SUMMER, TOMATOES, AND OLD 17

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
A happening in the summer of my fourteenth year living in the projects of Pennsylvania. Parts of which are taken from fact and the rest fiction. The place is real, the characters are mostly real.

Submitted: January 04, 2017

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Submitted: January 04, 2017

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AUGUST, TOMATOES, AND OLD SEVENTEEN

 

We move up Adams avenue pausing long enough to collect Danny and see his mother’s sober face through the screen of the door she catches before it slams shut. She turns back to the simmering heat of her kitchen even before Danny joins us. At the top of Adams, the street ends, turns right, changes its name to Osage and continues along between rows of gray-shingled houses, four to a row, the same as on Adams and every street in Lacey Park, where we live. Built to house the sailors and their officers serving at nearby Johnsville Naval Air Station during World War Two, Lacey Park had been turned over to civilians at wars end and my family and other blue collars moved in. We rent the variety of single and double story houses which are maintained by us and our agency. Life in the Park is pretty good. 

Where Adams ends, we turn left, cross a small yard, they’re all small in the Park, and enter a thin strip of scrawny trees made up of oak, maple and assorted hardwoods. We pop out onto the southeast corner of Garono’s farm and keep on walking. Nineteen-fifty-six has shown us a summer of relentless heat, humidity and sparse rain, and on that Saturday, as on most days, the heat is collected and stored in the concrete of the streets and sidewalks. We are used to the heat of the Park in the summers of southeast Pennsylvania, and the black-brown soil is a relief as we step across the rows of picked over tomatoes, a crop grown every year by Garono. Two hundred yards to our right an orchard of green apples begins and runs to Street road to the north. Gary, Danny and myself have at one time or another tasted the bitter-sweet fruit in those trees, but now we were interested in the unpicked fruit at our feet. 

“Better get some baskets,” says Gary. This is good advice and we fan out for any decent ones left since the picking season ended a week ago. As we gather the discarded woven-wood and wire baskets, we continue moving toward Jacksonville road. Garono’s farm is on the northwest corner of Lacey Park; the tilled acres and orchard are bordered by Jacksonville road on the west and Street road on the north. We have a dozen or more baskets when we reach a place overlooking Jacksonville road. To the south this road begins in the town of Hatboro and continues north to border Lacey Park on the right a quarter mile from where we are. From there the road slants upward, steepens, then flattens out exactly where we are standing. There’s only one hill on Jacksonville road and we have positioned ourselves at the top of it. 

We quickly gather tomatoes, that is those left over after the efficient, brightly clothed pickers of weeks past. The fruit remaining of the juicy, beefsteak variety of tomato that we’ve all eaten for dinner, is imperfect since Garono didn’t pay those noisy folks to pick the bad crop. We want baseball-size stuff if possible, the firmer the better, but soft-rotten is okay as long as your fingers don’t dig too deep. Soon we are ready. 

Although we haven’t thought about it, the weather has favored us. Hot, windless and humid, August has held its peculiar charm to the end. The teasing flavor of autumn is close, we know it, but we’re not ready to give up the freedom of summer just yet. Has the return to Jacksonville road become a ritual—-an end to summer-rite-of-passage of sorts? We’re far too young know of such things. We do know about fun—-and mischief. Because of the waning day’s heat rising from the blacktop road, every car has lowered its windows for what little comfort is afforded and this is unfortunate for an older model Cadillac that approaches from our left. It leaves the crest of the hill slowly and reaches the flat to be met with the first hail of tomatoes of the day. Most of them miss, but Danny scores a hit on the windshield and I land one in the backseat. The driver, a woman, seems unaware of what is happening, keeps on driving and soon is past. 

“Not bad!” says Gary. 

“You missed by a mile!” Danny says as he tops off the basket closest to him. 

The next car is not a car but a pickup, a forest green Chevy short-bed with a very bad transmission that grinds almost to a halt on the hill. Tomatoes rain down scoring lots of hits and we hear the driver, a young guy, screaming some foul unintelligible words. Unlike the previous woman, he knows exactly what is happening, turns hard and pulls over almost at our feet. He doesn’t realize his mistake until he jumps from the truck, runs around the bed only to be met with more tomatoes. 

