I was playing golf a couple of weeks ago with some fellow older golfers. One of the guys in our foursome was complaining about his back hurting. When you are our age, something always seems to be hurting. Besides, it gives you something to blame if you play bad.
After hearing his complaint, I responded, “Boy, you ain’t old enough to have a back yet.” He answered, “I know, all I got is just some gristle back there.” Yep, you can tell he had spent time in a tobacco field growing up.
Working in tobacco was hard work, especially if you were out in the field. As soon as I was big enough, Daddy took me off the tractor and gave me a row along with the other croppers. To those who are fortunately unfamiliar with the process, cropping tobacco isn’t very complicated. You take a row of tobacco. You prime, or crop, the ripe leaves off each stalk, usually three or four leaves, starting from the bottom working your way up the stalk. You tuck the primed leaves under your arm until you get an arm full, then carry them and throw them in the trailer. You continue the process until you finish out the row of tobacco. Then you do another row, then another row, and another, and another.
It was also backbreaking work, especially harvesting the lower leaves on the stalk. We young guys would complain about our backs hurting with the bending over while cropping tobacco. Then one of the older men would say the line about us not being old enough to have a back yet. Once I answered, “Well, then my gristle hurts!”
Just like any occupation, there are sayings that are unique to working in tobacco. Well, at least here in eastern North Carolina. Probably the most obvious is the term, “cropping tobacco.” That was the term everyone used. I was talking to a friend recently about those days spent in the fields. He said, “You cropped tobacco. If someone says they ‘primed’ tobacco, or worse, ‘picked’ tobacco growing up, you can tell they hadn’t really spent much time in a tobacco field.”
Another term from the tobacco patch was “seeing the monkey.” Many of you are probably wondering what in the world “the monkey” is. Once again, some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve been cropping tobacco all day. The heat and humidity has the sweat pouring off you like you’re in a sauna. You’re cropping the lower leaves, which are called sand lugs, so you feel like you’ve been standing on your head the whole day. You crop an arm full of tobacco and straighten up to carry it to the trailer. Then everything starts spinning around. You feel woozy. Then you see him, the monkey. OK, you really don’t see a monkey, but that’s what we called it. Why, I don’t know. But if he jumped on your back, you’ve had a bad day. I suppose the correct term for it is dehydration.
During those tobacco barning days, we didn’t like hearing about the gristle in our back, or not having any peanuts to feed the monkey. But one saying we did like. It was, “Boys, we’re in the short rows.” Since the rows in a tobacco field were seldom equal in length, you would always start on the side with the longer rows and work your way toward the shorter side. So, when you got to the “short rows,” you were close to being done. (Well,
probably not, since you would have to hang the tobacco in the barn. But, at least you would be out of the field.)
It looks like I’m in the “short rows” of this column. I hope your “gristle” isn’t hurting. And be careful outside and stay hydrated during this hot weather. You surely don’t want to “see the monkey.”
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at [email protected]