A short story by Carl Dow
Editor and publisher
True North Perspective
When the hormones start to surge, a boy feels like a man. When he does a man's work on the farm, and labours in construction during high-school holidays, he's not long to become as strong as he feels. So it was as natural as spring fever becoming year-round that he should decide to head for the big money in tobacco even though he was just two weeks into his seventeenth year.
His nomad blood hummed in the boy's brain. He loved motion and all forms of it, from riding bareback at full gallop the farm's workhorses to the proverbial back forty for plowing and haying, to the Model T and Model A Ford trucks that replaced the horses for long-distance hauling. At the age of three the boy was placed on his grandfather's lap and prompted to take the steering wheel. A thrilling moment that would stay with him forever. The truck was a 1930 Model A Ford.
His first car was an ancient 1929 Essex Super Six, complete with blinds and an expensive clump whenever he shut one of the four doors. He bought it for twenty-five dollars. He drove it from the service station home and parked it in the large back yard of his father's apartment building. The Essex never drew another breath. It wouldn't start again. He had absolutely no mechanical sense so he satisfied himself for several years with opening and shutting the doors, enjoying their expensive clump. Now he was headed for tobacco where he fully expected to earn enough money to buy a car that would start the next day. And the car of his dreams was a Model A Ford.
Already an inveterate nighthawk, he left home by thumb just short of sundown. His luck was slow but not bad. By ten that night he was on the west end of Brockville, a generation before the building of the multi-lane highway 401. Two-lane Highway 2 then served as the main route between Montreal and Windsor. He opened the door of the car and was astonished in the dome's light to see it filled with a driver and five naked women. The driver grinned. The boy blinked, and stepped back as if he was where he was not wanted. Then he saw that he would be joining the company of store window mannequins without their clothes. As both of them enjoyed the joke, the driver explained that he owned two women's clothing stores, one in Brockville, the other in Kingston, and the mannequins were in transfer.
Midnight found him at the traffic circle at the west end of Kingston. A half-hour later found him still there. He paced, threw pebbles at nothing, sang bits and pieces of different songs he had learned, and made up a few new ones. About one of the clock, a man at least twice his age came walking up with a duffel bag and stopped to talk. He seemed friendly enough.
He said he had come all the way from Nova Scotia, and that he had been leap-frogging all the way with a nut who hated and feared motorized vehicles. The boy stood easy. He'd had his first street fight when he was five, and had more than ten years experience behind him. His experience was backed by a workingman's strength. He could take care of himself.
About fifteen minutes later, the man in question walked out of the darkness into the light of the traffic circle. He chewed gum furiously and talked rapidly about how he had come all the way from Nova Scotia and how much he hated cars and trucks. When the boy asked him why he didn't travel by train, the man frowned and shrugged and said going by thumb was cheaper. After a few minutes he said he was on his way and walked west into the black of night. It's better to travel alone or with a female, but the man and boy felt easy about each other so neither moved from the light where the traffic moved slowly coming around the circle.
He checked his three-dollar pocket watch and saw that it was 1:17 past midnight when a transport track carrying one level of new Morris Minors hissed to a stop. A burly man came out of the passenger door with a friendly smile. No room in the cab, he said, but they could get into the last car on the ramp if they wanted. Wow! thought the boy. He climbed in behind the wheel of the car, which was pointed up at a twenty-degree angle. The man got into the back seat and lay down, accommodating his body to the cramped space. He swore that he needed some sleep and would get some.
The boy had his hands on the steering wheel and pretended he was driving as the transport truck was run through its gears until it hit highway speed. Abruptly it slowed down and stopped. Within seconds the gum-chewing motor-vehicle hater was being ushered into the passenger side of the Morris Minor. He told them again how much he hated this way of travel. Both the man in the back and the boy told him to try and get some sleep because that's what they wanted to do. The boy and the man in back fell into repose at least. Then the boy awoke to find himself with an arm of the chewing-gum man fierce about his neck. The man was yelling, "Look! Look!" His free arm was pointed up and ahead.