We may be young, indulged in the nuance of our adolescence, ill-prepared for the many things ahead of us, but we are not stupid—-and we have done this before. We know that drivers are going to be pissed off and want to strike back, but they are unable to do so. We stand on top of a hill created when the road was cut into Bucks County years ago. The hill extends almost from the Park up to Street road and is fifteen to twenty feet high in most places, and steep. A cracked, narrow sidewalk runs the length of the road (no-one knows why) and should you be foolish and leave the sidewalk to climb the hill, an assortment of horrors awaits: the first natural obstacle is a line of thick, stunted saplings overgrown with azaleas (the kind nobody wants in their yard) which blend into a deep run of blackberry bushes armed with uninviting prickles that grab onto anything that touches them. Interlaced throughout the blackberries are fox-grape vines of steel that stop your progress should you make it so far. If you luck past this point, the loose Pennsylvania sand and shale have another surprise waiting... 

The young truck driver reaches the sidewalk, realizes the ugly truth of his predicament, and starts back. 

“You bastards!” is the best he can come up with and just as he reaches the Chevy, Gary sidearms a neat pitch directly into the small of his back. We all hear the meaty THWACK of the contact and as one, we cheer. The driver slams into his cab and clatters off. 

We pause to take a break. Danny has bought a bag with some food and a glass jug of lemonade(thank you, Danny’s mother). The lemonade is warm, but tastes great anyway. Inside the bag are some apples and cookies. We eat and talk mostly about school since we have just started back. All of us have graduated eighth grade from a local Catholic grammar school and have moved on to junior high school. Danny has elected to go to a newly opened Catholic high school and complains about the length of the bus ride. 

“Dougherty is all the way into Philly. I get home really late.” Danny is already whining about the school. 

“Think it’s bad now, wait ‘til the winter. You’ll freeze your ass off comin’ and goin’” Gary is no help. 

“Didn’t you have a choice?” Gary and I are both attending the local high school, a short bus trip, or walk if necessary. 

“No way. My old man wanted it to be Catholic start to finish. Pain in the ass!” We all know Danny’s father. He’s the local scout leader and we’re used to his ways. We finish the food and search for more tomatoes. Danny is some distance from us, yells for our attention and we go to him. 

“Do you hear that?” he says and we listen. There’s nothing but the whoosh of a car, than another. Then, from far away we hear the faint clank of metal on metal. It repeats itself in a rhythmic staccato, and again this time with a muffled roar between the clanks. Quiet for a moment, then again, but louder with an echo, and Danny goes to the very edge of the hill and looks south, down the length of Jacksonville road. Danny has the best eyes of any of us, eyes that pilot his F4-Phantom over Vietnam years later and plant memories in his mind that haunt him still. 

“Whatever it is, it’s comin’ from Van Horn,” says Danny and Gary and I are familiar with that street as the only street exiting Lacey Park onto Jacksonville road except one other near Hatboro. We join Danny and look south. What Danny and Gary are looking at is a blur to me without my glasses which I wear for school work, but suddenly I do see the flash of setting sun bouncing from something far away and we all hear that sound again; the grinding clank, a throaty roar of what seems to be an engine, somehow familiar... 

“Did you see that?” says Gary, but Danny has figured out what we’ve been listening to and now have seen. “It’s the old seventeen bus,” he says. “It turned off of Van Horn onto Jacksonville road outta the Park. It’s comin’ this way.” 

“But it’s Saturday!” I say. “Why’s a school bus coming out of the Park on Saturday? Where’s it going?” I look at my companions. 

“The band!” Gary comes back. “It’s band practice at the high school. I know ‘cause my sister is in the band. They’re getting ready for football season.” 

Like everywhere in the country, school buses are used to truck kids to and from schools both private and religious, and when the buses get old they end their days doing service trips for athletic events, church trips and any other school activity deemed fit no matter parochial or not. All of us, at one time or another, had ridden on the oldest of the old, number seventeen. The fact that it still performed was to give kudos to the Bucks County fleet mechanics, and the amazing thing to us was that they even bothered. During the winter when and if it started, seventeen never warmed above freezing and as often as not was stuck in some icy rut only to be pulled to safety by a tow-truck. Summer was worse; the sagging vinyl seats were terrible in fair weather, but in heat and humidity they went soft-gooey, and with windows that refused to open properly even when new, the interior, when packed with excited, pubescent people, was soon a writhing throng of slick, sweating bodies. Seventeen was old, slow and unreliable—-and it was coming straight at our hill. 

“Let’s get ready,” says Danny. 

We cram the baskets full of every tomato we can find and pile the extras at our feet. By this time the bus is more than halfway to us and a new noise reaches our ears. Some or all of the boys and girls on the bus are singing. We can’t identify the song as the drifting melody is still a distance off, but it is definitely them. A few cars have preceded the bus but we ignore them in our preparation. We are ready. 

“When it comes into range, we better go for the windshield...slow it down,” says Gary. Danny and I nod to this. 

