A chance for self-respect comes but a few times during a lifetime and I have to seize those moments and choose the way I want to be. Once that decision is stamped indelibly on my heart, there is no turning back, nor would I ever want to change. Long ago as a teenager I made one of those decisions that shaped my life.
Shivering ever so slightly I slid out of bed and pulled on my faded work jeans. At 4:30 in the morning the irrigated desert land’s air was crisp and cold even in my room. I pulled my arms through the blue cotton shirt which earlier had been lying limply across the foot of the bed. After tightly lacing my cracked black shoes I stuffed my work gloves into my hip pocket and placed the straw hat with the torn brim rakishly on my head. I tied a handkerchief loosely around my neck.
Stumbling into the kitchen I reached into the cabinet and pulled out a bowl. I didn’t have time to make breakfast so my choice was made. Cold cereal in a cold bowl. That’s all I usually had while my parents, brother, and sisters slept. I made my sandwich, two slices of bread with a slice of lunch meat, no mayonnaise, no tomato or lettuce. I dropped the dry sandwich into a brown paper bag. There was no way to keep the sandwich cold without spoiling so I only used the basics.
I went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. I was still groggy so I splashed again. I heard a soft knock on the door outside that brought me fully alert. “Dan, are you ready to go? We have to be there before five.” It seemed I had heard those words thousands of times and yet I jumped every time I heard them.
Rushing out I grabbed my lunch bag and my hoe, which I had placed carefully beside the door the night before. The hoe’s blade, which I had honed before going to bed, looked sharp and ready for the weeds. Wordlessly I walked with Bob to his gray dented sedan which was already packed with other workers.
In the morning mists I could see the car, hoes protruding from the windows, and could imagine a Viking ship with oars ready to explore the world. I leaned through a door and looked for a place to squeeze in.
“Well, you took your sweet time, Dan,” a voice called out good naturedly from the back seat. I recognized Jake Smith’s voice and turned to face him.
“You’re just lucky I showed up at all,” I countered. “Otherwise there’d be no one to help you finish your rows.”
We all laughed and continued the banter as I crowded in and we drove away. For a few moments we sat in silence as the car, trailing blue-black clouds of smoke, coughed towards our destination.
Someone finally asked, “Has anyone heard anything about the new boss, Laird?” We all shook our heads except for Bob, Jake’s older brother. “This is only rumor, but I heard that Laird chews nails for breakfast and he bit his dog last Friday.” We all laughed but Jake got serious again. “I’ve heard nothing but bad news from the boys down at the pool hall,” he said. “I’m inclined to take their stories with a grain of salt but I thought you ought to know.”
It was something to think about but as we turned off the pavement onto a dusty road I had already forgotten Laird. The car sputtered to a stop beside a field of cotton and gave two or three last shakes and coughs before dying. “You ought to get that car fixed,” I said to Bob. “It’s about to give up the ghost.”
We grabbed our hoes from the car and stared glumly at the field before us. The cotton was waist high and had been long neglected. There were clumps of Johnson grass, small white morning glories, and patches of Bermuda grass.
While we waited, three other cars pulled up behind us. Two black families and a Mexican family got out. We eyed the other groups cautiously and I wondered whether we could all work together peacefully.
A green and white pickup came racing up the dusty road past the four weather-beaten cars and slid to a halt. Covering my face with my bandana I waited a few seconds for the pickup’s trailing dust cloud to dissipate. Both of the pickup’s doors swung open. A young pimple faced boy crawled out of the passenger side. He slapped on a blue baseball cap over his unruly blond hair. His lean gangly body stretched too long for his jeans and his arms dangled a few inches too far beyond the cuffs of his sleeves. Although we were at first wary, his infectious smile made him an instant hit to our often ill-tempered group.
On both sides of the truck we noticed some fancy lettering. W.C. Laird, Labor Contractor, it proclaimed in bold black letters to the agricultural world. The boss man, Laird himself, worked his heavy body away from the wheel and out the door.
