Reporter learned a lifetime of lessons from tobacco farming with father

kward1@herald-leader.com ,karla wardMay 14, 2014 

All of my memories of Memorial Days during my childhood involve setting tobacco.

I was 6 years old that first Memorial Day when my dad, Carlos Bilbrey, put me to work, pulling plants from the beds where tobacco grew from seed until it was ready to be transplanted to the field. We knelt on the ground, pulling them up by the roots one by one.

A few years later, I was old enough to ride the tobacco setter. It was pulled behind my grandfather's old Massey Ferguson tractor, which spit out so much exhaust my head would be splitting when we wrapped up about sundown.

The headache was a small price to pay, though, for the praise heaped upon me by Dad, who was a stickler for making sure the spindly little plants were buried deep enough in the mud. My cousins, teenage boys at the time, never could seem to get them set deep enough for him, and I loved hearing him tell them to follow my example.

Then the real work would begin.

First came the days when we went to the field before the dew had dried, with hoes in hand to chop out weeds that grew up between the young plants.

The only time my dad took me clothes shopping was when I was about 10, and he thought I needed footwear to prevent me from hacking off a toe with the hoe. Although I loved the feel of the dirt beneath my feet, we came home from the Dollar General with a pair of hot-pink high-tops — the closest thing to work boots he could find.

The hardest days of the summer were when we crawled down long, dusty rows on hands and knees, using our fingers to break off the suckers that grew on the plants. My parents, my younger brother and I would have aching backs, and our hands were blackened by sticky tobacco gum by the end of those days. Sweat dripped down our faces, mingling with the bitter gum, stinging our eyes.

We complained, but we knew our labor was needed. Dad could not produce the crop alone.

Finally, it was harvest time. In the heat of the late-summer sun, I was tasked with shouldering bundles of wooden tobacco sticks and dropping them at intervals in the fields.

But cutting tobacco, a task my father didn't let me perform until I was about 13, was always my favorite job. Grasping a plant near the top, I would bend it toward the ground and use the hatchet to fell a plant taller than I was with one swift motion — thwack! — and then move on to the next plant.

There was a rhythm to the work that was satisfying, and we often raced to see who could cut the fastest.

When I was 12, Dad taught me to drive the tractor, pulling the scaffold wagon across the fields when the sticks of tobacco were ready to be loaded up and taken to the barn. I remember one year when one of Dad's buddies objected to me driving the tractor. Dad angrily asked him whose field it was, and we all continued our work.

But there was always a bitterness that crept into my heart during the harvest. There were jobs Dad never let me do. They were reserved for the boys, and it was a point of soreness.

When I was about 16, I stubbornly refused to take a break from dropping tobacco sticks along the rows, angry because he wouldn't let me spike tobacco onto the sticks. Was I not just as capable of spearing tobacco as the boys were? Wasn't I strong enough to balance high in the barn, straddle the rafters and hang the tobacco to cure?

It was only later that I realized that Dad was afraid for me. He didn't want to see a sharp metal spear plunged into his daughter's palm, or worse, watch as I slipped from rafters two stories up and fell to the barn's dirt floor. He loved me too much to risk that, and we had both seen it happen to other workers.

By the time I went off to college, Dad had pretty much stopped growing tobacco, but the lessons he taught me in those fields are with me still. I learned how good it feels to get paid for a day of hard work. And I learned that even in the midst of pain, there's always something beautiful to appreciate, like a bird's song when you're on your knees in the dirt.

On Dec. 23, barely a month after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, we buried my father near a little white country church surrounded by farmland. He was 71.

This Memorial Day, I plan to visit his grave for the first time since then.

On the way there, it is likely we will pass fields where families will again be pulling their tobacco setters across freshly plowed ground.

If we do, I will think of Carlos Bilbrey's bare back glistening with sweat in the noonday sun, and a pair of pink tennis shoes. And I'll be grateful.

Karla Ward: (859) 231-3314. Twitter: @heraldleader

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