The coming of August marks a fascinating time of the year for me. It is usually in the first week of the month named after Caesar Augustus that the rustle of leaves stirred by the wind takes on a different sound. It is to me the first sign that fall is near.
But August mornings are of particular interest to me. There is something about them that takes me back in time. It may be the feel of the early morning air or a combination of the sounds and smells of late summer.
Whatever it is, I find myself suddenly standing in tall weeds at the edge of a tobacco patch an hour before first light. The dew is cold and thick as I am, by the light of pickup truck headlamps, tying a large piece of plastic around my waist to cover my legs. Without the makeshift rain skirt, the first sticks of tobacco, heavy with dew, would give me a soaking. It is one thing to be cold, and the early morning had a chill about it. It is another thing to be cold and wet.
By mid-morning the dew is long gone and now the culprit is the August sun. The morning has turned from cool to suffocating, with the temperature climbing a sweltering 30 degrees. I manage not to be wet by the dew, but now I cannot avoid being drenched with sweat. Next stop, the tobacco barn.
Growing up, I was usually the tobacco hanger in the top of the barn. There is one advantage to that. You handle fewer sticks of tobacco. The disadvantage is this: you are up near the tin roof. It was like an oven. It is amazing the relief the slightest hint of a breeze can bring when you are hanging tobacco in a barn that is almost full.
I reckon I took part in raising no less than 25 crops of tobacco. When you have survived that many crop years you have seen about all there is to see about a tobacco crop. Most of those years were pre-MH-30 and Royal MH-30. We pulled a lot of suckers. In some wet years, we pulled suckers twice. When you are shorter than the tobacco is tall, it’s hard to find air to breathe.
For most of the years I was involved in raising the crops, allotment was based on acreage instead of poundage. Whether we raised two acres or 12, it seemed like getting the first half of the crop cut, spiked and hung in the barn was at least bearable. The second half just about killed us. By the end of the harvest you were as tired when you got out of the bed in the morning as you were when you laid down the night before.
And the labor supply? Except for a neighbor occasionally and a high school boy or two for a few days, we were it. My father, my three brothers and I weathered the load. (My sister sometimes reminds me that she drove the tractor for the tobacco haulers when she was old enough.) We suffered it out with every crop. We celebrated when the last stalk was cut. We celebrated when the last stick was picked up. And we celebrated when the last stick was hung.
Over the years, I have observed many tobacco crops being raised by other farmers. My experienced eyes have given cause for me to make many assessments as I considered different phases of various crops. A few of the comments that I have made in my self-talk are: “That tobacco needs a rain,” “Somebody needs to find their hoe,” “That tobacco is burning up!” (or in my father’s words) “That’s a fine piece of tobacco,” or “One more rain and that crop is made.”
A few years ago I drove by a large field of tobacco. We call them fields today instead of patches. This particular tobacco was golden in color, the top leaves long and spread off. I observed to myself, “That tobacco needs to be cut.”
Not many days went by and I passed that same field again. To my amazement, the tobacco was gone! Cut, spiked, hauled, gone! A labor force from south of the border had made short work of the situation. It kind of made me mad! I said to myself, “No one suffered with that crop like we would have. We would have had to fight it to the bitter end to finish that field.”
That brings me back to the subject of August mornings.
To this day, on some mornings in the eighth month of the year, I will walk out of the house and into the morning air; and there is a stirring of my memory. And I can’t prevent the smile from coming across my face as I whisper to myself, “I’m glad I don’t have to go to the tobacco patch this morning.”
But even as I think it and say it; I have a strange longing to return to those days – if just for a moment.