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Tomato Girl, Part I

Lancaster County, early June 1953 – and I’m in the tomato patch with Mother and Daddy. Actually, it’s not a tomato patch, it’s over 9 acres of farm land not far from Elizabethtown in Bainbridge where we are about to plant a new tomato crop. Years earlier, my parents planted tobacco, but a Mennonite revivalist came through the county, preached powerfully against making a profit from plants that could be turned into deadly cigars and cigarettes, and so like others they switched to tomatoes or corn.

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Today Mom and I sit side by side on the metal “tractor” seats at one end of the planter, each with a burlap bag laden with tomato plants in our laps. A trowel-like attachment of the machine attached to the Massey-Harris tractor carves a row and we take turns inserting a plant with dangly roots into the furrow.  As soon as a valve opens with a gush of water, two metal “hands” close over the plant, sealing it into the rich, humus soil. Usually Mom and I are synchronized, but if we can’t keep up with the click-clack of the mechanism, we yell at Daddy at the helm who hits the tractor brake so we can catch up.

TomatoBlossom     Move ahead to hot July now, and Monday starts another tomato-picking week. My time-conscious Mom keeps us all on schedule: “Marrrr-i-an, it’s soon time to go!’ So I schuss around and put the thermos on the porch so Ruthie sees we’re ready.” She will be at our house any minute now with the Longenecker Farm Supply pickup to take herself, my mom and me to our field near the village of Bainbridge. I can see it now: rows of warm, red globes in clusters on the bushes. Timmy Barnhart, ”Barney”—a squat, jolly farmer in bib-overalls will probably meet us there and help with the harvest. I like when he comes; he knows that twelve-year-old tomato pickers like the Reed’s butterscotch candy and red licorice packets he stuffs into his pockets to sweeten the labor.

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I’m paid ten cents a basket for my pains, but it’s hard to keep track of the number I fill, so I decide to put one green tomato on top of every 5/8 bushel basket, so I can add them all up and compute the dimes I’ll earn. Frugal Mom puts an end to this idea: “Don’t do that; you’re wasting perfectly good tomatoes. Why don’t you put your baskets in the middle of the row separate from the rest.” I know she’s telling me to do it this way, not asking if I really want to.

And so I plod—up and down the endless rows as the sun beats down on us. For awhile the grown-up chatter between my Mother, Aunt Ruthie, and Barney keeps me entertained, but then I stick my hand into a stinky, rotten tomato for the tenth time this morning, and I burst into tears. Dear Barney, now just a blue blur near the end of the row, hears the outburst and suggests a trip with the two of us going to Stauffer’s General Store down the alley and around the corner along a side street in Bainbridge. The store has oiled, wooden floors just like school and smiley Anna Mae Hess behind the counter. Barney, a widower, likes Anna Mae, and they chat for a while, giving me sweet reprieve from the blazing sun. Before we go, he orders two pints of Breyer’s neopolitan ice cream in a square box each cut in half with a butcher knife. Anna Mae puts four flat wooden spoons in a paper bag with the cold treat and we’re back in the field to share a late morning snack with Mom and Aunt Ruthie.

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Late afternoon brings Daddy in his flat-bed Reo truck to load the baskets in three or four staggered layers. If there is any room left over, Oscar Forrey, a farmer who patronizes my daddy’s shop, can add his picking to our harvest. “There’s no sense in two people driving half-filled trucks to the same place now is there?” Dad says. He’ll drive to the Mt. Joy depot for tomato farmers where the Heinz Company will truck the harvest way over to Hanover. My Dad has brought along a cold watermelon (wasser-ma-loon, he calls it) to save us from dehydration. Bless his heart! Mom must have told Daddy about my melt-down because he promises me a bike for my July 24 birthday. I picture a shiny blue and white Schwinn with a cute, white woven basket in front of the handlebars, maybe with fancy, pink dingle-dangles!

I don’t remember if my teachers ever assigned an essay “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” But planting and picking tomatoes would have been my topic until I turned 15 and could work for real pay at Baum’s Bologna.  There I wrapped sweet bologna in clear cellophane and pasted on the label, festooned with a smiley Amish face with a beard and wide straw hat. Then I graduated to working in the dementia unit at Masonic Homes. But that’s another story.

Tell us something memorable about your summers as a child or a young teen. If you remember it after all these years, we’d certainly be interested in reading about it.

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