The boy looked and saw the car in front leaning against its chains to the right and his own car hard to the left. He realized that the driver was weaving the eighteen-wheeler down the highway from one side to the other, rocking the whole load. As he watched he also saw empty beer bottles being tossed out on either side of the tractor's windows. The men in front were having a party. The gum-chewing man yielded to the boy's sharp elbow and sat back in his seat, fists clenched, and in whining prayer. The man at the back sharply pronounced the street vernacular for carnal fulfillment then put his head down in quest for more sleep. The boy, imagination and curiosity charged by adrenaline prompted by the adventure, sat back and watched. He was amused, not alarmed, for at his age it is natural to feel omnipotent and immortal. At the next town, when the driver slowed for a red light, the gum-chewer opened the door and leaped to the pavement, waving the transport on. The boy was impressed that the man had been able to keep to his feet, albeit with plunging steps, proving that leaving moving vehicles on the run was with him a well-practiced thing.
Tilsonburg lies on the west side of Ontario's tobacco country, the centre of which is Delhi. A veteran of the harvest had advised him that Tilsonburg would be the better place to find work. He stood on the steps under the town clock. It was late afternoon by midsummer's time. Eventually a man drove up in a new dusty pickup truck with open windows. The man asked the boy if he was looking for work. The boy said yes. The man asked if the boy had any experience. The boy said yes. The boy was prone to telling the truth but he was always willing to massage it a little whenever asked about experience. First, because, even for his young age, he had had considerable experience as a construction and farm labourer, second, because he learned fast. So why say no when a brief encounter with the challenge would give him all the experience he would need. This time it was easy because the man in the car asked only if he had experience, not in what, just experience. To say yes was a bit of a stretch because the boy knew it could only be asked in reference to the tobacco harvest but, with modest refinement of rationalization, his yes was an honest answer.
They don't call themselves farmers in tobacco: they call themselves growers. At the big house, which was not all that big, the grower asked if the boy had eaten. The boy said no. So the grower led the boy into the kitchen and spoke to his wife in Hungarian. The woman studied the boy without judgment, piled a plate high with food, and set beside it a cup of milk-based coffee. Both were delicious. The boy ate in his usual style. The man went away. The woman watched with folded arms across her ample bosom, a dismissive expression filling her face. When her husband returned, the woman said in heavily accented English, "Slow eat. Slow work."
The boy was assigned a stale bed in a well-constructed shed along with five other primers and the boat driver. The six women who did the leaf-handling and tying, slept in separate and better-appointed quarters. It soon became clear, from listening to their conversation that ignored him after basic greetings, that his male companions were itinerant laborers who worked the bush in the winter and the harvests in summer. Tobacco was the hardest work, but the most prized because it paid the best of all summer work. Big money during an intense six weeks, maybe eight, if you got lucky. The men joked about women who spent money at exercise clubs to get back into shape, agreeing that six weeks in tobacco would be a lot more productive and they'd get paid for it too.
It was the primers who picked the tobacco. The boat driver guided the horse pulling a contraption on skis that looked made for snow that was eight feet long and narrow enough to slide between the rows of tobacco plants. The plants could stand as high as six feet. Nature's irony required that the leaves ripened from the bottom up, so the hardest work was at the start of the season when the primers had to bend to pick the sand leaves that literally lay on the ground at the foot of the stock. The leaves would be placed by the armload in the boat and when it was full the driver would take it back to the central yard in the midst of the kilns where the tobacco was cured, and unload the boat, placing the tobacco leaves on tables where the two leaf tiers worked, each served by two leaf-handlers. It was a tradition, seldom broken, that the leaf-handlers and tiers were women, on the false assumption that women had quicker hands. During his three bouts of working tobacco the boy only once saw a male tier, and he happened to be the grower's son. The system worked well. By the time the driver arrived back in the field with an empty boat, the one he left behind would be full.
