MAINE TALES. “Getting Down to Business.” Nowheresville, Georgia. Circa 1984.
It’s a reasonable question. How many rebels are there lurking behind those smiling faces in rural America?
Our crew was hand-planting Loblolly Pine tree seedlings with hoedads on clearcuts all across the South. We worked during the Winter months when it was wet and cold, conditions which wore down planters but increased the seedlings’ likelihood of survival and that’s what mattered. We lived in our own individual vans (“rigs”) which we’d park on the muddy haul roads right on the clearcut sites we were planting. The goulash of license plates made clear there was plenty of geographic diversity among the working wanderers. Many of us came from the North where good-paying outside work in the Winter was few and far between.
Treeplanting was hard work but we were strong young men back then. We were paid for our stoop labor by piece-rate which must be one of the savviest inventions ever concocted by the capitalist class. If you weren’t planting you weren’t getting paid, but the more you planted the more money you made. In those days our piece-rate was 3.0 to 3.8 cents per tree. The best planters would repeat the lightning quick process of stooping over, gouging out a V-shaped hole in the ground with their hoedad, whipping in tree roots, and then violently heeling-in soil around the roots to exclude dry air and assure tree survival. Rinse and repeat four-to-five-thousand times a day. We worked first light to last light, seven days a week, everyday unless it was raining really hard.
That year we’d been moving around and planting across the state of Georgia. One time, going from somewhere to somewhere else, I drove through the farming town of Plains, made famous by the recently retired-from-office Peanut-Farmer-President Jimmy Carter. I stopped in at the Main Street antique store owned by Jimmy’s cousin, Hugh Carter. They had an unmistakable family resemblance to one another. Hugh was a congenial and unpretentious fellow, seemingly cut from the same cloth as the former President.
Not long after, somewhere deep in rural Georgia, we were about to finish up planting in one paper company district. Then we were to transfer a fair distance away away to start planting in another district. Dave Timby, our crew boss, assigned four of us to leave the main crew and to go over to another site which needed just six or eight thousand trees planted as a special favor to the local forester. One of our group cleaned out his rig enough so that the other three of us, plus the trees and our hoedads and planting bags would all fit in.
We got an early start at daybreak. We didn’t have trouble finding the site, and we commenced to planting trees. It was an overcast day but dry. By midmorning when we finished planting, the morning had warmed up to the low 40s. The planting was good, we had all worked hard, and despite the cool air we were all drenched in sweat by the time we got done.
After tumbling back into the rig we headed back to join up with the crew. Soon we came to an iconic dusty general store with a single gas pump out front. Needing to gas up, our driver pulled up to the pump while the rest of us went inside to find something to eat. Along the entire apex of the roof was a simple, large white sign with black lettering – visible from quite a distance – which announced that the modest establishment we were soon to enter into was none other than “Mrs. T.S. Turnipseed General Merchandise.”
Inside, an ancient wood stove was roaring and kept things warm and cozy. We were greeted by a spry and uninhibited mistress proprietor we were soon to conclude was the Mrs. Turnipseed. Her husband smiled weakly and out of habit it seemed, positioned himself out of the limelight. He appeared content to quietly play second fiddle and let Mrs. Turnipseed hold court. The sparseness of goods on the shelves, the dust adorning the cans and the utter lack of any traffic hinted that this old store’s best years may have been in the rear view mirror.
Back home in the State of Maine, someone would earn instantaneous, universal respect by just working hard. Evidently, the same set of values still flourished in rural Georgia. Despite, our haggard and disheveled appearances, our still obviously sweat-drenched shirts on that cold gray day gave away the secret that we were in fact hard working men and not dandies. With Southern charm and her deep Georgia accent, Mrs. Turnipseed enthusiastically interrogated us about our work and how in the world we happened to be in her little town. In no time the camaraderie took on the air of a family reunion.
The faucet had opened and Mrs. Turnipseed regaled us with story after story and editorial content about a wayward country headed in the wrong direction. Meanwhile as we were rounding up our drinks and donuts to purchase, Mr. Turnipseed was busy behind the counter feverishly writing something on the pages inside a small receipt book. Despite having spent barely ten dollars on gas and food, with a mischievous slight grin he presented each one of us with individualized, vague receipts each totaling around $35 for such imaginary purchases as motor oil, wrenches and widgets. He knew IRS code requires documentation of deductible business expenses and he was well-versed in what goods would pass muster.
Soon, the god-fearing Mrs.Turnipseed transitioned her tales to the inevitable Georgia topic, that of home boy Jimmy Carter. She deeply and unapologetically believed in Jimmy to her core. She testified she knew in her heart that Jimmy was a rock solid, honest, church-going Christian. As she was winding down, she related her final story. Soon after the 1980 election in which Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, Mrs. Turnipseed found herself engaged in conversation with a local woman who had proudly cast her vote for Mr. Reagan.
The hapless woman opined, “Ya know, the only ones that voted for Jimmy Carter was N*****s and white trash.”
Never a shrinking violet and not one to miss a golden opportunity, Mrs. Turnipseed triumphantly related that she then extended forth her right hand and looking the woman straight in the eye said in earnest reply, “Well, Darlin’, come on over and shake this old white trash hand of mine!”