The Other F Word

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After little brother Jim learned one of the worst words from the primers he was banned from riding the horse in the field.

Little brother Jimmy picked up a very bad word from the primers and was banned from riding the horse in the field.

Growing up on a tobacco farm in the midst of the kind and gentle people of Caradoc Township, near Melbourne, Ontario, we still sometimes heard particular words that were so fraught with emotion when they were uttered that their impact was never forgotten. One of the worst of them started with the letter F. Any kid in the 50’s and 60’s caught saying that one usually ended up with tears in his eyes. The tears were partly in reaction to his personal humiliation at the hands of his mother, and partly from gagging on the luxurious lather on the Lifebuoy bar being jammed into in his mouth. I say “his mouth” because the soap tasters tended to be boys. In tobacco farming areas there was another F word that had even more power. This one could even bring tears to the eyes of grown men—that word was frost.

Imagine waking early one morning to discover that every hour of your work, every hour of your wife’s work, every hour of your kids’ work— labour that brought everyone to the brink of exhaustion for weeks on end— was all for nothing.

Imagine that every dollar you spent for the seed, for the greenhouse soil, and for sterilizing the seed beds was wasted. The cost of labourers to work alongside your family pulling the seedlings up from their beds, planting them in the fields, and hoeing them carefully is all lost the moment the sun comes up.

The temperature unexpectedly dropped to zero overnight, and there is no way to get irrigation lines set up fast enough to spray away the ice crystals on even an acre of your crop. The second the sun heats up the ice crystals the cells in the leaves will rupture. In moments the green of a hopeful beginning turns as black as despair. Frost is a dirty word too—one of the really bad ones.

One year when frost hit our farm early enough in the growing season to allow for replanting a second time all the other farmers in the area had been frozen out too. Whatever seedlings they still had left in their greenhouses they were in need of themselves. Our greenhouse was totally depleted from planting a larger number of acres that year and Dad had to search far and wide before he was finally able to locate plants. He would have to go all the way to Port Burwell near Lake Erie to get them.

Hearing of our troubles, my cousin Barbara Smith volunteered to come up from Pittsburgh to help out with replanting. She hauled one truckload after another of heavy wooden boxes packed full of plants. They had healthy hefty root balls loaded with rich black soil so much fewer fit into each box. The marathon of round trips continued for several days in order to give a fresh supply to the planters until the crop was in the ground again. It was amazing that, despite the much earlier planting season near the lake, this farmer still had enough seedlings in good condition for us to replant. It was definitely an answer to prayer. The plants may have come at a high price that year, but they were definitely worth it. Otherwise we would not have had a crop at all.

If the harvest started in the last week of July, by the end of the first or second week in September we would usually be finished if we had not had many days too stormy for working. Every day off work was a day later that a tobacco farmer’s older kids would be delayed in joining their classmates at school. This was always a trial for us, but worse still was if we were late enough to be getting into the frost danger zone again. The break even point in tobacco growing often happened only at the tail end of the harvest because it was such a costly enterprise. This was when we would earn the money to cover living expenses for our family of ten. That money would still be tied up until the finished baled product was sold at auction in the winter months and the bank was repaid, but at least we would know that it was coming.

Those farmers in our neighbourhood who grew other less frost sensitive crops, and those who raised animals that they would sell throughout the year may not have understood entirely what was at stake for our family should we lose a number of kilns’ worth of  tobacco. But this they did know—my father was always there for them in any crisis. Whether it was equipment break down, a barn fire, a grass fire, an illness, an injury or an unexpected death that called for the men to man up for one another, my dad, like the good and decent men of his generation, was always there. These men took over one another’s work loads when necessary, and they lent out their children as free labourers when the need arose. Every farm kid over ten had calluses in those years.

