The Primer’s Lament

Well I spent one day in an awful way,
I’ll tell how I felt,
“There’s quick money, “they said –
I was easily led –
“Over in the tobacco belt.”

It was half-past four, or a little more,
Us boys were sound asleep,
When the Boss’s roar at the bunkhouse door
Brought us out in a crumpled heap.

We put on our clothes in a semi-doze
And staggered out the door.
All the stars on high in the cold black sky
Chilled our bones nearly to the core.

An old steamer hissed in a cloud of mist
Beside the shadowy kiln,
By the lantern gleam in the rolling steam
We emptied that kiln with a will.

When came dawn at last we all broke our fast
On toast and oatmeal glue.
The coffee was cold, and as scarce as gold,
And the eggs a sickly blue.

Now thus fortified to the field we hiked,
The boss and priming crew.
The tobac you get in a cigarette
Was all I ever knew.

“Now then, there’s your row, and before you go
I’ll show what I mean,
“You just pick the ripe,” was the boss’s gripe,
“And be sure to leave the green.”

I stood all a stew in the dripping dew,
As puzzled as could be,
There were leaves below and above also,
But they all looked green to me.

I began to pull ’til my arms got full,
And looked up for the boat,
It was over the hill with Tommy and Bill,
Aw, those guys really got my goat.

I took one step, but I wasn’t hep,
To the slippery tobac,
When I felt it slip, I tightened my grip,
But the leaves slithered out the back.

How the hours dragged by as the sun climbed high,
It seemed I’d soon be dead.
There was no break, I was one big ache
From my toenails up to my head.

I had sold myself for some quick-made self,
And pondered o’er my plight,
A strong back, weak mind is the primer’s kind,
And I swore in the fading light.

“I am going home never more to roam,”
On bended knee I knelt.
“O how I repent giving my consent
To come to the tobacco belt.”


For anyone who worked in the tobacco fields in Ontario, Canada during the 1950’s and 60’s will get a chuckle our of this poem. I know I did.

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