My dad’s garden mania shot up when his children-sharecroppers (forced labor until their early teen years) scattered. He doubled the crop when the next-door neighbor gave him permission to plow through the lower end of their backyard.
These events forced Dad to double his hours in the garden. My mother never commented, but she developed a blank stare when bushel baskets of produce started piling up on the deck. More “putting up” for the winter!
I pictured them as homesteaders planted on the Great American Prairie, squirreling away potatoes in their one-room soddie to get through seven months of blizzards. Mind you, these passionate people of the earth lived in suburban Birmingham, Alabama, on a 1-acre lot, with the lower end turned into a farm. Their neighbors’ idea of quaint country living entailed an occasional drive to the local farmers market.
Having conquered new territory, Dad had a street light installed on a telephone pole at the edge of the easement so he could play in the dirt until bedtime. Meanwhile, my mother sterilized canning jars in four boiling pots on the stove.
All this activity required careful timing if I wanted to drop by for a visit. Otherwise, Dad would have pressed me back into service. Scary. I did not carry a union card to protect me. Child labor laws had not protected me in my youth. After hoeing, rowing, and picking beans, squash, tomatoes, new potatoes, lettuce, carrots, and okra, I cultivated a love for home-grown eats but less enthusiasm for the sweat of my brow. As much as I loved my father, I showed up for free dinners on the nights he was on call. I gambled that he would be at the hospital operating on somebody.
Unlike many Southerners, Dad did not hunt. His Scout Master once took him trekking for deer in the North Georgia Mountains. The man got a clean shot, but my father could not bear watching the animal die. That was his first and last mission to find edible wildlife, with the exception of deep-woods poke sallet and blackberries growing beside the highway. When he pulled over to pick, my mother bit her lip as traffic flew by. Fortunately, nobody slammed into the car.
Dad’s peace pact with animals ended when rabbits nibbled early spring lettuce. Then a groundhog and some squirrels chomped his young tomato plants. He acquired a 22 and became an instant hunter. To my secret amusement, I named it “Old Tick-Licker” after Daniel Boone’s legendary gun. The celebrated Kaintuck trailblazer bragged he could shoot a tick off an animal without harming it.
My homespun romance ends there. “Do no harm”? In the case of trespassing critters, Dad intended deadly harm. When he picked off a few rabbits, my mother always waited for the police to show up. It was one of her greatest fears.
Fortunately, the garden bordered a cliff dropping into deep woods. He aimed in that direction, so he would not shoot up the neighborhood. Maybe they adjusted to the crack-crack or perhaps ran indoors when they spied him garden bound.
Mrs. S.—the lovely lady next door and a member of my mother’s sewing club and church circle—had a penchant for rescuing creatures half-mauled by cats. She once found a half-dead squirrel and rehabilitated him. She named him George, and he lived in her screened-in back porch.
Late one Saturday afternoon, I showed up for my personal soup-kitchen moment. Oh, dear. Dad was not on call, so I had the privilege of gathering the harvest for two hours. Thank God, Mom called us into supper. Dad grabbed his 22, now his best friend, and we moseyed toward the back door.
I was chattering away about some foolish event at work. Suddenly, Dad grabbed my arm and said, “Sh-sh. Be still. Be still.” I learned early in life: one does not argue with an intense surgeon.
I froze. He trained his gun on an immediate victim. Just before Dad pulled the trigger, I spotted it: a squirrel happily dancing along the trellis overhanging the swimming pool. He had a mouthful of dripping tomato. “Old Tick-Licker” had mighty kick that day. The squirrel fell over into Mrs. S’s yard.
“S.O.B.,” Dad muttered. (My mother, Miss Bunny, was out of earshot.)
“Sh-sh. Be still. Be still.”
“She’ll find it tomorrow,” I whispered.
“No, tonight after she goes to bed, we’ll go over the fence, grab the body, and throw it over the cliff.”
Dads prepared to don camouflage and sit motionless in the garden with Old Tick-Licker. He likely fantasized about building a tree stand to blast interlopers from on high. However, Mom confiscated his gun 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. After that, Dad caught trespassing critters and turned them loose in another county so they would waddle into somebody else’s garden.
Poor Mrs. S. Her saga did not end. When Dad read that a loud radio spooked animals, he propped one on a ladder in the middle of the garden. Then he turned up the volume to full blast on an obnoxious AM talk station. Rain threatened, so he ran into the house, grabbed a galvanized metal tub, and stuck it on top of the ladder to umbrella the radio. The voices took on a tinny sound. (This innovation fascinated the Southern Living editorial team that showed up to photograph and interview Dad for a garden feature. The ladder was hot pink—a leftover prop from a high school play.) Late one evening, passion inflamed two pundits taking potshots at each other.
Late one evening, passion inflamed two pundits taking potshots at each other. Their voices carried on the breeze and invaded Mrs. S’s sweet reverie on her screened-in porch. Had aliens landed? She stared into the dark. The next morning, she called Mom. “Bunny, I believe teenagers were drinking beer in your garden last night.”
“Do tell,” Mom replied and quickly said goodbye. The pots were boiling over on the stove, and two more bushels of beans had appeared by the back door.
Street light courtesy of Famartin