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M Stevens-David

Dad - Working Years
By Martha Stevens-David
May 11, 2014 - 12:15:37 AM

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The years slid by and in nineteen fifty-five, Dad was made the foreman at Maine Seed Potato Growers and he spent nearly all of his life caring for potatoes. Mother used to complain that dad had spent more time with those "damn potatoes" than he ever had with her. For those who don't know much about growing potatoes, here is a brief synopsis:

A certain specie, such as a "Green Mountain, Russet or another kind is selected by the farmer. The seed is a potato that was grown the previous season and a piece of potato that is carefully cut so that it has a certain number of "eyes" on it. These eyes are very important because they will become the roots of the new potato plant. Once dropped into the freshly dug dirt, the eyes will sprout and grow into a large plant with tubers (potatoes) of its own.

Once the seed had been planted and covered with dirt it is pretty much left alone, except for an occasional cultivation, until the first green shoots break through the dirt. From that point on, dad was virtually a slave to the growing tuber until the fall, when the harvested bagged potatoes leave Aroostook County in an eighteen wheeler or a Bangor & Aroostook railroad car headed south. This new seedling has to be fertilized, watered, cultivated and sprayed constantly throughout the growing season. This particular cultivar is handled as lovingly and tenderly as a newborn baby.

Dad usually arrived home at the end of each work day completely covered with Blue Virtol or soaked to the skin with other noxious chemicals like DDT or Malathion. Once the potato plant has reached a state of maturity, around 60 days after planting and depending on other factors like warmth of the season, rainfall, etc, tiny clusters of blue and purple flowers appear. This flowering generally indicates that the plant is growing tiny new potatoes on its roots.

Once the potatoes have been in the ground for a certain period of time, usually around two and a half months or about the middle of September in northern Maine, again depending on the weather, the long, green tops of the potato plant are sprayed with a weed killer. Once the tops have died and dried up, it is easier to harvest the mature potatoes.

Then the potatoes are dug and at that time, the local school kids were hired to pick the potatoes and put them into large baskets which are then dumped into potato barrels. The full barrels are then hoisted onto a truck and driven to a potato house where they were dumped into large storage bins to wait sorting and packing. Once harvesting was finished, Dad spent his days in various potato houses around the county, either culling, cutting seed or bagging potatoes for shipment.

Some weeks, dad and his crew worked at the Trafton Siding potato house that was located just down over the hill from our house on the Goding Road. The long, green sided building housed the newest harvest. This was the place where the already sold potatoes were sorted, culled, cleaned, weighed and bagged. The bags were then loaded on waiting Bangor & Aroostook railroad cars for their trip to their final destination across the United States and the world.

The potato house was also the place where the seed potatoes were kept in reserve for the next year's planting. During the winter, dad and his crew were kept busy keeping the fires going in the long, cold potato houses so that the unsold potatoes and the valuable seed were kept from freezing. Dad's work with the potato was never done.

There wasn't a potato cultivar that he didn't know by sight or taste because he'd grown most of them or eaten them at one time or another. Of all the different ones that he'd tended in his lifetime, his favorite ones were always Green Mountains with Russets running a close second. It used to piss mother off royally when planning a special meal for him because dad, when asked what he wanted to eat, would always answer "I don't care what you cook as long as it's with some kind of potato." He never did get over his lifelong love affair with the potato.

Dad knew most of the engineers on the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad because they usually made a daily stop at one potato house or another to pick up the packed cars that were waiting for them at the siding. When we learned that dad was going to be working at Trafton Siding, we'd run the half mile down the road to the potato house to visit him. We'd always plan our visit to co-inside with the arrival of the long freight train that was just pulling into the siding. If we were lucky, and we usually were, we'd be invited up into the huge, black locomotive to help "drive" the engine to pick up the filled waiting cars and drop off the empty ones.

Everyday at the potato house, dad would eat his lunch with his crew and sometimes, they'd play cards but usually they'd just shoot the breeze about whatever topic was of interest to them at the moment. At night, dad often related the days events to mother. Dad's regular crew usually consisted of about ten people and they got to know each other's quirks and shortcomings quite intimately over the years.

Mother had been cooking since the age of nine and she was an excellent cook. And like all women everywhere, she thought that the way a wife really showed her love for her husband and their family was to create a sumptuous meal for them. She made sure that dad was always the envy of his crew when it came to eating. Everyday, the men would all crane their necks in his direction when dad opened his old, black lunch pail.

