You might be surprised at how windy and cold it could get in San Francisco, especially where we lived. Even a six-foot redwood fence didn’t afford the protection needed to grow tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. However, the cool weather was excellent for growing leaf and root crops like spinach, lettuce, carrots, beets and cabbage. Besides with all the dahlia, fuchsias and other plant cuttings patients brought to Doctor Joe’s office he really didn’t have room in the garden for vegetables. (He did have a huge Gravenstein apple tree in the back yard.). But, the summer place outside Healdsburg, California provided plenty of room for Doctor Joe’s fruit trees vegetable garden and berry patch.
The lot on the west side of our city home was vacant, so, after getting permission from the property owner, also a neighbor, I started my own vegetable garden. There weren’t many ways to interact with my father, but that was a good one and he was a good teacher. At first my efforts were partially foiled by gophers and moles. Doctor Joe showed me how to use traps to get rid of those critters. I learned about building good soil using compost from grass and garden cuttings. And, I learned how to dig dirt with a minimum of effort. Pretty soon my lettuce, Swiss chard, green onions, radishes and beets showed up on our table. Snails and slugs were a challenge that not even baits and beer could completely control. They liked newly sprouted bean plants best.
My discourse on soil, bugs and vegetables stems from a civilian project touted for helping the World War II war effort. The War Department cited the drain of young men to fight the war, and made the case for civilians helping the war effort by feeding their families with home-grown vegetables. And, so was born the “Victory Garden.”
Our next-door neighbor, Royal Hawley, was made a “Block Warden.” Royal did not have a green thumb like Doctor Joe, but he was an excellent organizer. Royal saw that we all received government buckets and shovels. A big truck dumped a load of sand from the beach. Everyone in the neighborhood had to fill their two buckets with sand from that pile. The Block Warden got to carry a gas mask and an armband to identify him as the area Warden. Mr. Hawley let brother Joe and me put on his helmet and gas mask and we would pretend to be some kind of giant insect set loose on our shore by the enemy. Whoever wore the helmet tried to slay the giant insect.
Mr. Hawley was a railroad executive, but also a highly skilled woodworker. He had every type of hand tool and machine in his shop. He turned out beautiful finished items. One time he designed and built a scooter for us using an old pair of roller skate wheels we had outgrown. Mr. Hawley determined all homeowners would participate in the Victory Garden program, he went to Henry Stoneson and got permission to use a large block of vacant land nearby where the Victory Gardens would be planted. Mr. Hawley expected Doctor Joe, because of his prowess for growing things, to be a leader for all those neighbors needing help to start their Victory Gardens. But, with the war Doctor Joe was so busy covering for so doctors serving in the military that we sometimes didn’t see him for weeks at a time.
Not to be deterred, Mr. Hawley went into his workshop and prepared tall posts with routered edges each of which he painted a glossy white enamel. At the top of each post he screwed nameplates that had neatly routered edges painted with blue enamel with a facing, painted white enamel that had the name of each Victory Gardening family’s name scrolled into the face and painted in red enamel. The signs were beautiful and one had our last name on it.
Doctor Joe couldn’t resist, so he assigned brother Joe and me the task of preparing the soil in our assigned plot. Weeds were waist-high. A lot of trash and building debris had to be removed. But, instead of applying ourselves to the task, we started hurling the weeds as far as we could. Each weed had a nice clump of dirt covering the roots. Other families had kids working their plots and soon everyone was throwing weed clods at one another. My poor mother had to wash us and our clothes that night!!
Working in dirt was definitely not to brother Joe’s liking. Since I already had a vegetable garden growing next to our house, I prepared the soil, which included repurposing many of those weed clods mentioned earlier. Many of the plots planted by neighbors, included tomatoes and corn. I planted our plot without corn or tomatoes knowing that the cool, foggy weather wouldn’t allow those crops to thrive. Mr. Stoneson saw that we all had access to water and paid the water bill for us all.
Ordinarily, Doctor Joe would not have had the patience to teach me the rudiments of vegetable gardening as busy as he was. But, there was that beautiful sign now planted on our plot, so he could hardly allow me to harvest a bed of weeds. Doctor Joe gave me pointers in his usual gruff way and even managed to drop by to see what everyone was growing. Zucchini always seemed to surprise me. One or two would elude me and balloon up to two feet long. They were quite impressive to carry home and were excellent stuffed. I also became the master varmint eradicator for everyone’s vegetable plot. Doctor Joe had more than a few traps so when anyone reported a gopher or mole I got called to set the trap and remove the body.
About this time my mother’s parents were aging to the point they didn’t want to make the drive to their Russian River property. Doctor Joe bought it from them and so we went again preparing more soil for planting. But, this time he bought a roto-tiller made by Graverly in England. I could barely manage the thing. When my Dad passed away the same roto-tiller came into my possession and I used it to plant my vegetable garden in Huntington Beach, Ca.
By war’s end we’ had gotten to know our neighbors, the Hawleys, very well. They had a Chinese servant that came every day to clean and maintain the Hawley’s home. The servant told us to call him Wong and we never knew Wong’s full name. Wong was diligent in maintaining the Hawley’s home and was one of the most dignified, unflappable persons I ever met.
Wong was key to our victory in the great Fourth of July fireworks competition that pitted our side of Russian River and its half-dozen residents against the other side, which rested against Fitch Mountain, and was always jammed with hundreds of vacationers. The yearly competition wasn’t official, nor was it based on who had the most beautiful fireworks display. It was pure raw noise! If one side shot off a tiny ladyfinger, the other side did the same or shot off something louder. This went on all day, but every year our side was out of fireworks before dark and never had close to the firepower of all those kid on the Fitch Mountain side of the river.
Behind his gruff and serious demeanor one could still find the heart and soul of a kid in Doctor Joe, who didn’t have fireworks while growing up. So, my brothers and I didn’t have to plead too hard with Doctor Joe to have Wong the houseboy buy us $20 worth of fireworks. Brother Joe and I took the money to Wong and told him the kind of firecrackers we wanted. We had to get the red, green, silver and gold sparklers our Mom loved, but most of that money went for the stuff we wanted, all of which were very loud. To our absolute amazement Wong returned from Chinatown where he lived carrying two shopping bags brimming with fireworks but covered by some kind of Chinese linen. Fireworks were illegal in San Francisco even when I was a kid, but the city turned its eyes on fireworks set off in Chinatown.
We were well aware of the fire danger fireworks posed and were not allowed to shoot any without the supervision of Doctor Joe. There were no bottle rockets either as they posed too much of a fire risk if they went astray. We had to set up a wheelbarrow –not a bucket, and fill it with water. We had to stay on the tarmac in front of our house. We disassembled many strings of fat, red inch long firecrackers now called “cherry bombs.” Some strings we left in tact. We also used one and two-pound empty coffee cans to magnify the noise. We stood back once the cherry bomb was under the coffee can and laughed our heads off as the explosion sent the coffee can as high as the telephone lines. Swallows that usually sat on those phone lines were nowhere to be seen that Fourth of July. We shot firecrackers singly; we shot them in strings. We shot them from noon until night when no one else was still firing them on our stretch of the river. We’d won! Every salvo the Fitch Mountain kids set off was returned in kind and more. The bits of red firecracker paper looked like confetti the next morning and Doctor Joe made sure we cleaned it all up to his satisfaction. The burnt out shells went into the wheelbarrow. It was a delicious display that rang in our ears for hours. Ear plugs; hearing loss? “Whaddidya say; I didn’t hear you.” Our ears rang, but no damage was done.