By Dale Easley

June 12th, 2003

No, I don't like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don't like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.

Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad

When I was 10, I started working in my neighbors' tobacco fields. A workday picking tobacco starts soon after sunrise and often ends in early afternoon. Most of the time in between is spent walking along bent over, picking the bottom leaves from the tobacco stalk, putting the gummy leaves under your arm until you can carry no more, then piling the leaves onto a sled for transport to the tobacco barn. A hat, long sleeves, and long pants are required uniform so as to keep as much of the tobacco gum off as possible. It is sticky, full of nicotine that can be absorbed through your skin, and stains your hands and exposed skin for days afterward. Picking tobacco is nasty, hot work, but it was a way to make a few dollars. I picked tobacco every summer until I finished high school, though most often in my junior high years. Picking was not an every day thing—it depended on the weather and how the tobacco was ripening. Sometimes when I went to bed at night, I would not know yet whether I would be working the next day. A 13-year-old on call. Though the work was sporadic, I was able to purchase my first car the summer after I turned 16, a wrecked-and-rebuilt Ford Pinto that I drove for the next 13 years. One thing about the Pinto—no girl ever dated me for my car.

My first time picking tobacco was with Uncle Paul. Uncle Paul was not really my uncle, except in the Southern sense. He was the closest thing to a grandfather that I had. He and Aunt Hope had a tobacco farm just up the hill from our house. They also still milked a cow, made their own butter and ice cream, raised fruit, vegetables and two sons, and slaughtered pigs every fall after a good freeze came to prevent the meat from spoiling while they processed it. Aunt Hope made the best tenderloin biscuits in the world. Uncle Paul was one of the last in the area to dry his tobacco with a wood fire, cutting trees on the farm during the winter to burn during the tobacco season. He had a third-grade education, but read farming magazines and newspaper, kept up with the world, and was completely without pretensions. He and Aunt Hope were two of the most truly good people I've ever known.

As you can tell, Uncle Paul and Aunt Hope were pretty self-sufficient. He never hired much help with his tobacco crop—if it took an extra day to do it himself, so? Many times it would be just Uncle Paul and me out in the field picking, and Aunt Hope and her granddaughter, Sandra, working at the barn. When Uncle Paul and I would fill a sled with tobacco, we'd climb on the tractor and pull it into the barn. Aunt Hope would go running off to the house to get some homemade cookies and something to drink. After a short break, we'd go back to the fields. Meanwhile, Aunt Hope and Sandra were tying the tobacco leaves onto sticks which Uncle Paul and I would later hang up in the tobacco barn. The barn had long poles running its length in multiple rows. These poles served as racks for the sticks of tobacco, spacing them so that the heat from the wood fire could gradually dry the tobacco. The barn would be heated initially to about 90 degrees for a day or so, then gradually warmed to about 180 degrees or so. The initial temperature drove off the water slowly so that the tobacco didn't cook into a soggy mess but instead dried like an autumn leave. By the time the process was finished, the leaves had gone from a bright greenish-yellow to a rich golden brown. They were then left hanging for a brief time after the barn cooled so as to allow a bit of moisture to re-enter the leaves, keeping them form being too brittle and falling apart as the tobacco was subsequently sorted and bagged for shipment to the warehouse to be sold.

As I've talked about elsewhere [link], I didn't fit in very well as a youngster in Walnut Cove. However, in high school I became friends with Mike and Mark, brothers a bit older than me who lived nearby but far enough up the road that they had gone to a different elementary and middle school. Their family raised tobacco. Having three sons and a daughter in the family plus some cousins and neighbors meant that labor wasn't in short supply. I often helped, too, if Uncle Paul didn't need me. However, occasionally their family and Uncle Paul picked tobacco on the same day. Mike's and Mark's family usually finished their work by early afternoon, while Uncle Paul kept at it much later. One memorable day the brothers and cousins and neighbors all decided to go swimming in the nearby Dan River after finishing for the day. They invited me to come along, but there was still quite a bit of work to be done before Uncle Paul could call it a day. Instead of leaving me behind, my friends and their cousins and their neighbors all came down to Uncle Paul's farm and quickly knocked out the rest of the work so that I could go with them.

As Conrad says above, you learn a lot about yourself from work. However, I think he underrates what you can learn about others from working with them. Do they slack off, whine, or disappear when there is work to do? Or do they pitch in and get it done? As busy as Aunt Hope and Uncle Paul were, any time a neighbor needed help, Uncle Paul and Aunt Hope would show up. I particularly remember the summer after my father died, when Uncle Paul rode on the fender of the tractor as I mowed hay, us working together in part as a tribute to my dad and in part because Uncle Paul would have been there to help no matter what. And on a hot summer's day when a river looked inviting, my friends made me feel as cared about as I've ever felt, outside of family and marriage. Their gift of their work is one of the brightest, most cherished memories of my youth.

Tobacco barns—Photos and links
Great photos from a setting similar to that I've talked about.