Babes in an Urban Woods: Part I

Age 14 1/2
Age 14 1/2

During our teens, my church friends–Miriam, Gladys, Hazel, and I congregate at each other’s houses after church on Sunday night for ice cream, chips, and stereo music: Songs from the West, anything by Mantovani, and The Singing Nun. We would rather have dates like Janie and Thelma, but since we don’t, we pretend that this weekly ritual is fun.

One of our other faux definitions for fun includes cultivating an acre of tomatoes. The youth group from church farm tomatoes on a fertile plot of land near Bossler’s Mennonite Church called The Lord’s Acre. We plant, water, weed, and harvest the tomatoes, giving the profit to missions. Another mission outreach is in New York City, where Ernest Kraybill, one of our deacon’s sons, drives taxi during the day and pastors a small mission church in Harlem. Some of us, along with young marrieds, are getting ready to board a bus and distribute gospel tracts in the Big City. A year ago, the freshmen from E-town High took a field trip to New York. Radio City Music Hall with its sunburst fan of a stage is my favorite memory: seeing the Rockettes was a dream come true for a sheltered girl from Rheems. After the show, we saw a movie–yes, an actual MOOOOOVEEE in dynamic sound and Technicolor, featuring Barbara Stanwyck, the very first movie star I had ever seen performing on the silver screen. Her flawless skin and hair, impeccable makeup, and a cream, cool voice mesmerized me.

On what turns out to be the hottest Saturday in August most of the teens and young adults from Bossler’s plan to spend all day Saturday bringing the gospel to poor, needy heathens in the inner city. It’s summer-time, and I wear my sheer voile lavender frock, so I won’t feel overheated with a modest cape over the dress. We are leaving in the early morning about 4:30 am, so we can spend the day giving out tracts in apartment buildings all over Harlem, With Hazel, my seat-partner, I board the bus for the 3 1/2 hour trip to New York City. Garbed in the plainest of clothing and christened with our white Mennonite caps, we are out to convert the world.

On the bus, we talk and doze, and doze and talk our way to the exotic lights, thrumming noises, and foreign smells of Harlem in north Manhattan, a neighborhood of about 1/4 million people. After we arrive, we proceed by twos among the tenement building in the concrete jungle of the 18th block of Harlem, armed with nothing but gospel tracts and innocence. Like the others, Hazel and I are assigned one tenement building with floors upon floors of apartments. Our strategy is to walk all the way to the top and do our distributing on the way down.

tenement building - courtesy: Google Images
tenement building – courtesy: Google Images

“Whew, it sure does stink in here!” The odors of stale air, dried blood, urine, and burnt cooking assault our country noses on the way up. There are beer bottles, Schlitz and Black Label–some broken, I notice, strewn on the landings between floors.

“Did you hear that?” I ask Hazel as we both witness a full-scale brawl going on inside one of the apartments. The sweaty-looking door-opener snatches a tract from our hands.

“I can’t believe these words,” Hazel comments as we gape at the graffiti on the pock-marked concrete walls: Call_____ for a good time . . . Go to #x!*X you dirty niggers . . . .  Undaunted, we manage to bless all the other apartment dwellers with our fliers as we descend. More screaming and yelling. Things are really getting violent on the other side of the wall.

“Are we going to make it out alive?” I wonder. But things are about to get even worse.

What happens next? Part II

                                                              *   *   *   *   *

GOOD NEWS! There is still time to enter the contest on my review of Shirley Showalter’s new memoir BLUSH, hot off the press. Just POST a COMMENT on the review! Read and Comment @ Shirley Showalter’s BLUSH – A Review and Book Giveaway

THE CONTEST

You can enter to win a copy of this book now!

Here are the details:

WHAT:  Read my review of Shirley Hershey Showalter’s memoir: Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.

PRIZE:   One lucky commenter will win a copy of BLUSH, after only one week now in its second printing!

WHEN:  Review posted Wednesday, September 25, 2013

WHERE:  Right here on Plain and Fancy Girl

And all you have to do is show up, read my review and leave a comment. Only comments posted on my blog will be counted as an entry.

The giveaway will close one week later on Wednesday, October 2, 2013 at 12:00 midnight. I will announce the winner here and by email.

I invite you to come by and enter the contest by commenting on the review. Feel free to invite your reading friends!

Again, here’s the link to the review: Shirley Showalter’s BLUSH: A Review and Book Giveaway and a chance to win a copy of Shirley’s book!

