The Art of Lookin’ Busy

 

A big for his age youth sporting a lint covered flattop staggered through his first day at the Springs Mills White Plant.  Staggered because in the first hour the man tasked with teaching the youth the art of ‘takin’ up quills’ attempted to crush the youth’s skull with one of the metal quill cans.  It was the youth’s fault, not the young man’s.  The youth was bloodied and staggered, and it was the beginning of a series of the first day on the job accidents, but that is a story for another time.  Clumsy much?

(In textile parlance, a quill is or was the wooden part of a bobbin the thread is wound on.   The bobbin would seat into a shuttle running perpendicularly to the warp threads. When the thread in the shuttle ended or broke, the bobbin was kicked out into a metal ‘can’ and replaced automatically from a magical gizmo called a battery.  I’m a bit short on the science of it all and you aren’t here for a lesson.  A battery with bobbins is shown below.  The wooden portion of the bobbin is the quill.)

I was the big for my age, crew-cut sporting youngster.  Tall for my age, and I got no taller, I was immature by anyone’s standards at any age.  Big for my age and dumb might have been a requisite for the job I was doing.  A spare hand, I did the jobs regularly employed folks were glad they didn’t have to do or filled in where needed.

I understood hard work having grown up on a farm and having been hired out as farm labor since I had turned eleven or twelve.  Farm labor is hard, but cotton mill labor is a horse of a different color as the old farmers might say.

I had worked at Springs for a week and was worn to the bone…battered and bruised, to the point of tears at various times. The narrow alleyways between the looms left my shoulders marked with scrapes and abrasions.  My body was a skin covered sack of pain.  It was a Saturday and all I could think of was the day off on Sunday…except it would be followed by a Monday when it all would begin again.

When I ran into a much older cousin in the water house I received a life lesson I didn’t know I needed. The water house in mill parlance is a combination bathroom, smoking area, and an escape from the noise and heat of the mill.  An oasis of relatively cool, quiet, and stinky aromas.

As I started to walk out, Charles, a much older cousin who had grown up just below my home, stopped me and put his arm across my sweaty, lint covered, bruised shoulders.

“I been watchin’ you boy,” tapping me on a sore arm with his pointer finger.  Charles was what was called a warp hand who worked out to the tie-in room.  It seemed to me warp hands had a good bit of time for watchin’…or playing practical jokes.  Charles, and his buddy Tommy, were masters at playing practical jokes, “Go down to the parts room and get me a loom stretcher, will you?”   It was the first of many practical jokes endured by the young group of spare hands.  I wasn’t singled out any more than anyone else.

The man in the part’s room cocked his head giving me the side-eye, “Loom stretcher, huh?  Charles sent you down, didn’t he?”  Got me.   

Northrop Loom - Wikipedia

Loom with visible battery and warp.  The warp is the big spool of thread.  A quill can is seen below the battery.  Image https://www.timetoast.com/timelines/industrial-revolution-1750-1900-f8002b6a-a164-4f2c-bea9-a0d54908556d

Back to Charles in the water house.

“You work hard but you got to learn to work smart.”  What Charles really meant was “learn to not work if you don’t have to.”

Beings Charles was an elder I decided I was supposed to listen intently…plus he had a scholarly look going…in a Howdy Doody kind of way.  I really felt I needed to learn how to work smarter.

“This ain’t no horse race and you ain’t learned the art of lookin’ busy when you ain’t.  You got to slowwwww things down.  Shifts are eight hours and you doin’ more than your buck sixty-five an hour.  Whatchu’ do after you finish your quill job?”

“I have to strip quills.”  Nothing provocative, I had to remove the leftover thread from the bobbins so the quills could be reused by the spinning room.

“An what do you do when you get through strippin’ quills?”

I pondered a moment wondering if this was a test, “I don’t know, I’ve never gotten through.”

He popped me on the shoulder as if I had had a major philosophical breakthrough.

“There you go.  You ain’t nevah gonna get through.  You could work a month of Sundays an’ you’ll nevah, evah get through.  The only time you’ll be through is when you die.”

So profound, I pondered too long on his words and Charles began again.

“Pretend you do get through.  Whatchu’ think gonna happen then?”

“They’ll find something else for me to do?”

Shooting me with his pointer finger and thumb, he exclaimed, “Bingo!  You nevah get through or if you do, ole Coley Spinks is gonna come along and give you something else to do.  You got to learn the art of lookin’ busy while doing nothin’, boy.”

Just then, as if to add an exclamation point, Coley Spinks, the second hand walked in.  Folding his Popeye sized forearms sporting the Marine Corp ‘globe and anchor’ tattoo across his ample chest, Coley gave us a head jerk which translated to, “You’ve spent too much time in here, get out and earn you wage.”

Charles scooted out the door with me behind, but Coley planted a flat palm against my chest, jolting me to a stop, “I don’t know what line of bull Charles was spouting but don’t listen to a damn thing he says.”  The age-old disagreement between management and the workers?

