by Judy Jones Turner
As I sat down to type a letter, my thoughts were suddenly distracted, as they often are, by a long and sorrowful train whistle from the distance. My mind goes back to the memories of a fateful day in the fall of 1965.
It was a cool October morning as I lay in bed listening to the sounds of another work week. As I lay snuggled between two flannel sheets with a pile of quilts on top, I heard conversation among my father, mother, and older brother. It was the first day of work at the cotton gin for my brother Earl, who was 17. When the front door opened, Mom said to Earl, with warm words of encouragement, "Work hard, son, and make them a good hand." The door shut, and the footsteps outside my window led to the old '59 mustard- and mayonnaise-colored Ford truck. The truck doors closed; the key was engaged and, after some hesitation, the truck's engine finally started. Before Dad could get the truck on the gravel road, Rex, my German shepherd, ran alongside the truck, barking. Rex always seemed to have a smile on his face as he ran, tongue hanging out and lapping over his teeth. Rex always chased the truck down the road until it picked up enough speed to leave him behind; then in the afternoons, he would meet the truck for the chase home. I finally heard the last of the barking as the clattering of the truck dwindled into the distance.
"Get up, sleepyhead!" Mom hollered through the open door. "We've got to get to the cotton field. The hired hands will be there before us if you don't hurry."
I was reluctant to get up, but I knew if I didn't, Mom would be back in just a few minutes with a reinforced voice which meant business! Going to the field today would be different from what it had been in the past few weeks because today it would be left to my mother and me to take the cotton weights, help put the cotton in the trailer, and pick cotton ourselves without the help of a male from our household.
I got out of bed and dressed. I went into our fairly new indoor bathroom, washed my hands and face, and proceeded into the small dining room for my bowl of oatmeal. Mom was in a frenzy, as usual. She was trying to get the kitchen cleaned after having cooked breakfast for the family. She was in a hurry to get to the field before everyone else.
We were catching a ride to the field that morning with the DeFrieses, our neighbors who worked in the field for us. They were giving us a ride because Mom couldn't drive, and I was too young to drive. So I hurriedly ate my breakfast. That morning we were to be working on land which my dad had rented from a friend, Mr. Blankenship.
It was about 7 o'clock that morning as we loaded into our neighbor's car, ready to begin the day. With picnic lunches in hand and plenty of cold water for everyone to drink, we began our day in a happy mood.
We had approximately 10 people working for us that day, ranging in ages from 5 to 40. I was 14. Sometimes in the early morning the dew would still be on the cotton leaves, making the cotton more difficult to pick. But around 9 o'clock the sun's warmth had dried the cotton and everyone was trying to outdo the other by picking the most cotton for the day.
The day had the makings of a good one. The smell of cotton was in the air. On that particular day some places in the field were as white as snow where the leaves had dropped from the stalks. At other places, the cotton was so tall and dense that some of the younger workers could become lost in the denseness. Occasionally, we ran across a big garden spider basking in the sun, hanging from a beautiful web which it had created. When I saw such a sight, I would quickly pull my hand back from the area so as not to disturb the spider. I would ease around it and go about my cotton picking.
After a hard morning's work, we all decided to break for lunch about 11:30. Lunch was always quite exciting in the cotton fields. We had our nickel pop, bologna sandwiches, and sometimes a Hostess cupcake that Mom had supplied. I had been diagnosed as a diabetic, but I still relished the sweetness of those cupcakes. As we ate, we all talked about how many pounds of cotton we had picked and how much more we had to get in order to meet our goals for that day. Before my brother had gone to work for the gin with my father, I worked hard to beat him in picking cotton. After all, he was three and a half years older than I, and I really wanted to beat him so that I could brag about it to him. Beating him was really easy sometimes because he would sing Beatles songs or other songs that were popular at the time so that he could entertain his sidekick, Jerry DeFries. One day after I had picked a complete round, more than the two of them, I caught up with them. The day was almost over, and I understood why they weren't going anywhere. The two of them were absolutely hilarious, and naturally I got caught up in the fun and quit working as hard. After that episode, I tried not to get caught up in the fun anymore. I liked it better when I had bragging rights!
The noontime sounds and the sun beaming down on us beckoned us back to our cotton sacks. From where we worked, we could hear and see in the distance the sound of the huge Cotton Belt freight trains moving down the tracks. We were about a half mile from our little home town of Marmaduke, Ark. Mom and Mildred DeFries got to their feet about the same time and said to the workers, "Let's get up and get at it, kids." So, one by one, we did.
We went back to the rows of cotton we had been picking before lunch and began working again. Nearly everyone had somebody that he or she buddied up with, including me. Since Jerry no longer had my brother to entertain him, we started picking cotton together that day. We would stop occasionally and stretch our tired backs from being bent over the cotton rows for so long. Around 12:40 we noticed that a train had stopped on the tracks. Jerry and I thought that strange since there were no side tracks in that area. Others commented on it also. After a while, someone behind us noticed two people coming toward the field. They were not dressed in cotton-picking clothes. Mom had noticed too. She was standing now, and I heard her say to the man and woman, "Where's your pick sack?" They had reached Mom, who stood just a few feet from me, and they responded, "Goldie, there's been an accident. You're going to have to come with us."
At that moment, I could not see my mother's face, but the expressions on the couple's faces showed the seriousness of the accident. In her heart, Mom knew that the life she had known had just come to an abrupt end. She turned to me and said, "Judy, come on, right now." Bewildered, I took off my cotton sack and ran to catch up with them. Mom was starting to sob, and with K.C. on one side of Mom and his co-worker companion on the other side, they supported my mom as she walked through the field.
Late that afternoon, before all daylight was engulfed by the darkness, I lay on my bed again. I was listening for a familiar sound to come down the road. Rex was waiting too. I looked out my window, and I could see Rex looking to his right, then to his left, but this time his smile was gone. He had concern in his dark eyes. There were unfamiliar cars in the yard. He couldn't put all the pieces together, but I knew he was listening for the familiar clatter of that old Ford truck that I, too, so wanted to hear.
Later on that night, with tears in my eyes, I heard in the distance another train whistle. Then I heard Rex howling. I think he had put the pieces together.