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Picking Cotton by Ammon Hennacy Having a few free days after the… - Catholic Worker odds & ends
October 20th, 2006
12:14 am


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Picking Cotton by Ammon Hennacy
Having a few free days after the winter lettuce season at the large vegetable ranch where I worked I left my shack situated between a cabbage and a lettuce field on land of the Russian pacifist Molokons and went to Phoenix to visit an athiest friend and spend the night in order to get the cotton truck before daylight. This friend had bought a Catholic Worker from me in front of the library in Milwaukee one Saturday in '41. He later read an article of mine in the Catholic C.O. His admiration of the courageous pacifist spirit of these papers led him to deviate from his atheistic norm.

The next morning two bonfires were already burning along the curb where Mexicans, Indians and Anglos, many of the latter being "winos," were waiting to select the truck in which they would go to work. Just now there were only cotton trucks, there being a lull in citrus picking. Cotton pickers carry their own 8 to 10 foot sacks fastened with a strap around the shoulders and dragging behind them like a giant worm. There were eight trucks and several pick-ups. Most of them were shaped like the traditional covered wagon with canvas, There were benches on either side and in the middle. I walked around searching for someone I might know, but my friends of the lettuce fields were wary of cotton picking, considering this the hardest job to be had and one to be taken only as a last resort.

"Last call! Take you there and bring you back. Three dollars a hundred, All aboard, gentleman," shouted a good-natured Negro in a bright mackinaw. The truck to which he pointed was box-shaped, of wood veneer, with a short ladder leading inside from the rear. I entered and found a seat between a colored woman and a colored man. After a few more calls the doors were shut, and we could see each other only if one would light a cigarette.

Later on the truck stopped, and we were joined by large group of laughing Negroes of all ages. There were three whites besides myself, and one Indian.

Our destination was nine miles beyond Buckeye, which is about 30 miles west of Phoenix. After several sharp turns, when all in the truck were thrown this way and that, we came to the field. The Indian and I did not have sacks, so we rented them from the boss for a for a quarter.

This was tall cotton, and harder to pick than the small variety. The field was a quarter of a mile long and a mile wide. A young white man worked in one row, then the Indian, and then myself. I had never picked cotton before. The Indian, a Navajo said this was to clean picking, he understood.

When the cotton was fluffy it was easy to grab, but where the boll was partly open it was difficult to extract, and hurt your fingers. As we worked along the row from the far end of the field toward the weighing scales and truck my Navajo friend said that he was learning a lesson which he sadly needed. Now he had just enough money from day to day. Before this he had spent money freely and never had to count his pennies. He paid a dollar a night for a cot in a cheap hotel in Phoenix. He had an older brother who had been quite wealthy before the depression and was a big shot among his people because of his holdings in cattle. He drank and bought fine cars. Now with the "plowing under" and rationing system of the Government he was a poor Indian indeed.

In speaking of the Navajo he said that they had always been quite poor in these last years, but that the suffering was now no greater than last year. If left to themselves in sheep and cattle raising and in growing corn they would be able to get along. But the Government restrictions as to grazing and its refusal to provide schools for the Navajo, according to treaty, had given them little to do in their spare time except to succumb to the temptation to liquor and the allurements of the cities. The recent provision of half a million for food from Congress was coupled with three times that amount to "rehabilitate" the Navajo. This was another word for jobs for white bureaucrats to feed on the misery of the Indian with boondoggling experiments.

Navajos do not eat fish, bear or pork; in fact, any animal that does not eat grass is not "clean" to them. They will not kill a cayote for the bounty as do the whites.

We had worked three hours and took our cotton in to be weighed. I had 30 pounds and he had 42. The white man near us had 85. In talking over this discrepancy we found that we had been picking only the clean white white cotton, while the more experienced pickers picked the boll along with the cotton and more than doubled the weight.

As we waited our turn for weighing our cotton, groups were shooting dice in the roadway. A Negro woman served coffee, chili, pie, wieners, etc at reasonable prices. Some of the truck drivers sold food to their passengers.

Returning to the field we picked in more of an orthodox fashion, and in the total 5 1/2 hours the Navajo picked 82 pounds and I picked 62. Before we left I gave him the Catholic Worker to read with my letter about the Hopi refusing to go to war.

The next morning I met my Navajo friend beside the bonfire at 2nd and Madison. The truck of Negroes did not go out on Sunday. One truck took only those who had sacks. I got in a small pick-up which headed westward about 30 miles to Litchfield Park. Several young girls kept us merry with songs. When we arrived at the field my Navajo friend came in on another truck. We happened to get sacks at different times, so did not work together.

An old man said that the rule here was "rough picking," which meant everything that had white in it, but no stems or leaves. When I emptied my sack I had 54 pounds. The man next to me seemed to work rather expertly and I asked him what time they quit on weekdays here. He replied that he came only on Sundays. "Make $1.25 an hour at my job in town, and time and a-half overtime."

I commented that unless a person had a large family that was good wage. "I don't work here for the money," he continued. "I just come out here so I can keep sober. Was drunk from Christmas until yesterday---ten days. I can keep sober if I'm working, but I can't stand to be quiet or to loaf. And as I have eight kids, I need to keep working."

There was not much cotton left to pick in this field and the word went around that we would quit about 2 p.m. At that time my second sack weighed 31 pounds, which, after paying for my sack netted me $2.23. My Navajo friend had not done so well, picking only 68 pounds. He said he had liked my reference to the Hopi in the Catholic Worker.

As we were going into town in the truck the man who picked cotton to keep sober was discussing the merits of different brands of liquor with another picker. This man was telling of going to a town upon receiving a paycheck as a "gandy-dancer" on the railroad, going to the police and asking them how much the fine was for being "drunk and disorderly." They said it was $17.50, so he paid it at once, for he intended to get drunk and disorderly. I did not hear the rest of the story for the truck soon passed lateral 20, nearby where I lived, and I proceeded homeward with $3.93 for two part days spent in the cotton fields.

Later in the day, sitting in my doorway, resting, I was asked by a man who drove up in a car to work for him for a week irrigating, at $7.20 per day. Gladly, I was willing to let this two part-days of cotton picking suffice. Good pickers can make from $8 to $12 per day, but I was not in that class.
From The Catholic Worker.

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