ON THE FARM
WOW! Forget the Navy, I was going to go to college! In June of 1964, I had few, if any, real plans for the summer, other than to lie around Sweet Valley and spend every night at North Lake hanging out with Joanne. I hadn’t seen her at all during the winter of senior year and was most anxious to tell her of this sudden change in my future. If I were to ever have any chance of winning her heart, it simply wouldn’t do to be on a lower rung educationally. She was brilliant and headed for College Misericordia and what could a lowly enlisted sailor man offer her? I SHOULD have been working on more-immediate problems like, duh, how was I supposed to get to class each day? Hitchhike? While the Sordoni scholarship was intended to help local needy scholars get a big step up in life, the scholarship never envisioned a status as low as mine. Tuition was fully covered for all 4 years but there were no provisions for room and board or books. Had I given it much thought, I would have been in touch with King’s much, much earlier to inquire about (gasp!) LOANS.
Graduation had scarcely passed when things started happening really fast. Sheldon Ehret, father of my classmate, Bill, came to our shack within a few days of graduation. He had, without my having asked, procured a job for me where he worked, Pennsylvania Gas and Water (PG&W) over in Wilkes-Barre. It was a really nice gesture on his part but, poor fellow, he didn’t know the extent of my laziness. I couldn’t refuse such a kind offer and said I’d give it a try. I would stay with my brother Cliff and his wife of two years in Plymouth and ride the bus to the square in Wilkes-Barre. I’d then transfer to a second bus up to the PG&W headquarters and reverse the process at day’s end.
I lasted exactly one day on that job. I rode with about four men to a work site where a ditch had been dug and a gas line laid. The digging had been done by a backhoe. Our job was to manually shovel rocks and dirt atop the line and fill in the ditch. One had to be very careful to not lay rocks too heavily directly on the line lest it be ruptured. I had trouble getting the process down exactly right. The men would tell me I was working too fast and then, in the alternative, too slow. I didn’t have any work gloves and, inside an hour or two, my hands began to blister. This was no place for a fellow who had, theretofore, been loathe to pick strawberries. LOL As the day wore on and my hands wore down, I got to thinking “Gee, I’ll only get to see Joanne on weekends. This stinks.” When I didn’t show up the second day, Sheldon came looking for me in Sweet Valley and was quite irate, for he had put his good name on the line convincing his bosses to hire me. All I could tell him was “I didn’t ASK you to do that.”
I guess Joanne may have been a bit disappointed in my lack of stick-to-it-iveness but she was so sweet that she didn’t mention it. We had had such a good time the previous summer, holding hands, walking around the lake and discussing worldly events. Holding hands was out for this year because she was now going steady with Eddie from her school but I’m sure she would have missed my friendship had I just given up.
We only got to walk around the lake for two or three nights when, BAM, my situation changed again! Someone found me on Aunt Mae’s porch and said “Ron, your Dad wants you to come home right now.” I hurried down the one-mile stretch through the woods and over the dirt road to hear Dad’s big news. He was leaving for South Carolina the very next day! Ohmigod: nasty old Janet was about to sink her hooks into him once again! (I think she was up to Plan D by now.) The poor lovesick fool hadn’t had enough of her treachery. He had given her every last cent he had during the California fiasco and then, maybe two years later, sent her even more money earned through back-breaking farm labor. I have no earthly idea WHAT lies she had fed him this time; like where she had been and what she had been doing during this latest period of non-contact. All I knew was she had sent him a letter (which I didn’t get to read, of course) and he was on his way south. It was quite an unusual situation. He had raised me by himself for over eleven years following Mom’s death and had managed to keep a roof over our heads and our bellies filled. For the past six of those eleven years, we’d slept together in the only bed we owned, hugging each other to ward off the freezing winter temperatures in the two-room shack that lacked running water. Despite my not being the easiest son to raise, given my picking on him for being such a fool, he and I were much closer than many fathers and sons. Still, it was a very awkward moment when I said “Gee, Dad, I have no place to stay until college in the fall and I don’t know what I’ll do even then. Can I come to South Carolina with you?” Luckily for me, he said “Yes.”
I didn’t even get to say good bye to Joanne. Dad and I packed our meager belongings into some sort of packages (we didn’t own more than one suitcase between us) and boarded a bus the next day. I’m not even sure HOW we got over to the bus station in Wilkes-Barre. Maybe Dad’s boss, farmer Renold Morris, took us, even as he tried to figure out who he’d get to hoe his strawberries that summer.
