I was seventeen on the May afternoon in 1962 when I first learned the basics of what my boss called tobacco stabilization. I listened hard about chains and acres, sled rows, and other technical aspects of that summer job and took notes in pencil in a spiral notebook left over from school. But no one in that sleepy government office ever taught me how to look a sunburned farmer in the eye and tell him he had to destroy part of a field of fine, nearly grown tobacco. No one ever told me either that when delivering the death sentence for a money crop on a hot dusty day, it helped to keep it short, stand up straight, and to point several times at the clipboard I’d bought with my own money at the drugstore. And then, the touch I took special pride in: nod three times, slowly and firmly, while pointing to the clipboard as though facts were just plain facts.
Each farmer was different. Sometimes farmers called me “son” and I was met with a gracious handshake and a glass of tea or lemonade “from the Missus.” Sometimes it got so bad, I worried about whether a shotgun would come peeping out of a tobacco barn. Most of the time, I didn’t know the farmer or the family. Delivering unwelcome news to a stranger never got easy, but those days aren’t the ones I remember. The time out at the McLeods’ place, though, I remember that one like it was yesterday.
I got fifty cents an acre for measuring a field, but for supervising a plow under, as we called them, I got double that. The farmer, though, got worse than nothing: he had sunk money into seeds, bought and applied herbicide and pesticide, nurtured, irrigated and fertilized---all that and then to have to watch those deep green stalks plowed under like so many expensive weeds. Although only the size of four city lots these days, a half-acre of tobacco in the early ’60s would buy a farmer a good, nearly new car, a major appliance, maybe a year’s tuition for a kid at State College.
I was pretty skinny then and not tall enough to look like much of a force, I suspect. Sometimes, sitting in my car before delivering the bad news, I would remind myself that I was working for the federal government. That seemed pretty impressive at a time when Vietnam wasn’t much in the news yet and my own Vietnam was still years away.
The official name of my employer was the Agricultural Conservation and Stabilization Board but we all called it the Tobacco Board. They told me the goal was to help the government stabilize the price of tobacco, not only for our town and county but also for the State of North Carolina and the whole United States of America. I didn’t pretend to understand all the workings of tobacco. My father had a temper, but when he could keep a job, he sold furniture or whatever else he could, and my mother taught school. We lived in tobacco country, though, and most of my friends and I had cropped tobacco in the late summer. Either that or their fathers sold supplies or loaned money to tobacco farmers and families.
Under the program each farmer had an allotment to grow or not, but if he grew too much in a season, he had to destroy it before time came for market. Otherwise, according to my boss Bob Mattox, the price of tobacco would plummet and all the farmers everywhere would suffer. That made good sense as he explained it to me in the pale green office in town, a big box fan blowing in my face. It was harder to summon a picture of plummeting prices everywhere when I had to look into the face of a farmer on a sweltering afternoon.
Every third or fourth day I would go to the office and pick up my assignments for the next several days, which consisted of large aerial maps of the territory I was to cover, with complicated markings showing each farmer’s allotments. The rest of it was sort of like surveying. I would go out to the farmer’s field and pull a sixty-six-foot chain to measure the fields of tobacco. Then I would take the measurements back in, and, after some calculations, my boss would tell me whether the farmer had grown too much tobacco. Not every farmer got checked every summer, but the program worked on the basis of an honor system, re-enforced by random spot checks. I was the face of the program for all the farmers I met, Mr. Mattox told me on my only day of training. The backbone of the system was the honest word of the farmer and workers like me and did I understand that part? I tried to listen during that speech, but I kept catching myself imagining the money I could save that summer toward a car, the chance of college.
In the early days, I fumbled both the chains and my speeches to the farmers. I had gotten a little better when the McLeods showed up on my list. The McLeod boys went to my small town high school, although Mac was a year younger and Ben was in my little brother Tommy’s class. Mac and I weren’t friends, but we had played on some baseball teams together and he had a fine arm.
They went to our church, too, although I hadn’t seen them in a while. Mrs. McLeod had always seemed quiet, different from my mother or the mothers of my friends. She was awfully thin, not wiry thin and strong, but sunk in and fragile looking, her graying hair limp and long instead of in a brisk-looking helmet of hair like my mother’s and her friends’. I recalled Bud McLeod walking with Mrs. McLeod toward their pew, one arm under an elbow, as though she needed holding up. I didn’t know what that was about. Mother, who knew everything about everyone in town, hadn’t mentioned them to me either.