“Yes sir, Mr. Spinks.” 

But I did listen to Charlie and endured his harmless practical jokes even if I never quite mastered the art of looking busy or falling for practical jokes.  I practiced a great deal and ran into many fellow workers who had truly turned it into an art form.

I am more of a “git er done, git er over with” kind of guy and I guess it served me well.  Mr. Spinks came to me on my last Saturday before the school year began and proposed, “We’d like you to work Saturdays during the school year if you are a mind to.”  Eight hours of hell for $13.20 before taxes.  “Yeah, okay.  Thanks.” 

I’d work there for three more summers and Saturdays during the school year.  Later, I would work part-time in a cotton mill during my college days.  I never did get done. whether it was stripping quill or some other grunt job, and I ain’t dead yet.  Instead, I moved on to another vocation I never finished until retirement.

It was the mills themselves that died at the end of the last century…something I find saddening.  I would never want to return but I do appreciate the lessons I learned.

***

For more of Don Miller’s shenanigans, visit his author’s page at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3EyTJntrwvN_Yq4p_rpDH3Ynurn688xmdNvzJhe_fH7NSBku3Zen-6yb0

The image is of belt driven looms take from one of the Lowell Mills.  https://www.newschoolers.com/news/read/The-List-Newschoolers-Member

Old Ghosts Calling to Me 

I have a “thing” for old structures; old farmhouses, slab-sided barns or an aging general mercantile.  I grew up in and around them…like ghosts, they are only memories.  It is not the architecture they represent, but the history that speaks to me.  Old ghosts calling my name.

Decaying, hand-hewn structures…I just wonder about the hands that constructed them.  I feel the same way about fields of rusting cars covered in kudzu or the tools that once maintained them I find in antique shops or “high dollar” junkyards.  It’s about who drove the car, who repaired it…it’s about the history…about the ghosts.

Image result for dorothea lange country store.  Who colorized the picture

I first saw this photograph while researching lesson plans on the depression.  The black and white Dorothea Lange photograph whispered softly to me for some reason.  It was titled, “Country store on a dirt road. Sunday afternoon. July 1939. Gordonton, North Carolina.”

The structure spoke to me, but the ghosts were quiet.  My eyes were drawn to the old metal signs advertising different brands of cigarettes, Coca-Cola, the “Sweet Scotch Snuff.”  I listened to the Texaco gas and kerosene pumps, rough cut and unfinished lumber, a long porch gallery supported by stacked stones.  Cedar trees stripped of limbs used as porch columns and roof rafters that aren’t quite plumb.  I “heard” it, rather than “heard” them.

What I “heard” changed when I discovered the colorized version by Jordan J. Lloyd.  It drew my attention to the men and their ghosts spoke to me.  It became about the people instead of the structure.

Related image

The picture is described as “A lazy Sunday afternoon on a country road.”  Five black men relaxing on a “workless” Sunday with the brother of the white owner leaning in the doorway.  Smiles to go around as stories were told…embellished for listening enjoyment I’m quite sure.  The ghosts spoke but I am hard of hearing and I don’t really know their voices.  But I can research and create.

The colors are vivid…as vivid as khaki and denim can be.  Overalls over a white shirt, rolled up shirt sleeves and pant’s legs.  Dusty, beat up shoes and brogans.  Sweat stained fedoras and baseball caps pushed back on heads.  A “dope” drained to the last drop and the aroma of fine Virginia tobacco wafting in the breeze, “mildness with no unpleasant aftertaste.”

July 1939 in the South…in North Carolina…in the cotton belt.  The depression had been ongoing for ten years and would continue until the soaring production of World War Two finally buried it.  Farmers had been steamrolled by the depression as early as 1920 while boll weevils ate their fill and cotton prices dropping as low as five cents a pound….  Ever pick cotton?  I have.  A pound of cotton is a lot of picking for a nickel and boll weevils wiped out as much as eighty percent of cotton crops during the Twenties.

The depression was particularly hard on people of color in the South.  Many, only sixty or seventy years removed from slavery, found themselves forced into a type of pseudo-slavery, sharecropping and tenant farming…except many poor whites found themselves paddling in the same boat.  The difference? Post-slavery Jim Crow segregation.  As bad as things are, at least you “ain’t colored.” Separate and “unequal.”

Except maybe on “A lazy Sunday afternoon on a country road.”  I smile.  I see four men of color reacting to something said by the fifth man on the left while the white man is slow to get the point or at least react.  A slow smile coming to his face.  Men gathering to shoot the bull on their day of rest.  The simple enjoyment of not having to be someplace…not having to work your fingers to the bone for someone else’s profit.

Image result for dorothea lange country store.  Who colorized the picture

The old store on a dusty, country road still exists.  The road is now paved and the store is no longer open which for me seems a shame.  Boarded up and abandoned, I wonder if the ghosts still gather on the porch, talking of days past and the hard times they endured.  Seeing it closed I am sad for them…and for me.

