Originally published March 25, 2012
NOTE: Please read Part 3 before reading this post – thanks!
As we sat in Ma Jacobits’ restaurant, a couple of the guys suggested that Dude and I should try to get work “hoeing” tobacco on one of the farms directly across the road from the restaurant. I can’t remember the farmer’s name but he was very friendly and agreed to hire us, soon after Dude mentioned his Aunt and Uncles’ names (probably the first time I heard the expression “It’s not what you know – it’s who you know!”). The great thing about this job was the fact that it was just a short walk – no hitch hiking!
Now it’s important to note that “hoeing” has nothing to do with prostitution – it refers to a “hoe” (gardening tool) – which is used for removing weeds from gardens or in this case, to hoe weeds from around the recently-planted tobacco plants. I’m not sure but I think that “Hoedowns” (country music festivals) probably got their origin from “hoeing”.
On our first day of the job I was happy to see that the work wasn’t difficult – but by the end of a very hot day in the field – I had a bad sunburn – not to mention the numerous blisters on both hands. There’s one thing about living in the country – none of the guys wore shorts – just blue jeans and t-shirts. And when it got hot, you just took off your shirt – a simple (but painful) practice. Dude and I went to the Hardware Store in the village and bought work gloves and an engineer’s hat – a grey, thinly striped hat that railway workers wore. Dude called them “Clapper Hats” – and although he never mentioned why they were called “Clappers”, we always wore them – except when we went into Simcoe – and definitely never when we were on or near the beach at Turkey Point.
Another thing about the hoeing – our “field boss” was the farmer’s wife – who was nice but she never stopped talking. The more that she talked, the quicker Dude and I hoed our rows of tobacco plants – to get well-out-of-hearing distance from her. It wasn’t like we were being mean to her – there were other workers hoeing – and they were all women – who seemed to enjoy listening to her.
The hoeing job lasted for a couple of weeks and then we did a number of other short-term jobs including: picking corn, picking strawberries and “drawing in hay”. I remember working all day picking strawberries and only getting paid $4.00! When Dude and I got a job picking corn for Norfolk Farm Company (a large agricultural conglomerate that leased farm land to grow corn), it was the first time that I had ever eaten raw corn. Dude and I had to be on the “pick” location very early in the morning, before either of us could have breakfast – so he suggested that we eat a cob or two of fresh-picked corn. Actually it tasted pretty good – especially when you were hungry (luckily, I haven’t eaten raw corn since).
It was during the corn picking job that the guys gathered at the restaurant (our hangout), decided to throw a “corn roast and beer-drinking party” at “Blueberry” – which was a deserted and over-grown cemetery in the middle of a wooded area, next to my friend John Walsh’s family’s farm. His family were direct descendents of the original pioneers of the area and there is a small village called “Walsh” a few miles from Vittoria, named after them. “Blueberry” had been that area’s first cemetery – although nobody ever explained to me why it was called “Blueberry”.
When I was younger, my Mom used to take me with her, to the Union Cemetery, where my Grandpa St. Andrews was buried. She taught me to always respect graveyards, by always talking in a whisper and to never, ever walk on anyone’s actual grave – for fear of disturbing the dead. That visit was probably the first time I got “the Fear” – and to this day, I do not walk on graves. And now, I was supposed to get all excited about having a corn roast/beer-drinking party in a graveyard?! I shuddered at the thought of being “doomed” – to be haunted and tormented by angry dead people – just like the ghouls in the movie “Night of the Living Dead”!
The plans for the party included several of the guys taking their pickup trucks to Turkey Point Provincial Park and “borrowing” a few picnic tables. Ontario’s provincial parks have the best-built picnic tables in the world but they were very heavy (made from logs) – so there wasn’t a plan to return them, once we had them in the graveyard. While the guys were away getting the tables, a bunch of us took a tractor with a trailer that contained lawnmowers, saws, hatchets, rakes and other implements to clear the overgrown site. After a few hours of hard work, we were finally finished. Blueberry now looked less spooky – especially with several beautiful log picnic tables, strategically placed around the site.
