A big thanks to Jerry. He makes the stories he edits better.
Careful Picking Friends
A Rick Beck Story
It had to be a Wednesday, because it’s my day off. I wouldn’t have paid any attention to the ad otherwise.
“Picking vegetables in a field an hour from downtown. Must be in fair physical condition with a desire to spread good will. Proceeds go to Mama’s Big Kitchen. Bring lunch and a comfortable pair of shoes. Bottled water furnished in abundance. The Mama’s Big Kitchen Singers will furnish the soundtrack for your all day excursion into feeding the masses, as well as feeding each other. We need all the hands we can get. Call Kara Payne.
Kara Payne could have plugged a hole in most offensive lines, should there be one for a two hundred and twenty pound woman with a remarkable smile that could melt the polar ice cap. She also had the most exquisite ebony skin I think I’ve ever seen. Even at over two hundred pounds, Kara was truly a lovely woman, but big.
I approached the converted school bus half asleep on the Wednesday morning of the picking. It was somewhere around dawn. I’d walked the mile from my place to wake up. If given the chance, I usually sleep until noon, but I don’t get that chance often.
Why I showed up in response to the ad, I can’t be sure. I’m not a do-gooder by nature. There was something about this request that appealed to me. It lacked the high pressure appeals you might catch on TV.
I know that there are hungry people in the world and even around Charleston. My mother reminded me of them every time I refused to eat my peas. If I watch television for a few hours, they show horrible pictures of starving children to get your guilt gland working, and then they tell you how you can feed the world. I turn those appeals off.
I knew Mama’s Big Kitchen was close to where I lived. I heard they did a lot of good during the current recession. The once a day evening meal had been stretched to breakfast, the late afternoon meal, and anyone who stopped in could get soup and a sandwich.
The ad stimulated my “I can do that” gland. I liked the sound of it. Fresh air, exercise, and do a little good at the same time. It did sound like an adventure.
Kara firmly shook my hand before she’d let me get on the bus. She gave me her biggest smile and thanked me for coming. How could anyone be that nice at six in the morning? It was obvious Kara loved her work.
Kara talked with some people that sat near her up front, after she sat in the driver’s seat and steered us onto the country road that would take us to the farm. There were probably three dozen of us. We half filled the bus and were spread out from front to back.
I watched Charleston’s final urban sprawl fade into a pleasant landscape of greenery after about five minutes of riding. By the time we got going good the sun began to climb, giving everything a radiant glow. It was going to be a nice day.
Once we turned onto the farm driveway, the bus stopped beside the house that you couldn’t see from the road. A man and two teenage boys ran from the kitchen door of the house and climbed on board, smiling and shaking Kara’s hand.
There were big smiles all around. The farmer told her which of the many splits behind the house she should take.
The bus moved slowly on the uneven dirt road, until it opened up with several fields divided into three sections. Each field had bushel baskets scattered in the rows at even intervals.
We sat on a small rise above where the picking was to be done but it was easy to see where we’d be working. We’d passed barns and silos behind the house but the fields were wide open and there wasn’t a structure to be seen.
The fields were exactly what I expected. Most of what was there looked sparse from where I sat on the bus. I’d have been more encouraged if the vegetables were hanging heavy in the field. Harvest was the month before and we got what was left and what had grown in the time since the harvest.
By the time we arrived beside the farmer’s field, people were acquainted and talking to each other. We all knew this was where we were about to go to work and the energy level had begun to rise. Having never been a picker before, I held back judgment for the moment.
So far I wasn’t impressed, but little impressed me. I’d been around long enough to know better than to get too excited about things I didn’t know anything about. It was far easier keeping to myself and reading books than running around all the time. I’d socialized more while in college, but all you had to do to socialize was go out your dorm room door. Where I lived, you were prudent when it came to picking friends.
Coming to a farm to joining others to pick food was an exciting change of pace. At the end of the day I was free to go back to my life and feel good about it.
I brought gloves, sensing some types of picking might require more care than others. I didn’t want to risk doing damage that might keep me from working efficiently at work the next day. In The Grapes of Wrath, picking was a grueling sunup to sunset labor. I didn’t imagine anything that intense, but being careful was good.
