Freeze column: Picking cotton in underwear
In an earlier column, I mentioned good things that came from working at Patterson’s tomato farm. Some of the lessons learned involved things that probably wouldn’t happen today.
Like picking cotton for 9 cents a pound, wearing only underwear.
I worked at the farm in the late 1960s and early to mid ’70s. While in the fields, it was very common for most of the boys to work without a shirt. It was just easier to wash a dirty body than t-shirts stained with rotten tomatoes and red mud. We didn’t own many shirts back then, and even though they were washed daily, the same old white shirts became dingy quickly. That explains the great tans that all the guys had.
Due to the nature of the farm work, most of us had only worn long pants. At that time, most teens didn’t have a whole lot of shorts. We just didn’t think of working in them. We all wore jeans every day for work.
Now back to the real reason that any of this mattered. Girls! As proud as we were of our upper body tans and maybe a few muscles, farm boys had legs as white as those same T-shirts when clean. A nice pool was built about that time in our community, and it was the place to go after work. Brown, tanned backs and pale white legs just didn’t seem to go together.
During those same years, many of us made our first trips to the beach, where the farm kids stood out even more.
We didn’t want to lose any girls to the town kids. Not that all town kids were bad, they just weren’t the same as us. We worked hard, earned money for our own cars or trucks (if we had one), and had plenty of responsibilities at home. They had tanned legs from wearing shorts.Once in a while a town kid came to work on the farm. They didn’t last long as a rule, and I can remember only one who was a big success. Mark Huffman, now one of the owners of Grove Supply, loved every minute of farm work. He was so bright-eyed and happy when he came to work that we all liked him. Mark said things like, “Wow! We get to go ride on those trucks out to the fields! Then pick tomatoes too!” ó things we all took for granted.
Otherwise, we just didn’t have much to do with the town guys. Most of all, we hated to see them come to the country to visit the girls.
We picked tomatoes for just over $1 an hour. I think my wage was about $1.30, which was pretty good for that time. I had never been paid for work, except a short stint as a bag boy. The farm work was a lot more fun, and the pay just didn’t matter that much.
One year, Frank and Carl Patterson had planted a field of cotton. Few of the guys on the farm had ever picked cotton, but we were intrigued. The Pattersons offered us the large sum of 9 cents per pound, and four of us took them up on it.
Cotton is hard to pick fast, and it weighs very little. We had to wear gloves to pick because pulling the cotton loose would be hard on the hands.
Four guys left out to pick cotton on Saturday afternoon. We were quite a ways from the farm and a paved road, so we decided to pick cotton in our underwear and get a tan. For some reason, wearing only white Fruit of the Loom briefs didn’t seem odd that day. Nobody would see us, so here was the perfect opportunity to get brown legs.
Our biggest dilemma was what to use for suntan lotion. There was a quart of 30-weight motor oil in the truck, so we smeared it all over our legs. It seemed a sure fire plan to kill two birds with one stone: make some money and get a tan!
But as well laid plans often fall short of the goal, this one certainly did. Picking was slow, and we were not good at it. We dragged a big over-the-shoulder bag behind us, and it didn’t seem to get heavier with cotton. Four hours later, I had picked 40 pounds and earned $3.60. The others had done about the same, and we deemed it unproductive work. Frank and Carl probably agreed.
Did we get the tan? That didn’t work, either, because the job was too dirty, and the motor oil attracted everything. When we put our jeans back on, they ended up dirtier on the inside than they were on the outside, plus they felt slimy and became spotted with oil. It was good oil.
Besides the $3.60, I acquired a healthy respect for those who were successful at picking cotton. More so, I was very happy to see machinery do the work.
There is still cotton planted in the area, and every time I see it, I am reminded of the fun times from years ago. I got to pick cotton. I know only three others who did. I’m not sure that we helped our standing with the girls any, but it was worth the adventure. Life is a just a long series of memorable adventures.
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David Freeze lives in Rowan County.