The Old Way Home

Thoughts come vividly on a road less traveled

By Bill Thompson

On my way home from Elizabeth City I decided to take the road less traveled by. NC Highway 17 is the most direct route back to southeastern North Carolina but I wanted to go “the old way,” on the roads I traveled when I began criss-crossing the state on a regular basis over 50 years ago. I wanted to revisit those little towns like Pactolus and Bear Grass and Greenevers and all those other little wide places in the road that happen to have a sign designating their existence.

I didn’t need a GPS to find my way. (In my car GPS means Gone Past the Sign.) I could follow those old two-lane roads from memories of days and nights coming and going to speak to all kinds of groups and celebrating so many small-town festivals.

It was mid-morning when I left Elizabeth City, so the sun was behind me as I headed in a generally south-southwesterly direction. The sun didn’t cast too many shadows on that flat land. I could go for miles and the tallest things I would see were a few pine trees in the distance among acres and acres of corn and soybean fields. Small, neat little houses sat in the midst of the fields, and behind the houses were old tobacco barns lilting to the side, their rusted tin roofs atop rotten wooden sides held up entirely by vines.

In the mid-summers so many years ago, those fields would have been filled with tobacco plants, their big, green leaves lapped over each other row after row, soaking up the hot sun. And somewhere in that field, bent under the big leaves, were men and boys “cropping” the leaves from the stalks. Their shirts would be soaked with sweat as they rose up with their arms filled with leaves. Then they placed them in the “drags” or trailers that would take the crop from the field to the curing barn. I have worked in fields like that.

Of course, folks today don’t see those fields as I do. Today tobacco is a bad thing and, certainly, its use is not good for you. But I couldn’t help but reflect on what tobacco meant to so many families like mine. I guess it depends on your perspective.

If, when you say “tobacco” you mean that noxious vegetation which, in its processed form, creates a smoke that permeates the lungs of young and old alike, eating away the tissue of that vital organ, a smoke that causes a stench in the clothes we wear and the furniture on which we rest and the very breath we breathe; if you mean that agricultural endeavor whose harvest has caused young men to toil in the heat of the day until they collapsed from exhaustion; if you mean that dried weed whose dust clogs the nostrils and fills the lungs until coated black as a sinners heart, then I am against it.

But if by “tobacco” you mean that product of Carolina soil, the source of livelihood for thousands of families for generations, that provided the funds to send the sons and daughters of poor tenant farmers to college, that built churches where the loving spirit of The Creator is made known to all who enter the doors, that kept many an able-bodied man off the welfare rolls and filled the coffers of every clothier, grocer and merchant in every small town across this state; if you mean that commodity from which the sale thereof created the taxes that paved the roads that now traverse the length and breadth of this great state, that built the schools that educated and continue to educate the leaders of our communities; if you mean that golden leaf whose heady aroma emitted from the curing barn wafts across the summer night weaving its spell like the perfume of a beautiful woman; if you mean that product that has given solace and comfort to those at the end of a day in which they have struggled mightily to make a living from the land or who have finally found a respite from the heat and monotony of the mill; if you mean that smoke created in the bowl of a pipe as men sit together in commonality and devise solutions to those social ills that beset us; if you mean that cigar proffered as congratulations at the birth of a child or reward for achievement; if you mean that crop whose history is irretrievably tied to the existence and development of this state, the South and this country, then, my friend, I am for it.

I thought about that driving “the old way” back from Elizabeth City. Like our historic ties to tobacco, it was a long and winding road.

Bill Thompson is a frequent — and wise —contributor to Salt Magazine

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