Monday, March 31, 2008

Sometimes the Child Must Protect the Parent

Gardening was a family chore from which no one was ever excused. It began with bringing home milk cartons from school in January and February so we could cut off their tops and use them as small individual planters for indoor seedling starts. We were more than embarrassed to collect the empty cartons after milk break each morning and afternoon. Each Monday during the first two months of the year we took a black garbage bag to school. Mom arranged with the teachers for us to collect empty milk cartons all week. The pile of cartons would grow until we hauled it home on Friday, the oversized yet lightweight bag knocking our ankles the entire way home.

When spring arrived we spent hours in the still cold air hoeing rows marked by two sticks with twine strung in between, creating a fertile bed for our small plants. Once nestled in the black soil, we tended the garden rows daily all summer long, weeding meticulously so no nutrients would be stolen from our quickly growing plants.

When it came time to harvest, our personal preference played much too large a role for mom and dad’s liking. We purposefully left as many green beans hanging on the plants as we felt we could get away with. But we made certain to grab every strawberry and ear of corn, often too eagerly plucking them before they were fully ripe. Another crop we never left behind in the dirt was our pumpkins.

Over time, we gradually became better at growing the large orange holiday staple. We found the best variety that grew into perfect big round beautifully shaped Halloween decorations. One year, our planting time corresponded perfectly with the rain and the sunshine in the crisp fall air ripened our large orange fruit on the vines.

With an extra bounteous crop, we excitedly picked out the six largest gourds for each of my sisters, my brother and me. Proudly displayed on the front porch, we put the rest of the produce in the back of the station wagon and hauled it to an abandoned gas station on the corner of town square. After several trips we had the inventory ready to sell. With Mom's handpainted banner across the station wagon, our advertising was complete as well.

Once open for business, we assisted our friends and neighbors in the small town as they selected their purchase and after carefully weighing each pumpkin, we’d announce the bill. Our big eyes glistened with each sale, which added more and more money to our metal cash box. When a poor family came by, Mom’s soft heart would encourage us to give away a couple pumpkins for free, and we didn’t mind too much, because we knew we were still making plenty of cash.

After two consecutive long Saturdays of sales, we came home, happy that we had sold virtually every pumpkin and eager to split up the profits. Since Mom’s station wagon was used for free, as were the pumpkin seeds, land space, water, garden tools, and fertilizer, our overhead was next to zero, making for an assuredly profitable activity.

The following Sunday morning, as we made our way out to the car in the early, still dark morning hours, Dad was the first to spot the night-time destruction. Our individually selected, cream of the crop, huge, orange, prized pumpkins had been smashed all along the street in front of our house. Our house was not the only one hit along the street by the produce pounding thugs. But it was the only one where five girls had spent the previous eight months growing the potential jack-o-lanterns. In our Sunday dresses, our little bums got cold and then numb as we sat on the concrete porch and cried, Dad’s face reddening with every tear drop.

“You older girls go to school Monday and find out who did this,” he instructed.

The orders momentarily silenced our sobs.

“Ask around,” Dad continued, “And you can find out what boys were involved. Then I’ll pay a visit to their father about this whole incident.”

Jackie and I looked at each other frightened. Our looks told each other what we already knew. We knew who did this. But we would never reveal that to Dad.

Most certainly the culprits were some fellows that lived down the street. They were hard and rough. Their dad and all the boys were boxers that spent every weekend in small-time fighting rings. We would never want our father walking up the vacant hill to their poorly maintained house to knock on the door. Dad would be greeted with a punch square in the jaw if he even hinted at those boys’ involvement in the prank.

But we nodded our heads in approval at Dad's suggested detective work.

When Dad came home from work Monday he quickly found us watching Brady Bunch on the black and white television in the family room and asked what we found out at school.

Jackie looked at me signaling she’d take the lead.

“We asked everyone and no one has any ideas.”

“I don’t think anyone we know did it, Dad,” I added shrugging my shoulders.

“It was probably someone from out of town,” Jackie suggested.

I nodded, agreeing wholeheartedly with the brilliant decoy, “Yeah, probably someone we won’t ever know. So there is no way you can go talk to them.”

“Sorry, Dad,” Jackie offered.

“Yeah, sorry,” I added.

Then we started to sniffle in the remembrance of our pumpkin loss and the future of no jack-o-lanterns for Halloween. That ended the conversation before our unskilled lying gave us away.

