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M Stevens-David

By Martha Stevens-David
Apr 24, 2014 - 7:50:09 AM

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It was now the end of May and winter still had not shown any inclination of relinquishing her hold on the county. Oh, sure, there had been the odd couple of days, here and there, when the ever-present wind had died a little and the inhabitants of our small Aroostook County, Maine town had dared to hope that there had been a reprieve, but it didn't happen.

The spring thaw that usually arrives around the last week of January didn't materialize and in the month of February, it snowed another three feet. March and April were no better weather-wise except that Mother Nature dumped a "Christer" of a storm on the county at the end of April. One month slid into another without much notice and the town's people turned their wan faces to the weak sun like a field of upturned daisies.

It took all of Dad's time and energy, just keeping the roads cleared to the potato houses and the fires burning so that the potato seed, stored for the following year's planting, wouldn't freeze. It seemed to him that like all he did was babysit potatoes. He pushed aside the heavy potato house door and looked out. His gaze was met with mounds of dirty, piled up snow. "Another storm and I won't have any place left to push it," he thought to himself as he slid the heavy wooden door shut and walked over to warm his hands over the top of the glowing woodstove. He eyed the calendar that always hung behind the front door and noticed that in another week, in a normal season in Aroostook County, they should be readying the ground for planting. "Not this year," Dad thought to himself. "Bet there's going to be one hell of a flood when all this snow finally melts."

It was nineteen fifty-two and the whole world was in a state of flux. Korea was tearing us a new asshole and we still hadn't recovered from all the devastation of the Second World War. President Truman was in his last days in the White House and presidential hopeful Dwight Eisenhower was riding the rails back and forth across the country hoping to be elected.

Dad, like thousands of other Mainers at the beginning of the war, had received a summons from Uncle Sam and he'd gone down to Houlton to register for the draft. But when they listened to his heart, heard the murmur, and then learned that he already had four kids with another on the way, he was a free man.

Dad, relieved and feeling slightly guilty that he didn't have to go and fight the Japanese, the Germans or the Koreans, set politics aside and focused on his job of growing potatoes almost by rote, after all, he'd been doing it for as long as he could remember. In his lifetime, he'd seen, eaten, heard of or planted most every kind of potato that could be grown by man.

There were Kennebecs, Katahdins, Bliss, Red Pontiacs, Russets, Burbanks and his favorite, Green Mountains, just to name a few. It still gave him a kind of thrill when the first green shoots of the new potato appeared in the long rows of freshly dug earth and then his work would really begin. Long days of worry and more worry until the potato was harvested because you couldn't really tell what kind of harvest it was going to be, until you saw the first dig around the middle of September.

If the spring of nineteen fifty-two was any indication of things to come, it was true to its portent. Spring wound its way into the county like a herd of turtles headed north. The reluctant sun finally cast its light on the snow-covered landscape and rivulets of cold, clear water could be heard running under the drifts of hard packed snow. Dad was anxious about getting the land ready for planting but every field he visited was a quagmire of mud and running water. This year, it was going to be a very late start to a very short growing season.

Finally, the weather turned over night and planting began in earnest. Dad's life was taken over by the potato specie like a mother with a new baby. He toiled from dawn to dusk tending this slowly growing plant. He'd intently watch the weather forecast every night so that he could plan the next day's work. Then he'd go to bed with the chickens and sleep the sleep of the dead until his inner alarm clock rang an hour before the real one sounded at four am each morning. Dad would be up and long gone from home even before the first rays of the morning sun slid into the lush, green potato fields of Aroostook County.

Weather, in Maine, is totally unpredictable at best and this summer was one that tried a man's patience like a spoiled child. It was an "either or summer." It was either too hot, too cold, too dry or too wet and there was no in between. If Dad planned to cultivate the potatoes near our home on the Goding Road on a certain day, the sky soon turned overcast and it rained all the friggin day. If he planned to spray the fields along the Masardis Road first thing in the morning, the winds that were slight and out of the south, turned into strong gusts that sent the poisonous chemicals swirling around his head, leaving him soaked to the skin with Malathion or DDT. It seemed that the weather forecasters couldn't get it right no matter how new their latest equipment.

