It was a hay wagon really, only it was loaded with tobacco instead of hay. And I didn’t yet have two little people calling me granny. It was a long time ago. A long time ago times ten.
It happened when I was sixteen years old. I had moved out of my grandmother’s home to go live with her sister, my great aunt. She had a huge farm complete with cattle and acres and acres of tobacco, corn, and hay. I only spent about a year there, but it’s a time of my life that I remember most fondly. It was a time filled with hard work, serenity, and a daily sense of accomplishment.
We won’t go into the reasons why I moved there. Just remember that part of my story that tells you how old I was, compare that with every other teenager you’ve ever known, and use your imagination. I prefer to call it just another of life’s experiences. My grandmother referred to it as our ‘difficult times’ without ever going into further explanation, for which I have always been incredibly grateful.
While I was there at my aunt’s, my daily routine consisted of going to school, working my part time job after school, and performing various daily chores on my aunt’s massive farm. This detail alone may provide fodder, so to speak, for many more stories to come. For now, though, I’m going to try really hard to focus on just this one, because the others are flooding into my memory paths as I write this, trying to take over and hijack my story.
So in case I forget, feel free to remind me later to tell you about my first experience with donut holes or how a kitten was almost strangled by a clothes line. I’ll be glad to tell those stories, too.
Caring for the tobacco crops seemed to take up most of our time as there were regular and sequential duties that had to be performed. From starting it in narrow rows under a canopy, to transplanting it to larger rows that took up literal acres of space, to maintaining it thereafter through harvest, hanging, stripping, and baling, it seemed like all we did was eat, sleep, and drink tobacco.
When it grew tall enough, we would have to go through plant by plant and ‘sucker’ it. There are tiny leaves that sprout between the main leaf and the stalk, and these tiny leaves are called ‘suckers’ because they suck the life right out of the plant. I don’t know if this definition is accurate, but it’s what I was told at the time. And it’s fitting. Anyway, we would have to pull these off and discard them. Plant by plant. Row by row.
The next thing was to ‘top’ it. When the plants had matured, a stem would sprout from the top to grow an ornate flower. Since this also took strength away from the main plant, we would have to go through and remove these by hand. Plant by plant and row after row.
My thumb and forefinger had turned a nasty shade of greenish brown from all the picking and plucking from these tobacco plants. No amount of soap and water would clean that stain off. By November, though, it had slowly disappeared on its own. Either it just wore off or it was removed by cow spit, I may never know for sure.
The worst part of dealing with all those tobacco plants was having to deal also with the tobacco worms. These things are HUGE! They’re caterpillars in actuality, but they are really, really, REALLY big ones. And they’re a shade of green that mimics grass, so they’re hard to see. I never found out what the caterpillars eventually turned into when they broke free from their cocoons, but I always imagined they would be pterodactyls.
When it came time for harvesting, we would attach a hay wagon to the tractor and use it to carry as many able bodied people as we could find out into the fields to chop down the tobacco plants. The wagon was then used to stack the tobacco for transport back to the barn for hanging.
We worked in pairs; the lead would hold the plant in the middle of the stalk with one hand and then swing a hatchet or machete at the base of the plant with the other. When freed from its earthy stance, the plant would be handed to the other person for spearing. For this, a wooden stake was driven into the ground and an aluminum or steel cone with a sharpened point was capped on the exposed end of the stake. The tobacco plants would be speared through the base of the plant and then pushed down to the bottom of the stake, leaving room for four more plants. Of course they’d lean with the weight, and the plants’ tops resting on the ground would keep the whole structure from falling over. One full day of chopping and spearing left the fields looking like they were littered with half erected tee-pees all over them.
Just as soon as we’d chopped and speared it all, which could take a few days to get it all done, we’d go around lifting the five-plant stakes up to the guy on the wagon so he could stack it for transport back to the barn. They were heavy, and after a while my arms would feel all rubbery and tired. I managed to build several muscles, though, and in places I didn’t know I had muscles to build. I miss them dearly; all that’s turned to flab now.
