Recently, I was going through some old tools which belonged to my maternal grandfather, W. H. Brim. There was a single tree, a bush cutter, the head of a pick-axe, and the metal neck and blade of a hoe, long retired; along with other odds and ends. The worn and rusted blade of the hoe was of particular interest to me. It was fashioned of heavy steel – the kind you don’t see anymore.
I was made to recall the fact that I had not seen a teenager or
young adult of the African-American or Caucasian persuasion chopping
tobacco or corn in the last 20 years.
Unless they are conditioning for a sport or working on a suntan,
today’s young folks just don’t brave the heat anymore. We have air
conditioned and entertained ourselves into the “softies” we are becoming.
Growing up on the Frank McCall farm, my brothers and I became well acquainted with the hoe. We chopped tobacco and we chopped corn. I enjoyed neither. Of the two, I enjoyed chopping corn least. There were many reasons.
First, the rows were longer. It is a daunting task, looking down a corn row
that appears to be a mile long. The tree line seemed to move farther away with each step.
My second reason was Johnson grass. One of our neighbors used to quip, “McCalls are thicker than Johnson grass!” I wasn’t so sure. Nothing seems thicker than Johnson grass when you are in the heat, and in the heat of battle. I have encountered few things in my life more tenacious than Johnson grass.
Generations before me, I was told, grubbed up Johnson grass, roots and all; piled it in bushel baskets and dumped it in the river. They declared it was the only way to get rid of it.
You could not kill it by chopping it off in the ground, but you could slow it down. The rhizome, or fat root, that grew underground gave it incredible staying power. We were simply trying to give the corn a fighting chance.
Sometimes we would run into stretches where the Johnson grass was solid
in the corn row for what seemed like several hundred feet. It was all-out war. Not a fight you would want to enter with a dull hoe. On occasion, in the heat of the moment, my brothers and I would accidentally chop down a corn stalk…or two.
That did not go well with Frank McCall. I remember his saying something like this:
“If you are going to cut the corn down, we might as well let the Johnson grass take it!”
And then, there were the sweat bees, gnats and deer flies. I always felt there were too many things working against me in a corn field. The corn and Johnson grass scratched you and made you itch; and those darn sweat bees never let up.
Someone once told me if you held your breath when you mashed a sweat bee against you arm or leg, the sweat bee wouldn’t sting you. It weren’t true. I tried it.
There’s hardly anything more irritating than catching a sweat bee in the fold of your arm or knee when you weren’t expecting to. Those little whelps used to aggravate the tar out of me.
Chopping corn required strength, skill and toughness. It would not have been so bad were it not for all the distractions. It left many impressions on my thinking.
My brother John says he can still see those five hoes lying in the back of our pickup truck.
I can still see that Johnson grass! And I can still feel its resistance
to the blade of my hoe. And I remember how I gritted my teeth in determination until I had the upper hand on a stubborn patch of Johnson grass.
Chopping tobacco for Frank McCall took less effort but more skill. Less effort because he was a magician with a tobacco plow and stayed ahead of the grass; more skill because the stakes were higher (a tobacco plant is of greater value than a stalk of corn.) In all my years of chopping tobacco I would bet I cut down fewer than a-half-dozen tobacco plants.
My father never gave his children lectures on the subjects of taking pride in your work or on responsibility. I reckon while we were out there sweating, it just soaked into our pores.
In the days that have gone by many valuable life lessons were learned on the end of a hoe handle.
Jack McCall is a motivational humorist, southern storyteller and author. A native Middle Tennessean, he is recognized on the national stage as a “Certified Speaking Professional.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Cell: 615-973-8645; Copyright 2020 by Jack McCall.