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James R. Stout

Better, Not Bitter

            Chances are you are wearing something made out of cotton. I know that I am. In fact, just about everything that I am wearing as I write this is made out of cotton or some kind of cotton blend. Most of us don’t think about what it took to get from a field of planted cotton seeds to the clothes that we wear. While it’s likely that most of the cotton used to make our clothes today was planted, tended, harvested, and processed by machines operated by people, the fact is that it hasn’t been that way but for perhaps 60 or 70 years. Even now some cotton is still grown and picked by hand although it has become more and more rare over the past several decades.

            Most people from my generation never picked cotton. By the time I was 10-years-old most cotton farmers were using machines that tilled the soil, planted the seeds, watered the plants, picked the cotton once it was ready, and bailed the cotton for transport to a cotton gin. I mainly grew up in the city, but I spent a great deal of time on my grandparent’s farm. At one time cotton was the cash crop for my grandfather. But by about 1950 he switched from growing cotton, corn, and peanuts to raising cattle. He still grew most of their food and corn and hay for the cattle, but he no longer depended on cotton production for his main source of income. To be honest, he was more than happy to switch over to raising cattle. Weather wasn’t nearly as much of a concern for him in raising cattle as it had been for growing cotton. A lot of rain at the wrong time could ruin a season’s worth of cotton. It could be devastating on their finances.

            Now that I’ve given you a little background, I’d like to tell you about my parents and their experiences with cotton. Their generation was primarily rural and the family farm was as common as tattoos are on young people today. I’ll start with my mother. She was born in 1929. Cotton was the main source of their “cash”. Grandpa grew vegetables and some fruits, had milk cows, raised chickens for eggs and meat, raised a few hogs for pork, and even shot the occasional duck, dove, rabbit, or squirrel for dinner. Nothing went to waste either. Milk cows produced milk, but from the milk they churned butter and skimmed the cream. I am old enough to remember the chickens and milk cows. Fresh eggs and freshly churned butter were part of every breakfast. All that said, the other things that were needed had to be paid for. Oh, there was some bartering still, but mostly it required cash to buy many things. Even though Grandma made most of their clothes she still had to buy the material, thread, buttons, and patterns. After Grandpa got his first tractor in 1939, he had to buy diesel, oil, and items to maintain the tractor and implements. So, as you can see their cotton money was very important to them.

            Until Grandpa got that first tractor, he had to plow the fields with a plow and a mule. It was hard work, but he was fortunate to own land that was not rocky. Although, he did spend a great deal of time clearing the land in the early years. That meant cutting down trees, pulling stumps, and then learning proper crop rotation to ensure the soil was not overworked. He also had to build fences and dig and build burms in the field to channel water away from the crops during heavy rains. Those burms are still present on most of the pastures of the farm land today.

            By the time my mother was 7 or 8-years-old she helped in the planting of seeds and then in late August or early September it was all hands-on deck for picking the ripe cotton balls. She couldn’t fill the 100-pound bags like my grandfather did or her older brother, but she could do her best for her age. Here’s the deal though. Grandpa felt it was only fair to pay her per pound for what she picked just the same as he paid hired hands. It wasn’t much, perhaps a few cents per pound, but it was real spending money for a little girl and Mom spent a lot of that money on books. I came by my love for reading naturally!

            Another crop that they grew a few years was potatoes. My mother used to talk about the year that cured my grandfather from wanting to grow potatoes. Just about the time to dig up the potatoes rolled around they had two weeks of downpours. The fields were nearly flooded and all those potatoes were going to just rot if they didn’t get out there and dig them up by hand. Mom said that it devolved into a mud bath for everyone for several days. She said that she had fun “playing” in the mud. My grandfather, not so much. But they got the potatoes dug up and saved the crop. That was the last year Grandpa grew potatoes as a cash crop. Mom said that in his usual stoic way he simply said, “I think I’ll let the Irish grow the potatoes.”

            By the time my mother left home in 1946 after graduating from high school and going to business school to sharpen her typing skills, learn shorthand, and basically how to be a secretary, Grandpa was already switching over to cattle. She said picking the cotton was hard work, but it was also rewarding. She felt like she had done something worthwhile. She made a little spending money and all the exercise kept her in fine shape for the time to come when she would catch my father’s eye in 1947.

            My father’s experience with cotton was not nearly as pleasant as my mother’s. In fact, it wasn’t decidedly unpleasant. He spent his years between 3 and 12 in an orphanage in Shreveport, Louisiana. That experience was a mixed bag for him. I’ll be writing all about it in a forthcoming book. When he was 12-years-old he was told by the Matron of the Orphanage that he was going to be sent to live at a Baptist home for boys. Frankly, Dad figured it would be a whole lot better than the orphanage. It helped that he had recently become a born-again-Christian and had been attending a nearby Baptist church. He thought that going to a Baptist home for boys was going to be great. But the Matron lied through her teeth. In reality, she paid a man to come and take Dad and get rid of him. Not get rid like kill him, but to take him somewhere else. The Matron apparently did this with all boys about the time that they turned 12. She figured they were going to start being a problem once entering puberty and she didn’t want to deal with it.

