The celery farm.
May 8, 2014 § 8 Comments
Until he died, this small town existed, unchanged, in the golden light of memory.
The clatter of the West Shore Railroad, which originated in Weehawken, NJ, then followed the Hudson before turning west toward Buffalo, was the music of his childhood–the track ran behind the house his grandfather had built.
My dad knew every street and stop sign in his town and expected them to remain eternally the same, which they largely did, although once I remember him running a stop that had cropped up between visits.
The change in the familiar pattern disconcerted him more than his illegal journey across the intersection.
I was teaching a memoir class and asked him for a memory from Congers.
This is what he gave me.
MY FIRST JOB (C.E. Fogelin)
This incident took place early in the summer of 1936. That means in the middle of the Great Depression. I was 11 years old at the time and money was a very scarce commodity for anyone my age. I was determined to find work on one of the farms near our home to correct that deficiency. Here is how things went that day.
My Dad and I ate breakfast together around 5:30 in the morning. This, in itself, was a big event for me. Normally, he had left for his job in New York City long before I crawled out of bed. I remember feeling quite grown up sitting at the breakfast table with him, both of us off to a job (at least I hoped that would be true in my case).
Dad left to catch the train as its whistle signaled that it had cleared the Haverstraw Tunnel. I headed up the ridge behind our home walking toward the celery farm a mile away. Mr. Jack Heath ran the operation for his mother-in-law who owned all the black muck land at the foot of the hill below their home.
With shaking knees, I knocked on the door of his house around 6 AM. He came out on the porch and asked me what was on my mind. I told him I wanted to go to work. He gave me a quick look and sent me along to one of the small cottages to see a Mr. Block, one of a half dozen sharecroppers who made a living for their families tending celery plants on 1/6th of the 200 acre field.
When I finally got up the courage to knock on his door, out came a man with bloodshot eyes looking mean as a skunk. Somehow, I got out the words, “I’m looking for work, sir. Mr. Jack Heath sent me.”
“Well, I don’t know,” he blurted out after a long pause, then followed up with a question. “How old are you boy?”
Eleven was my reply.
“I pay a penny an hour for each year you got. You can give it a try at 11 cents an hour, get on the truck with the other boys if you want.”
In due time, Mr. Block climbed behind the wheel of the old beat up truck taking eight kids and a bunch of crates down the hill to the muckfields. The dirt was black as coal and wet so it wasn’t long before all of us looked like we were working in a coalmine rather than a farm field.
I can still remember the feel of the hot sun baking down on me for endless hours as piles of celery clumps were scraped by my thumb.
Old man Block wasn’t only my first boss, he was the toughest too. “HEY! Cut out that chatter! I’m not paying you to waste time talking!”
The harvesting for the day ended at noontime when a bunch of very dirty and tired kids piled back in the bed of the truck and headed up the hill. We were paid promptly with Mr. Block telling a few kids that they needn’t come back for reasons he didn’t bother to give.
I was sure I’d get the boot, but much to my surprise he doled out my 55 cents and said, “Be on time tomorrow.”
Wow, I had a job and 55 cents in my pocket to prove it!
One last ritual remained before heading home. The packing shed had a large water spraying unit in it to clean the muck from the picked celery but it served a second important purpose.
We all took off our hats, shoes and socks, then went through the tunnel of the water sprayer to get the muck off us as well. I still remember that cold spring water dunking. I’m sure my mother was equally impressed when her very wet son stomped into the kitchen to show her his first wages.
I can’t remember one friendly word from old man Block, but he kept me on until the season was over. The next year, I went to work for Jack Heath himself in the wash shed.
I continued returning each summer until I got out of high school. Jack gave me a $10 bonus that last year. I should have framed and hung it on a wall. But it, and the celery farm itself are long gone, except in the memories of those of us who worked there so long ago.
First, when the train whistle blew for the Haverstraw tunnel, my grandfather would light out for the station to catch it, running all the way.
Second, in his later summers at the celery farm my dad handled the pay for all the workers–his math and his honesty were both unimpeachable.