Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Three Old Men

At 9 a.m. on the 29th day of May, we stopped by our favorite produce stand at Holden Beach.  The Old Farmall thermometer read 84 degrees in the shade.  There was a fair breeze blowing but not enough to cut the thick humidity that hung in the air that felt like it could drown a man if he took too deep of a breath.

The shed that was built onto the back of the family run business was large and airy and served two purposes - a shelter from the rain, and shade from the hot, scorching sun that draws crowds to the Carolina beaches.  The first of the corn crops had come in from the fields surrounding the shed, and the first of many corn shuckings was already taking place.  The old men shucking the corn had been here many times before.  They had adopted their own carefree method of pulling back the husks, snapping them off at the base, and running their calloused hands down the length of the ear getting most of the fine silks off with one swoop.  Instead of a production line, each man did his own ear of corn from start to finish.  A production line would have hastened the process but it was not the way of these men.  They savored each moment of the shucking - enjoying the feel of the ears of the first crop.  They were in no hurry and walked away from time to time to have a smoke or wait on a customer.  As I observed them from a distance, my mind wandered back to the hot, humid summer days of my youth and the three old men I stood beside getting produce ready for the market day after day.

Back to a time when I could hear my Daddy's voice through the groggy depths of worry-free sleep that you're only privileged to have when you are young and clueless.  "Your Mama's got breakfast ready - time to get up".  I didn't even have to look at the old clock on my nightstand.   I knew that the little hand was on five and the big hand was on six - the exact same position of the hands I saw six days out of every week of my summer vacation. Daddy would let me sleep for about ten more minutes, much like my alarm clock does now, but when I heard "Snap to it", I knew my day had begun.  5:30 was a much too early wake-up call during my teen years during the mid-1960's, especially since I had stayed up half the night writing poetry and listening to the sweet sounds of WABC New York radio station - 770 on my radio dial.  It was nothing but static during the day, but when those hot, cloudless summer nights rolled around in the sunny South, it was clear as a bell. Songs by the Beatles, Roy Orbison, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Drifters, Dave Clark Five, Dusty Springfield, the Temptations, and so many more were carried in on sound waves that drifted into my bedroom window on butterfly wings - or so it seemed.

Half asleep, I would drag myself into the kitchen.  Breakfast was as big as the day's work ahead of us - bacon, eggs, grits - unless Mama happened to be on one of her many diets and then it would be oatmeal.  The hot, homemade biscuits hit the table about the same time that my elbows did and a biscuit was the first thing I grabbed.  As I was eyeing the homemade jellies and jams, Mama was eyeing me.  Wait until you've cleaned that plate before you open that jelly jar, she would warn.  Daddy was already cutting big chunks of "hoop" cheese and was melting mine in his cup of coffee because years earlier an accidental cheese drop in his steaming coffee cup made it's way to my plate and I had begged for it ever since. 

Not a care in the world did I have back then.  All the cares rested on the shoulders of my mom and dad who had me seven years after their bumper crop of two boys and four girls.  I was the last left at home.  It was always Daddy at the head of the table, Grandpa on the other end, with me and Mom on opposite sides.  Daddy and Mama gave up a lot when Grandpa moved in, including their bedroom, but Daddy never gave up his seat at the head of the table.

After breakfast, the three old men and I would don long-sleeved shirts, stack our buckets in the back of the pickup truck and ride out to the fields to gather whatever crop was in season.  The three old men consisted of my Daddy, a neighboring farmer, and the another neighbor who liked to pick up a few dollars in the morning while he was sober in order to purchase the whiskey he would drink 'til dark.  His wife, who cleaned houses in order for them to survive, would not let him have any of her hard earned cash to "liquor up", as she liked to call it.  We called them Mr. Mack and Miss Jane (not their real names), a heartbroken couple who had lost their little girl in an accident during the late 1940's.  Adding to Miss Jane's heartbreak was the loss of her husband's spirit to alcohol at about the same time.

The first crops to come off were the squash, those prolific little buggers that seemed to double their size overnight.  I'm pretty sure if you sat and watched them for a while, they would grow right before your eyes.  The long-sleeves we wore were to protect our arms from the prickly plants.  After the picking was done, the squash were put in large tubs of water and gently washed and stacked in bushel baskets ready for market.    The green beans, lima beans and corn all had their day in the sun and when those crops were over, it was time to start all over again with the second crop of squash - an endless cycle it seemed.

I sometimes resented my early morning wake-up call when all my friends were sleeping until mid-morning during their summer vacations, but  I knew it was the way of life for a farmer's child and even then, I was perceptive enough to know how much I was needed and I'm pretty sure that I welcomed the start of the new school year with a little more enthusiasm than my other friends.  Summers were not all work, though. There were breaks in the crops and I was never deprived play time and a social life with my friends.  It was a good life that seemed to move at a snail's pace back then.  And for a moment this weekend, watching the men under the shed at the produce stand, I longed for the days of standing side by side with those three old men from my youth - savoring each moment of shucking corn.



  1. What a lovely warm post today, Glenda, and beautifully written. I was right back there with you! You were listening to the same songs that I was listening to over here in England. Even with you getting up so early in the morning, it does sound like a wonderful childhood and, you're right, life did seem to move like a snail's pace in those days. I loved the comment "through the groggy depths of worry free sleep....! How right you are. Delightful post and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  2. Thanks Diane, I had such a blessed childhood. Wide open spaces and a wonderfully large family - most of whom were already married, in the military service, or away to college when I was just a baby, but were always there for me just the same.


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