A fire that starts on a cotton picker may be minor if the operator reacts correctly. However, poor decisions and reactions may result in a total loss of the picker and any cotton in the machine or surrounding areas…. The number one cause of picker fire is operator carelessness or ignorance in dealing with fire. In-Season Procedures: Cotton Incorporated.
There was constant danger of fire. My father and grandfather and all the hired men were feverishly harvesting the last of the cotton that long season, pushing the harvesting machines to their limits. The wind had been strong and warm for several days. The cotton was parched and separated into fuzzy lint when it passed through the harvester; the colliding burrs and trash built up static electricity in the basket. There was no morning dew. The charged air popped like lightning. The men got shocked every time they touched metal. They were vigilant, knowing that if the spines of the stripper picked up a rock or a scrap of metal or a chunk of brick, a spark could ignite the dry air.
On the morning of the fire, Dorothy made us breakfast: toast, spun honey and blackberry jam, eggs, bacon, and orange juice. I liked her house because there was a step down into the living room and her TV was a wooden box like a cabinet. All the buttons were behind a panel. The two bedrooms shared a closet with no wall in between. I could open the door on my side, crawl over the shoes, under the two parallel bars of clothes, and come out in her room. If I sat in the middle, I was in two places at once. Her bathtub had feet like a lion.
My hair was staticky that morning, and it stuck to the hairbrush when Dorothy tried to fix it. My bangs stood up straight. Dorothy rubbed a little lotion on her hands. She put the extra lotion from her hands on my cheeks, and I smelled her all day. She sprayed the brush with AquaNet to neutralize the static and smoothed my hair into a ponytail.
You may be forced to make snap decisions regarding risk of personal injury or saving the picker from a total loss. The best course of prevention is due diligence in recognizing and eliminating or minimizing conditions that often result in a fire on the picker. In-Season Procedures: Cotton Incorporated.
Sometimes it’s just the heat. That year it was unseasonably warm, already eighty degrees in January. The harvest should have been done already, but the season had been plagued with chokes, breakdowns, sickness, and fire. The machines ran hot, and the men overfilled the baskets, not wanting to stop to empty their load. In the full basket, fibers would get tamped down on the manifold. Or under the transmission. Or wrapped around a belt. Or in the hydraulic lifts where they got soaked in flammable liquids. Every time the men stopped, Dorothy and my mother blew the radiators clean with compressed air. The men did their best to keep the machines clean, but who has time? Who can stop? No one here gets paid by the hour. No one gets paid at all if they don’t get the crop in.
There was no smoke, no flame, only a smell like burning hair.
Dorothy used to work in a sheet factory. She sewed hems in the flat sheets, stitching straight lines one hundred-two inches long, five hundred times in a day. She wanted to live in California, as far from her father as she could imagine. This is where she thought her husband would take her, and for a while he did. For a while, they made two harvests a year: fall cotton in Texas and summer oranges in California. Then one spring the car wouldn’t make it West. He bought a tractor instead of a transmission. Then one spring there was a baby. He rented a plot of land. Then one spring there was war. He went to Iwo Jima. She went to the sheet factory. They became sharecroppers and sheet makers.
When they had enough land and she had enough babies, she left the sheet factory. Papaw planted the last row of every field with red and orange and yellow Zinnias for her. She would rather have had the ocean.
Dorothy gave me five hundred dollars once. I was 21. A friend of mine had moved to New York to be an actress, and I wanted to go for Spring Break. I told Dorothy about the trip just to needle my mother. Dorothy passed me a check as she hugged me goodbye. She felt narrow in my arms.
She gave me one hundred dollars in a plain envelope when I got married a year later. She wrote “always needed” and “Granny” on the outside and left it on the table with the other gifts.
Be especially cautious of conditions that are likely to result in a fire. Bluebird skies with a slight dry wind after a passing dry front can result in very low relative humidity and dry cotton. Be alert to any unusual noise, odors, or visible signs of dysfunction. Be cautious if more frequent row unit chokes are occurring. In-Season Procedures: Cotton Incorporated.