It was an overnight trip to SC and Dad and I just slept in our bus seats. Once inside the bus terminal in the capitol, Columbia, Dad entered a phone booth to call Janet and tell her to come pick us up. He closed the booth’s door behind him and I remained outside. I spent a few minutes wandering around the terminal, studying more black folks than I had ever seen before. Returning to the phone booth, I could see though the glass door that Dad was in a spirited discussion with SOMEONE. I thought it was odd that he’d come all this way only to get into an argument with Janet. Eventually, he hung up the phone and emerged, cussing and red in the face. He had been fussing with the operator all that time and hadn’t managed to reach Janet at all. It seemed as she couldn’t put the call through because something was wrong with the phone number he’d given her. He’d told her all the five digits he knew. I ventured a question: “Dad, did Janet specifically tell you in her letter that those five digits were her phone number? Most phone numbers have seven digits” “Not exactly IN the letter”, he replied, “she put it on the outside of the envelope, right at the end of her address.” “Oh my God, Dad! You’ve been trying to call her ZIP CODE!” Living on the farm with no TV and only reading a newspaper once a week, the poor fellow had missed learning about this new-fangled innovation of the Post Office. After all, it had only been created a year earlier, in 1963, but I, as a learned person, knew about it. We summoned a taxi to take us to Janet’s residence in Winnsboro, about 25 miles from Columbia. (As a sidebar, the silliest part of trying to call a five-digit number in Winnsboro was this: five digits weren’t two-too-few; they were two-too-MANY! It was such a small town that numbers there only had three digits!)
Janet put on the expected show upon meeting Dad, letting him kiss and hug her while I, feeling quite out of place, looked away. Within the first five minutes though, I was totally shocked by the appearance of her TWO-YEAR-OLD SON!!!!! Dad seemed to take it in stride for, I guess, she had disclosed in her letter the existence of the son. He hadn’t thought to mention it to me but, had he, what difference would it have made? Could I have stood a chance of talking him out of going South? Fat chance! Ever since 1958, folks in the family and all around Sweet Valley had tried to tell him he’d been had but he wouldn’t listen. Had I raised objections before we got on the bus, he may very well have left me in Sweet Valley and gone South by himself. Wow! What could she possibly have told him about where she had been all this time and how she came to have a new son when, all along, she supposedly really loved Dad?
Janet had a job of some sort that she went to each day. I think she went by taxi since she didn’t even have a car and couldn’t have picked us up even had Dad’s call gotten though. She had hired a young black girl, about 13 I’d guess, to come in and baby-sit the boy. The girl was paid a measly $2 or so a day. Dad and I, for the most part, sat around the house. He had a few dollars left and we once went to a small hotel for a meal. Entering the dining room, we found it empty, with all the tables neatly decked out with white tablecloths. On each table was a “Reserved” sign so, figuring they had a banquet scheduled, we turned to leave. The white maitre’d intercepted us and said “Oh, no – take a seat. The signs are just in case blacks (he used the “N” word) try to come in.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was just about to be signed by President Johnson (on July 2) but the word had permeated through the South that the placing of “Reserved” signs could get around it.
Dad had handed over to Janet whatever money he had saved after the LAST time she’d asked (about 1960 or ’61 when she called Russ Kitchen’s house) but still she wanted more. Dad decided to ask my brother Bobby for help so he took a bus to Raleigh, NC and asked for a $500 loan. Bob, to his credit, told him “no”. He later told me his words had been “I’d give it to you for any other purpose but NOT for that woman.” [Allow me to interject something I forgot to tell earlier. One Christmas, back on the farm, Bob had given us a small black-and-white TV. We’d had it all of about 3 days before Dad decided that Bob had been part of the “great conspiracy” to keep him from his woman. This TV was just a way of appeasing him, so he made Bob take it back. Over the interim, he had apparently mellowed enough toward Bob (or just found it now convenient) to ask him for $500.] Bob’s refusal totally infuriated Dad and they remained estranged all the way up to Dad’s death in 1976.
After maybe a week or two of sitting around the house, it was decided that I should look for a job. As lazy as I was, I don’t recall ME being the one to decide that (LOL) but, given that I was totally bored out of my mind, I didn’t resist the idea. Janet knew of a dress factory about 10 blocks away that might need help, so I went to see about a job there. The owner was a typical dress manufacturer, a New York Jew whose operation was based in the South, no doubt, because of the ready availability of cheap labor. Based on my age and apparent intelligence, he rightly expected that I might leave in September to go to college. I don’t recall what excuse I made up but I certainly lied my butt off and, thus, became “bundle boy” at the Southern Maid Dress Company.
