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.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Chapters 43 & 44

Chapter 43
       I was in the office early last Tuesday morning, quickly burying myself in work, hoping to get a huge portion of it done before the mid-morning Board of Regents meeting. I was also still stinging from the “We don’t do pink” incident with Boyle. But I would get over it, I knew. 
I heard Elaine come in and greeted her without looking up. But Elaine walked into the inner office and asked cheerfully, “Coffee, boss?” 
   Coffee? I thought. Elaine knew I didn’t drink coffee, and Elaine knew I knew Elaine knew ... so why the question? Looking up from my work, I found the answer. 
   Elaine was dressed head to toe in pink ... pink shoes, pink tights, pink wool skirt with matching blouse, pink chiffon scarf, pink earrings. Even her fingernail polish was a shade of the now infamous color. To top it all off, literally, she’d donned a hot pink straight-haired wig, which was surprisingly fashionable next to her smooth cocoa face and large brown eyes. 
   “Elaine!” I sputtered, laughing. “You look great! Thanks.”
Keeping a straight face, Elaine said, “Thanks for what?”
      “For the outfit.”
   “The outfit? Don’t know what you mean. This was just next in line in my closet, that’s all. I’m guessing you don’t want coffee.” With that she retreated to her own desk. 
   To my delight, each of my staff members was similarly dressed ... although none as elaborately as Elaine. Of course all Ricky had to do was put on his Hawaiian shirt with flamingos — which probably was next in line in his closet. 
      I chuckled as each one made a point of coming into my office on a pretend errand just to show their loyalty. And each acted as innocent as Elaine. My heart soared.
   Ready mid-morning to head downstairs for the monthly Board meeting, Elaine insisted I borrow her chiffon scarf saying she thought the hallways were a little chilly and she didn’t want me to catch cold. 
   I bravely obliged and tied the pink scarf around my neck, tucking it in the front of my jacket so just a hint of the color showed above my dark brown suit. But it did show, and I hoped Bennett Boyle would notice, the idiot.
   Heading to the meeting, I was astounded to discover at least half of the administration building’s staff appeared to be in on the conspiracy, each wearing something pink. In the board room I sat next to Jake from the A-J, and waved to Miss Katherine, lovely in a bright pink blouse, and Winston, who winked at me and pointed to his pink bow tie. Even Russell Arbuckle sported a pink shirt visible behind the Board of Regent’s table. I can’t imagine how he’d heard about it. Maybe just a lucky coincidence?
   When Bennett Boyle arrived, it was impossible for him to ignore the sea of matching shirts, blouses, sweaters and ties. As all eyes smugly turned toward him, try as he might, he couldn’t stop from joining in as his face turned a bright shade of angry pink. 

   During the administrative reporting section of the meeting, President Parker mentioned the Rube Goldberg Competition he’d attended the previous day, urging Regents to visit the university website to view the winning entries. 
   I smiled, knowing my team had done another outstanding job on the report. But then the president said, “Mr. Boyle, Chief of Staff, is in charge of the university’s website, and has done a good job of getting interesting activities such as this one up in a timely manner. He deserves acknowledgement of this good work.”
Boyle was flustered, as the majority of the audience knew about his computer illiteracy. As he nodded at the president in thanks, once again his face turned a slight shade of pink. This time mine did, too. 

   When the meeting adjourned, Winston stopped me in the hallway. “My dear, you should have been the one being recognized, not Boyle.”
  “No, Steven, Charlie, Susan, Ricky and Elaine should have been recognized. They did all the work,” I said with resignation. “But thanks for wearing pink, Windy. It means a lot.” 
    “About that, don’t worry. I told Bennett earlier to lighten up ... and it was his own damn fault anyway for being so ‘assillogical.’ ”
   I couldn’t help but smile. Did that particular balderdash mean an illogical ass? If so, I thought that jabberwocky “approaptly” used.
Chapter 44
“Glad you weren’t hurt in the library fire,” Colin had said the week before when he called. “Stood up to Boyle, huh? Bet that went over well.”
“Not exactly well, no.”
“Well, he hasn’t fired you yet, has he? That’s a good sign he’s realized you were right and he was wrong.”
“Here’s hoping. I’d hate to be fired right after buying a new house.” I said ruefully.
   “Good investment opportunity,” Colin said quickly, and I swear I could “see” him smiling over the phone. “Listen,” he continued, “can you clear Oct. 9, Sunday afternoon and evening?” I could, wondering at his instructions to wear heavy jeans, boots and a long-sleeved flannel or corduroy shirt ... and to bring a hat, which of course I didn’t have. The Tech cap I wear to football games would have to do. 

Speaking of football games, Tech lost a heartbreaker to the Aggies on Saturday night. Although the Red Raiders fought bravely, the Aggies were too much for us. Darn.

