William EvansComment

Almost Woodstock

William EvansComment

I almost made it to Woodstock. That summer, I worked on the Parker’s farm in the Carolina piedmont. Home from college and nobody was hiring–Sumter wasn’t a thriving place for employment unless you worked in the local dress factory (my sister worked there) or applied at the turkey slaughterhouse that was always hiring. A friend described how he’d grab the live turkeys by their legs to hang upside down on the ‘processing’ line. It was physically hard and emotionally disturbing.

The Parkers were friends of my mother–and their daughter, a willowy brunette, was a high school friend of my sister–my mother probably reached out, and I went to work on the farm that summer. I’m sure old man Parker took me on as a favor to my mother. No other reason he’d need a scrawny long haired white boy (we’re talking real, couldn’t get a tan white boy) for the summer, so I tried being as polite as I could, and did whatever was asked of me.

The Parkers grew a variety of crops on a scattered number of separate fields, several of which were only reached by county roads. The kind of farm that’s been under siege from the mega-operations for decades. Their main farm vehicle (aside from the tractors and sprayers) was a long-in-the-tooth Ford Galaxy with worn seats, a distinct been-there smell, sagging shocks and no AC. In 1969, Ford was still into building behemoth sedans you could fit in the entire family plus grandma and the pet llamas. This particular Ford Galaxy may have been the family vehicle at one time, but it had seen better days. It sufficed for getting around on the dirt farm lanes, and you didn’t have to worry about scratching the paint on passing vegetation.

To my surprise, they assigned me a tractor with an attached cultivator. The crops were already coming up by the time I started on the farm, so I missed out on the early harrowing, turning the soil over generally before planting. Unlike a harrow, cultivators run between the rows to claw out the weeds. You raked four or so soybean rows at a time, reached the end of the rows, raised the ungainly cultivator, pivoted the tractor, dropped the cultivator again and proceeded back the way you came, taking five or so minutes per pass. With small front wheels, you could pivot the tractor on a dime. You could also brake the big rear wheels separately. It had two brakes. Apply one brake and it stopped one wheel while the other kept turning, for an even tighter turning radius–very cool.

A classmate, Frank Matthews [1] bragged that he’d found a job driving a harvester out in Kansas and said you climbed up into the combine in the morning, drove all day in one direction, stopping only for lunch, then got off and went home, never reaching the end of the row. The Parker’s, being an East Coast farm, didn’t have nearly those size fields. But it had tobacco, corn, soybeans, possibly a few other crops. And a small herd of beef cattle.

Although not a huge machine, you had to pay attention to how you steered your tractor. The rear wheels had traction in spades, [2] and if you took too sharp a turn, the small front wheels would be yanked sideways, and the beast just pushed straight ahead in the sand. You also learned not to gun the tractor, so it reared up like a horse. It’s a fact that you can flip a tractor. “Look ma, no roll bar!”

Mr. Parker’s son, Mack was my immediate supervisor–more like my cohort in crime. Mack was a friendly, good looking boy the women seemed to go for, maybe a year or two older and we got along thick as thieves (though I don’t know why thieves got thick in the first place). Aside from sweating in the ungodly heat, it wasn’t a bad gig for the summer and to work on a fast-to-fade tan. Getting caught in an afternoon shower was always a godsend.

I was invited to eat lunch with the Parkers–awkwardly struck by their generosity. I wasn’t expecting that, but it seemed they did–a generosity southerners are known for. The black farmhands ate separately, not surprising in those days. In the rural South, it was just the way things were. For two kindred cultures who’d worked and lived beside each other for centuries, the white customs were like the kind of insensitive scar tissue not well disguising a deep wound’s origin.

As a friend still living in Carolina said recently, the old south is changing–even in Carolina..

I don’t know what other farmers ate for lunch, but these folks put on a spread. I think I gained weight that year. Southern fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, biscuits, green beans and as much sweet tea as you could drink. Just walking into the kitchen made you hungry. Mrs. Parker ran the kitchen and she was a chief of the first order.

Biggest memory from those lunches was the one noontime standing in my denim jeans and work shirt, gathered with the Parkers in their family room to watch the TV as Neil Armstrong took those first steps on the moon. July 20, 1969 I was working on a farm while Neil and Buzz walked on the moon. It was hard to miss the contrast; I was no more a farmer than… but the Parkers were the real ones and they accepted me, we all saw the event as an important step into the future.