For years and years that family had grown, nurtured, and then harvested their tobacco crops without incident. Until me, that is. And here I came along and messed up their perfect record.
On this particular day, after the wagon had been loaded as full as it could get, they left a small space along the front edge of the wagon so the able (yet tired) bodies could ride with the tobacco back to the barn, where it still needed to be unloaded and hung so it could dry properly. We all piled on, some dangling their legs over the wagon’s edge, some resting their feet up on the tongue of the wagon that was attached to the tractor, and some standing and leaning back against the tobacco stacks. One or two were even up on the tractor with the driver, sitting on the tire well. However we were positioned, there was room for all of us and nobody had to walk the mile and a half back to the barn. We were indeed thankful.
I was sitting on the front edge of the wagon bed, the farthest to the right, facing the back end of the tractor that pulled us. I let my legs dangle like the others were doing.
Now this is where things get complicated. When we chopped the tobacco, we left stubs of the stalks in the ground that were still about two to three inches high. They had been cut on a slant, making them appear like rows and rows of little spears poking their little heads up through the ground. While walking through the fields, we were careful to walk in the blank space between the rows so as not to puncture our feet.
Sitting on the corner of the wagon, directly over the right front wheel, I forgot that people who are six feet tall with thirty-four inch inseams simply cannot behave as others do. The toe of my shoe got caught on one of these stubs. Before I could yank free, my right foot was being pulled under the tire.
In what seemed like slow motion, my right foot, followed by my whole leg, was pulled under the wheel and I was on the ground lying on my right side. My left leg had crossed over my right leg as I fell. The tire, and all the weight on top of it, had traveled over my foot and up my leg until it rested on top of both knees at that point where they were now crossing each other. This is how long it took for our screams to climb above the roar of the tractor to be heard by the driver.
At this point, all I could think was “keep going!” So that’s what I shouted. They were confused. Somebody else was shouting “Get an ambulance!” to no one in particular because we didn’t have cell phones back then. And since the fastest vehicle we had was tethered to the wagon, I don’t think it would have done much good, however well intentioned those in my group may have been.
Nineteen Eighty Five was not a good year to be trapped helplessly under a loaded hay wagon’s tire in a tobacco field miles away from civilization.
They thought they hadn’t heard me clearly. I explained, rather loudly, from my awkward position on the ground, that only half an inch more would free me and promised it would be the best move – “just go already!”
When the driver finally got it, I felt the tractor get put back in gear, a small jolt, and then watched as the wheel rolled the rest of the way over my knees before smacking the ground with a thud.
I was afraid to move. I’d seen what the tractor tires had done to the plants’ stubs and I worried what the wagon wheel had done to my poor knees. It was loaded with God only knows for sure how many pounds of wet tobacco, not to mention various cousins and neighbors, one of whom was at least three hundred and fifty pounds all by himself. I also worried a little that the jolt of the wagon going forward might cause him to fall on top of me. It wasn’t looking like the day would end well at that point.
Once freed, I stood slowly and gingerly, tested my foot and ankle, and then began moving more quickly to show them, and myself, that nothing was broken. Luckily, the ground was soft, and even though it was one of those tough little stubs that had caught the toe of my shoe and pulled me under, I had landed between the rows. The wagon wheel had served mostly to just push me into the ground and I received very little injury from it. I only had a bruise on my knees for a few weeks where the wheel had pinched them on its way off of me. I blame that incident for my bad right knee now since it was my right knee that bore most of the weight of everything on top of me that day.
The ride back to the barn saw me sitting in the middle with both feet resting on the tongue of the wagon, carefully avoiding any moving parts for my own safety as I’d already proven myself a klutz.
Would I do it again if I had it to live over? Most assuredly. The memories from that time are just too sweet to not have them at my beck and call. The things I learned from that one year in my young life have served me well over the course of the rest of it.
But if I had it to do over, I’d remind myself that tall people can’t sit on corners of wagons dangling their legs over wheels that are moving through spear studded acres of farm land. It’s a specific lesson, I admit, and one I learned well.