Farm Cadet Victory Corps

Photo by graur razvan ionut, freedigitalphotos.net

Would you believe my husband, Jay, helped win World War II? In a small way, you understand. After all, he was just a kid living in Brooklyn.

It was 1943, wartime, and his father was forever talking about how evil Hitler was and why people must stand up to the Nazis.  His father was air raid warden for their block on Avenue M, making sure that everyone’s blackout shades were pulled down when the sirens screamed at night.

Jay had a big map of Europe on the wall of his bedroom, and he used map pins to plot the advance of allied troops.  He wrote away to Boeing, Grumman, and Lockheed who sent him photographs—in color—of their fighter planes. He tacked those pictures on the walls too. From the ceiling he hung his model airplanes. Sometimes he went up on the roof of his apartment building with his buddies, Jerry and Howie, to look for enemy airplanes.  They never spotted any.

One day in his school, PS 197, Jay saw a poster that said, as near as he remembers now,

Serve your country!
Work on a farm so a farm boy can fight overseas.
Join the Farm Cadet Victory Corps!

The words rolled off his tongue. Farm Cadet Victory Corps.  He imagined himself working hard all day long in the hot sun—serving his country. He would come home tanned and strong. Strong enough, come to think of it, to try out for football in the fall.

At home, he laid out his plans for the summer to his mother.

“I’ll be helping my country!”

His mother barely looked up. “So maybe you should begin by helping your mother? I need you to get bread from the bakery. Besides, where would we get the money for your summer vacation?”

“No, Mom, you don’t understand.  It won’t cost us anything.  The farmer will give me free room and board plus twenty-five cents an hour.  And the program will send me a free train ticket.”

“To be away all summer…at your age?”

“Mom, you’d think I was just a kid.  I’m thirteen years old. I had my bar mitzvah last month.”  (Jay hoped his mother wouldn’t remind him that he’d forgotten the words to his speech at the reception.)

“Mom, I’m a  man!”

Jay’s father joined the conversation,

“Jean.  He’s had odd jobs since he was nine.  He can handle it.  I think it’s a good thing to do.”

The Monday after school ended, Jay said good-bye to his parents in Grand Central Station. In one hand, he held the almost-new striped tan suitcase that his mother had bought him; in the other, a paper bag with two egg salad sandwiches.

The farm agent met him in Saratoga Springs and drove him to the farm of Lester Becker and his wife, near Greenwich, NY.  They seemed nice enough, but really old, sixty–or more.  They gave him supper and he went to bed in a room of his  own.  He cried for awhile because he’d never been away from his parents before, but he never told any one, until he told me.

Every day that summer was pretty much like the day before. Around five in the morning, Jay and Lester Becker would be out in the barn, milking the fifteen cows, dumping the warm milk in milk cans and placing the milk cans in the cooler.  They’d send the cows back to the pasture and clean up the barn.

Then it was time for breakfast.  At home he mostly had oatmeal, sometimes a bagel with a schmeer of cream cheese.  But Mrs. Becker always served a big plate of fried eggs, another plate piled high with crisp bacon, a tall stack of buttered toast and a jar of home-made jam. Lester or Jay would carry in a pail of milk from the cooler in the barn and Mrs. Becker would fill a tall pitcher with the cool milk.  After a few days of hard work, Jay was easily eating as much as Mr. and Mrs. Becker put together.

After breakfast Jay was often sent alone to fetch the two huge farm horses.  If he called them, they looked at him–and went back to eating grass.  If he walked towards them, they walked away, just fast enough to keep their distance.  But Mr. Becker had taught him to bring some oats with him.  The horses would come to eat the oats and Jay could slip the halter over their heads and lead them back to the barn.

Mr. Becker and Jay spent a lot of time cutting hay that summer, raking it in the fields, pitching it into the wagon, and driving back to the barn. Mr. Becker didn’t bale the hay or roll it like they do nowadays.  When they got back to the barn, Jay would climb up to the hay loft.  Mr. Becker would use a giant claw on a pulley to get the hay up to the loft.  Then Jay would use a pitchfork to move the hay from the middle of the barn to the sides.  If it stayed in one pile, it would pack down and get hard.  Besides, they needed to make room for the next wagon load of hay.

Mr. Becker had a tractor too.  Once Jay was driving the tractor and went around a curve too fast. The hay wagon he was pulling tipped over into the side of the hill.  It took them hours to get the wagon upright again.  Jay was afraid that he might not be allowed to drive the tractor again. It had been fun.

