by Kent Fletcher
I attempt to take a very early morning walk with my pooch every day now, mostly due to the searing Texas sun and ensuing heat. If we’re not up and out by 8:30 or 9 in the morning, well, just forget it until around 8 or 9 in the evening.The sunlight is still pretty good by then, and the winds have picked up as well.
Saturday morning past was such an occasion. As we worked our way toward the front of the property, I happened to see a bunch of formations on the ground beneath an oak tree I had not seen in many, many years. These formations were as nearly perfect cones as I’ve ever seen. I squatted down and saw a couple of puffs of dirt or sand flying up from a couple of them. Upon closer inspection I also saw a very small bug of some sort desperately trying to escape this cone, but being consistently thwarted in its attempt by whatever bug was at the apex of the cone, throwing the dirt or sand upward. The escapee was trapped and would eventually succumb to the predator at the bottom.
This spurred my memories back to better times, back to a small community called Round Pond, Arkansas. My maternal grandparents lived there. It was a fun place to go in the summertime; there were always lots of new things to do, to explore, to eat, and lots of iced tea, that favorite Southern drink.
Across a dirt drive was a cotton gin. Beneath the gin there was nothing but dirt, sand, and lint. And these little conical traps were all over the place, some quite large, maybe a couple of inches across, others much smaller, even hard to see without close inspection. Thinking back about it, I don’t remember ever seeing any activity in these inverted cones, so I never pursued what made them or what the purpose was.
Also beneath the main building were lots of places to hide and play. I can remember playing on the massive belts, some of which ran to the top of the building, about two stories. And the belts were wide, very wide, a couple or three nearly three feet wide. And, no, I wasn’t naïve enough to play around down there when the gin was operating, just at other times.
The main building was elevated about six feet, I suppose, and had a lean-to on one side where the trailers of freshly and mostly hand-picked cotton would be pulled up. Under this lean-to was a humongous vacuum tube, expertly guided by a man over the cotton to be sucked into the first stages of the gin processing.
I never heard of any human-being pulled in, but I never saw but one or two men in any trailer at one time. The total time of vacuuming only took 10 to 15 minutes anyway, then the next trailer would be pulled in and the process repeated.
As I said, the gin was probably two stories tall and completely covered with corrugated sheet metal. If there were any insulation in the building, it was from the escaping lint and dust and bugs. In other words, the gin was a hot (but dry) place to work. And when the gin was operational, the drone and hum of the massive separators and compacters went 24/7. To sleep just across the drive was no real problem as the noise was not unpleasant but actually quite relaxing.
As the bales of cotton were produced, they were literally rolled out of the main building to a deck toward the main road. This deck was probably 50 or so feet wide, and maybe 75 feet long, built entirely of wood and covered once again with the same corrugated tin, but the sides were open.
I can remember seeing that platform just absolutely covered with cotton bales, each bale weighing at least 500 pounds. The bales were moved around by hand on large handtrucks one at a time. The fellows who moved them were seasoned veterans, making the work look like child’s play. If a bale were ever lost off the back side of the platform, no one mentioned it.
The business of running a cotton gin, even today I would imagine, can be hazardous to one’s health. Besides the dust and floating lint, which could combust given the right conditions, there were also the large separators. They are probably called something else, but I’m not a farmer, so I don’t know.
These machines separated the cotton fiber from the rest of the hull and seed. From time to time during the day, someone had to reach in and pick out a tad of cotton to ensure there was quality production going on.
There was one old man who had worked the gin and surrounding farms for years on end, an immigrant from Germany named Delbert Gatliff. Mr. Gatliff was a most likeable fellow, best I remember. He had three or four kids with his wife, Hazel.
While Mr. Gatliff was not a formally educated man, he was quite educated in the cycle of growing and ginning cotton. As I said before, working there was potentially hazardous to human health. If the term had been known at the time, late 50s and early 60s, Mr. Gatliff could not have “high-fived” anyone, as he had lost several fingers or parts of fingers over the years while working around the separators. He could have only “high-threes” at best, that much I do remember. I was there one day when he lost part of one finger. He simply cussed a little, turned around and grabbed a rag, wrapped his hand and continued.
It was much later that he started to droop from the loss of blood, and someone rushed him to the emergency room at the hospital in Forrest City, some 12 miles away.
Sometimes on weekends the gin would shut down, opening a window of opportunity for the local kids and for kids like my brother and me to play on the bales. We would run around on the tops, jumping from line to line, bale to bale. There were, however, small spaces between the lines of bales, places to hide from others, and places to fall into erroneously.
On one such playtime, my brother Jack was chasing me for whatever reason. I tripped on one of the bales, probably catching a foot on the burlap at the top, and fell head first between the bales.
Thunk, to the bottom. On my head. With my legs sticking up. The bales were only about six feet tall, so I didn’t fall far, but the space was tight enough that I couldn’t right myself. Jack leaned over and grabbed my feet to hoist me back up. After sitting for a bit, we went on with our running around.
On one corner of the platform was an old hand pump, you know the kind, usually red connected to a steel pipe that was run deep, deep into the ground. This water was cold, very cold, and it was not refrigerated. There was always a can or gallon jug of water off to the side, because while pumping the handle, to bring the water up, the pump sometimes had to be primed. The only problem was the taste of the water. The ground water in that particular part of Arkansas is hard, really hard. It has a lot of minerals in it to the point soap of any kind cannot be made to produce suds. Tough on the skin, too, and cannot be used for cooking without being treated.
But when you’re a kid running around in the hot Arkansas summers, a long drink of cold water will really refresh you, regardless of the taste or smell. All you had to do was not breathe through your nose to escape the taste and smell.
Ah, what sweet memories.
Kent Fletcher is a retired Navy man now living in Texas, but born and raised in the Mississippi Delta. He’s been writing reminisces and short stories for a couple of years when he isn't playing/working at woodworking. You can reach Kent directly at email@example.com.
Kent also maintains a list of his writings at Topica.com. If you will go there and in the search box near the middle of the page type in “random reminiscing,” you can easily locate the list. Thanks.
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