His stogie, a cigar tucked in one corner of his mouth, was moving in circles as he muttered. I could not understand him at first and I noticed the others were also beginning to look puzzled.
His already red face grew redder and I could see his small eyes squinting behind the wire spectacles.
He suddenly barked, “What’s the matter with all of you? Can’t you hear? We’re supposed to start this field at five o’clock and by gum, that’s what we’re gonna do. Now git your asses over to that edge of the field and pick your row. I’ll be along shortly to check your work.”
He removed his glasses, spat on them, and cleaned them slowly with the corner of his shirt. He watched us silently trudging to the corner of the field. He continued to stare until we began working our way down the rows.
The waist high cotton was wet from the morning dew and before we had gone twenty-five yards I was soaked from the waist down and feeling uncomfortable. Swarms of mosquitoes rose before us and began their relentless attacks, searching for exposed skin. I slapped at them occasionally but tried to ignore them, afraid I would be accused of doing more dodging and fighting mosquitoes than hoeing.
Quickly and efficiently I chopped out the Johnson grass and the morning glories with the corners of the hoe. I was not the fastest in the group, nor the slowest as I paced myself to last the morning. By eight the sun was already bearing down and the boss was there, checking each worker’s row in turn.
“I don’t think you’re worth a dollar and a quarter an hour,” Laird said to Preacher, one of the black men who was working close-by. “I think I’ll pay you a dollar an hour.” But Preacher just glared at him and began to work faster. After that I noticed that two women who were with Preacher would occasionally step over and help him catch up.
As the morning progressed all the groups began to work closer together and exchanged stories. Preacher began telling stories from the Bible and about a boss who was evil and went to Hell. Since he was looking at Laird, who was leaning on a hoe talking to a farmer who owned the field, we knew who Preacher meant. The two women would laugh at his stories and I could hear the older woman’s deep laugh boom out and the younger one’s laughter, which was more like the tinkling of bells.
Another man, Sid, was in Preacher’s group. He hung back, trying to be inconspicuous and out of Laird’s sight but he was clearly interested in what was going on. He appeared to be jealous of all the attention Preacher was getting.
“Preacher,” he said. “I’ll tell the boss man just what you’re telling us and he’ll fire you and you won’t find any more jobs.” Sid rolled his eyes and waited for us to laugh but we didn’t. We could see Preacher and the women getting upset.
The Mexican family with their young children continued to work quietly but they stayed away from Preacher and his group. The father had talked to us for awhile and decided he could trust us. He had told us he and his wife were working without permits and did not want any trouble. If they were noticed by anyone they could be shipped back to Mexico. They had to earn money for some of their other relatives who were unable to make a living in Mexico.
All morning long Sid tried out new antics. He seemed to want any kind of attention. As we approached a heavy stand of Johnson grass Sid called out, “Hark, I see a lion in yon jungle. Preacher better use some of his religious medicine to rescue us.”
Preacher kept pretending to ignore him as Sid continued his tirade. Finally Sid realized no one was listening so he stopped talking but I could tell he was still itching to get something started.
By ten the heavy clothes were beginning to stick to our sweaty bodies. Some of my friends had taken off their shirts and tied them around their waists. I had blistered badly the previous time so I kept my shirt on. We stopped for a water break expecting to get cool water. In our experience most bosses put ice in the water to keep it cool. It satisfied our thirst and cooled us at the same time. But this time was different.
I gulped a mouthful and spit it out. “This water is hot enough to boil tea in,” I grumbled. The others thought I was kidding. Each in turn took a mouthful and spit it out.
Laird ambled over. “What’s the matter?” he sneered. “Don’t you like water?” As I tried to find words to adequately express my feelings, I heard the youth who had earlier climbed out of the pickup say, “Dad, this isn’t right. I told you to stop for ice this morning.”
Laird grinned as he chewed on his cigar. “Mind your own business, Steve. If they don’t like the water they don’t have to drink it.”
