My first memory of cotton is dragging a child size cotton sack, maybe six feet long; through a hot field in early fall near Five Points, Tennessee along side my grandparents and my Aunt Lois. Lois and I always had a good relationship. She was already a confirmed and recognized old maid by the time I was old enough to drag a cotton sack. Later in my teenage years we would sneak a smoke together and discuss life as we understood it. However, I never asked why she never married.
My mom once told me it was because Lois’ six brothers scared off any suitors that dared to come around more than twice, and their reasoning was to ensure there was someone left at home to take care of Pa and Ma. From what I remember of them, they did not need any baby-sitting, but the deed was done and Lois probably spent many a lonely day and night, smoking her filtered cigarettes and watching “shoot’em ups” on her old black and white TV with its built-in ambient light that framed the picture tube.
But back in the day of the 80 acres of cotton on the old home place, the day began early and ended late. There were monotonous hours of chopping the cotton rows, sorting out the weeds from the seedlings and carving out a space the width of the hoe blade between single or double sprouts, but there were also conversations filled with laughter as we moved slowly down the seemingly endless rows. My goal was to move out along a row moving away from the shady fence row and back down a row that lead back to the water jug that gave a few moments of relief from the early summer sun of Middle Tennessee.
The best parts of the day was breakfast and supper, hot cat-head biscuits, warm cornbread, white syrup or molasses and butter on either one, both white and red-eye gravy, thick sliced farm raised bacon with thick crackling skin and an occasional pig hair, and a host of other things that don’t stick to a kid’s memory the way those did. Ma and Lois were probably the best biscuit and cornbread makers that ever lived – made with pure lard and fresh ground flour and meal. The biscuits made for supper could nearly be classified as a roll, but they were a true soft biscuit that was a little springy to tear apart. The cornbread was soft and fluffy on the inside with a hard chewy crust on the outside. It was probably my favorite of the two breads, and I often checked the deep well cooker on the back of the stove for cold pieces anytime I passed.
I spent many summers with Lois, Pa, and Ma, and they always kept me busy. I didn’t play much when I stayed with them, I mostly worked. Depending on the time of year I came determined the kind of work I did. There was grubbing new fields, chopping cotton, picking cotton, and best of all taking cotton to the gin. I remember riding high atop a mountain of fluffy white cotton in the back of a wagon drawn by two mules. Pa would tell me who lived where along the way and little anecdotes about each family or about a particularly strange family member as we rolled along the dirt road to the cotton gin.
At the gin, Pa pulled the wagon into line behind other waiting wagons and motor trucks. I watched as each load owner worked the big metal vacuum tube that extended from the side of the gin and sucked the cotton up and into the gin for baling. When our turn came I couldn’t stand not trying it and begged until Pa let me give it a whirl. As I pulled the tube to my chest I knocked off my cap and before anyone could react, up the shoot and out of my life it went. But, there was no time to morn the loss, and I continued to move the tube back and forth and watched the cotton eat its way to the bottom of the wagon, where it whirled the cotton around and around my feet until it lifted and allowed itself to be drawn up the tube and into the gin.
One day, a cousin and I sneaked off and played around the large warehouses near the gin where the bales were stored. Of course the doors were locked, but in those days things were not buttoned up as they are today. Two skinny boys could easily slip through the chained sliding doors or in an open window, and we did.
Cotton is very hard once compacted into 500-pound bales, but soft enough that knees and elbows do not get skinned when jumping and sliding around; that is unless you happened to skid to a halt on one of the burlap ends or hit one of the metal binding straps. There were narrow tunnels between some of the bale stacks and we explored them and imagined all sorts of games. The warehouse was huge and the bales were stacked very high and offered hours of uninterrupted play time.
When I worked and was under considerable stress, I would often dream about being in that warehouse on a rainy day, only I am no longer playing – I am either running away from someone or chasing someone and guns are involved. The cotton warehouse was spooky, dimly light, and mysterious enough to capture the imagination of a young boy and disturb the dreams of an old one.