The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Ozark Dreams and Mountain Memories - Part 19 of 24

By Lillie A. Emery © 1989

Issue: September, 1989

Editor's Note: This is a serialized, true story of a poor Ozark family in the 1930's through the eyes of one of their children; experience their hardships and heart warming togetherness as they struggle through and celebrate life in the Ozark Mountains.

If you could imagine how you would feel if you did calisthenics for ten or twelve hours out in the hot August sun, you'd know how we felt at the end of the first day picking cotton. At first our sore muscles and aching backs cried out from over exhaustion and fatigue. And when we'd straighten up from picking to carry a heavy sack of cotton to the scales, there'd be sickness in the stomach, dizziness in the head and blurred vision of the endless fields of cotton simmering in heat waves that looked like a hot steamy ocean. But gradually our muscles tightened up and we became more or less immune to pain and could and did pick more cotton than any other family in those fields.

Among the cotton pickers were several social levels and each group looked on the other group with contempt and distrust. At the top of the list was Mr. Langley and his family, second were the town students out for a lark and a few dollars, third was Mr. Moses and his family and fourth, in somewhat equal but distinctively separated groups were the rest of us. There were the sharecroppers, both black and white, then the city people from Memphis then at the very bottom of the list was us hillbillies. For various reasons each group stayed somewhat aloof from the others and seemed to vie for recognition or some small measure of superiority.

Among the younger children was pure, tactless, open mouthed competition in their efforts to prove their worth. Jonathon and Andy eagerly caught on to the rules and joyfully joined in the verbal sometimes bole pelting melees that took place frequently. The city children from Memphis would chant to the sharecropper's children, "You is owned by the boss man just like his mules, for you is just a bunch of shiftless sharecroppers." That would bring a counter attack from the sharecropper's with such insults as, "You is just a bunch of no good gamblers who dances and raises cane most all year in that sinful city of Memphis." Then the sharecroppers who still felt pretty beaten would turn on us hillbillies and start blabbing about our ignorance. It hurt for most of it was true. They'd chant, "Who ain't never went to no school and never went to no movie and never even seen a street carnival? Well, we all know who it is; it's ignorant hillbillies that's who it is." This verbal announcement about hillbilly inferiority would be met by a verbal list of their faults, such as, "You all is unchurched and unwashed and you all eat sow belly and beans for breakfast."

Then a barrage of green cotton boles would be exchanged until the parents of Mr. Moses simmered the young warriors down. It seemed to me that each group of parents took silent pride in their offspring's scrappiness. But I don't think Mama did for she kept a close rein on Jonathon and Andy; therefore, they were extremely handicapped for they were known as Mama's babies and no self respecting cotton picking youngster would be called that without defending his honor. The town students took great delight in the free entertainment and on the sly they encouraged the youngsters on by whispering new witty insults for them to exchange in order to keep the fights raging.

Mr. Moses was a patient man who tried to keep peace and order among the field hands and he tried to reduce the waste of cotton by stopping the bole fights. But he himself often became a figure of contempt for when he left the fields to haul the loads of cotton to the gin all of the children would join in trying to figure out how to get even with him for stopping their fights.

But still they looked on Mr. Moses with awe and a little fear for he had been with Mr. Langley for thirty years and was in charge when the Langley's were away. His family lived in a neat white house that sat in the corner of the big lawn and Mrs. Moses had flowers that looked like bouquets growing around their house. Whenever one of the grown ups complained about Mr. Langley being so strict and wanting all of the men to be on the job every day, he'd just tell them that Mr. Langley worked hard every day and that his Papa had before him and he expected his hands to do the same for it was for their own good as well as his. Then he added, "If you don't like him you just go let Mister Danvill be your boss man. For he cheats his hands when he weighs their sacks Saturday nights and drinks up their liquor and tries to cheat them at shooting craps."

Mama had been feeling bad and Ben and Jeannie would beg her to stay at the house or to at least go in early. She was afraid if she did we wouldn't be able to save fifty dollars a week; so Ben had a secret talk with all of us children and we promised to work harder so Mama could quit early like some of the other mother's did. Ben said he was ashamed for her to work so hard for she was older than the other mothers. We all insisted that Mama go in early so finally she said she would.

The first day that she quit early she took me with her. We were going to get the milk, get supper started and do some laundry before it got so late. So we went walking up the Langley's drive to the back door and knocked to ask for the milk. Mrs. Langley called for us to come in. We went just inside the kitchen door. Mrs. Langley said something about wishing Mrs. Moses would get back from town. She came into the kitchen wearing a long, blue satin robe with slippers to match. She said she had been sick with a bad cold. She went to the big refrigerator, the first one that I had ever seen, and got the milk. The kitchen was big and all white except the curtains had big red roosters on them and the floor was red checkered. The floor and all the rest of the house was as shiny as a mirror. It looked like they had one of everything from a Sears catalog in that house. I just stood there wishing Mama had a kitchen like that and wishing Dovie Davis could see me standing there.