Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cotton Module Builder

When I hear cases in Cape Girardeau I often encounter claimants who had jobs unique to the region. I've written before about interviewing a tow boat deckhand. In case you missed that one you can read it here: I've also taken some pretty interesting testimony from a crop duster tender. This week it was a cotton module builder.

In every hearing I follow a general outline of questions. I start by getting a vocational background. The claimant is a fellow in his later 40s from the “bootheel” of Missouri. There are no cities in this section of far southeastern Missouri. Its agriculture has more in common with Texas and Alabama than the rest of Missouri. It's flat Mississippi bottom land. They grow a lot of cotton.

Within the first minutes of the hearing I always ask how far the the claimant went in school, whether they had any special vocational training and whether they served in the military. To this last introductory question this claimant replied he had been in the army for a few weeks.

“A few weeks?”

“Yeah, they threw me out. They said I had an attitude problem; that I wasn't suited.”

“What happened?”

“Well, Judge, you see they made us take a swimming test. When I jumped in I got water in my nose so I crawled out. They said I had to get back in and tread water. I can't do it the way they wanted. I told them, but they threatened to throw me in the brig if I didn't jump back in. The Sargent yelled at me what if you have to abandon ship? Don't you want to know how to tread water? I told him that if I had to abandon ship I'd wear a life vest and if they'd give me a life vest I'd jump right back in the pool. They threw me out after that, you know, for talking back.”

The vocational expert smiled. The claimant's lawyer was grinning under his walrus mustache. I liked this guy. He claimed to be a slow learner, but he was showing a good deal of common sense, not to mention foolish courage.

I moved on to past jobs. He had a hard time keeping one for long. They were all heavy labor, farm and factory work. I asked him about the field work he had done.

“Judge, I worked building modules one season for about seven days, but my condition kept me from doing it.”

“Did you say modules?”

“Yup, you know, cotton modules.”

“No, I don't. I'm new to Missouri. What's a cotton module?”

“Well you sit on this big machine and pull levers.” He put each hand out in front of his chest and pantomimed a slow alternate pumping movement. “It packs the cotton down.”

I was unable to visualize anything. I tried a few more questions, but he just kept pumping his hands out and back. I looked at the vocational expert. She shrugged as if to say she didn't know either. The claimant's lawyer cleared his throat.

“Judge, maybe I can help here. Back in the old days when cotton was harvested they would dump in into wagons then field hands would climb on top and pack it down with their feet. When a wagon was full they would haul it to the gin. This took a lot of wagons and was very time consuming. Nowadays there is a machine that looks a bit like a garbage truck that builds huge modules of cotton right on the ground in the fields. It uses a hydraulic ram to pack the cotton then these huge modules are hauled to the gin for processing. The operator sits like in a tractor cab and pulls two levers to operate the ram.”

“OK, now I sort of get it. Does operating these levers take much force?”
“No Judge, it's pretty easy, but I just couldn't do it. They had to let me go.”

To get a better idea of how the module builder works take a look at this short video:, for those who need to know even more about the advent of this quite significant agricultural innovation see:

As the hearing was drawing to a close I ask whether the claimant has a driver's license. This fellow said he didn't. Why was that? He lost it after a conviction for DWI.

“But Judge, I wasn't even driving! See this buddy of mine was with me and we were both pretty drunk. When the cops pulled us over he was driving. They didn't arrest me, but they took his car, so I rode along to the jail. They locked him up, but let me go, see. I went out, but it was winter and I didn't have a coat. I walked along a row of cop cars until I found one unlocked with the keys in it. I got in and started it up and turned on the heater. Well, after a while I got on the radio and tried to call one of my friends to come get me. That's when the cops came out and arrested me, and I wasn't even driving. I guess I done some pretty dumb things when I get drunk.”

I believed him.

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