Clinic Stories

Motivational Spitter

My first visit to Mississippi was July 1987. I had recently joined a drug company and was asked to help with a trial being concluded at Mississippi State University. I flew into the Golden Triangle Regional Airport, the golden cities being Starkville, Columbus and West Point, and was at MSU the next morning 6:30 AM. The plan was to start early - July in Mississippi tends to be warm. Three farm hands, black men in their 20’s, were there to help a coworker and me. The work involved individually weighing thousands of chickens in different pens being fed various levels of a growth promoting compound that never made it to market.

We started promptly at 7:00 AM, catching the birds, separating male and female, weighing them individually, recording the weights and transferring them to an adjacent processing facility. The three farm hands stood and watched for the first two pens. We paid no mind and moved to the second, then the third pen. Then one took the sheet to write down weights, followed by another who lazily got into the pen and began catching chickens. By the fourth pen all three were in action and the pace picked up. Soon it was an assembly line and we were backing them up in the processing area. With a system in place, conversation picked up - names, interests, backgrounds, what sports did you play and so on. Soaked in sweat and covered with dust and feathers, it was hard to recognize who was who. One man asked “Are you sure you’re a doctor? I never seen no doctor work like you.” When we got to the halfway point it was clear that we would finish by noon. We continued frenetically, and what looked to be an all day job was done by just past 11 AM. In a few hours a deep mutual respect had developed and my coworker and I were fast friends with the Mississippi farm crew.

We ordered lunch and drinks and were cooling off beneath a shade tree when the farm manager arrived. A short white man with a paunch and a thick wad of tobacco in his left cheek sauntered up. My coworker introduced me to “Frank”, the farm manager. With no formalities typical of an introduction, such as hello or nice to meet you, he moved directly to “Getting any work out of these n-gg-rs?” punctuated by a splatter of tobacco juice to the side. I explained that the reason we were finished so early was due to their hard work which their coating of grime bore out. He stared stolidly for a moment, then sauntered off without a word. I apologized to his employees who naturally said it had nothing to do with me. I repeated the story of my first trip to Mississippi to many people I worked with there and received one of two reactions. More common was “How embarrassing”. The rest shook their heads slightly and gave a commentless stare as if to ask, “Why would you tell me that?” We never ran another trial at Mississippi State and I never saw them or Frank again. I am certain though, that he did not get much work out of his boys that day or thereafter.

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