by Esther Turner Cotton
In fond remembrances of Mother and Daddy
Dedicated to Nadine, my sister
On Sunday morning, we – the kids – got cleaned up and dressed in our best clothes and went to Sunday School. Mr. Ethington came by in his big Plymouth sedan, picked us up, and we made the rounds to all the tent camps and collected all the children. He drove us into Casa Grande to the Calvary Baptist Church for Sunday School. Sometimes there were fifteen kids in the car. The authorities must have turned their heads when we had so many bodies in one car, because we were never stopped or questioned. Too, there was hardly any traffic on Sunday morning. It was a challenge every week to see how and where we could squeeze in another child. We waged a friendly contest to see if the car from Ethington’s Ranch west of town brought in more children than the car from Pate’s Ranch east of town. We had such good times singing choruses and laughing. Mr. Ethington was kind to us and “God – he never made us feel like poor hired help!”
It was fun to explore the desert after work and on weekends. We discovered a whole new world of animals and insects. There were scorpions, small brown and sand-colored ones of all sizes, and light green ones that grew up to 5 or 6 inches long that lurked in, around and under rocks, sticks and bushes. If you didn’t shake your clothes and shoes – even sheets – you might be surprised because they like to hide in the dark places. Desert rattlesnakes were to be watched for and respected also. One day when we got home, mother heard a rattle and saw a big snake coiled in the corner of the tent. She got daddy’s 410 shotgun and blew that snake to “smithereens!” There was a poisonous snake called the Sidewinder. It made a distinctive pattern in the sand as it moved along slithering sideways. We often followed the tracks and tried to find it but it would disappear into a gopher hole.
Nights in the desert were so pretty. The skies were so clear and the stars were so bright and seemed to be close enough to touch. It was truly like you have heard in the old cowboy songs, with none of the smog clouds or noises that we have today. At that time, there still were many coyotes which howled and yelped all through the night. The desert owl, dove and quail calls and songs were heard in the early morning. The desert lizards were sand-colored and so big and fast. There was a joke that they were big enough to carry their stick to sit on and cool their feet from the hot desert sands.
Once I remember seeing dust whipped up by a small herd of wild horses in the desert northwest of Casa Grande. We soon grew to love the wide open skies, the desert surrounded by purple mountains and the dry air. It was quite a contrast to the wet, closed-in wooded areas and clouded skies in Arkansas.
When the cotton grew and matured, there were acres and acres of the white fluff. Then it was ready to be picked. Daddy bought 12-foot canvas cotton sacks for mother and him and shorter ones for us kids. We got up early and went out into the hot fields and pulled and dragged our sacks up and down the rows, picking the white cotton balls. They were so light and fluffy and it took so many of them to fill a sack and make the weight. The pay was 75 cents for one hundred pounds. The days were so long and it was hot – sometimes the temperature was 115 degrees and there was no shade. Even though the cotton is soft, the pods are dry and prickly – and our fingers bled. It seemed our backs would break from bending all day. Even though we suffered physically, I’m sure it didn’t compare to the mental anguish and stress our parents were having just trying to survive and keep the family going.
At one point Mr. Ethington decided to build a new, high home* for his large family and he wanted to live closer to town. He learned that daddy had done some carpenter work (he built our farmhouse in the flats in Arkansas), so he was hired as a laborer. What a great day for us, because it was late August and it was an opportunity for us to move to town before school started in September. The foreman on the building was a tall redheaded man. He was also the Pastor at Calvary Baptist Church, where we attended Sunday School. His name was Wiley Hinton. His landlady in town was Mary Plenz, a licensed mortician who operated a mortuary in a big two-story stone building. She also owned several low-cost rent houses and through Mr. Hinton, we were able to rent one of the houses** about a block from the mortuary. Our dad worked for her part-time around the mortuary and digging graves at night.
I want to digress a bit and go back to the terrifying experience of starting in the school in Casa Grande after we arrived in March. Our sister Bonni , who was in first grade and I in the fifth, attended old Central School in downtown. There were two buildings – one was a large two-story and a basement which housed third, fourth and fifth grades. The smaller building housed first and second grades. It was harder for Bonni, I’m sure, than for us. Besides being put in separate buildings, there was a matter of different nationality. This was so foreign to us. We had never heard the Spanish language and the percentage of Mexican students was so large that we were overwhelmed. First grade had bilingual classes, even then, because in many families only Spanish was spoken at home and the smaller children did not speak English. There were no preschools or kindergartens. The schoolyard in front was lined with olive trees beside an irrigation ditch and there were big tamarisk or salt cedars along the side of the schoolyard. The back side of the playground ended across the sidewalk from Florence Blvd., the main street downtown.
…to be continued.