Thank God He’s a Country Boy
My dad was a country boy, despite a closet full of suits and a house in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama. This notion first presented itself when I ate supper at a kindergarten chum’s house and made a puzzling discovery: Her family ate beans from tin cans.
Until then I thought beans came from jars. After all, jars of beans, tomatoes, peppers, beets, and bread-and-butter pickle lined shelves on our playroom walls. Jars of muscadine grape, peach, pear, and blackberry jam glowed like jewels next to the Pachinko machine. Boxes of empty Mason jars—awaiting next season’s harvest—towered on the upright piano.
I rushed home to report the news to my mother. “Yes, dear, many people eat vegetables from cans,” she said, confirming this new fact of life. “Some eat canned fruit, too. Aren’t you children lucky that your father is such a wonderful gardener?”
Dad had a powerful ambition: transplanting the traditions of Talking Rock—his childhood home in North Georgia—to a strip of Alabama soil. However, Martha, Bud, Mary, Peggy, and I did not feel sentimental about growing squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, corn, and beans, beans, beans. We stood by helplessly when our father got permission from the neighbor to plow the lower part of his backyard, providing room for all sorts of beans: McCaslin, Blue Lake, Rattle Snake, and Kentucky Wonder-151.
The bean field grew into a forbidding jungle. By early July, vines strangled the poles, their lush deep-green leaves hiding slender pods. Baskets in hand, we trudged to our appointed rows. How we ached after an hour of reaching high and bending low. How we longed for a drizzle to relieve sweat-stung brows and itching, vine-brushed arms.
No wonder I groaned years later on reading Thoreau’s chapter about beans in Walden: “I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late and this is my day’s work. It is a fine broad leaf to look on.” He could idealize agricultural experiments; he never suffered Alabama’s growing season in the dog days of summer.
Tom Sawyer proved a more inspiring literary figure. He turned the chore of whitewashing a fence into an enviable pleasure, so we determined to give humble string beans cachet. My brother Bud figured that if each of us invited a friend to drop by at four o’clock, five kids would show up about the time we started stringing our just-picked produce on the patio. With a little playacting, 20 hands instead of 10 would be on task.
“Do y’all have to string all those beans?” inquired a curious onlooker.
“Sure, nothin’ to it,” said Martha, the smoothest talker of us all.
“Really?” asked another wide-eyed child.
“Oh, yeah. Last week we strung twice as many,” Martha said nonchalantly, knowing that this audience would soon be captive.
“At least two bushels.”
“Can I try?”
“I don’t know. . . . It takes most people two years to develop the technique.” Martha flicked her wrist as she snap-snapped.
“But I’m a fast learner.”
“I don’t know. My father doesn’t like just anybody handling his beans.”
“I’ll be careful. I promise.”
“I don’t know. . . .”
“Let me just try.”
“We-e-e-ell, maybe . . . ”
Ah, the art of delegation. About then my father strolled up to check our progress.
“Wow, Dr. Hamrick, did you grow up like the Waltons?” chorused the new day laborers.
“Heck, no, the Waltons were rich,” said Dad, relishing his role as suburban legend. “They had a radio and a car. Doc Weeks had the only radio in our county. On Saturday afternoons, he propped it in his window and turned up the volume for everybody standing around in his front yard.”
“You didn’t have a car?”
“Before the government paved the roads, a car was a thrilling sight in our neck of the woods. If the folks in Fairmount—about 10 miles away—spotted a car, they called our general store that it was on the way. Then a crowd gathered by the side of the road to watch it go by.”
“Dr. Hamrick, your father must have been just like Pa on ‘Little House on the Prairie.’”
“No, he didn’t have a blow dryer,” said Dad, contemptuous of Michael Landon’s mane.
Sometimes Dad got carried away with his storytelling. One of my friends went goggle-eyed on seeing my father stack 15 quarts of just-creamed Silver Queen corn in one of the playroom freezers.
“Haven’t you heard about the famine?” he said, looking dumbfounded.
“A famine?” she asked, her voice quavering. “Can my family come to your house if we run out of food?”
“Have you heard the story of the Little Red Hen?” Dad looked at her sidewise and then inspected the sage and rosemary drying on the pool table.
Whatever my father’s antics, Mom usually stayed calm and amused. But she said “No!” when he donned a neighbor’s camouflage hunting garb and sat motionless in the garden with a 22, waiting to pick off a groundhog that had gotten fat on young bean plants. Mom confiscated his gun and made him use live traps. (When the guys at Hart’s Gulf filling station in the village said they had heard tales of Dad and his 22, she concluded the police might show up.) Thereafter, he caught trespassing critters and turned them loose in another county so they would waddle into somebody else’s garden.
Dad turned to folklore to fend off rabbits, squirrels, and other interlopers. Once during Sunday dinner, he noted that human hair scattered around plants supposedly warded off animals; he eyed my two waist-length braids. Fortunately for my scalp, it was a passing thought.
My dad’s front-yard gardening captured the attention of humans. It was his uniform: a tattered one-piece cotton jumpsuit that usually had seed packets, spring onions, or carrots absently stuck in the pockets.
Sometimes he tied a scarlet bandana around his head as a sweatband. (Imagine Ed Asner sporting Willie Nelson’s favorite headgear.) In Dad’s world, only the Man in Black overshadowed the Red Headed Stranger.
Intrigued, a woman once pulled up and tried to hire him as a yardman. “My, you look like a hard worker,” she said sweetly. “How would you like to work full-time in my yard?”
“I earn a good rate here,” he said, leaning on his rake.
“I’ll top any price,” she bargained.
“I get homemade lunches and fresh-squeezed lemonade and brownies on breaks,” he said, cocking his head.
“I’ll prepare any food you want,” she insisted.
“I also get a special bonus,” he smiled wickedly.
“I sleep with the lady of the house.”
The woman backed her car out of the drive, from 0 to 40 mph in 2 seconds.
Certainly, Dad’s country habits nourished the body. And sweetly they comforted the soul. He rocked his children and grandbabies, crooning ballads and hymns sung by generations of his family in Appalachia. Before falling asleep at night, I imagine his deep, off-key rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Like a prayer.
Food basket courtesy of Liz West
Green beans on vine courtesy of Snijboo
Willie Nelson at Farm Aid courtesy of Larry Philpot, www.soundstagephotography.com
Lemonade with straw courtesy of newleaf01