By Cal Evans
Growing up I loved to read. Starting as early as the first grade, I would read any book I could get my hands on. I would sit for hours lost in worlds crafted by others visiting friends like Homer Price, Stuart Little and Willie Wonka. It seemed that the only books that held no interest for me were my text books. Most days, their only purpose was to hide the book I was currently engrossed. Of the many tomes whose depths I plumbed, one stands out above the rest in its impact on my life. It stands as my ebenezer marking a spot in my life. For it was the first book I ever read that moved me to action.
The book was of course, the infamous Eric Plants a Garden. If you’ve not done so already, I recommend you rush out to your local used bookstore and ferret through the rotting stacks until you’ve satisfied yourself that it’s out of print, there are not secondary copies available, and that the publisher has burned the manuscript of this nefarious tome. So powerful were the spells woven by the author describing the joys of planting and tending a small vegetable garden that upon emerging from it’s last page, I jumped to my feet, ran into the den and proudly announced to Mom, Dad, my sister, and the entire cast of “The Love Boat” that I was going to plant a garden! My family, now jaded to my antics, ignored me until the commercial at which time, my father responded – as all fathers do to the quixotic quests of their spawn – “No”.
It was not said in anger; it was not said with malice. These emotions would have required even a small amount of thought. This was a primordial response to a tone of voice that a father can pick up on when coming from his child. It is a tone of voice reserved for only the most absurd of requests. I’m fairly sure that Dad did not even hear my comments but simply responded by instinct.
But I was on a mission. I had been energized as only the written word could do. My soul was on fire and there was only one way to quench it. I knew in my heart that I must plant a garden. I knew it was the only way my spirit would be again at rest. And so I retreated for the moment, willing to concede the battle for the sake of winning the war. Off to my room I flew to plan. Drawing on wisdom beyond my years, and the back of a church bulletin, I put together a master plan for my garden. It is solely coincidence that my drawing was a crude copy of one of the illustrations in the book. The next day I put my plan into action. Beneath our house lay a small enclosed area. Conveniently disguised as a crawl-space, it was, in reality my fortress of solitude. I darted into it and dug through my treasure trove that all little boys have.
“Eureka!” I cried as I pulled a knotted ball of string from the pile.
Scurrying back out the entrance I stood and surveyed the yard.
“Now where would be a good place to start?” I was thinking aloud.
I knew I would have to start out small. No more than half the yard this year. Next year I could expand to the entire back yard. By that time my co-op would be thriving and I could begin leasing land from my neighbors. I momentarily lost myself in my grand plan. I could see my entire neighborhood in my mind. Once huge field dotted by houses and small driveways. Every square inch of earth plowed in straight neat rows. There I stood sunglasses on and a strand of hay jutting out between my smiling lips as I watched the neighborhood kids toiling by hand to tend my crops. I had created an entirely new economic class, ‘Elementary school Share-croppers.’ Slowly coming back to reality, I began. I carefully un-knotted my string and began laying out my boundaries. My hero, Eric, used stakes to mark off his garden. He also had a father willing to help him and a supportive family. I had to play the cards dealt me. Looking around, I found some twigs to use as stakes and tied my string to them. Only after I had imprisoned five or six of these helpless twigs did I realize that I needed to put the sticks into the ground first and then tie the string to them. Un-daunted by details, I started over. The ground turned out to be a formidable adversary. Try as I might, it thwarted my every attempt to drive a stick into it. The harder I pressed, the more sticks I broke until eventually, I was sitting alone, with my string and a pile of toothpicks. Armed with the eternal optimism of youth, I persevered.
Back into my fortress of solitude I strode. Reaching deep into my father’s toolbox (when little boys get older, their treasure trove gets a shine metal box to keep it safe!), I pulled from it’s depths a handful of nails and his hammer. The ground had withstood my first attempts but let’s see how it stood up to sticks of steel! Newly armed and revitalized, I entered the fray once again.
This time the ground gave way silently. It knew it was beat and did not put up a fight. (Little did I know that it was taking the battle under ground.) Many days later, it would resurface to fight with guerilla tactics. Turning my own weapons against me it would lodge the nails in the tire of a family car, thrust them up just as Dad was passing the mower over them or attack an innocent bystander in the foot.)
When I was done, I had marked off an area roughly the size of two station-wagons. It was not exactly a square, it more closely resembled a meandering line that closed in on itself just before I ran out of string. I stole a minute to take in the grand picture. Standing there, wind blowing in my young hair, hands planted firmly on my hips, I was a model of American ingenuity. Surely, when historians wrote of my generation we would be lauded and praised as the greatest of all generations. They would recognize us as the generation that realized the dream of urban farming, The ‘Evansization’ of the middle class neighborhood. I could feel the greatness swelling up inside me. (Either that or I really had to go pee bad.) Back from my bio-break, I surveyed my work so far. I knew the next step had to be easier. All I had to do now was till the soil and I could start planting. In my book, Eric had done this with a small garden trowel. Sensing that I needed a man’s tool for this job, I headed inside.
