struggled through the winter of 1927-1928, living off our savings,
as little as it was. Everything was scarce and expensive. JT and
I killed pigs that had gone wild and a few deer for meat. I loved
it when I could send JT home to fetch a mule so we could drag
our meat home.
Hunting with Daddys big rifle was not a chore. It was the
only fun thing we did that year. Everything else was work. I was
sure glad he salvaged that gun from our tumbled down house. We
made it look good as new, except for a little rust here and there.
The bore came shiny-clean. Daddy bought new shellssomething
you could kill a deer or a hog with.
Daddy and Mike and JT and I plowed and planted with two mules
Daddy had found on a high ridge after we came home. We hoed and
cultivated what little cotton and corn we could plant in the spring
of 1928. We worked from can to cant in the fields all summer.
JT and I tried to out-plow, out-hoe, and out-pick each other all
season long. Daddy put a stop to that plowing business. Mules
usually balked and wouldnt take a step when they felt too
hot. But still, Daddy didnt want to take chances with our
only mules. Plowing cotton in hot weather didnt seem to
hurt a mule, but you could kill one by plowing tall corn too long.
Mamma and Baby Sis and Ruthie and Betty put in a garden of beans
and peas and turnips and okra and corn. The Red Cross gave us
the seed. They gave us soybean seed to plant in the fields, too,
but we ate that. Boiled soybeans were right tasteless, but they
filled you up. There was not a whole lot else to eat that spring
so soybeans tasted better than going hungry. Even with soybeans,
we were hungry a lot.
Our two families ate pretty good in the late summer of 1928. We
had fresh food but not much variety. I told Mamma, One day
we have peas and corn; the next day we have corn and peas.
We ate plenty of okra and turnip greens, too. Betty even boiled
some turnips that fall. Of course, we had a fair amount of deer
meat and pork. When we killed a hog or a deer, we had to butcher
it and cook it right then cause we had no way to salt meat
down just yet. Still, we ate a whole lot better than last year.
In the fall everyone picked cotton, except Betty; she cooked.
Even Mamma picked. Her face became tanned and her hands had dozens
of painful scratches from the sharp cotton bolls. She had been
through too much since the flood to worry about how her face or
hands looked or what her friends might think if they knew she
worked like a field hand. She told us, I might work like
a redneck but I sure aint one and dont you ever forget
Daddy and Mike built an outdoor cooking stove out of salvaged
brick and steel rods. They even built an open shed over it to
keep the rain off. JT and I gathered and split dead hardwood for
the fire. Mamma and Betty salvaged knives and spoons and forks
and pots and tin pie plates from what was left of our old house.
We ate on two rough wood tables under an old pear tree in the
yard; us on one side of the tree; them on the other.
We cleared enough cash to get through the winter with enough money
left for seed the next spring. Two families moved back to the
farm. The flood had dropped another inch of fresh topsoil; we
had money for five new mules and equipment to work them with.
We began to rebuild our house. The Langsons would move into the
tenant house when our house was finished.
Things were looking up.
then it hitNovember, 1929the crash. We were lucky.
Daddy had sold most of our cotton before prices fell. We had food
stored awaycanned vegetables and salt-cured pork and corn
meal. We had a little money in the bank. JT and Betty and Mike
were here. We could ride out this storm, too.
JT and I had hunted and fished together almost since we could
dress ourselves, but we were older nowtwelve. We were old
enough for serious work. JT became a field hand. He plowed, planted,
hoed, and picked. He had no time for boy things. He was doing
man-work. He was bigger and stronger than me. I didnt like
that too much, but what could I do? Folks grow up.
JT began to develop man desires. He began to think all week long
while he worked in the fields about his Saturday nights in Macon.
It seemed that he hadnt much time for hunting or fishing,
but neither did I. I thought about girls, too. Neither one of
us had much luck along those lines.
I wasnt doing boy-work either. I began to shadow Daddy.
We made sure the sharecroppers kept their cotton clear of weeds
and grass. In the fall, I weighed every sack of cotton they filled.
I helped pack cotton into our wagons for the gin and drove them
there. I helped pay off on Saturdays.
I began to help with the books. We kept up with each familys
expenses during the growing season, things like fertilizer and
money advanced for food. During picking season, we wrote down
every familys harvest. That was how we figured how much
each family cleared. In good years they had enough for Christmas,
for some store-bought clothes, for some fruit and candy and toys
for their babies. In bad years, they owed more than they cleared.
Daddy always carried a good familys debts over till next
year and advanced them some Christmas money, too. We never had
a problem with keeping our good tenants like some folks did.
year of 1933 was as hot and dry as I could remember. Corn burned
up; cotton stalks grew only two feet high; we finished picking
in October, not December the way we usually did. Banks began
to fail. It turned out they werent a bit stronger than
the levees had been in 1927. They failed one by one over the
entire country. There was no cashanywhere. Twenty dollars
would buy a 500-pound bale of seed-free cottonbut who
had twenty dollars?
How Daddy saved our farm, I do not know. We grew our own meat
and vegetables and corn for feed and for bread. Food was not
a problem; taxes were. After the bank failed, our cash was gone.
Daddy squirmed and fought and schemed and somehow kept our farm
away from foreclosure. Most folks couldnt.
Our sharecroppers' debts grew. Ours did, too. One after another,
our tenants knocked on our back door. Holding battered hats
in their hands, they stammered, We aint making it.
We got to try somewhere else. We gonna starve if we stay here.
Probably things werent a bit better wherever they went,
but at least a move left them a little hope for the future.
Daddy and I and Mike and JT and the few families who had stayed
on sweated and scratched and fought. It seemed that no matter
how hard we worked, the weather, the weeds, the bugs, the price
of cotton knocked us down.
Finally, in 1940, the weather was better, bugs were less a problem,
and the price for cotton was better. Things began to look up.
JT worked in the fields. I began to manage the farm. We hunted
and fished together whenever we could, but those days became
fewer and fewer as the months wore on. Still, we felt a kinship.
At least I did. I think JT did, too.
Fleet grew up in rural Mississippi. He earned BA and MD
degrees from Vanderbilt University. He was a faculty member
in the Vanderbilt Department of Pediatrics for nine years before
entering private practice in the Nashville area. He began creative
writing shortly after retiring in 1998 and published his first
book in 2000.