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Summers Of Learning In The Tobacco Fields

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Summers Of Learning In The Tobacco Fields

Summers Of Learning In The Tobacco Fields

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Time now for StoryCorps, the project that's recording everyday Americans talking about their lives. Today, one man's memories of a summer job.

Mark Sullivan grew up in Connecticut during the late 1950s. It was a time when the state produced huge amounts of shade leaf tobacco. The crop was used to make cigar wrappers, and this was the season when local teenagers went to the fields.

MARK SULLIVAN: The town I grew up in, everybody had a stretch, from 14 to whenever, you know, you worked on tobacco. It was where all your friends were in the summer. If you weren't working on tobacco, you had nothing to do, really. You know, you'd finish school, and you went to work on the farm.

SULLIVAN: All right, you kids, he says, all I want to see is asses and elbows going up those rows.

You know, it was a filthy job because tobacco has tar in it, so you'd get it all over your hands, and by the end of the day, your hands would be black.

I can remember coming home and my mother making me get undressed on the back porch because you'd be filthy dirty, but you know, you kind of grew up, and you learned how to work, and I think for a lot of kids it was, you know, it's not something I want to do my whole life. I mean, I'm not denigrating anybody who made a life out of it.

I can remember working with some women hoeing tobacco who were in their 70s and had done it their whole life, and they didn't wear pants. They always wore a dress, and they would dress relatively nicely to come work in a tobacco field.

They would go like lightning, and they never got tired, and we were kids, and we wore gloves because we'd get blisters on our hands, and they'd just look at you like what kind of sissy wears gloves?

One of the field bosses was an older gentleman with a very heavy Polish accent, and I can remember his name, Stanley Gumbek(ph), a hard-working man, good man. He always called them the God-damned college boys, and he said to us one day, you God-damn college boys, you're lucky. You're smart. You'll get an education. I never had that chance.

SULLIVAN: God, I wish I could get the kids one summer on tobacco. You know, I probably learned more there than you learn in high school.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Mark Sullivan at StoryCorps in Hartford, Connecticut. His interview will be archived, along with all StoryCorps interviews, at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress, and you can subscribe to the Podcast at NPR.org.

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