Friday, August 14, 2009

It takes more than lemons to make lemonade...

My lawnmower decided to quit at a bad time of the year...




I'm blessed and thankful to have a brother-in-law who has a wonderful knack for being 'Johnny on the spot.' I called to see if I could get a loaner, and he immediately offered to mow my yard for me. Both he and my sister really took care of my yard last summer. It became a pet project for my sis, and I was again very appreciative because of a few personal health issues last year. It would be nice to find a teenager looking for some extra cash, but we know that isn't happening these days.



Prepare for the proverbial time warp back to 'In my day...'



Okay, now that we're all here...as a teenager, I was always looking for ways to make money. Opportunity usually came in either a hay or tobacco field. Growing up in East Tennessee, both types were in abundance. It wasn't unusual to gain a day of work by word of mouth. My dad would say 'so and so' needs help with hay on Saturday or 'so and so' needs to top his tobacco tomorrow...and there you go. The going rate was usually $20 for an entire day which was a fortune for teenager back then. Once you got the rep for being a good worker, you'd stay busy for sure.



Putting up hay was hard labor because everyone 'square-baled' back then. For you urban types and kids born after the Reagan Administration, a square bale of hay is a near extinct commodity that was neither light nor square.


These days, square bales are usually limited to Fall decorative displays...well...and erosion controlling devices in some of the poorer counties. Farmers got away from baling this way because it was labor intensive, and labor for such task has gotten both scarce and expensive.

The process involved a tractor, trailer/wagon and a dozen or so workers. The weak link usually drove the tractor. Stacking the bales on the trailer required the most skill, so the process wasn't a perpetual repeat of throwing bales on the wagon, stacking, bales falling off the wagon, throwing bales on the wagon...

Everyone else was a thrower, and I was usually in that group. We would work, share stories, and laugh at people who picked up a bale with an unfortunate tortoise or unusually slow rabbit who got in the way of the baler and ended up mauled. It was hard work, but at the end of the day, the $20 was very real to me. I wasn't about to run out and spend it frivolously on something that would be a distant memory by the next weekend.

Later in college, I worked as the gardener for Judge Thomas A. Shriver, a former member of the Tennessee Court of Appeals in Nashville. Judge Shriver liked to help local college students where he could, and through a stroke of totally blind luck, I got the gig to work at his home when he needed things done around the grounds. Now it was my responsibility to contact the Judge or his wife Attie Gene to see if they needed me for work. I would check in a couple of times a week with each call always resulting in a few moments of encouragement from both of them on my school efforts.

Working at the Shriver became much more than just a paying job for me. The day would start with meeting the near 90 year old judge 'out back', where he would be in his yard hat and boots. There I would get my marching orders for the task at hand with each list always ending 'and turn the compost pile.' Often Judge Shriver would point at a tree or bush he wanted trimmed, but the shaking of his hand would leave me wondering which of the 3 or 4 plants he was referring. So not to embarrass him, I would walk over to the area and placing my hand ask, 'This one Judge Shriver?'

Lunch was always more adventurous than the yard work. Mrs. Shriver would call us in by literally ringing a bell. The Judge would change footwear and put his hat up for lunch. We would wash up in the basement and proceed upstairs where lunch was served on the Shriver's silver settings. Not to paint a wrong picture here because the Shrivers were obviously well off financially, but their home was modest and seasoned. Judge Shriver would eat his lunch in front of the television from a TV tray after his wife got him situated and served. She would then join me at the table where the lunch spread was both diverse and plentiful. I experienced my first crumpet at that table and hot tea poured from a silver pot. It all seemed so...surreal.


Mrs. Shriver: So you found a snake in the yard? Was it the poisonous kind?
Young Tony C: No ma'am, just a black snake. I took care of it.
Mrs. Shriver: More blackberry preserves? Could they get into the main house?
Young Tony C: No thank you. I don't think so. We've got the doors around back sealed pretty good.
Mrs. Shriver: Thank heavens. I would just die if one got in the house. God made the woman and the snake mortal enemies in the Garden of Eden...you remember.
Young Tony C: Yes ma'am I do. But don't worry. That one will never bother you I'm sure.