The first photo is by Dorothea Lang.

The colorized photo is by Jordan J. Lloyd

The last photo was made by Wayne Jacobs.

For more musings go to https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

Kudzu, Cotton and Red Clay Banks

 

I’ve battled kudzu for the past thirty years.  Some bright soul decided to import it from Japan and somehow the smothering vine has found a growing spot near my garden and is trying to cover a gully cut by a stream.

Kudzu became a great erosion control method, so great it has been called the “Plant that ate the South.”  Below my garden, near the creek, I saw my first Kudzu runner this morning.  The war begins again, a war that I am gradually losing.

Sorry, you’ll have to allow me a “pig trail” memory.  I remember cotton growing in the huge field across from my childhood home…and kudzu growing in the eroded ravine bordering that huge field.  It reminded me of the old Tarzan movies we watched on a black and white television on Sundays after church.  It was a jungle and I feared walking near it.  My childish mind imagined a tropical rainforest flourishing just across the road…lions and tigers and big snakes, oh my!

There was a smaller field of cotton growing behind my house above an eroded red clay bank separating the cotton from the field of corn growing below it.  There was no kudzu growing on the bank but should have been.  Broom straw was all that grew on its banks.

That’s not quite true, my mother grew there too…grew weary of having to clean my permanently red-stained clothes after I played on it.  Until I was old enough to pick cotton or pull corn I honed my imagination playing on those eroded red clay banks.

Tonka toy trucks and earthmovers created redoubts and ramparts to protect little green plastic soldiers who fought for their lives in the battles I created.  Later, as I outgrew the trucks and soldiers, my friends would join me as we refought World War Two battles with cap pistols and my Combat, the television show, Thompson Sub-Machine gun.  Sergeant Saunders would have been proud.  Momma wasn’t.  She still battled my clothing and was a bit peeved when she found me using her aluminum mixing bowl as an army helmet.

None of those items exist anymore…except…the kudzu.  The fields have given over to condominiums. Tonka toys passed down to my younger siblings as I outgrew them, green soldiers became lost somewhere in the sands of time.  Plastic, green soldier heaven I guess…or hell.  My machine gun, carelessly abandoned, run over in the prime of its life by an uncaring bicyclist.

I don’t see a lot of cotton grown near my upstate home.  I see a lot of kudzu.  On trips to the coast in the late fall, I once saw expansive fields growing cotton.  Cotton bolls bursting white in the fall as the fields sped by outside of my car window.  Big green, red or orange machines rolling in unison, replacing the slaves, sharecroppers and po’ white trash who picked it by hand in a time long past.  Even with mechanization, much of the cotton has been replaced by soybeans.

I say po’ white trash because I can.  I used to be a part of the po’ white trash or po’ white at least.  I never thought of us as trash…nor even poor I guess.  Sometimes life is quite rich without the need for money.  Even the owners of the lands we worked were “landed” rich with little actual money.  We worked side by side with the black sharecroppers, their hands callused over from the daylight to dark of night days making four dollars a day…1950s and 60s money.  Let’s see…that’s about forty dollars a day in today’s money, less than three hundred a week in today’s green money for a six-day week.  Not a lot of money to realize your dreams.

Kudzu was planted in the United States in the late nineteenth century as a foul joke.  Not really, it was a novelty, touted as fodder for livestock.  I admit my goats loved it.  When they grazed was the last time I had the vine controlled.  Shouldn’t have gotten rid of the goats.  Good grazing but not good to dry and bail.  Too heavy and wet.

On a bad day, a vine of kudzu will grow six inches in a twenty-four-hour period.  I don’t think kudzu has ever known a bad day.  In optimum growing conditions, which seems to be any humid, Southern summer day, it will grow a foot a day.  I swear on my dead mother’s grave the statement is not an embellishment.  I’ve watched it do it.

Roundup doesn’t work despite spraying it every two weeks and by “All Things Holy,” don’t burn it…it just grows back stronger than before.  I once attached a chain to a large root and tried to pull it up with my thirty-two-horsepower green tractor that does not run like a deer…the root pulled my front end off the ground before the root broke.  As far as I know, the root is still growing toward China.  I guess I need to mend my fences and get a goat.

In the 1930’s many cotton fields had played out and been abandoned due to the depression and the low prices accompanying it.  Erosion had begun to do its dirty deed in fields over plowed and undernourished.  Kudzu was used successfully for erosion control…too successfully.  I’ve seen stands of fifty-foot pines covered, bending under the weight, and abandoned cabins totally enveloped by the vine.  During the winter their gray outlines are almost ghostly.

Beware if you are living next to a stand.  Be vigilant and do not leave your windows open.  A person might wake up trapped in their bed by long green vines.

Like Don Miller’s writer’s page at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

The image is of an abandoned home about a week from being covered in Kudzu courtesy of http://www.discover.uga.edu