My annual Social Security statement arrived in the mail not long ago, and as usual, I was amazed. Amazed at how little I'd get if I became disabled. Amazed that there probably won't be any Social Security when I'm eligible to "retire" at age 67. But mostly, amazed that I've been paying into Social Security since I was 11 years old. That's right. As of this summer, I've been working for thirty-five years. No wonder I'm so tired!
I realize that some of my peers might be seriously appalled at the idea of an eleven year-old girl working, but that was my reality. OK, it's not that I had to work at the time, but my parents were the type of parents who strongly believed that kids need "something to do" in order to stay out of trouble. So . . . they arranged for me to work for a friend of theirs, a farmer who grew (among other things) tobacco.
My first job was as a farmhand during tobacco season (June-September). I was a "hander" - basically that involved taking a handful of tobacco leaves and handing them to a "stringer", who laced the leaves around a wooden stick with twine. It wasn't exactly hard work, but it was dirty and monotonous, and we worked in all kinds of weather: heat, humidity, rain, thunderstorms, hail, hurricanes, tornadoes. You might think I'm joking, but I'm not. Fortunately, we mostly worked under a shelter. And we did get to stop when things got really rough. At least once, I remember taking cover inside someone's pick-up truck during a lightning storm. Sometimes it was actually fun, even when people played tricks on each other, like secretly putting tobacco worms down your shirt (and then squishing them. Ew.)
We worked Monday through Saturday, and we usually got started by 6AM. I was picked up between 5-5:30AM every morning. That meant I had to get myself out of bed around 4:30-4:45AM. I had my own alarm clock, and was responsible for getting myself ready to go on my own, in the dark, and that included making my own breakfast. My favorite breakfast was an egg sandwich, made with white bread. (We only ate white bread back then. LOL!)
There were about 14 of us in the barn crew - 8 handers, 4 stringers, and a couple of guys whose job was to hang up the tobacco sticks in the barn. A separate crew worked in the fields, and two or three people drove tractors from the fields to the barn and back. We'd work at a different location everyday, depending on which fields were ready to be harvested. Our goal would be to fill up a barn with the sticks of tobacco. This was referred to is "putting in tobacco." Some of the barns were larger than others, so if we filled up a small barn early in the day, sometimes we'd move on to another barn and/or another field.
Later in the season, we sometimes had the option of unloading the barns of cured tobacco, taking it to a packhouse (a special barn for preparing and storing cured tobacco), removing it from the sticks, and getting it ready to go to market. This was called "taking out tobacco" and it was more fun - and much easier - than putting in. However, if you got asked to take out, that meant instead of working 10 or 12 hours a day (which was the norm for putting in), you might work as many as 16 hours a day. Fortunately, this didn't happen to me often.
Every day around 9:30AM, we'd all pile into the back of the pick-up truck and go to J.W.'s - a neighborhood store at the crossroads. As soon as we got to the store there was this collective burst of energy. Everyone would run inside, get a cold RC cola or Nehi Grape and a honey bun or Moon Pie or pack of Bugles or whatever. I'd buy some "penny" candy to stick into my pockets for later, and life was good. I was as skinny as a rail, with a metabolism that could handle anything. (Would love to have that again, ha!)
We'd get about an hour and a half off for lunch, and during that time we were expected to eat and rest. I learned the art of the fifteen minute power nap, but sometimes I opted to watch The Gong Show instead. Some of the other kids also watched The Gong Show, and it gave us something to talk about during the long, hot afternoons.
It really was dirty work. Tobacco leaves are covered with a natural resin, and the continuously touching it causes your hands to become covered with black tar. I got to know Lava brand soap very well during those days, but even Lava couldn't get my hands completely clean. Every summer, my palms took on a reddish-brown hue, and it was obvious to anyone who recognized the signs that I was a tobacco worker.
For my efforts, I was paid something like $1.50 to $2.00 per hour, and made anywhere from $40-80 a week. This is where the Social Security thing came in - by law, my employer was required to make contributions on my behalf. Mom and Dad encouraged me to give 10% of my earnings to church, but beyond that, it was all mine. I bought some of my back-to-school clothes and supplies, but mostly I spent my money on entertainment -- the occasional movie and record albums or eight track tapes. Billy Joel, Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles, and Boston were just some of the many artists and bands supported by the sweat of my brow. Literally.
I could've spent my time in other ways. I was certainly jealous of my friend Jan, who spent summers indoors, with air conditioning, watching TV and babysitting her little sister. I was somewhat envious of those who were allowed to be kids and do kid things when I was getting myself up before the crack of dawn and making my own breakfast. But the truth is, now that I look back on my first job, I'm glad I had the experience. I learned many lessons during these summers, and one of them is that I can thrive in all kinds of circumstances. That alone was worth it.