Thinning Cotton, Growing up on the Mississippi Delta

Persistence Always Pays


By —— Bio and Archives June 19, 2017

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When I was a boy, my father worried that I was unlikely to go far in life until I overcame my stubborn nature, and whenever he tried to convince me of that, I stubbornly persisted the he was confusing stubbornness with persistence.

One day, after putting up with my hard-headedness as long as he intended to, he said, “Junior, since you work with Jaybird every day, I’ll ask him about all this persistence you profess to have.”

Early the next morning, my boyhood best friend and mentor Jaybird took his work crew to a field on Dad’s Mississippi Delta farm where the cotton seedlings needed thinning so that they wouldn’t crowd each other as they matured. After handing all of us sharpened hoes, he said those words we’d heard so many time: “Start yo’ rows.”

About halfway down the mile-long rows, I asked Jaybird if Dad had spoken to him about my claim that I was persistent, not stubborn.

“Boy,” he answered, “you don’t know nothin’ about persistence. You remember last fall when we were pickin’ cotton, and I said that Leroy was ‘a cotton-pickin’ dude,’ but you weren’t nothing but ‘a dude picking cotton’?”

Leroy, one of Jaybird’s sons, was a muscular, strapping lad who routinely picked four hundred pounds of cotton a day, whereas I rarely exceeded two hundred. 



“He picks more than you do ’cause he’s got persistence, which you claim to have, but Boss and me know you don’t. Well, we came up with a plan that’ll decide who’s right.”

The next morning, Jaybird drove me to a field at the farthest end of the farm. When we rolled to a stop, my clothes were already sticking to me in the rising heat and humidity. 



“This is yo’ field,” Jaybird said, handing me a hoe, file, and jug of water. Shading my eyes against the rising sun, I looked across 40-acres of seedling cotton. Jaybird’s thinning instructions were precise: In each hill, leave no less than one and no more than three plants.

By my country-boy calculations, 440 rows had to be thinned, all of them about one quarter of a mile long. If they were placed end-to-end, I would chop the equivalent of 110 miles before finishing!

It was an occasion for some serious soul-searching. Should I give up … or should I prove to Dad and Jaybird that I’m persistent, not stubborn? I gritted my teeth and bent to the seemingly impossible task. 



I cannot recall how many hot days I endured before finishing that field. When I was almost done, I looked back across my work, and an immense sense of accomplishment flooded over me.

While I was thinning the last row, Jaybird pulled up with boxed lunches for both of us. As we ate, he said, “I’m so proud of you, Junior. You proved Boss and me wrong; you’re persistent — not stubborn.”

The lesson I learned from that experience has remained with me to this day: Persistence always pays.



Jimmy Reed -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Jimmy Reed (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) is an Oxford, Mississippi resident, Ole Miss alumnus, Army veteran, former Mississippi Delta cotton farmer, and retired college teacher. His collection of short stories is available via Squarebooks.com, telephone 662-236-2262.

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