Lessons of Life and Green Tomato Mincemeat
Wed, 12/02/2020 - 12:03pm admin
In many ways, the 1950s lingered another five years beyond its closing date, keeping its hold on the first half of the sixties. Acid hadn’t yet hit rock and roll, and folk music often topped the charts. Still, beatniks and coffeehouse poets preached that the times were changing.
But in 1962, times weren’t changing much in Willow Springs. One thing, for sure, jobs for kids my age were scarce. I had mowed yards and hauled hay, but my first “salaried position” was working for Paul Hunter on the Holsum Bread truck.
I’d meet Paul at Shorty’s B-B Café every Saturday morning at 6 a.m. and ride to Cabool to deliver bread to stores and restaurants. After returning and servicing the Willow stores, Paul would head back to Cabool leaving me to stack boxes at the warehouse and keep loaves straight on the store shelves. I earned $2.75—a day! After 6 months it was raised to $3.00.
It’s weird how memories from the past, such as my working on a bread truck, can recur years in the future. Fifty-six years later at a writers’ conference in Arkansas, a man introduced himself and said he wanted to give me a copy of his novel. I hadn’t met him before, but he recognized me from participating on panels and emceeing one of the conference events.
His name tag indicated he was Sumner from Doolittle, MO. I mentioned that in high school, I worked for a bread truck driver from Doolittle, who had attended high school in the neighboring town, Newburg. “What was his name?” he asked. I told him the man was Paul Hunter. Sumner smiled and said, “He was in my class.”
In the spring of 1962, the only significant change for me was turning 16 and acquiring a driver’s license. Not long afterwards, I drove to Montier to visit my grade school buddy, Larry Stover. Larry had driven a tractor since the third grade and was a first-rate farmhand. The previous summer he had worked in the Kansas wheat harvest on a large farm owned by his sister Nadine her husband Richard.
Larry thought he could get me hired. We sent a letter—the Stovers didn’t have a phone—and got a reply that I had a job, which paid room and board and $1.25 an hour. I could barely imagine such a princely sum.
Nadine and Richard, with their two young children, picked us up at the bus depot in Wichita the night of our arrival in early June. As we rode 30 miles west to their farm near Cheney, Kansas, I realized that as hillbilly I had a limited understanding of flatness. And Kansas is definitely flat. Distances, particularly at night, are deceptive in much the same way the moon appears close but is really far away. Lights in the distance, which I thought were, maybe, 5 miles away, were 20 miles. Richard seemed to delight in pointing out the deceptive distances.
Harvesting wouldn’t begin for a week, but we kept busy with general farm chores, including shoveling knee-deep manure out of a pig pen and battling biting flies, which had the attitude of Kamikazes, while I endured an abscessed tooth. Today, if I’m having a substellar day and want to put things in perspective, I sometimes think back to that day in the Kansas pig pen.
The farm had several tractors, including a nearly-new John Deere Model 2010, a 4-cylinder diesel with a cab that was the fanciest tractor I’d ever seen. To start it, a side-mounted “pony” engine, not much larger than a car battery, “jump started” the main engine simply by turning an ignition key.
Starting the tractor that I always drove, a 1933 John Deere, Model D, involved turning an 80-pound cast-iron flywheel by hand. Even as a strapping 16-year-old, it took all my strength. If the tractor stopped after it had been running, with pressure built up in the cylinders, the flywheel proved to be impossible to turn. Once, I tried when the two-cylinder beast stopped in the middle of a field. I grabbed the hot flywheel and jumped back with a handful of blisters.
Larry and I shared a bedroom in the farmhouse and ate with the family. Nadine furnished substantial meals coordinated around the work schedule. During harvest time, work was paramount. Breakfast consisted of cereal, milk, and eggs, after the morning chores. Afterwards, Larry and I plowed fields until the mid-day meal. Thank goodness for a transistor radio.
Lunch provided the sustaining meal of the day—the kind of meal fit for a threshing crew—such as fried chicken, green beans, potatoes, gravy . . . and pie. With the pie, I learned a lesson of life. Nadine set four large pieces on the table—two apple and two green tomato mincemeat. I had never heard of green tomato mincemeat pie and had little interest in trying it.
Larry, alert to the situation, grabbed a slice of the apple pie. Nadine, I suppose, because she baked it, selected green tomato mincemeat. That left two pieces—one apple and one green tomato mincemeat. Richard’s questioning eyes met mine. On reflection, I have compared that moment to the “Battle over the Tea Cups,” a short story my WSHS English class read, about a Chinese warlord and a traveler. While drinking tea, each tried to outmaneuver the other to keep from being poisoned.
Richard asked me which piece I wanted. Being polite (and thinking he would offer me the choice again), I told him to choose. And he did. He snatched the apple pie. He obviously didn’t operate from the Code of Ozark Manners I had learned. Namely, after I offered him the choice, he was supposed say, “No, you go ahead.” What did I learn? Know the rules before you play, and green tomato mincemeat pie must be an acquired taste.
Once the harvesting began, our days started at 5 a.m., and after lunch, we didn’t eat supper until 9 or 10 at night, but Nadine brought us bologna sandwiches and Pepsis at 4 p.m. that we ate in the field. Larry, with his superior skill set, operated the combine, and Richard followed in a 2-ton dump truck collecting the harvested wheat. I plowed behind them turning over the wheat stubble for fall planting.
When the truck was full, either Richard or I drove 15 miles to the grain elevators in Garden Plain. As a 16-year-old with a newly acquired driver’s license, whenever I drove, the importance of the responsibility weighed heavily on my mind, knowing Richard and his family’s livelihood for the year depended on getting the grain to market.
After the harvest, I spent $40 of my hard-earned cash on my first set of golf clubs. When I got home, I met one of Willow’s best golfers, classmate Jimmy “Tee” Thomas, at the old course on Pine Grove Road for a lesson on golf—another acquired taste.