Their farm was about eight miles out of town, and it looked to be in pretty good shape as I drove down the long dirt driveway, dust flying behind me. When I got close to the house, though, I saw white paint was peeling from the house. A few wilted flowers in the front looked to be victims of both the heat and weeks of neglect. My old car made noise in the drive, but I didn’t see anyone at first. Then a curtain in a front window of the house parted, swung closed.
Bud McLeod came out of a shed behind the house then and I got out and gave him my speech about my job, as I didn’t know if Mr. McLeod had been checked before. I had a hard time hearing over the rumble of some kind of farm equipment from a close-by field, but Bud McLeod leaned in close.
“Just to measure?” he said, almost yelling above the noise. When I told him yes, he nodded, said he’d be interested to hear. I spent the better part of the morning measuring his fields. Just after noon, I had finally finished and was getting ready to drive off when he drove back into the driveway in his tractor. I pointed to my clipboard, trying to signal that I had to take the measurements in. He just tipped his hat as I left, didn’t even get down from his tractor. He didn’t seem like someone to worry about, or at least that’s what I hoped.
My parents weren’t worried about me in that job or any other job, as I think about it. We needed the money, only some of which I got to keep. And working for the Tobacco Board wasn’t my first job for money. From the time I was small, I worked on a paper route or in grocery stores bagging other families’ food. That’s the way it was in my house.
When I was twelve, I worked at Turner’s Mart, which was on the other side of our small Eastern North Carolina town. The store mainly served farmers and some Lumbee Indians. My job at Turner’s was mainly bagging, but I did my share of sweeping, trash detail, mopping, hosing down the sidewalk in front. My father got me the job at Turner’s. Mother thought I was too young, but I could do all the stuff I was supposed to do, except reach far back on the high shelves. But it was my age and not my reach that got me fired in the end. One day Roger Turner came in flustered after a lunchtime Kiwanis Club meeting and told me the labor board was coming out to make sure everyone was good to work. He told me they couldn’t take a chance on a citation and then said “But here’s the thing, son,” he said. “You’re tall enough to look like you’re thirteen, don’t you think?” I stared at him.
“But Mr. Turner, you know I’m still twelve. Won’t be thirteen till May next. May 16. Will they count that?”
“No, they won’t, boy. No, they will not,” he said, frowning now. “And if you want to keep working here, I guess you’re going to have to tell them thirteen and get convincing about it.” He grinned at me then, slapped the table as though the subject was closed and left.
I didn’t mention this talk to my parents, but in my room that night, I practiced my speech about my age in front of a mirror. In spite of my practice though, when the stout man with a bow tie came in the next day, I didn’t last long. He asked first thing about my age, and I tried hard to say thirteen, but the best I could do was blurt, “I’m going on thirteen, sir, coming right up on May 16, sir.”
That was the end of my time at Turner’s. Mr. Turner paid me out of petty cash that day and shook his head like it was all my fault. After that, I did paper routes for a year or so and then got another grocery job bagging groceries at Brown’s Groceries. Brown’s was the store my mother and her friends went to and it was close to the center of town. My mother worked that job out with Mrs. Brown, who was on some committee with her at church. Mr. Brown was a brisk man with a red face, who was prone to spells of anger about unexpected things. I didn’t try to be on good graces with Mr. Brown, because there was no such thing, but at least I could tell by the color of his face what was up that day.
I still count the day I quit Brown’s as one of the happiest days of my life. In addition to staying on top of Mr. Brown’s moods, I never managed to lose my embarrassment when the mothers of my richer friends came through the cash register and saw me mopping or bagging groceries. After I got my license though and my parents arranged for me to use my grandmother’s old car, I turned in my notice at Brown’s. After I left, I balled up my apron and threw it into a field on the way home. I don’t remember whose field it was, but I never saw the apron again and I never looked back.
