That year Junior Roman’s cotton was the best ever seen in that part of North Alabama. His twenty acres looked like a December snowfall in Wyoming. Had the bolls suddenly turned loose and dropped the cotton to the ground, it would have been knee deep. When a half bale to the acre was the rule for most farms, people drove for miles to gawk at Junior’s crop.
I had been looking for just such an opportunity. My pride as a farm boy was at stake, and here was the chance to redeem it.
It all stemmed from our high school classes in vocational agriculture. When we were not discussing the sex life of Herefords and Durocs and vicariously of sixteen-year-old males, we turned the class into a primitive macho testing ground where every one sought a territory over which he was the champion.
Lynn Pope could recite the seed varieties of every truck crop known to man. His father running the local farmers’ cooperative did not hurt. Billy Martin was acknowledged as the authority on beef cattle. Doyle McCullar knew more about fishing and the Brooklyn Dodgers than anyone we knew. Doyce Bailey specialized in lumber, Sonny Musgrove in corn, and J. L. Rice in carpentry and guitars. You get the idea. I envied none of them. What I did care about was picking cotton.
Not that the act itself was of any particular enjoyment. Cotton picking was hard work designed to give back-aches and poverty to anyone taking it seriously. However, all the other areas of expertise required years of experience to master. One could rule as the champion cotton picker by one day’s concentrated effort.
“I can pick 250 pounds any day of the week.” Doodle Howell was the speaker. At that, twelve boys came alive, claiming variously that he was a liar, that I picked that much once but only once and it took fourteen hours, and that Doodle also took credit for growing the biggest watermelon in Northwest Alabama, too, but he ate it before anyone else saw it.
Each teenage claimant to the unofficial cotton-picking championship produced numbers such as 230, 285, and 290. I kept quiet, recalling that 175 was the best I had ever done and my daily average was more like 145. Just to lay on the class a respectable number like 225 was my goal. That’s why I hurried down to Junior Roman’s as soon as word came that he was hiring. And that’s why I began picking at noon.
This was my first time to use a storebought picksack: six feet long, with tarcoated bottom, weighing ten pounds empty. The warm afternoon was perfect for working in the fields. The lush cotton almost fell from the bolls into my hands which were feverishly working their pendulum swings–plant to sack, plant to sack.
By the sundown weigh-in, I had picked 140 pounds, my best afternoon ever. The fever had struck by now and I stayed after everyone else left, picking until the dark made it impossible. I ended the day at 165.
The next morning, I arrived in the field soon after sunrise. When the noon bell sounded, I weighed in at 150 pounds. In one afternoon and the next morning, I had gathered 315 pounds of cotton. Having done what I had come to do, I turned in my sack and walked home, eager to tell the world what I had accomplished.
Back in school, I did what any self-respecting teenage boy would have done: I told my friends that I had picked 315 pounds of cotton in one day, omitting the details about it being one afternoon and the next morning. Several were impressed, while others quickly brought up areas of their own expertise that could not be challenged or bested at the moment.
This was the end of my cotton picking. It was fun to do and more fun to talk about. The fact that Junior never did pay any of us the three dollars per hundred we were promised did not detract from the achievements of that day.
Adolescence is the time in a person’s life when he tries to find his area, that field where she can stake out her own claim to fame. He studies what others are doing, particularly his brothers and sisters, gives special attention to what his father and grandfather did before him, and tries on various personae.
If the youth is being raised in a secure environment–an affirming home, an adventuresome school–he will try his hand at many arts and crafts, sports and sciences, until one clicks. Parents should not be surprised if he cuts a path no one else in the family has ever trod, if she revels in her individuality.
While insecure teenagers try to establish their identity by dressing alike and parroting the code of their peers, the secure adolescent requires little of that. He happily devotes himself to an afternoon in the lab or the library or gym or garden. She is perfectly content and totally challenged by her writing, piano, crafts, or experiments.
David’s parents thought him strange. While his big brothers competed in games and practiced warfare, he preferred walking the hills alone, strumming his instrument and making up songs. The older ones thought shepherding a job for kids or the lazy, and complained whenever it was their turn, but David was quick to volunteer. He enjoyed the sheep, but what he really savored was the solitude which gave him time to think and sing and pray.
You know the rest of the story. David wrote half the songs in the Psalter, hymns which we sing to this day, three thousand years later. My favorite and probably yours too is the one that begins, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
It turned out–no doubt to David’s surprise–that the endless hours spent with the sheep prepared him for shepherding the people of God, which he did for forty years, so well in fact that to this day he occupies first place in the annals of good kings for God’s people.
Is there an area where you shine? Give it to the Father and see where you and He can go with it. You may be surprised.