I spent a great many hours sitting off to the side of discussions entered into by the grownups as I called them at the time. These discussions were primarily stories—most true, but some probably not. I first started this fascination with what they had to say the very first time I went along with Dutch to run jugs one day when I was most likely 5 years old—Colorado, Montana or North Dakota. I really don’t remember the local; there were so many in my youth. My fascination continued through my adolescent years; in high school, on to college, then anytime the grownups were gathered.

Later in life, I had my own stories to tell although I still enjoyed listening to the grownups tell theirs—some of which I had heard oh so many times. The stories these guys told wee always more dangerous, more risky, more funny and more interesting than any I had heard at the time or since in most cases. The attraction to their stories was more the people, the times and the locals involved than the stories themselves—although the stories were good. After all, these were men from the greatest generation; those that survived the depression and a World War.

There’s just nothing like a storyteller—most need no formal training; just a good tale or the start of a good tale. Story Tellers have a way of capturing your imagination. You hang on every word and want to believe every word that comes from their mouth. Fascinating, I tell you!

One of my greatest thrills in life is to tell stories that others wanta hear and then repeat to others—a tradition that predates the written word. I hope you enjoy what I have to tell you.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Day on the Rig, then a Pick Sack

I was ten at the time. You might think that I didn’t know any better, cause I didn’t. The most important thought in my head at the time was a dollar and I didn’t have one.

That dollar? Oh yah! That’s what Dutch had said he’d give me for working the water for a day of test hole drillin’ in the Brazos bottom. It was enough to turn my interest from whatever might be going on around the house—for a ten year-old boy in Bryan Texas in the mid-1950s, there wasn’t much. Little League and swimming lessons were already over by this time and school didn’t start up again for another month. I was game.

I recall thinking as I made the bargan, the major drawback was that I’d have to get up before the chickens. We didn’t have any of those at the time, but I knew what it meant. That was hours before I had to arise even when school was in session. I knew I could do it though—my Mom would see to it so I wouldn’t miss out on that dollar. That also saved her one in a round about way.

Working the water wasn’t a hard job; actually more boring than hard. A great deal of the time I was just standing around. But, Man, was I looking forward to that dollar?

Up early, I was sitting in the back of the pickup waiting on everybody else to gather for the trip to the bottom. My uncle Eddy and my grandfather Grover, soon pulled up behind the house just about the same time as the other hands showed. We all loaded into the two pickups and headed south on Highway 6 towards Navasota.

Uncle Eddy’s crew veered off to retrieve the big rig and would meet us later. I road with Dutch while we were followed by the shot hole rig and my Grand Dad (Daddy Grover) driving the water truck.

Today, the job was located on the Longmire plantation south of Navasota just a bit below the juncture of the Navasot and the Brazos. Mr. Longmire had a huge cotton operation that was in dire need of an irrigation well—the mid-50s Texas Draught was still in full swing at the time. Crops were going down everywhere in our area of Texas.

Dutch would get calls from farmers begging for help every morning, all day and late into the evening—the phone hardly stopped ringing. You could tell from his or my Mom’s side of the conversation those the farmers were in dire straights. The begging never seemed to stop.

Well, Mr. Longmire’s turn had finally risen to the top and that’s where we were headed. About an hour after departure, we were there.

For the next hour we toured the plantation and listened to the old man trying to determine just where he wanted the wells drilled. I can remember Dutch and Uncle Eddy trying time and again to convince farmers that it just didn’t work that way—the best spot to drill is where the water is; not where you want the water to be.

Old man Longmire again tried to talk Dutch’s price down, but he held firm at $1/ft for test holes. Dutch did allow that the hole selected for the big well would be at no charge—he always threw this in but Mr. Longmire didn’t know that. He thought he had haggled the price down and gotten away with something.

The grownups moved the equipment to the first drill site and we finally begun the work day. The first step was to dig the slush pit for the drill water; I grabbed a shovel and started in—not about to start the day with my pay docked for not digging. The slush pit digging was pretty much the hardest work to be done all day. Digging out a hole a foot deep and two feet wide in black land clay just isn’t the easiest thing one would ever want to take on as an task—no sir-ree!

The slush pit complete, I’m pushing water. This required the movement of a four inch hose connected to the rear of the water truck some ten to twelve feet and the cranking of a lever over approximately a six inch span. Remember this; I’m only getting a dollar for the entire day—I didn’t say it was agonna be back breaking work, did I? This task completed, I sit back and watch the guys work.

Dutch found a gravel strata close to sixty feet that ran only fifteen feet before it played out. This was logged and we moved on to the next drill site.

The second hole was pretty much the same as the first; as was the third and the fourth. Dutch wanted to hit a good site soon as the big rig should be arriving directly. The push was on.

The fifth hole had much better results; gravel at thirty-five feet that ran twenty to twenty-five feet before it played out. The site wasn’t anywhere near where Mr. Longmire really wanted the well, but there were still several sites to be tested; maybe one of those would hit the mark.

Late July in the middle or on the edge of cotton fields in the Texas heat was not a great place to spend the day. Especially if you’re ten and the boring factor is weighin’ heavy. But that dollar still sounded too good to pass up. Besides my desire, I was trapped some 50 miles from home without a way to alter this fact. I had to make the day.

