The sun came out yesterday and in my corner of the Pacific Northwest we seldom take that for granted, especially anytime before July 4. Yesterday happened to be April 8, and so this happy event was relished all the more because of its early date. To me such a blessing is not one to be ignored nor allowed to pass without being enjoyed to the fullest, and in my world that means spending time in the garden. In 1963 the Beach Boys sang about a sanctuary to which they could flee from the troubles of the day. In their song “In My Room” they sang “Do my dreaming and my scheming. Lie awake and pray. Do my crying and my sighing. Laugh at yesterday.” In 1963 I liked that song. In 2016, when I’m in my garden, I understand that song.
Going back ten years before Brian Wilson wrote that song it would have been hard to peg me as a guy who would grow up to love growing edible things. At five years of age I was already engaged in a war with my father over what I would and would not eat, and nearly anything vegetable other than corn, tomatoes and potatoes clearly fell into the ‘would not’ category. I couldn’t understand why my mother would buy those odious weeds and cook them when she knew, plain as day, that I would not eat them and then there would be the devil to pay.
“Just try a bite” my mother would say. “They really taste better than you think.” I knew a bald faced lie when I heard one, and my mouth would temporarily remain free of whatever nauseating plant matter Mom was trying to foist onto me. “Eat those peas!” Dad would growl. “I’ve seen Chinese people row their boats up to the garbage chutes to get what the sailors threw away—.” I wanted to ask Dad if he ever threatened the other sailors who were enjoying their right to chose what they did and did not want to eat the way he was threatening me, but Pop would not put up with backtalk from his offspring, so I would bite back hard on my disgust and insert about half a teaspoon of peas into my mouth and roll them over to my cheek, where I would store them like a chipmunk storing nuts. Dad would continue to insist, I would continue to insert, roll and store, and eventually the dinner table experience would melt down and conclude in a most painful and unpleasant manner. The next day Mom would cook something more congenial to my taste buds and I would enjoy a little caloric intake in peace. Eventually, however, she would have to produce something more consistent with my father’s taste and the tension would begin anew, ending in the next eruption. No sir, nobody would ever have guessed that I would ever want to grow those ghastly plants, least of all me.
Dad wanted to grow them however, and when he wasn’t involved in the aftermath of the Korean War or the opening stages of America’s intervention into the affairs of an obscure corner of Asia called Indochina that was engaged at that moment in throwing off French rule, Dad was planning the garden that he intended to create in our back yard. Dad was just the guy to do it too. He was born and raised on a Georgia farm, and when he joined the Navy after completing high school it was to escape the Great Depression, not the rigors of farm life.
In fact, Dad intended to return to Georgia after his six year hitch in the Navy but a little impediment to his plans called World War II popped up and at that point all thoughts and plans of civilian activities were put on hold for the duration. The duration came to an end in early August of 1945 in the form of mushroom clouds over two unlucky cities in Japan, and not long after that the U.S. armed services began to draw down from their swollen wartime numbers.
“Take Brad and return to Tifton” my father instructed Mom in a letter sent from somewhere on the other side of the world. “I’ll meet you there and we’ll buy a farm with my savings and severance pay. You can stay with my family until I get there.”
That wasn’t a good plan. My mother would have probably done OK on a farm, her early life having been lived in the rough and impoverished coal mining hills of eastern Kentucky. She knew how to wring the neck of a chicken, grind sausage, make preserves and some of the best gravy known to man and so on, but putting my Mom into the orbit of my father’s family was like throwing water onto a grease fire.
I don’t suppose my father’s family was all that different from anyone else’s, but there were one or two peculiarities that stood out to me about them. My grandmother suffered from some sort of mental/emotional disease; I don’t know what you would call it now but I’m sure that it has a name and a chapter or two in a textbook somewhere. I just thought that Grandma was crazy as hell, and she scared the shit out of my young self whenever I was back there. And then there was my uncle who once sent Brad to fetch his guitar out of a closet so that he could sing and play for us. “Why does Uncle Fred have a sheet hanging in his closet?” Brad asked when he returned with the guitar. I don’t recall hearing what Uncle Fred’s answer was. Finally, after Grandma died in an automobile accident and Grandpa was forced to live with his kids, I secretly read a letter that Dad had received from his sister, who complained that Dad was not paying enough to support their father. I knew Dad pretty well and knew also that he was, in his own complicated way, a generous man. I’m sure that the language my aunt used in contradicting that assertion was sufficient to turn that old sailor’s ears red.
So off to Georgia Mom went, carrying a one year old and a battered suitcase, and it wasn’t long before the inevitable explosion left Mom and Brad in the only hotel in Tifton until she could get together enough money from Dad or Grandpa or her own family in Kentucky to purchase a ticket on the Greyhound bus back to San Diego, from whence she informed Dad that he could join here or not as he chose. Dad chose to remain united with Mom, and with his Georgia farm plans now lying in smoldering ashes he re-enlisted in the Navy and made it a twenty year career.
Dad was to remain estranged from his farm in Georgia but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t have a garden in San Diego, so when we moved into the house on Highland Ave. in that city a garden was one of the first things that he wanted to begin. As fate would have it, he didn’t get to start right away. Our old, square stucco house needed a lot of work to bring it up to Dad’s standards, and faulty electrical work and inadequate plumbing and the demands of a Navy that still insisted on sending him on six month deployments forced him to put off the ground-breaking that he desired, and so I was six or seven years old when the plan began in earnest.
