Friday, October 16, 2009

I never picked cotton But my mother did And my brother did And my sister did And my daddy died young Workin` in the coal mine

posted Mon, 11 Oct 2004

On the drive to Helena on Saturday, Harpo and I passed lots of cotton fields. As neither of us is currently involved in the cotton industry, we don’t know how cotton is harvested. We speculated on it, though, trying to figure out efficient ways to mechanize the process.

I am glad I do not live a life of crime. I don’t want to do time on a chain gang.

We didn’t guess anywhere near the current process. We were thinking a machine stripped everything off the plant, boll, leaves and all, and that it was all separated later, a pre-ginning, as it were. But that was not it. A restaurant lady enlightened us.

When we got into Helena, Harpo had breakfast at a divey place next to the park where the Snake Docs performed. The woman who was running the joint asked him to sign her guest book. “We get people from all over the world,” she said.

“We’re just from up the road,” I said apologetically. She looked like she wanted to snatch the book back, but her good southern manners prevented her from doing so. I returned later to use the bathroom – paying a dollar to do so – and asked her how cotton was harvested these days.

Turns out that about a week before harvest, a crop duster sprays the plants with a defoliant. All the leaves drop off and the bolls all get ripe and fluffy. Then the harvester comes along and vacuums them all off. Then, I guess, they are ginned, baled and shipped. Or baled, shipped and ginned. Used to be they were floated down the Mississippi to New Orleans, then shipped to the Carolinas and the cotton mills there, but I think the textile industry has pretty much left the US now. Another customer came in at that point and I missed the rest of the story.

I do know that cotton is king around here. I was at a Junior League thing here a few years ago (before I became a Junior League dropout). I asked the lady I was talking to – let’s call her “Susie” how she had met her husband. “At Cotton Carnival,” she told me.

“What’s Cotton Carnival?” I asked.

She gave me an odd look, but just said, “Oh, it’s just a bunch of parties.”

The next day at work, I asked a lady who is from M’town about Cotton Carnival and Susie. “Cotton Carnival is where all the rich cotton brokers and cotton farmers make sure their children meet each other so the money will stay in the family. Susie’s husband’s family is one of the wealthiest cotton families in the south.” I did some more snooping and learned that her husband’s cotton brokerage had sold the entire cotton crop from the state of Arkansas or Mississippi or something to China a few years ago. Something like that. Susie is the one who told me that she liked to work but her husband didn’t want her to have a job because he wanted her to be able to go on business trips with him. They had three Mercedes in their driveway. For two drivers.

Her husband has no chin.

And here is the big cotton boll vacuum, speeding down the field.

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