from A Squandered Life / The Tobacco Fields '66
Days of Pain
True to his word, my truck driver dropped me just the other side of Toronto, and I carried on south and west. I'd been told to head for a town called Tilsonburg at the heart of tobacco country. It wasn't long before I found myself trudging up its high street in early morning light. As the town awoke, it was clear that it had been inundated by hopefuls like me. All were carrying bags or back packs and wandering aimlessly up and down the streets. I spoke to a few but all seemed as befuddled as me about where to start looking for work.
There was no obvious labour exchange or notice board and certainly no tourist industry leaflets telling us what to do. I heard a rumour that there was a gathering place for farmers and workers in another town not far away. I'd slept the early afternoon away in a bit of forest next to a river just outside town. Feeling refreshed and energetic, I decided to stash my pack in the undergrowth and make my way to this town. I set off doing my hitch and trudge and got away from the main throng of migrant workers.
A few miles out I got a lift from a gritty looking character in a pick up truck. He asked me where I was going and, when I explained, he said, “Well hell, I'm a tobacco farmer and I'm looking for primers. Wanna come to my place and see if it suits you?” “Sure,” I said and a few miles further on he wheeled off the main road down some dirt roads and, sure enough, pulled up in front of a farmhouse and outbuildings. He, Mr Taylor, took me to the barn and showed me a grubby dusty bunk house and said, “Seventeen bucks a day and all you can eat, day off on Sunday. Whadaya say?” Seventeen dollars a day sounded very generous in those days and I said okay. He offered me something to eat then and there and I met some of the crew he had already hired.
Most notable was a tall brash blonde guy called Dan who was clearly not your average migrant worker. It turned out he was a student like me and that this was his second year in the fields. There was a quiet slight good looking French Canadian called Pierre who smiled warmly as we were introduced. Pierre had a limited grasp of English but he was a pro who had done this work for several seasons. We were served by the farmer's daughters, Janine, an attractively busty and gregarious 18 or 19 year old, and Loretta, her significantly less blessed younger sister who wore glasses and suffered from a form of partial paralysis which froze half her face into an immoveable deadpan.
After supper Dan offered to drive me back to Tilsonburg to retrieve my stashed back pack. As I approached the space in the wood that I had slept in that afternoon, I found my relaxed attitude towards care of property had been rewarded by a plundering. The contents of my pack had been spewed out across the thick grass. As I took stock and gathered far flung items of clothing, I found I'd lost my treasured Swiss army knife but that everything else, including a couple of books, was clearly deemed not worth taking. Dan had a good old larf. He was impressed by my naivety at leaving the stuff in the first place.
We started work at sun up the next morning. Mr Taylor came and rattled the doors and hollered and we straggled like refugees into the main house for breakfast served by the two daughters. When we trooped back out into the yard we found Taylor there with a wretched looking one-eyed horse hitched to a strange long deep narrow wooden bin on runners, like some kind of sand sleigh. He slapped the horse which responded with a massive fart and the whole contraption lurched forward towards the nearest tobacco field.
Up close, the broad leaved five foot plants seemed innocuous enough, but the true hell of our predicament became clear when Taylor explained that we had to start with “the sand leaves” - ie, the leaves at the very bottom of the plant. These were the oldest leaves on the plant and therefore the ones readiest for picking. Our little bedraggled crew exchanged nervous glances as we gazed across the endless fields and the implications of this detail sank in. Taylor lined the horse up between the fourth and fifth rows in from the edge and mushed him down the narrow space between, and then assigned us each to a row. Their were eight of us so we covered the four rows each side of the horse and bin. Taylor himself took “the horse row” where he would set the pace and keep the horse and bin abreast of the team. Pierre, the only one among the crew who had done this enough times to have some technique, was assigned to the row on the other side of the horse. I found myself on the outside right with Dan next to me on my left.
Taylor demonstrated what we were to do. We were to bend over to toe level in order to reach the sand leaves, reach around the main stalk with our right hands, with one twist try to grab all three or four of the big leaves in one go, whip them up to and under our left arms, take a step, and repeat on the next plant. The idea was to do this until your left arm couldn't hold any more, then straighten up and take the leaves over to the horse's bin, place them carefully in the bin, then return to your row and continue the process. Ad infinitum....
We each processed our own grim thoughts as we formed our line and prepared for the plunge. Taylor and Pierre dove in at a worrying pace and it became clear that dawdlers would be further punished by having to walk further to the horse bin the more they lagged behind.
In the relatively cool and dewy morning our little gang set off down the first rows of the first field. My row quickly became very private and personal as, with my head and torso down, I couldn't see or sometimes even hear the rest of the crew. The leaves weren't soft. The higher leaves would reach over and casually scrape you as you reached down for the sand leaves. These broke off easily enough but they had a way of rubbing your priming (picking) hand between thumb and forefinger, an area which quickly became red and sore. Strain began to appear along the muscles at the back of the leg, but, of course, the absolute king agony was in the lower back.