That’s when I started working for the Tobacco Board. I started my days early. My little wind-up alarm clock would wake me when the sky was still a dark navy blue. By the time the sky lightened to deep gray, I was up and dressed, gulping down a leftover biscuit and a glass of milk from the kitchen. I started setting my alarm a little earlier every day and would be well on my way before I saw the first sliver of light gray on the horizon. The earlier I got started, I figured, the earlier I could finish and the less I’d have to bake in the sauna of a North Carolina summer afternoon. I also thought that if I kept getting up early, I’d be finished measuring and headed to the second farm before the first farmer ever got up. Looking back, it was foolish to think I could just drive up to a farm and start measuring without identifying myself first, but it didn’t matter anyway because I never once beat a farmer to a field.
Most of the days ran together unless something happened—the hum of tractors and tillers, heat rising in waves over the fields, the driver’s seat of my grandmother’s 1953 Olds so hot some days that you couldn’t sit down without opening the door and waiting for it to cool. Some days, I stopped in a roadside store for a cold Coke to drink with the lunch my mother had packed. Then I’d stay inside the cool dim of the store for every minute my lunch period lasted.
On the first day I visited the McLeods’, I didn’t get back to turn my measurements in until about 4:00 o’clock. I wasn’t anxious to turn them in, either. The McLeods had more than 10 acres and it seemed like every possible space was planted, either with tobacco or cotton, but I didn’t care about the cotton. That night at supper, I told my folks I was worried I was going to have to tell the McLeods they had too much tobacco.
My father kept cutting his meat, putting small pieces in his mouth two or three at a time. He loved to hear who was on my list to measure, which families were set for a plow under, who got in under the wire. He said again how lucky we were that he wasn’t a farmer, that Tommy and I had it really good. Mother didn’t look at him during that speech, but poured everybody more tea and watched me.
“Heck, Willie, don’t you worry about Bud McLeod.” Daddy said. “He knew the rules and the rules are the rules. He makes good money on that plot. He cares so much for that little wife he ought to get out of farming or follow the rules, one. She’s not gonna get better if he doesn’t get her some fancy doctor, I guess. And he made some money a while back, that’s all I know.” Daddy went on to tell us about a fancy bedroom suite they bought back when he worked for Majestic Furniture in Sanford.
Mother frowned then and asked if I had seen Flora McLeod. I told her no, but I thought she was back in the house when I had gone out there.
“Flora had her heart set on somebody else,” she said. I kept eating cornbread, trying to look like I was barely listening, knowing she’d go on if I didn’t seem interested. “Flora was a fine pianist in her day. Her father got run out of town and it was a real scandal I guess. Flora felt she had to make up for that and marry steady. But then she fell hard for an old soldier who had been hurt in the war, much too old for her.”
“Did she marry him?” I asked.
“No, honey, she married Bud McLeod,” Mother said, looking at me like I was daft. “The older fellow wasn’t in any shape to marry and he put her off. She was really heartsick and Bud starting sitting with her right after and then she took him, I guess.” Mother told us she had something awful now, a female thing and was going downhill fast.
The next morning in the office, Mr. Mattox showed me the map and told me Mr. McLeod was half an acre over. Even to me, that seemed like an awful lot. I asked him if he was sure, but Mr. Mattox was always sure. He told me to get on out there, the sooner the better. I didn’t go out first thing, which was probably a mistake because I had the whole morning to dread it. Around lunchtime, I drove by home and got another shirt. As I remember, it was hotter than any day so far that summer and my shirt was already sticking to my back.
When I got to the McLeod farm, I turned off the radio as I pulled up to the house and just listened to the distant buzz of machines through the open window. For a moment, I held out hope that Bud McLeod was too far out to find, and I could put this off another day. Then I saw it was Mac and Ben out to the far right of the house in the tobacco. Finally, I saw Bud leave the house and go back behind the equipment shed. I took a deep breath then, shut the car door firmly, squared the clipboard in my hand, and checked to make sure the ballpoint pen was in my pocket. Although I know he probably heard my old car, Bud didn’t look up until I got within about ten feet of him. Then he looked right back down at the part he was working on, some bolt on his tiller, it looked like.
“Um, Mr. McLeod?” Of course, my voice cracked. He was silent a moment and then looked up briefly at me.
“Willie—is that right?”
“Yes sir. Willie Stuart.”
“Well son, I don’t know why you’re back out here. I thought we got done with your measuring business yesterday. You didn’t get what you needed?” His eyes stayed on the tiller.
My stomach tightened. I had delivered bad news before, but not to people I knew, with somebody thin and sick in the house, whose kid I had played ball with. I pushed my glasses back on my nose and stared at the figures on the clipboard, trying to summon my usual routine.