Dad came from Swedish stock, and he was tall, blond and blue eyed. Although he'd spent most of his life out doors, he was never able to develop a tan. His ever-present Ford cap covered his baldhead but his ears, always exposed, soon turned red and began to blister and peel. He wore green work shirts with the sleeves rolled-up to his elbows and his strong forearms were burned from a combination of wind, sun and potato bug-killing chemicals.

Fall tore into the county in a way just the opposite of spring. One day would be a day of warm sunshine and soft breezes filled with the smell of wild flowers, pine trees and the sound of humming bees. The next morning, the breezes of the previous day had been replaced by a raw, biting wind gusting out of the north and there would be a hint of frost in the air and the leaves seemed to have changed color over night. Then the backbreaking work of digging the potatoes would really begin.

If the late spring and the horrible summer hadn't been bad enough, then the fall of fifty-two was one that made even an even-keeled man like my father want to end it all. Most farmers began the planting season in the spring with a hope in their heart that this would be the year!  In good years, a man might come away from the potato harvest with a little jingle in his threadbare overalls but most years, the farmer was in hock to the banks up to his neck and they were gainin on the farm.

Nevertheless, this year surprised them all. Taking into consideration all the adverse effects, the harvest still turned out to be a really good one. Farmers all over the county couldn't believe their eyes as the smooth, white spuds rolled up out of the freshly dug black earth.

Dad stopped the digger and hopped off the tractor. He walked over to the row, knelt down and picked up a large Green Mountain potato. He hefted it a couple of times and then he dug his old hunting knife out of his pocket. He quickly sliced the potato in two and the clear, starchy juice ran down his hand. He cut off a strip of dirty peel and took a bite out of the white meat. The cold, crisp slightly sweet acidic taste was one that he'd loved all his life. He took another bite and he knew! If all the rest of the harvest was a good as this single potato, it was going to be a cocker!

As the old saying goes, "Man is at the mercy of his element." This was especially true for the county but that year, man and the potato farmers as a whole were at the mercy of the government and its politics. It didn't matter that the farmer was going under, it didn't matter that the yield was phenomenal and it didn't matter that there was a market for the product. What did matter, in the long run, was the final price the farmer was going to get per barrel.

Dad came home at the end of the first day's digging and there was a light in his tired blue eyes that hadn't been there for a very long time. "I don't know mum," he said to Mother. "But, I think that this just might be the year! If the rest of the harvest looks as good as today's, it's going to be the best one that I can remember in a very long time." The stress of the early part of the year fell away from Dad's tired shoulders and his step had a decided spring in it but that spring didn't stay too long.

There was a gathering of the farmers in the small towns all over the county as the final harvest tallies came in. Farmers had potatoes up the ying-yang and now came the hard part, the price. There was haggling back and forth between the farmers, the banks and the mercantile board. The farmers wanted a larger cut and the banks wanted their cut and the mercantile board, well, they wanted to pay as little as possible. The farmers held their breath as the price per barrel edged upwards towards seven dollars and then all hell broke loose.

At a meeting between the mercantile board and the farmers, the board pushed a little too hard and the farmers, tired to the bone of hard work, no money and little respect, walked out. It wasn't too long before there was talk of dumping the whole God-damned harvest. It has often been said that when a man finds himself between a rock and a hard place, then something's got to give and the farmers weren't going to give. They had a glut of potatoes on their hands and probably the finest harvest seen for a long, long time but the way things stood, nobody was going to win and least of all the farmer.

Meetings took place all over the county and it wasn't too long before the government was nosing around and the real trouble began. The Agriculture Department sent emissaries to the county to sniff out the situation and report back to them what the problem was. It was simple really. The farmer wanted a bigger cut and if he wasn't going to get it, then, they'd dump the whole damn harvest. They were united and couldn't be swayed, not by anyone!

Seeing that the farmers couldn't be deterred, the government issued an ultimatum. If they were determined to dump the potatoes then the farmer was required to dip the potatoes in a blue dye so that they couldn't be sold on any market, any place, anywhere.