The farmer stood in front of us as and directed the proper number of people to the head of each of what was three separate fields. His short instructions were clear and concise. All we did was pick and fill the baskets. Everything else was the job of him and his sons.
“We have peppers over there, squash in this field, and several acres of tomato plants and spinach, and kale are growing back since harvest. Take your time. At the ends of each field we have cases of bottled water delivered courtesy of Fresh Water Inc. I had to say that.”
I ended up in squash. There hadn’t been a freeze and there was a lot more healthy ready-to-pick squash than I thought. It took a couple of hours for me to start closing in on the closest pickers to me. Even when we were still too far from each other to talk, I was happy for the company.
I paused to look around after filling another basket to the brim. People were closing in toward the center of the fields. There was singing. In the middle of it was Kara. I didn’t recognize the songs. The idea of singing had me smiling.
I watched the hands of people moving swiftly to pick the vegetables. There was a rhythm in their motion. Instead of bending to pick each item, they moved in a stooped position, picking a spot clean and sliding to the next spot.
When I looked, just across from me were two fellows a bit younger than me. With their backs to me I was able to follow their motions as they put squash in the basket between them. With their backs turned there was no opportunity to engage them in conversation, but I wanted to talk to someone.
They were still quite thin and spry and they worked with dexterity. Even though they were faster than I was, there was something odd about their movements. They two moved by keeping their knees bent. I tried it and figured you had to get accustomed to the awkward posture.
I decided to put my gloves in my pocket and see if I wasn’t faster without them. It did give me the feel of what I was picking. The texture of squash was distinctive to the touch. I could probably identify it in the market with my eyes closed. I picked a while longer before I stopped to watch my fellow pickers who were moving along with me, now that I used their technique.
I looked down the row and saw six bushel baskets of squash I’d filled. There was a lot of it and I suspected it had mostly grown since harvest. After filling another bushel basket, I stopped again to look at the two fellows who were directly across from me now. Their backs were still to me. I tried to think of something to say to get their attention. We weren’t here to socialize but a little conversation would help the time to pass as we picked.
I don’t know where my mind was, but I guess I stared for too long. Their ease of motion fascinated me. There was an adroitness that wasn’t in my motion, and their motion had a rhythm to it. As close as they were to each other, they didn’t bump or interfere with one another.
They talked quietly from time to time. It sounded like business.
“You missed one. Further out from where you’re picking.”
“If it had been a snake, I’d be snake bit,” was the reply.
I was sure they came together. They wore similar plaid shirts. They had similar colored slacks, but the brush and weeds didn’t give me much of a view below their waists. What I saw in their crouch was all back and their backsides, neither of which was very large. I felt my ass and knew I was beginning to put on a few pounds from when I was that svelte.
There was no doubt they came together and were good friends. They touched as they worked and they were comfortable touching. A lot of people were made uncomfortable when they touched each other, even in casual activities. These two weren’t like that, which didn’t make me uncomfortable. It was kind of nice to see.
It was one of those conclusions you jump to without thinking much about it. I was already writing their story before speaking a word to them. I did live in a world of literature, where everyone has a story. When you don’t know the story, you write one for them. It does sound foolish.
They were here doing the same thing I was doing and doing it like they’d done it before. The big difference was they came with someone and I came alone. There was nothing wrong with striking up a conversation. We were all doing the same thing, but I couldn’t seem to get them to turn around so we could see we were together in a fashion.
I did know they were doing something good for other people. Doing something for those who’d fallen on hard times was honorable. Even if they were in a constant state of need, I was sure that in the richest country in the world, no one should go hungry, and here we were making sure some didn’t. It was a good place to get to know someone.
The idea that families couldn’t feed their children was what pushed me past worrying about it and made me decide to do something to make a difference. Patting myself on the back for knowing instinctively that it was unpleasant to go hungry gave way to the knowledge I was doing something.