“Well son, let’s have it.” Bud said after a moment.
“Half an acre, sir. You got half an acre too much.” I tapped my pen on the clipboard, nodded, once, twice, three times. Bud squinted up at me. Then he took off his Dekalb Seed cap and stood up.
“Son, you have got to be pulling my leg. A half acre? That just can’t be right. I ain’t stupid. No way is that right.”
“Yes sir. I have the figures right here.” He stared at me, shaking his head, silent. He looked down, slapped his cap against his right leg. His eyes had turned a hard glittery blue, searching my face. He glanced over at the house.
“Son, my boys say you’re in school with them. That right?”
“Yes sir,” I said, “but not in my grade.” That sounded stupid, but I didn’t like just standing there, both of us just listening to machines droning in the fields.
“Well then you know about Mrs. McLeod, don’t you?” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I nodded yes.
“I just don’t know how I can give up that much. You see that don’t you?” I did see that, saw it very clearly. I nodded “yes” and then combined it with a half-hearted shake “no” at the same time. Bud’s voice got firmer.
“Well, see here, we can’t do it, can’t give up that much and I don’t know why anybody who knows what they’re doing would say the other, if they knew. If they knew, you know. Half an acre. Just can’t do that.” Then he stooped back down and started back on the tiller, his hand less steady now. I pulled out my pen again and started to move toward him with my clipboard.
“Sir, I can show you my measurements.”
“I don’t give a goddamn about your measurements, boy,” he snapped. I stopped walking. Although a lot of farmers cursed at my news, Bud McLeod didn’t seem like the type. Mac had pulled up in the yard by then and had started walking toward where we were standing. He was nearly three inches taller than me and a lot sturdier. Ben followed.
“Mr. McLeod, sir, I don’t make the rules,” I said. I thought about what my father had said. “The rule’s the rule,” I added, then immediately regretted it.
“Is that right?” he said, looking straight at me. “You think that’s right, son?”
“Yes sir. That’s what they told me anyway,” I said, my voice trailing off.
“Rules. That what you think, Willie? We all got to follow the rules? Do you want to go in there and tell her that?” He jabbed his thumb in the direction of the house. I looked down at my dusty shoes and then at my clipboard, its edge damp now from propping it against my midsection. I turned to look at my grandmother’s car and the dust that had settled on it just on the drive out. Would anyone come out this far to check this one farm between now and market? I didn’t know how that worked and I sure hadn’t asked Mr. Mattox.
I stayed quiet for a moment, struggling. Although I thought about Mrs. McLeod briefly, honestly, I was mainly worried about myself, about having to go back to bagging groceries. I didn’t think I could face going back and I didn’t know what choice I had.
“Mr. McLeod, I’m sorry sir. But I gave my word.” Damn my voice, cracking again. He stared at me, finally nodded a little.
“Mac. Ben,” he yelled, even though they were close by then. “Get on over here.”
All I could think then was I was done for. A drop of sweat leaked into my eye then and I wiped it out with my handkerchief, fast. I wondered if the McLeod boys thought I was crying and so I managed a “Man, it’s a hot one.”
Mac had lumbered over from where he had been watching. Ben came closer too. He was just about as big as Mac, but Mac had a harder look to him.
“Boys, y’all know this Willie Stuart here?”
“Yeah, Pa,” said Mac, looking at me. Ben just nodded. My breathing sped up then and I began to think I might have to make a run for the car.
“Willie here says we got half an acre too much,” he said. “Got to plow it under. That right, Willie?” I nodded, not sure what else to say.
“Want you boys to go get the disk and get started, then. Plow her under.”
The only thing I could think was it was a trick. Mac didn’t move.
“Why, Pa?” he finally said.
“Apparently, son, these men up in Fayetteville or Raleigh or wherever they are have sat up there in their offices and decided we have to. And they’ve sent this boy, Willie, to deliver that very bad piece of news. It seems awful hard to me, and I know it does to you too with your Mama and all.”
“What for, though?” Mac said, looking straight at me now.
I couldn’t trust my voice then. I just tapped on the clipboard like I cared about the numbers there, like they were important, like they were the most important thing in the world. Bud McLeod straightened up then, wiping his hands on his pants. “Well the thing is, Willie here has given his word to those men. He has given his word. That right, Willie?”