The primers were awakened before dawn and in the darkness lit by electric lights they emptied a kiln of tobacco that had been installed green and now looked as tasty as corn flakes and smelled good enough to eat. Pretty poison he came to call tobacco. Then they had a hearty breakfast of oranges, porridge, eggs, ham, home-fried potatoes, toast, and jam. The growers disliked the transients as being lesser human beings because of their way of life, but good workers were hard to get in those days before they were hired for the season from the southern states and the Caribbean, and they could not be kept unless they were well fed. That first morning for the boy, the primers ate in rapidly chewed gulps so fast that the boy didn't have time to finish his porridge, never mind even begin the rest, before the primers headed for the fields in the first light of dawn. They all took rubber aprons with them to protect them from the heavy dew that would be burned off by the sun within a couple of hours.
Out in the field, the lead hand, who had a face with the puffiness that comes from too much alcohol, told the boy what leaves to pick and where they were on the plant. As new man on the job the boy expected hazing, something he had come to learn that was as natural as breathing when new men come among men who had grown used to each other. But nothing happened. By noon he had come to learn why.
While the work caused an intense pain in his back and arms, he was strong and he worked as hard as he could, but the grower's wife was right. He was just too slow. Back at the community of kilns, the primers worked together and filled half a kiln with the four-foot sticks of newly tied tobacco. Then they had lunch.
The boy ate slowly. The grower's wife was indifferent. The grower was nowhere in sight. After the work had been done that day and the meal was completed, the grower who had reappeared told the boy that he was being paid off because he was too slow. Another man had been hired that afternoon to replace him. The boy accepted his fate stoically. He knew he was too slow. But returning home defeated was beneath him. Back in town he went straight to the town clock and waited. Now he could say with all honesty that he had experience as a primer. Within an hour he was hired.
The next day he was fired again. The same day he was hired again. The next day he was fired again. But he was not born to quit. At school in jeans and running shoes he was pushing the four-minute mile, simply by running so hard that he found his second wind and felt he could run forever with hardly more need for sucking air than the normal person would need for a fast walk. Quitting was just not his style. This time he found himself hired to a smaller plantation owned by preSecond World War Germans.
The plantation was worked by a half gang: three primers, a boat driver, one tier, and two leaf-handlers. Only today they weren't priming tobacco. There had been a delay in the ripening, so the time was used for topping and suckering. Topping was taking from each stock a seed flower that drained the plant and was unnecessary to the grower who had a ready supply of seeds from specialty houses. Suckering was plucking a small parasite leaf from between the joint of the tobacco leaf and the stock.
At first the boy was slow. Then with the shock of learning something new and positive, just like it was when he discovered his second wind in running, his hands started to fly down the stock. Only then did he realize what he had been doing wrong: he had been picking the leaves one at a time. What needed doing was to pick the leaves in one swipe. This is what he learned while suckering. But the theory could only be put into effect with hard practice. The nimbleness of fingers flowered and he was suddenly as fast as any man between the rows. Here he worked successfully for three days and was disappointed when the grower said he was no longer needed.
But this time he wasn't being fired. This time he had the option of being transferred. The grower had a brother who needed a good primer. The boy liked the idea of staying within the family because he had enjoyed his three-day stay.
The brother had a larger plantation and a full gang to work it. But the company was not as pleasant. The lead hand here was a former Luftwaffe fighter pilot; another primer had been a sergeant in the Nazi army; another had been a private. There was tension in the primer unit and almost continuous acrimonious discussion among Hitler's veterans which had two results — first there was a high turnover of primers who were Canadian-born; second, what should have been a seven-hour day, became twelve. The boy, however, stayed clear of the tumult. He was working at his personal best and enjoying every minute of it. Within a week he was the fastest primer in the unit.
Two weeks after he'd started, on a rainy day, he asked the grower if he could borrow a pickup to go into town and buy a case of beer. The grower gave him permission, and said that two primers had quit and if he saw any likely replacements in town he should bring them back with him. This was to be his first case of beer but he knew exactly what he wanted because he liked the label. The beer was called Old Vienna and on its label was a gypsy scene: a man cross-legged in front of a campfire playing a mandolin, a woman in ribbons and flared skirt twirling with upraised arms, and what North Americans would call a Prairie Schooner in the background. In his mind's ear the boy could hear one of the most joyful sounds he would ever know — the polka. He drank Old Vienna for years until they changed the label.