Lunch time arrived and the big rig still hadn’t shown. The crew located a stand of trees and took lunch; the temperature cracking upwards of 100ºF in the shade—but still it was shade. While everybody else rested a bit, Daddy Grover and I took the water truck down to the river bank to refill it. I liked doing this. Getting the pump down, stretching the intake hose down to the river and the lugging the output hose back up to and on top of the water truck was hard work. But, once the tank was again full, Daddy Grover let me drive the truck back to the drill site.

I say he let me drive back, but what he actually did was locate the water truck between the cotton rows, put me behind the wheel and off we went. He always had me stop and change seats before we went around the final corner where the others might see us returning—but I was driving nonetheless.

Upon our return, I got the news. Seems that my Dutch and Mr. Longmire had come to another deal while Daddy Grover and I were off getting water.

Some young colored fellow had been traded my job for the afternoon and I was to take his position for the remainder of the day. Choices, I had none—a trade is a trade.

I got in Mr. Longmire’s truck and there we went. I soon found just how much trouble I was in.

My task for the remainder of the day was to pick cotton. I was soon handed off to the picking boss, an elderly colored gentleman who gave me just the slightest bit of instruction, handed me my Pick Sack and pointed me to the row where I was to start.

I drug that 9 foot pick sack over to my row and commenced at the bottom of the first stalk. I alertly noticed that my pick sack was twice as long as I was tall—my growth spurt still a couple of years off. That sack wasn’t heavy as sacks go, but due to its construction I realized it was agonna get heavier by the end of the afternoon.

With the sweat dripping from my forehead, I looked down that cotton row. I was barely able to see above the plants as it was and they looked as though they reached the horizon and far beyond. I just remember thinking: ”What have I gotten myself into? Is this worth a dollar? Do I remember the way back to the rig if I start out right now?” I don’t remember having good answers to any of these questions at the time. I just kept looking down that cotton row and wishin’ I was somewhere else—anywhere else!

Bending over, like the pick boss had said, I started at the bottom and picked my way to the top of the first stalk. Halfway up I remember thinking that I wished I had remembered my gloves; the bolls had sharp edges and the dryer they got the sharper they seemed. Ten or so yards down my row, my hands really hurt. That dollar wasn’t looking as good as it had earlier in the day. Man! I wished I was back on my water truck, but I continued down the row.

Two hours into the afternoon, I took a break to get a drink and noticed that everybody else was carrying their own—I had none. So on I went: bendin’ and pickin’.

The sack soon became my nemesis; the further I made my way down my row, the heavier my sack became. Now, don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t a world class cotton picker by any means. I’m just telling you that my sack was getting heavier quicker than I was getting tired—this trend was soon to change its direction—tired I was a’ getting’. Every now and again, I would stand up as straight as I could manage and peer down my row to gauge the progress I was amakin’. I’d look toward the end wondering if I might ever see it. Then I’d turn and look behind me to see how far I’d come. The end seemed to always be farther than my travel. It just never seemed to get any closer. Why was that, I wondered?

The day just got longer and longer; just like my row. Sweat was now poring out from under my cap. My T-shirt was soaked. I felt itchy all over from rubbing up against those darn cotton bushes. My underwear was wet also and my blue jeans had begun to rub me raw down there—Man! It was hard to move around! Nothin’ seemed to be going my way—nothin’. As a matter of fact, my picking companions seemed to be as far ahead of me as the end of my row appeared. I wasn’t keeping up worth a darn—well thata show ‘em. I’m not cut out for this cotton picking. Still the pick sack got heavier and heavier and the end of my row got farther and farther away. I was hot, sweaty, dusty, miserable, thirsty and didn’t want to pick any more cotton, but I didn’t know how to get back to the rig—stuck for the time being.

I don’t know how much time passed—seemed like six or eight hours—but before you can say sacks-still-not-full, I heard a horn honking. Looking back toward the dirt road we’d come here on, I saw my Dutch’s pickup with the crew loaded up. They were ready to go to town. Well, you can bet I was to!

I stiff legged walked back up my row to the road about as robot like as I could manage trying not to rub my blue jeans against my legs any more than I had to— I took some ribbing because of this you can bet on that also.

I stripped down to my skivvies, climbed up into the back of the pickup and off we went. As the truck made it’s way down that dirt road, I turned just as we rounded a corner and looked back at the patch we’d been pickin’. I spotted my row immediately. It was the one about a third complete compared to the rest of the rows which all looked finished. Some of the pickers were divvying up my pick sack as the others looked to be headed to my row to clean up after me—I’d get no credit for the work I’d done that afternoon.

Riding home in that pickup bed in my socks, underwear and T-shirt; I pointed myself into the wind for maximum effect. In my left hand I grasp my jeans—drying and flapping in the breeze. My right hand was tightly clutching my new dollar. All I could think about was doubling it tomorrow.

Come to think about it, one other thought did cross my mind. This is the exact point in time that I scratched off the first profession I did not wanta become when I got growed. Yep, I wanted nothin’ to do with picking cotton.