Growing up, one of my first play toys was a tobacco stick. It had so many uses! Made a great ball bat (rocks were the balls – really made the eye keen), a stake for tomato plants, and all kinds of imaginary uses. Growing up there was rarely a day when a tobacco stick was not far from my hand.
My first remembrance of being at the tobacco barn was being in the playpen. I was just starting to walk and get in everyone’s way, hence the playpen. All I wanted to do was to, pet the mules, to help unload the tobacco sleds (or ride in them to the fields.) Each year I found myself again at my grandparents tobacco barn and I remember this one time when my grandfather, always looking to take advantage of a situation, set me and my cousins (guess we were about 6 or 7) suckering the tobacco plants. To sucker the plants you need to stoop over all day and go from plant to plant (thousands) and remove the shoots that sprung up between the leavers on the stalk. Since we were so short it was a perfect job for the “youngans”!
At the end of what seemed to be a 10 hour day, we ask grandpa for money to go to the store and buy ice cream (a nickel each). He said he was out of money but grandma (was the nicest grandmother) gave each of us 15 cents and we walked the 2 miles to the nearest store. Later I was old enough to harvest tobacco and at .50 cents an hour, I could make $30 to $60 by working several farms during the short 3 week harvest season. In due time this rose to $1 an hour and I could make $100 during the summer. This bought writing paper, book bags, shoes, socks, and new clothes for school.
Later learning how to hang tobacco in the barn, remove it for the “tying of hands” to place in the tobacco basket for shipment to the warehouse for auction, and how to work at the warehouse unloading trucks from farmers, (and keeping their tobacco piles neat and attractive for the auctioneer) allowed the season to extend into the school year. I skipped school many days and spent many nights working in the auction houses. It was good the feel the jingling of coins in my pocket.
It was also a time of acceptance of cigarette smoking, chewing, snuff, cigars, pipes, anything tobacco – as it supported the farmer. I started cigarettes at 13 and continued until my early twenties
When the tobacco farmer was a boy,
The tobacco stick was a toy,
Draw in the sand, a rifle, at spear, a sword.
When he was a young man,
The tobacco stick was no longer a toy,
Earn money for dates, clothes for school, a cola at the country store.
When he was a man,
The tobacco stick was a symbol for his farm,
The cigarette dangling from his lip, a yellow of nicotine stain on his finger nail.
Now that he is an elder,
The tobacco stick a reminder of his life surrendered in smoke.
His lungs filled with anxiety, his life-force bound by chains.