The Man Owed 40¢
By Bill Shepard
The man owed me .40¢, the wages for a full day’s work! I don’t know why the memory surfaced at this late date. I forgave the man of his indebtedness a long time ago. I wonder why I still remember in detail everything that occurred on that day and even the days that followed. Here is the story just as I remember it happening.
The year was 1937 and I was a young teenager. School was out for the summer and I was free to go in search for work at nearby farms. I had done that each summer since I was big enough to pick cotton.
When I was a boy, the old Hartsville Highway passed through the village and cut a straight line to Hartsville, fourteen miles away. The farmlands began just beyond the village and continued on to Hartsville. The farmers along that road were always glad to have the village children to help gather their crops during the summer months when school was out. There was plenty of work to be done.
Two prominent and well-known families owned sprawling farmlands all along that road. The Henry Smith family and the W. P. Law family are the two that I remember best. The man that I am writing about was a poor sharecropper on one of W. P. Law’s farms. I heard that the man was in need of help on his farm. Eager to begin earning some money, I went to see the man and to inquire if I could have the job. I walked the nearly two miles to the man’s house and sure enough, he wanted someone to help plow his field. I learned that the man worked on the WPA, in order to survive until his farm crops were harvested. For those reading who may not know, the WPA (Works Project Administration) was one of the projects that President Roosevelt had enacted to help get folk through the Great Depression Era. A man could earn .50¢, plus whatever government commodities were available. I knew about the WPA, I knew a lot of men who worked on the project and I heard many stories that were told about the work and the workers. Many of our national, state and county parks were built by those workers.
After talking with the man and agreeing about my wages to be earned, I left the man with the promise that I would be back at daybreak the next day. I whistled as I walked the dirt road that led past the Smith Plantation and on to the village and home. I had found my job for the summer, so I thought.
The man had offered me .30¢ a day, plus breakfast and a noon meal, or .40¢ a day without any meals. I had said that I would bring my own lunch from home and take the .40¢ deal.
As promised, I was at the man’s house by daybreak the next day. As I approached the back of the house, I saw that the door to the kitchen was open and the family was seated around the table eating breakfast. Without asking me in or asking if I wanted to eat, the man looked up and spoke, “Go to the barn and hitch the mule up to the wagon. I’ll be there when I finish breakfast.”
I did as he said and went to the barn. The man showed up shortly and helped in getting everything loaded. He rode on the wagon with me and as we went, he told me that he would be leaving shortly to report for his work with the WPA. He would be back by late afternoon. We traveled to a large field where he had ploughed the day before. We hitched the mule to the plow and he ploughed a round or two to show me what he wanted done. After watching me plough a row or two, he left walking and said he would be back when it was time to end the day’s work. I was doing what I liked to do, and to think that this man trusted me to work alone made me feel all good inside. I felt all grown up! Around and around and around – breaking up ground was a slow process and it could take hours, even days to plough a large field, using just one mule and plough. There were no tractors available in those days.
It was a long day and the sun was going down when the man returned. We hitched the mule back to the wagon and headed for the house. On the way back, the man told me that he had lost his job on the WPA and would not need for me to come back the next day. He said that he would pay me the .40¢ when he got his pay, later that week. “Come to the house on Saturday,” he said. “And I will pay you.”
I walked home tired and disappointed – I no longer had a job. Saturday, I was at his house early, only to be told he had not cashed his check, but I could meet him on the Courthouse steps around noontime and he would be there. I said I would and kept his word, but he did not show up!
I don’t recall how many times I went to his home, only to be disappointed. Excuses, excuses, and more excuses. I finally faced reality; the man was not ever going to pay me and he didn’t. Yes, it bothered me. When I would go to town on Saturdays, I would look for his face among the groups of men that often gathered on the Square and around the Courthouse.
Perhaps he was never able to pay me. Times were hard as nails, and wasn’t easy to keep food on a man’s table. These were challenging times. The man moved off of that farm before the end of that year. I never saw him again. Another man came the next year and I did work for him. I remember both men well, but the one that owed me forty cents is the one whose memory lingered the longest.