The Harvesters

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Tobacco field, ready for its first picking

Tobacco field, ready for its first picking

Today’s post is about a day in the life of a Canadian tobacco farming family in the Sixties—mine. It touches on the stamina required to do such work. That also will be what is required of you today, as it is 1800 words long. If you are tired at the end of it you will perhaps know a little better how we felt going through it. I hope you can say as I did then, “I’m glad I got to experience that.”

There were ten Melmac plates in pastel colours set around the perimeter of the big formica kitchen table; there were six more plates set around the perimeter of the big dining room table on the other side of the archway that divided the two rooms. A big blue canning pot bubbled away, so full of bright yellow corn that the top cobs were barely under the water. On the counter, ready to be set out, were two plates of bright red sliced tomatoes, two platters of cold cuts and cheese slices, and two bowls of potato salad. Stacks of white bread, a big block of butter for rolling corn in, and pitchers of ice water were already in  the centre of each oversized table. Two young girls, with short blond hair, hurried around with hands full of silverware, then water glasses, and then paper napkins, placing each item in its place. A young blond mother was rummaging in the refrigerator to bring out twin bottles of mustard, ketchup, Miracle Whip, and other items she felt would be called for in the next few minutes. The girls, Janice Mary, and Kathy Marie (they were only called by their full names if their mother was mad or impatient) quickly grabbed the items and took them to each table. In a minute or two the noise level, and the rush would accelerate to the level of a busy restaurant. Not forgetting the small things would be the key to everyone having a speedy lunch, and being able to get back to work within the hour. That was the scene midday on our busy farm for approximately six weeks, during the tobacco-growing years when we boarded some of our help and provided them with all of their meals. Sometimes, if the five or six guys ate their lunch quickly they would take a twenty-minute nap under a tree near the pack barn where there bunks were— their jobs were that exhausting.

Mom's cooking kept us all well fueled for the day

Mom’s cooking kept us all well fueled for the day

Even on days when we could not work, if it was raining too hard and an all day rain was forecast to continue, we would still have meals to provide. Breakfast, however, would be mercifully later than the 6:00 AM time slot that it normally occupied before work. Sometimes the guys had to empty steamed, previously over-dry tobacco from a kiln before breakfast— as early as 5:00 AM. When the steamer man arrived with the boiler on the back of his truck he pumped great clouds of hot steam into the kiln through hoses. The  leaves would then soften enough for the sticks of tobacco to be passed hand to hand as the primers (tobacco pickers) climbed around inside, on the network of built-in tiered wooden hanging racks. This had to be done quickly, while the tobacco remained soft enough to stack on a wagon. It was sometimes necessary to empty out a kiln needed that very morning. It was best done on an empty stomach as the sauna-like heat would otherwise caused some of the guys to vomit. Their lives were not easy— working so hard— and whatever Dad, who had done this job himself when he was younger, could do to make life easier for them, he tried to do. That’s part of the reason why he was so glad to be able to offer them such good food at our harvest table.

A tobacco tying machine in the kiln yard.

A tobacco tying machine in the kiln yard.

In harvest time, with its early breakfast,  Janice and Kathy were allowed to sleep a little later as they were still quite young, so making breakfast was mainly on Mom’s shoulders. The rest of us were in a big hurry to get to work. (Not really! Actually we just wanted to make it as early a day as possible in reaching the finish line— the last leaf sewn on to the final 1200th  stick— enough to fill the kiln. )

It was on those rainy days, when breakfast time got pushed back a bit, that Mom would ask Marsha, Jeannie and I to give her a hand with preparing it. This would help her avoid being delayed too long in starting in on her other tasks. Re-piling a wagon load of the dried sticks of tobacco that had previously been moved to inside the pack barn, on to one of the ever rising rectangular piles of the same, was just one of them. Laundry for all ten of us, and the five or six boarders too, would have to be taken off Mom’s  to do  list for the day in wet weather, because she always liked to line dry to save money.

On those drizzly or stormy mornings  when we weren’t going to be heading to the kiln yard right away (if at all) we certainly had time to give Mom a hand. Still, we would throw things on to the tables with a little more haste and a little less carefulness than the younger girls would have; at this point Mom wasn’t trying to teach us to do things properly. By then we should have already known  (and cared). When Marsha and I were in our late teens, on such mornings one or other of us would sit gloomily on the little black and white stool with the fold-down step, in the corner by the four-slice toaster.Somehow we managed to toast, pop up, butter, and stack mountains of toast, with eyes half-closed.