There wasn’t any smoke because there was not enough air in the basket to start an honest fire. There might have been just enough oxygen to ignite a spark and feed it while it smoldered. The real danger was opening the basket and exposing the embers to the open air. The fire would move quickly then, and could engulf the entire load of harvested cotton. If the wind was blowing, it might have started a wildfire; the furrows lined with dead cotton leaves, dried stalks, and tumbleweeds could act just like a fuse leading to the brown grass and sunflowers in the turn rows. If that half-ton basket was emptied into a module builder that already holds two tons of cotton, watch the rest of the season burn.
Dorothy used to work in the gin. Three days a week, she sat beside her daughter-in-law, my aunt Barbara, at the counter facing the wide window, counting the trucks that picked up the pressed loaves of cotton and brought them to market. She decoded the spray painted labels on the heels: E. H., B5. Her son’s work. She wrote in the log: “Eddy Helms, Broadstreet,” the fifth module of the season. Her daughter-in-law penciled in the tonnage. They drank coffee and chewed gum.
We always stopped at the gin on our way home from school. I didn’t really like to go there. The gin manager, Earl, was missing half of his middle finger. He lost it feeling for a leak in a hydraulic hose. The hole was so small and the pressure inside the hose was so high that the stream of fluid cut into his finger like a saw. The cut was not so serious. He lost the finger because of the chemical burns. I didn’t like to go to the gin because Earl would pretend to make his hand into a turtle with the nub for a head. He would walk it across the counter toward me with that blind, hairy joint acting like it was sniffing the air. I only went in because Dorothy would be there, and she’d let me drink some of her coffee if it was cold.
Dorothy said she hadn’t eaten in three days. Her second husband had been dead three months. Three foil wrapped plates from Meals on Wheels were untouched and drawing flies on the counter. She had plenty of food, but she said she wasn’t hungry. “This is just how some people die,” my older sister would say. She worked in a nursing home; she should know. “Some people just grieve to death, and that is their right.” She didn’t come on this mission of mercy.
My mother emptied the rotten food from the refrigerator: a block of Velveeta cheese, leftover take out, blackened vegetables. She replaced it with fresh milk and cheese, frozen meals Dorothy could microwave, peanut butter, Saltines. My husband scrambled her an egg. My father made a piece of toast with blackberry preserves.
“Have you gotten the crop in?” She asked my father when he brought in the plate. He sold the farm the year before. She should have known this. I tried not to look directly at her.
Unload any cotton in the basket, even if you must unload onto the ground. Unload even if you do not see an indication of fire in the basket….Stop the picker, place the transmission in park, set the brakes, stop the engine, put on a pair of leather gloves, exit the cab, and look for the fire. In-Season Procedures: Cotton Incorporated.
There was no smoke. My grandfather smelled burning. He steered the tractor into rows that had already been stripped. This was not his first fire, not even the first one this week. Two days ago, he smelled the same smell. He emptied his basket in the middle of the field. No fire. He and my father got down on their knees sniffing out the spark. They left it all afternoon to be sure it wasn’t burning. My sisters and I helped Dorothy and my mother throw the cotton into a trailer one armful at a time. None could be wasted. It never caught fire.
My grandfather was calm, mildly irritated that he would have to waste time this way. He opened the basket midfield, and burning cotton poured from the machine onto the ground. It was lost. The task now was to make sure that this was all that was lost.
It was a full basket; it looked to be about a ton. He should have unloaded at the last round, but who knows? The fire could have started already, and he would have burned up the whole morning’s work. He emptied the fire extinguisher he carries behind the seat in his cab.
“How did you let this happen, Angela?” My second cousin Angela was pregnant, not married, in high school. Her mother Leveta pleads with her.
Almost everyone left after Easter lunch at Dorothy’s house. Angela and Leveta were still at the kitchen table. Barbara and my mother washed dishes. Dorothy collected the plates and cups abandoned throughout the house. The younger cousins walked down the road to our house to jump on our trampoline.
“You know all you had to do was ask. If you wanted the pill, I could have helped you.”
“That would have been too embarrassing,” Angela sniffled. “I would have gone to Planned Parenthood by myself, but I didn’t want anyone to see me. How could I just walk in there? Someone would have told you. I was embarrassed.”
