Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Partners

Part 4

Bill Fleet


We 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 Daddy’s 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 shells—something 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 can’t 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 wouldn’t take a step when they felt too hot. But still, Daddy didn’t want to take chances with our only mules. Plowing cotton in hot weather didn’t 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 ain’t one and don’t you ever forget it.”

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.

And then it hit—November, 1929—the crash. We were lucky. Daddy had sold most of our cotton before prices fell. We had food stored away—canned 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 now—twelve. 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 didn’t 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 hadn’t 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 wasn’t 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 family’s expenses during the growing season, things like fertilizer and money advanced for food. During picking season, we wrote down every family’s 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 family’s 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.

The 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 weren’t a bit stronger than the levees had been in 1927. They failed one by one over the entire country. There was no cash—anywhere. Twenty dollars would buy a 500-pound bale of seed-free cotton—but 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 couldn’t.

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 ain’t making it. We got to try somewhere else. We gonna starve if we stay here.” Probably things weren’t 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.

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Bill 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.

© Bill Fleet

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012