Working Tobacco

 We learned to work tobacco                                    
before we learned to kiss.                                    
When we did learn to kiss,                                    
there wasn’t enough time                                    
we had to work the tobacco.                                                  

While dew was still wet                                                            
and the sun’s heat                                                
burnt at morning fog                                                
and fathers                                                                        
and friends                                                
gathered together                                                
                 like they always had                                                
                 for generations                                                
to pull the tender plants                                                
out of the loose soil.                                                  

Each one knew                                                
what to do.                                                
Some bent over                                                
others squatted                                                
some sat on wooden planks                                                
                like a make shift bench                                                
                laid across the tobacco bed.
They were careful                                                
to place the plants                                                
in burlap sacks                                                
with roots pointed out.                                                  

they stacked the sacks                                                
so the setters                                                
could pick them up                                                
with ease                                                
and feed the machine                                                
as it clanked across the patch.                                                   I

t was hard work.                                                
My job                                                
               most of the time                                                  
was to follow the setter                                                
and reset bad plants                                                
                or fill in spots                                                
where the setter’s rhythm                                                
had been broken                                                
and a gap left in the straight row.                                                                                                                        
With bare hands                                                
I pushed back                                                
black soil                                                            
                 soft and damp from disking.                                                
From my burlap sack                                                  
still wet with dew                                                
I set new plants.                                                  
I was careful                                                
to keep the roots from clumping.
Then with the same soft soil                                                
I would cover the roots                                                
and pack the dirt down gently.                                                
With a tin cup                                                
dipped in a galvanized bucket                                                
I gave them water.                                                                             

By mid-day                                                
my knees would be caked                                                
with the black soil                                                  
my hands                                                
would be cut and scratched                                                
from bits of broken stone                                                
                 and arrowheads                                               
left by some ancient culture                                                
                  and turned up from plowing.                                                  

Sometimes I would stop                                                
look back down                                                            
the long furrowed row                                                
of tender green plants                                                
wilted from transplanting.                                                
And I could tell the difference                                                
between my work                                                
and the work of the setters.                                                                                                  

I learned the difference                                                
between man                                                            
                     and machine.                                                  
It was hard work I could be proud of.                                                                        

At night                                    
in my bed                                    
with dirt stained hands                                    
                    and aching muscles                                   
I could feel the rhythm                                    
and hear the clank of the setter                                    
moving across the field.                                      
I could feel the earth give                                    
beneath my knees                                    
and smell the sweat                                    
of afternoon heat.                                                                        

As weariness gave way                                                            
to sleep                                    
                 and gentle rain pinged                                    
on the tin roof over my room                                                
I dreamed.                                    

I dreamed of kisses                                    
                     and girls                                    
                     and all the things                                    
there wasn’t time for.  
Tony Sexton