Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"Pop" - Part 2
by Kenneth W. Neal

Fred R. Neal in his garden - Sand Springs, OK 
The Ritual

My father hurried into the house with a sprightly, but reluctant gait, as if there was a bit of pain, which there often was. All the Neal men for several generations had the peculiar walk and the unusual physique that went with it. The upper body was a bit too large for the legs and the arms were carried as if they were slightly heavy.

Pop described the walk as "hunching along." It made the Neal men look - at a distance - a lot older than they were. Pop’s hunch was a little more pronounced. He'd been thrown by a horse at 15 and had suffered through two lower back operations.

The work day at American Airlines' big maintenance base at Tulsa had been routine. After a day of parts, paperwork and the smells of solvent, he was ready for the garden. It was 4 p.m. and there was still hours of June sun, time enough to get a lot done.

He thought of what he needed to do in the garden tonight. The tomatoes, his specialty, were up and thriving with blooms and small tomatoes showing. They needed a bit of spraying; blossoms needed a shot of blossom set and maybe it wouldn't hurt to work in a little fertilizer in the rows between them.

There were some green onions to be picked; some raddishes were ready and the peppers looked good. They were the kind that produced a gnarled version Dad called "peter" peppers. Every so often, one pepper would look exactly like a miniature penis; that appealed to dad’s sense of humor.

"One time, I grew one so big I got kinda jealous," he once said. 

Later, as the Oklahoma summer got serious, it would take heavy watering from the old well he had reworked to keep everything green.

The river bottom soil was perfect. Over the years, faithful care had improved it. Dad prided himself on being a "trash farmer."

He tried to use everything nature provided to build and replenish his soil. Garbage was turned under at the right time; leaves were mulched and spread on the garden in winter months. Ashes from the fireplace were scattered. Decaying fruits, grass clippings - anything organic - were collected and used.

He liked to "farm" as naturally as possible. But he used commercial fertilizers and any chemical he needed to protect his plants from pests.

There was no use being a damned fool about being "natural," particularly if it meant giving up a garden to bugs. Without chemicals, it was almost impossible to get a good yield on corn. He'd tried the natural way one year and the result, he told everyone, was "wormshit and shucks."

The work went well. A few weeds were no match for a sharp hoe. A triangular cultivator hoe prepared the rows for the fertilizer. The dampness rose from the turned dirt. Pop inhaled the familiar musty odor. He was sweating just enough to feel comfortable in the soft breeze.

He stopped for a moment and leaned on the hoe. He stared into space for a while, his mind going back to other gardens, other fields, other places.

He went to the porch and sat down for a minute, fishing a Bull Durham sack from his shirt pocket. He sorted out a cigarette paper and pulled open the drawstring top of the tobacco sack. He sifted the finely ground tobacco into the paper, rolled it, licked the end of the paper. Smoothing it, he put a crimp in one end. He lit up.

"Sorry as chinch-bug shit," he muttered. He told everyone he was smoking the Bull Durham because rolling the cigarettes was so much trouble that he didn't smoke as much.

The truth was, he admitted to himself, was that he liked to roll one out of Bull Durham. Bull Durham was the same today as it was when he started smoking it nearly 50 years ago.

He pulled on the limp cigarette. He looked at it and repeated the evaluation:  "Chinch-bug shit."

He stood up. The first few steps were stiff. He'd cooled out a bit too long. Back in the garden, he thought it was about time to plant his last crop of the spring.

He didn't talk about this crop with everyone. Not everyone would understand. He didn't understand it himself.

But Fred didn't need everyone to understand. I, his only son, appreciated his love for the soil although he didn't quite share it. I did understand why pop planted his "money crop."

Others - even his brothers and sisters - missed the point and he didn't try to explain it. They had the same farm experiences but had different feelings about them.

Fred Neal was what Tom Joad might have been 30 years after the Grapes of Wrath. The book had a powerful effect on the Neal children. It seemed that Steinbeck was writing about their family.

They were, after all, the offspring of 
Radford Andrew Neal, who'd farmed worn-out "places" all over Oklahoma and West Texas.

Andrew Radford had come to Oklahoma from Arkansas as a boy and started farming around the start of the 20th century.

In 1919, he'd made a killing in cotton. Like every other farmer in his situation, he planted even more cotton in 1920 only to watch the bottom drop out of a market flooded by bumper crops.

For the next 18 years, he worked himself and his family like slaves trying to "get ahead." It had never happened.