Seeing the two young men across from me made me annoyed with myself for not doing something sooner. It was while watching them that I was made aware that these two men, far younger than me, had given far more than I was capable of giving. As I watched, my understanding of what I’d seen in their motions was explained in full.
I could pick and I was picking, but I became determined to do more than even this. I wasn’t going to wait to see an ad. I planned to go to Mama’s Big Kitchen and volunteer to do what needed doing. I would get involved in making things better where I could. I’d quite waiting for it to suit me.
“Iraq!” the fellow with artificial arms said, as I planned my future.
Of course they were picking so close together and I hadn’t noticed the hooks at the end of his long sleeve shirt. His motion did look unusual, but I hadn’t figured out why until now, until he turned to face me, and it left me feeling odd.
I was looking right at him but only saw him after he spoke. I didn’t notice when he stood up and turned to face me. He may have spoken before I heard him speak. The words embarrassed me.
“Speak for yourself, Bryan. Afghanistan! That’s where the real war is. That’s where Bin Laden was when they hit us,” the guy with artificial legs said.
It is surprising how fast your assumptions and misconceptions can be blown away. Seeing the two men facing me, each was a double amputee. Each smiled without sounding the least bit bitter.
“I’m Bryan. This is Kelly. He thinks he fought in the only war we were ever in,” Bryan explained.
“Hi, I’m Jackie,” I said, feeling really self-conscious.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Kelly said. “I forget I have them. I can do almost everything I did before. I can stay bent at the knees all day and never feel it,” he said, chuckling at the image.
“These are my picking arms. I’ve got arms with real hands I use when I’m doing my regular work,” Bryan said. “I still like these for some things.”
“What do you do?” I asked, made curious by the comment.
“Cook! I’m a baker if you want to be technical. I have my own business. I mail order special desserts.”
“Oh,” I said, having nothing to say about that.
“These are my first prosthetics. I kept them because I knew they’d come in handy. I never guessed I’d be in a farmer’s field picking squash with them, but they make this work easy. I just need to be careful not to squeeze the sqash too hard or it’ll be squished squash for sure.”
“You’ve done this kind of work before? I like the idea of doing something to help out.”
“Yes, I do this a couple of times a year. I did what I could for my country when I went to war. Now I want to do what I can for the people who are having a hard time. No better way than to bake for Mama’s Kitchen and picking the food that feeds the people,” Bryan said.
“We’ll be eating these vegetables over Christmas,” Kelly said.
“I’ll bake up a storm too. Can’t help myself. Mama puts on quite a spread for the holidays. Once she tasted my baking, she let me do the desserts. That freed up part of her kitchen to do more cooking. She makes sure I have everything I need. Keeps me busy. She did more to make me feel whole again than any prosthetic could.”
“All the help gets to party late into the night after all the meals are served and everything is cleaned and ready for the next morning. Nothing like celebrating a job well done,” Kelly added.
“Sounds like family to me,” I said, not having any sense of the larger purpose for the picking until now. I’d been lucky enough to meet guys who knew all about it. Both Bryan and Kelly seemed like happy guys.
“I suppose we are like family,” Kelly said. “Most of us don’t get home for the holidays. When I began taking vets over to Mama’s, we added up to quite a few mouths to feed. She gave us our own section for “her” soldiers. She named it Battalion Headquarters and had a sign painted. The guys got a kick out of that. It made us feel welcome.”
I looked down the row at the bushel baskets of squash we’d filled. I was surprised at the number. Knowing some of it would be eaten at Christmas made me feel even better about my contribution.
“I saw the ad. I figured it was my day off and I wanted to…. I figured I could do this,” I said, humbled by what the two veterans had already given and amazed at their spirit.
When we got our lunches off the bus, we collected some bottled water from where it had been stacked at the end of some of the rows.
Kelly took the last bottle out of a box and he put it on the ground and using his prosthetic feet flattened it, reducing it to a small piece of trash. His shorts went to his knees and his legs were a gray alloy. It gave him the look of a Hollywood future man. It made him look powerful.
I wondered if a clever movie director might put out a casting call for Iraq and Afghan war vets to become the alloy army he sees in his futuristic apocalyptic feature. It wouldn’t require long makeup sessions to create a futuristic looking army.
