Hope to Heartache: General Motors and the American Dream

Posted in: Featured | By: | June 01, 2009

The end of General Motors will mark a painful conclusion to a distinctly American story.  Forgotten in the collapse will be the millions of people who migrated from South to North to take a chance and build the most successful company yet seen in the history of business.  Their lives and the economy of America were transformed by the automobile and the dreams of a steady income.  My parents made this difficult choice along with uncountable others who were weary of working the land.  The demise of General Motors is more than just the end of a car company and we will be many years measuring the loss.

Daddy’s friend Tater Kotch was tired of sharecropping and not having money.  Constantly joking and easily distracted, Tater was poorly suited to the business of growing cash crops.  The fact that he was tall and lean also made curling over a hoe to chop cotton especially unpleasant and he ran out of patience after just two summers of farming.  When he finally made a decision to quit, my father was the first person to get the news.

Dream Machine

Dream Machine

“I’m leaving, James,” he said.  “Ain’t no future in hoeing rows of cotton and waitin’ on rain.”

My father took a moment to process what he had just heard and he stared at his friend before he spoke.  “Well, you’re a farmer, Tater, and your daddy’s a farmer and you ain’t got no money.  What the hell you think you’re gonna do?”

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do, James.  I just know what I ain’t gonna do and I ain’t gonna chop cotton no more.  I reckon I can get me a job somewhere.”

“I don’t know about no jobs nowhere, Tater,” Daddy said.  “And I want me a farm.  Maybe two more seasons and I’ll get a good enough crop to get me my own piece a land.”

“Naw, you won’t, James.  I wish you was but you ain’t ever gonna have more ‘n enough money to plant again next year and get a little food for your kids until next spring.  That’s all the hell sharecroppin’ is, strugglin’ from one year to the next and makin’ the landowner money and me and Edie, we’re done with it.”

“We’ll see about that, Tater.”

“I reckon we will, James.”  Tater paused and looked at the sagging gray wood shack where my parents were living.  Tarpaper tacked to the roof flapped in a hot July breeze.

“I come to say good-bye, James,” Tater continued.  “We’re leavin’.  Tomorrow, as a matter of fact.”

“Now how in the hell you leavin’?  You got a crop in the field and it’s the middle of the summer.”

“My daddy’s gonna bring it in.  He’s gonna hire some hands to chop and pick and he’ll send me half a what he gets.”

“Goddmann, Tater.  Where you goin’?”

“Up north.  Edie read in the Memphis paper that they’s jobs all over creation in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland; all them big cities got factories making stuff now and payin’ good wages.”

“I’ll be damned if I’ll ever do that,” Daddy said.  “I’m havin’ me a farm.”

“I sure do hope you do, James.” Daddy’s friend put out his hand and they shook before Tater turned and walked down the dirt two track toward the distant paved road.  “I’ll send you a post card and let y’all know how we’re doin’.  Tell Joyce Edie’ll try to come by later today to say good bye.”

Daddy bent back to his hoe and a dream that was more fragile than he had yet realized.  As a business proposition, sharecropping did not provide good odds of acquiring financial independence from the landowner.  In fact, sharecropping approximated a modern form of indentured servitude.  Prospects were not good for reaching a financial status that enabled a sharecropper to purchase the land he was working.  Instead, harvest generally left the tenant grower with barely enough money to feed and clothe his family through the winter and purchase seed for spring planting.  In a good year there might be a sufficient number of cotton bales to enable a reasonable profit but tenant farmers generally had to give half of a harvest to the landowner whose soil they had tilled.  Unless they gave up and left out of desperation, sharecroppers tended to be stuck in a cycle of repeating financial shortfall that offered little hope for either prosperity or independence.  There were, of course, all of those other variables like weather and the price of cotton that added dimensions of even greater risk.

