A friend recently posted on Facebook a picture of cotton plants coming up in a flower pot. She had planted seeds in search of a bit of nostalgia – the unique aroma of raw cotton, the texture of the fluffy stuff ready to be pulled from its prickly bolls. As kids, she and I both had been strongly urged to participate in child labor, picking cotton every fall. Her post reminded me of the time when a cotton field provided the perfect context for me to educate (and ridicule) a Yankee college fraternity brother.
In the mid-1950s and ’60s, of course, cotton was still big business in North Alabama, where I grew up – so much so that the school year was scheduled to accommodate cotton farmers. We would begin the new school year in July, attend for about six weeks, then take off a month to pick cotton.
My family didn’t grow cotton on our small farm, but every fall for several years, I would go with my cousins to pick cotton for growers on Straight Mountain in Blount County. For a 9-year-old kid, it was labor intensive – if I really stayed focused and worked at it. That annual ritual lasted until I was about 12, and when all the girls in my class could pick more cotton in a day than I could, I retired. (On a side note, Dad filled the void in my employment history by building a poultry house, so I had 10,000 broilers to tend to every day year-round – a lot more work than a month of picking cotton!)
To get back on track, cotton fields were abundant in the Decatur-Athens-Huntsville area when I attended Athens College (now Athens State University) in the mid-1960s. During my sophomore year, AC was trying to overcome financial challenges when they sent recruiters north – to Chicago, New York, and New Jersey. So, when I returned to campus for my junior year, dorms housed about as many Yankees as southerners.
One day, I was driving from Athens to Huntsville with friends, including William, a New York native recently transplanted to the deep South. He was impressed with the vast farm acreage stretching across the area.
“You know, we used to live on a big farm upstate,” he remarked.
“How big?” someone asked him.
“We had seven acres!” he answered, clearly expecting to impress us. We were soon driving past a field of cotton larger than his “big” New York farm. The field was white, ready for harvest.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Cotton,” someone answered.
He laughed, then asked again, “No, really what IS that?”
“It’s cotton! It’s cotton!” We finally convinced him.
“Stop! Stop!” he yelled.
I pulled to the shoulder, he jumped from the car, ran down the bank, yanked up a whole stalk of cotton, and returned to the car.
“What are you doing?” I demanded as he pulled the cotton stalk into my car, dirty roots and all.
“I’m gonna mail this home for my little brother to take to school for show and tell.” I had to hand it to him – he was a great big brother.
Over the two years we were in college together, I made sure William had a chance to visit some Alabama farms, even taking him to see fields where I had dragged a cotton pick sack and the poultry house where I’d labored all through high school.
This New York man wised up quickly, married an Alabama belle, and has lived his adult life in Alabama. We’re still in touch occasionally, though not often enough.
Now, I confess I learned as much about the big wide world from my Yankee friends as they learned from me. These days, it occurs to me that we can still learn a lot from one another when we share our varied backgrounds and experiences, places we’ve lived, places we’ve traveled. The world has more amazing things than we could ever imagine. We should never hesitate to ask questions. No telling what we might learn.