“Who do you think is driving?” I ask. We are all familiar with the drivers who are usually retired and part-time. 

“Don’t know, but he’s in for a surprise,” answers Danny and we all laugh. 

The bus has started up the hill and down-shifts to make the grade. The intensity of the screaming engine and transmission increases and we are wondering if it will actually get to us. The bus crawls to the apex, lurches onto the flat of the roadway and comes into range of our young guns. We open fire. The first tomatoes whack into the grill and hood, decorating the dirty orange paint with darts and dashes of blood-red. Then one smashes onto the glass at the driver’s face and he gives a startled jump. More follow, and as the bus moves forward and closer to us, our aim improves. The windshield is soon dripping with gore and the driver turns on the wipers which compounds his problem. We see this, and in an effort to lend a hand we pour more fruit onto the windshield. 

The frantic driver loses all visibility and control, and the bus shudders strongly and stops; a carnival-painted, smoking, helpless whale of a thing sitting on the blacktop. It is directly adjacent our position. If there are demons of some kind in charge of mischief, they are certainly smiling now; we are in complete control. The students have ended their songs of joy. We throw at the broadside of the bus with complete abandon. 

“Get ‘em!” screams Gary, and we do. The open windows, the kind that slide up to close, are going up at a frantic pace. The bus is close and the bombs we are chucking are larger now; the baseball size stuff is becoming hard to find and the over-ripe, soft tomatoes cause a lot of havoc. The windows are mostly up save for a few that refuse to budge, too bad, and we are hitting the open holes. We hear screams, both male and female as the near-rotten whoppers strike home. Some disappear whole into the bus, while others are split by window frames to scatter juice, seeds and the hot peeled skins of the good summer harvest. Near the front of the bus is one window operated by a pretty face who is trying with all her might to push it up. Using the heels of both hands she is just within inches of safety... not quite there—-when a softball-sized New Jersey Big Boy sails in and hits the window so that the top half of the fruit strikes the young lady squarely in the face. She vanishes instantly. 

“Was that your sister?” Danny turns to Gary.
“No...I don’t think so.” Gary hopes to god it isn’t.
Someone has opened the accordion front door and is trying to exit the bus. We see the movement, are drawn to it and I hear Danny grunt as he throws twice in quick succession. Both pieces land inside on the black steps. The door stays open and we can see the legs of the driver and then a boy appears and starts down the steps but re-evaluates when a small, hard bullet thrown by me strikes him high on the meat of the thigh. We hear him squeal something like “shit” and he backs up into the bus. The doors close. I get congratulated for the fine throw. 

A few cars have come up behind the ambushed bus. They all pass but one and an older man gets out of the car and walks around the bus to see about the commotion. He gets to the double rear tires, looks up at us and asks in a loud voice what in god’s name are we doing, is met with a flight of tomatoes, and scurries back to his car. There is no help coming today. 

The bus is quiet and we wonder what is going on. We ask each other why the driver hasn’t attempted to start and leave. 

“It’s gotta be the windshield,” says Gary. “Did you see it?” We laugh. We’re standing together as we talk to each other in full view of the bus and we hear a noise that we recognize instantly. Someone has opened the rear emergency doors of seventeen. There certainly is an emergency but what anyone can actually do about it is questionable. People have gone out the back, around to the far side, the safe side, of the bus to talk to someone else. A strategy session? Suddenly three boys charge around the rear of the bus directly toward the hill. We look at each other and walk closer to watch their progress. The boys, no doubt juniors or seniors reach the poison-oak strewn barrier of trees and hedges and the first of them, the largest, plunges halfway through quickly and then slows, realizing just how difficult the going is. The second and third high-schoolers stall behind their leader, and it is then that we begin throwing. 

The third boy, the smallest, dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, gets hit first, but he is stubborn and hangs on until Danny lofts one onto the top of his crew-cut head. Danny has selected an almost putrid giant which explodes upon impact and for a brief moment the poor fellow wears, helmet like, half of the bright red skin until he knocks it off. We can almost hear the laughter from the bus; the defeated boy retreats to the rear doors. By this time the leader has punched through the first natural line of defense to reach the blackberry bushes where the hill begins to ascend. 

For as long as anyone can remember, blackberry bushes have grown along Jacksonville road. Indeed, there are those few neighbors who pick the delicious fruit every season, but only from select bushes and not those higher up on the hillside where the best berries grow in loose, treacherous soil. The tiny prickles, once under the skin, are worse than a bee sting and cause an intolerable itch. You can only pick from the outside of the bush, never the center. That is the rule! Unfortunately the brave, strong, senior boy who has plowed into the heart of the blackberries, fruit long gone, is experiencing the grief of the bushes, not their glory. His assistant, boy number two, having been pummeled by tomatoes, scratched and bruised by branches, brambles and loose shale footing, has scrambled hastily back to the bus. 

