When I saw the title of the article in “Our State” magazine, I laughed. The title was “Memories of pulling tobacco, a labor of love.” “Labor of love?” I snickered. “It was probably written by someone who never worked in tobacco.” As I read the article, I found out that I was right. The author never spent a summer in the tobacco field.
But he wished he had. The author, T. Edward Nickens, describes growing the tobacco crop in an almost romantic, good old days manner. He writes, “I envy their common vocabulary of “settin’ out” the tobacco plants and “layin’ by” the rows, their wistful memories of summer nights scented with a flue barn fire. I’d like to share their ties to the land, the seasons, their neighbors. I’d like to have a few stories of barely making it to my Mason jar of water, stashed in the shade of a tobacco plant, the sole reward for pulling another row. I wish I’d worked on a tobacco farm.”
Well, I would have been glad for him to take my place. Working in tobacco wasn’t a “labor of love,” it was just labor, hard labor. It was hot, sticky, sweaty physical work. It was getting up before dawn to take out a barn of cured tobacco, then working the whole day until almost sunset, filling up that barn with tobacco from the field.
Now it wasn’t all bad. Most of the time, you were working with people you could get along with. There were times of laughing and playing jokes. (For some reason, the girls didn’t like you putting tobacco worms on their shoulders.) But it was work. Work that was part of the culture that I, and most everyone my age, knew growing up. In the summer, you worked in tobacco. There was nothing romantic about it, and it surely wasn’t a “labor of love.”
Occasionally, someone will send me an email, or make a comment on the newspaper website, about a column I have written. I appreciate them, and am glad someone cares enough about the columns to write. Last summer, I wrote a column about working in tobacco as a kid. I had written about the positive things I learned while working in tobacco.
But I think the person who wrote the comment misunderstood the point I was trying to convey in the column. They wrote, “Romanticizing the idea of children working for less than minimum wage in a death industry is sick!”
Trust me, I wasn’t “romanticizing” working in tobacco. There was nothing romantic about it. But they were right, I did get paid less than minimum wage. Working on our farm, I may have gotten a little spending money and money for back to school clothes. But the money from the sale of that tobacco helped provide a living for our family, and would later help pay for a college education for my sister and myself.
I’m no fan of smoking. But as far as tobacco being a “death industry,” more people today die from the effects of obesity than any other cause. Maybe cheeseburgers and doughnuts are the real “death industries.”
Even though it was hard difficult work, maybe I’m glad I worked in tobacco those summers. Maybe not glad, but I can now appreciate the experience. Why? Because I learned some important lessons. First, that hard work never killed anyone. Well, that’s what I was told many times. I wondered about that often those summers, especially while cropping sand lugs (the lowest tobacco leaves on the stalk, for you city folks.) And it didn’t kill me.
Second, responsibility. You were given a job to do, even at six or seven years old. And even if the job was small, it needed to be done. And if you didn’t do it, someone else would have to do it. As I became older, the responsibilities became greater. If you couldn’t handle cropping your row, someone else would have to help you, or you would slow down the whole operation.
Third, the value of a dollar. That was a very important lesson. Most of what little amount I would receive while working was used to help buy school clothes for the Fall. When you realize that a couple of dollars extra spent on an item is another hour out in the field working, you shop a little more carefully.
There were other lessons learned. But the most important one was embedded in my being almost every day in that tobacco field. Simply, get an education so I won’t have to do this when I get older.
Working in tobacco those summers definitely weren’t a labor of love. But maybe it helped make us better and more responsible adults. But I still would have gladly let Mr. Nickens take my place.
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.