a thimble. I had no clue about how to remove the paper seal. It wouldn’t yield to light tugs upward nor to light thrusts downward. I decided to press harder, a mistake that led to a squirt of cream on my face and neck. A beet couldn’t have been redder as I reached for a napkin to wipe off the mess. Engaged in banter with the waitress and other customers, Cliff took no notice of me until I had embarrassed him and myself with my cloddishness.
A second trip carried us all the way to the farmers’ market in Jacksonville, Florida, when I was between my sophomore and junior year at Appalachian High School. We loaded his International truck head high with bags of cabbage and left Deep Gap long before dawn. “We need to keep the cabbage as cool as we can,” Cliff told me, “since we are heading into much warmer weather.”
Indeed, temperatures did rise rapidly as the sun beat down on us in South Carolina, my first view of a state other than my native one. We toiled along in his black International, a blazing sun beating down on us. Acres of pine forests crowded near the highway, with only a few Barbasol rhymes and Falstaff signboards to relieve the boredom. Weary of driving and getting hungry by now, well past mid-morning, Cliff said, “Let’s stop and eat. Maybe the café will be air-conditioned. It was.
Again, no more sophisticated than on the earlier trip, I told the waitress to make it a double order. When it came, there were the usual items, eggs, bacon, and toast. But something else, too. A blob of white that looked something like congealed mush. “You know what that is, Johnny?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “But it looks something like some thickened cream of wheat.”
“No,” he said. “Down here they don’t waste anything. They take the eggshells and grind them up real fine and serve them with the eggs. Take a bite and see how you like ‘em.”
His chuckle alerted me to his leg-pulling act and I said, “Really, what is it?” The blob didn’t look edible to me.
“Grits,” he said.
Grits I had never seen, though I’d heard of, them. They were not a dish Annie, Myrtie, or Nancy served, not a dish known by many families in the Blue Ridge.
After our late breakfast, we rolled on towards Jacksonville, passing by Savannah and encountering a choking odor, something sulfurous mingling with the smell of harvested pine trees. “A paper mill over there,” Cliff explained as we crawled past Savannah and lumbered on to Jacksonville.
We found the market and drove to a designated spot and awaited buyers. But few came. Meanwhile, I sat beside the truck and took in the action of buyers and sellers, swatting flies and thirsty mosquitoes. My Blue Ridge skin had never endured such humid weather, and I felt uncomfortable even in the shade.
As I pondered my mistake of wanting to see something of life beyond Deep Gap, a pre-teen African-American boy, barefoot and shirtless, approached me.
“Ever see anybody with twelve toes?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Well, I got twelve if you want to see ‘em.” With that, he moved in closer and bent to count his toes. “One, two, three, four, five, and SIX. See, I told ya I have six.” The sixth one looked like an extra little toe.
“You’re right,” I said, impressed by his good humor about his sixth toe. “You seem proud to have an extra toe,” I said.
“Well, it be somethin’ many people don’t have,” he joked. “Might as well be proud.”
“Thanks for showing me,” I said.
He drifted on through the market, showing and counting his toes for anyone curious enough to want to see them. Except for a couple of concrete-dressers on Lane’s construction crew, I had never had a conversation with a black person. This brief exchange was easy, natural, and enlightening for me. No fear of the Other on either side. Just boy to boy talk. An edifying encounter with another human trying to move through life without too much worry about what the world thought of him, without being bent out of shape because some people might write his off as some kind of freak.
Near the end of our second day at the market, Cliff became anxious about his load of cabbage. Brown and black spots were popping up on many leaves, a sign that rot would soon follow. Already, there was the stench of rotten cabbage in the shed from loads on other trucks. Cliff left me to deal with anyone coming by to buy cabbage. No customers came.
Shortly, he returned and said, “I’ve made a deal. We need to take these to a warehouse and unload them.” We stripped away the spotted leaves and re-bagged the now whitish looking cabbage. He didn’t look happy, and I was happy only because I knew we’d be heading back to Deep Gap.
The ride back seemed far longer than the ride down. Sulfurous Georgia and sweltering South Carolina could have passed for hell in my Baptist imagination. But thoughts of the Inferno faded when, at long last, the cool hills of the Blue Ridge came into view. I was glad to be home.
Fields of green beans meant jobs with Cliff and Jake Moretz and a few other farmers who looked to beans as a source of income. My brothers and I, along with Annie and Myrtie and the Greer girls, helped in all the stages of harvesting them, and a few of us found work helping to plant or hoe them.
The back-breaking and knee-dirtying job of picking them brought pay in the amount picked, something in the range of 50 to 75 cents a bushel. A full day in the field for me usually put only $2.25 in my pocket. Annie and the Greer girls did considerably better, earning up to $5.00. Myrtie made
something less than they. The womenfolk were much better hands at the job, my brothers doing little better than I. The first picking meant more money. The second or third resulted in diminishing returns for the labor expanded. My days in a bean patch produced little money but great sympathy, later, when I saw the job fall to migrant workers. Bean-picking is a tough way to earn a living.
Raising spuds is no easy job either. Irish potatoes, essential and favored family fare, served also as a cash crop. We naturally expected to help Lane and Rufus with their spuds, but we earned a little money by going to potato patches with Cliff, Jake, and Uncle Fred. Harvesting them usually meant missing a day of school since everyone waited until early fall to hitch a horse to a plow and begin turning the spuds from their nesting places. We gathered them in buckets and then poured them into burlap sacks, leaving the sacks scattered across the patch until a wagon or truck came by. Hoisting a sack unto the truck or wagon bed was no easy task and usually demanded team work. Brother Bill, the strongest one among us, could hoist a heavy bag himself.
If we were helping Uncle Fred, we had the pleasure of working alongside our Greer cousins. He rented a field on top of Moretz Mountain, accessible by the Blue Ridge Parkway, a non-commercial scenic highway. Getting to the patch and back without being caught by a park ranger added a bit of anxiety, but Uncle Fred seems not to have run afoul of the law. His pay to the Idol boys was a nickel an hour. His daughters had no coins to show for their labor.
When we worked for Cliff, our job moved from the patch to his small produce warehouse, where he had a potato grader. My siblings and I teamed up to do the job, one of us pouring potatoes from the bags gathered in the patch unto the grader, two of us standing alongside the grader to snare any spud damaged in the field and toss it into a waste basket. My job, as the elder in the group and one of the strongest, placed me at the end of the grader. There all the spuds large and sound enough tumbled into a burlap sack capable of holding a hundred pounds. I had to remove the filled sack and then carry it to the loading platform in the warehouse. It was heavy, dusty work, monotonous, back-straining, and mind-numbing.
It was work I balked at doing. One day when Bill ran into the house and said “Cliff needs us to grade some potatoes” I said “I’m not going to do it for just a nickel an hour. You can tell him that. I want at least a quarter an hour.”
Bill left me where I was reading and ran to convey my message. I thought my strike for higher wages would mean an end to my services as a spud grader, but, no, a few minutes later Bill returned to say, “Cliff said to come on; he’ll pay you what you ask.” Here was a moment I realized the power of labor to deal with capitalism.
Note: The photograph accompanying this book excerpt may be found on Flickr, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dlennis/3424249915/sizes/l/in/photostream/.