Rudolf cursed his fate. Picking cotton was worse than treating lice and crabs on his shipmates’ peckers, a radio operator’s secondary job in the absence of a doctor. Searching through intimate body parts made him nauseous, much to the delight of the men on U-893, but picking cotton was far worse; it was a degrading exercise in utter monotony.
It was also dirty work—not because the cotton itself was soiled, but because of the changing working conditions. The first hard frost had arrived in mid-November, popping open the most mature of the cotton bolls, nature’s protective cover for the cotton that withered in the cold and turned brown with hard vengeful edges that grabbed at Rudolf’s hands. With each successive frost, more bolls popped open. If the ground was wet from rain, Rudolf and the other prisoners worked in mud, slogging from bush to bush, dragging their six-foot-long bags. More often than not, however, the days were windy, and then they worked in constant flowing dust, the pickers resembling giant insects with long tails.
Ruth Feller was always there, early in the morning, directing the men, encouraging them with her ready smile to pick their one hundred pounds a day. She walked often to her truck, parked near the ditch bank, checking on her husband who sat inside with a blanket covering his legs and his stained fedora on his head. By mid-morning, she would take him back to the house not far from the picking fields. At lunch break, she stood again by the ditch bank, handing out food, and returned at intervals during the afternoon to check on the men’s progress.
Catching glimpses of Ruth Feller throughout the day, Rudolf sensed the strength it took for her to guide the workers, tend to her sick husband, and prepare food for the prisoners. There seemed no one else to help her except her son. Unwittingly, Rudolf compared her with German women toiling in the harvest fields while their men were at war, and he felt odd for doing it, equating an American woman with stalwart German women. He had always pictured American women as spoiled, spending time primping while nigger maids tended their households and raised their children. Rudolf realized Ruth Feller did not fit that image and it unsettled him as he moved mindlessly through the thick rows of cotton pulling the white harvest and stuffing it by the handfuls into his trailing bag.
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