When we moved back to where we’d left off picking, a tractor with a flatbed trailer hitched behind was parked in the row. All the full baskets of squash had been loaded.
Bryan and Kelly leaned up against the giant rear tractor tire. I leaned up against a stack of bushel baskets. It really was nice to relax after all the bending and reaching.
“I wonder if the baskets go back on the bus with us?” I asked, thinking it would be crowded if they did.
“Steven’s Trucking picks up the baskets at the end of the day. They take it all to the warehouse behind Mama’s. It’ll be used for meals in general and they’ll finish all this over the holidays. Mama is tireless,” Kelly said. “She’ll be beating the bushes for ham and turkeys once we get back,” Kelly said. “No one that comes to Mama’s will go hungry this year.”.
“I’ve learned a lot from Mama,” Bryan aid. “When I first got an apartment at the hospital, nurses came in to cook for me. I wasn’t used to these,” he said, lifting his arms. “Before long I was cooking up a storm. I’d have nurses over to try my meals and make suggestions.
“I wasn’t sure about how much seasoning to use. They’d say, ‘add a little more of this, a little less of that. I salted everything. What did I know. They all agreed, ‘less salt.’
“One nurse was the daughter of a baker. I bet you can’t tell where this story is going. I knew nothing about baking, but Morgan loved baked goods.
“She got recipes from her father. He was originally from Germany. I got strudel and coffee cakes. The people in his town had to be depressed when the baker went to America.”
“I bet. Both melt in your mouth,” Kelly said. “Only one way to know how good.”
“It was all kinds of good stuff to go with coffee. I do love my coffee. The holiday cookies will be served to the kids with their meals at Mama’s for Christmas.” “
“I do wicked butter and almond cookies. I love the smell of gingerbread sticks, but you can’t beat Christmas cookies with milk. That’s Kelly’s favorite.”
“Oh yes. I remember those,” Kelly said. “I got a lot of those with my meals, when I was still healing. After army chow for so long, everything he cooks is fine. I must admit the sweets are my favorite. I could have lived off your baking, even before you got good at it.”
“You two met at the hospital?” I asked. “I sensed something more intimate than friendship.”
“Roommates,” Bryan said. “They put Kelly in with me because I had recovered from my wounds and was mentally preparing myself for a new life. Kelly refused to talk to anyone. He was despondent over the mountain he had to climb. He saw no life without legs. They thought my upbeat approach might help him. He hated me.”
“You were hopeless,” Kelly said. “He wouldn’t leave me alone. He made me go to the cafeteria to eat in those days. They’d been bringing my food to me. He would fill my plate up and bring it back to me and I’d ignore it. Then he’d eat his food and begin picking at mine. Do you know how I hated that? You never gained an ounce either.”
“Yeah, well you weren’t eating it. Why waste good food? I’m using the word food in the pejorative. When it’s all you get, it’s all you got. That’s why I wanted to learn to cook. I never wanted to depend on cookie cutter food again,” Bryan said.
“That first meal you fixed me wasn’t anything to write home about. Once I was healing, they put me in the same apartment with him. I got to learn about his cooking by being served the results. It was different than army food.”
“I love you too, Kelly. Without being there, I wouldn’t be here. You don’t complain anymore.”
“No. No complaints here. You are an artist when it comes to food, my love. I probably wouldn’t have recovered without you cooking for me those last few months. I forgot how miserable I was being around him. He refused to let me pout. Then I found what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. That helped things. Life had meaning then. Before that I was taking up space.”
“Yes indeed. You were a different person once you began trying to help other soldiers. You went from a grumpy asshole to an excited energized bunny. Nothing better to give you hope than to offer hope to someone else. Guys saw you for the first time and they realized that you’d been there. They knew you weren’t just blowing smoke. Wounded warriors appreciate hearing it from one of their own,” Bryan explained.
“What did you decide?” I asked. “What kind of work?”