A plate fell in the sink with a clatter. Dorothy said, “You weren’t too embarrassed to get on your back.”
My mother retells this scene anytime she wants to explain what kind of woman Dorothy used to be.
A picker fire that begins as a smoldering mass of trash and lint can become uncontrollable in as few as 3 minutes. In as few as 15 minutes, a cotton picker can become almost unrecognizable – tires burned off and bars melted into puddles under the row unit cabinets. Large amounts of grease in row units, high-pressure hydraulic oil, and diesel fuel accelerate a fire once lines and tanks rupture. In-Season Procedures: Cotton Incorporated.
My father was the first to see the flames. He parked his stripper up wind. It wouldn’t do to catch both machines on fire. He handed his father a bag of rags he kept under the seat of his tractor and then emptied the fire extinguisher from his cab. Together, they slapped at the burning pile with the old towels. The fire was mostly contained when the wind picked up and turned over a wet clump of cotton, exposing the dry underside. It caught fire instantly. The men redoubled their efforts. My father continued to beat the flames, while my grandfather moved to quarantine the unburned cotton, to separate the fuel from the flame. One of the hired men came with a shovel and started scooping dirt on the pile.
Dorothy used to drive a black Cadillac with houndstooth seat covers. She sewed them herself. Dorothy used to unmake any store-bought shirt with a print or pattern and re-sew it so the stripes or plaid lines lined up straight. She would take off all the cheap plastic buttons and replace them with fabric covered buttons or pearls or rhinestones. When she stopped sewing, she invested in button covers, snapping a gold or turquoise or jeweled bauble over the plain button.
Dorothy used to be a sharp dresser. She was tall for a woman, and she had long legs and a tiny waist. She made the most of her shape, wearing bright fluttery blouses and high-waisted pants with narrow legs. She sewed all of my father’s clothes. He was wearing a three-piece maroon polyester suit with a pink shirt and red tie, all made by hand, the day that he met my mother.
On the day of the fire, Dorothy’s hair was dyed blonde and freshly set. She wore a gold velour sweater matched perfectly to the gold stitching on the pockets of her jeans. She was wearing Dr. Scholl’s sandals with a white strap and a gold buckle.
My little sister would brag that she had perfect pitch like our other grandmother. “Yeah? Well, I have an eye for color like Granny,” I would say and pinch her with my red-painted fingernails.
“You know what I want, Granny?” I patted her bony hand. “One of your blackberry cobblers. Do you think you could make me one?”
“I bet I could,” This was the first whole sentence she had said all day. We shared a table with her in the nursing home cafeteria. Dorothy chewed for a while, then stopped like she couldn’t swallow or like she’d forgotten what she was doing. Then she started chewing again. She answered only yes or no questions. Anything more engaging elicited a shrug or a grunt. But at this she said, “I probably could.”
“I use your recipe, but it’s just not as good without your blackberries.”
“What made your crust so good?” No response. “Did you use butter?”
“I saw a recipe for a pie crust that used Vodka instead of water. Can you believe that?”
“No.” We gave Dorothy a break to chew. My mother and I talked about the recipe. I explained that the vodka lets you make the dough wetter so it will roll out smoother. The alcohol bakes out much faster than water, steaming the dough and leaving behind little air pockets. It’s flakier than crust made with water, and there is less danger of overworking the dough and making it tough. Dorothy finally swallowed.
“Jay just bought me a food processor, and it has revolutionized my pie crust.” I wondered if I should have said his name. It might confuse her. Her first husband’s name was Jay, too.
“Can you believe that, Granny? Vodka!” My mother spoke loudly to let Dorothy know it was her turn to talk.
“Remember how we used to eat all your blackberries before you could get them picked? Bent your wire fence over climbing the mimosa tree.”
“I probably could.”
A record of breakdowns, chokes, and possibly the remedies can be extremely valuable in improving later operations. At a minimum records should include dates and times of routine maintenance, time spent waiting for a boll buggy or module builder, accidents and near accidents, weather conditions that may have contributed to chokes. Review the notes before initiating repairs, focusing on identifying and correcting the most frequent problems. In-Season Procedures: Cotton Incorporated.