“Where are we going and what in the world are we doing?” I asked yesterday as Colin picked me up, dressed in roughly the same type of attire. His truck’s exterior was filthy again.
   “Cotton pickin’,” he said with a smug grin.
   “Cotton picking? As in going out and harvesting the cotton? In a big tractor?” I asked.
   “Nope. By hand.”
“By hand?  By our own hands? Picking cotton with our bare hands? Whatever for?”
   “It’s a tradition. The Cotton A has a decades-long unwritten law of bringing in the first acre of cotton by hand. Once that’s done, they harvest the rest with ‘big tractors,’ as you call them.”
“The Cotton A? You know the Arbuckles?”  
      “I do. Church, remember?”
   “Oh, yeah. Wait, we’re going to pick an entire acre of cotton?” I said with alarm. “Us and what army?”
   “You’ll see.” 

   And I did. As we got close to Russ and Fern Arbuckle’s large old farmhouse on the Cotton A ranch/farm, the cars and trucks lining the long drive told the story of the army. Farm hands, neighbors, friends from the parish, and all their families, even children as young as toddlers were there to join in the tradition. 
   Hovering around the east side of the huge two-story yellow clapboard house next to an enormous deck, the large crowd waited in good humor to begin their labor. I greeted several parishioners, including Mrs. Bodecker and her husband, Ned. They, too, were in jeans and heavy shirts and boots. (We needed the boots because of the rain that started yesterday and was still coming and going.)
  Father Sean and Father Fitzpatrick were present, and about ten minutes after we arrived, the two priests were up on the deck along with Russ and Fern. A hush fell over the crowd as Russ welcomed them to the beginning of harvest season. He thought it had been one of the worst growing seasons in decades because of the drought, but nevertheless, he thanked his workers for their diligent labor since last spring’s planting.

   “As you all know, each spring here on the Cotton A, we ask Monsignor Fitzpatrick to bless the planting, to ask God to watch over our crops and our workers, to keep each safe in their growing or their hoeing, and once again, God has answered our prayers. Finally, these lovely bolls just started popping open. So, even with only a meager crop now ready to harvest, we need to get this event under way. 
   “Since I was knee-high to a cotton boll, this ranch has picked the first acre together by hand to celebrate the ritual of our fathers and grandfathers and to keep us close to the good earth. We thank you for joining us today to keep tradition alive.
   “And now, we ask Monsignor Fitzpatrick and Father Murphy to bless our harvest.  Fathers?”
   Ambling up to the small platform on the deck with the help of Father Sean, Monsignor Fitz slowly gazed over his audience, trying to look into the eyes of each person, young and old. He did the same before each Mass, and Maggie thought Father Fitz a showman at his best, looking for all the drama to be found. Once assured all eyes were on him alone, he began by crossing himself, “In da name o’ da Fadder an’ o’ da Son an’ o’ da Holy Spirit. Amen.” 
   Father Sean then said, “Our help is in the name of the Lord who has made heaven and earth. The Lord be with you. And with your spirit.” Most of the audience answered in unison, “And also with you.”
   Father Fitz continued, “Almighty Lord God, Ya keep on giving abundance ta men in da dew o’ heaven, an’ food an’ sustenance out o’ da richness o’ da soil. We give tanks ta Yer most gracious majesty for da fruits o’ da field which we are ’bout ta gather. We beg o’ Ya, in Yer mercy, ta bless this harvest, which ’as been received from Yer generosity. Preserve it, an’ those who reap it, an’ keep ’em from aul harm. Grant, too, dat aul dose whose desires Ya have filled wit dese good tings may be happy in Yer protection. May dey praise Yer mercies forever, an’ make use o’ da good tings dat do not last in such a way dat dey may not lose dose goods dat are everlasting through Christ ’er Lord.  Amen.”
   Father Sean finished with, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
   Russ thanked the priests as they left the platform, and said, “Okay, now remember, we’ve got some prizes at the end of the day, but the main job is to have fun, and of course to get it all picked ’fore the food gets cold. If you don’t have an assignment, see Tom up here to get one. Then head for your row and wait for the gun ... let’s get pickin’! There’s a feast awaitin’ for us when we’re done!”
  Fern spotted Colin and me and made her way through the crowd to us, throwing her thin but strong arms around me for a hug. “I’m so glad you were able to join us, Maggie!”
  “I’m so pleased to be here,” I replied. “I’ve never picked cotton before.”
“No? I can’t imagine anyone not pulling it at least once in their lives, but Colin was a novice at one time too, weren’t you, dear?”
“I was, but I learned quickly. Tom and Russ sort of threw me out there and said pick, so I did. I’m such a city-slicker and did such a poor job on the first few plants they had to come behind me to do it right. There’s definitely an art to it.”
  “Almost a lost art, I’m afraid,” Fern said wistfully. “All this technology. It’s just not the same as when I was a girl. Now we spray it all and turn it crispy brown, then the pickin’ machines clean eight rows at a time. They’ve already started to defoliate the outer acres. Can’t stand the sight of those withered up branches, but I know it’s the best way to harvest nowadays. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.” 
  “Have they harvested any of the fields yet?” I asked.
  “No, that’ll start on Monday. We always have the hand-harvest first if we can. We would have had it yesterday if there hadn’t been a game. Darn Aggies. Whipped us good, didn’t they. Oh well, there’s always next year. Now, if you get tired of pickin’, Maggie, you can help in the kitchen, although there are plenty of folks working in there, so feel free to stay outside until it’s all picked – especially since it’s your first harvest.”
  Colin said, “Cotton A feeds us well for our work, but each person here will pull at least one boll, even down to the smallest child. I’ve seen some mothers carry their children out who aren’t even walking yet. I think if they can grab something, they let them pull a boll.”
“That’s right,” Russ said, walking up to put his arm around his diminutive wife of more than 55 years. “It symbolizes how it takes all of us, working together, to have a crop. A healthy crop to will provide for all the workers and their families throughout the year. And even though this has been a really tough year, we’ve still feel we’ve been blessed.” 
   He kissed Fern tenderly on the top of her head. “But they’re pickin,’ Colin, not pullin’.”
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
   Fern answered. “Pickin’ is reaching inside the boll to pull the locks of lint and seeds out of the burr. Pullin’ cotton is pluckin’ the entire boll off the plant, burr, lint, seeds and all.”
  “So what does your equipment do? Pick or pull?” 
  Russ answered, “Our harvesters pull and strip the cotton, then spit the burrs back out into the field as they go along. Our machines are actually stripping the plants, but nowadays it’s not exactly politically correct to say we’re stripping, because it’s looked upon as inferior crop. But with the advanced technology and quality seeds, our cotton is as premium as they grow in Arizona or California. So we call ’em harvesters. Just rhetoric, but no matter what we call it, it gets the cotton to market.”
   “Hadn’t you two better get pickin’?” Fern said. 
“On our way!” Colin laughed, grabbed my hand and lead me to the field. 
  Colin had been assigned a row and given two burlap sacks before we headed out. I noticed Father Sean helping Monsignor Fitzpatrick toward the end of a nearby row, sack in hand. I didn’t think they’d pick much but knew Father Fitz wasn’t one to sit on the sidelines and be content to watch.
Colin handed me a pair of leather gloves. “You’ll need these,” he said. “But pick the first couple of bolls without them to get the feel for it. But not yet,” he warned as I reached down. “Wait for the gun.” And with that, a shot rang out and the pickin’ commenced with shouts and whoops of spirited competition.
   I looked at the knee-high withered cotton plant before me with its fluffy white fibers exploding out of sharp brown burrs and said a little prayer for assistance. 