“I counsel vets in trouble. Basically I answer the phone and make it up as I go along. Lots of vets have difficulty communicating once they come back to the world. It’s not easy being a soldier in a war zone. Coming back to a country that doesn’t know we are at war is even harder.
“I’m on the list of counselors and when my number comes up, they call me to talk about it. Then it is up to me to figure out what is needed and how best to get the soldier to accept what I think is needed.”
“You’ve been there and know what they’re experiencing.”
“Pretty much. I can take an educated guess. Sometimes they hook me up with the hard cases someone else can’t crack. The guys like me, don’t think they want to communicate. Been there, done that. I can usually relate to them.”
“Nights are the worst,” Bryan said. “Most of us can get through the days okay. The phone’ll ring at one or two in the a.m. He takes the call in bed and gets up to talk. He’ll go down to the kitchen. If he’s not back in bed in an hour, I go down and fix coffee. I start baking for the next day. I slip him treats right out of the oven. It’s a wonder he isn’t big as a house.”
“Roger that,” Kelly said happily.
As they ate, they sat close enough to be touching one another. When they talked, they laughed at the same time and looked one another in the eye. They weren’t just comfortable being together, they acted like they belonged together. I liked them. I liked seeing how close they were. Theirs was a gentle interaction.
They were at ease with each other. They didn’t try to disguise their closeness. Listening to their story made it obvious what created their bond.
“You live in town?” I asked, making conversation and being curious.
“We have a lovely place out near Big Mama’s. Not far from where we caught the bus,” Kelly said.
“Just far enough off the main drag to be quiet, but close enough to walk to most places we go,” Bryan added. “It was a foreclosure. A contractor picked it up for his son. He was a soldier. It has ramps, extra wide doors so a chair can go in effortlessly. Most houses jam chairs up.”
“What happen to his son?” I asked, then wondering if I should have.
I chewed my liverwurst sandwich with Swiss chess and waited to see where it went.
“Arnie’s father used to bring him to Big Mama’s Kitchen. He’d heard about Battalion Headquarters at the V. A. hospital, where his son goes. There are vets at Mama’s all the time. Bryan and I didn’t really have a place then. We were at Big Mama’s a lot,” Kelly said.
“We ate there at least once a day in those days,” Bryan said.
“It was obvious Arnie, he’s the contractors son, needed help. His father was doing all he could but Arnie wasn’t helping. I think his father came to Big Mama’s rather than take him home to sit alone.
“I was already approved as a phone counselor. Mama knew all about it. She makes a point of talking to anyone she sees a second time. She knew we were living on the street and she talked to Mason, the contractor, about his son. When Big Mama sees a need, she takes care of it if she can. Arnie was my first face to face counseling job.
“I’d seen them in there. I wanted to go over and speak to them, but I wasn’t sure I should. There was nothing to say Arnie was military. He was in a chair. He broke his back in an explosion and a rollover in Afghanistan. It left him less than a happy camper.
“Big Mama gave me her seal of approval to see if I could do something, since it was my field. I went over to see if another vet might draw him out a little.
“Turns out I knew the place where Arnie was injured. We talked about the army. I talked anyway. It helps to have something in common. He knew my unit.
“We talked for hours after lunch the next day. He acted glad to see me. His father sat at a table nearby and drank coffee. He didn’t want to crowd his son.
“By the end of that first week I got a smile out of Arnie. He’d come before lunch each day and his father waited for as long as Arnie wanted to stay. That man must have had a powerful love for his son. You could see his agony.
“His father told me one day that Arnie was starting to talk at home. He mostly asked questions about his father’s business. Mason never knew Arnie had any interest in the business. He’d grown up with a builder and at twenty he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. He didn’t know how to ask and it took me to get him talking again.
“A few days later Arnie’s dad came without him. He wanted to talk to me. He told me all about the house for Arnie. He said he was going to buy the four houses on the same block. All repo houses.
“His original plan was to flip them. Now he decided to remodel them and give them to wounded warriors. He wanted me to come and see Arnie’s house. I thought he wanted me to give him suggestions or see what I thought of how he’d made it to fit his son’s needs.
