My dad was a rural soul, 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 in our playroom. 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. “Most people eat processed vegetables,” Mom said, confirming this new fact of life. “They also eat fruit in tin cans. Aren’t you children lucky that your father is a wonderful gardener?”
The bean field: a forbidding jungle
Lucky? I didn’t think so. While the neighbors’ kids played kickball on Saturday afternoons, the Hamrick children sharecropped the easement.
Dad had a powerful ambition: transplanting the traditions of Talking Rock—his childhood home in North Georgia—to a strip of Alabama soil. But Martha, Bud, Mary, Peggy, and I did not feel sentimental about growing squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, corn, and beans, beans, beans.
After we flew the nest (and field), my mother stood by helplessly when our father got the neighbor’s permission to plow his easement, providing room for all sorts of beans: McCaslin, Blue Lake, Rattle Snake, and Kentucky Wonder-151.
By early July, vines strangled the poles, their lush leaves hiding 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 bean chapter in Walden: “I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late. . . . 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.
Literary inspiration: trickster Tom Sawyer on the art of delegation
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?” a curious onlooker inquired.
“Sure, nothin’ to it.” Martha was the smoothest talker of us all.
“Really?” another wide-eyed child asked.
“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?” the new day laborers chorused.
“Heck, no, the Waltons were rich,” Dad said, relishing his role as the 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,” Dad said, 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.
“Why are you putting up all that corn?” she asked.
“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.
The girl ran home to report the imminent weather disaster to her mother, who promptly called my mother in a panic.
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.
He took a pot shot one time (“Farmer Leon Goes Squirrely”). 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. Mom confiscated his gun and forced him to use live traps. After that, 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.
Watering crops the DIYI (do-it-yourself-irrigation) way
Watering the “back 40” became Dad’s obsession. Hoses snaked through the backyard and then wound around metal laundry line poles staked every three rows. Lawn sprinklers topped the poles, sending wave after wave of precious drops during dry spells. When picking vegetables under a beating sun, we refreshed under these automatic showers.
Dad dreamed up this irrigation system after he spotted a hose sale in a Home Depot circular. When he came home with his prize purchases, Mom was not happy. Some hoses were tan and orange, not color-coordinated green.
One fine March day—before Dad installed his watering system—he burned off the previous year’s stalks before planting. (There is a pyromania boy lurking inside every grown man.)
Shocker: the local power crew had tromped through the easement the day before, spraying herbicide. Dad lit the first match. Whoosh! It was a barnburner. The trampoline mat melted in 3 seconds.
Cooking supper, Mom heard faint calls: “Hose! Hose!”
She poked her head out the porch door and called, “Wha-a-at’s that, dear?”
Smoke misted through the trees. “HOSE! HOSE!”
Mom tripped down the pebble path and yelled, “Which color would you like?”
“Any damn hose you can find!”
About then, the firefighters, whose station sat atop the next ridge, spotted the conflagration. They sat on their porch for years, entertained by my dad’s eccentricities. They good-naturedly climbed the woodsy hill and hosed off the easement in minutes. Thereafter the next-door neighbors kept long hoses screwed into outdoor faucets—just in case.
The farmer and the lady of the house
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 well-coiffed socialite tooling around in her Mercedes once pulled up and tried to hire my father 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,” Dad 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.