Even though he never hit me, Daddy had “The Look.” And if he gave me “The Look” I straightened up and flew right. I also knew to listen when he talked to me and told me not to do something. Well, maybe I didn’t always listen but my intentions were good.
“Sugar, stay off the tracks, its tobacco season. There’s strangers in town.” He’d put his hands on my shoulders and look me square in the eye.
Dreaded instructions for my summer and a warning from Daddy that put the brakes on all the fun I could have in Hahira. No crossing the railroad tracks while tobacco was being sold at the warehouse. I might as well stay in bed with mumps!
What his warning really meant for me was no more riding my bicycle to Uncle Norvell’s for a coke and a red Tootsie Roll. No more sitting out in front of his store, watching cars go by. No more playing “Tee-Tie-Tee” with him. No more Uncle Norvell. Not until the tobacco men went back to North Carolina.
Strangers were in town and I was not happy.
Starting when school was out for the summer, depending on how the weather was that year, the tobacco harvest would begin. Harvesting was the most physically demanding part of tobacco farming, and since it happened during the hottest part of the year in South Georgia, it was the most miserable part. Many of my friends worked in tobacco during their summer break. The harvest lasted several weeks and then our town would fill up with strangers. Tobacco men, buyers from North Carolina. Their cars with out-of-state license plates were the reason I had to stay off the tracks.
But, there was that one day. You know, the day when your memory puts away what your Daddy told you to do. The day when you question whether he really meant that you couldn’t go see Uncle Norvell. The day you know he’s at work and Mama has the dining room table laid out with fabric and sewing patterns, making a new dress to wear on Sunday.
Maybe Daddy meant I could go see Uncle Norvell, but couldn’t go near the tobacco warehouse where the strange men were. Surely if he knew how thirsty I was and how I longed for a red Tootsie-Roll, he’d agree for me to cross the railroad tracks.
On the day I was questioning what Daddy might have really meant, my friend called and wanted me spend the day with her in town. We lived on the hem of Hahira so having Mama drop me off at her house was a big deal. No Mama making me practice piano for 30 minutes. No Daddy reminding me to stay off the tracks. I was free and my friend had a bicycle! I could ride on the handlebars and she could peddle us all over town.
Except I had to stay off the tracks.
I couldn’t cross the hot-rolled steel that traveled north and south through town. I could only stand on the corner of Webb and Main and look, longingly, towards Uncle Norvell’s store in hopes that he might be sitting outside, see me and come rescue me in his truck.
Then, like a light switch flipped on, I had a bright idea. We took her bicycle, headed down Webb, and passed through some back yards that paralleled the train track. There, behind the city park, was a large concrete drain pipe. We crawled up onto the gravel that lined the steel and surrounded the creosote-treated ties to the edge of the tracks. Together, we lifted her bike over our heads, threw it across the tracks and then crawled through the pipe towards Sargent Street.
I had stayed off the tracks. Just like Daddy had said. We were home-free as I climbed onto her handlebars and she peddled us down Railroad Street towards the warehouse.
The town was overwhelmed with the rich, earthy scent of cured tobacco. Cars and trucks lined the streets. White license plates, with red lettering proudly proclaiming the state of NORTH CAROLINA, were everywhere. Daddy was right, the tobacco men were in town.
My friend parked her bike in the alley behind Uncle Norvell’s store. We pressedour bodies up against the tin that covered the outside of the warehouse and walked with our backs against the warm metal until we reached a huge opening. Then we crawled on our bellies until we could get on our knees and peek into the warehouse.
Golden tobacco leaves were laid out on burlap sheets in perfect order. “Sold to R.J. Reynolds!” shouted the auctioneer. And then he start the bidding again with what sounded like “A big black bee bit a big black bear, a big black bee bit a big black bear.”
“You girls supposed to be here?” I whirled around and there stood Uncle Norvell. He had stepped out of the back side of his store into the alley to look in on the bidding.
“I think Daddy said to stay off the tracks so that’s what we did.”
“You think he did?” He smiled a crooked smile and motioned for us to go through the back door of his store.
This was it. We were caught. I knew he would pick up the phone and call Mama. Instead he went to the cooler and pulled out two glass bottles of Coke, reached inside the Tootsie-Roll jar and pulled out two. Always a red one for me and a purple one for my friend.
“You girls head home and watch out for that train,” he said. After a neck hug and a pat on the head, we scooted out the back door, into the alley and back on the bicycle. Retracing our path, we rode back to the drain pipe, threw the bike back over the tracks and crawled through the opening into the back side of the city park.
“You stay off the tracks today?” Daddy asked that night before bed. Grinning, I said, “Yes sir, Daddy! Stayed off the tracks!”
I rode down Railroad Street just the other day and slowed down as I approached Sargent Street. There, on my left, was the drain pipe. My friend with the bicycle died eight years ago with a brain tumor. I swallowed hard and kept driving, wishing I could crawl through to the other side and see her waiting for me. Wishing I could climb on the handlebars of her bike and ride through the streets of Hahira again.
Wishing I could hear Daddy say, one more time, “Sugar, stay off the tracks. There’s strangers in town.”