But the very next day, Mr. Becker said “Jay, why don’t you drive the tractor?” Jay felt relieved. In fact, he felt great.

The first Sunday on the farm Mrs. Becker said to Jay at breakfast, “Jay, we go to church on Sundays.  Will you be coming with us?”

Jay blurted out, “I can’t. I’m Jewish.”

Mrs. Becker answered , “That’s fine.  Lester and I will go on to church.  You stay behind. We’ll be back by lunch time.”  And that’s what they did for the rest of the summer.

If a weekend day was hot, the Beckers took Jay to swim in the Hudson River near the bridge in Schuylerville.  In August, they took him to the Washington County Fair.  And every Saturday the Beckers went to Saratoga to the harness races, and they took Jay along.  After the races, they always met their friends at Sarge’s Triangle Diner. The men talked about the horses, the weather, and the price of milk.  Jay listened to the talk and ate hamburgers, milkshakes, and french fries.

He only got in trouble once.  It was his job to sit on the milk cans and wait for the truck from the dairy to come pick them up.  While he was waiting, it was easy enough to pry open a can and dip a ladle into the rich, delicious cream that floated on top of the skim milk.  Usually he’d dip another ladle or two.

Lester Becker came to him one day and said “Jay, you been dipping into the cream?”

“Yes….How did you know?”

“The dairy measures the percentage of cream in the milk.  If the cream is down, they don’t pay me as much.  Jay, I don’t want you to do that any more.”

So he never did.

At the end of the summer, Jay had a little stash of money to take back home.  He had grown tan and strong. And he had a certificate and a patch to sew on his jacket that said Farm Corps Victory Cadets.

The following year he signed up again.  But instead of being sent back to the Beckers, he was sent to a big farm in western New York.  That farmer had a lot of people working for him, though Jay was the only teenager.

The first night there, Jay was looking forward to a big farm dinner. Instead there was nothing on the table but a big pot of home-made beans and some store-bought white bread. The bean pot sat on the kitchen table all night long.  The next morning, Jay went to the kitchen and looked around.  He couldn’t see anything to eat.  He said, “Where’s breakfast?”

“You’re looking at it,” said the farmer. But there was nothing there to eat but the cold beans left over from the night before.

The worst was yet to come.  This farmer had not one, but six teams of horses pulling six wagonloads of hay to the barn. And once again, Jay  was sent up to the loft alone to rake the hay from the middle of the hayloft to the sides.   But no way could he keep up.  The hay was being hoisted up too fast.  And though he worked as hard and as fast as he could, by the end of the day, there was still a big pile of packed hay in the middle.

The farmer took one look at the pile and lost his temper.

“What in the name of all that’s holy have you been doing all day?  What kind of lazy, good for nothing, worthless city brat are you anyway?”

The words stung.  And because Jay was a city kid from Brooklyn, his answer came quickly:

“You can take your hay and stuff it where the sun don’t shine.”

The farmer was wild with rage.  He took a pitchfork and lit out after Jay who ran for his life.  Jay slid down from the loft with the farmer close behind. Jay tore towards the cooler.

One of the hired men saw what was happening. He grabbed the pitchfork out of the farmer’s hands and broken it in two over his leg.

He faced the farmer, his boss: “Don’t you ever lay a hand on that boy, or you’ll answer to me.”

In about a minute, both Jay and the hired hand were fired.

Now you would think that getting chased by a wild farmer with a pitchfork would have soured a kid on the idea of farming for good.  But it didn’t.  Jay, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, went to Cornell and majored in agriculture.  And he spent his career working upstate, selling health supplies to veterinarians. Even now, if he gets a chance to shoot the breeze with a farmer, he’s a happy guy.

I like to think that the power of the goodness and tolerance of the Beckers was stronger than cold beans and pitchforks.

And I also like to think, that like hundreds of other teenage boys and girls in the Farm Cadet Victory Corps, he truly did help win World War II.

***

Copyright by Margaret French

Advertisements

Their Last Visit to Vermont

Photo by EA at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Intro: One of my first stories. It’s about taking two teenage sons on a not-so-successful trip to Vermont. I’ve included a link to the YouTube video, part of our new local storytellers’ collection. Enjoy.

My ex-husband still had a PhD, a good job with IBM,  the house, the furniture, the photographs, and the Christmas tree decorations.  I had my children most of the time (which was good), a college job that didn’t pay nearly enough, and a lease on an apartment I could scarcely afford.

