By Curtis L. Johnson, Sr.
In the Deep South, like every region, we also have our ups and downs of weather.
The spring was a reprieve from the winter's cold, but it had a character of its own as well. Tornado watches and warnings were household words. When just a little lad, I remember seeing a black funnel cloud in the distant sky that, fortunately for us, never touched down. Spring rains could be vicious, and I remember more than one occasion when our neighbor's house just down the hill from us flooded. Apart from those times and feeling bad for my friends, in my opinion the springs were much more desirable than the onslaught summer heat. Spring promised the coming of new life and a new beginning. The word itself even has the feel of "pick me up, or let's get moving, or rise and shine, or ready, set, go." Yes, it was seeding time! Wake up and thank the Lord for a new day, but don't forget to be grateful for the crickets that put you to sleep at night under the light of the moon and the roosters that wake you each morning to be kissed by the rising sun. Daylight Saving Time has sprung forward, and it's time to rise and shine. So start your engines, it's planting time in the Dixie Delta soil where all the days are long. Hitch up the plows, the harrows, the cotton planting equipment, and work hard from sun up to sun down. But as for us kids, it wouldn't be long before we too would be working in the fields after school, chopping cotton. Even though we had enjoyed a long and restful winter, we were never elated about chopping cotton. It would have been nice for those planters to shift into slow motion and for those cotton seeds to take a vacation before busting through the top soil, but they never did. Who can not like spring -- a pause before the fiery launch of the southern humid and heated summer?
Oops! Did I say summer?
It's hot; it's humid; it's hard; it's not so much about summer itself but rather about what one has to do in such harassing and sun-heated days that went on and on with working from 6 am to 6 pm. There was no air conditioning but plenty of loud sounding fans to keep up cool. We were poor and had no swimming pools. The closest city was about 8 miles away. There was a public swimming pool in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and we went there to swim very rarely, because that was too far for us to go. However, that did not stop us from keeping cool as best we could. There was always a creek nearby that had plenty of water. The water was dirty, but we jumped in anyway. School was out for the summer and we spent a lot of time chopping cotton under the southern sun. What energy we had left, we spent it playing. We were happiest though when it rained, because that meant a little break from the hard work in the cotton fields. Most times life in my community was filled with lots of activity. Tractors, plows, ammonia tanks, weed killing poisons permeating the air, hazardous sprays dropped from airplanes, killing all unwanted insects and weavers to protect the cotton crops. If the rains refused to come frequent enough, it meant that it was time to irrigate the fields. Start your tractor engines and hitch your open bed trailers and stack them high with water pipes. Start the big water pumps, ready and waiting in the field, with water ponds begging to be filled from which the pumps would send water in pipes lined far and wide across the fields. This was how I spent my summers from a little boy through my teenage years until I finished High School at 17. The weekends were a little more fun because we went to the city to spend our little money to buy cloths and other items we could not buy in our little community. The end of summer in late August meant time to go back to school. The cotton fields were slowly starting to turn white, and harvest time was rapidly approaching. The fall season was awakening.
As if the staggering fumes of summer in which crops had to be sprayed with pesticides were not enough, we were in for another treat of crop dusters to expedite the falling of leaves in the cotton fields. Say hello and welcome to the pilots of those low flying planes, who were there for one essential purpose, and that was to rush the harvest of King Cotton. We were back in school and busy with both homework and picking cotton, because the fall season had arrived. The hustle and bustle had arrived, the fields were ripe unto harvest, and there would be no stoppage until the color of white had disappeared and all that remained were cotton stalks of brown. The bountiful blessings of God would soon be realized by those fortunate enough to be landowners and blessed with good weather. But everyone, both rich and poor, looked forward to the Thanksgiving Season because there was always much to be grateful for. The harvest of cotton was the last major crop to be gathered for the year. It was time to pause, take a break, wipe away the sweat of hard work and take in all the beauty of the fall season's colorations. I and all the kids I knew were happy because work for us would cease until the next spring. We were also happy and excited because Christmas was not far away. It was always such a wonderful season, so filled with love and the spirit of gentleness. We absorbed as much beauty and love as was humanly possible, because we always knew that Old Man Winter was lurking just ahead and he was not always the kindest of souls. We said a cool goodbye to fall and a hesitating hellooooo to winter.
There was no "wonder" to this southern winter land. The cotton gins had come to a stop; the combines and cotton pickers had been driven into the yards and laid to rest; the sounds of tractors had ceased for a while. Yes, it was quiet; the fields were muddy from the winter rain which so often came and spoke gently as it slowly dropped on the top of our tin roof. It was as if the rain whispered for us to be at ease, stay inside, and keep warm by the fire. Many of our winter days were sunny and many of our wintry nights were cold. We loved the snow for several reasons. We liked the taste of mom's snow ice cream; we liked to play in the snow and make snowmen; and if it snowed enough, we stayed home from school. Pot belly stoves filled with wood or coal and space heaters kept us warm through the winter. Ice cycles hanging from our roof and from trees sometimes were great treats of fun. Icy roads were sometimes hazardous. We did not have indoor bathrooms, and icy outhouses were so vital but dreadful places to have to be in the hard of winter. We ate well all year round. We ate all kinds of peas including black-eyed peas, but the black-eyed peas were a favorite food tradition for the New Year. Mom topped it off with her favorite piece of pork, and we were on our way to good eating. I also remember that we paid attention to whether or not the ground hog saw his shadow.
Yes, we took the bitter with the sweet
We enjoyed all those Southern treats
We feasted on many wonderful Southern foods to eat
We picked pecans from the tall trees
We hunted for black berries on bare feet
And we picked from their vines in the grassy weeds.
Yes, these and more are the many ways
That we survived on many a day
In those Southern Seasons.
Curtis writes to Ye Editor: "Growing up on the plantation in poverty, I never realized how rich I really was. As I look back on those days and develop the snapshots of my memory, I discover those golden treasures. Thanks for allowing me to share such treasures with others!"
Curtis Johnson, Sr., a native Mississippian, is a former pastor and presently owns a business with Barbara, his wife of 36 years. Residing near Sacramento, California, he is the proud father of 3 and grandfather of 6 grandchildren. He loves gardening and writing. Email address: cj8080
Read more stories by Rev. Johnson:
Mattson ~ A Place Unforgotten
More Than Race
Man, Mule and Mouse
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