Doodlebug Wages

antlion doodlesAunt Grace and Uncle Herman lived in Casa Grande, a small city southwest of Phoenix, Arizona. Back in 1951 it was a place of cotton farms and cattle ranches.

Aunt Grace was Mom’s second oldest sister, a plump cheerful woman with black hair and a house full of kids all older than me. Uncle Herman was a big Oklahoman with a booming voice and a call to the ministry. I’m not sure if he had a church in Casa Grande that time but when he wasn’t preaching he worked on farms or in the construction business.

There were other cousins in the general area, too. The Arkie and Okie diaspora of the twenties and thirties had spread the hill clans all over the West, especially Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington, all of which were developing rapidly and needed people. Wages were high because there were never enough workers.

Like in a lot of cotton-growing areas, when the cotton crop needed work — planting, weeding or picking — everybody jumped in and worked at it. Buses would bring people from other areas, even Mexico, to work in the fields and the state and federal governments co-ordinated things so that the cotton crops in different areas didn’t all need work at the same time. Picking time was August in Missouri and Arkansas and got later as you went west, as late as January in some parts of California.

I remember it being spring and summer in Washington but it must have been September by the time we got to Casa Grande because everyone was working in the cotton fields bringing in sacks of white gold. Mills in the eastern states were trying to clothe a nation and the world and they needed lots of the stuff.

The cotton farmers offered pay so high that my parents delayed going on to Arkansas after our visit with Aunt Grace and Uncle Herman and stayed to pick cotton at good wages. I even had a tiny little cotton sack and went to the fields with Mom and Dad.

Workers were paid by the pound but when I would get a little cotton in my bag, I would go to the water wagon and crawl under it to sleep with my head on the pillowy sack. I liked to lay there and watch the grown-ups and bigger kids work.

There were lots of kids near my age to play with and it was lying in the dirt under the wagon where I first learned some Spanish from my Mexican and Indian playmates. I don’t think I realized it was a different language, just a different way of talking.

The wagon was made of old wood and rusty iron and had several big sideways metal barrels full of water with house-style faucets for turning them on and off. One barrel had a drinking fountain as well as a faucet. Because of the dripping water, the cottonwood trees it was parked under, and the big mass of the wagon, things stayed cool underneath even when the temperature got well over 100 degrees.

Fall weather in Casa Grande is still warm compared to fall anywhere else. Most of the men wore denim overalls or khaki trousers and long-sleeved cotton shirts with straw or felt hats. The Mexicans, both immigrants and Mexican-Americans, tended to wear bigger hats. My father seldom wore a hat, he had a lot of perfectly-combed, curly, black hair and a hat would mess it up.

The local Indians usually wore white or gray trousers instead of khaki. A number of black people dressed pretty much like the whites. The young men of all of the groups would sometimes take off their shirts to work, probably as much to show off for the girls as to stay cool.

The women worked in the fields right alongside the men. Some of them wore dresses but usually they wore bib overalls. Mom wore khaki pants under a thin dress to protect her legs from the sharp edges of the cottom plants, as did a lot of other women and girls. Many of them would quit work in mid-morning to prepare lunch then back to work in the afternoon and quit earlier than the men in the evening so they could go home and make dinner.

Kids of all ages either helped pick cotton or played around the edges of the field, or like me, sat in the shade and watched. Some of the women actually picked cotton while carrying a baby at the hip. This was boom time and good money could be made.

The Mexicans and Indians ate refried beans and tortillas with hot chili peppers for lunch. They drank water with their meals. The whites and blacks, almost all of whom were from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri or Texas, ate cornbread, pot beans, fried squash, sliced onions and drank lots of iced tea when they could get it. Some of the men drank beer and a few of the kids had sodas.

Cotton bags were weighed when full and at the end of the day and someone recorded the weights. Wages were paid daily in cash at a little table under the trees lining the edge of the fields. I don’t know how much they were paid per pound but Mom and Dad were happy that they were earning more than they had in Wenatchee or in almost any other sort of work they had ever done. Wages were four times as much as similar work paid in Arkansas or Missouri.

Picking cotton is hard labor and I took frequent breaks under the water wagon where I probably cemented another one of my nicknames. My cousins called me “Doodlebug” because I liked to play in the dirt, digging holes and making lines and shapes with sticks. A doodlebug is an ant lion in Arkansawyerese. Still, I did pick some cotton. All told, in three weeks, Mom later told me that I earned thirty cents. Not bad money for a three-year-old in 1951, I suppose.

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