Monday, November 03, 2008

Death Comes in Threes: Part II

I owe a lot of my professional success and acumen to an unfiltered Pall Mall-smoking, bird-sized Southern Belle. Presidents of multinational corporations did the bidding of this gravelly voiced, white-haired woman. She was a force to be reckoned with and few could tell her no. Somewhere along the line she decided to become my champion – and to this day I am grateful Betty Anderson took me under her wing.

In the “old-days” of our industry cotton was bought and sold Friday through Wednesday and traditionally on Thursday’s brokers and merchants met in town to trade receipts for cash.

For several months, without having met her, I’d been talking to Betty confirming sales totals and delivery of purchased cotton. To me, she was just another secretary who oversaw the stacks of paper each sale generated. I was pretty sure she couldn’t be too important, ‘cause she was “just a woman”. If there was one thing the cotton industry had quickly impressed upon me in my short tenure, it was that cotton was one of the last bastion of the “old boys clubs” where women served but did not lead, manage, or trade.

For months Betty had been asking if I’d be joining my boss on the Thursday trip. And for months I’d been trying to telling her Phoenix and Thursday’s weren’t part of my job description. I kept making weak excuses as to why I wasn’t included. One day, in exasperation I just blurted out the truth. Although my title was “Assistant Brokerage Manager”, I was really just a clerk, and I’d NEVER get Phoenix.

There are some illustrious company names within the cotton industry. Some you’ve probably heard. The Louis Dreyfus Corporation is Allenberg Cotton Company; Anderson-Clayton use to be part of a little Fortune 500 company called Quaker Oats and Cargill bought Miss Betty’s company which began as Hohenberg Brothers a 129 years ago. In fact, Miss Betty was so synonymous Hohenberg Brothers that many of us called her “Betty Hohenberg” entirely forgetting her last name was Anderson.

I have no idea what transpired between Betty and my boss on that Thursday, but I suspect he was commanded to bring me to her for inspection, because the following Thursday I was in the pickup heading to town. He did nothing to prepare me for that first meeting. I have NO IDEA what I thought she’d be like, but I wasn’t prepared for petit, five foot one, porcelain-skinned queen surveying her kingdom. When she came from behind her desk, she had to hop off her chair. It remains a mystery how she was able to get back in her chair once she was out.

As we walked through the door, I wasn’t really sure it was Betty coming around the desk until she opened her mouth. There was no mistaking her gravelly-voice obtained from years of smoking unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes. It was even more striking because she was dressed to the nines with a broach and earring ensemble on her business suit, a fashionable scarf around her neck, and her hair was beautifully coiffed.

I must not have made too many gaffs that day, because before long, my boss occasionally allowed me to go with him on his Thursdays trips. Of course, once the cotton harvest started, we were all stuck in the office and it wasn’t until the following spring I was once again summoned by Miss Betty.

“I hear you drive the cotton fields and look at the crop?” she told me over the phone.

“Yes ma’am. It’s hard to know how the cotton is going to sell if you don’t know what the crop looks like.”

“When are you going next?” Not realizing what I was getting myself in for, I told her I was planning an excursion one day the following week. “Fine. What time will you be here to pick me up?”

Clearly she wasn’t asking if she could come along, rather I was being informed she’d be accompanying me. Slightly shocked that this fashion page woman would want to spend a day in a dusty pickup, rattling around the back roads of the desert looking at cotton plants, I said I’d be there to pick her up at 7:30 in the morning. “I’ll be ready.”

When I showed up, I quickly realized that the two of us had vastly different ideas of “crop inspecting”. Mine involved an ice-chest filled with beer. Hers involved a tote-bag containing a thermos of flavored coffee, spiced nuts, a muffin or two and fresh fruit. I wore a white tee-shirt, my Stetson 10x straw cowboy hat, wranglers, and hiking boots. She had on red ked canvas loafers, denim clam diggers, and a short-sleeved jacket over a pique cotton blouse.

After settling her bags and packages in the truck cab I realized there was no way Miss Betty could get in the vehicle. She was too short for her foot to reach the threshold. Feeling like I’d stepped back into the horse and buggy days I knelt down and cupped my hands making a stirrup for her to step into. With one swift movement I vaulted her into the truck (actually I almost threw her to the other side because she was so light-weight.)

At the end of the day she claimed she’d didn’t realize you could drive west from Phoenix to the Harquahala Valley, south to Gila Bend, east to Picacho Peak, north to Queen Creek and back to Phoenix and never be on a paved road. Thinking I’d worn her out, I apologized for our three-hundred and thirty mile trip.

“I’ve never had so much fun crop inspecting, nor seen so much cotton. When will you go again?” And so – as I took her around the desert inspecting cotton each spring and summer I grew to respect this diminutive woman who’d trained several generations of cotton traders as they came through the Phoenix office. It wasn’t just the way she talked about “her boys” that impressed me. It was the respect they accorded her.

The cotton crowd is a hard drinking, hard playing bunch of men; much more so in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s than it was in the 80’s and 90’s. But no matter how late they were out – or what mischief they’d gotten into, they always showed up to attend Miss Betty’s school of cotton. Being sent to the Phoenix office was a rite of passage each one of them clearly treasured. No matter where I went, when people found out I was in the Phoenix cotton industry, they’d ask after Miss Betty.

The Western Cotton Shippers had an annual meeting back in those halcyon days. Miss Betty, even though she didn’t trade cotton or sit on any of the committees was always invited to attend. Frequently she arrived via private plane with a president of one transportation company or another. There wasn’t anything we wouldn’t do for her – for she was truly our queen.

The day her boss had to come and tell her it was time to retire was one of the hardest days of his life. How do you tell someone who’s been in an industry for forty-plus years that it’s time to stop grading the cotton and arranging the logistics of containers to carry the cotton from the warehouse to the docks of Long Beach? In the end, I believe he told her Cargill – that evil faceless corporate giant that had sucked up her beloved Hohenberg Brothers – had decided to close the Phoenix office.

Although Miss Betty had a son, daughter, and granddaughter, I think those of us in the cotton industry were her real family. Two or three years after her retirement, her life moved from Strict Middling to Good Ordinary. No one was ever sure of her age – but many bet when she retired in 2000 that she was between eighty and ninety years old. She’d gone from living her independent life in her little apartment, with furniture that perfectly fit her size, to an assisted living community and little privacy or dignity. Without fail, whenever I drove through South Carolina, land of her birth – I’d call her to tell her where I was . And when I came back to Phoenix - I would stop in to see her.

Last March at Memphis the Gin Show, her former boss and I called her up. She sounded so happy to hear from us, but admitted that she didn’t enjoy each day and she was tired of the struggle life had become.

Just as the cotton harvest began this year I received a call from Memphis. Miss Betty had died and wouldn’t be following this cotton harvest from her Phoenix home. It seems only fitting that this is one of the smallest and grimmest years in the cotton industry. Without our queen we’ve lost our way and our heart.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry for your loss, Mit. Take comfort in knowing that Miss Betty is an angel among the Heavens, looking down upon you, to watch after you, and to guard you.

By the way, the visual I got when I read the part about you helping Miss Betty into the truck seat and almost hurling her to the other side made me chuckle like gangbusters. Very nice.

Long live the queen!!


mamie said...

Beautiful, fitting tribute. Wish you had a picture - I'd love to see what she looked like. Great post, Mit.

Keetha said...

Oh, wow. What a great post. By the end I felt like I knew Miss Betty. Just...excellent. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I'm sooo sorry to read that Miss Betty died - she was one of your mentors - and dearly loved by you. tp