By the end of lunch, Judge Shriver would be well into his afternoon nap in his reclining chair. I would go back to the yard to finish my list and any other task I could see needed to be done that day. By the time the turning of the compost pile got around, the Judge would be awake and back in the yard with me. Then came my favorite part of the entire job. Getting paid? No, not quite. Judge Shriver and I would clean up and go to the front porch where Attie Gene's famous lemonade would be waiting. No matter how busy I was or what I needed to get back to at school, we would always sit and talk over at least one glass of lemonade. He would share with me a story from his past that was actual living Tennessee history.

Don't ask me how I knew the magnitude of those stories as a naive, brash college student in Nashville looking more for the fun side of carpe diem than the philosophical significance...I just knew. I needed the money, and that's why I took the job. But no matter how hard I worked, the payout I received in time spent with the Shrivers combined with the actual wage always outweighed my efforts. It was an experience in my education that I consider invaluable.

I've never been on any court that didn't involve a ball. I'm pretty sure there are no silver serving trays in my house...well...at least to my knowledge. My home is modest at best. But if you have a working lawnmower and need to make a few extra bucks, I've got a standing gig for you in Kingsport. On top of that...I know a ton of stories, and Mrs. Tony C makes a pretty decent pitcher of Kool-Aid lemonade too...

10 comments:

Dave said...

Great story Tony. It reminds me of the times I spent with my Grandmother everyday after school when I was in grade school and middle school. We would discuss everything from politics to theology to the events of the day. I benefited so much from her perspective, even when we disagreed, and from all the great stories of her life. I'm fortunate that she is still alive and we still occasionally get to sit down and have deep conversations. There is so much to be learned from previous generations if we will take the time to listen.

photogr said...

In a way I think all of us have those special moments from the past that we will cherrish in our memories and yearn for the simpler way of life.

Beth in NC said...

I enjoyed reading this. I worked in tobacco one summer as a teen and that was some GOOD money! It was nasty, hard work, but good money!

We use round rolls of hay now that can only be lifted by a spike on the front of our tractor. :o) Less manual labor.

David said...

Wow, a way of life I have never experienced. Made me feel hot sweaty as imagined the cool glass of lemonade touching my lips.

My kid makes $14 per hour working retail and double time on Sundays. But she still has to empty the dishwasher for free. We can't find anyone to do much of anything around here-- even for money.

Laretha said...

so funny, we have one family in our neighborhood with 2 teen boys. They make them cut grass in the neighborhood to pay for their own stuff. They are good kids, solid, respectable. All the other boys are punks! :-)

I bailed hay when I was a kid. I was a thrower on occassion but mostly just drove the truck. It was hard work, but I'm glad I experienced it.

AHHHH memories...

hope you're having a GREAT summer!

Z said...

I'm not sure I've read a lovelier post, Tony. I'm SO glad I was able to come by today, I'd have hated to miss this.
I was SO THERE with you....the dear judge and his wife, your kindness to them, their hospitality and respect to you, your respect for them and their lives; with so few words I feel like I know them.
These are Americans we should have more of.
So are you, Tony. Thanks so much.

HoosierArmyMom said...

Tony C, what a wonderful read. Z sent me here and I am so glad she did. Like you, my spiritual path was pretty much the same. My Judge was my art teacher of many years, Dorothy. One summer, when my father was on strike (he was skilled trades at GM) and could not afford my private art classes, Dorothy offered to let me come help clean and do chores around her house in trade for my lessons. Our time spent on her breeze way talking all manner of topics while sipping her signature punch (apricot nectar, lemon juice and a sprig of fresh mint) still live in my mind as the most valued part of the experience. Thank you for stirring my memories of those days.

Mesha said...

random post...lol...loved it all the same though.

heidianne jackson said...

what a great story - thanks so much for sharing - and i'll be sending a great big thank you to z, also, for sending me here. growing up in southern maryland i've worked in my share of tobacco fields - and as someone said above, it is nasty, hard work - but the money was great!

i have a standing offer for yard work for anyone near to crestline, ca - no silver services in my house, but the sweet tea is cold and i nearly always have some goodies available for eating...

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