While he sprayed the tomatoes, dad thought about "pop." When he used the word, it took on a special sound - the affection for his father showed in the word; it was as if Rad Neal was the only "pop."

As he thought about his father, a smile came.

He thrust his lower teeth in front of his uppers, giving his face a jut-jawed determination. He squinted; the eyes danced. He gritted his teeth in a way that family and friends recognized as a combination of pleasure, contentment and humor.

A little before sunset, when the shade claimed the west side of the house and the garden, he propped the hoe against the fence, walked over to the gate, and went inside the greenhouse he had built several years before.

He found the package he wanted and took out a few seeds. He looked at them for a minute and the memories rushed back, of other Oklahoma spring days; of planting thousands of the little seeds; of watching for the first tender green evidence of life, of the hoeing, the hope for rain, of chopping weeds and hot days in the fall when picking time came.

He'd run away from all that as a boy of 18 or so. He'd run from the backbreaking, unrewarding life of an Oklahoma tenant farmer; from the droughts, the Johnson grass, the spotty crops and the hard times.

When he thought about the farm, though, it was with good humor. The humor had a hard-to-catch quality that eluded strangers.

He had inherited it from Radford, but honed it to his own liking.

He cherished the offbeat, earthy stories his father had told. Like him, he was a superb story- teller; the phrases and the punchlines etched the tales in the memory of his own son, the son he had called "little man" while the boy was still a toddler.

Now he was “man.”

The nickname showed the mindset; describing things in reverse; exaggerating or understating; using double meanings; conveying meaning with a wink or a wide-eyed confusion; pretending to misunderstand a word that put a different twist to what someone had said.

Man - as a baby and small boy - had been called Man. And Fred was Pop; Man had called him pop from the beginning, although there was scarcely 20 years difference in their ages.

Fred had liked that; there was something about a 25-year-old man being called pop by a serious 5-year-old that he liked.

It was a private bond between father and son that linked the three men. Man knew the original pop, even though Radford had died when Man was 2 years old. Fred had seen to that; the boy knew his grandfather better than most grandsons despite having no memory of him.

Man understood the humor; he absorbed the stories that he later would come to love; descriptions of life in a earlier, poorer, more difficult time in Oklahoma.

Despite the heartbreak, the poverty, the failure, there was a love for the soil flowing in the veins of Fred Neal, the same love and feeling for it that had pushed his father to pour his life into it.

It had been more than 40 years since he had spent any time on a farm. He'd made a living out of automobiles and airplanes, but the soil - the "lan" - as Okies called it, was still strong in his life.

It was, Fred realized, hard to explain. He never had any real desire to return to the farm, but he still loved the thought of it and he loved plants and living things even more.

One of the rules he tried to live by was one inherited from hard times on a farm. "Never throw anything away that something can eat," pop had always said.

That meant putting out leftover bread scraps for the birds in the winter; it meant sorting the organic garbage from trash to be spread on the garden; it meant turning old plants under to make new life possible.

He went to a corner of the garden. He scraped a little row in the soft, sandy loam. He put a few seeds in the row, healed it back with the cupped palms of his hands and then wet the area down.

Later, he'd pull weeds, watch the tender plants take root and grow, and relive the hard times that still more time had turned into a sweet memory.

At the end of the summer, he'd pick a few balls of cotton.

The whole thing, he admitted to himself and to Man when he showed him the "crop" every year, was a little bit silly.

Fred thought of pop. He smiled as he remembered that he had been the "favorite." Then laughed aloud. "Hell. He had us all thinking we were the favorite."

He tamped the soil and laughed again. "Shee-it." He gave the word a drawn-out inflection that made it more than a barnyard expletive, injecting meaning and feeling into a word that would not be used in polite company; it was a use that would defy explanation in college classrooms where communication and literature were taught.

It was - in the way he said the word and the feeling that went into it - a way of ridiculing himself for silly thoughts and at the same time a benediction.

It was exactly the way he remembered pop say it. It wasn't a conscious imitation, but a subconscious device to bring the memory closer.

He took a deep breath to fuel a long sigh that he now recognized as a release of deep emotion. 

He tamped the buried cotton seed, this time with a gentleness that was a caress.

He repeated the expletive. 

It was over, as certainly as if the preacher had said "Amen" at church. And - as Rad Neal would have said - with a hell of a lot more religious feeling.

The seeds were planted. New life was started. A monument was erected. 

There would come a day when Radford Andrew Neal was forgotten. 

This was not that day.

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