Sunshine shot through the rifts in the old tobacco barn in Salem, displaying millions of particles hustling around like minnows in a pond. Layers of deep green leaves linger overhead, perfectly placed until reaching their prime. A single delicate burley leaf escapes as if an elephant's ear could wilt and drop to the earth. Fallen plants blanket the ground but not for long.
"Chris, bring me an arm full of those leaves over there in the corner," my uncle belted out, urging me to be careful with them. Gathering as many as I could handle in one trip, I dropped them off at his feet and went back for more until he was satisfied. Uncle Neb patiently tied the stragglers together with his collection of rubber bands. Once we finished the chore, he offered to teach me a trick. I watched as he worked his magic.
Uncle Neb carefully placed one rubber band around his index and middle fingers. He then balled up his leather hand and invited me to watch closely. Like a true showman, he said, "Abra Kadabra," and quickly opened his fist. Somehow the band instantly traveled to his ring and pinky fingers. First, I was astonished and then honored when he showed me the secret and advised me to keep the mystery between the two of us. "Let's go have some lunch," he said eagerly.
The short ride gave me time to think while I sat next to my uncle in his old truck. Anyone who's ever spent time doing this sort of work will tell you it isn't easy. Earlier, a constant stream of sweat dripped from my nose as I lifted the enormous stalks to drive a spike through each one onto a wooden stick. "Boy, make sure you don't run that into your hand. I doubt Aunt Faith would be happy," was the sound advice from my cousin Billy and I wholeheartedly agreed.
Uncle Neb would visit the house a lot to see my mom, his sister. They loved playing rummy, and both were great at complaining whenever they'd lose. The tales they'd tell of their youth were fun to listen to during the heated matches. By the end of the game, I knew exactly how far a nickel would get you when they were kids. I recall thinking about how much the world had changed by the time the torch passed to my generation.
On occasion, his truck would pull up at MCHS to give my buddy Jeff and me a ride home after football practice. We'd pile up in the truck bed instead of squeezing into the front seat. The wind was a welcome relief after running several hills during training. We both launched grapes straight up into the air to watch them splatter on the blacktop during our ride. Sometimes my uncle had a watermelon or two in the back that may have disappeared before the final stop. Those ended up in our stomachs, not on the road.
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Often I'd catch a glimpse of Uncle Neb sitting atop the tractor with a close eye on everyone working the field. I rarely saw him in anything aside from those denim bib overalls and trucker cap. He never once told me what he was thinking during those long hours in the heat, but I knew. Not long ago, he could have worked circles around any one of his sons or me. Growing old must be difficult, but it happens to everyone if we're lucky enough. He would have instantly traded his seat for a hatchet to swing away at those stalks if he was capable.
If I had to pick out one thing I enjoyed about working in tobacco, it would have to be the food ladies like my mother and cousins Donna and Terry prepared for us. It was a well-deserved feast in the middle of a busy day prepared with love. Each of us devoured as much as we could handle, and it was a lot. It made me feel like a king to sit around with my cousins and eat while listening to their stories like we were Vikings returning from a quest.
The meal would have been incomplete without my cousin Charlie picking on me. We'd often wrestle in the dirt before the day came to a close, and typically I was on the losing end. He started with a headlock that I managed to wiggle from before turning the tables and throwing my older cousin to the ground.
"Don't hurt him, Charlie," recommended Uncle Neb.
Charlie responded with, "Don't hurt him!?"
"Get 'em, boy," was all of the encouragement I needed from cousin Butch to pin down Charlie finally. I'm sure he let me win that one, but he never let on because that's what family does. Mom always said Charlie looked like Burt Reynolds, but to me, he was a bigger star. I'd never tell him that, but it's true. My uncle gave me a broad smile and told me Charle probably wouldn't be picking on me again.
My attention was fixated on the rearview mirror as we rode back to the field, and I secretly stared at my Uncle Neb's face. He drove slow anyway but took extra precautions on the rocky river bottom roads. His sun-dried complexion explained the story of a veteran, a farmer, a family man, and a mentor. Each wrinkle was forged from a lifetime of tears and laughter. Those bumpy rides were always too quick, and its misfortunate life has to be the same way.