“Yes sir, I guess that’s right,” I said, trying to believe him.
“All right then, boys. And so that’s what we got to do. Let’s get to it, you get that disk out here and let’s plow her under. Willie here will tell you what’s got to go. Let’s go get it done. I’m gonna go in and see your Mama about it.”
Bud McLeod looked at me, nodded once and turned to walk back to the house, not looking back even once as his boys pulled the disk into the field. After they set it up, I showed them where to start and finish, my stomach easing at last. The plow under went pretty fast after that. I stayed on the road beside my grandmother’s car, watching them mow down row after row of dark green until they finished the half acre and pulled the disk back in the shed. As I drove away, they were headed back into the fields, dust kicking up behind their tractors. I drove on out to the next farm on the list.
Even though my own tobacco money was good that summer, after market, there was no car for me or anywhere close to it. My father had lost another job and I had to work wherever I could, every spare moment. One chilly Friday night that fall, I ran into Mac McLeod leaving the stadium after a football game. I tipped my cap at him, hopeful for some sign he understood I was just doing my job. I know he saw me, had to have, but he turned his head, pulled up his collar and walked on.
I didn’t see any of the McLeods after that, even at church, and it was another year before I heard anything more. I managed to get a little scholarship and with that and a small bit of money I had set aside, I started at Chapel Hill. College life seemed a little unreal to me at first, boys drinking beer till all hours, no one checking up on me. Sometimes I missed home, but I sure didn’t tell a soul that. One rainy Sunday afternoon, word came I had a call on the hall phone in my dorm. My mother was on the line. Mrs. McLeod had died, she said. Cancer. The boys and Bud were a wreck.
I teared up then, standing on that hall and grateful for the shelter of the phone booth. I wondered whether that half acre would have made any difference to that bone-thin woman and her boys, wondered whether I did the right thing for the sake of a tobacco quota. I still haven’t figured that out, and I don’t imagine I ever will. That was a hard job, and I’ve had my share over the many years since. I knew by then how easy it was to lose a job, just by saying the truth, even if the truth turned out to be no real help to me or anybody else.
I haven’t forgotten that summer field either, as hot as any later jungle, searing into me an early lesson about telling people what they can’t bear to hear. Even now I can summon that field, the silver teeth of a disk biting into green stalks, churning pungent leaves into row after row of black dirt like so much fodder, the boys’ flushed faces barely visible under their caps.
Denise Smith Cline started her writing career as a newspaper reporter fresh out of Davidson College, but an assignment to cover a murder trial diverted her into a legal career. Her fiction and non-fiction has won awards from Carolina Woman, Salem College’s 2014 International Literary Contest, and the 23rd Annual Carteret Writers’ Contest, and it has appeared in Carolina Woman, The Shoal, the Raleigh News & Observer and Mamalode. She lives and still practices law in Raleigh, North Carolina where she is working to perfect her first novel, inspired by a fire in her hometown of Greer, South Carolina.
Q: What inspired this story?
A: Our early jobs teach us so much about what’s important and what’s not. Sometimes it takes the longest time to figure out the lesson.
“Plow Under” is based loosely on a friend’s experience. As a teen in the 1960s, he measured farmers’ tobacco fields for the government’s allotment program. Hearing his story, I was inspired to learn more about the vanishing world of tobacco quotas and auctions and a different story emerged.
Q: What writers or books do you consider influences?
A: My answer to this question shifts each season, depending on what I’m reading. Currently, Alice McDermott, Ann Patchett, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Colm Toibin and Norman MacLean come to mind. I am an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction, and my circle of talented writing friends and teachers are also big influences.
Q: What’s the most important writing advice you’ve received? Is it reflected in this story?
A: I struggle with over-writing. So, I have to work to keep a storyline moving forward, to pare down nonessentials. “Plow Under” was once a much longer story. Lots of people also correctly have advised me to start any project by writing something, to get something on paper and let the story emerge with revisions. It took a while for Willie’s story to surface, as opposed to the story I had heard. It was daunting, too, to try to tell the story through the perspective of a seventeen year old boy, living in a very different time. Willie’s voice and story appeared only after many revisions.
Q: Where do you write?
A: I write on my sunny porch in the summer and in my cozy library in colder months. I also write at my office when my schedule permits. As I’m self-employed, my boss is lenient about that kind of thing.