Tobacco Road

As I lay under an airy-thin sheet to seek refuge from the 5 A.M. morning chill, sleep held me in its slothful grasp. In my dark subconscious, I heard the tinkling of a metal spoon scraping the sides of my great-grandmother's coffee cup. Her aged voice lured the sun over the horizon and insured the beginning of day. The aroma of thick, black coffee penetrated 50 feet of cold air to fill my dilated nostrils, and a determined farmer’s heavy footsteps shook loose from my mind thoughts of the day ahead. It was all a futile conspiracy to fight off my slumber until my grandmother, rustling my shoulder and singing my name, released me from it completely. Another day on my grandfather's tobacco farm, a day filled with struggles for the freedom to control my own life experience, had begun.


The day’s first chore led me to a barn where a forest of broad, golden leaves, extending 20 feet high, hung from wooden beams that may have been masts on ancient sailing vessels. Cousins and farmhands became as agile as monkeys and climbed into the jungle of cured tobacco. Uninhibited by the towering barn, heavy lifting, or dim light, they removed the sticks of tobacco as steadily and gracefully as wind harvesting autumn leaves. Salvaging leaves that fell to the dirt floor was my responsibility, a job which meant bending over to gather one leaf and immediately searching for another. Four kerosene stoves in the center of the floor and only two feet from the walls limited my movements to an abrupt turn every three steps. Sometimes the leaves fell without interruption, and I had to bend and turn and grab and step and stop even faster, though the faster I moved the more confined I felt. Heat from the stoves thickened the air and stuck to my lungs. Dust coated my eyes. Darkness tangled my feet. I longed for the quenching relief outside the barn door, but I had to gather the leaves. I had to gather the leaves.


In the fields the main activity was picking tobacco stalks. Skilled workers galloped down each row and picked only ripe leaves, stuffing handfuls under their arms until they had to unload the bulging mass into a trailer. My grandfather decided that youth made me inefficient for this task but adequate for driving the tractor down the rows. Driving it was actually unnecessary because the mounds of dirt around the base of the stalks were steep enough to stabilize the tractor wheels. My only real responsibility was to keep pace with the pickers.


The voyage down every row was identical—straight and unerring—fortified by a wall of giant, green plants on each side. The strictness was suffocating. It would've been exhilarating to abandon the monotonous journey and swerve over a few stalks, spin a wheel in the dirt, or escape from the tractor seat and run wildly across the field. Because my grandfather was depending on me to remain at my post, I rode the crawling monster’s back while breathing belches of exhaust until my head was ready to burst.


My uncle always rode with me whenever I had a train of two trailers to bring in from the field. I would feel the pressure of his eyes watching me press he tractor’s pedals and move its levers. He knew that hauling two full trailers requires slower, more deliberate and premeditated navigation around turns and the hazards in dirt roads. Moving them in reverse demands a specialist because the two trailers would tend to pivot it in opposite directions. I despised not being sufficiently skilled to make these trips alone—I was not in control; my uncle was the captain of the vessel; instead of commanding the trailers, the trailers were commanding me.


One sizzling afternoon another worker incorrectly maneuvered two of the field trailers and broke them. My uncle ordered me to fetch two more while he stayed behind to fix the broken ones. For the first time neither he nor the trailers would be with me. I casually climbed into the tractor seat (pretending I did not know what was happening), turned the ignition, and drove away as if I were hauling three trailers. A few turns later I was beyond his site and about to enter State Route 644. I eased onto the pavement and pointed the tractor down the unmarked road. A cool breeze gushed from behind and lifted the humid film from my body. That left me, a winding country road, a pulsating throttle . . . and a feeling of freedom and control.
by Eric Fleshood
February 5, 1992