Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tobacco Roads

I spent last weekend cycling through tobacco country during the peak of this year's harvest, marveling yet again at the beauty of the world's deadliest plant.

If you've never lived in a tobacco state, it's hard to appreciate the stranglehold that the killer weed has on our history and our collective psyche. Here on Tobacco Row, we've grown up with the plant, season after season, watched the field hands pull the suckers and stoop down for the lower leaves. We've smoked boxed Marlboros -- it's hard to live around that much product without becoming a user -- and we've dipped snuff. We've smoked after the morning coffee, after the fifth beer of the evening and after awkward teenage moments in the back seat of a beat-up Ford.  We've stained our walls our lungs our lives with tar,  burned holes in the carpet and the car seat and gone back for another carton.

At one time, entire downtowns in North Carolina boomed on the seasonal sale and storage of tobacco and the manufacture of cigarettes. Popular brands were named after our cities. Downtown Durham has Brightleaf Square and a freshly repainted Lucky Strike water tower. Both are constant reminders that tobacco built the town. Times have changed. Today, the old warehouses and cigarette plants have been repurposed into shopping areas and condos.

Health officials and lawmakers  began to kick smoking to the curb in the late 1960s, and today that's where you'll find most of the users, clustered in small huddles outside bars and restaurants and the front door of smoke-free workplaces. The saying is true -- old habits die hard, and people keep on smoking, ignoring the hard realities of cancer and emphysema and wrinkled skin and stained  teeth. You can't kill smokers with regulations. Leave that hit job to the cigarettes, which will eventually plant a large part of their local audience in the hard-packed clay of the Tar Heel state.

Riding through the countryside this weekend on two permanents, we passed dozens of tobacco fields. It's pretty clear that the demand for the cash crop is as strong as ever, and the farmers of eastern North Carolina and southern Virginia are happy to oblige. The plants are still green in southern Virginia but down east, in rural North Carolina, the leaves are nearing maturity, turning yellow-brown in the baking sun. We saw carts loaded with freshly picked tobacco, ready to be put up in the "barns," which today are small metal buildings fired by gas. The metal buildings are not as picturesque as the traditional wooden curing barns, but they get the job done, and the sweet spice of roasting tobacco that vents into the humid air is still intoxicating.

As a high school student in rural southern Virginia, I took a summer job at the Tastee Freeze, dispensing burgers, fries and soft serve. My toughest assignment that summer was trying, with no great luck, to talk the slacks off a charming co-worker from William & Mary. Both my brothers did real work, laboring and broiling in the tobacco fields. They came home each afternoon dog-tired with the thick, sticky tar of tobacco leaves coating their shirts. I guess that's the stuff that tars your lungs, too. Back then, the fortunes of many families were linked to tobacco or one of two local textile mills owned by Burlington Industries. The textile mills are long gone, tobacco lives on.

Come September, we saw the trucks and wagons, heavy with freshly cured leaf, rumble into the auction market at Planters Warehouse on Clarksville's main drag. We saw the piles of leaf on the floor, heard the auctioneer as he walked the line putting price to product, watched the farmers, flush from the sale, step into the ABC store. I had my own connection to the fields after the crop was put up in the barn. I discovered that the dormant tobacco rows made the perfect hunting grounds for arrowheads, especially after one or two soaking rains.  I spent many a fall day scouring the fallow fields for flint and quartz stone gems. I have a shoebox full of them and occasionally I take them out. Flakes of red clay still cling to spear points I found more than three decades ago.

Tobacco is every bit as addictive as opium and many times more deadly, annually killing more than 400,000 U.S. citizens. If nicotine were treated like any other drug, the government would send in the troops, burn the fields, spray toxins from helicopters and render the crop unusable. But it's not treated like any other drug. Tobacco is a government sponsored assassin; in the past 15 years, tobacco subsidies have totaled close to $1 billion, including $203 million in 2009.  And so, for the next few weekends, we'll ride the perfect cycling roads of southern Virginia and eastern North Carolina, enjoying the day and marveling at field after field of the world's deadliest plant.


skiffrun said...

Looks like prose, reads like poetry.

Well done, Mike.

Jerry Phelps said...


You summed up my feeling for the killer weed perfectly. As a child, I used to love the smell of the whole of downtown Durham in the fall when the tobacco was in the warehouses and the sickly sweet aroma was heavy in the air. But since then I have developed a love-hate relationship with the only legal product that when used as it is intended, kills millions per year worldwide.

Two of my grandparents worked in the cigarette industry, so one might say I owe my existence to tobacco. My dad's father, Thomas R. Phelps (born in Grassy Creek on your Lake Loop), worked for Golden Belt and my mom's mother, Lucille Jones Ingram, worked there as well. "Daddy Tom" was disciplined enough to know, even in the 1940s, that tobacco would kill hIm if he continued to smoke. So he quit cold turkey one morning as he was smoking his morning cigarette with a cup of coffee.

I spent one day working in my Uncle Ed's small field, "topping" tobacco, and learned that I was so sensitive to nicotine, that just brushing the leaves for 15-20 minutes got me so high and dizzy that I had to lay down amongst the rows. Although I tried it like everyone, I was never able to smoke an entire cigarette--the high was too intense for me.

My other grandfather, James Vernon Ingram, could not or didn't care to quit. He developed emphysema, but actually died from Alzheimer's Disease.
Strangely enough, epidemiologic research has shown that smoking has some protective effects for Alzheimer's. My dad, Gerald Phelps and his brother James T. Phelps died of emphysema and cardiovascular disease respectively brought on by smoking. They both struggled with the addictive qualities of tobacco from the time they were teenagers. Both quit several times as young men, but eventually heeded the call of the mistress they couldn't quite shake. Both died too young--and both knew that their addictions were shortening their lives. How much longer will our government sanction this slow, painful, debilitating way of death?

Cap'n said...

Great post Michelangelo.

Mike D said...

Jerry, a great family history. Thanks for sharing it. -Mike