During the summer of 1949, I joined a group of 80 high school boys from Tampa and Plant City, Florida to travel to Massachusetts to work in the tobacco fields. This was the first time I had ever been out of the state of Florida, and I can still remember the thrill of crossing the line into Georgia. We travelled non-stop in three chartered buses to the little town of Southwick, Massachusetts. After three days on the road, only sleeping while riding, we arrived at the farm and moved into a group of six quonset huts. Four of the arched buildings were dormitories with twenty beds each - eight double-deck bunks and four single cots. One building contained showers and toilets, and the other was the mess hall.
No time was wasted in getting us into the fields the following morning. The tobacco plants were already up about waist high. A storm had come through the day before and blown many of the plants over, so the first task was to straighten up the young plants.
This was all shade-grown tobacco to be used as cigar wrappers. Cheese cloth had been stretched over wires suspended ten feet above the ground. The cheese cloth filtered the light getting to the plants. It also trapped in the heat. Working under that cheese cloth was sweltering. We were carried to and from work each day in the back of old army trucks.
After straightening the plants, we tied each plant with a string to a wire stretched between poles. That took about a week. We then had to go through the fields and strip the sucker leaves off the bottom of the stalks. Two weeks later the picking began. Three leaves were picked at each picking, and it took a week to pick all the fields. Then, we would start over and do it again. Pickers walked down every other row picking the three bottom leaves off the plants on either side and stacking the leaves on the ground between the plants on the right. A hauler drug a sled down the in-between row picking up the stacks of leaves and placing them in the sled. At the end of the row the sleds were collected and stacked on a flatbed trailer which was pulled by a tractor to barns where girls strung the leaves on wooden rods for hanging in the rafters of the barn. When a barn was filled, charcoal drying fires were lit and the barn closed.
After two weeks of picking, I was promoted to hauler and given a raise from 50 cents per hour to 60 cents. I earned every bit of that extra dime. Each row had to be worked in a bent over position, then the sled had to be dragged out and lifted onto the trailer. This continued for eight or nine hours each day with only a half-hour lunch break. By the end of the day we were bone tired - too tired to get into much trouble. However, I remember a few nights of going into an adjoining corn field and picking a few ears of corn to roast over the charcoal fires in the barns, and there was an apple orchard close by that got raided a few times.
On the way up to Massachusetts, the buses stopped in Jacksonville, Florida to give everybody a chance to stretch. I bought a harmonica and taught myself to play it during that summer. We sang all sorts of songs while riding to and from work, and I did the accompaniment on the harmonica.
On Sundays we were loaded into buses and taken to town to do laundry and see a movie. Once or twice we went to Springfield for a longer outing. By the end of August it became unbearably hot. The quonset huts were too hot to sleep in, so we took mattresses out on the ground and slept outside.
It wasn't all work on the farm. On occasion there would be enough daylight left after work to play ping pong or badminton or softball. At times we found a spot to shoot dice or play cards, and there was a swimming hole about a mile away that got visited on occasion. On Sundays we were taken to town to do laundry and see a movie. Once or twice we went to Springfield for a longer outing.
By the end of August we had become used to the hard work and took it in strice, but it had become unbearably hot. The quonset huts were too hot to sleep in, so we took mattresses out on the ground and slept outside.
I saved enough money that summer to buy a small 35mm camera - a Kodak "Pony" - and still had enough left for a bus ticket home. Part of the deal was that the farm would transport us home, but I thought it would be a great adventure to go home on my own. So, at the end of the summer, a friend - Charles Rowland - and I left camp (we had permission) and thumbed a ride to Springfield where we caught a bus to New York City.
In Manhattan we left the bus and immediately got sunburned tonsils gaping upward at the skyscrapers. We walked to the Empire State Building and rode the elevators to the top, then did the same at the RCA Building. After about six hours in the City, we walked back to the bus station and headed for Washington D.C. There, we bought tickets for a tour of the city, climbed to the top of the Washington Monument, and took a tour of the Library of Congress before boarding another bus for home. It took four or five days to make the trip home. We lost track of time, never once sleeping anywhere but on the bus.
I was sixteen years old - without a care in the world - and felt I'd earned that little adventure.