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Sunday, September 6, 2015

Dirt Road Childhood

Today was an emotional day for myself and my sister.  I think my brother kind of felt the finality of it too.  You see our childhood tobacco barn was sold and bulldozed this last week.  We had watched it being dismantled by people driving by and stealing the barn wood off of it over the last few months until it was a naked barn from the ground ten feet up.  The house and shop that stood next to it had been vandalized and someone even shot holes through the tin of the shop.  It's the barn that got us all whether we said it in so many words or not.

You see, we all grew up on a tobacco farm.  We weren't full time farmers, we were part-time/full-time farmers meaning my dad worked in the city while my mom took care of things on the farm during the day and my dad came home and worked till after dark and all weekend on the farm.  We farmed row crops for a while and had livestock too which bring back fond memories as well but there's something about a tobacco farm that is unique.  Almost all the work was done by hand from the planting, pulling the plants for transplant, to cutting it, hanging it, and stripping it.  It was all done by hand.  Most of our childhood was spent in or around this barn and so many lessons learned in the fields and from this old friend.
I probably missed out on many parts of childhood growing up on the farm that other kids were experiencing.  We really didn't spend the night at other people's houses that often because there was work to be done, we didn't spend days at the pool, or going to Worlds of Fun like some of the other kids.  We were working with the family for the family.  There were times the hours felt like they were dragging on and I daydreamed of a million other places I'd rather be at the time rather than in a hot dirt field planting tobacco.
My mom and sister at the tobacco field in about 1980.

As I've reflected back there are so many life lessons I learned at this place.  We were constantly throwing dirt clods to see who had the best throwing arm.  Maybe that prepared me to throw from short stop to first in softball during the summers.  I would practice my pitching against the side of that barn with chunks of dirt waiting for my next job to be given to me.  I pitched for the softball team for years pretty accurately.
My dad and brother in about 1980

I helped my mom fix food for up to 20 men that came to our house for lunch while working in the tobacco fields.  I remember my job was to fill a large metal bucket of water, put out the Lava soap, and a couple of old bath towels for the men to wash up.  I set the table and put food out, sometimes 6 meatloafs or 3-4 peach cobblers at a time.  Many of the men said they came to our farm to work because of my mom's cooking.  I suppose I learned how to cook because of these times I spent helping in the kitchen.  Feeding a family of five is a cakewalk compared to feeding 20 men working on a farm.
I learned how to drive on the farm like most farm kids did.  If you can push the clutch in on an International 140, (with two feet not really being able to look over the steering wheel) you can probably drive just about anything.  I also learned how to back a trailer up working on a farm, something I learned as an adult not everyone knows how to do.  Who knew?
I learned how plants grow, when a rain storm is coming in, and how a well works.  I also know what it feels like to work.  When I say work I mean work hard enough that the minute your head hits the pillow, you are out.  It didn't matter that we had no air conditioning, we were tired enough that we went straight to sleep after supper and a cool shower.  It's a different kind of work on a farm for sure.
I learned to love music, it was the only entertainment I had at the time.  The portable AM radio might be on the tractor or in the tobacco stripping room.  It was my connection to the outside world and it passed the time as I sang along.  My children stare in amazement at me at times that I know word for word the songs on the oldies station.  They have no idea how many hours I sang those songs over and over in a cold tobacco stripping room during my childhood.
I also learned a sense of community.  Many people came and went working on our farm.  There was something amazing about watching the men cut and spear the tobacco in unison.  They would joke around with each other and sit on a tailgate under the stars and have a root beer or beer cussing and discussing the world problems or just sit in amazement about how much they had actually got done in one day.  I loved being part of the friendships we were making and hearing everyone's stories.
We were all together working.  My family spent hours together working side by side.  We laughed together and bickered when someone wasn't pulling their weight.  Everyone had their job and it just seemed what was meant to be at the time.  The oldest rode the tobacco setter while the youngest followed along walking to make sure all the plants were standing up straight or didn't get broken off in the tobacco setter, (planter).  It was a treat to finally get old enough to ride the setter and not have to walk all day.  I think of how many steps I would have had in one day on my Fitbit if I had one back then, probably 20,000 steps plus.
My sister and I in the old barn a couple of weeks ago.  

So you see, this barn seems like an old friend myself and my siblings have lost.  If the walls could talk, oh the stories this old barn could tell.  It watched us all grow up, care for the crops, fix it when the weather would damage it.  It was part of family.  My sister and I dug through a little of the rubble today and got a few salvageable pieces, there isn't much left.  Our plan is to make something out of the pieces that will be a keepsake.  I feel like we owe it that much.

Many people that grew up in my neck of the woods can relate to how I'm feeling I'm sure.  There's something about growing up on a tobacco farm and having a dirt road childhood that is special.  Even though I live in town now, drive a mini-van, have a manicured lawn and abundant flower gardens, I tend to think that all that I have done in my life was influenced by this way of life and although the barn is gone, those memories will always remain, dirt road childhood memories.

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