Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 136 Gardening         

           Al and Jack and I liked to get away from the city. We went hunting, trapping and fishing. In November, we went on long walks in the fields at the edge of town with our 16 gauge shotguns ready for the rabbits that never jumped out. We also had .22 rifles for target practice. December was trapping season and we each set two dozen jump traps and got several muskrats whose skins we dried and sold for one dollar each. Jack’s mom worked as a cook and she parboiled and roasted a muskrat dinner for us. We had selected a fat one that lived in a pond near a cornfield. It was delicious.

           We met Charlie Smith (no relation) an old man who lived with his sister in a cabin on the edge of town. Charlie told long stories of his life working in the woods of central Pennsylvania . Their cabin had an outhouse and a shallow well pump in the back. The Pump was located near the outhouse and wasn’t working well so we pulled it up and saw that the pipe was rusted through. We replaced the pipe and it worked fine but we did not drink from it.

           We often dropped in to talk with Charlie. His stories were like those of William Faulkner about men and dogs and wild animals in the Mississippi wilderness. He seemed to be a happy man. He never married and drifted to wherever he could find work. He told us about the women in the “sporting houses” near the lumber camps. He was the only adult I knew who had cast off the usual cloak of respectability that most grownups used to distance themselves from our teenage world.

           His sister, Druscilla, was sick and was taken to the hospital. She needed blood transfusions but they had no money to pay for it. Al and I were both 15 years old and we volunteered to give our blood for her. Later I became a regular donor. Drucy died and never came back home. He was also in poor health and one leg was later amputated but he survived for several more years.

           Charlie had a garden space with good soil but could not work on it anymore. In the early spring, he agreed that we could use it and we decide to grow tomatoes. Our home gardens had poor gravel soil and our parents encouraged us. We spaded the garden and waited out the last snow flurries, then planted a hundred tomato plants. As the season progressed, we realized that we had taken on a big job. My dad joined us in weeding and hauling water from the pump. He gradually took over the garden that provided tomatoes for both our families for several years during WWII when Al and I were both in the Navy and “ Victory Gardens ” were popular on the home front.

           Last year, I made a small garden in our front yard to grow radishes, carrots, beets, lettuce and parsnips. We have clay soil and I had to bring in some top soil and steer manure. The birds waited until we sowed the seeds and then flew in for a snack. We have trees and we don’t get much sun but it was fun to eat our own produce. Best of all were the parsnips that are often hard to find at the farmer’s market. Like ‘Lil Abner in the funny papers I love po’k chops and buttered parsnips. 


           It is now March, 2009 and I am constructing two small raised beds in a sunnier spot on our lawn to be filled with top soil. It reminds me of sixty-five years ago when Al and I were spading up our garden in a snow storm and anticipating the pleasure of eating our own ripe tomatoes. I am not a serious gardener. I do enjoy watching the new life spring up. The garden is also a reminder of an earlier war and its victory gardens and of old Charlie Smith who was cheerful to the end.

           Some think that our preemptive wars are destroying our civilization and the cultures of our enemies. Some fear that we are entering another Great Depression. A few still believe that America is immune to failure or that God will protect us. Voltaire considered these questions in the novel “Candide” and advised us each to go home and cultivate our own garden. As small as it is my garden helps me to hang onto the remnants of my sanity as I turn off the word processor and pick up the shovel.     



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