Dad’s plan ended up being more of a project for Brad and me in the beginning. The adobe clay of our back yard was hard as concrete and thick with rocks which varied in size between pea gravel and bowling balls. Dad still had plenty of other work to do so, as punishment for all of the screwing-up that two little shitbirds like Brad and me could get ourselves into, we would frequently be banished to the back yard with picks, shovels, hoes and rakes and made to break up that unforgiving clay and extract the rocks which would then be heaped into piles and later hauled away to a landfill.
How we didn’t kill each other I haven’t a clue. Brad and I would be simultaneously attacking the dirt with picks and with other sharp metal tools, and rocks and pieces of rocks and our own metal tools would be flying everywhere. Then one of us, usually Brad, would attack the large clods of dirt with a hoe while I would crawl in the dirt and pull out the biggest rocks. Finally we would rake through the rubble of what could have once passed for a perfectly good parking lot and remove the smaller rocks. At the end of a prescribed period of such punishment a small square of broken dirt and a large pile of rocks would be the result of our efforts.
The punishment worked as such on Brad; he really hated having to work in the back yard. It was not in Brad’s personality to work with the dirt. At all! Brad was very good with mechanical things and would have been perfectly happy to have been told to change the oil or perform a tune-up on the family car, or even to wash and wax and vacuum it out. I guess that’s why Dad called it punishment; it wasn’t supposed to be fun.
The funny thing is that Dad’s plan didn’t work on me. I initially groused and whined about the inhumanity of it all because that’s what Brad did, and he was as much of a role model to me as was my father, if not more so. It slowly dawned upon me however that I liked digging in the dirt and hauling rocks off to the dump. I hid this knowledge from my father however because it its a wonderful thing when you have penance to pay to be sentenced to perform what you like to do anyway, although by my teen years Pop had that scam pretty much figured out. By the time that I was eight years old the back yard duty mostly belonged to Dad and me, and that’s when I really began to love the dirt and what it could do.
The first thing that Pop had to do to make our back yard soil suitable for something other than making bricks for Pharaoh was to work organic material into it. Dad knew just what was needed and after a few trips to a dairy in Mission Valley he soon had a pile of cow poop in our back yard that would bring a smile to any Georgia farmer’s face. The only drawback to that was that our neighbors; Mr. Robertson, the Butlers and the crazy Italian lady to the south of us, weren’t Georgia farmers. The fine, rich aroma of a couple of yards of fresh cow shit wafted up out of the picked, shoveled, hoed and raked area that had previously been a surface that could stop a bullet, but at least didn’t stink. Mom was aware of the grumbling that was beginning to circulate throughout the neighborhood but Dad, who had endured five and a half years of naval warfare in the Pacific and was possessed of a naturally truculent attitude anyway, could not have cared less. In fact, I suspect that he enjoyed it.
We worked that manure into the garden area time and time again that summer and fall, and also spent a lot of time sitting in a big bench swing that Dad had built back there or on folding chairs right in the middle of the garden. We would eat peanuts and watermelon and other such treats and throw the shells and rinds, apple cores and potato peelings and everything else that a kitchen might produce into the garden where it would rot and enrich the soil.
It was in these times that Dad and I would enter into a fantasy world. Pop would open a beer and tell me stories about being a boy in rural Georgia. I would help myself to my portion of the beer and we would dream of building a cabin in the forest or maybe a farmhouse on 160 acres somewhere in the countryside. I remember talking about taking one green bean seed and growing from it one pant. I would sell the fruit of that plant and use the profit to purchase more seeds, which I would plant again until, sooner or later, I would become a sort of Green Bean Rockefeller. Dad seemed to enjoy my fantasy as much as I did, and I don’t know whether he approved more of my incipient capitalist leanings or just my love of the idea of growing green beans. Maybe it was both in equal measure. In any case, in a childhood where my father’s moods could turn him from Dr. Jeckyll to Mr. Hyde with little warning, these were times when I felt as close to my father as I ever would.
By the next spring the manure had composted enough to allow planting, and plant we did. Seeds for tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans, radishes, turnips and anything else that tickled Dad’s fancy and could be fit into our rather small garden were stuck into the ground and there was great joy when the first little shoots poked their heads up out of the warm, damp earth and into the sunshine. We babied those shoots; further fertilized and protected them with snail and slug bait, and supported them with wood frames for the tomatoes and high crossbars dangling strings for the pole beans to climb. I would spend hours of solitary time in that garden, watering and examining for pests, and at last drew the duty of taking Mom’s stainless steel ‘produce bowl’ into the garden to bring in that day’s bounty.
Most of that stuff I still wouldn’t eat, but how I loved to bring it in anyway. The war at the table raged on unabated until, about age 13 or so, I was given the option of eating what was prepared for me or starve. After literally starving myself Dad threw in the towel, and my love of growing only increased once I was released from the obligation of eating what I had grown.
Fewer evenings of my later teen years were centered on the back yard garden with Dad. On the occasions when we were there we would share some beers and speak of politics, the war that had taken center stage of most people’s attention, Dad’s life as a youth and my thoughts on what I would do after high school was finished. The truth was that I had no plans really, and I’m sure that my lack of aim and goal bothered Dad, who always had some sort of project in mind. He hid any anxiety well enough however, and on those increasingly rare occasions when I wasn’t goofing off with friends of whom Dad wisely disapproved, or wasn’t pining over a pretty girl who would rather go out with a banana slug than an awkward, skinny, tongue-tied kid like me, I was probably digging my fingers into the rich, fertile dirt of the back yard garden and drawing inspiration, perhaps even in ways that I didn’t then understand, from the steady and solid promise of soil well tended with amendments, work and love.