Dad encouraged us to not give up and to keep “asking around”. We promised him we would.

After a few more days of no names and no news, Dad suggested, “Maybe I should do some talking to the neighbors.”

“Oh no, Dad! Don’t do that!” we begged. We told him we could do a much better undercover job ourselves at school.

“You don’t think it was that family of boys on the hill down the street do you?” Dad suggested referring to the boxers, the most likely offenders.

“Them? Heck no!” Jackie shouted. “They look mean, but they would never smash our pumpkins.”

“Maybe I should just go talk to their dad anyway,” Dad reasoned.

“No, no, no!” we begged. “It wasn’t them, we’re sure of it!”

And so our dialogue continued off and on for weeks as Dad was adamant to find the boys that broke his daughters’ pumpkins and hearts. And we were just as adamant to keep him out of boxing fist harm, by preventing him from ever learning the true identity of the offenders.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sometimes Boys Look and Notice

One of the better money making opportunities for young kids in rural Iowa was walking beans. Beaning, as it was called, was actually weeding (of the beans). For a few weeks in the summer the opportunity to make much more than minimum wage was one which my younger sisters and I embraced, even though the work was dirty and difficult.

One year, by a stroke of luck, we managed to get hired on with a very tough, but well paying crew near Randolph, Iowa. We labored with a couple dozen or more young people, but at 12, 13 and 15, we were the babies of the group. Most days we divided up into two groups with the farmer’s wife taking one group and his son, who was about 19, taking another. My sisters and I were assigned to the younger group with the farmer’s wife. And the son would take the stronger, older kids. But we’d usually meet up with them around mid morning for our break and again at the end of the day. In beaning country, the end of the day, thankfully, was always 12 noon.

After meeting at the farm house promptly at 5:45 AM, we would climb in the back of an assigned pick-up truck. Then we were taken on what my dad would consider a scenic drive through farm fields and dirt roads before we eventually ended up at that day’s designated bean field.

During the drive, my sisters and I missed all the scenery as we would curl up together bracing ourselves against the wind. Even with our heads buried under our arms, our arms buried in our t-shirts, and our bodies pressed up against our legs, our teeth chattered the entire way. Our once combed hair in a neat ponytail would soon be a mangled mess as well. Hitting ruts in the dirt roads was inevitable so the ride did nothing for our tailbone comfort either.

Some mornings I marveled at how the dreaded windy ride felt so icy and miserable in the morning and yet was a cool welcome relief a few short hours later. I fruitlessly wished I could store up the cold air and dispense it throughout the morning as the sun would start to bake the farmland.

Once at the field, we grabbed our bean hooks and in a very organized fashion briskly walked the endless bean rows. We kept a keen eye for sunflowers, ragweeds, milkweeds, or the hard-to-spot button weed. When we came upon an unwelcome brier, we would quickly and expertly use the 5 foot long bean hook to slice the weed at the base, without slowing our forward moving pace. And so the weeds quickly fell leaving only beautiful round bean plants with small white blossoms standing in perfect rows.

The summer job had more hazards than the uncomfortable truck ride. At our parents' insistence, we wore long jeans to do the work, and the early morning dew from the maturing bean plants would soak into our jeans. Our pants would hang and stretch long, cold and heavy on our legs, making walking difficult. Inevitably mud would cake not only on our shoes, but the bottoms of our jeans as well. And since we were speed walking, the brisk pace in the wet, mud-caked jeans was even more of chore.

Our cold, wet, heavy legs were only temporary. As the morning heated up we quickly dried out and warmed up. We always warmed up much more than anyone would hope for.

Usually we wore gloves to mitigate the heavy calluses that developed on our otherwise tender palms. But the gloves became unbearably hot after a few hours, so sometimes (against Dad’s strict orders before we left home) we’d take them off and stick them in our back pockets. But as we sped through the thigh-high beans, the plant leaves would slice up our bean hook toting hands if we did not hold them high enough above our waist.

Once in a while we would come across a larger than normal weed and after a few tugs with the bean hook, we’d finally take it down. However the additional exertion sometimes caused us to continue slicing through the weed, through our jeans and into our leg. A little blood was part of the gig, so we kept walking; trying to make sure we were never the last one in our group to reach the end of a row.

