Succotash Summer

June Huwa Whiting

© Copyright 2015 by June Huwa Whiting


Photo of a bean field.

This is a (mostly) true story of growing up on the farm and being blessed (or is it cursed?) with a father who had a strong work ethic. It's the story of a bitter relationship between two sisters and a field of pinto beans.   In comparison to how hard our parents had to work on their families' farms when they were growing up, we got off easy, but being kids, we were certain no one had ever suffered to the extent we did when sent out every summer to hoe one, and only one, field of pinto beans.

he season of the Evil Weed looms on the horizon. Long before school is out, Harold the Horrible, also known as Dad, spends hours planning a summer labor program for his two beautiful, if not particularly motivated, daughters.

If there are two things he cannot tolerate, one is weeds, and the other is idle children. In his mind, if a kid is not doing something useful, the parents are remiss. His motto: Any child old enough to walk is old enough to work. His children must, at all costs, develop a strong work ethic in order to become workaholic adults.

Once the New Year has been rung in, my sister Patsy and I begin an earnest campaign to convince God we do not deserve what Dad has planned for our summer vacation. Every year we go through this sincere spiritual program, and every year God’s laughter resounds through the City of the Pearly Gates when our pitiful supplications reach His ears.

As soon as school is out for the summer, Harold the Horrible springs into action. He chooses one field of pinto beans and assigns it to us because he knows the quality of our work will be mediocre at best. This particular field is for educational purposes only. We must learn to work. He does not care that he taught us to work last summer; he cannot shirk his commitment to reinforce the Strong Work Ethic he is morally bound to instill in us.

Day One

Summer vacation. He hasn’t said anything to us about hoeing beans. At least not yet. Apparently, our prayer campaign has worked. Then . . . just as we are getting comfortable in front of the TV, secure in the knowledge Dad has forgotten about us, he orders us to suit up in our bean field ensembles: long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and scratchy straw hats. Not surprisingly, our whining fails to change his mind. Whining usually works better with Mom, who mainly just wants us to shut up.

Hoes slung over our fragile little shoulders and a jug of ice water sloshing between us, we amble out to the bean field, sigh, slap the straw hats more firmly on our pretty little heads, whine, and begin trudging between two rows of beans, the maximum we are allowed to hoe at a time. Our heads bend low as we cast discerning eyes over the ground daring the Evil Weed to show itself.

Bean fields lack certain amenities like shade, a snack bar, restrooms, and trash receptacles. I mention this both to gain reader sympathy and to prepare the reader for the next paragraph.

Suffering from allergies to both weeds and to beans, I sneeze up one row and down the next. This results in using thousands of tissues throughout the day. Every morning during the Evil Weed Eradication Program, I take the precaution of jamming tissues in my pockets, resulting in sort of a jodhpurish, and not altogether stylish, look.

Once used, a tissue has to go somewhere, and I don’t want it in my pocket, so I drop it on the ground, adding, I think, a rather festive touch of pink amid all those beans. Dad doesn’t necessarily care for the pink litter in his field, but hey, if he didn’t make me come out here, I wouldn’t be sneezing and blowing my nose, now would I? The man simply cannot have it both ways!

By the time the sun is high overhead, we have taken thirty-two water breaks. Dinnertime! Our bean-hoeing day is half over. We trot back to the house. Please note, we amble to the field and trot from the field, motivation being a key factor in ambulation.

Mom sees us as we walk into the kitchen and does her best not to laugh at her two sullen, sweaty, bedraggled daughters, but I hear the distinct sound of a stifled guffaw.

We load our plates with fried chicken and all the usual accompaniments and commence our Poor Pitiful Us act. Suffice it to say, we get no sympathy. We will have to work on honing our theatrical skills.

As with all good things, dinner ends, and we, amidst a cacophony of whimpering and whining, are sent back to the field until suppertime. Our work in the bean field exempts us from doing the dishes, the only good thing about the entire ordeal.

Back in the field, we trudge up and down the rows. Stop for a water break. Sneeze. Blow. Whine. The rhythm of our misery drags on until supper time.

Day Two

Six a.m. I am dreaming peacefully about a boy in my sixth-grade class I’m in love with when I hear Harold the Horrible bellow at Patsy and me to get our lazy selves out of bed. He, after all, has been up since three a.m., milked the cows, plowed the north forty, and dug a new well—all before breakfast!

If we want to avoid future such awakenings in the middle of the night, we have to come up with a better strategy for finishing our field.

Hard at it once again, we discuss our options for increasing productivity. We determine that if we take three rows each, we can finish this field in another two days, three at most.