Dad came home from a meeting and the light in his blue eyes had gone out. "Mum." He said. "It looks like those sons-ah-whores in Washington have got us good. There's nothing we can do but go ahead with the dumping and we start first thing tomorrow morning." "Where are you going to dump them?" Mother asked. "Well, it looks like we're going to dump most of our harvest down in Uncle Hal's gravel pit. That's the only place big enough that will hold them."

Dad sank into his usual place at the head of the table and he just sat there with a stunned look on his face. Mother, for the first time in her life, broke one of her golden rules and that was, "Never give a good man a reason to drink." She hurried to the fridge and grabbed a bottle of Dad's favorite brew and took it over to him. "Well." She said softly, "We'll just do the best we can, that's all we can do anyway."

The next morning, Mother called us all into the kitchen and told us the news. She said that Dad was going to be driving past the house all day with loads of potatoes that he was going to dump in Uncle Hal's gravel pit and we were to stay out of his way or else! We knew what that meant but it didn't deter us. We waited until Mother was busy with the smaller kids and then Jake, Bub and I raced down the dirt road to the gravel pit. We ran through the tall grass until we reached the edge of the pit and then we lay on the ground on our bellies watching as load after load of beautiful white potatoes were dumped on the ground.

On the third day, Dad, tired of seeing us sitting in the tall grass in the hot sun, let us go with him for a ride to pick up another load to be dumped. I'll never forget the look on his face, at seeing the beautiful potatoes that he'd struggled so hard to grow, being dumped out onto the ground. "Dad." Jake asked him. "Are you goin to grow potatoes again next year?" Dad looked away with tears in his eyes and he tiredly drew a dirty hand across his face. When he finally looked at Jake, he said, "I don't know Jake, I jist don't know." Finally, the trucks ceased rolling past our house and Dad told Mother that they were going to be dumping the rest of the friggin loads up to Squa Pan and Masardis.

I'll never forget seeing the thousands and thousands of tons of potatoes lying there in the bottom of the gravel pit. We used to sneak down to the gravel pit on a daily basis and our favorite past-time was to climb up to the top of the huge mountains of slippery potatoes and slide down again. But as the days passed and the potatoes began to rot, that game wasn't so much fun anymore.

Jake loved to scramble up the side of the tallest, stinky potato mountain and sit there and then he'd do a belly flop and come sliding down the oozing, smelly pile. As the rotting potatoes deteriorated, he loved to pick up a really juicy one and throw it at someone. It would hit its target with a sickening thud, and the stench was horrible. The rotten potato would slide down a little and stick to your clothes or the back of your head and then you'd have to peel it off.

Mother had warned us a hundred times not to go down to the gravel pit but it drew us like flies to a pile of manure. The powder blue dye would come off as soon the potato touched any part of us and we spent a lot of time at the old Smith Barn pump trying to wash off all the incriminating evidence before making it the rest of the way home.

Some of the farmers, after having dipped all their potatoes in the bluing, slipped back at night and stole some of the dumped potatoes so that they wouldn't have to buy seed for the next year's crop or to have some to feed their families.

Dad had a pretty lazy fall that year. Because most of the potatoes had been dumped, the only ones that Dad had to worry about were the seed for next year's crop. Morning and night he made trips to the potato houses to keep the wood fires burning to keep the seed stock from freezing.

The year from hell was finally drawing to a close and Dad turned on the television to listen to his favorite newscaster, Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News. He listened intently to the final election results, groaned and shook his head. He turned to Mother and said. "It's not as though the potato harvest wasn't bad enough but now we've got to face another four years with a God-damned Republican in the White House!" Eisenhower had just been elected to a first term.

Martha Stevens-David

Autobiography of a Simple Soul

Memories, Another Place - Another Time

Recently Published Articles include:

The Poacher

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M. Stevens-David Review: "Different Coins in the Fountain" by Carlos Cornejo

Childrens Stories include:

See also Vengeance is Mine a short mystery novel published at Magic City over 4 days.

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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