Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Cucumber Patch

My dad has recently been writing short stories about his childhood in NE Texas. Here's his latest one:


The Cucumber Patch

It could have been due to the honey bee stings, having to traipse though the sand burrs, or perhaps the crack-of-dawn start, but something soured me on work in our cucumber patch. However, whether or not I enjoyed it mattered not one whit. Every farm boy learns at an early age, when there is work to be done everyone pitches in, like it or not. Of course my recollected experience of picking cucumbers is viewed through a haze of six decades of fuzzy memory.

If I ever knew why we had a cucumber patch, the reason escapes me now. I do recall that we raised tomatoes for a while, and I seem to remember that the auction barn where we could sell the tomatoes closed permanently. On the other hand, Mr. Landers Guest managed to keep a pickling company going, albeit quite a small affair, and I suppose we raised cucumbers because we could sell them. If ever there was a clearer message about manufacturing and sales, I can’t imagine it – you know the adage: manufacturing without sales equals a large scrap heap!

We started preparing the cucumber patch about the time winter ended in Northeast Texas – roughly mid March. This schedule just happened to yield cucumbers to pick about the time that the school year ended. How the patch was prepped reflects Texas farm life during the late 1940s, as the implements of the trade were work horse, plows, hoes and a wagon, and of course, lots of backbreaking work for the humans who were involved.

I can recall older members of my family catching our big, black workhorse, Maude (Old Maude was her affectionate name, but this was sometimes prefaced by more profound adjectives that cannot be repeated here) and then putting a harness on her. Both activities were often time consuming as Maude resided in a 10-acre plot and in spite of her immense weight and feet roughly the size of large dinner plates, she could run like the wind and had the demeanor to do just that. But eventually, Maude was caught, harnessed and hooked to a turning plow, the implement that conquered the west. I was too young and small to do anything except to stay out of the way. Mostly I have a mental picture of my older brother, Robert, and my father, Russ, heading out to plow the ground for the cucumbers. They may have loaded the plow into the back of our two-wheel wagon, but I seem to recall they let Maude drag it to wherever plowing was to be done. The patch was perhaps 1/3 mile from the house in a direct-line-of-sight, so it didn’t take very long for Maude to pull the plow to the field and with her huge size, plowing was a piece of cake. I can only speculate but it seems that no more than a couple hours were required to till the small acreage. I’ve always been amazed that she didn’t pull someone’s arm loose from the shoulder socket, but I do not recall anyone being injured during this process. I always suspected Maude factored into Robert’s thought processes when a few years later he made a conscious decision to become a mechanical engineer.

The cucumber patch was situated on top of the highest point on our property, a site that was very fertile and overlooked a small valley and creek that was about 50 feet lower in elevation. This hilltop had apparently been an encampment for many generations of Native Americans as each year we found stone arrowheads and spear points while walking in the furrows. Once plowing began, my job, if one can call it a job, was to walk along in the freshly plowed, deep furrows and collect the exposed, fat red worms. These made good bait for all the perch in the local ponds, and since I liked both the fishing and to eat the fish, I was judicious in this effort and often filled a half-pound coffee can in a short time. Given that our father was an avid hunter and fisherman, such activities almost always took higher priority than walking behind some plow horse – this may be the largest understatement of my entire life!

Shortly after the initial plowing was done, I seem to recall that the turning plow was exchanged for a harrow, another type of plow. Ours was a spring tooth harrow made of steel or iron and probably manufactured in the 1920s, if not before. It covered a surface area roughly the size of a double bed and had about 40 teeth projecting down about 10 inches from the iron frame. If one placed a heavy weight on top of the harrow the teeth dug deeply into the furrows. Sometimes the heavy weight might have been a human. The harrow was used to level the ground for the cucumber plants as they grew as vines and needed a flat surface to ease the picking process. Once the deeply grooved, plowed ground was flattened somewhat into beds, then it was time to apply fertilizer. The latter was accomplished by hand. I have a vivid memory of Robert walking in the furrows and scattering fertilizer by hand while carrying a sack of the stuff on his shoulder. No one ever said it was easy being a farm boy.

