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Summers Of Learning In The Tobacco Fields

Mark Sullivan grew up in Connecticut during the late 1950s. It was a time when the state produced huge amounts of shade leaf tobacco, used to make cigar wrappers. And summer was the season when he and other local teenagers went to the fields.

"It was where all your friends were in the summer," Sullivan says. "If you weren't working on tobacco, you had nothing to do, really. You'd finish school and you went to work on the farm.

"The boys would get the dirty work and the girls would get the clean work. The boys' work was called suckering ... crawling on hands and knees down the rows and pulling the suckers off."

The tar in the tobacco made it a "filthy job," Sullivan says. "You'd get it all over your hands and by the end of the day your hands would be black."

His mother made him get undressed on the back porch. "Then I'd have to run real quick inside and then jump in the shower because you'd be filthy dirty," Sullivan says.

Working the tobacco fields was hard, he says, "but you kind of grew up and you learned how to work."

"I can remember working with some women hoeing tobacco who were in their 70s and had done it their whole life. They didn't wear pants. They always wore a dress, and they would dress relatively nicely to come work in a tobacco field.

"They would go like lightning and they never got tired. We were kids and we wore gloves because we'd get blisters on our hands. And they'd just look at you like, 'What kind of sissy wears gloves?' "

Sullivan says the lessons from working the tobacco fields have stayed with him.

"I look back on it now and I've said to my wife so many times, 'God, I wish I could get the kids one summer on tobacco. I probably learned more there than you learn in high school.' "

Produced for Morning Edition by Katie Simon. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.

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