Bonnell Reynolds’ house at the side of the road in Springway (in the 1930's) was backed by a 12 acre field. As if a day spent stooping over to repair looms in the cotton mill wasn’t tiring enough, he came home each afternoon and worked the field with his mule of the year (purchased in spring to be sold in fall to avoid winter upkeep.) He also had the services of his teen-aged sons—Wint, who worked to impress his father; and Gene who worked harder avoiding work than working.
Even at mill wages, Bonnell could have supported his family without the crops he wrought from the field each year, but he would have considered it a waste to let the field lie fallow. Besides, he was getting something more than food from the yeoman work of farming with one mule and one-and-a-half helpers. Bonnell was getting something for his soul, fulfillment of a primal need that, if he hadn’t been born with it, must have been implanted in his youth: he was an artist and the soil was his canvas.
With the reins around his neck, the plow stock in his hands and a wad of snuff behind his bottom lip, he forced the mule forward. Bonnell’s job was to keep the plow tip buried, to walk in the boggy trench it left between the rows, and to use his voice, neck and willpower to guide the mule in straight lines over the hill and back, time after time, as long as there was sunlight.
(Photo: 1955 - Randy in cowboy hat, Papa Bonnell, Ricky, Ronda)
by Randy Reynolds
I'm eight years old, traipsing on a windless afternoon after my grandfather as he forces a manual plow through the hard-packed ground. I want to be like Papa. I want to do everything he does. "Papa, slow down," I whine. "Let me do it." He ignores me and I feel my sense of injustice rising.
Although he pushes the very earth before him and I have only myself and my pique to carry, his long, loping hardscrabble-farmer stride carries him so far ahead of me that I know he can't hear me anymore so I demonstrate my feelings by throwing myself to the ground. Rolling over and over, disturbing several of his newly-plowed rows, I get the cool red soil all over me, I lick my lips and taste it. Not bad.
I lie face upward, not sure if the cottony clouds in a bright blue sky are moving or if the earth is. Now I'm dizzy as well as angry, waiting for Papa to come back down the row and deal with me. If he'll only stop to listen, I can tell him that I want to plow, too; that I want to be like him. I think he'll be so honored that he'll turn the plow over to me and stand back to proudly watch me finish plowing his back yard and he'll go inside to brag on me to Mama Maude and, later in the week when my daddy returns to get me, Papa might tell him about it and Daddy might be proud of me, too. That feeling is what I live for, but it's hard to come by for a little boy who happens to be the oldest child in a large and growing family, and therefore the one who gets the least attention.
I fear that I won't be the man my papa is because I've heard him say that he started plowing when he was eight years old, the age I am this day, and nobody lets me do ANYTHING yet. Papa began with one mule and a plow stock as high as his shoulders. His daddy told him to keep plowing till twilight. Papa didn't know what 'twilight' was, exactly, having never heard the word before, so he plowed till it was good and dark, just to make sure he wouldn't get a beating for quitting too soon. That night his daddy took the plow reins and whipped him for working the mule too hard and sent him to bed without supper. Deep in the night, his mama snuck over to the bed he shared with several younger siblings and gobbed lard onto the back of his shirt to loosen it from his bloodied flesh.
A half-century later, Papa Bonnell tells this story ironically. "Hell, I can't blame the old man for taking care of his mules better than his young'uns. He could always have more kids, but a good mule was hard to come by when cotton was five cents a pound."
I crawl over to the row that Papa's on and lie there watching him come toward me, pushing the manual plow, pulling it back, pushing again, pulling it back. He pretends he's going to plow right through me, and I roll to safety and sit up, licking more dirt from my lips, still liking it, feeling I'm a part of it somehow. Maybe that's what Papa feels. Maybe that's why he comes home from a hard day as a loom-fixer at the cotton mill and plows till twilight. All he says to me that day is, "Get up from there, you little skeester!" And he keeps going, herky-jerky, straight down the row, no time for foolishness.
(Bonnell Reynolds and his mother Chesty Collins Reynolds, 1980's)
A TON OF BRICKS
by Randy Reynolds
The 12 acre field at Springway required a lot of work besides plowing. Planting was the bane of their springtime, especially the way Bonnell did it: make a little hole, drop in a couple of seeds, cover with soil, go an exact distance, make another little hole, repeat.
That day in 1945 when Maude came out the kitchen door without the usual spring in her step and walked slowly into the field, Wint, Gene and Willeen thought relief was on the way. Maybe she was coming to borrow one of them for an easier chore. The rows were crossways of the house, so she had to step high across one row at a time to get there. Arms crisscrossed in front of her apron, she held the waist of her dress on each side, pulling against the cloth. Bonnell saw the same vacant look in her eyes that had been there after their 7-week-old baby A.J. had died in her arms on January 7, 1928. It was after the hysteria ran its course that she got that look and kept it till she and Jesus got things straightened out between them.
Bonnell could have rushed to meet her, but no need to hurry bad news. It would get to him soon enough.
She stopped and delivered her news. “Mr. Roosevelt died.”
Bonnell would never forget feeling like a ton of bricks had fallen on him. He abandoned the field before his work was done, for once, and followed Maudie to the house.
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