Drinking my last cup of coffee, I gaze out the kitchen window and see the sunlight streaming down the hollow, creating a sheen on the moisture-laden grass that for a moment tricks my eye into seeing a white expanse of tobacco canvas. In the blink of an eye the light shifts and the scene disappears, or maybe it is my own realization that the habits of a lifetime have faded. How long has it been since a tobacco bed stretched up and down the edge of that fallow field?
I glance at the calendar and think that by this time plants should be the size of quarters now as Memorial Day usually found us ready to set the tender plants in the hillside patches. I look again at the narrow hollow widening as it reaches the road and remember the many times I have worked that field, my grandmother dropping plants from a half-bushel bucket, her arms covered by a long-sleeved shirt that she would shed before going to the house to fix dinner.
I can almost see my young uncle bent double over one of the rows, looking over his shoulder to make sure I was still behind him, “pegging” those tender transplants into the wet ground. My father and his father would be taking their time, saving their backs, occasionally picking up stray rocks and carrying them to the edge of the field. My mother and her sister-in-law kneeling over the tobacco bed keeping plants pulled and if needed, taking their turns dropping plants.
I envision the midsummer days with the sweat bees and the humidity, three or four of us strung out across the patch, the only sound the scritch-scratch of the hoes until a shiny car comes screeching to a halt down by the road and a gaggle of city cousins pour out, shooting off their mouths worse than firecrackers. We would manage both them and the tobacco for the next week.
Later on when temperatures soared even higher and the plants had grown head-high, we would shoulder our way through the broad leaves overlapping the rows, straining to reach high enough to break out the bloom, or worse yet, searching out the stubborn suckers that grew rampant up and down the tall stalks. Finally breaking out into the open again we would pause long enough to take deep gulps of fresh air and wipe our hands through the dirt, rubbing them together, trying to rid our fingers of some of the grubby gum that coated our clothes and hair.
The reopening of school in the fall would usher in tobacco cutting time. As late as the ’60s, high school boys could still be excused from school to cut and hang the prized crop, principals and superintendents having their own crops to consider. My young sons and my sister’s sons after them would scurry off the school bus in the afternoon, eager to help load the heavy sticks of tobacco onto the wagon. Many a time a small boy would need a hand in pulling a stick from the ground as it stood forming its 45-degree angle with the hard-packed earth.
Short years later, it would be the youngest son who climbed to the highest tier in the barn to hang the heavy sticks that were handed up to him by his father and his brother, standing straddle-legged on the narrow rails while his mother stood on the wagon with another stick ready, keeping a wary ear out for any unnecessary swear words.
The foggy, damp mornings of November would find us throwing the dried, seasoned tobacco back out of the barn, removing it from its drying sticks and stacking it in tall bulks to seal in the moisture, keeping it pliable and easier to work without shattering. Thanksgiving Day would more than likely find us in the stripping room or driveway of the barn, stamping our feet to keep warm, hands constantly moving, stripping the leaves from the stalks and tying them into “hands,” taking pride in the beauty of the long “flyings” and the pinkish “frog-eyes” mottling the leaves.
Oh, but the relief and gladness at the end of another year’s hard work with the marketing of the crop. I remember sitting with my dad by the radio listening to the WHAS Farm Report, keeping fingers crossed it would be a good sales year, a good Christmas. Years later, anticipating our own crop sale, I marveled at the years my grandfather and his sons were able to live on the land, depending on the burley as their only cash crop from one season to the next.
Finding only dregs in the bottom of my cup, I take one final glance at the sun climbing higher in the sky and know I have no reason to hurry; there is no work in the fields this day, this spring, this season. The years of tobacco dependency are over; politicians and Big Business have no need for small hillside farmers. Our family is scattered to Toyota, NACO, points beyond; perhaps Memorial Day will bring them home again.