My ex took my sons to the Caribbean. Then he took  them to Hawaii.

Not that I was resentful or anything….

By great good fortune, a colleague in the theater department recommended a performance by the Bread and Puppets Theater in Vermont.  I must not miss it.  Highly original. Thought-provoking and meaningful. Talented cast and choreographer.  Outdoors in a natural amphitheater.

Well, I might never afford Hawaii.  But I could afford Vermont.  We would see the performance, stay the night in St. Johnsbury, and drive back the next day. It couldn’t be that far.  On the AAA map, it was only a couple of inches, up in the right hand corner of Vermont.

Now that I use mapquest and GPS, I know that it is 203.45 miles, and it takes 3 hours and 54 minutes to drive if one maintains the speed limit and makes no stops for gas, bathroom, food, or scenic vistas.

For some reason or other, the two sons still at home seemed less than enthusiastic about the trip.  But their only question was “Can we be back in time for the Yankees game on Sunday?”  I took that for a yes.

My red Dodge Colt rattled into town just in time for the show.  We parked on grass burned brown by the summer and joined the crowd on the hillside (also known as the natural amphitheater).  We sat among hundreds of peace-loving, earnest folk  in tie-dyes, maxi skirts, sandals, long hair and beards.  I’d remembered such people from our years in Woodstock. But they had seemed younger then. Come to think of it, so had I.

The smell of marijuana wafted though the air.  Billions of grasshoppers dived into our shoes, our pant legs, our shirts, our hair.  If a young woman hadn’t strolled by topless, I doubt I’d been able to persuade my sons to stay.

The air smelled good, of grass and home-made bread. Someone told us that they always made and gave away chunks of good bread: we should get some. But we had no time. The performance was beginning.

The puppets were at least 6 or 8 feet tall, all draped in long white and black robes.  The music was unfamiliar and discordant.  No doubt I would have been profoundly affected by the beauty of it all if I’d had any clue what it meant. Something about life and death, good and evil, love and hate–black and white? My sons were looking around, probably trying to spot other naked women or hoping we’d make a quick getaway.

The next morning we dawdled  home.  If the puppet show had not quite lived up to my expectations, I was sure that the rest of Vermont, quaint and scenic, would surely wow my sons.

First, at my suggestion, we drove 30 miles or so out of our way to visit the Cabot Cheese Factory.  It was closed on Sunday mornings. Who’s to know?

I would have liked to stop at all of Vermont’s attractions: hills, rivers, cows,  horses, hand-made crafts, vegetable stands, covered bridges, maple sugar farms, flowers, museums, historic sites, antique shops, scenic lookouts, barns, and gift shops.  But my sons wanted me to make better time.  Something about the Yankees game.

We did stop at the World’s Largest Granite Quarry.  (My idea.) I thought it quite interesting. My sons were unimpressed. Back in the car, they cracked jokes. One said it reminded him of the Chevy Chase movie about a family trip to Wally World. The other quipped, “Yeah, the visit to the world’s second largest ball of twine.” Both laughed.

Something in me snapped.  I’d wanted to take them on a vacation, and I’d wanted them to have fun. So I said,

“You never want to go anywhere.  You never want to do anything.  All you ever want to do is stay home and watch baseball on television.”

Silence.  They’d been trying to be good sports (in a teenage boy sort of way), but it had not been fun.  And now I was yelling at them.

None of us spoke for many minutes.  We stopped to check directions at a small rest area.  An older couple were there before us.  In a shrill voice loud enough to carry across the parking lot, the wife was complaining,

“You never want to go anywhere.  You never want to do anything.  All you ever want to do is stay home and watch baseball on television.”

We broke up laughing. We were still laughing when we made our last stop, for good  Vermont-made ice-cream.

If the vacation was a tad disappointing, the story we would tell afterwards was terrific.

***

Copyright by Margaret French

Here’s the link to “Their Last Visit to Vermont” on YouTube.  (An early appearance on our public access TV.)
While you’re there, check out other stories by our local storytellers, all associated with  storycircleatproctors.org.

The Boston Molasses Disaster

Damage caused by the flood

Did your mother ever say to you, “You’re as slow as molasses in January”? Mine did, often. But at least once in January, molasses raced through the streets of Boston at thirty-five miles an hour. Here’s the story.