            So, on the big day my dad stood outside of the orphanage with his box of worldly possessions and waited for the man to come take him to the Baptist home for boys. The man showed up in a nice new car. Dad thought it was a fancy car. It had big running boards and was painted green. He got into the car and they drove away from the orphanage. Dad thought it was a dream come true. He asked the man how long it would take to get to the home and the man said that they needed to make a stop first. The stop was at the county courthouse. Dad followed the man inside and was told to sit down on a bench for a few minutes. The man went into an office that had a doctor’s name on it. A few minutes later the man came out and got Dad and took him into the doctor’s office. While the man waited out on the bench the doctor examined Dad and then asked him about 100 questions. All kinds of questions. Dad started to wonder why all of this was being done. After a while he was told to go back out and sit on the bench. The man went back into the doctor’s office and before long Dad could hear them arguing. The man that had brought Dad was yelling at the doctor and finally Dad heard the doctor say, “I am NOT going to certify that boy as mentally ill or challenged! He’s a perfectly good boy and I will NOT do it and I will NOT give the OK to have him dumped into a sanitarium.”

            The man stormed out of the doctor’s office and roughly pulled Dad to his feet and they left the courthouse. When they got back in the car the man told Dad that he needed to make a phone call and to stay in the car. The man went to a pay phone nearby and a few minutes later came back with a big smile on his face. Dad figured that the man had arranged to drop Dad off at the Baptist home. They started driving and before long they were out of the city. They drove for an hour or so and then the man turned off on a road outside of Monroe, Louisiana. A few minutes later they pulled through some gates that said, “Louisiana Technical Institute”. LTI for short. The man pulled to a stop and told Dad to sit still and that he would be right back. A few minutes later a rather severe looking man came out and told Dad to get his box of stuff and come with him. Dad did as he was told. He was taken to a barracks and shown a bed where he could put his box of stuff. He was then taken to a communal shower, told to strip out of his clothes, scrubbed raw with a stiff horsehair brush and lye soap, and given a set of clothes to wear. By the time he came outside he noticed the car that he had come in was gone. At dinner that night he received his first whipping for talking at the table. After dinner he asked another boy if this was the Baptist home for boys and the other boy started to laugh and in turn all of the other boys started to laugh.

            “Are you stupid?” the other boy said.

            “No.” Dad said while barely containing tears.

            “This is a reform school. What did you do to get sent here?” The boy asked Dad.

            “I didn’t do anything. I was told I was being taken to a Baptist home for boys.” Dad replied.

            “Well, if you’re Baptist, then I guess since this is your new home it’s a Baptist home for boys”. The boy said and started to laugh again.

            The next morning was a hot summer morning in the year 1935. Dad was taken into a room where a man shaved Dad’s head. He was told they didn’t want any boys with lice. Dad was marched out to a field with the other boys and was shown how to pick cotton. It was his first time to pick cotton. He made some kind of mistake and damaged a ball of cotton and a man on a horse galloped over and knocked Dad to the ground. He had a whip and told Dad that if he ruined any more cotton, he’d be taken to the whipping room. Dad did his best not to damage anymore cotton, but he was so inexperienced that finally he made another mistake. He was hauled upstairs into a room that they called the whipping room. He was told to drop his pants, get on his knees and bend over and grab hold of a long pipe that was mounted to the floor. As soon as he grabbed the pipe, he felt an electric current and try as he might he couldn’t let go of that pipe. That’s when the man whipped him with the whip. Dad said he never damaged another cotton ball for the next 5 and a half years that he spent at LTI. That was Dad’s experience with cotton. No spending money. Worked in the hot son with a shaved head with fingers that bled.

            Two very different perspectives regarding cotton. Fortunately, the corruption of the State of Louisiana no longer exists and children are not treated as slaves. Cotton is grown now by corporations and done so with very expensive machines. Even so, sitting here wearing mostly cotton I can’t help but think about all the hard work that once went into the growing of cotton. I’m thankful for my blessings. And one of the biggest blessings that I have had in life was my Dad. Many people would have turned bitter and mean after the abuse that he experienced. But Dad wasn’t made that way. He told me many times that he believed that his accepting Christ only a few months before his ordeal at LTI began got him through those years. Dad was a kind and gentle man. He was tough when he had to be (including being a United States Marine in WWII), but he was a loving father who I and my sisters were blessed to have. The next time you think you have it bad think about how you might have reacted to spending your teenage years the way my father did. I know that I never came close to anything like that. But if you do go through something bad it doesn’t mean you have to let it turn you bitter or mean. You can learn from it. You can let it make you a better person. Better, not bitter.

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