The next step in our action plan was to get several old laundry tubs – and fill them with ice and beer – lots of beer! A couple of the guys brought their guitars and one had a banjo – so we had great entertainment. There were probably 30 to 40 guys there that night – even some of the guys’ fathers came to the party. Everyone was drinking, laughing, and singing their favourite songs or just talking – it was better than any party I had ever been.
As soon as it started to get dark, a fire was built to cook the corn and provide light. Dude and I took several of the guys with us to the field that we had been picking corn earlier in the day – and we “snatched” several armfuls of fresh corn. When we got back, we started to shuck the cobs and then placed them in a laundry tub of boiling water. To this day, I have never been able to find corn that tasted as good as the corn that night – probably because “snatched” corn always tasted better than store bought! By the way, we didn’t “steal” the corn from any farmer – that would have been a big NO-NO. The Norfolk Farm Company had a bad name – and was disliked by most farmers. So we simply “snatched” the corn as you would snatch a falling leaf from a tree – no crime, no time!
Drawing in the hay was a job that we did for about a week – at a different farm each day. All of the farmers helped each other to gather the hay and put it into their barns. It was very hard work – throwing 40 lb. bales of hay on a wagon, especially when the stack of bales on the wagon got higher. We would then take the loaded wagon to the barn and then unloaded the bales onto a conveyer belt which sent the bales inside the barn, where they were stacked yet again. We repeated this process until all of the bales had been “drawn”. At lunch each day, the farmers’ wives would work together to prepare a huge meal – which we ate outdoors. And there would always be cold beer at the end of day. However, I was always too tired to stay, so I would go back to my room and go to bed. Early the next morning one of the guys would pick me up and we’d head off to another farm.
It was sometime in late July that John Walsh picked me up at the restaurant and told me that he and his family wanted me to stay at their place – instead of Ma Jacobits. I guess they felt sorry for me – always trying to find work to pay for my room and meals. I had already met John’s parents – his dad was retired and his mother, a hard-working housewife, had raised 10 children. Their farmhouse was very old and large and without an indoor washroom or plumbing. In fact, the only running water was in the kitchen sink – an old hand pump that you had to pump to get the water to flow. The water drained into a pail under the sink, which then had to be emptied – and often. There was always a large pot of water on the stove – for hot water – which we used in a wash basin like they did in old movies. I marveled that people could live like that – but they didn’t seem to mind – and they were happy.
Mrs. Walsh was originally fromVirginia and still had a southern accent. When she spoke, it almost sounded like she was singing – she was one of the nicest persons I have ever known. She told me that she didn’t want me staying at Ma Jacobits’ place any longer and wanted me to stay at their place – room and board – and I could pay whatever I could afford. She also insisted that I call her “Ma”. I felt very awkward and said that it would be too much bother but she insisted that I move in that day. And despite sharing a room with John and his younger brother Jimmy “Cooner”, I now felt like I had a home again.
The hardest part of leaving Ma Jacobits’ place was leaving my dear friend Jasper the dog. However, every time he saw me coming to the restaurant (which was often, as it was the place we all hung out) he would rush across the yard to greet me – tail wagging. He seemed to miss me as much as I missed him!
When I first decided to write about the Summer of ’66, the goal was to include some of my experiences, as a sixteen year old kid, on that first summer away from home. I don’t know why I chose to write a four-part blog on the subject – I wasn’t sure if I could remember enough “interesting” memories to justify one part – let alone – four parts! But as I started to write Part 1, the “memory vault” suddenly burst open – with memories that had been “hidden” in my mind for years. When I completed Part 1, I knew that it would be impossible to capture all of what happened during that great summer, in only a four-part blog.
So I’ve decided to end the series – here. However, I will be writing future blogs about the rest of that wonderful summer – about getting my 90 Day Beginner Driver’s Licence; my first car; my job at Green’s Food Booth (the bootlegger); the Drive-In Movie in Simcoe; the tobacco harvest; working for “Pie” in Pontypool; and of course, my return home in September.
I hope that you have enjoyed this series. And although our life experiences probably differ – I’m sure that you too, have memories anxious to be “freed from the vault“.
Dedicated to the memory of Leighton and Francis “Ma” Walsh