A Painful Introduction to Real Life
© Copyright 2018 by John Sayles
The greenhouse nursery staff, before arrival of displaced people. L to R: Mark, wartime rear gunner, Jean, wartime army veteran, John, Fran, expert flower packer, Norman, veteran of RAF in India, and Les.
This story represents a short, painful introduction to manhood for a young sixteen year old lad working in a small glasshouse nursery and meeting men who had suffered and taught me much about human spirit. My first real step in to manhood.
It all started dear reader with a little part-time school holiday job helping to pick tomatoes. Have you ever picked lots of tomatoes, especially in a hot, humid greenhouse. The lovely tangy smell given off as one brushes against the swaying greenery of the plants attached to string above ones head.
The hands become sticky with sweat, the finger tips crusted with green from the boxes and boxes of ripe fruit picked ready for market. Each fruit cupped in the palm of the hand, lifted slightly and with a twist removed being gently placed in the cardboard stackable trays. A green coating thick and hard crust-like which can be scraped off with a knife blade, this greenness extended to bare arms and clothing. Though dripping from running sweat it is vital one keeps the hand from near the eyes for any green dirt will sting and must be washed out with fresh water to avoid blindness.
It is very hot, even though the overhead glass has been coated with a white reflective wash and the ventilators are wide open. Fred, one of the regular staff is there to keep an eye on me providing advice on the skills involved in growing tomatoes. He is about four years older than me but very young in heart and always ready for a bit of fun. Fred is working his way down the next row of tomato plants in a race to get to the end of the green house before me for a well earned break and a drink from his lunch flask.
When picking finished in this greenhouse it was our job to collect up all the trays of fruit accumulated at the end of the rows, along with the pickings from other nearby greenhouses, taking the lot along to the black corrugated iron packing shed where others would check, grade and label boxes of fruit, shortly to be picked up for transport to London’s Covent Garden Market. The key label wording was the use of the town name, Worthing, much of the town’s publicity was based on the idea of ‘Sunny Worthing’ on the South Coast of England.
Fred being a little older than me was expected to fill in the picking records during the produce packing process, as we also grew cucumbers and carnations. Strangely Fred was forever losing his glasses. When it came to Fridays and the need to complete time sheets for making up weekly wage packets by the office staff, Les seldom could find his glasses if either me or the foreman was around and could complete the records. It was not much use asking any of the other men gathered in the packing shed as their command of English was very limited being Latvians or Polish by birth and being displaced persons released from prison camps at the end of WW2. Coming to England these men chose agricultural work, the alternative open to them being coal mining. Such workers were in great demand as most of the Italian and German prisoners of war had been repatriated by now.
As a schoolboy gaining horticultural experience before going on to a nearby agricultural college this brief experience of meeting such men was a revelation and greatly affected my passage into manhood and the realities of a harsh world beyond our shores.
The men rescued or liberated from the defeated Germans or escaping Russian occupation and slave camps was very much a mystery due to language difficulties. But what was clear was their evident joy of freedom and their pleasure from simple things like picking a tomato while working, popping it into their mouth, sometimes bursting the fruit with the tomato juice dribbling down their chin, wiping their chin on the shirt sleeve and saying the odd word like “good” or a thumbs up sign.
One, clearly a well-educated man, turned out to be the Director of a horticultural research centre in Latvia and seemingly forced into being slave labour, firstly in a Polish coal mine and later a German factory, from where he was released by British troops. He had the best command of English but with an accent difficult to interpret but with familiarisation and time much of what he was saying could be understood. Released was a fellow Latvian, a giant of a man who seemed to have been a high official in the Latvian Government. It was this man who gave me the most distressing experience. At the time we were pruning apple trees on a frosty morning. This giant was crying. Being British, stiff upper lip and all that, one did not expect to see men cry. But here he was with tears running down his face leaving me wondering what to do for he was old enough to be my father. I tried to establish what was wrong. Was he ill, was he unhappy.? Eventually he took off his gloves and pushed his finger towards my face causing me to recoil in disbelief as his finger ends were like distorted claws. How all his fingers had been ripped out by Germans or Russians was never established but cold weather such as we were experiencing caused him such great pain. The nails had a grey black cracked appearance and growing over the finger ends. Horrible to see. Quite what he was going to do when he reached Canada in a few weeks’ time as part of the re-establishment of a normal life was open to question. From general geography knowledge I knew that in the winter much of Canada experienced sub-zero temperature.
Perhaps the most interesting man was Polish and one of the strongest men I’d ever come across. Perhaps unkindly being almost as broad as tall with knucles almost reaching the ground a fellow worker likened him to King Kong. But work? One of the jobs on the nursey was turning horse manure regularly in preparation for building mushroom beds. This Polish worker put us all to shame in terms of speed and quantity of manure moved. When it came to morning or lunch break the foreman over seeing the work had to forcibly remove the pitchfork from his hands and push him down on to a bench. From what we could understand with the help of the Latvianst this man was used as slave labour in Germany and only fed when the work assignment was completed. At this point he, along with other fellow inmates would gather round a central slop bowl all the men pushing a shoving to reach the greasy liquid that might, if lucky contain scraps of pork meat or few rotten potatoes. Despite having worked in the nursery for several weeks he still was not easily adapting to his changed circumstances, to sit and share our lunch boxes with him.
But what tales these men had to tell. The educated Latvian was keeping a diary of his experiences which would form the basis of a book which could be the means of riches in reaching Canada. How I would love to be able to read it. Les took great interest in this diary, borrowing it over the lunch break turning pages with rapt attention with the words and pencil sketches of people and scenes of interest in travel across Europe. The foreman called for the start of work and we scrambled off the work bench and started turning manure again. Not as bad as it might seem as the warm, steamy heat from the manure with a slight touch of ammonia smell was, to me, quite a pleasant smell.
A couple of days later much merriment as news had come through to the men that their application to enter Canada had been granted. Some of their friends had decided to stay in Britain but these three men would shortly to be on their way. Panic, where was the Latvian’s diary? Fred was the last to see it and thought he had left it on the work bench among boxes and wrapping paper and other debris. A search was made but no luck. The Latvian with a shrug of his soldiers pointed to his head where everything was in his memory and he was confident the information could all be recalled for that future book.
The tomato season was coming to an end, the main labour force was on its way to Canada and we were left to clear out the finished plants, cutting down the support strings and scraping up the debris for disposal. When the foreman was out of the way Les threw a couple of over ripe tomatoes hitting me on the back. A few moments later amidst much laugher, ducking and diving tomatoes flying in all directions we ripped down the remains of plants using the few remaining fruits at the top of the plant as ammunition. Fortunately no glass was broken as a result of this horse-play.
At this point the long lost diary was discovered among old tomato boxes. A closer examination of the diary seemed to show very basic information, illustrated with tiny pencil sketches but no indication of hidden gems or other precious metal which filled the mind and conversation of Les as he flicked through the diary. Here was just the basis of a good book but again, strange to say Les had mislaid his glasses at which point the penny dropped. For all his apparent interest and dreams of riches to be found in the diary Les could neither read nor write.