Being a novel, all characters, events, dialogue and representations are fictional ... and in no way are meant to represent any real or living persons or events... except the few annual events that are used to move me through time. The opinions expressed are my own, and not necessarily those of my author. And the story is copyrighted, by my author of course. Oh, and from time to time I may include some real time events to keep the blog more authentic. Comments and suggestions will be appreciated and seriously considered as the story moves along.

If you are just joining us, start with the Prologue and Chapter One on March 1, 2011, in the Archives.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Chapter 45

Remember the successful marketing campaign of the National Cotton Growers Association, “Cotton - the fabric of your life,” with their images of happy people floating and romping in billowing pristine white cotton fabrics? Brilliant branding tagline. Roughly half the fibers worn in the entire world come from cotton because of the comfort and its ability to easily absorb skin moisture. 
Tenacious seeds, necessary for regeneration, were once the plague of the crop because of the difficulty of removal, but now are harvested and pressed into cottonseed oil used in snack foods, salad oils, candles, cosmetics, detergents, paints and soaps ... and of course, more cotton plants. And the remnants of seeds are used in some cattle feed because they’re high in protein.
   As I wrote last week, we were picking and Colin was reciting what he knew about the crop. When Colin’s knowledge of the crop was exhausted, he called Russ and Fern’s son Tom over to give the next lesson. Seems Tom Arbuckle was the current president of the Cotton A Co-Op, a cooperative where not only the Arbuckles, but many other nearby farmers pooled their resources to run a gin and get their product to market with a higher profit. 
  “We also work together to learn the newest technology, look at the latest products in seeds and equipment, and sort of use our combined experience to bring about the highest, best quality yields,” Tom said. “In our area, we take advantage of every local resource we can, including the Plains Cotton Growers, Inc. They’re an active organization promoting and protecting the interests of all the area’s cotton farmers.”
“How?” I asked.
“How?” Tom mused. “I guess I’d say they foster improvement of conditions under which the Plains cotton is produced and sold. And they encourage standardization and improvement in the quality of cotton and cottonseed, among other objectives. Then we pray a lot.”
I smiled. “Pray for the right amount of rain?”
“Yes, for that and for no hail, and no dust storms. I think most of the farmers would say they spend a proportionate amount of time working during the day and praying at night. Each year it’s a risk, but one that once it gets under your skin, keeps you coming back year after year. It’s a good life.”
   I asked a few more questions as we moved down the rows together, the men picking quickly and waiting for me to catch up. 
I learned today’s cotton farmers don’t just plant seeds and water the ground or hope for Mother Nature to cooperate. Today’s cotton farmers use technology and science to enhance their productivity and yield, as well as charts and graphs and precise calculations of all types to their advantage. There is nothing simple about successful farming in West Texas. 
That particular day, however, technology wasn’t helping me one bit. I picked the cotton as fast as I could, but in no time fell far behind Tom and Colin. They were leaving one or two full bolls on each plant for me to pick after them. How generous! They filled their ten-pound sacks and turned them in, hurriedly bringing back empty ones to start where they left off. I thought Colin and Tom were competing against one another. Had Colin asked Tom to answer my questions to slow him down? I wouldn’t put it past Professor Murphy.
   It didn’t take long for the enthusiastic newness of the manual labor to wear off and a healthy tiredness to set in. I thought about past workers, those who picked cotton prior to harvesting machines and wondered how they did it, day in and day out, hour after hour. A matter of necessity, I suppose. 
           And the slave labor of the south, before the Civil War? This was definitely back-breaking monotonous work. Although the cotton gin had been a great invention, it was one of the reasons slavery had grown and flourished in the American South. The gin made cotton a more profitable crop to market, which meant more farmers could plant more acres, which in turn meant the need for more slaves. It was a cycle that transformed a country, and not for the better, in my opinion. 
           Now the harvester, or cotton stripper, does the work of slaves, but there are still small farms across the country where tenants work almost the same as the slaves, scratching out a living from the dirt without the benefits of technology. I have a new respect for their labors.
By the end of the first hour, I noticed most of the women had left the fields, all the young children with them. Although about a quarter mile from the house, every once in a while I caught the aroma of mouthwatering barbeque, roasting on the huge mesquite-lined pit I’d seen earlier. It made my stomach growl, and I wondered about the wisdom of being stubborn and picking until the end. My back ached, my fingers were scratched and sore despite the gloves, my shirt torn, my feet covered in dust, and my face was sunburned, even under my Red Raider cap. 
The priests had abandoned their row long ago, Monsignor Fitz to the cool shade of the deck, iced tea glass in hand, and Father Sean back to town to officiate at the late afternoon Anticipatory Mass. He would be back shortly afterward, however, to enjoy the feast and to collect his elderly housemate who needed to retire early so he would be alert for the Sunday services. 
   When the final boll was picked clean, another shot rang out, and weary pickers headed back to the house. Holding my aching back, I turned away from the house and looked out over the seemingly endless acres of cotton, stretching as far as the eye could see. It was so peaceful out there — well, except for the hungry crowd behind me thundering back to the house. Maybe Russ and Fern would let me come out sometimes to walk the fields and meditate. Maybe they’d think I was being silly, but there’s just something about it that called to me. 
   “Maggie? Coming?” Colin called, halfway back. 