In Tilsonburg he met the lead hand, of the first gang he had worked with. The man had a bottle of wine and waved it at him. The boy stopped to talk and the man announced with triumph that a week after the boy got the bounce all of the primers had gotten drunk and, unable to work the next day, were given the gate. He said that all of the gang were having a great time down in the ravine by the bridge and invited the boy to come down too. The boy couldn't think of anything that would be more stupid for him to do. He'd seen men before with puffed, ruddy faces and sly winks and grins. He wasn't afraid of them one at a time, but there was not much he could do if twenty of them caught him off guard. So he politely said next time, he had to get back.
On the street under the big clock he saw two men standing. They were about thirty-five. He stopped the pickup and asked them if they were looking for work as primers. They said yes. He told them he had work for them. They threw their duffel bags in the back with the case of beer. It turned out they were auto workers from Windsor who had been laid off temporarily because the plant was tooling up for model changes for the new year. These men were experienced primers and they formed a natural team with the boy. The three performed their work with little talk and performed their work far more quickly than the squabbling three Hitler veterans. At noon and in the evening they easily completed their quarter of kiln hanging and were all washed up ready to eat while their counterparts fumbled and fussed back at the kiln. The grower fired the men from Windsor because they weren't co-operating. It was a lie. The boy knew it because there was only one kiln hanger to a section with only two hands. He received the leafed sticks from another pair of hands and hung the sticks on the beams. The second man in turn received them from the third man who took the leafed sticks at the stack. There was no room for more than the three men to do the work. The best the two union men from Windsor and the boy could do was get their section completed as quickly as possible. This they did and the incompetents complained to the grower.
The fired men took it with humour and told the boy he shouldn't quit in protest. There was plenty of work. And it had been a pleasure working with him. The boy stayed put but was long scornful of the grower. A boat driver, a Hungarian who had allied himself with Hitler, had fed a horse wheat instead of oats. The horse had bloated with gas, gasping, head hanging to the ground all morning, and died at noon with a shriek of agony. The grower got the boat driver a job on another plantation. Two men who were first-string workers, he fired. The boy gave up on finding replacements, telling the grower that he was a poor judge of character.
A week later, when the boy was into his third week as a primer, the grower took him aside. The boy was ready for almost anything with no concern for adverse consequences. He was alert and made physically powerful by the work. There wasn't anything he couldn't handle; except for what the grower said. He told the boy that he was eating faster and in greater quantities than anyone else in the gang. He said that he had a daughter who began to eat like that and that it was discovered that she had worms. The grower gave the boy the name and phone number of a doctor. The boy had a lush imagination; when it came to a description of an illness, he would have it for about twenty-four hours; not the symptoms, just the conviction that he was so afflicted.
Into town he went the next day. The doctor examined him, took blood, and asked him to return tomorrow. When he did the doctor smiled at him and asked him how old he was. The boy said he had just turned seventeen about a month ago. The doctor nodded with a knowing look and told the boy that he was growing, he was working hard in tobacco, and he needed all the fuel he could get. The doctor said the boy did not have worms and was in excellent health. Until the work was done in September, the boy out-ate every man jack on the plantation while remembering what the Hungarian woman had said about slow eat, slow work, and how right she was.
The ex Luftwaffe pilot, aside from being foreman, had in a shed the car of the boy's dreams — a 1930 Deluxe Model A Ford, This one, like the 1929 Essex Super Six, also had blinds for the back and back side windows. The blinds had vanished in modern cars and there was something about them that made the car even more seductive. On free time, the pilot had the head off the four-cylinder engine and cranked the cylinders slowly. The boy asked if there was anything wrong. The pilot said no, he was just checking. The boy would go to sleep with the thrilling fantasy of driving the Model A back home. On the last day of work the boy struck a deal with the pilot. He would pay a hundred dollars for the car, but first he wanted to take it for a drive to see how it worked.
