Tiny Islands

It was just after four o’clock in the morning, we’d driven about 30 minutes from Rindge and now we were in a little diner near Jaffrey, New Hampshire. We sat at the counter with coffee in front of us, mine with real cream mellowing the bitterness and cane sugar to sweeten it. The farmer, called Boss, passed me a pack of Wings cigarettes and I took one out and lit it with the Zippo lighter he’d set on the Formica counter top. The Zippo had an anchor on it and US Navy was engraved above the anchor and 1944 engraved beneath it. We were on our way to pick up some supplies before we started the milking at six. I took a deep drag on the cigarette and rubbed my scratch sleep deprived eyes and wished I was still in bed. But I had chosen to work the school farm and this was a part of it. Although I’m pretty sure, looking back, that the school had a more wholesome experience in mind for me. After all, I was twelve years old.

Boss just had to make the stop for coffee. He stayed awake a little too late the previous night, keeping company with his friend Jim Beam. It took a man to face his responsibilities, he told me, and no matter how one felt the chores needed to be done. He finished three cups of coffee to my one, the waitress keeping his cup filled from a carafe marked Krupp. She smiled pleasantly at me, and even winked once, which I thought was friendly. Boss put a dollar on the counter and stood up, stretched, and nodded his head towards the door. I slid off my stool and walked out with him to the old Ford pickup truck.

I have no idea why I remember this particular moment of life. It sits in my memory, apparently unconnected to others, an island poking out of the fog of time. I do recall that Boss was fired and replaced by a guy named Jim only a week or so later, Boss having spent too late a night with his friend Jim Beam again, but this time missed the six am milking. I asked Jim the farmer if his last name was Beam, wondering if he knew more about the sudden departure of Boss. Farmer Jim said no, but didn’t tell me his last name, he just sent me off to bring hay down for the cows. He didn’t last very long either, and the school rumor was that he’d gotten a little too friendly with a couple of the other boys working on the farm. I thought it was a bit unfair to send a man away because he was friendly, but, I thought, that farming was tough business and like my dad always said, every organization had to run on discipline. Life wasn’t a popularity contest.

I worked the school farm for a full year and a half. I worked it because I was allowed to drive the farm machinery which included a pair of John Deere tractors with various accessories towed behind, the farm’s old Ford pickup truck and the GMC two ton flatbed. The GMS carried both the hay we baled and the corn silage we cut and pumped into the farms silo. I also learned to make “corn squeezin’s” from the liquid that the weight of the corn would press out of the silage. I don’t remember the particulars, but I recall that we added yeast at some point and later boiled it in a big copper kettle and corkscrewed through tubing into a drum the farmer called Thumper. The school went through a lot of farmers, this one too not managing to stay for an extended period. In my eighteen months, I outlived five different employees, most bachelors but a couple had wives and kids too. The married ones seemed to last longer, but they all moved on after a stay of a couple of weeks or up to a few months.

Working the farm gave me some pretty good muscles. Truth be told, I barely hung on, what with the amount of manure I had to contend with. I was forever shoveling it. I concluded during my tenure that animals, at least cows, pigs, chickens and horses, put out more volume than they took in. A fact I still believe today. But I also know exactly where the food in supermarkets comes from, and I also know that the food we had at school was a damn sight better than the food that comes from the market chains. It’s long been a mystery why that was so, the answer only coming to me later in life as I learned about processing plants of all sorts. I found this information distressing and disgusting, in spite of having participated in the rendering of stock into table meat. At the farm, like everyone else, I participated in the slaughter process, and it never struck me as grotesque as the films I saw of the big company operations.

As well as animals, we grew vegetables. We grew corn and different varieties of squashes, beans, peas and cauliflower and eggplant. While I ate the meat the farm produced, of the vegetables we grew I would only eat the corn, peas and green beans. I did and do despise the others. I suppose we could have grown potatoes, but we didn’t. We bought those in big mesh sacks out of Winchendon or even Keene. Where they came from I always assumed was Idaho, a fact that got me some sideways looks more than once. But my schoolbook said Idaho was famous for its potatoes, served nationwide with pride.

Working the farm also meant I got to go on more field trips than my fellow students at the school. They weren’t really field trips per se, they were more just trips for farm business, but we’d often stop extra places. One time we stopped in at the D.D.Bean Fireworks company. They made matches and, of course, fireworks. We were shown around a bit and frankly, it wasn’t all that interesting. But they did give the farmer a few items as samples and I got to watch them shot off that night, getting a front row seat right up at the action where the other kids were made to stand back some. After all, I was a farmer and a member of 4-H in good standing. Looking back, how that was I don’t know. I never raised an animal for show, never had a display, and the only thing I did at fairs was eat the food, ride the rides, and participate in some of the games. But I was still a member and had the tee shirt with the big green clover on it that said Head, Heart, Hands and Health on the leaves.

All in all, the farm was a good experience, I think. I allowed me to bypass a lot of classes and work with tools more often than the other kids. I liked that immensely. Actually, I liked both of those aspects a lot. But the school wasn’t so focused on classes as it was building character and skills. Oh, they made sure that we did ample reading and study. But when they taught arithmetic, it was for a purpose. When they taught us everything it had purpose; it wasn’t the ethereal “you’ll need this someday” stuff that other schools seemed to dole out. I was always anxious to learn because I was able to use the information right away. When I studied history, I found myself reciting the Song of Hiawatha at our Christmas pageant.

The thing was, I didn’t thrive at schools. I was a kid with a terribly busy mind. Today they’d say I had attention deficit. Back then, they just said I needed challenge and they provided it. So I soaked up electronics, HAM radio, astronomy, general science, farming, mechanics, wood working and carpentry, welding and mechanics, sewing, photography, lapidary, printing and type setting, and a whole bunch of other stuff, even collecting sap and boiling it down into maple syrup and candy. The latter giving me an introduction to fire fighting. From age 11 through 13 they kept me busy, a feat that none else managed until I joined the army.

As a result, I tend to look down my nose at modern education. I was a lot more rounded and had developed the beginnings of a wide variety of skills before most states thought I should be allowed to drive a car. Of course, modern ideas of safety wouldn’t tolerate the many things I was exposed to back in 1960, yet I and many others managed to survive the experiences and come away with all fingers and toes. Most importantly though, I knew how most things worked, a factor that gave me a leg up ever since those youthful days. Almost everything I do in my adult life was touched on and introduced to me back then. And while sometimes the memories of those days appear like treetops jutting from a ground fog, little islands appearing as unto themselves, I know that beneath that mist is a patchwork quilt of fabric whose textures I still experience today.