   We were met with cool sweet tea, cold beer and table upon table of down-home food, including more barbeque beef than I’ve seen in my entire life. It made me think of what Steven had told me about when Texas Tech was first built. Ever the history buff, Steven said at the 1926 dedication ceremony of the Administration Building a cotton bale was symbolically used for a speaker’s podium, and that 35,000 pounds of barbeque had been prepared for the multitude of visitors and dignitaries. I personally think the number has more than likely been severely exaggerated over the years, but no doubt the excited town folk had made a feast to be remembered. 
   They had quite that amount of beef that day, but it still was an impressive pile, most probably Cotton A cattle, and I was hungry enough to eat my fair share.
After taking our turn to wash up at the old tank under the turning windmill, Colin and I joined the line for food
aromatic barbeque, potato salad, pinto beans, corn on the cob and fresh baked pies and cakes. Sitting on hay bales placed around the yard, we unashamedly stuffed ourselves as the ever-faithful cool evening breezes began to blow. 
          Much to the delight of the youngest generation, games for the kids had begun shortly thereafter, including burlap sack races, hay bale rolling and the more-fun-to-watch-than-participate-in three-legged race. The Cowboys had a bye week, but someone was playing football on tv, and several men had wandered in the house to watch, returning regularly to announce the scores to the crowd. 
   An hour or so later, Russ stood on the deck again and awarded prizes for this year’s best pickers, in categories divided by age. Mr. Bodecker won the over-60 category and was awarded a case of local wine. Younger winners took home various prizes such as six-packs of cold beer, or movie theatre tickets. But everyone won the satisfaction of knowing they’d helped get the harvest off to a good start, even if it was the leanest in several years.
  Someone picked up a guitar and started strumming and humming, and before I knew it, we were in the middle of my first ever full-blown West Texas hoedown, fiddlers’ bow strings flying. Large sheets of plywood had been made into a temporary dance floor, and it wasn’t long before it was crowded with boot-scooters.
   Colin proved he could boot-scoot with the best of them, and I laughed as he twirled me around to the Cotton-Eyed Joe
   Near dark, when most of the guests had gone home, Colin and I stayed to help clean up, then were ready to head out ourselves.    
         Thanking Fern again for the wonderful afternoon and evening, and the new experience, I felt bold enough to ask about my desire to come walk the cotton fields.
“Why of course, Maggie,” Fern answered. “Feel free any time ... but tell me what kind of car you drive so I can pass the word along ... hate to have you shot for trespassing!” 
          She winked, but just to be safe, I immediately wrote down my car’s make, model, color and license plate number.
Again, Tech lost a close game. This week to Kansas State. And the Cowboys looked as bad as ever.  Still can’t get behind them because of Jerry Jones. Yes, I know I’m holding grudge. I still miss Tom Landry, The man had class.
        But wow, the Texas Rangers are in the World Series again! Love that Ron Washington! 

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