When you’re young and find yourself in a rat-hole, that unhappy experience can lift you into the sunshine in later years. To wit:
It was about this time of year in the waning days of WWII that I was indentured by my parents for a stint as a day laborer for a farm couple in northwestern Pennsylvania.
They were Mr. and Mrs. Canker, as I recall. They were in their late 60s. Their farm was small, but outside help was hard to find. Most able-bodied men, women, boys and girls were either off fighting Nazis and Japanese or were able to nail down decent employment in factories and stores.
To find an under-age conscript, the Cankers signed up with a program called Victory Farmers. I was too young to obtain a working permit that would have let me apply for non-gulag jobs. But, at age 14, I was nevertheless judged fit for the JSL (Juvenile Stoop Labor) section of the Victory Farmers program.
The Cankers visited my parents, who at that point would have been delighted to ship me off to a coal mine in hell, at least until school resumed after Labor Day. I can’t blame them. Who wants to put up with a teenager on the brink of discovering the magic of girls and alcohol, often (God forbid) at the very same time?
As I recall, at the meeting with my parents, Mrs. Canker opined, “The devil finds mischief for idle hands.” This level of wit set the tone for after-hours conversation in the Canker homestead. For diversion, the house contained a Bible, a Sears-Roebuck catalog and a three-day-old local newspaper. That was it. News-of-the-day discussions consisted of “President Roosevelt should be shot!” and went downhill from there. No radio, and TV was yet to come.
The Cankers hired me for two tasks. (1) The cornfield. It was huge and filled with weeds, some of which were as large as the sprigs of corn that were peeking out of the soil. “Chop them weeds, boy” was the essence of Mr. Canker’s instructions to me as he handed me a hoe on the first day of my servitude. I did my best, while wrapped in deafening solitude and rural sunshine.
On rainy days —all three of them — my work area was (2) in the family barn. Within its confines was a stall where a series of pregnant Canker cows had dwelled before “freshening,” i.e. giving birth to a calf and the resultant flow of its mother’s milk. While awaiting this event, the cow deposited the product of her alimentary canal on the floor. There it lay for days or weeks, hardening in successive layers while awaiting the arrival of some lucky devil armed with a pick-axe, shovel and wheelbarrow. Such as me.
My mission? “Chop it all up, boy, and pile the pieces outside.” Mr. Canker’s chop-chop eloquence had no limits. As with the corn field, I did my best. It was not enough. Within two days of my arrival, the Cankers concluded that I would not win their annual summer-slave prize.
The year before, that award had gone to Adam. To hear the Cankers reminisce, Adam was a heaven-sent super-boy who had sprung from his mother’s womb carrying a hoe, hammer, pitchfork and paint brush. His first words: “What’s broke or run-down? I’ll fix it!’’ He could, and did. How I loved to sit each evening and listen to the Cankers recite their odious comparisons of me and Adam.
I put up with this glorious Victory Farming enterprise for two weeks. Then I told my parents, “Either I come home or I will join the army. The German army. What’ll it be, folks?” They said OK. I spent the rest of the summer in heaven, i.e., caddying for tips at a local country club.
I don’t mean to paint my fortnight with the Cankers as pure hell. It wasn’t. It was just a teenage introduction to boredom, isolation, endless weeds and wheelbarrow-loads of compressed cow dung. Since then, when I foolishly drift into a mini-bout of depression, I hark back to my escape from Cankerville and rejoice that I need never return.
Faithful Readers, I hope all of you sometimes use the memory of a youthful misadventure to boost your own spirits. As Forrest Gump learned, “s--- happens.” But we can (and will) outlive most of it.