The Four Hundred Pound Day

 In Character, Community, Culture, Fred's Blog, People, Relationships, Uncategorized


Listen to “The Four Hundred Pound Day” by Fred Smith


Tiger Woods‘ victory at the Master’s is a myth. I know that sounds like a post on a fringe site but I’m not saying it is fake news. Instead, his winning is a perfect example of what Joseph Campbell in his book, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” would describe as a myth – a story that symbolizes one of the fundamental themes of our world. It is the theme of the hero’s quest and is not Tiger’s story alone. Campbell believed we each are on a quest.

Every heroic story develops in stages. First, setting off from the world of ordinary life for a great adventure. Meeting allies and enemies along the way, they are tested frequently. Yet, the severest conflict is often within as the hero must confront their own demons and either overcome them or be destroyed. If they survive that final test, they win the prize and return home to the world they left behind. Sound familiar?

As the world was watching Tiger’s restoration this weekend, I was privileged to meet a hero who, except for a brief stint in the Marines, never left home. That is not to say he had not been on a quest but it was different from Tiger’s. There would be no headlines about his journey because it was ordinary and mostly unremarkable.

Foy Magee is 91 years old and was part of an evening featuring ten storytellers hosted by the Tyler Loop. Wearing a Marine cap, brilliant red shirt and carrying a stack of yellow note cards, he began to tell his story, a story he’s also shared with The Loop in the past. 

”In 1927, Mama and Daddy had a farm in New Hope and that’s where I was born, right between the Methodist church and the cemetery. We was raisin’ tomaters, cotton and corn, sorghum for syrup, peas and peanuts, you name it. My granddaddy hoed cotton every day of his life till he was 90 years old. He was blind from cataracts as long as I can remember, but he was still out there hoein’ cotton till it was time for lunch every day. 

When I was itty bitty Mama’d go to the field and put me down at the end of the row in the shade while she worked. She pick me up and put me down on another row till she was done workin’ the field.”

Over the next few minutes allotted to Foy, we heard about his farming, keeping chickens and hogs, raising a family, and living the balance of his life in New Hope.  “I was born in New Hope, Mama’s parents are buried there, and I’m gonna be buried in New Hope.”

The producers told each of the storytellers to pick one thing from their life they would most like to recount. What could Foy possibly share? What had there been in his life that would even qualify as a story? It was just one day after another. Get up. Work. Go to bed. Repeat that process over and over again for decades.

Foy reached back for something from seventy-five years ago. It was the day he picked over 400 pounds of cotton.

“Daddy was workin’ off the farm and I was workin’ on other people’s farms makin’ money. We’d start at six o’clock in the mornin’ till just before the sun went down. When I went home I could hardly walk. I got to stringhaltin’ (having leg cramps) somethin’ awful but I’d be better the next mornin’, ready to go to work.” 

Up so early they had to break the ice in the water bucket on the porch, they washed their faces and hands while filling up on biscuits and jam. That morning Foy set out on his own quest. No sixteen-year-old boy had ever picked 400 pounds of cotton in one day. He was determined it would be him. Each of the boys was given a bag to throw over their shoulder, put on the wagon and sent out to the fields to work. Row after row, he grabbed the cotton and, while the cotton was soft, the protective boll was thorny and sliced into his hands. It hurt but he didn’t stop because you were only paid for what you picked.

The morning went quickly until the sun was full. After long hours of bending over, the bag was too heavy to lift so he pulled it behind him. Eventually, he dropped down on his hands and knees to pick and drag. Finally, just before sunset, Foy stood up on the scales at the gin and the prize was his. Four hundred pounds in one day!

Foy didn’t slip on a green jacket or pose for pictures before an adoring crowd. But that night we let him know he was the hero who had never left home, and we were proud he had chosen to be a part of our community. That was our prize.

*Art by Thomas Hart Benton


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    Fonda Latham

    What a fabulous story mirrored against Tiger’s restoration and winning of another green jacket (which I watched and fully appreciate). My reading and listening during Lent has been Father Gregory Boyle – Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir. He speaks so eloquently of closing the gap between each of us. He often uses the phrase – “bringing one back to themselves” as audiences affirm the goodness in the gang members as they tell their stories along with his speaking in a variety of settings. I suspect the “adoring crowd” who listened to Mr. Magee brought him back to some part of himself. A moment of God removing the them and me, and God being in the “us”.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Thank you, Fonda. Father Boyle is one of my favorite people. We took a group to visit Homeboy for almost a full day and he spoke at The Gathering.

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    Andrew Tyndale

    I think my definition of hero must differ from the literary one. My heroes need to have someone else, or some noble purpose, as the center of their quest to overcome. Tiger’s quest for a comeback from a self-inflicted, near fatal wound puts him in my “congratulations” file, but not my “hero” file.

  • Avatar

    Growing up in cotton country of the southern San Joaquin Valley I could relate to his story. At nine I chopped cotton. You had to actually chop out cotton to space it in the row. Cotton planters weren’t very precise back then. My era was more mechanized than Mr Magee’s. Dad always insisted that we referred those that worked for him by their formal name. Even though they would refer to each other in very colorful terms like dinky or buster. At that time one row cotton pickers adapted to M farmall tractors. Every foot of irrigatable row was planted. The cotton picker couldn’t maneuver close enough to irrigation vents and fencing to pick it all so hand picking was needed. My three brothers and I didn’t get an allowance. If we wanted pocket money we worked for it. So, yes I hand picked cotton too. I wish I could include a photo of a harvestable cotton bowl. The plant flowers and developes a segmented seed pod. The seed is suspended in fine moist fiber. When the pods are mature enough the plants are dessicated turning them brown and woody. As the bowl dries the segments shrink back and bowl pops open revealing the cotton fiber. The cotton fiber is soft and becomes dry enough to defat your hands as you pick it and pod segments are now woody and abrasive. It takes a slight tug to pull it out and the texture is such that you can’t remove the fiber from the bowl with gloves on. But here’s the deal, to pick ‘clean cotton’ (some folks would rake the whole boll off the plant to fill the bag faster and add weight. Referred to as dirty cotton. Because you were paid by the pound of cotton you picked)… requires repeating that process thousands of times to fill a sack. So your fingers become dry, cracked and rubbed raw until you develope enough callous to get through a day of picking cotton. To pick 400 pounds in a day you had to ‘get in the flow’ as Dad would say. You picked instinctively, without really looking or paying attention to detail. The yield had to be good enough that it took fewer feet of row to fill the sack. A full sack could weigh 200 pounds! If you didn’t want to spend too much time walking back and forth to the scale.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Thank you for this! I’ve never chopped, picked, pulled, or snapped cotton but I can almost feel I have when I listened to Foy and now have read your note. I had chores as a boy but never anything like this. Someone was telling me yesterday about forced labor in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan.

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