Monday, October 5, 2009

My Hill Country Assurances from Working --- Jobs I've Done

by Terry Thornton

Labor shapes the mind --- or so I've been told. Perhaps the variety of jobs I've had in Hill Country explains me more than I care to admit.

Aristotle is credited as having stated, "We are what we repeatedly do." If that is the case, then I don't know about having such a variety of work experiences as those I had during my earlier years living in the Hill Country. But collectively, the experiences from this variety of work shaped me into the person I am.

I grew up in my father's [Garfus Sherman Thornton] general store at Parham, Monroe County, Mississippi. As soon as I was old enough to help wait on customers I was put to working in the store. Eventually I was large enough to run the gasoline pumps --- and soon I was able to run the cash register and ring up sales.

But my work at Thornton Store was not paying job --- it was sorta along the lines of "them that work, eat" --- it came with my heritage. Work was expected

But the experiences in that store and the non-paying work I did there probably influences me more than any paying job I've ever had.

As soon as I got old enough to pick cotton, I worked most falls helping to gather cotton in the Hill Country --- paid by the pounds picked, working in the cotton fields for an assortment of different farmers taught me that although the cotton all looked the same, the individuals growing it were totally different. Because my friends also picked cotton to earn spending money, the fields would often be full of youngsters my age having fun while accomplishing the back-breaking chore of getting the cotton out of the fields in those days prior to mechanical cotton-pickers.

Once, a call for cotton pickers was issued by a farmer who shall remain anonymous; he even offered a higher pay-rate than all the surrounding farmers. All I knew about him was that every year he seemed to have difficulty rounding up enough workers to get his cotton crop in on a timely basis. He stopped by Thornton Store late Friday afternoon and asked a gang of us kids loitering there after school if we would pick cotton for him the next day, Saturday. Of the twelve kids in the group, all, including me, told him in front of my father that we would work for him all day Saturday at the price he said he was paying.

Saturday morning early I told my father that I had decided not to pick cotton for Mr. Anon that day --- and Garfus told me that yes I was --- that he heard me tell Mr. Anon that I'd work for him and by golly I was going to do so. At the appointed hour Mr. Anon arrived at the store to pick up the gang of workers that had promised to help him --- and I was the only one there with pick sack and hat ready to go.

I worked for Mr. Anon all morning. He and I were the only ones picking cotton on his farm that day --- he was grumpy, grouchy, and complaining the entire time I picked cotton for him. He complained about my work; he complained about how much it was costing him to hire cotton pickers; he complained about how his sons refused to work for him; and he complained when I would take a break for a call of nature or to get a drink of water. About 1 PM, he decided that it was time to "break" for lunch --- and he drove us to Thornton's Store for something to eat. I went to the house and refused to return to the field with Mr. Anon as it had been the most unenjoyable morning of work I'd ever done listening to him complain about everything. And I never worked for him again.

One of the next paying jobs I had was to pick strawberries on the Bourland Farm. One year, the manager of that large flat farm (now site of the club and residential section of Amory known as River Birch Country Club and Estates) planted acres of strawberries. When time to harvest those berries arrived, a call for strawberry pickers went out. Mr. Terry Hathcock even ran his bus from Adley and Parham ferrying workers back and forth. I can't remember how many days I picked strawberries. I was paid for the flats of berries picked; I got to eat all of the strawberries I wished to eat [and to this day strawberries are still among my least favorite of fresh foods]. The main thing I learned was that strawberries grow closer to the ground than does cotton --- and that the picking of them is harder than picking cotton. Another thing I learned is that in those large flat fields were Indian Mounds --- and that one of the mounds had tombstones on it marking more recent burials.

When I was in the seventh grade, my father decided to put my brother and me to work farming the Thornton Farm in Weaver's Creek Bottom. Many of those fields had been fallow for years --- so a bulldozer was hired and to clear off the hedge-rows and to put in drainage ditches. One stand of mature pine trees was felled and the trees given to my brother and me to sell if we could trim them up and cut them into log lengths. It sounded easy --- the tall trees were all laying on the ground --- and the two of us with axes and a cross-cut saw should be able to make logs of them in short order.

It proved to be a major job --- and on the second day of our working we looked up to see one of my father's friends, Mr. Kenneth Stafford, a timber-cutter, watching us. He had his axe with him and he joined us and showed us how make easier the work that lay ahead. Mr. Stafford worked with us until we got the logs ready to be loaded and sold. I never knew if Mr. Stafford was sent by my father to assist us --- or if he just took pity on two lads who knew little about using axes and saws. And I remember how glad I was to see the money that came from those logs.

A few years later, when gasoline-powered chain saws were available, my father loaned my brother and me his saw and gave us permission to cut hardwood for fireplaces from Thornton Farm. We put out the word that we were selling firewood three ways --- a cord of wood delivered and stacked for one price, a cord of word delivered and unstacked; or a cord of wood cut only --- you load and haul. That was some of the hardest work for the money I'd ever done --- and once we filled all the orders we had so foolishly accepted, we went out of the firewood business.

When I was in the ninth grade, my father "furnished" my brother and me in our efforts to be "share croppers." The work we did on Thornton Farm with the corn, hay, cotton, melons, molasses, etc was unpaid work --- it was expected of us. Garfus explained that he would give us free use of his tractor, plows, tools, and that he would advance us the money to put in a cotton crop on our neighbor's [John Sharp Parham] field which adjoined the back of our property at Parham. Garfus even said he would help us work our field for free since we helped him with his. I can't remember the exact number of acres of cotton we planted each year (not many) but with Garfus fronting the money, with Mr. Parham share-crop leasing the land, my brother and I grew cotton for three years. We agonized over the weather; we agonized over the boll weevils; we chopped and we hoed; we sprayed again and again; and then we had to pick all that cotton hiring additional hands to get the cotton in before the winter rains set in. At the end of each growing season, the cost of the crop was subtracted and Garfus reimbursed for his furnish; Mr. Parham received his set percentage of the sale of cotton; and my brother Sherman and I split the remainder.

We did not get rich --- but we had spending money and a vastly expanded sense of what all is involved with tilling the land. It was perhaps my second-most important learning experience outside of my work at Thornton Store.

During my junior and senior years in high school, I also worked in Amory for Faulk Department Store and for Faulk Grocery Store. A Mr. Faulk had bought the old Webb Store on Main Street and started a most successful business --- I sold men's clothes for him on the weekends. When he expanded into the grocery business, I clerked at one of this grocery stores stocking on Friday afternoon and evening and running a cash register all day Saturday.

After a short stint in the U.S. Army's (six months of active duty) I returned to Mississippi and enrolled in Itawamba Junior College at Fulton. During my time there I worked, not for cash but for room and board, as a janitor cleaning half of the Fine Arts Building each afternoon.

When I transferred to Ole Miss, I worked as a Periodical's Clerk in the Library for the princely sum of fifty cents per hour.

And then I graduated into the real world and took a job teaching.

Much of what I am is a direct result of those numerous jobs in the Hill Country, paying and non-paying, which over the years helped to sort me out into the person I am now. But now that I am seventy and looking back at my lifetime rather than looking forward to careers yet to come, I think I agree with fellow Mississippian William Faulkner who is credited with saying:
It's a shame that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day is work. He can't eat for eight hours; he can't drink for eight hours; he can't make love for eight hours. The only thing a man can do for eight hours is work.

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