Becoming a man on the peanut fields of the 460 corridor

Published 8:35 am Wednesday, August 25, 2010

By Clarence Foster

I entered the fields in the summer of ’56, at the age of 11. This was big boy stuff, grown folks, $3 a day!

Paper money was quite rare at that age. But even grown men were making only $5 a day.

These first two or three years were limited to chopping.

A day’s work, with the pitchfork, of shaking or shocking peanuts, especially with the weight of a little rainwater was how and where hard labor got its name.

We worked from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. (with an hour at noon). I could always have knocked off earlier — for less money and endured a young boy’s loss of face. After all, tired was determined solely by the time of day.

The community was still getting used to tractors.

I remember, a few years earlier, then a pre-schooler, when Uncle Rubdell (Rubdell Joe) finally got that secondhand old Case started.

It roared its disapproval in such a loud, bellicose manner that I raced from the barnyard, sped past the well and sought refuge around the corner of the house.

By ’56, we were just a half dozen years or so from mules — and the haunting peace and quiet of little, or nothing. It seems to me that 1950 was the turning of a page, even more profound than the new leaf of the ’60s.

We’d reach the field by 7 a.m., mouth a few pleasantries, pick a row apiece and move out.

The older, more experienced choppers would have their own sharpened hoes. A dull hoe would require two or more swipes of the blade to vanquish a sturdy weed, or subdue the hardy wiregrass.

Some hoe blades, near razor sharp, might be worn to half their original size, due to a generation of sharpenings.

Youngsters, such as myself, ignorant to age-old convention, brazened on, stubbornly, with whatever raw tools the farmer had to offer.

I worked for family (and extended family) farmers at the southern reaches of the 460 corridor.

The shelter provided by this insulated community was great, but not without its period dilemma. It is doubtful that as much as 10 minutes of talk passed between me and white kids (in the county) for all of my first 20 years.

Lunch boxes weren’t recommended in the field. Heat spoilage and marauding animals, especially insects, would take a toll.

It amuses me to recall the events of the voracious gnats.

If you pulled a sandwich out, in the field, it would, in short order, be swarmed by all kinds of gnats. But veterans would ignore the small cloud that would descend between bites.

It was known that the skilled gnat would time its escape perfectly, every time, while the untimely demise of the peppery novice, unfortunate as it was, actually improved the species as a whole.

This was a good thing for all and sundry. And there it was, La Force Majeure: The famous Darwinian thesis, played out right there over lunch.

The growing and harvesting of peanuts was the quintessence of farming.

When I entered the peanut fields of the ’50s, I figured into a large number of man-hours, paired with numerous tools, tractors, and tractor equipage — a ton of grit, the hand of providence and the quaint genius of a quite charming peanut picker.

This Rube Goldberg contraption was hauled onto center stage. Its many moving parts were set in motion by a belt driven by a rotor, driven by the tractor’s engine.

The pitchfork was re-employed in lifting the vines from the shocks, and placed into carts for transport to the “pea picker.” The vines were pitched into its hopper.

As they made their way through the machine, the peanuts were picked from the vines and fed into a chute that emptied into burlap bags, up to 100 pounds, big and round.

This center of the universe, replete with orbiting attendants, had its own distinctive “men’s work” noise. Dust billowed from bits or dried earth that still clung to the vines.

There may have been an autumn chill in the air. There was a sense of high purpose, the engagement in a sacred art.

The bags, sewn shut with a giant sewing needle, were beautiful symbols of a year’s work. The portly bags would be stacked high on a large, high-sided truck.

The two strongest men, standing in the back of a pickup, would toss the bags to a stacker, who crawled about on the top of the stack. The bags might extend as much as 15 feet above the truck bed.

The loaded truck pulling away, straining its engine, was sweet music and grand closure to an annual tradition.

This would come as much as three to four hours after dark. The men would have gone on by moonlight and the headlights of tractors and pickups.

All would be covered by dust, fatigue and satisfaction, and to some — even a bit of glory.

CLARENCE FOSTER is a resident of Southampton County and 1963 graduate of Hayden High School.