This story is not entirely about Phyllis; although, she was involved in the potato farm right up to her ears in the way that it affected her family life, her husband, her kids, her finances and just about every part of her life. So, I think it is appropriate that it be included in “Memories of Phyllis.”
In 1951 after 9 years of marriage, Phyllis and I had the opportunity to try a different manner of earning a living.
After I was discharged from the Navy, I went back to work at Lockheed for a year-and-a-half. I was one of the discharged service men who were lucky enough to go back to his former job. After 1 ½ years at Lockheed, I was notified that I was no longer needed in my supervisory position and that I had my choice of taking a layoff and retaining my seniority for a year, or going back to work on the assembly line.
During this year-and-a-half, in my spare time, I had been helping my brother Joe build a house for himself and his wife Marge, who was also Phyllis’ mother. I had learned a great deal about the building business, so I decided to take the lay off, retaining my seniority at Lockheed, and go into the building business with Joe, who had gotten a contractor’s license before the war. After a period of time, we changed the license to “Moore Brothers’ General Contractors” and so now I was a contractor. This partnership lasted 7 years, during which time we made an adequate living and I continued to learn, and to learn how to learn more about the building business.
The opportunity to try something different came when my uncle and my aunt and my five cousins, with whom I had spent considerable time when I was 17 years old traveling around the country picking potatoes and beans and such and who were now harvest contractors and making fairly good money, decided to try farming.
They had rented 160 acres on the Circle M Ranch in Apple Valley, on Kiowa north of the railroad tracks. The rental included wells and pumps and piping. The land was in the process of being leveled for farming when they told us of their venture. This immediately caught my interest and I thought, “I would like to try that too if my relatives would let us work with them.” I talked to Phyllis about it and she agreed that we should try it. It was in the desert and she liked the desert.
The way it worked was, we would rent an additional, adjoining 20 acres and we would work the entire 180 acres as one farm. We all would spend our entire time working this one farm from dawn till dusk every day. (Farms don’t understand about Sundays and holidays).
My relatives grew a spring and a fall crop. We grew only a fall crop as we got into it too late to get into the spring crop; however, I worked all through the spring crop with them on their part of the farm, even though Phyllis and I had nothing planted on our 20 acres. This extra labor that I supplied made it worth their while to bother with us tagging along.
During the entire season, both spring and fall, our family life and romantic life was severely restricted. Phyllis and the kids continued living at our nice home in Altadena and made visits to me as often as possible. I lived, and they visited me, in a cleaned up and partially improved chicken coop with an outhouse that had no roof. When it started getting cold in the fall, we joked about having ICBM’s (Icy Bowel Movements) in the outhouse.
I made visits home as often as I was able, but it was tough to work until dusk on long summer days, then drive to Altadena, say hi to the kids, get cleaned up, go to bed for a little loving and a couple of hours sleep, and then be on the job in Apple Valley at dawn. But that’s what I did.
It was on one of these trips that the title of this writing, “PHYLLIS LEAVES BRIAN” takes place.
There was some sort of problem regarding Phyllis’ mother and my brother who were husband and wife. I had gotten to a phone and called Phyllis as to what to do about it, as Phyllis and I were the referees in their spats. I had offered a possible solution but Phyllis didn’t think it was right and she said, “I’m not going to do that!” I’m thinking she’s pretty defiant.” So I said, “You better!” Just two words, but evidently the wrong two.
A couple of days later I decided to take a trip home, I didn’t call ahead as there was no phone near the farm and long distance from Apple Valley was almost non existent. I left as it was getting dark and made the two hour drive. When I got home no one was there and the car was gone. I thought; “Oh, for Christ’s sake!” I thought she could have said, “You can’t order me around,” or something like that. I didn’t think she would pick up and leave.
I called her father. He said, “Yea, they’re here.” I said, “I’m coming down.” I walked in the door and said, “Hi, Phyllis. Let’s go home.” She already had her stuff gathered up. We said goodbye to her father and left.
On the way home we forgave each other but I said, “I forgive but I can’t forget, so please don’t do it again.”
Moral to the story
Don’t let your mouth get you in trouble.
