I found myself in deep thought as I “studied” a patch (field) of tobacco one day last week.
The last time I was assigned a job in a tobacco harvest, it amounted to the simple task of dropping sticks.
Now, to the uneducated, the phrase “dropping sticks” might sound a bit foreign. It is not like you are walking through a tobacco patch and accidently let some sticks fall to the ground ... like dropping a stick. Veterans of the tobacco patch, on the other hand, know that dropping sticks is a very important part of the tobacco cutting (harvesting) process.
In years gone by, when cutting and spiking tobacco was a two-man operation, tobacco sticks were dropped on the ground between the two rows to be cut. As the cutter downed the two rows in front of him, he reached down, picked up a tobacco stick and handed it to the spiker.
Then, he cut the next 5 or 6 stalks of tobacco and passed them back to be spiked. As the plants were cut and spiked, another tobacco stick magically appeared in the row.
Best I can recall, my brothers and I were taught to lay (or drop) the sticks end to end, or let them overlap an inch or two. It was no small feat to tote an arm-load of tobacco sticks through big tobacco when dropping sticks that way. You kind of had to walk sideways.
In today’s world, most tobacco is cut and piled by the cutters, five or six stalks to the pile.
Later, when the tobacco has “fallen” (wilted), the same ones who cut the tobacco come back and spike it. Even though the process is different, tobacco sticks still have to be dropped.
On the farm where I grew up, my father had a simple philosophy when it came to cutting tobacco ... “Make it easy on the man who follows you.” So, we were taught the art of dropping sticks. It involved two unspoken maxims. First, don’t make the spiker have to hunt for the stick. Secondly, if possible, have the stick land with the high end of the stick near the butt ends of the stalks in the pile. That may sound a bit technical, but it was really very simple ... pay attention to what you are doing.
I found early on in my career that you have much more control over where and how a tobacco stick lands if you spin it as you let it go. That is especially true if you are dropping sticks on more than one row as you go through the tobacco patch. Anyway, I was afforded the chance to apply my skill the last time I approached the task.
As I studied the tobacco patch, I remembered a bundle of 50 tobacco sticks was a heavy load, especially when I was a boy.
I smiled as I remembered the many personalities of tobacco sticks. Some were fashioned from a tree limb — dark in color — round and straight. Others were of the split-out variety, irregular in shape and one-of-a-kind. There were skinny ones and heavy ones, some so big that they felt like 2-by-4s. And there were slick ones and splintery ones. And later, there were the cut-out, sawmill variety (sticks void of personality.)
My thoughts took me right back to tobacco stick dropping heaven. I recalled the unmistakable sound (like a clap of thunder) of bundles of tobacco sticks as they landed on a wagon, and the feel of tight, grass stings in my hands, and of barn dust and spider webs.
That night I found myself dropping sticks in my dreams.
Hartsville resident Jack McCall is an author and motivational speaker.