The sun broiled us slowly as the next hour passed. We began drinking the water out of necessity but warned each other only to sip enough to keep going. No one stayed by the water cooler. Once I saw Laird nudge his son and say, “Without ice the water gets warm and the workers don’t spend nearly as much time talking and standing around. The less time they waste the more money I make.”
As we finished one field we drove to the next field and started again. As the heat increased my head began throbbing and I could hear others complaining about headaches and nausea.
A Mexican girl of slight build and in her early teens said she was sick. She staggered to her car and lay down. Laird didn’t notice she was gone and the rest of us kept quiet about the incident. We didn’t want the girl’s pay docked. We were certain he was paying her less than minimum wage anyway and pocketing the difference. We also thought he might accuse us of slacking or playing sick to keep from working.
Laird blew a little whistle and we stopped for our thirty minute lunch. We hardly had time to eat and stretch our cramped backs before he was shouting, “Get off your lazy butts! It’s time to work again!”
We were soon back in the same routine with Preacher telling stories while all of us continued hacking away. By now I had learned that Paula and Hattie, the two women, and Sid were members of Preacher’s congregation. Together they had driven from a town five miles away when money had become scarce. By banding together, their chances of finding work increased.
Preacher, his leg gimpy from the war, was the shepherd, doing his best to protect the women and keep Sid out of trouble. In turn, they would finish his rows and help him keep up. Sid was always trying to get the attention from anybody who’d listen. I could tell he feared, admired, and hated Preacher, all at the same time.
In early afternoon the two brothers, Bob and Jake, had replaced their shirts because they were already lobster red. Laird’s son, Steve, was talking quietly with a cute Mexican girl of about his own age.
Laird walked over to them and tried to eavesdrop. Steve and Carmen, the Mexican girl, began speaking Spanish. Laird grew red and told Steve to “stay away from that dirty ‘wetback’”. “I don’t want any brown grandchildren,” he jeered disdainfully.
Steve looked up and said with defiance, “Go away and leave me alone. I’ll choose my own friends.” Laird began shouting that he would kick Steve’s rear-end all over the cotton field.
He saw us watching. He stormed away sputtering about Steve being a “snot-nose, smart-mouth kid“. Laird walked over to the water bucket and stared off into the distance. We had the opportunity to work quietly and to discuss the father-son relationship.
Sid, took this opportunity to start some trouble.
“Old preacher man is too old for any night action. I’ll take on either one of you ladies after work.”
Preacher, stung by Sid’s insinuations and feeling protective of the women, headed angrily toward Sid. The two squared off. But with all the dancing, shuffling, huffing and puffing, not a damaging blow was thrown. The excitement attracted Laird, who came over to check out the commotion.
Sid sheepishly explained in detail what had happened while Laird stood there mulling things over. He turned and looked thoughtfully at Paula. The top buttons of her blouse were unfastened and I could see him leering at the fullness of her breasts as she bent to hoe. His audacity surprised me when he walked over as she straightened, daubed at the perspiration that was at the base of her throat with his handkerchief.
“I’ve slept with a lot of women, both white and black. You interest me. I want to see you after work. We’ll drink a few beers and have a little fun. What do you say?”
Paula gasped and stepped back, trying to avoid Laird. “No, no,” she blurted. A hoe was suddenly thrust between Laird and Paula. Preacher stood there, a mixture of hurt and anger in his eyes.
“Go away, old man,” Laird snarled. “If you give me any trouble or if she doesn’t come with me after work then both of you are fired and I’ll see to it that neither of you gets to work for any of these farmers again.”
Paula began crying and Preacher stood there stunned at this new turn of events. Then both of them, without meeting the eyes of anyone, turned and went quietly back to work as if nothing had happened. Laird glared at us and we started hoeing again, trying to look really busy.
He swaggered off in the direction of the pickup and I just leaned on my hoe for awhile and tried to sort things out. It was a real puzzler at first but gradually I realized that Laird would have his way because Paula and Preacher were giving in to his demands. After all, I guess jobs were hard to find if you were black.