 

Tomato Girl, Part I

Tomato Girl, Part I

Lancaster County, early June 1953 – and I’m in the tomato patch with Mother and Daddy. Actually, it’s not a tomato patch, it’s over 9 acres of farm land not far from Elizabethtown in Bainbridge where we are about to plant a new tomato crop. Years earlier, my parents planted tobacco, but a Mennonite revivalist came through the county, preached powerfully against making a profit from plants that could be turned into deadly cigars and cigarettes, and so like others they switched to tomatoes or corn.

Rev.TomatoPlantMach_mod_11x8_72

Today Mom and I sit side by side on the metal “tractor” seats at one end of the planter, each with a burlap bag laden with tomato plants in our laps. A trowel-like attachment of the machine attached to the Massey-Harris tractor carves a row and we take turns inserting a plant with dangly roots into the furrow.  As soon as a valve opens with a gush of water, two metal “hands” close over the plant, sealing it into the rich, humus soil. Usually Mom and I are synchronized, but if we can’t keep up with the click-clack of the mechanism, we yell at Daddy at the helm who hits the tractor brake so we can catch up.

TomatoBlossom     Move ahead to hot July now, and Monday starts another tomato-picking week. My time-conscious Mom keeps us all on schedule: “Marrrr-i-an, it’s soon time to go!’ So I schuss around and put the thermos on the porch so Ruthie sees we’re ready.” She will be at our house any minute now with the Longenecker Farm Supply pickup to take herself, my mom and me to our field near the village of Bainbridge. I can see it now: rows of warm, red globes in clusters on the bushes. Timmy Barnhart, ”Barney”—a squat, jolly farmer in bib-overalls will probably meet us there and help with the harvest. I like when he comes; he knows that twelve-year-old tomato pickers like the Reed’s butterscotch candy and red licorice packets he stuffs into his pockets to sweeten the labor.

TomatoOnVine

I’m paid ten cents a basket for my pains, but it’s hard to keep track of the number I fill, so I decide to put one green tomato on top of every 5/8 bushel basket, so I can add them all up and compute the dimes I’ll earn. Frugal Mom puts an end to this idea: “Don’t do that; you’re wasting perfectly good tomatoes. Why don’t you put your baskets in the middle of the row separate from the rest.” I know she’s telling me to do it this way, not asking if I really want to.

And so I plod—up and down the endless rows as the sun beats down on us. For awhile the grown-up chatter between my Mother, Aunt Ruthie, and Barney keeps me entertained, but then I stick my hand into a stinky, rotten tomato for the tenth time this morning, and I burst into tears. Dear Barney, now just a blue blur near the end of the row, hears the outburst and suggests a trip with the two of us going to Stauffer’s General Store down the alley and around the corner along a side street in Bainbridge. The store has oiled, wooden floors just like school and smiley Anna Mae Hess behind the counter. Barney, a widower, likes Anna Mae, and they chat for a while, giving me sweet reprieve from the blazing sun. Before we go, he orders two pints of Breyer’s neopolitan ice cream in a square box each cut in half with a butcher knife. Anna Mae puts four flat wooden spoons in a paper bag with the cold treat and we’re back in the field to share a late morning snack with Mom and Aunt Ruthie.

Tomato Girl_crop_9x7_150

Late afternoon brings Daddy in his flat-bed Reo truck to load the baskets in three or four staggered layers. If there is any room left over, Oscar Forrey, a farmer who patronizes my daddy’s shop, can add his picking to our harvest. “There’s no sense in two people driving half-filled trucks to the same place now is there?” Dad says. He’ll drive to the Mt. Joy depot for tomato farmers where the Heinz Company will truck the harvest way over to Hanover. My Dad has brought along a cold watermelon (wasser-ma-loon, he calls it) to save us from dehydration. Bless his heart! Mom must have told Daddy about my melt-down because he promises me a bike for my July 24 birthday. I picture a shiny blue and white Schwinn with a cute, white woven basket in front of the handlebars, maybe with fancy, pink dingle-dangles!

I don’t remember if my teachers ever assigned an essay “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” But planting and picking tomatoes would have been my topic until I turned 15 and could work for real pay at Baum’s Bologna.  There I wrapped sweet bologna in clear cellophane and pasted on the label, festooned with a smiley Amish face with a beard and wide straw hat. Then I graduated to working in the dementia unit at Masonic Homes. But that’s another story.

Tell us something memorable about your summers as a child or a young teen. If you remember it after all these years, we’d certainly be interested in reading about it.