The long road beckoned me west. I was hankering to see turquoise skies and gray mountains, smell juniper and pinion and ride through purple sage. And, I wanted to see my daughter, Shannon. It was mid-July and I was headed back to Taos.
On a sultry Tuesday morning before the sun had burned off the haze, we departed Elk River in a Chevy Caravan loaded with suitcases, maps and snacks. Bonnie Pitts of Tanner was behind the wheel. Leslie, his 12-year-old, blue-eyed and red-headed son, (who could model for a Norman Rockwell painting,) was soon asleep as we chased asphalt toward Memphis. My friend and sometimes red-head, Pat, as well as her niece, Penni Pitts, planned to depart Athens Friday after work, and meet us in Taos.
I love history and share it with Leslie, an honor student at Tanner. Near Memphis, I said, “When you see the mighty Mississippi, you’re gonna say ‘Golleee shazam’.” He grinned. As we bumped across the bridge into Arkansas, Leslie, his freckled face to the window, was unimpressed. The great river that once marked the western boundary of the United States prior to the Louisiana Purchase was running 30 feet below normal. We headed west on I-40 where the delta is flat and green as a billiard table. Bonnie looked across the endless rice fields, tugged the brim of his cap, and reminisced.
“When I was 16 or 17 we used to come out here in August and September and pick cotton,” he began. “Daddy had an old black, 1937 Chevy with suicide doors. They opened backward. If you opened them while moving they would jerk you outta the car.”
I love a good story. I reached over and punched off the radio. “When was that?” I asked.
“Ah, about 1957. We lived on Bruce Nelson’s farm near Brownsferry. Daddy would load us four boys up; that was me, the twins, Elwood and Delwood and my older brother, James and we’d leave Ripley about six in the morning. Daddy didn’t have a driver’s license – none of us did.”
The ‘37 Chevy got them to the Harrisburg area, where flat fields and endless rows were white with cotton. They stayed in a long, dorm-type building located on a gravel road that housed several families. Water was drawn from a hand-dug well with a rope and bucket. They shared an outhouse with the other itinerant workers. There was no air conditioning, no fan and no screen doors to keep out hordes of voracious mosquitoes.
“We rested the first day we got there,” Bonnie said. “Daddy got up between 5 and 5:30 and cooked breakfast which was usually biscuits and gravy. Sometimes, we ate bacon and eggs, if we had it.”
“How much were you paid for picking?” I asked.
“Two fifty per hundred pounds. Around Athens they didn’t pay no more than $1.50 to $1.75. We could make some real money in Arkansas.”
Bonnie said he could pick 150 to 160 pounds a day, which came to about $3.25, and his father could pick twice that much. “When my sack was full, (which was about 50 to 60 pounds,) I’d throw it across my shoulders and walk an eighth of a mile to the trailer, and weigh in. Sometimes we were paid right then and didn’t have to wait until quitting time to get our money.”
Just before dinnertime someone drove to the nearest country store and bought lunch. “I’d usually eat two pieces of bologna with crackers, an RC and a Moon Pie for dessert,” said Bonnie. “I’d sit on my sack at the end of the row and eat in thirty minutes or less.”
They knocked off picking between 5 and 6 p.m. and trudged back to the quarters where his father cooked supper. “We’d eat pintos, fried potatoes and cornbread,” he said. “Every once in a while we had milk and occasionally we ate a box of vanilla wafers and a quart of milk for supper.”
“For five people?”
Mosquitoes made their lives miserable at night. “We mostly left the door open to catch a breeze and of course didn’t have insect repellant.” He laughed. “The mosquitoes were so big and bad that one fellow got under a cast iron kettle and when they stuck their beaks through, he bent them over so they couldn’t escape.”
“Get outta here,” I said.
Bonnie laughed again. “They were almost that big.”
They picked a half day on Saturdays, then went to tiny Mark Tree or Lapanto where there was a store and movie theater. “We went to a movie one Saturday night in Lapanto, and a Mexican cut another Mexican’s head off. We were too scared to go back. On Sundays, we laid around the house or found a creek to play in.”
I grew quiet, lost in my own thoughts as car tires hummed on the pavement. One of my earliest memories was picking cotton using a Martha White flour sack that Mama had made for me. And I remember the hot, humid nights with no fan, and swarms of hungry mosquitoes feeding on me; the lack of money and the feeling of hopelessness. I don’t ever want to return to those days. But it was subsistence living that motivated both Bonnie and me to seek a better life. I guess that is something to be said for coming up poor.
We chased a setting sun across Oklahoma where the landscape became flat and brown and spotted our first “Big Texan, Home of the 72 ounce steak” sign just west of Oklahoma City. “Are your ears popping?” Bonnie asked.
“We’re on the high plains,” I said.
The sun was setting behind clouds, casting a red hue across the horizon. “We’d better stop at Elk City and find a room,” I said.
We took our chances and continued to Sayre. No rooms available. We crossed into Texas following old Route 66 and pulled off at Shamrock. No rooms except at a flea bag motel. I’ve hosted bed bugs, previously. No more. We ate at Vern’s Steakhouse located on Route 66 and departed at 10:30 p.m. without filling up with gas. Bonnie doesn’t like to gas up until the needle reaches a certain level that is fixed only in his head. We drove toward Amarillo. Near midnight and almost on empty, we exited for gas and spotted a red neon sign, “Conway Inn.”
“Let’s get a room,” said Bonnie. “We’ll gas up in the morning.”
I entered the office, where a small man from India appeared behind a locked door and bullet-proof glass.
“Do you have a room?” I asked.
“Are the sheets clean and no bed bugs?”
“Guude room. No bed bug, no complaint in turdy years.”
“What’s the name of this place?” I asked.
“No name. Just crossroads.”
We crashed at midnight. By my calculations we were within a two hour drive for our first planned adventure.
-To be Continued –
By: Jerry Barksdale