We still had a few minutes before quitting time but I was burning up inside, full of anger, and trying to decide what to do. I saw him sitting inside, listening to the radio. I walked over to him and yanked open the door.
“Laird,” I said evenly, “it’s not fair for you to make demands on Paula like that. And then to threaten their jobs if they don’t cooperate.”
Laird turned and slid out of the pickup. He pulled a wet handkerchief from his forehead. “Mind your own business or you won’t have a job either. What I do is between me and whoever and I don‘t see where it concerns you.”
“Laird,” I began again, “you’re a mean and rotten sonofabitch. I don’t want to work for you anymore. I don’t like the way you treat people, especially people of color. I’m going to report you to whatever authorities that’ll listen.”
His eyes were squinting in that pig-like face. “They won’t even listen to you. You’re just a kid. It’s your word against mine. Those people aren‘t as good as us. They’re animals and we’re supposed to control animals. Can‘t you see that?”
I know sometimes I’m hot-headed and unChristian. When Laird started spewing words of prejudice and hatred I just blew up. I swung and connected with his belly, and then another to his chin. He toppled over into the dust. He started to get up but he hesitated and said, “You’re fired. I don’t want you to show up anymore.”
“Laird, I don’t want to work for you anymore. I want my pay and I want it now. I’ll make sure the authorities listen. You‘re not going to get away this easy.”
“I’ve a mind not to pay you at all.” I took a step closer. “O.k. I’ll give you your money but get out of here.” Nervously he wrote off a check and thrust it at me.
I grabbed the check and walked over to the car waving it high in the air. Jake and Bob started walking towards me. Laird yelled, “Get back to work! It’s not quitting time yet! You’ve still got ten minutes.”
They ignored him and listened to my side of the story. They approached Laird and a few seconds later were carrying their checks high in the air. The results were contagious. Our carload, and then the Mexican family, and finally Preacher and everyone but Sid had discussed the situation. As a group we confronted Laird and he reluctantly paid off the rest of the crew. Even Steve demanded his pay.
Laird seized Steve’s shoulders and said, “You’re not getting your money. You’re not going to be with these troublemakers.”
Steve stood there quietly and demanded his money again. “Dad, I’m going to report you because I think you’re a liar and a cheat. I don’t think you should treat people this way any more.”
Laird got nose to nose with Steve and called him every name in the book and a few choice ones I hadn’t heard. Steve turned and walked away. Laird started to follow but I blocked his way. “You’ll leave him alone, too,” I said. “I’m tired of you bullying people. If you take one more step I’ll hit you more than once and I won’t stop until that foul mouth of yours is silent.”
My determination cut Laird short. He rubbed his jaw and stumbled to his feet. We waited while he made out the last check. Before we could go he said, “Look, today I made a few mistakes. Let’s not have hard feelings. I want all of you back here tomorrow, o.k.?”
Paula, Preacher, Carmen, and Steve were standing close together and I’m not sure who spat first and I don’t really care. I remember looking at him, seeing the spittle clinging to his face, then I climbed into our car, Steve somehow in with us.
I still see Carmen sometimes with her family, working in the tomatoes or sugar beets. They avoid working in the cotton fields afraid they’ll run into Laird. Preacher and his group still work the cotton with me, Jake and Bob, and the rest of the gang. Steve has gone off to stay with an uncle in Arizona. I’ve heard Laird and Sid have moved on to better things like pruning grapes in Lodi with Laird still in charge of a crew. I don’t know if Laird’s behaving himself but I kind of hope he’s learned a lesson and I don’t expect him to show up around here again.
As for me, I’ve learned something about myself and human dignity. If you see others get cheated or trampled upon, you too, lose respect for yourself if you let things slide.
Wages are up to a dollar and a half now and I know I’m not as rich as some other people I know. In spite of not having wealth, I know that I can look into a mirror and be proud of what I see. And that, riches can’t buy.