In days gone by, it was about this time of year when my father would return from a close inspection of his tobacco crop and announce at the dinner or supper table, “Boys, we got bud worms. We got to get after ‘em first thing in the morning.”
First thing in the morning meant as soon as the dew dried off. The next morning, tobacco patches were assigned to all sons who were big enough and old enough to man a tobacco sprayer. I especially remember one tobacco patch that consistently fell to me.
It was located in a little creek bottom just behind our house. No more than an acre and a half, it was bounded on the west and north sides by a narrow, high-banked creek fed by a spring that ran year-round. The spring flowed from under a bluff guarded by
the massive, tangled roots of a giant oak tree. The water ran cool and clear and formed little pools along the course of the creek.
I gathered up everything I would need to get the job done — a 2 1/2-gallon metal pressure sprayer, a baby-food jar filled with insecticide, a patch of old tobacco bed canvas and a short piece of electric fence wire. On my way by the barn, I picked up a discarded tin can for dipping water out of the creek. Then, I headed off the hill.
When I arrived at the tobacco patch, I skirted the south side of the tobacco patch until I reached the west end, where cow paths had, over the years, worn the creek bank down to a gentle slope. I headed down to the water’s edge where I found a nice pool near the head of the stream.
Removing the pump from the sprayer, I measured out two lids full of insecticide from the baby-food jar. Then, I folded the plant bed canvas a time or two and placed it over the mouth of the sprayer. With that done, I was ready to start filling the sprayer with water, one tin can full at a time.
I checked under the canvas to see the water turning milky-white as it merged with the poison. When the sprayer was full, I replaced the pump (I called it the plunger) and lugged it back to the top of the creek bank. I sat it down at the end of the first row and made the necessary adjustments to start spraying. Removing the pump, I checked to see that the gasket was sitting straight. Then, I replaced the pump and turned it until it was sealed.
I pumped until I could pump no more. I tapped the spray nozzle against the sprayer and squeezed the handle on the sprayer. If the nozzle was not clogged, it formed a perfect, moist shadow of a circle on the brown soil. If that was the case, I was ready to proceed.
Spraying tobacco had its challenges. I found out early in my career that a 12-year-old boy does not have much meat on his shoulder bones, and a full pressure sprayer
weighs in excess of 20 pounds, which means the nylon strap on the sprayer can do some serious damage over the course of a morning. That nylon strap cut like a knife.
I also found out that it is hard to walk in plowed ground when you are trying to lean over a row with your right hand while a heavy sprayer is hanging on your left shoulder.
It certainly made for crooked walking. Of course, the more you walked, the lighter the sprayer got. That was something to which you could look forward.
And then there was the issue of the sprayer nozzle stopping up. It was a relentless challenge. You could strain water till the cows came home, and trash still managed to get in the sprayer nozzle.
In my early days, I took off the cover, stuck the nozzle in my mouth and sucked the trash out. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally convinced me that was not in my best interest. That’s why I carried a piece of electric fence wire with me. It was the perfect size for running through that little hole in the side of the sprayer nozzle.
One thing I will say … that metal sprayer, filled with cold spring water, felt nice and refreshing lying against my left side on a hot morning. I needed all the relief I could get.
I, like my father, took the business of bud worms very seriously. As I stumbled and struggled down those long tobacco rows, I made sure to stick that sprayer nozzle down in the bud of every tobacco plant just as I was taught. You see, I learned from the best.
On the next day, after another close inspection of the crop, my father would announce, with some fanfare, as we gathered at mealtime, “Boys, I mean we got those bud worms.” Then he would laugh an easy laugh ... a laugh that was uniquely his.
I like to imagine that in the 1960s and 1970s in that big bud worm round-up in the sky that there was much discussion among those who gathered there, how they lived and how they died. And I’m quite sure that many a bud worm shook his head and said, “One of Frank McCall’s boys done me in.”