(credit: Darryl Worley)
PART ONE: THE EARLY YEARS
I have concluded my life embodies such a lyric. Que the lights as I itemize:
- In kindergarten, I learned to program in BASIC. Yes. At age 5. My nerdiness has deep roots. We used APPLE computers to make a "turtle" (i.e., a pixel on the screen) draw lines of various lengths.
- At age 7, my parents decided to try growing cucumbers, you know, to earn a little extra cash. (What? Your parents never had such an idea? Well they should have!) So for several weeks that summer, I woke before dawn and picked for a few hours each morning. It was not fun, let me say. Total summer income (for me): ~ $100. That was a big haul for an seven-year-old (FYI: $100 in 1987 is worth $176 in 2005, according to the Oregon State University Consumer Price Index converter.)
- At age 11, I - along with my brothers Mike & Charles and cousins Rebecca Ruth, Mary Beth, & Tim - wrote and starred in the inaugural Barrett Family Play. We had at least 8 Acts, and the storyline went something like this: King Brad and Queen Rebecca lived quite a posh life, with LEGO jewels and constant grape-eating. However, they neglected their fiefdom, and one day Royal Messenger Mike rushed in to announce that the peasants were revolting. Prince Charles and Princess Mary Beth were aghast at such an event; Princess MB even wondered if the kingdom would be crushed! But, everyone still managed to find time to eat their grapes and wear their fasionable jewels, and they tried to ignore the growing peril. At the play's climax, Peasant Tim overcame the palace guard and stabbed King Brad with his sword. While suffering an agonizing death, King Brad was attacked by Angel, a local dog. The play ended after Prince Charles slew Peasant Tim. Prince Charles became King, and ruled the ruined kingdom with Queen Rebecca and Princess Mary Beth. (FYI: this play had only one performance, but it is forever archived in the film section of the Barrett Family collection.)
- Also at age 11, I "graduated" into the Brown (mom's) family tradition: tobacco farming. My first summer I "topped & suckered" at half pay (YES, I KNOW, CAN YOU BELIEVE I WAS EAGER FOR SUCH LOUSY WORK AT ONLY *HALF PAY*?!!) We started at 6 a.m. and worked until 11 a.m. Our principal, and only, job while walking up and down the rows of tobacco plants, was to break the flowers off the top of the 6'-tall stalk ("topping") and remove new shoots of growth from between the main stalk and the big leaves ("suckering").
- At age 12, in the summer before eighth grade, I advanced up the tobacco farming ladder -- to "putting in" at "the shelter". That involved standing between the tobacco truck and the turn-table, "throwing" (that was my title, a "thrower") the leaves onto the turntable, all day long. We started each day at 7 a.m. and usually ended by 4 p.m. (although some days went longer, esp. if we had grass/weeds to pick out of the tobacco leaves before throwing them). I worked as a thrower for at least 3 summers, then moved to be a Racker ("rack" up the tobacco that the throwers throw onto the turntable, and then hang it in the barn using the pulley) and finally a trucker. Truckers generally had it the easiest, but they had the most responsibility - usually hauling over $10,000 worth of crop each day from the field to the shelter. The field crew usually consisted of the primer driver - almost always my Uncle Bill - and a "seat boy" - a position held by Mike & Charles for at least 5 years, and Henry before them. It took me several years to realize that a "seat boy" was something invented by my frugal (penny-pinching?) uncles to make sure any leaves dropped by the machine were picked back up. The shelter crew consisted of 6: the crew leader (almost always Uncle John or Uncle Greg), a racker, three throwers, and a trucker.
From age 11 to age 21 (that's 12 summers!), I worked on that family tobacco farm. Some of my fellow companions:
Eva, Acho, Nip, & Pop Staton
Aunt (pronounced "Aint") Jonnie (Eva's sister)
David (? Henry's friend, part Asian, his mom drove him to work every day and even gave Uncle John a ham for Christmas as a present for "letting" her son work!)
Julie (? Another of Henry's friends)
Robbie (? I think he's now married to bridget buck from calico?)
David (Ag. extension agent's boy)
Trey Briley (3-leaves Trey! Haha!)
- At age 13, my future alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill, won the NCAA men's basketball championship. My friend Marcus Carden came over to watch it with me the family, and during the game we ate Easter-colored M&Ms -- but not the light blue ones. Those we set aside for a victory celebration. When Carolina won, we threw them up in the air. We were finding random blue m&ms for weeks!
- Also at age 13, Charles and I came home from school one afternoon to find that our rat terrier, CoCo, had cornered a rather large black snake in the deck. Summoning the courage, I swooped in, saved CoCo (who had done a decent job of not getting bitten), and stepped on the snake's head. After my foot settled onto the snake, though, I realized I was in a quandry: what to do next? I reasoned that when I lifted my foot, the snake would bite me. I couldnt stay there forever, and I didn't want to kill the snake. So we waited a few minutes, and I decided I would make my move. Simultaneously balancing on one foot (having pulled my socks up as high as they would go!), I reached with my right hand for the snake's head and with my left hand for its body. Jump, shift, reach, grab. Heart pounding. Mission accomplished. We kept that snake for over a year, feeding it mice from the pet store and taking it out back for exercise in the grass. (Snakes need their exercise, too, otherwise they get fat and lazy.) I guess we got tired of the responsibility (can't remember the real reason), so one day we took the snake deep into the woods behind the house and let it go. Mom finally got her wish of being rid of it ... I can't believe she let us keep the snake IN the house, but she did. Not coincidentally, our next pets were 2 beagle dogs.
- At age 14, both of my grandparents on my mom's side, MeMa and Big Buck, died. Grandma had developed leukemia several years earlier and finally lost the struggle in early February. Granddaddy had a heart attack in early July and died two weeks later when taken off life support. That was a tough year, although I still look back with fond memories how all the family (over 50 extended family members lived within 10 miles of my grandparents) rallied around each other. My grandparents were quintessential southern farmers: they welcomed any and all into their home with great hospitality (even hosting a distant niece for a while when she had family troubles ... Sylvia now lives in New Hampshire with her husband Judd), and though they lived a frugal life to the end, they died wealthy as their once-rural farm lands became prime spots for suburban development.
- Also at age 14 I was introduced to the wonderful country and culture that is Brasil. I was befriended by a foreign exchange student from Natal: Carolina Trindade. She and I even shared a table in Mrs. Evans' freshman biology class (meaning we were lab partners). This fascination with Brasil carried into my college years, where I took Portuguese for 3 semesters. I have tried recently to reconnect with Carolina, but she has not (yet) answered my emails. Perhaps one day I'll visit.
**END OF PART ONE**