In 1919, in the North End of Boston, at the bottom of Copps Hill near the inner harbor, there was a huge steel and concrete storage tank. It towered over the warehouses, naval training center, firehouse, and nearby tenements. It was over five stories high and ninety feet in diameter and held 2,300,000 gallons of molasses.

If that seems like a lot of molasses for baked beans and gingerbread, remember that molasses is also used to make rum and ethyl alcohol, used in WWI to make munitions.

The seams of the tank leaked a little, just enough so the poor people  who lived nearby could collect  molasses. The Purity  Distilling Company, who had built the tank, solved the leaking molasses problem. They painted the tank brown so the stains wouldn’t show.

That year, January 15th was warm. By lunchtime, the temperature was over 40 degrees Fahrenheit.  Kids were walking home from school for lunch with their coats unbuttoned. One of those kids was Anthony di Stasio. He attended Michelangelo School with his sisters. Meanwhile, trucks and horse-drawn wagons passed by on busy Commercial Street.  The men working for the city paving department next door to the molasses tank were eating the sandwiches they’d brought from home, enjoying the good weather.

Suddenly the ordinary bustle of the street was punctuated by loud bangs that sounded like machine-gun fire. Rivets were blasting out of the half inch steel plates that comprised the tank. There was a huge roar and the ground shook like an earthquake as the tank split and the its two halves blew apart.

One huge section blasted into the supports of  the elevated railway across the street and the railway was a twisted mess. Nearby buildings were blown away or smashed into smithereens. A truck was blown clear into the harbor.

The molasses burst up like a volcano and then poured outwards, a sweet-smelling brown wall between eight and fifteen feet high moving thirty-five miles an hour covering, suffocating, drowning, destroying everything in its path. Buildings, wagons, horses, people all swallowed up.

It was impossible to run away from it and impossible to swim in it. In minutes, the wall of molasses had become a lake of molasses, covering several blocks.

Naval cadets, firemen (those who were not already dead or injured), policemen, and workers from the Red Cross were soon covered with the gooey mess while they struggled to find and pull victims from the sticky traps that held them.

The lawyer for United States Industrial Alcohol, who had bought up Purity Distilling, was on the scene almost as quickly as the first rescuers to express the company position: The tank must have been blown up by Italian anarchists. The company was not responsible.

Meanwhile, Anthony Di Stasio, the boy coming home from school for lunch had been picked up by the brown flood and carried on top of it as though he were a surfer. Then the surge of molasses dumped him on the ground and bounced him along the cobblestones. Rescuers took him to the relief hospital where his mother and sisters found him lying on the ground, covered with a sheet, beside those who had died. He opened his eyes when he heard their voices but he was unable to speak, his throat still clogged with molasses.

One of Anthony’s sisters, Maria, was less fortunate. A rescuer spotted her hair, reached into the depths of molasses and pulled her out.  It was too late.  She had already drowned. She was ten years old.

For four days and nights, the rescuers searched for victims buried by the flood and rubble. They found the last victim four days after the blast; glazed and brown, he barely looked human.

Altogether twenty-one people and fifteen horses died. One hundred and fifty people were injured.

Now, imagine the aftermath. Imagine the cellars filled to the brim with molasses. Imagine cleaning all those buildings and all the contents of all those buildings.

The city hosed the cobblestone streets with salt water, and the molasses changed to a frothy mess which too slowly oozed down into the harbor, which was brown for months.

The people of the North End sued United States Industrial Alcohol. The lawsuit dragged on for years. The company continued to claim that it was all the work of a foreign terrorist.

But the verdict was that though fermentation of the molasses and expansion caused by the warm weather might have been factors, ultimately the tank exploded because of shoddy construction and inadequate safety inspections.

The company settled out-of-court for $600,000. Even allowing for what that means in today’s dollars, a paltry few million, it seems little enough for the suffering and the lives lost that day.

They say that you could smell molasses in Boston’s North End for decades. But now kids play Little League baseball where the tank once stood, and hardly anyone reads the little plaque nearby.

*

Copyright by Margaret French

Some sources:

Ancestors.com: Boston, MA “Molasses Flood” Tank Explosion, Jan 1919,   http://www3.gendisasters.com/massachusetts/2678/boston,-ma-%2526%2523039;molasses-flood%2526%2523039;-tank-explosion,-jan-1919

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_Molasses_Disaster

Edwards Park, “Eric Postpischil’s Molasses Disaster Pages, Smithsonian Article,” Eric Postpischil’s Domain, 14 June 2009, <http://edp.org/molpark.htm&gt; accessed 1 March 2011.