Before taking an action, run it by your brain.
You will remember the fight long after you forget what the fight was about.
Now, when your visit is dusk till dawn and it includes 4 hours driving time, and you have to go and get your wife and bring her home, it cuts down your lovin’-sleepin’ time to the point where you must separate this hyphenated word.
Oh well, a good potato farmer ought to be able to work 2 days without sleep.
Phyllis, with her great disposition, would end up telling this as a funny story for the rest of her life.
NOW A LITTLE BIT MORE ON THE POTATO FARM.
My relatives grew a spring and a fall crop. Phyllis and I grew only a fall crop. Unfortunately the spring crop was a near failure, due to an infestation of a parasite called the “tuber moth.” These little finger nail sized moths would somehow get to the underground potato and lay eggs. The larva would burrow into the potato and make it unmarketable. The potatoes that were thus infested could be sold for $2.00 per sack (100 pounds) for hog feed.
We new about the infestation and had the fields sprayed several times by airplanes, a costly procedure; nevertheless, most of the crop was lost.
An aside: As we were sacking and grading the spring crop, my cousin, Gene and I loaded up a dump truck with infested potatoes, which we called “culls,” and hauled them out and dumped them in a steep sided wash and attempted to set fire to them to kill the tuber moth larva so that they would not mature and lay eggs in the fall crop. This was not a good idea.
We poured diesel fuel on them and attempted to light it. The diesel fuel would not light, so we poured gasoline on the diesel fuel and lit it. It did not do much burning on the potatoes but the fire spread to the creosote bushes and, with the desert breeze, was burning from bush to bush. Gene and I spent a frantic half hour stomping bushes to put the fire out so that we would not burn up the entire desert. After a lot of aerobics, we were successful.
When we planted the fall crop, which included our 20 acres, we planned to start spraying early to try to keep ahead of the tuber moth, but we didn’t have to. For an unknown reason the tuber moth did not come back in the fall, so we had a good start on a successful fall crop.
In late September, when our crop still needed about three weeks to mature, a cold snap occurred, bringing about an inch of snow. It froze the vines which, of course, ended the growing season. We knew that we were going to get undersized potatoes, which of course means less money. Well that’s just the way it was. The ground had only frozen about one-inch down and so our potatoes were still OK, but the need to harvest them was urgent as more freezing weather could freeze the potatoes making them worthless. We had thought that we had about three weeks to get ready, but the early freeze called for immediate action.
My cousin Gene and I made a nonstop trip to Idaho where, as a harvest contractor, he knew how and where to rent a potato grading machine. The freeze had hit Idaho even harder than it hit southern California, and the growers there were in a panic to get their potatoes out of the ground.
We arrived early in the morning and went to the farm of a grower who Gene knew. They were digging potatoes in the hope that some of them might be marketable. They weren’t. The newly dug potatoes looked just fine until they thawed, then they turned to mush.
We rented a potato grader and arraigned for it to be delivered to our farm (a potato grader is a big machine where the potatoes are washed and sorted. They run down a conveyor belt and are pulled off by the workers and guided into burlap bags according to the grade of the potato). Then we headed back to Apple Valley to prepare for the machine. We had rented an old, unused barn on the farm as a place to wash, grade and sack the potatoes. The barn had only a dirt floor, so we poured a concrete slab to put the grading machine on.
This was the part of the work where I had a chance to make up for my lack of experience as a farmer. Being in the building business, cement work was right down my alley. All through the project I was “Mr. Cement Man,” keeping the rotten old cement irrigation pipes patched up and the like.
Although the early freeze that had ended our growing season and cost us about half of our yield was a bad thing, it wasn’t quite that bad for us, because the same freeze, froze the entire potato crop in Idaho. With Idaho potatoes off the market the price of potatoes doubled; so, we grew half as many potatoes but sold them for twice as much, which was a good thing for Phyllis and me because we had everything that we owned buried in the ground out there. We had borrowed on our home and borrowed on our car and spent all of our money.