Occasionally I drove the sprayer over the tobacco fields. Tobacco was a crop that required heavy poisons and fertilizers. Tobacco is notoriously hard on the soil, and nicotine is the least evil chemical that can kill you from smoking. The sprayer was eight or so feet tall; you climbed a ladder to reach the seat of that bad boy. You had to lean out sideways to spot the front wheels. The sprayer carried 500 gallon tanks on both sides into which were poured 5 gallons of the nastiest poison–that Mack and I handled with rubber gloves.

Mack was careful and cautioned I be the same. He said he’d been banned from handling the stuff because one time the man atop the sprayer had mishandled the poison and dumped the entire syrupy contents over Mack’s head. The thing about kepone poison was skin contact was sufficient to absorb it, and it stayed in your system. No biodegrading that stuff. In the late 70s the Feds finally banned it.

We loaded the chemical, unloaded it, barreled it up, tested it… We didn’t have gloves [or masks], and it was just all over you when you breathed,” recalls Dykes, now 57 and living in Tennessee. Allied Chemical Co. produced Kepone from 1966 until 1974, when it contracted Life Sciences to exclusively produce Kepone.

Richmond Magazine by Richard Foster July 8, 2005

It may not have been villainy in the first place, but cupidity, aye, lots of that. 

Virginia Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr (R) closed the James River for fishing, crabbing and oystering in 1975 due to the river’s kepone contamination. It’s still there 44 years later, only it’s now buried deeper in the sediment.

When did you say we’ll get there?

When did you say we’ll get there?

Better living through chemistry became a hippy catch phrase, imitating Dupont’s marketing campaigns. Hippies beat the deconstructionists to the punch on irony.

Mack said he spent time in intensive care from that earlier episode. And was advised never to handle it again, which he chose to ignore. Mack’s father had retired as a bench chemist with bad health and took up farming with a chemist’s knowledge so he was up on all the latest ones. So here I was, naïve college student, handing open 5-gallon poison containers up to Mack standing on the tanks to fill ‘er up. The stuff had this sickly sweet smell and the consistency of bad molasses.

Driving a poison sprayer, you needed to pay attention to the wind’s direction. Didn’t want it blowing back on you, even in a one percent solution. If I ever had a desire to take up smoking cigarettes, that summer took care of the urge.

My other poison story is about the rainy day we cleaned out the storage shed of old powder poisons, lifting and placing the rotten bags in a wheelbarrow to haul away. I think we wore paper face masks, but I don’t remember. After moving a couple hours’ worth of poisons, we finally reached the back corner to find a rat’s nest, nicely chewed out of a bag’s corner; they ate the stuff! Momentarily I expected a chemically induced monster rat to attack us. I should send Stephen King an outline of the story.

Who says farming isn’t an ironic business?

Should Mr. Parker have known better? He probably understood the consequences, but he wasn’t the only farmer using these poisons; the entire industry was. Dupont was making them, Allied Chemicals, Union Carbide… They used to fog the entire town with DDT against mosquitoes. Looking back, I now know the risk I was taking, and it’s not over. But when you’re young, death lies worlds away.

On arrival one morning Mack informed me there was a problem. Seems a cow had died overnight. The barn sat back behind the house. But this one had died in the stream a couple miles away that ran through the property; it was the principal water supply for the herd. Couldn’t allow fifteen hundred pounds of meat to decay in the water.

Mack had an experiment he wanted to try. Ever faithful, I helped load the Ford Galaxy with old tires and drove to the site of the tragedy (well it was for the cow) where we proceeded to lay the tires across the deceased in a pile, kinda like building a Buddhist funeral pyre. Mack poured gasoline on the tires, threw a match and scrambled back.

Tires burn well–if you didn’t know it. They burn hot, even as they produce foul black smoke. But either we didn’t have enough tires, or they burned too quickly. The fire didn’t consume the cow. In the end, I think they had to bring in a backhoe, load the carcass and bury it. Fortunately I wasn’t involved in that operation.

“Well, at least we got rid of the tires,” was Mack’s comment.

Standing in the middle of a clot of cows was interesting. They’d stare at you with those large, round eyes, never blinking, with soft expressions suggesting they were innocents deserving protection. Docile didn’t quite cover it. Of course they were docile–they were bred that way. It was sad to think we used such gentle creatures for purposes wholly unsuited for good life and longevity. I’ve had a long-time bone to pick with the Bible’s claim of people having dominion over the other creatures, like we’ve done such a great job with that.