“Many hands make light work”— my grandfather Jim Stephenson’s favourite saying— was our family’s credo, and it seemed to matter very little how small the hands were. It was this shared social convention in our community that made it alright for the oldest four Stephenson kids, aged 14, 13, 12 and 11 to pick up corn for their neighbour Evan Howe for $2.oo a day in 1963 (with a nice sandwich lunch included.) Because Evan’s old and faltering combine had missed harvesting too much of his crop we were sent over to help. We weren’t there for the token payment—that was at best a fraction of what it was worth. It was done so that we could be a part of what was right and good in the time and place that we lived. It was this thinking that also made it alright for the Howe kids, and the Derbyshire kids to be out trudging up and down tobacco rows until 10:30 PM on a school night in early September.

Working by tractor light in the fields, and expecting no payment in return for shivering in the cold as the temperature dropped towards zero, all the volunteers had one goal in mind. Get it picked! Sloppy, sliding bundles of leaves were carried clumsily row to row by kids, by neighbours of both sexes, and even by old men like our Uncle Fred, my grandfather Jim’s brother, in the hope of reaching the boat before it got too far ahead of us.

Our hands and forearms were soon blackened by sticky tobacco tar as we added our armloads to those of the gang of “primers”— the half-dozen pickers who boarded with us during harvest time. Their own enormous bundles, almost a foot across at the stem end, put ours to shame but every little bit helped. They were all placed carefully in the boat, a box sled on runners pulled between two rows behind Jack the horse. At the end of the field the boats were quickly hooked on behind the tractor and raced to the kiln yard by my brother Keith, the boat driver. Here they were unloaded and the bundles stacked side by side on the ground, giving the appearance of cord wood from the stem side in the dim yellow circle of  light that the pole light gave off.

Somewhere in the field there was a brief but noisy interaction between Mom and Dad. Voices carried far on the cool night air. She was struggling to drive a tractor that she had never been on before and whenever she tried to slow down the jerking of accidental stops and starts made it hard for Dad. He was on the wagon behind her trying to stay upright. He was lighting bales of straw on fire and throwing them to the ground as close as he could get them to the rows that weren’t yet picked clean. These smouldering smudge fires would provide a smoky haze, a blanket of warmer air that just might be able to keep the air temperature underneath it above zero. As soon as Mom finished driving the tractor she raced into the house to prepare and bring out big thermos jugs of very hot, very sweet, milky coffee for one and all, even the kids. It was a night when all the rules seemed to have been thrown out the window.

Finally, when Dad felt that the tobacco that was picked and stacked would be all that we could pack into the kilns in the next day or so the priming was called to a halt. This stacking of tobacco on the ground for a subsequent marathon of filling kilns was a last ditch effort to salvage what we could. The grade of tobacco produced after curing it would be much lower than usual, but hopefully still saleable. Any stacked tobacco not in the kiln curing within two days time would rot. The spoilage would begin even earlier if the weather turned hot again.

That night was a moment in time that I will never forget— forged into something solid in my brain by the emotions of fear, excitement and gratitude (and in all likelihood a walloping jolt of caffeine as well.) Strangely I don’t remember the final outcome. Did all of the remaining crop freeze? Did some of it survive because of the smudge fires? Did we have money for new school clothes that year? Was there money to be able to get an allowance?

In the end I cannot remember anything that would reveal the answer. What I do remember is a house full of hushed people gathered around the kitchen and dining room tables helping themselves to the heaping trays of hastily made sandwiches, and plates full of cookies and donuts. Were they hushed because they knew there were little ones sleeping upstairs? Were they hushed because they already knew what tomorrow’s sun would bring?

People embraced each of my parents in turn as they left the house. Were they embracing them to instil a sense of hope, or was this being done to console them in their sorrow. This part of my memory is like water rippling under a bridge.

But of this much I am certain—those kind and gentle people of Caradoc Township were going home to their own houses that night with our concerns on their hearts. In the same way, their concerns would be on our hearts if ever the day came when their words could not be spoken without tears.

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