When we got our check from the broker who handled the sale of our potatoes, it was just about exactly what we had put in. We had our money back but nothing to show for six months of long hours of hard labor. Phyllis and I figuratively wiped our brows and said, “Whew! We’re sure never going to do that again”!
My relatives weren’t so lucky. They broke even on the fall crop as we did, but took a loss on the spring crop.
This was the end of our farming career and theirs.
I thought I was through with this story but there is more to be told.
Phyllis worked some in the potatoes. She and the kids would come out and stay 3 or 4 days with me in our little chicken coup hovel and help with whatever project was up.
To accommodate a family of 4 in the hovel, I had rigged, with wire, a bunk bed arrangement made from two single iron cots, one above the other. Both of the kids slept in one, Phyllis and I slept in the other.
Incidentally, she would endeavor to get our hovel cleaned up a little, as I was not strong on housekeeping. She even made me stop throwing the dishwater through the window screen.
She Cut Seed Potatoes:
Most everyone knows that if you cut the eyes (little belly button like things) out of a potato and plant them, they will grow a new potato plant. When planting on a farm you don’t do it that way. You buy seed potatoes and just cut them in pieces. To do this, the potatoes are placed in an overhead hopper with a small opening at the bottom at about table height, through which potatoes can be pulled out one at a time and cut. This is done with a razor sharp knife, and by the experts, fast and without cutting fingers.
Phyllis did this, but was continually embarrassed by her slow speed, occasioned by the desire to keep her fingers. She said that she was sure my cousins thought of her as a “city gal,” and I suppose they probably did but they were always nice to her and considerate of her.
These seed potatoes and our fertilizer were delivered by rail to Victorville in box cars. We would take our truck to the depot and carry these 100 pound sacks out of the box car and load our truck with them. Then truck them to the farm and carry them all again and stack them eight high in the shed. With farming you get exercise.
After our field was planted and fertilized and the vines were sprouting, lots of weeds started to grow in about 10 acres of our 20 acre field. We were afraid that the weeds would use up the fertilizer and stunt the crop, so Phyllis and I attempted to pull the weeds. Ten acres is a lot of weeds to pull! We were only able to get about half of it done.
It was a long hot job, so we developed a procedure to break it up a little. We would be on the field at daybreak, and work till midday. Then we would go to Deep Creek—a then little frequented tributary to the Mojave River, at the base of the mountains. There were several pools big enough to cool off and tube-float in. We would eat our lunch and float and let the kids play in the water. Then we would go back and work till dark.
Though we vowed we would never do it again, we were not sorry that we did it. It was long and hard and hot and unprofitable, and it was full of new and frequently unpleasant experiences, but it showed us what we could do if we had to and it made a whole lot of great, if not always pleasant memories.
A relevant story:
BRIAN STEALS A CAR
One day I was working in the field with my cousins TF and Gene. TF, who by the way was just one day older than I, said, “Brian, why don’t you take my car and go get us some cold drinks?” I said, “OK.” TF’s car was a two year old 1949 Ford convertible. I took it and drove to Cotner’s Corner, went into the store and bought 3 large Dr. Peppers.
I came out, got in the 49 Ford, turned the key, started the engine and drove away. I thought, “I don’t remember leaving the key in the car.” Then I looked at the seat and thought, “I don’t remember that blanket being on the seat.” Then I looked up at the roof and said, “Hey! This isn’t a convertible!” Wow! I had stolen a car! I turned around and drove back, When I went into the store, they had discovered the theft and were calling the sheriff. I thought they would see the humor of it but they remained sour faced. I suppose my excuse that I thought it was my cousin’s car seemed pretty lame. I said, “I’m sorry” and left.
Another relevant story:
MOM VISITS BRIAN
Just before the freeze that ended the growing season, my mother paid me a visit. She stayed for three days with me in my little hovel. She would ride with me to my work in the fields and she would fix me meals. One day she and I took the time to go to the market and buy a dressed duck, which she cooked. and made a duck dinner that we shared. Mommies look after their little boys, even when the little boys get to be 32 years old.
I had adopted a stray kitten that I bought cat food for. She told me that I was a good boy for taking care of this homeless animal.
It was great to have my mother share this time and experience with me.