“Help! Save me, please!”

“Help! Save me, please!”

Stories about the upcoming music festival at Woodstock were making the rounds, even in the backwaters of South Carolina. I stayed current reading Rolling Stone. Everyone in my small circle of long haired friends (aka freaks) had heard of the musical festival. Mack and I were seriously considering going.

Woodstock, in upper state New York is just shy of 800 miles from mid-Carolina, roughly 12 hours by car. Might have well taken longer by old Ford Galaxy, depending on breakdowns. Two to three days round trip on the road. But the festival lineup sounded solid and we both were into rock and roll. I don’t recall why there wasn’t another car available, but it all depended on that old Ford Galaxy.

Mack and I never sent away for tickets, which was a good thing, since we never made it. The old farm car just didn’t have it in her. I think the brakes finally went. So we sat in Mack’s bedroom smoking some stale pot and he told me a story about another Carolina boy he knew who planted a field of marijuana mixed with corn. It was a dry summer, and the corn was stunted, but the pot flourished, and the boy was busted. Object lesson to be sure.

When the fire bird landed on the man’s brow, all ran away.

When the fire bird landed on the man’s brow, all ran away.

Fall of ’70 was my junior year at Clemson. I graduated in ‘71 and moved down to Atlanta to look for work. The country was changing, not always for the good. Visiting Atlanta on the strip where the hippies hung out, there was a gauntness in their expressions I hadn’t seen before. On my way from an interview at TVA where I landed a job, I was stopped crossing the street near Peachtree Center by a Hare Krishna girl–someone I knew from Clemson. We’d had a one night fling. We stood in the heat talking, me sweating in a business suit and she in flowing robes holding a tambourine. She said she was told she was soon to marry a man she didn’t know and was shortly leaving to join him. That was the last time I saw her. Hate the organization, not the hippie girl.

The summer of ’73 was the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen (same as the racetrack), with The Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead and The Band. [3] That one I did get to see–along with 600,000 of my closest friends. Duane was dead, but the rest of the band played on. We arrived late in the day due to the traffic jam, slept that night on someone’s lawn and in the morning hiked the last ten or so miles. Except for the cold and the rain, a good time was had by all. I think.


In rough chronological order, the other happenings in 1969 were: Richard Nixon’s 2nd Inaugural; Sirhan Sirhan pled to killing Robert Kennedy; James Earl Ray was convicted of Martin Luther King’s murder; the U.S. covert bombing of Cambodia began; students occupied the Harvard Administration Building; British troops arrived in Northern Ireland; Yale’s art and architecture building was gutted in a fire (student arson suspected); the Cuyahoga River caught on fire; the Stonewall riots marked the beginning of the gay rights movement; Hurricane Camille, history’s most powerful hurricane at landfall, hit Mississippi, killing 248 people; hundreds of thousands across the country (author included) took part in Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam; the Beatles’ Abbey Road was released; The first ‘email’ message was sent over ARPANET; in Vietnam, the My Lai Massacre occurred; first draft lottery in the United States since World War II was held (I got lucky with a high number); Black Panther members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were shot dead in their sleep during a raid by 14 Chicago police officers; Rolling Stones’ album Let It Bleed was released.

1969 was a busy year. And I was fairly certain the world had gone mad. My own modest contributions to the insanity were angst-ridden poems and a series of fantasy cartoon sketches while listening to the Derrick and the Dominoes album.

[1] Frank was one of the six African Americans to first integrate Edmunds High School in Sumter. The nearby Clarendon County school system had been part of the consolidated Brown v. The Board of Education lawsuit. Frank was a self-possessed young man with a ready smile who seemed at ease under what must have been a tough situation. He took the school to the state championship in track his senior year. It was many years later that I learned he’d gotten a law degree and went on to become Dean at the George Mason University Law School.

[2] Tractor, from the Latin trahĕre, tract-um meaning to draw–same Latin root word for traction. Let that be a lesson in physics.

[3] “Many historians claimed that the Watkins Glen event was the largest gathering of people in the history of the United States. In essence, that meant that on July 28, one out of every 350 people living in America at the time was listening to the sounds of rock at the New York state racetrack. Considering that most of those who attended the event hailed from the Northeast, and that the average age of those present was approximately seventeen to twenty-four, close to one out of every three young people from Boston to New York was at the festival.” from "Aquarius Rising" by Robert Santelli