Inside, there was a thermos of strong, black coffee or scalding, black tea and a couple of freshly baked biscuits just made that morning or large slices of homemade yeast bread filled with slices of ham or canned deer meat. There was always an assortment of home made pickles or cucumbers too or there might be a huge wedge of lemon pie or a jelly roll oozing a fantastic chocolate filling. He'd also find two or three crispy, golden doughnuts or melt-in-your-mouth brownies bursting with chopped walnuts. "Jaysus mum," he'd complain to mother when he saw all the food she'd packed. "You don't really expect me to eat all that do you?" Mother would cast her dark brown eyes on him and say, "Don't expect to come home tonight, if you don't!" The men dad worked with, even if they didn't like the work, sometimes stayed with him just so they'd get to eat mother's food because dad was known to have a soft spot and he'd gladly hand off any food to the others that he couldn't eat.

Dad had a couple of old cronies that he both liked and felt sorry for and one of these was a man called Bert Goodman. I'll never forget the story that dad told about Bert and his lunch pail.

Dad and Bert were about the same age and had known each other all their lives. Bert had fallen for and married a local girl who considered herself quite a "catch." Not only had she graduated from high school but she'd mastered Latin and had taught herself to play the piano too. She constantly reminded Bert, in one way or another, that she had married "beneath" her by marrying him and that she really could have done much better.

All the men in dad's crew felt sorry for Bert because his wife was the worst wife in all the ways that really counted back then. Everyday at noon, all eyes would be on Bert and his lunch. Because his wife hadn't bothered to get up and cook him a nice breakfast, he was always the one who headed for his lunch pail first. He'd drag his battered pail out of a potato basket with the slow movements of a man trying not to frighten a rattlesnake.  Gingerly opening his pail, he'd reach in and take out something that vaguely resembled a hunk of molten lava. It was usually about the size of the palm of his hand and the top layer was a charred black but the bottom still stuck to his grubby hand. He'd hold it in his left hand, heft it a few times and then with a sigh, up and heave it against the potato house wall. The "thing" would hit the wall with a dull thud, slide down an inch or two and stick there. Bert would look at the hunk for a minute or two and then he's say, "Well boys, she ain't never goin to learn to cook!"

Dad said that by the end of the potato shipping season the wall of the potato house looked very strange with all the pieces of biscuit dough stuck to it. He said that it sure was funny when visitors noticed the strange, moldy lumps adhered to the wall and they'd try and guess what they were. When the Sparrows began to make nests in them, Bert was really happy because something had finally found a use for his wife's bread.

Bert had never learned to drive because, in her opinion, his wife felt that one driver in the family was enough. So dad drove Bert home one night and was invited in. When he got home that night, he told us this story. Dad wasn't a gossip but he said he'd never seen a poorer excuse for a women than Bert's wife. Dirty dishes were piled everywhere and it looked like the house hadn't been cleaned for years.

In the kitchen there was a greasy stove and the few counters were laden with opened half-used cans of food. The small table was laden with plates with uneaten food caked on them. The air was filled with buzzing and crawling flies.

The small living room held an overstuffed sofa upholstered in faded blue velvet and a matching chair. Scarred oak end tables were heaped with books and one held a black lamp with a fringed shade. The room had a musty smell and dust could be seen on everything with the exception of the baby grand piano that occupied one corner of the small room. Dad said that the piano had been polished within an inch of its life and that its black patina gleamed in the light from the brass lamp sitting on top of it.

Dad and the other men had wondered for years why Bert's underwear was always the same gray color. Sometimes, during a hot work day, one of the men might pull off an extra shirt and Bert, stunned by the glaring whiteness of his tee shirt, would rush over and grab the undershirt and say, "Jeez fellers, I ain't seen anything this friggin white since I married Cora!"

When he was leaving, dad saw a new ringer washer and a tub of rinse water in the shed. As he walked by, dad said that he couldn't help noticing the color of the water. They were both the same color, black. It seemed that even though Bert's wife had an education and could play the piano very well, she didn't have the common sense to realize that the water has to be changed each time you did your wash!

One night, when the harvest moon was just coming up over the horizon and there was a hint of fall in the county air, dad and mother found themselves driving past the Goodman house on their way home from Grammies. There was a light on in the living room and someone was playing a Vienna waltz on the piano. As the lovely notes shifted and danced in the cool evening air, dad turned to mother and said, "Did you hear that?" Mother sniffed and replied, "I don't know about you but I thought it was beautiful! You know, Cora goes all the way down to Bangor and plays in their symphony from time to time." Dad looked at her, then he shook his head, laughed and said, "I'll bet that poor old Bert would think a well-done biscuit would be much more beautiful!"

Martha Stevens-David
Email:
lmdmsd@megalink.net

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All works by Martha Stevens-David published at Magic City Morning Star News are her copyright property and may not be reproduced without her permission.


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