We called it the Eleven Acre Field, though years of sharecropping had allowed enough bushes and blackberry briars to encroach that it barely held our seven-acre cotton allotment. The field was on top of a ridge and ran straight, with very long rows. But it was a dog leg and at the end the tractor was turned to plant short rows into the cul de sac.
I still don’t know why my father insisted on buying his grandfather’s farm. He was an educator and we lived in town. The farm was on Snake Road, if that tells you anything, and isolated. In those pre-mechanical cotton-picker days it was possible to eke out a profit from growing cotton, using hoes instead of herbicides and with an old tractor. It was like the small tobacco plots in East Tennessee that have long provided farmers with a cash crop to at least pay the taxes and make a little profit.
I was in high school and given my father’s busy schedule a lot of the work producing the cotton crop during the summer months fell to me and my mother’s father. Granddaddy Goodman was a short man with a chip on his shoulder and fairly humorless. He had raised seven children during the Great Depression, sharecropping and doing whatever he could to make a living. He worked day labor for TVA chopping down trees to make the lake formed by the construction of Wheeler Dam, for instance.
I remember one day the two of us were chopping cotton. If you plow cotton correctly the job mostly consisted of thinning the cotton, which is usually overplanted in order to make sure you get a “stand.” It’s easier to cut down excess plants than try and re-plant the “skips.”
I tried to keep my head down as we walked along chopping the cotton. Whenever I looked up at the distance to the end of one of those damn rows I would get too depressed. But sooner or later we would get all the way to the end, turn around and go all the way back to the other end. I remember Granddaddy suggesting we take a break. I ran to a tree, threw myself on the ground and picked up a half-gallon jug of water that once held Karo Syrup. I gulped down enough water to almost make me sick and put the jug back in the shade.
Just as I settled back against the tree Granddaddy Goodman came over.
He pointed at the dog leg at the end of the field and he said the words that burned in my mind the rest of my life. “Let’s work these short rows while we’re resting.”
I sat there with my mouth agape. What part of “resting” did this man not understand?
I didn’t say anything of course. You didn’t back talk Granddaddy. I just sat there stunned. Slowly I got up, picked up my hoe and followed him to the short rows and we started to work them. Oddly, enough, quickly working back and forth on the short rows was a morale boost. Avoiding the long rows of the main field for a while did alleviate my depression.
But I was still resentful and stayed angry the rest of the day, savagely chopping at the cotton plants. We finished the field over a three-day period, my mother and my Granddaddy Cagle helped two of the days.
Looking back I realize the difference in Granddaddy Goodman and his generation and mine. I was playing at farming. Work was something my father made me do, but I could be assured that there would be food on the table, clothes in my closet, and gas in my car.
But working out the short rows while you are resting has always seemed to me to be the attitude that brought Granddaddy’s generation through the Depression and made them the Greatest Generation.
This Thanksgiving I will gather with at least some of my children. But it will always be a bittersweet holiday for me. I’ll be thinking about the old folks who are gone now, but who taught me the meaning of the holiday and to celebrate God’s bounty.
Maybe I’ll tell my kids this story.