In the summer of 1986, it might have been hard to choose who was more miserable: The farmers of the deep South or me.
Now, I, being the self-centered, newly minted college graduate, would surely have chosen myself because kids that age think that everything revolves around their comfort. I was plopped down in Indianapolis at a sports marketing firm where I oversaw NASCAR-related public relations for top companies. I was so homesick that I cried daily. Poor Mama. She was similarly miserable because she knew how I longed to touch the red dirt ground on which I was raised.
The truth of the matter is that it was the South, her farmers and the people who counted on that dirt to produce income who were in true depths of despair in ‘86. Even the beauty shops were hurting because the women were squirreling away money, not knowing what hard times lay ahead.
“Hearing your voice on the phone Sunday night,” Mama wrote in a letter, “was as cherished to me as any precious drops of rain that might fall in this drought.”
The most historic drought in the South’s past century had slyly begun after a rainfall on March 12. No one suspected that spring rain to be the last for months. By middle May, farmers were squirming. Every morning, they headed straight outside to survey an unflinchingly stoic sky with hot sun and no clouds.
By June’s beginning, the preachers were being called into service. Even the New York Times deemed the rainless land worthy of news coverage and sent a reporter to write about the withering dirt from which came a hefty amount of America’s produce. Churches scheduled special prayer services, and people poured in to drop to their knees and ask Almighty God to send rain. Many brought umbrellas to underscore their faith in the power of prayers.
It became ritual between Mama and me. She usually wrote once a week, then we talked a couple of additional times. Her news – other than who had died or was about to – related to the drought.
“We’ve just about gone through all our hay your Daddy put up last summer,” she told me. “Prices are too low to sell the cows. I don’t know what we’re gonna do, but the good Lord will see us through.”
In the Midwest, the skies had not withheld rain, so those farmers were strong and well. When it became evident how the Southern farmers were close to ruination, the Midwesterners didn’t hesitate. They stepped forward and offered help. In June, it became a daily ritual of turning on the news, seeing Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and other Heartland farmers loading hay into 18-wheel rigs and sending convoys of trucks to troubled Deep South farmers. As I watched the caravans, I cried with both homesickness and gratitude for the kindness of neighbors who lived hundreds of miles apart.
Tim Richmond, a beloved friend, was a NASCAR star born into tremendous Ohio industrial wealth. For his 16th birthday, he received a new Trans Am, a small airplane and a speedboat. He had never known deprivation or suffering, though later he would know it in spades because no one escapes tribulations. But in 1986, Richmond was a handsome, dazzling racing star. One with a big heart. He went back to Ohio to lend a hand when Charlotte Motor Speedway organized a convoy called the Hay Bale 500. Dressed in jeans, a red Western shirt, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat – Tim liked the costume to match the task – he climbed behind the wheel of the first hay-loaded 18-wheeler, stuck his head out the window and hollered to the trucks behind him, “I’m leading from flag to flag. Don’t pass me!”
These extraordinary kindnesses saved Southern farmers in 1986. I believe America is still blessed with neighbors like that. You just don’t see it on television much anymore, but they’re just a convoy away.