   “I’ll show you,” Colin said, expertly pulling the fibers from between the sharp pricks without incident. Not to be outdone, I tried it, gingerly putting my hand into the plant. My fingertips reached the underside, gathering my first wad of cotton.  I moved my thumb around feeling the weighty seeds deeply impeded in the fiber and wondered about the patience needed to pull them out by hand.
You can’t imagine how soft it is. I grinned with my success, and Colin smiled with me, as I popped my first boll into the sack. Then we attacked the plants with determination. 
  As we worked our way down the row, Colin told me more about cotton. The average yield per acre is normally one and one-third bales, but with the newest developed seeds that allow herbicide to be sprayed on top without damaging the cotton plants, farmers expect two to three bales per acre. Colin said a bale weighs approximately 500 pounds without seeds. I am sure my eyes got wide when I learned more than 600 pounds of seeds would be taken from this one acre. But we’d let the cotton gin remove them from the fiber. As I had thought, it’s much too time consuming to do by hand. That’s why the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney more than 200 years ago revolutionized cotton farming.  
“In the 1700s, even under good conditions, a worker could clean no more than one pound of the crop a day. The cotton gin made it possible to clean fifty pounds per day back then, the simple invention streamlining the work and making profits soar,” Colin said with confidence. 
When I looked at him questioningly, he said, “Yes, it’s one of those things I read way back when and it just sticks in my brain. I’ve got tons of useless stuff in here,” he smiled, tapping himself on the head with one leather gloved hand. I laughed, but asked what else he knew. 
He talked about how raw cotton from the field is fed through a cylinder in the gin with wire teeth spinning around. The wire teeth pass through small slits in a wall, pulling the fibers of the cotton all the way through but leaving the seeds behind. 
Cotton is still a relatively easy crop to grow, requiring not much more than God’s good earth, rain, sun and air. Today, five million acres of cotton are grown annually in the country. And West Texas, with it’s abundance of wide open spaces and good air, was normally a perfect environment for the crop. 
      Colin said proudly, “Today the South Plains is the largest contiguous cotton growing region in the world.’
  “In the world?” I asked, surprised. 
“Yep. Too much civilization everywhere else,” Colin answered. “Irrigation and chemicals have enhanced the yield per plant, too, but many of the fields are without irrigation. Farmers plant dry fields at much lower costs, praying for weather conditions to be favorable.” 
I then asked about the large center pivot irrigation pipes I had seen. They are not pulled by tractors as I originally thought, but instead are mechanized to move on command, each section constantly adjusting to keep in alignment with its neighbors. They can even be monitored by satellite systems through a farmer’s cell phone.
   The acre we picked on Sunday, however, was normally a dry field, he told me, but because of the drought, Russ had installed drip irrigation on this acre. He wanted to make sure it survived. Other dry fields across the Llano Estacado had failed to flourish. It indeed has been a terrible, horrible growing season for Texas. 
More on the hand-harvest next week. 

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