In April, out came the hoes to reshape the beds, chop the weeds and then plant the cucumber seeds. The combination of the fertile soil, fertilizer and plenty of spring rains led in mid-May to a plot of land covered by cucumber vines growing all over the place. Almost immediately after school days were behind us we set about picking cucumbers every day from mid-May almost into August, all dependent on the amount of rains. We could have skipped days, but the cucumbers grew rapidly and we got paid more per pound for the little than the big ones. Generally, we picked cukes from ½ of the patch each day, alternating between halves daily. I suppose this schedule kept us in the money, so to speak.

Again I was too young and small to be much use for picking as I often overlooked the small cucumbers. Secondary to my poor picking skills level was an overriding concern about getting stung by the ever-present honeybees searching vigorously for nectar among the numerous blossoms. So I was assigned other jobs, and this is where the misery started. My main job was to follow behind the others (mostly my other brother, Mack and my mother, Edith) and gather the big cucumbers that they threw into the middling between the rows. These were culls, and the buyers didn’t have any use for them. But, we had a use for them. It seems that hogs like to eat large cucumbers, and we had a hog pen complete with nondescript hogs in it. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that the hogs secretly conspired with my mother to get me assigned to this job. But I couldn’t communicate with the hogs, and I never thought to ask my mother if she could. Anyway, I went barefoot then and between the hog pen and the cucumber patch lay the thickest growth of sand burr plants known to man, at least to this man. Somehow or the other my brain wasn’t working too well then as I could have walked to the end of the cucumber patch and then along a path (the other side of the triangle) to the hog pen and avoided all the sand burrs. But I never was very good in geometry, and I walked the hypotenuse to the hog pen and hated every minute of it. The mere thought of having to pick those sand burrs out of the bottom of my feet hurts even as I write this.

The only saving feature for this operation was getting to hear the wild squealing of the hogs as I approached with my bucket of culls. In fact, I often suspect they delighted about as much in watching my misery in dealing with the sand burrs as they did in eating the culls because the squealing started long before I got to their pen. However, I enjoyed throwing the culls one-at-a-time over the fence to the hogs and watching to see which one got the most to eat. I guess I inherited this tendency from one of my grandfathers. Grandpa Vickers apparently loved to place bets on natural events with his neighbors. It seems kinda’ antiquated these days, but Grandpa and a neighbor would take watermelon rinds to a hog pen and place bets on which hog would respond first to a thrown watermelon rind.

After a bout or two with sand burrs and a few stings from the honeybees, my complaining, whimpering and whining led my mother to suggest that I put my head down low to the ground, pick up all the culls and not look up until she told me to. She always told me that when I was given the word to look up we would be all the way on the other side of the patch. However, the pain from sand burrs is awful, and her motivating speeches weren’t enough to eliminate all those pinpricks from the sand burrs. This is where my other job during the cucumber picking time became of utmost importance.

In late spring and early summer, wild mulberry trees would sprout forth with an abundance of berries, and we had a couple of these trees growing near the cucumber patch. Later in life I suspected that being sent to pick some mulberries was a “make work” plan concocted by my mother to get some respite from all my whimpering and complaining. Also, undoubtedly the hogs had informed her than they couldn’t eat another bite of cucumbers. Mack often asked me to bring him some mulberries, but to this day I do not recall ever doing a very good job fulfilling that request. This failure was probably due to youthful greed on my part and a perceived need to compete with the Mockingbirds who also happened to like mulberries. Mack suffered as a result, but since he pocketed most of the money from the sale of the cucumbers, I didn’t feel too badly about slighting him. Such was the life of a young farm boy during the spring and summertime in Red River County, Texas.
Love it! You're very lucky. I've been trying for years to get my dad to write down stories about his life growing up and can't seem to get him to do it.
That's awesome. Encourage him to write more of that stuff down while he's interested.
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