The pilot shrugged and agreed, but he wanted some security because he didn't know if the boy would return. The boy had cash and several cheques on him but none that was exactly at the one hundred mark. The foreman, who had written out the cheques for the grower to sign, reminded the boy that he had a cheque for one hundred-and-twenty-five. He would hold that until the boy returned The boy saw no harm in that; he certainly planned to return because he wasn't leaving until the following day and his duffel bag was in the bunkhouse, so he gave the pilot the cheque. The pilot took it, looked at it, then said that the cheque was no good to him unless it was signed. The boy saw the logic, took the pen the pilot offered and wrote his signature.
The boy had a plan. He knew nothing about mechanics, and had no sense of mechanics, so he knew he couldn't possibly judge the car. But he did know one man who did understand cars who lived about five miles away and there he headed. Fortunately, the man was there. He examined the car and had much good to say about it except that one of the cylinders had a serious knock and would eventually blow. Could he make it back home? the boy asked. The man shrugged with his face and both nodded and shook his head. He said there was no guarantee. The motor could give out on the way home and cost money to fix. The boy thought about the possibility of an expensive repair. All his earnings could be wiped out and more. He'd have a car he couldn't afford to drive.
The Essex Super Six was enough.
When he returned with the Model A he told the pilot that he had decided not to buy the car. The pilot refused to return the cheque, saying he didn't know what the boy had done to the car. The boy insisted that he had done nothing, he had just taken it to a friend who told him about the cylinder knock. The pilot shook his head and returned to his after-harvest work in the fields, using a team to pull a sit-on stalk cutter. The boy thought better of attacking the pilot, mostly because in the struggle to retrieve the cheque it might become torn beyond recognition. He saw the grower's wife staring at them through the window and concluded that there would be no help there. So he set off at his best second-wind run to The Pines, a motel on the main highway to Tilsonburg, about two miles along the gravel before he hit the pavement.
He put a nickel in the outside pay telephone and called the Tilsonburg police. The person who answered asked his location and said that his problem was beyond Tilsonburg police jurisdiction and gave him the name and phone number of the local Ontario Provincial Police officer who promptly answered the phone. On hearing the boy's report, the officer said he couldn't come right away because his cruiser was in repair. The boy, his adrenalin at full flow, said he had already missed the first week of school and wanted to get back by Monday.
In the officer's voice were melded empathy, humour, and firmness. He reminded the boy that he was a policeman and that he couldn't afford to have his car tied up for long. He said he would be at The Pines in about an hour and asked the boy to wait for him there. The boy did and the policeman was as good as his word.
On the way to the plantation the officer asked a few leading questions and concluded that the boy was telling the truth. In the grower's front yard, he asked where the pilot was working. The boy said in the field just north of the house. The boy had expected the officer to park his cruiser and walk, so he was surprised when he drove the cruiser right onto the field and stopped just short of the pilot who reined the horses to a halt.
The officer was out of the car, his door slamming hard behind him as he stalked toward the pilot. "C'mere you!" he shouted. "What do you think you're doing? Give this boy back his cheque. Now!"
The pilot turned white beneath his deep tan. He looked as if he was about to cry. His whole body was trembling as he took the cheque from his wallet and handed it over. The officer took it and handed it to the boy, while keeping his eye on the pilot, "Don't try and pull that kind of crap again, or you'll have to answer to me."
In an avuncular voice he said softly, "Get your duffel bag son, I'll drive you back to the highway." Forever, the experience created a soft spot in the boy's heart for the Ontario Provincial Police.
The boy hitchhiked home. He made good time and arrived eighteen hours later with his tobacco earnings intact. He was satisfied to have lost the car of his dreams. The shock of his experience with the pilot had cleared his mind to the conclusion that he couldn't afford a car until he began working full time. The Model A Ford had belonged to him for a few hours, and that would do.
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