“Dad, where is our Shovel?” I had his attention now. Had I asked for something simple like my GI Joe, he would have done the standard mumble-ignore. But no, I had asked for an implement of destruction; a tool that can only be used to tear up. As if shot with an electric jolt, he looked up, eyes narrowing and asked a foolish question.
“For my garden,” I replied in all seriousness. “I’ve marked it off but now I need to till the soil.”
I could see his concern now turning to dread.
“I thought I told you ‘No’ on the garden.”
“You said ‘no, I won’t help you’, not ‘no, you can’t do it.’ So I’m doing it myself.” The logic of a child is a beauty to behold. Dad started to reply and then stopped. Resigning himself to the futility of this conversation before it got good and started, Dad folded the paper and said. “Let’s go see what you’ve done.”
Off we went into the back yard. There, in all of its glory, was the memorial to my battle with the ground, right in the middle of the back yard. Dad shook his head slowly as a smile broke out across his face. My plan was working. I knew now I had some help.
“Why don’t we move it over to one side of the yard? That way we can…” I could see his thoughts as he trailed off. He was seeing it. If the garden was in the middle of the yard, he didn’t have to mow as much. I almost had him on this one before he finished. “…still do things like play ball.” “Ok.” I concede this point. As long as I got a space, I didn’t care where it was. He pulled up the string and nails and instructed me to gather up the other nails lying around.
I guess I should explain at this point that one side of our yard ended in a retaining wall and six foot drop into Phase 2 (our neighbor’s yard). Having spent most of my formative years in the foothills of the Smokies, I assumed everyone’s neighborhood was so hilly that retainer walls had to be built to keep your yard from slipping into your neighbor’s house. Right next to the wall was where Dad chose for the garden.
He laid out the string in a rectangle roughly half the size of my original plot but with nice neat lines. And then, and only then, did he retrieve the shovel. By this time, my attention was beginning to wan. By this point in the book, Eric had tilled the soil, planted the seeds and was lovingly watering it. I wanted to skip to the part where I got to play with the hose. But Dad would have none of that, at least not yet. Dad planted the tip of the spade in the ground and then hoisted his bulking frame up and stood down hard on the edges of the shovel. Mother Earth fought back. The tip of the spade went into the ground about one half of an inch before stopping firmly, leaving Dad teetering back and forth before hopping off and grunting. Inspecting the damage he had done and not being happy with it, he tried again with similar results.
I quickly lost interest in the humor of watching my Dad ride a shovel like a broken pogo-stick and wandered off. Every now and then I would look over to see him down on his hands and knees trying to pry a large rock out of the ground or picking himself up after the shovel had slipped from beneath him as if the ground itself had swatted it. I wandered inside where Mom fixed me a sandwich; a glass of fruit flavored drink and asked me where my father was.
After lunch and a short nap, I wandered back outside to play with some friends of mine only to be surprised that my father was still out there trying to turn the soil. By this time, Dad had come to the realization that in our yard, there was a thin veneer of dirt covering a layer of fossilized and petrified dirt. This rock-hard strata was resisting his every effort to delve beneath its surface. Dad was now sweating profusely and beside him sat an empty glass that had contained his fuel of choice, iced tea. Looking up, and seeing me headed out of the door, he mistook it for me returning to help. “I think we are going to have to rent a tiller.” He said through the sweat and grunting. “It doesn’t look like this is going to work with a shovel.” “It did in the book.” I said, extolling the wisdom of my tome. The look on his face darkened as I realized that he was not interested in what worked in the book.
“Go tell Mom we are going out and bring me my car keys.” He puffed. I obediently turned and wandered off.
Some time later he burst into the house hollering my name. “Are you coming?” he exasperatingly bellowed making it very difficult for me to watch Gilligan on TV.
“Coming where?” I said looking up in innocent bewilderment.
“We have to go rent a tiller for your garden!” he was teetering on the border of aggravation, right in exasperation zone. In one motion he scooped me up with one arm and with his keys in the other hand headed out the door.
Soon we returned with a small, motorized tiller in the back of the Almost Wagon. In the war against the ground, we had brought in the heavy artillery. Firing it up, Dad proudly tore through the strata of stone and into the sweet dark clay beneath. He was on a roll as he tore through the small patch of ground in less than 10 minutes and then, just to prove once and for all, who won the war, he tilled it all again. He finished the entire project in less than 15 minutes. So great was the adrenalin high that he was on that I believe that if Mom had not been watching, he would have tilled the rest of the yard. I could tell from the maniacal grin on his face that here was a man who had plumbed the depths of hell itself and lived to tell the tale. It was done, the garden had been tilled ground had been broken. Dad and I stood overlooking our field, two men who had conquered the elements, wrangled the soil, tamed Mother Earth. Our euphoria was as thick as the testosterone in the air. Today, we were men. Covered in the dust from our labor, tired to the bone but we were men.
Side by side we stood gazing out over our field. Dad’s arm around my shoulder as we watched the sun set…until Mom asked “What are you going to plant?”