The sun climbs higher in the sky; the scorching heat wraps us in a stifling cocoon; sweat rolls off our faces, leaving small puddles on the parched soil.

There we are, hopping valiantly over rows of beans to whack out the Evil Weed. Zigging and zagging. Sweating and thirsting. Yet in spite of it all, we maintain a positive attitude, secure in the knowledge we are growing food for the hungry masses.

After a few rounds, Patsy foolishly worries we might be missing a few weeds. I, being the eldest, and therefore the wisest, do a quick analysis and assure her our accuracy rate is ninety percent . . . more or less. Her confidence restored, we resume hopping and hoeing.

The hours drag on, and suddenly . . . what is this? . . . a young corn stalk in the middle of a bean field? We are flummoxed. What are we supposed to do now? Harold the Horrible never mentioned hoeing corn, only beans. Corn is a crop. We can’t take out an innocent corn stalk; after all, corn, unlike the Evil Weed, is planted on purpose and blessed by God. If we destroy the corn, we will be killing a crop. Our daddy hasn’t raised him no dummies. He specifically told us to kill the Evil Weed; he did not tell us to kill the Evil Corn. Corn is not evil! Corn is a crop. We leave it unmolested and focus on the Evil Weed.

Day Three

Another two weeks, a month at most, and our sojourn in the bean field will be over for another year. Mom will have to buy a couple more cases of pink tissues, but before she knows it, things will be back to normal—Patsy stretched out on the couch watching cartoons, and me with my face inside a bag of potato chips.

We decide to take four rows at a time. Up and down . . . hop, hop, hop . . . hoe, hoe, hoe

 . . . sneeze, sneeze, sneeze. We carefully hoe around more corn stalks, their satiny green leaves glistening amidst all those beans.

Day Seven

I conclude if we increase the number of rows taken per round, we can dramatically boost our productivity. Patsy is initially skeptical, but after a twenty-minute argument during which productivity is at a complete standstill, she agrees we must take eight rows each. We will not share our new business plan with Harold the Horrible. We want to surprise him.

By the time we skip back to the house for dinner, we think we just might survive another summer of the Evil Weed, and Dad will be so proud of our business acumen.

Just as I spear another pork chop and Patsy crams more fried potatoes into her mouth, out of nowhere, the dreaded Harold-the-Horrible-voice sweeps across the table like a tidal wave. “Why are you two knot heads” (one of his pet names for us), “leaving corn standing in the bean field?” Mom snorts and covers her mouth, but I know she’s hiding a grin.

Worried the poor man might be suffering from sunstroke, I try to keep my response calm, slow, and simple. I point out corn is a crop. We don’t kill crops. Grasshoppers kill crops. Drought kills crops. Hail kills crops. Devoted, hardworking daughters with surprisingly good heads for business do not kill crops.

Before I can even blink, his index finger is so close to my face I can feel a breeze as he shakes it at me. I notice steam coming out his ears and feel my heart careening its way to my ankles. He leans in closer, fixes his eyes on me and thunders, “Are you crazy? Whaddaya think we’re raisin’ here? Succotash?”

The earth stops in its orbit. Patsy’s raised eyebrows signal I am older and wiser and therefore more qualified to answer his question. My pork chop now tastes like dirt. I gulp, hang my head, and wait for the inevitable. Experience has taught me that reasoning with Harold the Horrible when he is like this will only escalate his wrath.

You’re going out after dinner and hoe all the corn out of the bean field . . . and while you’re at it, you can get all the weeds you missed. Understand?

Throwing caution to the four winds, I attempt to reason with him one more time. “B-but Dad . . . corn is a crop.”

Well, listen up! You two are going to hoe that particular crop out of the bean crop AND you’re going to do it two rows at a time . . . How many times do I have to tell you? You thought I didn’t see you taking several rows at a time. You two knot heads look like a couple of jack rabbits out there hipping and hopping between rows. Your old man didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, you know.”

Bewildered, Patsy and I look at each other. Turnips? What turnips?

Day Twelve

Sullenly plodding up and down our allotted two rows apiece, we rail against our cruel father. The summer is almost over, and we are still out here laboring in the hot sun. Surely we will not be expected to spend our entire summer in the bean/succotash field, will we?

It isn’t fair. It isn’t Christian. Is this a Communist plot against capitalist American children?

Fifty Years Later

I haven’t hoed a single weed since I left the farm and wish I could say the same for Patsy, but she weakened. She planted flowers and felt compelled to protect her blooms from the Evil Weed.

Until I breathe my last breath, I will maintain corn is a crop and should not be whacked out of the ground no matter where it grows.

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