“He knew Bryan and I were always there together and he said for me to bring Bryan. There we were standing in the middle of this house that was all new inside.”
“Great kitchen. Everything placed for easy access. I thought of how I’d love to be able to cook in such a kitchen,” Bryan said. “I didn’t have a place to cook at the time.
“Mason tells us that Arnie doesn’t want the house. He wants to live at home with his mother and father. He wants to learn his father’s business. He doesn’t want a place of his own. Then Mason lowers the boom on us. Arnie says to give you boys the house. I know better than to argue with my Arnie.”
“Could have knocked me over with a feather,” Kelly said. “We’re just standing there. Two homeless vets and we don’t know where we’re going to sleep that night. We’re both lucky to be alive and then another vets father gives us his house. Anyone says this ain’t a great country doesn’t know their ass from their elbow.”
“He gave us his son’s house,” Bryan said. “Just like that. He’d had a bed moved in for us that morning, so we did end up with a place to sleep that night.”
“He told me that I gave him his son back and he’d never be able to repay me, but he thought the house was a good start,” Kelly finished. “I don’t get paid for counseling. I’m a volunteer. Go figure.”
“It’s a few blocks from Mama’s. We still go there to visit with her and our friends. I take her baked goods every day.”
“Excuse me. I take the baked goods to Mama’s each day,” Kelly corrected.
“Yes you do and I love you for it.”
“I don’t mind at all. I don’t want you wasting time when you can be fixing me a nice dinner.”
They both laughed. It made me feel warm all over.
“I live about a mile from Mama’s,” I said. “About the same from where we got on the bus.”
“We’re neighbors,” Kelly said. “We’ll have you over for coffee and whatever goodies Bryan makes for us.”
“I’d like that very much,” I said, feeling good about his invitation and the stories they’d told.
“We’ll no doubt see you at Mama’s at Christmas. She invites everyone who gives their time to the Kitchen. Christmas night we take over the place and have a party. It’s one of the best parties of the year. Only trouble is we’ve got to be out of there so she can be ready for breakfast the next day, Someone is always hungry,” Bryan said.
“Mama sounds like quite a woman,” I said, thinking I wanted to meet her.
“None like her,” Bryan said. “She truly loves people. A lot of us love her back. At Mama’s a lot of lives have begun to heal.”
I felt like I’d made two new friends by the time we were ready to leave. Kara was waiting at the door of the bus to shake each hand and thank her pickers.
“Well, you don’t look any worse for wear. Thanks for coming today. We love seeing new faces,” Kara said. “You’ve now earned yourself an invite to Mama’s Big Kitchen any time you want a bite to eat or just to sit and visit a spell. You don’t be no stranger, you hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am, I won’t. How will Mama know me? She doesn’t know me from Adam.”
“Mama knows you now, honey. Mama spends most of her time cooking and supervising the kitchen, but I also drive the bus and pick the food when need be. Mama will remember. Thanks again and you come on by Christmas. I reckon we serve a thousand people at Mama’s over the Christmas holiday.
“There’s always plenty of room, plenty of work, and plenty of good cheer. You make sure you come on by and visit with us Christmas night.”
“Wouldn’t miss it, Mama,” I said.
I should have realized that Mama’s Big Kitchen would be run by a big woman. She was as jolly a woman as you’d ever want to know. She obviously loved what she did.
I would stop by Big Mama’s Kitchen often. I’d go with Kelly and Bryan once a week. I learned a little something about cooking from Mama and Bryan. I learned all about washing pots and pans, getting them ready to be used right away.
There were always good things cooking at Big Mama’s and it was one big family I’d found, when I went to pick vegetables on my day off.
Now I have something to do anytime I feel like getting out of the house. So, if you’re looking for a place to go at Christmas, stop by Big Mama’s. Everyone is welcome there.
Merry Christmas and the best of New Years to you all.
Rick Beck 2012
You come upon the Banquet of Life, and as luck would have it, you’re first in line. You watch as they put out all your favorite foods. Do you pig out, gobbling all the food you can hold, or do you eat modestly so everyone is fed?