Next to coon hunting and his blue-tick hound dog, Bell, Ernest (Guy) Watson liked nothing better than farming tobacco in the sandy soil of southern Prince George's County. When he drove to town, the sights that mainly caught his eye were new tobacco barns. Sometimes he would get up in the middle of the night, pull on a cap, and go down to the "stripping barn" to wrap the damp brown leaves into the big bundles that went to market.
On Sunday afternoon he was once again readying the earth for planting, riding a John Deere tractor over the farmland he once had plowed with horse teams. The tractor hooked a wheel on a culvert, roller over and pinned Guy Watson underneath. People came running but they were too late.
They found a jackknife in the pocket of his green work pants, and counted out the wad of cash he always carried to $398. They found his gold watch too -- fastened to a belt loop. The hands had stopped at 1:22 when he hit the ground.
"He's black and I'm white but that don't make any difference," said Louise Garner, whose father owned the rolling fields and weather-beaten curing barns that had been Guy Watson's home. "The farm was his whole life. He was there ever since I can remember. . . . It's just that he was always there."
Watson was 75 when he died, one of a handful of tenant farmers left in this part of the county. Once sharecropping was a widespread practice, but 22 miles from downtown Washington, it seems like a vestige of a world and time removed.
For 47 years Watson had an arrangement with the farmer for whom Nelson Perrie Road is named. Watson traded his labor for a plot to grow tobacco on and a house to take shelter in. He never owned the land he worked or the house he lived in. Perrie paid for the gasoline and the fertilizer, and when they needed extra hands, he paid for the extra hands. But, as they say hereabouts, the two men worked "through and through," helping each other with their crops and pooling their resources. When they trucked their dried "burdens" of tobacco to market they split the profit, an average of $2,000 for an acre of tobacco, fifty-fifty.
It was an unwritten bargain the landowner and his sharecropper first struck in 1935 and it lasted, with a four-year hiatus, even after Perrie died last summer. The two men had met coon hunting, and it was Perrie's wish that Watson stay on as long as he cared to.
"Time didn't matter to him," said Wallace Garner, who works by day at an appliance store and used to drive over almost every night to help Watson with the farm. "Guy enjoyed work. He was almost one of the family. He looked out for my mother and father-in-law when they were sick. All he ever done all his life is farm."
He lived in a plain white-shingled blue-trimmed cottage set on a windy knoll in back of the slatted tin-roofed curring barns and the Perrie house, which is lavish by comparison, a mansion with two lofty brick chimneys reaching as high as the old oak trees out front.
Watson built his cottage with Perrie in 1941. He heated its four rooms with wood and cooked over a woodstove. He was married briefly before he became a sharecropper, and once lived with his daughter and mother in the cottage, but he had lived alone for the last 15 years.
He pumped his water up by hand from underground, put his laundry through a wringer washer and then out on a wire clothesline to dry. Each spring he planted a vegetable garden on a plot beside two peach trees.
When Perrie was alive, the two of them netted rockfish in the Patuxent and combed the woods with their hounds for raccoons. Aside from eating, and talking about tobacco and watching the Orioles on TV sometimes, Watson's pleasures came from his dogs. Bell was his constant companion and when Watson ventured off the farm once a week to buy groceries, Bell would race after the car to the end of the farm road where the pavement began.
Inside Watson's house, Wallace Garner pointed sadly to a blue vinyl couch and matching chair. "He sat there and that was where Bell sat," he said. "The dog knew something was wrong Sunday."
"She waited all day on the porch for him to come home," said neighbor Ralph Richards.
It was Richards who found Watson minutes after the accident Sunday. He had crossed the long gravel driveway, as if to make a big sweeping turn and start another row, when the green and yellow John Deere toppled into the culvert.
"We don't know whether Guy had a seizure or that big ole tractor got away from him," Richards said. "I was the first one there. There was fire all over the tractor and going all over the field. I saw his legs were pinned. We got another tractor and pulled the John Deere off, but he was already dead. It was a terrible sight. You think of Guy getting old, and you don't think he'll die like that."
Watson will be buried tomorrow at St. Michael's Church in Baden. He is survived by his daughter Gertrude, who lives in Clinton, and two sons James Tolson and Ernest Watson Jr.The Garners ordered green and yellow flowers -- the tractor's colors. An old friend who brought Guy his Bell when Bell was just a puppy stopped by the farm early this week and took the hound in.