John, Marsha, Rolly, and I, and little brother Donny

John, Marsha, Rolly, and I, and little brother Donny

The eye-lid drooping exhaustion on our faces, a whole late-afternoon and evening’s distance from the last hard work we did, was disproportionate to what one would expect. That was because it was not from the previous day’s hard work, but from staying up far too late when we were dating our steady boyfriends, Rolly and  John, the guys we eventually married. If we were in the driveway by 12:00, sitting  in the car under the equivalent of a prison yard spotlight, which Dad had installed for “security“, we felt that technically we were not breaking our curfew. When Mom’s tolerance for us stretching the letter of the law to Bold Face as far as her and Dad’s rules for dating were concerned, she would get up from bed, (if she was awake enough to notice the time and Rolly’s or John’s car with its steamy windows sitting out there) then she would go to the fuse panel. There she would throw the circuit breaker up and down several times in rapid succession, to blink the light off and on. If Marsha or I (or both of us, sometimes) didn’t come in right away she would repeat it even more furiously!

Our security light really  did look like on of these in this prison yard!

Our security light really did look like one of these in this prison yard!

Mom and Dad had only a wind-up alarm clock and there was nothing in the house with electronic timers to be thrown off by her doing so, in those pre-electronic days, but I’m sure it didn’t do any of the fridge or freezer motors any favours! The neighbours  for a half mile in all directions, checking on their cows, or coming in late themselves, must have wondered why the Stephenson’s always seemed to be having those mysterious lightning events every Friday and Saturday night! (Or maybe they thought it was fireworks—that was what Mom was always threatening—”If you girls don’t stop staying out in that driveway for so long when you come home, the next time I’m going to tell your Dad!  And there’s going to be fireworks!”

“The only fireworks we’ll be seeing is if the fuse panel catches on fire, from all your frantic flicking of the circuit breaker on and off!”... ( I thought to myself, but wisely didn’t say out loud!) Our little 5 foot Mom kept the wooden yardstick over the high upper door frame of one of the dining room doors, to keep her younger kids from throwing it behind one of the chest freezers, where she could never reach any of the “lost” ones. She could jump like an NBA All Star and grab that yardstick down in a split second whenever she felt a whack for sass was called for. It must have been an adrenaline surge!  Age didn’t factor into it at all; it was all relative— “You are my kid! I am your Mom! You will listen!”

Me, the curfew breaker in  1967

Me, the curfew breaker in 1967

When I became a mother myself, far earlier than planned (“Probably wouldn’t have happened if you’d paid attention to your curfew!” you’re likely thinking) Rolly and I also installed a security light near the driveway of our home. (The ways in which we emulate our parents is truly amazing sometimes! When you become a mother yourself, your own mother’s IQ somehow sky rockets and you choose to follow her example.) Our beautiful daughter, Carrie, was much more cooperative about such necessary things as curfews than I ever was, so our neighbours were never troubled by strange lightning like phenomena emanating from our vicinity. I never had to throw the switch on her— not even once!

How I ever moved from talking about toasting bread, earlier on, to this point is hard to figure out, but that kind of thing  just happens to me sometimes when I type as fast as I think. Perhaps I’m more honest when I don’t do a first draft— kind of like the guy who has no lawyer to plot out his defense for him in advance of a court appearance— Doesn’t make the outcome of this particular post sound too promising, does it?

A rainy back to bed day

A rainy back to bed day

Back to the bleary eyed teenaged girls helping to make the breakfast, alternately totally drenching one slice of toast with melting butter, and barely touching the next. Nobody complained on those mornings, because no matter what else was going on, the rain coming down meant a little down time! Tobacco harvest would stop for a day, and it would not be possible even to empty the kilns of their dry tobacco. When Dad would come in from checking out how the curing of his latest kilns was going, and then listen to the weather report one last time and pronounce “No work today!” everyone at the kitchen table and everyone at the dining room table sighed a big collective sigh of relief. Then they all grabbed for another piece of toast to go, or hurried to finish off their eggs and bacon and headed straight back to bed!

Good food kept everyone's spirits up

Good food kept everyone’s spirits up

Meanwhile, Mom headed off to the chest freezers to dig out meat for supper, so that she could start thawing it in the sink. She would be wondering if it she should make fried pork chops, or slices of ham broiled in the oven, or maybe roast beef. Janice and Kathy would be up by then and have eaten too, so Mom would hand them a basket of new potatoes to scrub up in a dish pan on the veranda. Then  Jimmy  and Donny  would be sent out to the veranda to play where Mom knew Kathy would keep them out of trouble, until they were needed to snap the beans. By then a half-dozen or more people would be under their bed covers already, dreaming of leaves and leaves and more green leaves passing in front of their eyes as their immobilized hands tried to go through the motions of the previous days—the endless relentless repetition that was harvest.

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