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