The summer of 40 years ago.
Forty summers ago I went upstate to spend the idyllic season on the farm in Broome County, New York near Binghamton. Three hundred acres of fields and woods, its southern boundary the Pennsylvania line. My late Uncle Stanley Rosenkampf inherited some money and bought it in 1966, an avocation, as at the time he was an industrial arts teacher in downstate Westchester County. Stanley and Aunt Rosemary (my late father’s younger sister, still living) eventually retired to the small white farmhouse on a county road. In 1970 the nearest neighbor — a dairy farm — was nearly a half mile away.
Stanley fancied himself a farmer, one of those guys who longed for the life of sun and soil, while the practical concerns of making a living got in the way. But being a high school teacher his summers were free, and were spent on the farm. And so I was sent up, having just finished my sophomore year in a Catholic high school. I looked forward to this as an away-from-home adventure, and as an opportunity to hang out with my Rosenkampf cousins Molly, Tom, Paul and Artie. The first three were there only occasionally, as they were old enough to have lives away from the place (college, jobs, etc.), but Artie and I — both sixteen — would be there for the duration.
This was advantageous from Stanley’s point of view. Maybe sometime in his academic career he’d taken an economics class, because he certainly understood Adam Smith’s “Labor Theory of Value.” That summer he found himself in possession of two healthy sixteen year old boys. He had to provide each with a bed to sleep in, and he had to feed them. Other than that he could work them, as they say in the South, like rented mules.
The problem with that “idyllic season” trope is that the words “farm” and “work” are synonymous. Most hobby gardeners have a small backyard plot, but Stanley had a full five acres under cultivation in a series of interconnected plots. And he didn’t have a roadside stand to sell all the produce. This summer hobby was for family consumption, and for friends, neighbors and other visitors to the farm. Aunt Rosemary preserved as much as she could, but Stanley simply gave a lot away, or disposed of much of it — spoiled and rotten — on his compost pile. Though I wasn’t there for the entire season, the output was huge: sweet corn, pathetic golf ball-sized potatoes, cucumbers, red and green cabbage, multiple varieties of squash and peppers and melons, and shiny purple eggplants. Stanley had a patch of strawberries the size of an Olympic swimming pool. He had a half acre in tomatoes; the scores of plants properly spaced and staked. He had rows of string beans and wax beans as long as a football field. I can still see him standing wiry in the sun in his sweat-stained white T-shirt, as he surveyed his agricultural empire, wiping his ruddy brow or blowing his nose with an ever-present blue handkerchief.
Stanley, Artie and I worked from 7AM to late afternoon in a daily round of “cultivating,” endless weeding as we broke up the dirt around and between rows of vegetables with hoes. Sometimes Aunt Rosemary joined us wearing a big straw sun hat. The occasional afternoon summer thunderstorm that drove us from the fields was most welcome from mine and Artie’s viewpoints, but the rain only meant more weeds the next day. And then there were the rocks.
Going back to the first agricultural settlement of colonial New England the historical record is littered with accounts of farmers cursing the rocky soil. The ancient glacial landscape of the Northeast is some of the most unarable land in the world. The stones rising out of it are eternal. It has something to do with freezing winters and then the thawing spring ground summons the next generation to the surface for the summer’s picking. I had the feeling that Stanley had a fragmented Rock of Gibraltar under his farm. When we dug up those aforementioned small potatoes, the accompanying rocks were thrice their size.
So, Artie and I “picked rocks,” as we called it, which from Stanley’s point of view measured the garden’s success. We filled a wheelbarrow dozens of times per day and took turns dumping it on a large nearby pile. I’ve often wondered why Stanley never built a stone wall, because just as nature in its utilitarian way provided the bounty of the garden it also provided the rocks. But instead they accumulated in multiple mounds the size of old Volkswagens at the edge of the fields. It was either a lapse of judgment on Stanley’s part, or he detested the rocks so much that he refused to use them in an aesthetic way. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost.
But there were interludes free of rocks and dirt. Stanley religiously took a nap after lunch, a siesta in the heat of the day, and this was the signal for me and Artie to hop on our bikes and head to the swimming hole by the bridge over Cascade Creek, or for a round of plinking at woodchucks with our .22s (encouraged by local dairy farmers to keep the number of chuck holes down in the hayfields). One day we decided to play hooky and didn’t come home until suppertime. Stanley was not amused, of course, but his even-tempered demeanor shrugged it off. Still, Artie and I knew that the next day he would find a way to work us harder.
Another favorite pastime was shooting at trains. The Erie Lackawanna tracks lay across the road from the farm and by climbing a nearby hill we had a perfect vantage point. Some evenings after supper we surreptitiously assumed our sniper position. The freight trains regularly rumbled by always heralded by the whistle, and we blasted away at the passing boxcars. There were specific targets: the “S” in “Santa Fe”; the “N” in “Norfolk and Western.” We loaded and reloaded as our amusing moving target rolled by. To do this we actually had to shoot over the house, and one memory I have is of Aunt Rosemary standing in the kitchen window as she did the supper dishes, probably assuming the gunfire was target shooting in the woods, and not knowing that the bullets were passing twenty feet over her head. Needless to say, train shooting was a no-no, but train shooting with Aunt Rosemary in the line-of-fire would certainly have provoked her noteworthy Irish temper. To this day I thank God that I’m free of the all encompassing guilt that would have resulted if I’d shot my much-beloved aunt. And I have a tinge of regret about this adolescent mischief. I hopefully doubt that we shot any passing hobos. I see now that it was an inappropriate use of a firearm. Don’t try this at home, kids.
The glass insulators perched atop telephone poles were also a preferred target. As far as I know we caused no power outages or interruptions of phone service. Then there were the road signs that we nonchalantly blasted while cruising by on our bikes. Artie and I were mounted and armed, roaming the countryside like Comanches or Cossacks. The elderly proprietor of the General Store in the hamlet of Gulf Summit gladly kept us supplied with Cokes, ice cream, and ammunition. Since Stanley didn’t pay us for our garden work, I’m scratching my head as to how we scrounged up the money to afford such luxuries. There must have been petty larceny involved.
There were late nights. Artie had a girlfriend two farms down the road and we spent a lot of time there. And in the company of an older cousin we went to a bar called “Davidsons” in Deposit, New York one night. We were obviously too young to drink, but those were the days when a bar owner permitted the presence of young people if they were with responsible adults, as my cousin Tom was, well, sometimes. But Aunt Rosemary was out of bed and beside herself when Artie and I rolled in at 2 AM after a long night of drinking Cokes, playing pinball and shooting pool. Tom dropped us off and then quickly headed out to continue carousing with older friends, and I recall Aunt Rosemary swearing an oath or two at him as he pulled out of the driveway.
In the end Stanley had enough, and sent “Cousin Willie” home, cutting my enjoyable summer in half. Cousin Willie and Artie were a bad influence on each other, and Stanley reasoned that if he sent me home our extracurricular nonsense would cease, and he’d get twice as much work out of Artie for the remainder of the summer. So home I went. Poor Artie.
Ah, but the memories.
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