In the 1950s, when cotton was still king in Texas, picking it was a common form of casual employment. Cotton-pickers were paid by weight, and though the gin had long since mechanized the process of seeding cotton, bringing the bolls in was still done in the ancient fashion: by hand and burlap sack. Children getting out of school, men and women finishing their regular jobs in the afternoon, and otherwise unoccupied people would make a little extra money picking cotton, and in other seasons they would harvest pecans or other crops.
These were not, it should be noted, remarkably poor people. They would seem poor to us, but they were the lucky kind of poor: mid-century rural Americans who did not regard themselves as poor. One of the remarkable features about farm-town Americans of that generation is that there seems to have been relatively little socio-economic self-comparison — with the exception of a few “uptown people,” most everybody they knew lived more or less the same way. Do not mistake this for an idyll: Rural life in the 1950s is romanticized only by people who did not endure it. When I speak to men of my father’s generation, they sometimes laugh about the conditions in which they grew up — no shoes in the summer, no running water in the home, etc. — and they shake their heads in wonderment at how much things have changed in the course of their lifetimes. They speak less often of the brothers and sisters who never made it to adulthood. Too much is made of the residual stoicism of the children of the Depression, but this much is true: They do not take their comforts for granted.