Half mile rows -- Life in the cotton Patch
(Gayle Kirksey Jetton was raised on Childress Road, three miles northwest of Leachville. She is sharing her memory of half mile rows, life in the cotton patch. "My family's work in the cotton patch did not end with our crop. After we chopped our cotton, my parents, sister and I hired out to chop a neighbor's cotton.")
A large block of ice floated inside the wooden keg of drinking water. Placed on top of the ice were four candy bars and a package of bologna wrapped in butcher paper. At the bottom of the keg four Pepsi Colas chilled in the icy water. Wedged against the cool damp keg was a paper sack containing bread, mustard and potato chips.
It was late June 1956. I was 15 years old. My sister Pat was 13. That summer after we finished chopping our cotton we began chopping for another farmer. Our day started before dawn as Pat and I sleepily, and often crossly, greeted the day. We dragged on our jeans and long sleeved denim shirts. We made ready our sun bonnets. Mama insisted we wear a bonnet to the field to protect our head and face from the sun. As Pat and I lollygagged at dressing, Mama was busy cooking breakfast. She made wonderful scratch biscuits. She fried bacon, eggs and made gravy. We never went to the field hungry.
Daddy sharpened the cotton hoes. Then, as the chickens flew off their roost, we started to the field. We drove a few miles north of Leachville to a little community called Bone Camp and to my dismay, the cotton rows were half-mile rows! That meant we would have to chop a half mile to the far end and a half mile back before we could get a drink of water. Water was the nectar of life in a cotton patch. Thirst was a constant companion. We arrived at the cotton patch every morning at 6 a.m. Lethargically Pat and I took up our cotton hoes to begin the long, weary day.
In order to survive the heat and repetitive task I divided the day into segments and goals. The first goal was to reach the far end where I could rest for a moment under the shade of a scraggly bush. The second goal was to turn around on another row and chop back to the starting point and the water keg! It was a mundane task that paid 50 cents an hour. The normal workday was 10 hours.
Over and over I met my mental goals. It was a gauge of endurance, a gauge of time. It provided me with a mental clock that ticked away the miserable hours. I measured the time in rows and water. As the morning wore on I began to measure not only water time but how many rows would take me to high noon. Each section of time moved my goals closer to the ultimate goal of dinnertime and one hour of rest.
At 12:00 noon we stopped to eat and rest for one hour. We found a shade tree and rested beneath it as we consumed the bologna sandwiches. Never has there been a tastier meal than those we ate in the cotton patch!
We stretched out on the sandy ground to rest. We ladies removed our sweaty bonnets from our bedraggled hair, letting the breeze cool us. Often Daddy would stretch out full length on the ground, cover his face with his hat and sleep for a few minutes.
All too soon the hour slipped away and it was one o'clock, time to resume our work. The afternoon blazed with heat. The sun was relentless, pushing fire to the earth. Heat waves trembled, parching our very souls. The cotton drooped in the torrid heat resembling a million green umbrellas. We plodded on as rain crows grunted from the line of snag-trees along the fence row. I mentally divided the afternoon into segments and goals. I must reach the far end, get my breath then turn back on another row. Half a mile distant waited the keg of ice water! I survived by living time in segments and goals.
The starch in my bonnet turned rancid. My hair plastered wet against my scalp. Salty sweat trickled into my eyes, burning. Thoughts assailed me as my hoe lifted and fell, lifted and fell. The chore became mechanical as I inched down the row thinning the cotton plants, my secret thoughts undisturbed.
The dry clods crunched beneath my feet. The hot soil burned through my shoes. Sand gathered in my socks sifting painfully into a wad at the toe. No one talked. All our energy flowed into the hoe as it hit the earth with a metallic ring. Our movements were precise, deliberate, yet unconscious, not unlike breathing. I moved slowly down the cotton row, dreaming of a new dress, of the boy I would later marry.
The rain crows grunted their rough songs begging for rain. Above me the sky burned with fierce heat, baking against my bonnet, steaming my sweaty hair into sourness. All the feminine fastidiousness that young girls aspire to vanished! Finally, the day ended at 5:00. That day the four of us had earned together, a grand total of $20.
That summer my sister, Pat, rode a train to Alabama to visit our older sister and her family. I did not want to go so I stayed home and continued to chop cotton. A few days later, because Daddy had given Pat train fare, he handed me a $10 bill. He took me to Paragould where I bought two little cotton dresses for school.
I had worked all summer for only $10 but I was happy to get that. I was able to buy two pretty dresses with my "sweat" money. The long hours of misery in the cotton patch had its moments of beauty and sweetness. I was a child of the soil and the beauty of growing things was not unnoticed.
I learned to see the beauty of the cotton. I learned to love its spicy scent. I often opened the tiny squares to look inside. I marveled at the rose and white blossoms and the fat green bolls. I learned at an early age just how beautiful an open field of cotton can be and how sharp its burrs! I learned to appreciate the blood-red sunsets in that splendid flat land! I learned quickly that cotton was the source of our food and clothing. It was our life!
Yet, I never learned to like chopping or picking cotton. The physical pain of it has faded into memories of a sweeter and wholly different time. It is a vanished life. It is now memories. It was a time when young farm girls had to work in the fields. It was a time when $10 would purchase two little cotton dresses. It was a time that taught me from whence came my food, my shelter. It taught me the real worth of two cotton dresses!