“That big boy ain’t gonna quit,” is Gary’s summation after watching the lone hero fight his way almost to the end of the blackberries. So far, the man-boy has said nothing but we can hear him grunt and cough occasionally. Then a window opens and a female voice shouts encouragement. 

“Don’t let them get away, Jerry!” The window slides shut. 

We continue to watch the newly identified Jerry finally struggle through the last of the blackberries. The man-boy stops, stands stone still. He stares. What is this place...? Where have his labors gotten him to...? In front of him, to his left and right run chasms cut into the brown-red shale and sandy soil. These canyons run along the hillside and up and down. They are deep, and in some places wide. You can’t see them from the road, hidden by the scrub, but now, when you’re trying to climb upward, you absolutely see them, because there’s no goddam way possible around or over them to get to the top! 

My companions and I know these little canyons well. What nature started, we finished. Years ago we discovered that the ice and snow of many winters and thunderstorms of summer had started the irrigation process along the tops of these hills. The channels were well under way but we helped them along with trenching shovels bought cheap from the Army/Navy surplus store. These winding yards of deepened trenches and tunnels became our forts for games of war between neighborhood boys. What was fun for us is a new quandary for the man-boy. 

Across Jacksonville road the sun is playing hide-and-seek among the trunks of tall hardwoods. Maybe it is the fading light that fails Jerry in his attempt to leap across the closest trench. His bone-tired legs actually propel him over, but he lands on loose shards of stone and sand, loses his footing, attempts a recovery that is not helped by flailing arms or a short scream, and falls backwards. He recovers, stands, brushes off his dark tee and khakis and surveys his situation. Jerry looks up. 

It might be that we appear larger to Jerry than we are. We would be three smaller boys dismissed out of hand should he pass us in the school hall. Jerry is a senior who has lettered in track and wrestling and big enough to be sought-after by the football coach, but he has chosen the band and so now he stands head-high in a trench, covered in filth and sweat, tormented by hundreds of tiny pricks from those goddamn blackberry bushes and he is sure that the last patch of shit he pushed through was poison oak. Climbing from the trench will be difficult, reaching the boys(how big are they?)above him impossible. Jerry wonders why he hasn’t been pelted with tomatoes. He continues to gaze up at us. His mouth moves but no words come out and he is sure he knows what’s coming. We stand above him at the ready. Ready for what...? We’re ready to go home. 

The hill overlooking Jacksonville road is gone now. Garono’s field, the tomatoes, apple orchard, have been replaced by industrial sites (progress) and at Street road stands a Walmart. I live far to the south and visit whenever I can. Though the sights are contemporary, that memory of Jacksonville road, the ambush of bus seventeen and what three kids from the Park did on a sultry day in August so long ago replays like some vivid reel embellished with age to be told time and again. I sometimes wonder though, if I had ridden old seventeen on that particular day, just how the story might be retold. 

Let’s go.” Danny finally breaks the silence and we drop the tomatoes, turn and walk back across the flattened, picked tomato field and somewhere in the middle, we break into a run. No one is chasing us, we run because we can. We run so fast that we leave the ground and skim over the tilled, uneven soil in flight. We fly to the edge of the Park and light onto Adams avenue. It’s just dark, the heat has lessened and the air on our skin is dead still and moist, mixed with humidity and sweat. The street is quiet, few people are out on their small porches. No cars move in the dimly lit blocks and as we pass Danny’s house he turns soundlessly away. We will see him again tomorrow, or the day after. Gary and I turn onto Mercer and down to my house on the left. I live on one end of four, Gary the other. He waves and is gone. 

I enter my house through the screen door directly into the kitchen and my mother is at the sink and she greets me wondering where I was and with whom. I tell her everything, except about Jerry. She shakes her head. 

“You boys are going to get into trouble doing those kind of things.” She has said this about the time I shot at pigeons with my BB gun and used cans and bottles for practice in the local woods using my .22 Winchester. She loves me. She tells me that dinner is in the oven if I am hungry, I tell her I am. My older sister is out; she’s always out on Saturday night. My father works late shift on weekends so he is at work. 

“Can I get a bath first?” I ask, and my mom says sure, and I head up stairs two steps at a time and run cool water into our only bathtub. I go into my bedroom I share with no one, strip off my heavily stained t-shirt and chinos, socks, sneaks and underwear, then back to the bathroom. The tub is half-full and I get in and lie down. It is amazing.

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