I was in high school at a time when it was still common for boys to tinker around on old cars. Often, this meant taking a trip to Boynton’s Auto Salvage to search for a leaf spring or a set of spider gears among the junkyard’s vast array of abandoned vehicles. One day a friend of mine needed to procure a windshield for a very large old car, and two of us accompanied him to Boynton’s, which, we discovered, had a suitable replacement. The office at the junkyard was cluttered with small parts, old carburetors, ignition coils, ashtrays—the usual. A greasy, burnt-petroleum funk hung in the air. Along one wall was a large chicken-wire enclosure, home to a captured squirrel whose name, I kid you not, was Shithead. He was a cantankerous and uncivilized pet and when the men who worked at the junkyard fed him peanuts in the shell, they had to take care not to get a hunk taken out of a finger.
It fell to a fellow named Ernie, a few years older and imminently more wise, to escort us on our windshield-salvaging mission. The four of us drove up the hill to the domain of dead cars in what was known as the “yard car.” The yard car had no doors, no roof, and no seat-belts; it resembled a World-War-II-era Jeep, though I think it was actually a Yugo. Riding with Ernie in the yard car, squealing down muddy lanes between irregular rows of wrecks, was surreal and terrifying. There were even a few pitiful, menacing dogs chained to trees to keep would-be thieves away. Circling around the junkyard was not unlike Dante’s voyage in the Inferno, with Ernie as our Virgil, except we were winding our way uphill instead of down. When we arrived at the car whose windshield we were going to liberate and raised its hood, there was a six-foot rat snake warming itself on the breather. All parties present leapt in surprise, including the snake.
Removing a windshield requires a screwdriver and a piece of steel cable about the diameter of a piece of pencil lead, sometimes called piano wire. You use the screwdriver to work the wire through the rubber gasket surrounding the glass and then feed it through to the interior of the car. Someone in the front seat takes hold of one end of the wire and another person stands on the hood of the car holding the other end. You proceed to draw the wire back and forth like a crosscut saw, cutting through the gasket all the way around until the windshield pops out. It took us a while to get the hang of this procedure, but eventually we were sawing through the gasket in rhythm and at a pretty good clip. As we zipped along the top of the windshield, Ernie called out, “Aw, boys, we’re shittin’ in tall cotton now!”
I have waited more than thirty years for a suitable occasion to explicate Ernie’s wholly resonant metaphor. A line of poetry it ain’t, but it is a genuinely poetic use of language and, except for a slightly fudged first foot, a darn good go at iambic pentameter. And the occasion was certainly suitable for poetic expression: three greenhorns and a slightly older man, assembled on a hot day in a junkyard with an allegorically named squirrel and a menacing snake to boot. Ernie’s words have survived in my mind all these years partly for their good-ole-boy humor, but also for more serious, dare I say artistic, reasons. What does that triumphant exclamation express? “We’ve got this licked!” “We have this in the bag.” We were succeeding in our task and that success was a pleasure; we were following the normal procedure for removing a windshield from a junked car and it was working. That’s the figurative meaning.
But what does it mean, more literally, to “shit in tall cotton”? That has given me reason to wonder through the years. One can assume that if you needed to relieve yourself outdoors you would want some privacy, so tall cotton would be a plus. And, I suppose, a few cotton balls might come in handy in lieu of toilet paper. If one were a cotton grower, having tall cotton would be a sign of a good season, a good yield, and thus a kind of prosperity. Sometimes, when life is going well, people say that everything is “high cotton,” which in that instance has nothing to do with going to the bathroom. But to say, “Aw, boys, we’re shittin’ in tall cotton now” is to mix two expressions, one of which is standard and the other of which is, shall we say, non-standard. It’s not unlike the famous scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Quince observes that his fellow actor, Bottom, has magically sprung a donkey head on his shoulders. Instead of saying, “Bottom, you’ve turned into a jackass,” which is obvious and flat language, Quince says, “Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated.” Now Ernie’s exclamation doesn’t sound so coarse. In fact, if we imagine it in a farcically charged dramatic context, it becomes perfectly and outrageously poetic.