The battle with the back pain became overwhelmingly the main theatre of war. It was a relief to stand up to take your leaves over to the bin, and some of us began to take smaller and smaller loads over to maximise the only respite. Pierre and Taylor had begun to pull ahead and were now working back down some of the rows of us slower guys. Taylor said, “Just remember that the more you stand up the more it will hurt your back. Once you're down, it's best to stay down till you've got a good load.” All well and good, but really, the choice was between agony and agony.
It was a long half morning. Taylor's daughters appeared with drinks and snacks and we rested for about 20 minutes. Of course, now the sun was up and we had the added pleasure of heat. This was fine as our bodies at first warmed to the sun's gentle attentions, but as the heat continued to build, we realised that this was going to be another dimension to our suffering. Taylor and Pierre simply carried on, but the rest of us began to strip. I took off my shirt and tucked it into the back of my jeans. Very soon I discovered why Pierre and Taylor didn't do this. The rubbing raw of my priming hand was replicated under my left arm.
As the heat built, the leaves became stickier and we found our hands (and our arm pits) beginning to blacken as the tar from the plants came off and stuck. By the time lunch break was called, we looked like a bunch of sand crabs from an oil disaster on a sun-baked third world beach. Janine appeared driving a tractor with a flat bed trailer and we climbed aboard. Some of us tried to lay flat but got thumped back up into sitting positions by the lumpy track on our way back to the farm house.
How we ever got started again that afternoon is beyond me. The sun was even hotter; the plants stickier and heavier. Our backs and the backs of our legs stabbed with pain each time we bent anew. Our right hands were raw and ached. Those of us foolish enough to take our shirts off in the heat were caked with tar and rubbed raw under our left arms. Bent over, we each occupied our private hells in the dense green grasping and rasping foliage. The cursed sand leaves were drier and yellowing and so low that they were often covered with sandy earth which sprayed back over the body as they were tucked underarm.
Taylor and Pierre had to work hard coming back down our rows to try to keep the pace up. I vividly recall the heart wrenching gratitude I would feel as, stooped down, I would suddenly come across a plant with no sand leaves. I could look ahead and see the next few were also done. I could stand up, and there, down my row, would be the bent back of usually Pierre but sometimes Taylor hustling ahead to give me the space to catch up to the horse bin. I would straggle across the rows to the bin, dump my leaves, and re-join my row refreshingly further along. But sweating and aching, as soon as I bent down I was instantly returned to my claustrophobic jungle inferno and all relief and gratitude were instantly a distant memory.
One day ground slowly into another. The pain and the insufferable heat didn't seem to let up, but slowly the late afternoons became more than just periods of desperate recovery. After hot showers, provided by coils of black hose pipe lying in the baking sun, and a moment or two of horizontality, the beginnings of an appetite might begin to emerge. Summoned to the farmhouse for supper we would be refreshed enough for a bit of tired banter among ourselves and with Taylor's daughters.
That first Sunday was heaven on earth. No horrific wake up calls. A generous and relaxed breakfast. Then Dan suggested a drive in his car and most of us piled in to go careering around the local countryside in search of diversion. Dan was a hairy driver and demonstrated four wheel drifts and handbrake turns in a frenetic and unsettling manner. I don't think any of us developed confidence in his driving, but he was also entertaining, swapping obscene stories with Pierre and roaring with laughter. They also decided to stop for cases of beer for transport back to base and proceeded to drink heavily into the stock on the way home. Not much of a beer drinker myself, I was quickly left behind as they drank themselves into a stupor in preparation for the following morning's resumption of agony.
Sure enough, the next day was just as bad as the very first day. By the end of it I think we were all ready to quit, but Taylor announced that the next day we would be “topping”. Pierre smiled broadly and Dan explained. “All you have to do is snap the flowers off the top of the plants,” he said. “You can stand up straight, throw them on the ground, no bending, no horse, no lugging to the bin.” This sounded manageable to all of us and the next day we had the added benefit of being joined in the field by Janine and Loretta. The day was spent joking and teasing and telling abominable lies. Dan was flirting outrageously with Janine and offered to marry her then and there.
But the time passed too quickly and it wasn't long before we found ourselves crouched down in our hellish rows again. By this time some of us were experimenting with working from our knees, but you couldn't keep up and your knees got worn ragged very quickly. There was no way out; no let up. The terms of the sentence were dictated by the insistent grinding pace of Taylor and the horse bin. Our pain was the price we paid for the seventeen bucks a day.
© 2012 Deacon Martin