Daddy hung on.  Ma, though, had been ready to leave the moment she had arrived in the Mississippi Delta flatlands.  Before she came to the American South from Newfoundland, my mother had thought she was going to be living on a plantation with servants who brought her cool drinks as she glided around in hoop skirts and her handsome and gallant husband oversaw the fieldwork on horseback.  She told me the uninformed vision she had of Dixie came from the romantic dreams she had acquired as a teenager during a viewing of Gone with the Wind. Unfortunately, Daddy had delivered her to a two room, rotting wooden structure set atop cinderblocks in the middle of a sea of cotton rows.  Water came from a hand pump off the back steps and an outhouse had been set over a hole dug in the ground on the edge of the field. Ma said she lay awake every night and watched the stars passing between the gaps in the roof slats and worried that she had made a terrible, irreparable mistake.

“I was scared of the land, too, son,” Ma told me.  “I had never been anywhere that there weren’t some hills.  All of that flatness and open country was just frightening.  I didn’t know what to think of it and we were so alone out there.  I should’ve listened to my mother and never left home.”

Ma had not adjusted but she was slowly resigning herself to Daddy’s stubbornness.  In their fourth year of tenant farming, my father was convinced the bumper crop of cotton bolls and good market prices were likely to provide a cash surplus for a down payment on his own section of land.  Ma was unrepentantly doubtful but was sustaining her delicate patience until a large snake crawled out from behind her dinner plates.  There were no cupboards in their shack and whoever had lived there previously had nailed wooden produce crates to the wall to create shelves.  Ma kept her modest collection of dishes and pans in these crates and when she reached for a plate she disturbed a dark green snake that had curled up inside a cooking pot.  She had never seen a snake and screamed loudly enough that Daddy heard her more than a quarter of a mile away at the end of a turn row.

A few days later as he was walking toward the house for lunch, Daddy looked up and saw a shining black car spinning columns of dust out behind its tires as it bounced down a tractor path in his direction.  His first reaction was to suspect the wealthy landowner was coming to try to change the terms of their agreement because the summer had produced the fattest cotton bolls in recent memory.  As the car drew closer, though, and came to a stop, Daddy recognized the angular face of his friend Tater Kotch.  The door of the waxed and buffed car quickly swung open and Tater rose up in a pressed white cotton shirt and slacks with shining brown shoes.  Daddy was holding the handle of a hoe as Tater came toward him with his right hand extended.

“Well, I’ll be go to hell,” Daddy said.  “If’n it ain’t ol’ Tater Kotch.”

“Hello, James.  How are y’all?”

“We’re all right, I reckon.  But you look like yer doin’ a bit better, ain’t ya?”

“Hi Tater.”  Ma stood at the doorway with her two daughters, Elaine and Bev, clinging to her wrinkled work dress.

“Hello, Joyce.  Nice to see you.”

“Where’s Edie?”

“She’s over at mom ‘n ’ems’.  I said I wanted to run over and see y’all real quick.  She wants to come over before we go back north, though.”

Because Tater Kotch’s visit was a critical moment in my parents’ lives, Daddy and Ma remembered the conversation in great detail.

“What you got there, Tater?”  Daddy nodded in the direction of the car.

“That’s a brand new Buick Roadmaster, James.  Ain’t she somethin’?  Drove her down from Michigan.  It’s got what they call now DynaFlow.”

“Who let you drive a car like that, Tater?  Who’s it belong to?”

“Belongs to me, James.  I’m buyin’ from the Buick.”

“Like hell it belongs to you.  How’d you ever get a car like that?” Daddy asked.

“I told you I done bought it, James,” Tater said.  “How you reckon I got it?  Stole it?”

“Where’d you get that kinda money?  Somebody you know die?”

“Naw, James, I didn’t inherit nothin’.  I got me a job up workin’ in one of them car factories.  You can make good money up there?”

“How much good money?”

Daddy remained skeptical that Tater or any southern farm boy might ever have a job that made possible such possessions.

“Enough to get me a car like this,” Tater said.  “Ain’t that enough?”

