High Cotton

“Autumn comes late in Alabama.” –Harper Lee

Fall may be a long time coming, but it brings with it many charms. Some of them, like football, start while it still feels like summer. But then the days start getting shorter, the nights a little cooler. By late October, there’s welcome relief from summer’s heat and a few leaves starting to fall. We don’t get many vivid colors in this neck of the woods. But what we lack in fall leaves, we make up for with football, fields of snow-white cotton, harvest festivals, pumpkin patches, corn mazes. The harvest season brings family and friends together in so many ways, reminding us how much we have to be thankful for.

Football is one of my favorite things about fall. What I like most is the atmosphere that comes with it–eating boiled peanuts, the marching bands, the crowd of both young and old, the strong sense of history and tradition. Daddy was the quarterback of his high school team and a diehard Auburn fan (his uncle, just a few years older than him, played at Auburn in the mid-1950’s). We didn’t go to games when I was growing up, but we spent most Saturdays watching them on TV. He was very vocal–both cheering and criticizing–and I loved hearing his running commentary during the game. Watching football isn’t the same without him.

This year, my oldest daughter transferred from a private Christian school in a nearby town to our local public school. It’s been a good change. Homecoming week–working on the freshman float, the parade, the game, and her first homecoming dance–was such fun for all of us! It’s a great feeling to be part of the community in which you live. My youngest daughter loved going to the home football games and wants to be a cheerleader and a “wand” twirler. (She’s learned most of their cheers already.)

Southeast Alabama is known as the peanut capital of the world, but there’s still a lot of cotton grown around here, too. I love to watch crop dusters (especially old-fashioned biplanes) spraying defoliant on the cotton fields, and I love the sight of a defoliated field covered in snowy fluff. Daddy grew up in north Alabama and started picking cotton at an early age. When he graduated high school in 1956, local schools were still being closed for cotton-picking every fall. Some of the farmers planted watermelons at the end of a row all along to provide a moment of refreshment from the hot, back-breaking labor. They hoped for tall cotton plants because it meant not having to stoop over so much–thus the phrase “in high cotton.” Even as a strong 17-year old athlete, Daddy still wasn’t able to outpick his mother, a small woman with the hands of a man and an amazing capacity for hard work. He certainly inherited that capacity for hard work, though. I love how they rejoiced in little things–a watermelon, a tall patch of cotton–to help them get through the exhausting labor and the tough times.

We attended Fall Farm Day at Dothan’s Landmark Park this year. It gives a glimpse into what life was like in rural Alabama years ago. It brings to life the stories I’ve heard Daddy and Granny tell. From corn-shelling and chair-caning to soap-making and butter-churning, I felt like I had stepped into Daddy’s childhood. There’s an old house with a dog trot breezeway and a well just outside the kitchen, an outhouse, and a variety of farm animals–chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, and mules (whose character Daddy knew well from plowing Granny’s large garden).

In later years, Daddy and Granny loved to reminisce about the “old days,” but they were thankful their cotton-picking days were past. It’s important to pass their stories–their legacy of resilience and endurance–on to the next generation. I’m so glad that Landmark Park gave my daughters the opportunity to experience part of their heritage.

As we count our blessings and celebrate Thanksgiving this week, let’s give thanks for the beauty and bounty of fall and for the little things that help us get through the tough things. We’re in high cotton.

“For the Lord comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.” Isaiah 51:3 (ESV)

In Memory of Harlon

painting of flag raising on Iwo Jima

I’ve spent this Memorial Day reading Flags of Our Fathers, stunned by the unimaginable horrors experienced by those who fought on Iwo Jima. This painting, which is based on the famous photograph of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, hangs in the Weslaco Museum. Weslaco, Texas, was home to the young man on the far right, the one anchoring the base of the pole. His name was Harlon Block. When his mother first saw the original photograph, she immediately knew it was her son, although it was several years before he was correctly identified officially. After the war, the man on the far left, Ira Hayes, hitchhiked from Arizona to south Texas to tell Harlon’s family what his mother had known all along–it really was him. She had changed too many diapers not to recognize her son’s rear end.

Harlan Block, U.S. Marine

The battle for Iwo Jima lasted more than a month and most of it occurred after the raising of the American flag. The Japanese were entrenched in an extensive system of underground pillboxes and tunnels, and they fought to the death, refusing to surrender. More than 26,000 American men were killed or injured on the tiny island.

Harlon had entered the battle with the distinct impression that he would not survive. He had shared this presentiment with multiple friends and two of his siblings while he was on leave. They tried to encourage him and convince him otherwise, but the feeling never left him. Turns out he was right–six days after the flag-raising, he was killed in action.

Harlon had been a high school football standout. His letter sweater, shown below, is also on display at the museum. The Weslaco Panthers were conference champions his senior year, and all thirteen of the senior football players enlisted in the Marines in January 1943. The school held a special midyear graduation ceremony before they left for the war.Harlon Block's football letter sweater

One of his senior teammates, Leo LaDuke, was the younger brother of my great-aunt, Golda LaDuke Roberts. She is shown below, pointing to Leo’s photo at the Weslaco Museum, of which she was a tireless supporter. When Harlon insisted that he wouldn’t be coming back home, Leo promised to name his son after him. And he did.

Golda Roberts shows her brother Leo LaDuke's photo at the Weslaco Museum

After the war, Harlon’s body was brought back to Weslaco. Later, his remains were moved to the Marine Military Academy in nearby Harlingen, where he lies near the Iwo Jima memorial monument that was fashioned after the famous flag-raising photo. The makeshift cemetery on Iwo Jima where he and more than 6,000 fellow Marines were first buried bore this inscription:

When you go home

Tell them for us and say

For your tomorrow

We gave our today