Another November is here. When I consider the month of November many thoughts come to mind. First, is the Thanksgiving holiday, then a myriad of sights and sounds and feelings and favorite things — pumpkins, falling leaves, fields of bleached corn stalks, a bite to the air and ... tobacco — stripping tobacco, throwing down tobacco, hauling off tobacco, and selling tobacco.
My father was a tobacco man. According to an old saying, “growing a tobacco crop took 13 months out of the year.” November marked the home stretch and finish line for every crop he grew.
I can feel the cold draft of a tobacco barn as I write this column. And I recall waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of my father’s excited whisper, “It’s raining, boys. By the time we get to the barn tobacco will be coming in order!”
I could never get too excited about climbing into the top of a tobacco barn when it was as dark as midnight. But my father was undaunted in his push to get the job done.
From the time the first leaf was stripped from a stalk in October until the last hand or bail was tied in November, Daddy labored at his task with uncompromising resolve. The number of helpers he might have could rise and fall, or even disappear. It mattered not. From early till late, six days a week he stood at the stripping table where his conversation was animated and his attitude upbeat. I never shared his passion for the annual undertaking, but I admired his dedication.
So many good November memories revolve around my father and his tobacco crops. To this very day I find the aroma of a November tobacco barn nothing short of exhilarating, if not intoxicating.
There were two November mornings each year that I found especially memorable. On the first of those special days, my mother would announce, as we were getting ready for school, “Your father is hauling off his tobacco crop today.” There was a noticeable lilt in her voice as she shared the news. Of course, we were aware that the time was close. My brothers and I usually assisted my father in loading the tobacco onto a 16-foot hay wagon.
I especially remember the loads of tobacco back when tobacco was still tied in “hands” and hung on tobacco sticks. While the stripping was going on, my father took great pains in handling every stick of tobacco. He placed it in square piles with the heads of the hands facing outward on each side, much like the “baskets” of tobacco awaiting auction at the tobacco warehouse. In my mind’s eye I can still see him atop a pile of tobacco as he tucked it under his knees in order to “bulk it down” properly. He called it “booking it down.”
My father was not unreasonably particular about how he did things, but he knew how he wanted it done. He was the overseer of every load of tobacco that ever left our farm. When he finished the load it was done right. Even the heads of the tobacco hands were aligned from the front of the load to the back and from side to side. My mother always insisted that my father loaded the wagon so square that it looked like a “cracker box.”
Every November when I revisit days gone by, I am reminded of the pride that my father took in his life’s work.
I am also reminded of payday, which brings to mind the second memorable November morning. On that morning my mother, her voice ringing with excitement and pride, would announce, “Your father’s tobacco sells today!”
He always made picking up his check at the tobacco warehouse and depositing the proceeds in the bank a very private matter. I’m sure he made his rounds and paid some bills before he returned home from the sale. I know he always brought home cash.
On his stop at the bank, along with the cash, he picked up those money envelopes that are always popular around the holidays. When my brothers and I arrived home after school he would usually be waiting. Then, he would pass out the envelopes. Each boy was paid according to his age and ability to help.
I remember the first $50 bill that I ever saw. It was in my envelope one year. I think I turned 10 that year. One year I got a $100 bill. The last year I was at home to make a meaningful contribution to the raising of the crop I found three new $100 bills in my envelope. It stands out as my most memorable payday.
I never knew what was in my brothers’ envelopes. It was never discussed. But no one ever complained. It was such a special time for our father. I shall never forget the light in his eyes.
Another November is upon us. Don’t wait until Thanksgiving Day to count your blessings. How about getting any early start on resurrecting some memories this year? Some of my November memories become more precious as the years roll by.
Hartsville resident Jack McCall is a humorist and motivational speaker.