How to Escape Hated Work
By Lois Hicks
I dreaded tobacco hoeing times with every fiber of my skinny, prepubescent body. But there was no way out of the hot, sticky work. Every summer, when North Carolina soil heated up and weeds threatened plants in Father’s fields, it was chopping time.
Early mornings on tobacco chopping days Father, my two sturdy sisters and puny I gathered hoes, mason jars filled with well-water, and a big tin wash tub packed with plates, silverware, and food for our noon meal of biscuits and beans and maybe fried chicken. We loaded all onto the back of Father’s old Ford truck and drove to fields rented in Staley from Grandmother Kivett. We followed a rough track through woods around Grandmother’s house and parked under shade trees surrounding the crop.
We always started tobacco chopping early in the morning, before the sun got so hot. We grabbed hoes and each started a row, digging weeds from around the plants, making sure to get the root along with the tuft. By midmorning the work tortured me. The sun beat down and sweat soaked my straw hatband and mixed with dust on my ankles and bare feet. My legs turned rubbery, weak, and shaky.
Noon dinner and a short rest spent stretched out on an old quilt under a big shade tree did little to alleviate my weakness and it made no difference that I sometimes whined with fatigue. Father always responded, “You’re not old enough to know what tired means.”
Afternoons in the fields were too hot for man, beast or child. Quietness would settle on the fields with nary a cricket sound nor a birdcall. All was sweaty silence except for the crunching of dirt as Father walked the rows and the sounds of clicking pebbles and stones as we chopped into dry earth.
Then I would know it was time to choose a story from my imagination bank, time to escape into silent storytelling. But I had to follow self-imposed form. Each story must start at the head of a tobacco row, never in the middle. And a story had to conclude at the end of a row; unless the story was one of a few long enough to last up one row and back another. Some stories needed stretching out if I chose the longer method. So I studied the distance and decided which story to choose, maybe one of my favorites about a little girl packing a suitcase and getting on a plane and going somewhere wonderful.
No one knew my secret stories or the reason I dragged behind my stronger sisters or why I was so slow and sometimes sliced into a green, fuzz-leafed tobacco plant. I would jump with bewilderment when an exasperated yell came from my father. My remorse, however, was not for the damaged plant, but for the interruption to my story, for the yank back into reality. I had paced my story to end at the west side of the field. I felt incomplete. The story had not ended.
As the sun sank and dusk settled, we loaded our weary bodies into the truck. We headed for home. Home, where I would study the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog, selecting pictures of pretty little paper girls with perfect paper clothes packed into a proper suitcase to star in another story of flight. A story for the next dreaded tobacco chopping day.
Lois Hicks is a graduate of Salem college, a writer, retired teacher and librarian, who celebrates life with her husband of 55 years and their family, including various 19 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
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