We woke at 6:00 am with bustling around getting dressed and ready for the day. We loaded into three separate vehicles and El Caballo ushered me into the old beat up van. Around 7:00 am we arrived at the farmer’s house to pick up the water containers and filled them with water and ice. The men found me some rubber boots and a roll of plastic bags to fashion a poncho for me to wear. The all had their wardrobe of the same handy except El Caballo who had left his rubber boots in the rain last night and discovered that they had water in them. He went out in his tennis shoes.
The short drive to the first field was through a lengthy winding entrance from the paved country road that characterizes many North Carolina fields, somewhat desolate and seemingly consistent with being out of sight and out of mind.
The rows were long and very wet and I looked at them like I remember the first looks I always took at a new crop in my youth doing cotton, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, peaches, oranges, grapefruit, etc. The job was topping, suckering and weeding. The flower had to be broken off the top and the suckers had to be gleaned from the leaf. The suckers look like little shoots of romaine lettuce that will turn to flower if they’re not taken off the top of the tobacco leaf. El Caballo, other men who are called Panza (because of his belly), El Nino (The child) because of his boyish face and one who the farmers call Rudy were my coaches today. They gave me a little training on proper ergonomics on snapping the flower off with your whole hand after they noticed that I started using my thumb and fore/index finger. They said I’d regret it later when my fingers would get sore. The men talked, sang, joked and chatted some nonsense the entire day. They asked me lots of questions about the union but I kept diverting the conversation to their families and personal tragedies. El Nino divorced last year. He remains a loyal father by supporting his four children ages 17, 16, 12 and 4. He is determined that his kids get an education and not be left in dead end jobs in Mexico. He feels being the U.S. for so long a time did not help his matrimony but lack of jobs in Mexico led him to enter the H2A guest worker program. Panza on the other hand is proud of his daughter who will be graduating from law school and has to come up with $2500.00 (US) for the graduating fees and finishing expenses.
While the men talked the time went by quickly in the morning. If it hadn’t been for the plastic, I’d be drenched in the morning dew. The downside was around 10:30, I hadn’t noticed that the others had already shed the ponchos; I was too busy learning to recognize the suckers from the leaves and trying to keep up with the others. I started feeling very, very hot, like in an oven, and somewhat sick. I thought of waiting to get to the end of the row to where the vehicles were parked so I could take off the plastic. I changed my mind and took it off and stuck it in my belt and within minutes I had a new lease of life.
We worked until around noon when the farmer showed up with food. He had lunch bags with a variety of choices. Being one of the last ones to reach him after washing hands, I got one of the last bags with chicken tenders and French fries. I devoured the chicken and a couple of fries and washed it down with unsweetened tea. About 30 minutes later we were back in the field. I felt born again; the food and the break restored my enthusiasm. Around 3:00 we finished the field and drove to another one. The break between fields was welcoming because of the searing heat that was upon us. I don’t know how hot it was but probably in the 90’s. We tore into the next field and around 5:00 I hit a brick wall as the heat was just unbearable and was feeling a little nauseas. We were just finishing what everyone thought was the last row for the day so I sauntered over to the water and the bathroom. While everyone arrived and started washing up the farmer arrived and asked all to do another round! After four cups of water and a little cold Pepsi which I tried to stay away from all day because soft drinks dehydrate, I thought I needed a little sugar to revive myself. Well we sucked it up, went back in and the farmer joined us in the job. El Nino had been driving tractor prior to this last round and had seen me come out of the field. He offered compassion to me by telling me to take the row next to him. He would help me catch up if I got behind. Surprisingly, the water, sugar and the short rest period gave me the second wind I had been waiting for all day.
We finished at around 6:30 and made a slow drive back to the camp. After being in the camp for a short time, El Nino and another man nicknamed “Chemo” were going into town to the Piggly Wiggly grocery store. I asked to go along because I hadn’t brought any food supplies last night and wanted to have something so I could share with the men and not mooch off of them. It also provided me with the opportunity to visit the dollar store to get a white cap, gloves and a couple of bandannas for work gear. I had brought a Cleveland Indians ball cap (dark blue) and nothing to shield my neck so I now have a sun line there. The white cap and white bandanna will be tucked under my cap to shield my neck (used to do it all the time in the fields.) While at the Piggly Wiggly, Chemo asked me to help translate so he could send money to his son in New Bern, North Carolina. I did the translating and El Nino helped him fill out the western-union form for sending the money.
All day I was nervous about the nicotine and tar. The “Green Monster” as they know it is nicotine poisoning ingested through the skin. I was lucky to find some light gloves with grips on them. They’ll get wet but at least there would be a shield from the tar and nicotine. I got a set of three pairs so we’ll see how they work. Grabbing the suckers might be problematic because some of them are very small.
I thought today about the wealth of the tobacco companies. Having attended RJ Reynolds last shareholder’s meeting in their opulent building in Winston-Salem a couple months ago, how there can be such a disconnect with their abundance and affluence with the lives these men have? I hope to talk more to the farmers and their struggles in maintaining this opportunity for these men as they too are often not taken into account in securing a dependable labor supply. The monolithic tobacco companies could make things more bearable and secure for both farmers and farm workers if they wanted to. I hope we can make them listen. As usual, there are a lot of talking heads, misguided thinkers and bureaucrats who weight in when it comes to public policy but have little knowledge of the daily struggles of those who have to “dig in the trenches.”
Finally, I thought of why God created this plant that ends up in a product that is roundly villanized. I read a story last week in the Toledo Blade of how it might give us a product that could attack cancer tumors! I thought that there might be a glimmer of hope for this plant in God’s redemptive nature. It also does not take away from the noble efforts of the men and women who grow the crop and the men who cultivate and harvest it to raise their families. They have my profoundest respect.
Call to the Fields Part V
Call to the Fields Part IV
Call to the Fields Part III
Call to the Fields Part II
Call to the Fields