[June 20, 2023] Picking Cotton. My first real job was picking cotton at my Grandpappy’s home in southeast Arkansas. I learned many valuable lessons, including that I was not cut out to be a cotton picker. I was ten years old in the Summer of 1962 when I picked cotton for the first time.
A “real” job meant that you worked for someone else and were paid for the work you produced. There was no minimum wage, no health benefits, no free meals, and no union, and if you were hurt and couldn’t work, you did not get paid. There was no workers comp. You see, when you turned ten in the Satterfield family, you were expected to work and contribute to the family. Period. My Grandpappy cotton fields needed picking, and that was that.
Harvesters got most of the cotton, but at the time, they were inefficient and left too much cotton in the boll. The solution? Send pickers in behind the machines. Late in the summer of 1962, I joined a team of about a dozen pickers. All were adults except me. The most experienced and most able pickers were blacks who lived nearby. The unofficial leader of this team was Mama Ida. She was a large black woman who couldn’t read but was the most wonderful person I’ve ever met.
“Douglas, now you just follow me.” She said that every day. And I did exactly what she told me to do. I was a “city boy” (I lived in a town of 300 folks and had no traffic lights), but because I wore shoes and had soft hands, I was weak and needed “tending to.” I learned from her to be a good follower, pay attention to what you’re told, and follow the directions of the other pickers. An important lesson was they showed me how to avoid cutting my fingers on the sharp cotton boll. If you don’t pay close attention to picking cotton, you could get infected and be out of work. No work, no pay.
Mama Ida was a fast picker. So was everyone else. I was slow, embarrassingly slow. But I quickly learned that teamwork can accomplish more than individuals working separately. People had different jobs in the cotton fields, and none were unimportant. I was often the “water boy” and was proud of it. Carrying water in two tin buckets was crucial to their well-being. And the cotton-picking team was honest. Mama Ida made sure of that and never allowed rocks or dirt in our 10-foot cotton sacks, and pay was based on the weight of the cotton you picked. You were paid cash daily. My Grandpappy paid me my wage that first day, 10 cents. I was devastated.
Arkansas in late summer is hot, windy, humid, dusty, and buggy. The cotton fields exposed you to the sun all day long. I suffered and sometimes cried. But I would not quit, no matter what and no matter that I wanted to quit desperately. I had so many cuts on my hands; I couldn’t count them. And my feet hurt. I wore a baseball hat and got sunburned on my ears and cheeks. The other pickers wore rimmed hats, white shirts or dresses to keep the sun at bay.
At the end of each day, I was exhausted and fell asleep after the dinner my Grandmama had made. The usual evening meal was fried chicken, black-eyed peas or butter beans, spinach or corn, and watermelon for dessert. It was good eating. Breakfast was eggs (from the chickens she tended), toast and homemade jam. Lunch was hardboiled eggs you carried with you into the fields. You could take a lunch break, but you earned less if you did so.
Mama Ida would say, “You be careful now, Douglas.” She was telling me to pay close attention to the Harvesters. They would run you over before you even knew one was even there. In two weeks, we completely cleared the fields of cotton. Now it was time to go home to my parents. Picking cotton may not be ideal, but it helped me learn about people and made me appreciate the value of those who do the grudging, hard, often ignored work that makes America great.
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