I was doubtful when I first heard this recollection.  The scene was too prosaic to be true; the gleaming sedan under the drowsy Arkansas sky, outlined against the faded, unpainted wood of that sharecropper’s house.  Daddy’s memory, though, was convincingly detailed.  As the years passed, instead of finding the story improbable, I realized it was almost certainly true and had happened many times across Dixie.  There were just too many people who had left the farm after World War II and had gone north to trade certain factory wages for the insecurity of growing crops. No worries about drought or flood were involved in making cars and there was a constant, reliable paycheck every week.  The Dixie Disaspora was undoubtedly inclined to return home and display the prosperity earned by leaving the land and going to the assembly lines and foundries of the north.

Almost 50 years later, I happened to read a John Grisham novel that had been recommended to me by a friend who said it sounded like my family.  In “A Painted House,” Grisham wrote of a boy who came home from Detroit in his new car, attempting to convince his younger relatives to go north and escape the farm.  Oddly, Grisham gave this character the nickname “Tater.”  Daddy was dead by the time the novel was published and Ma had not read a complete book in decades and they had shared their story with several of us children more than thirty years earlier.  Tater Kotch had apparently become part of an American archetype that defined an era.

“I didn’t pay for that beauty all at once, James,” Tater explained.  “The factories got a way you can pay a little at a time.”

“What’s the wages like, Tater?” Daddy asked.

“Depends on what job you get, James.  But I know boys that’s getting’ three, four, and even five dollars an hour with over time.”

Daddy did not respond but Ma said Tater kept talking about the new neighborhoods that had risen up out of subdivided farm land and how almost anyone who wanted work had a job and a house and a car and their families ate in restaurants every week.  As his friend described this improbable new world, Ma told me Daddy let the hoe fall from his hands.

In a few months, my parents and my two older sisters were climbing aboard a Continental Trailways bus in Marked Tree, Arkansas with tickets for Flint, Michigan.  They did not know a solitary person in Flint and had only a remote prospect of sleeping on the floor in the extra room of an apartment owned by a friend of Tater’s.  Daddy’s entire yearly earnings from selling cotton was just over $600.00 and that was all that there was to support his family between the field and the factory.  Climbing the steps into that bus was more hopeful than rational.

I have a vivid image of that day in my parents’ lives and it makes me feel as if I too lived through its entirety.  Daddy is sitting next to the window near the front of the coach with my sister Elaine beside him and Ma and Beverly across the aisle.  Ma is excessively energetic and excited about getting away from their daily deprivations in the middle of the cotton patch.  She is apprehensive, though, of yet another unknown.  Nonetheless, she is enthusiastic about finally beginning an independent existence with her husband and children.  In this imaginary tableau, I see Daddy staring quietly at the patchwork of green fields slipping away through his window and down the highway behind the bus, fading in the distance.  As the pavement bends eastward toward the great river, my father watches the brown Mississippi, endlessly pulling America southward, flowing in the direction of the homestead he had envisioned, the river spreading its rich sediment and floodwaters across the Delta to fertilize the hopes of some other farm boy still privileged to be working the soil.

6 Comments for this entry

  • David Lauricella

    Jim, Very nice take on today’s news. I wonder how many Taters in Michigan are jumping in their faded Buicks and looking for a promising future back in the Sunbelt states. You going to do a Part II?

  • Jim

    Actually, David, I’d like to do a book and have a proposal floating around in NYC with my agent but times is tough in the book bidness, too.

  • Lee Dunkelberg

    Not a bad bit of writing there, Jim. Nice story too, It must take a lot of something to toss aside a dream, step on a bus and chase reality.
    Good luck with the book proposal.

  • Greg Groogan

    As a long time FOM (friend of Moore) I’ve had the pleasure of reading many chapters inspired by the migration north and resettlement of this American family. I assure you they are compelling, truly insightful and should be shared with a national audience.

  • John Pagels

    Great writing as usual Jim. I was unaware of the reason for your family’s move from the deep South to the Flint-area. Hope-(to dreams fulfilled, to now)-heartache for so many. Growing up on a small farm in the Birch Run/Frankenmuth area of Michigan I knew of very few folks not directly connected to the automobile industry and so many others were indirectly impacted by the industry’s giant socio-economic tentacles.

  • JamesD

    Thanks for the useful info. It’s so interesting

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