My mother was in the module builder. My sisters and I were at Dorothy’s house getting lunch ready. It was a Friday, so lunch was a casserole of the week’s leftover pieces: hamburger, beef roast, corn, red beans, cheese, cornbread, cream of mushroom soup. My mother radioed to the house: “Dorothy. We have a fire.”
Dorothy took the casserole out of the oven and turned the heat off. She calculated the loss: the market price per pound, the damage to the machine, the time spent. They would have to minimize losses if they were going to come out ahead this year. One whole field, the Leathers’ place, was already chalked up a loss for drought conditions. It would cost more to harvest it than they could possibly make on the sale of the dry, stringy cotton. They would collect subsidies and insurance payments, but that was no excuse not to get every cent out of what was left.
She sent my sisters and me down the road to our house. She said, “Stay there.” We put on our coats and walked as far as the cattle guard. We stayed and watched from the other side of the berm. My older sister taught us how to stop, drop, and roll.
Dorothy used to burn her grass after the last frost, before the first rain every spring. She’d have to pick a day when the wind was still. Then she would soak a perimeter around the house, tie the dog up in the shop, set fire to the dead grass, and stand on the porch with the water hose, spraying down any flames that got too high. A controlled burn.
We could smell it from our house, but we couldn’t see anything but the smoke. The next day, the whole yard would be black, and the dog’s feet would leave black smudges on the walkway. My sisters and I would do a rain dance in the ashes so Granny’s grass would come back. When the rain came, and it never waited long, we kept dancing in it. The soot would wash off, and the grass would come up thicker and greener than before.
For Dorothy’s birthday, I went shopping for a card. I spent most of an hour reading the cards, trying to find one that was appropriate. I thought it might be rude to wish her many more when she clearly didn’t want the one she was having. I couldn’t get one that was blank inside. Too much pressure to fill the space. With what? I settled on one with butterflies and glitter on the front. I couldn’t decide how to sign the inside. Would she recognize my married name? Would she know why it was postmarked West Virginia? Should I put in a picture? I decided not to send a card at all.
They suffocated the fire with rags until all the rags were burned through and the men’s hands are red and shining. Dorothy banged the screen door as she left the house and crossed the little windrow of scrub trees and barley into the field. The trees were supposed to break the hot south winds, keep the cotton from scorching in the summer. But the wind was blowing from the north. Those trees would be the first things to burn if the men didn’t put the fire out. The house would be second.
“Have you gotten the crop in?” My father used to remind her that we don’t live on the farm anymore, that the house has been demolished, but now he says yes. “Did the weather cooperate?” Yes. “Did you get a good price?” Ninety cents.
Unless trash or lint is visibly burning or smoldering near the point of catching fire in the basket, surge hopper, or module chamber, you can wait to extinguish it after finishing your overall inspection of the machine. Fires that ignite on the top of the picker rarely result in a total loss. In-Season Procedures, Cotton Incorporated.
When she gets to the scene, my grandmother grabs her gold velour sweater by the hem, pulls it over her blonde head, and beats the fire with it, leaving her bare from the waist up. Anyone who cared to look could see her flat stomach, narrowing at the top of her jeans, her hollow and concave chest, scarred over pink where the breasts had been. There had been no call for the formality of bras, of breasts at all. “Take them both,” she told the doctors. “I haven’t got time to be fooling with a fake titty.”
Dorothy climbs into the open basket where a small fire is still going. The men were going to let it burn out. Her arms are tanned to the elbows and lean. Her white shoulders are starting to stoop a little, and her shoulder blades stick out sharply when she brings her hands down on the fire. She is ungraceful. Dorothy squints her eyes against the smoke and the flying dust, teeth bared at first, and then lips shut tight. She beats the metal side of the basket, enjoying the ringing and echo long after the fire and the sweater are gone and she has zippered my father’s wind breaker around her trunk.
Many thanks to the editors of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, in which a version of this story first appeared as a poem in 2010.
Cover photo courtesy of Courtney Newhouse Monroe.