While the work was anything but easy, by far our biggest obstacle was the sun and the heat. Most crews we had worked with in years past stopped for a water and graham cracker break once an hour. This crew stopped once every three hours.

The only thing that made it all worth while was getting a big paycheck. It was always handwritten by the farmer’s wife, while we waited in the shade of an old tree in the front yard of the farm house. After our Saturday shift waiting for our checks we'd often get our fill of lemonade and oatmeal cookies too.

But the job had other perks. Speed walking six hours a day, six days a week, made my thighs as lean as pretzel sticks. Since I spent many of my afternoons at the community pool, in the early eighties when dark coconut oil trumped sunscreen, I was quite tanned as well.

I maximized the look by wearing short shorts every summer afternoon. One day toward the end of beaning season I came home from another day of drudgery, and as usual showered and curled my hair. I put on a bit of lip gloss for a finishing touch. With all signs of dirty farm work erased, I dressed in tan cotton short shorts and a teal green knit polo top.

At my mom’s request, I then rode my bike up town to run an errand. After setting the used Schwinn against the white washed store front, I walked in. The old wooden door had a Christmas bell, holly included, hanging on it which jingled with each opening and closing. In the nearly empty, dimly lit mom and pop store I grabbed what I needed and got in line to pay for my purchase. Somewhere from the back room appeared the farmer’s son in a John Deere yellow and green baseball cap.

He took one look at me and then took a longer drink.

“Debbie,” he asked, as if he was not sure he recognized me, “Is that you?”

I was immediately offended. “How could he see me virtually everyday for a month and still not recognize me?” I wondered. But I was also terrified to have been spoken to directly by a nineteen year-old boy.

So I nodded in the affirmative.

“Boy, you look a shade different than you do in the bean field,” he commented still eyeing me from glossed lips to tanned ankle.

I was so embarrassed and confused I did not know what to say. All I could think of was that I hoped I looked different than I did as a the mangled hair, muddy mess that I was in the bean field. After a few moments of my dumb-stricken silence, he shrugged his muscular shoulders slightly, smiled, met up with his girlfriend, and walked out of the store.

The next Monday morning in the bean field I was suddenly bumped up to the older crew. This promotion meant I received a 50 cents an hour raise for the rest of the season. My younger sisters, on the other hand, remained with the farmer’s wife for the next couple weeks.

While my dad was proud, assuming his daughter’s hard work had caught the farmer’s eye, I realized it probably had a lot more to do with the eye of farmer’s son and my short shorts.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

You are Rarely as Cool as You Think You Are (PART 2)

This is part two of a two part series. Read Part One here.

It seemed my knowledge of popular of music remained forever hindered after that. However, I did not realize the extent of my popular music handicap until years later in Mrs. A’s 9th grade Algebra class.

Humming a pop ballad before the bell rang to signal the start of class, I sat at my desk behind Bobby. As I opened my text book and began locating my homework from the night before, Bobby turned around in the one piece desk and chair, and asked in a highly agitated voice, "Why are you humming that stupid ol' song?"

"It's not stupid. And it's not old," I retorted. "It is a pop song. As in a song that is popular. Duh."

"You really think that song is popular," he asked. "What radio station do you listen to anyway?"

"I listen to FM 100,” I retorted grasping the name of one of only a few radio stations whose weak, static-filled signal made it to our small town. “What do you listen to?" I asked.

"Ha! That is an old lady station." Bobby said, "I knew it! You are a nerd. Rock 95 is what the cool kids listen to. Don't you know anything?"

At that moment I wondered if I should have said Sweet 98, but realized it probably would not have mattered much, so I continued to defend my original answer.

"I am not a geek! FM 100 is a fine radio station. They play all kinds of popular songs like Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow!"

"Oh my gosh!" Bobby snorted, "You are worse than I thought! Have you ever even heard of Ratt?"

Confused by what farm varmints had to do with the discussion, I paused, unsure of how to respond.

"How about Metallica?" he continued, "Motley Crue? Def Leppard? You'll never be cool like me."

Finally, the bell rang interrupting our debate.

Bobby turned around, stuck a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek, returned the can to the back pocket of his tight jeans that had a round, weathered imprint of the circular container in the middle of the stitched "W". He straightened up the collar of his plaid western cut shirt, kicked his cowboy boots out under the desk in front of him and slumped in his chair, now fully prepared to sleep through the upcoming lecture.
Wow. Isn't that cool?