Friday, March 04, 2005

Cucumbers and Leeches

As the rusty pickup truck rattled along the unpaved path that ran between the tobacco field and the edge of the woods my uncle cursed the suckers that he could see beginning to emerge between the tobacco stalks and the base of each thick, sticky green leaf. They would have to be removed, by hand in the next few days, he decided. There was always something you had to do to tobacco. 'Transplanting', 'suckering', 'topping', 'priming', 'grading', 'tying', 'barning', and 'curing' were farming terms I learned on my summer visits to my cousin’s home, and even as a city-reared boy I knew what my uncle was thinking.

Children weren’t allowed to work in tobacco, so my job during the summer visits was to help pick cucumbers, which were coming in daily during late June and early July. It was back-breaking work, crawling along the rows looking for the elusive vegetable which hid under the thick leaves. Even at that young age I had an undiagnosed heart problem that kept me from producing my fair share of cucumbers, and I developed a reputation for being lazy. When the field was picked we’d take our harvest to a nearby temporary grading station that paid my uncle according to the sizes we brought. In turn, my uncle paid us each fifteen cents for our day’s work and we ran off to the country store where big cookies in a glass jar were two for a penny and a Sundrop cola was a nickel. To this day nothing quenches a summer thirst like a Sundrop, I think.

The truck swung around a corner of the woods, bringing Mr. Bill’s house into view at the top of a hill two fields away. It was a big two-story farmhouse with a circular, unpaved driveway and huge windows that ran all the way across each story. Mr. Bill owned all the farmland in the area, even my uncle’s house, and my uncle worked for him. We were told that Mr. Bill was away in Europe on vacation for several weeks as he always was this time of year and I thought about that for a moment. I wasn’t sure what Europe was, but my aunt had told me it was on the other side of the ocean. Although my cousin had never seen an ocean, I had, several times. Europe sure seemed far away. Mr. Bill must be an okay guy, I thought, since we had his permission to go swimming in his pond while he was away.

A rough path in the woods caught my eye. I knew from previous visits that it led down to a clear spring. When the Corps of Engineers built the big reservoir not far away a few years earlier, many of the local farmers’ wells ran dry, forcing them to set up barrels to catch rain water that ran off their corrugated steel farmhouse roofs for use in laundry and Saturday bathing. Once a week my uncle would hitch up a mule, wagon, and some barrels, travel to these woods and go down the path to collect fresh water for drinking.

We were soon at the pond and I immediately noticed that it had changed very little. Some of the weeds were higher, the area looked generally snakier, and the diving board looked more in need of paint, but in the heat and humidity of the rural summer it looked like an oasis to my ten-year-old eyes. Big spotted turtles the size of dishpans lolled just under the surface of the brown, murky water and seemed to be watching as the boys first, then the girls hid behind the truck to change into bathing suits.

All of us splashed and played for a large part of the afternoon, stopping every ten or fifteen minutes to come out of the water, in pairs, to pick off the blood-sucking leeches which had attached themselves all over our bodies. We were always covered with them. The idea was to pick off what you could, then turn to your partner and pick them off his back, hair, and anywhere else he couldn’t reach or see, and he'd return the favor. Then we’d jump back into the water for another round.

We burned off a huge amount of young energy that afternoon, and as we toweled dry and dressed I thought about how nice it was going to be later that night, lying on the blanket out by the vegetable garden, looking up at the sea of stars overhead. Out in the country the Milky Way was always so bright it seemed a person could read by it. There was nothing else to do since nobody had television in the early 1950s, and I’m certain that as I lay there contemplating the wonders of the universe, I developed my love for astronomy that continues to this day.

As the pickup took us home I glanced back at Mr. Bill’s house on top of the hill and stared. The late-day sun behind us bathed the house in a ruddy glow, and shining at us, as if saying goodbye, was a round red reflected sun in every window of the big house. I thought about Mr. Bill and Europe, then more urgently, began to think about my uncle's primitive outdoor Johnny House I would need to visit when we got back.

I was asleep, dreaming of cucumbers, by the time the pickup reached the main road.

(c) 2005, Dalton Hammond

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