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Slim Smith: When breaking ground means breaking a vow

 

Slim Smith

 

Hell froze over Saturday morning: I planted a garden, thus fulfilling an ancient prophecy. 

 

On an August afternoon circa 1970, my brother Mick and I sat under a shade tree, staring despondently at two bushels of butter beans and a bushel of purple-hull peas that our dad said must be shelled before we went to play. So while the other kids in the neighborhood were out swimming or fishing or playing baseball, we shelled peas and cussed our luck. 

 

We had tried to pull the old "Tom Sawyer" scam on some of the younger kids, but nobody was falling for it. We had fooled them before; this time they were wise to us. 

 

That meant the job fell to the two of us alone, and we reckoned it would be almost night by the time we finished shelling all those butter beans and peas. 

 

"I don't know what I'm gonna do when I grow up," I said bitterly. "But I know hell will freeze over before I plant a garden, that's for sure." 

 

Mick agreed. As far as I know, he has kept up his end of the bargain. I did, too.  

 

Until Saturday. 

 

We just bought a house in Columbus, an old house with a really big yard. My girlfriend, Tess, figured there was ample room for a garden.  

 

So it was that early Saturday morning I gathered all the equipment required for the job -- tiller, rake, spade, potting soil, cross-ties to frame the garden and wire fencing to keep the dogs out -- and went to work. 

 

It was just me and my little dachshund, Dooley, who is a natural-born digger and was initially an asset in the venture. When my tiller bounced off a root, Dooley swooped in and tugged on the root until it gave way. Then he would prance triumphantly around the yard with his root/trophy clenched tightly in his jaws. 

 

He was a big help until I had finished preparing the soil and started planting the tomatoes, which Dooley -- never a discriminating digger -- mistook for roots. I planted 'em. He pulled 'em. Now, I have a firm rule that I never plant the same plant more than twice, so Dooley was banished and I was left alone to finish the job. 

 

Admittedly, it's not much of a garden. In fact, it may be an exaggeration to even call it a garden. Dad would certainly laugh at it. It's just a 10-foot by 10-foot patch of freshly turned and planted earth surrounded by a little wire fence. The contents are four tomato plants and two flats of marigolds. Tess says planting marigolds next to the tomatoes will keep bugs away. I am skeptical, though, because dad never planted marigolds among his tomatoes, and I figure what dad didn't know about gardening isn't worth knowing. 

 

My appreciation of dad's talent for growing things will never diminish. Funny thing, though: In many ways, he was about as bereft of skills as me when it comes to doing stuff most men can do. Neither of us could remedy even the simplest mechanical problem. We are lousy carpenters, painters, plumbers and electricians, too.  

 

I'll just admit it: About the only thing I can make is a phone call. 

 

Dad, however, had a singular gift: He could grow anything. It was in his DNA, passed down to him from the preceding generations of farmers, I guess.  

 

Farming had been my dad's profession until 1950, when he suffered a serious back injury, was confined to bed for a solid year and lost the farm. He moved his family to Tupelo where he could find work. He eventually wound up working for the city of Tupelo, and while the job was tolerable enough, it's certainly wasn't his passion. 

 

He compensated by growing the largest vegetable garden in Lee County, enough to pack our garage with canned vegetables, keep two huge deep freezers crammed so full you could barely close the doors and supply the whole neighborhood with butter beans, peas, string beans, squash, okra, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe and peppers. 

 

The secret to dad's success as a large-scale vegetable gardener, was his ability to manage his labor costs. 

 

That's where Mick and I figured into the equation. Most of our work began about the time school got out of the summer -- long hours of hoeing and picking and shelling. We were not compensated in cash payments for this work, a condition that -- despite many bitter letters to Cesar Chavez and his National Farm Workers Association -- never changed. 

 

So I was a "Union Man" from the start and remain an "Union Man." 

 

But I will confess that I have changed in one way, at least. As I dug my hands into the rich, moist brown earth Saturday morning, I realized that I was happy in the work.  

 

I guess maybe there's a little father in the son, after all. 

 

Next year, I might expand the garden a bit.  

 

I'm thinking a couple of acres ought to do it. 

 

Slim Smith is the managing editor of The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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