It didn’t take me long to learn how a dress factory operated. My job as the lone “bundle boy” would be to carry armloads of product to the various stations. Cloth started out with the one “cutter” who followed a pattern and cut it into two pieces, the front and the back. His mechanical “scissors” could cut maybe 10 pieces at a time. The pieces then moved on to the “closers” who would sew them together. Then came the “hemmers” who would bind up the bottom of the dress and maybe the bottoms of the sleeves if it had any. Those first three steps were followed in that exact order at all times. The next two steps could vary. Sometime, one of the “buttonhole” ladies would be running short of work and want the dresses first while, at other times, the “button” girls would yell for more. They all were paid “piecework” and, thus, hated to be sitting idle. The final-product dresses were certainly not “designer clothes” but more like “off-the-rack” mass-market items. The fanciest they EVER got was to have a bit of extra trim. There were always one or two completely-finished items hanging on the wall so I could see what all needed to be done. My job wasn’t all that strenuous but, it was somewhat difficult at times. When one is toting about a hundred size 13’s, it’s impossible to see around the armload, so I had to walk backwards, looking over my shoulder. The factory owner was a typical Jewish boss, always yelling at someone to do more. That constant harangue made me almost want to quit several times the first week but the ladies were used to it and counseled “Pay him no mind. He yells at all of us”. From then on, when he yelled, I’d just glanced at the ladies and they smiled back at me.
About two-thirds of the factory ladies were non-white, my first real exposure to black persons and I found them to be like mothers everywhere; they pretty much looked after me. After about two weeks on the job, I dared to mention to them that one little black boy, about 5 years old, would throw rocks at me as I walked past his house on my way to work. I would either have to dodge the rocks or just run, which would greatly amuse him. They consoled me with “Oh, HIM – it’s not just because you’re white. He throws rocks at everyone.” I do believe they passed the word along through the neighborhood for, after a few days, I no longer saw the boy outside his house that early in the morning.
I enjoyed the work, my first real hourly-paying job, but early September came quite soon and I had to tell the boss I’d lied to him. I was leaving in about a week, headed off to college as he’d suspected. He acted a bit angry but soon got over it. I imagine it wouldn’t be that hard to find another minimum-wage worker to take my place. The ladies really surprised me. Although they were practically all at poverty level with families to raise, they scraped together a going-away gift of about $20 for me so, on my last day, I hugged every one I could reach before the boss yelled.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow” quoth the bard and leaving my Dad behind was tough. Throughout that summer it had become even more abundantly clear to me that Janet ‘s only interest in him was such money as he could give her. The nasty witch had even once confided in me an un-sought observation. “He wants me to sleep with him but I can’t. Someone might find out and take my baby away from me”. WOW! I was 18 and old enough to hear such talk, but about my own FATHER? I guess I thought it strange that, all summer long, Dad hadn’t really gone out to find a job and it now occurs to me, over half a century later, that he could have easily replaced me at the dress factory. Being a bundle boy was certainly far less strenuous than hoeing strawberries in the boiling sun and, what’s more, it paid better. I guess that, by the time I left, he, too, had decided to leave at some point but we really didn’t discuss it. With some of the money I’d saved from my job, I bought a bus ticket, hugged him goodbye, and headed North to my future, not knowing when or IF I’d ever see him again.
Here’s where my memory becomes a bit foggy. I’m not sure exactly where I headed after I got off the bus in Wilkes-Barre. It was probably to my brother Cliff’s apartment in Plymouth where I’d spent one night back in June. I guess he would have let me stay with him and ride the bus back and forth to class at King’s five days a week but I wouldn’t have felt all that comfortable doing that. We really hadn’t been raised together and we were more like close acquaintances than true brothers. Then, too, he had a new wife who tended to yell at him a lot and that got on my nerves. I know I did go to Edwardsville (just up the hill from Wilkes-Barre) and look up Edna and Ollie, who were sisters of my Mom’s best pal, Myrtle James. I really don’t know how I found them at all, for I hadn’t seen them or Myrtle since Mom died when I was 6. I didn’t know where Myrtle was and I sure hadn’t ever known her maiden name which was still a part of her sisters’. Edna and Ollie were “old maids” who had lived together their entire lives and, while they spoke kindly to me and gave me some tea, were not at all interested in taking me in as a boarder.
At this point, I had totally run out of ideas and, with just a week or so to go before school started, I went down to King’s College. My plea to the Admissions Office was simple: “Look, I AM accepted here and I DO have the Sordoni scholarship to pay my tuition. I guess I can find some sort of job to pay for my books and fees but I simply don’t know WHERE I’m going to sleep at night!” As when I won the scholarship, I was again blessed with good luck, for the college did manage to find room for me in the dorm. Being a “dormie” would, of necessity, mean I’d have to borrow some money for room and board. It would have been total insanity to turn down the chance for a college education over just that fact. I said “OK” and headed to Sweet Valley to pick up such personal items (which weren’t much) as I hadn’t been able to take to South Carolina in June. I stayed a night or two with the Grosses, who’d been my second family all through high school, and, on the day I was to report to school, they drove me and my meager possessions to King’s.
Despite the stresses of the summer of ’64, this step into my future turned out extremely well, for my years at King’s were some of the best of my life. Stay tuned for my next few chapters.
Ronald E. Hontz
33 Whitcraft Lane
Shrewsbury PA 17361
cell phone (717) 309-1402