I was exhausted after my first go at picking a full season of apples: mostly macs near Livermore Falls, Maine with Arthur and Elizabeth Harvey’s crew, Greenleaf Harvesters. They home-schooled Emily and Max, lived in a wood-heated cabin with a cistern. They sold delicious blueberry butter, pruned orchards in the winter, raked blueberries in the summer. They sold books shipped from Gandhi’s ashram in India. Arthur and Elizabeth – spent many a night in a New England jail concerning unpaid taxes and power plants. Elizabeth would bring picked apples to offer at Catholic mass. A master orchardist who designed our contracts to be subcontractors enabled us to make $1.40 a bushel for highly choice picking, Arthur knew at a glance the bushels on any tree. To any question, he would say with a smile: “Let reality unfold.”
My first day is the stuff of legend. But my limbs, for years mindless appendages on the man in the suit in New York began to think for themselves to meet the challenge: pick only apples with deep red and the size of a quarter and a certain circumference your fleet fingers could judge. Then the weight of a bucket hanging from your neck growing to twenty pounds atop a tall groaning ladder shifting against bending branches – were all the business of my feet and a sense of where I was, the guidance system.
You scanned about reaching: pick apple #1, to right hand; apple #1, left hand; apple #2, right; apple #2, left; a handful gently in the bucket. Then down the ladder, waddle with the full bucket over to the bin. Almost every day for up to five weeks from eight till five. Then someone had to cook dinner for everyone. Vegetarian. Asleep by nine. The bunkhouse reading matter: Elie Wiesel, The Little House on the Prairie, E.B. White and poetry.
I wrote ahead to the Catholic Worker in the Bowery in New York City that I was coming to help, which later they said they thought “cute.” It was mid-December. You could see the next morning the billows of breath of the men huddled with their hands over the heat from an oil drum fire. When the doors opened, they quickly poured in and filled every seat on about five long tables with servings of coffee (and refills), bread and oatmeal. One man who could not be awakened was simply relocated gently to one side in his chair. I washed dishes brought over to the sink. Silverware there, bowls here; leftovers I dumped in a big metal bowl to the left. Suddenly a man’s hand stuck deep into the slop and the man was putting it, one after another in his paper bag.
“Oh no! you don’t have to do that!!” I reached to stop him.
He was nicely dressed and beatifically said:
“Oh yes! It’s for the birds! it is God’s will!”
I headed down the Jersey Turnpike to my mom and dad in The Plains, Virginia.
Standing in front of one of the rest areas with darkness falling and my sign saying “VA.” I saw the back of a man hurrying away to a car carrying by its canvas handles my bag of everything.
He only said later that his name made no difference, that he was driving me as far as he could before he had to be at work as a night watchman, that I need only know that Jesus Christ was my Lord and Savior. I have met many so convicted who had climbed up from very dark places. He was called The Non-Denominational Christian.
Later he left me at the big rest stop on the turnpike in Delaware and I gave him some of my writings. A couple saw me and the sign. I got to McLean, with a fire station and shopping center. I asked the guy at the fire station if I could sleep somewhere. He said at the police station about half a mile away.
I slept on a naugahyde couch in the dim lobby near the dispatcher’s enclosure. A woman and two children were on another couch along another wall with a sweet little, meagerly lit Christmas tree .
The next morning, I went to McDonalds, ate well. Went out to the road my sign with “D.C”
A car pulled over despite the traffic. I climbed in. The driver was cranky because his wife Betty was bringing him to a Sufi meditation gathering with Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. He was Peter Tompkins whose books I knew of, the most known was called “The Secret Life of Plants.” Betty was the Morning Edition cultural reporter on NPR.
I said something from the backseat about Bruce Cathie, an Australian commercial pilot who wrote a one-of-a-kind book full of latitudes and longitudes suggesting that, periodically, different dimensions would line up, creating electro-magnetic force fields and openings between dimensions through which flying saucers move to and fro.
“Do you know any carpentry?” Peter asked, driving, me sensing an offer coming.
Completely exhausted and needing somewhere, I said “Yes” when I should have said: “No.
We exchanged info. They dropped me off in D.C. and I would soon be at my parents for Christmas and then having dinner with fine wine at Peter’s cavernous, gentrified barn of a house full of books and objets d’art near McLean. He was haggling sharply over the history of the Office of Strategic Services – the first CIA during World War II – with author Anthony Cave-Brown. Brown’s book would soon come out on the founder of the OSS, Wild Bill Donovan who had recruited Peter to paddle ashore in Italy where Peter’s Italian was perfect and command the resistance underground in Rome, which he did. Peter’s book called “A Spy in Rome,” is a must-read in spy circles, easily verifiable because the many places he hid in Rome are still there. Later he was knighted in Italy for his heroism. He also testified and help get a conviction of the Nazi officer who ordered the slaughter at the Ardeatine caves – a mass killing of 335 innocents carried out on 24 March 1944 by German occupation troops as a reprisal for the Via Rasella bombing attack that Peter’s team did.
Hunted, Peter changed places, identities and accents almost daily. One of his captured men was tortured to death for refusing to give up Peter. I knew two Peters: the man with unhealed agonies that made cruel shows, other times, an angel, like the time we ate his dinner outside on the patio of the barn: “Look, Jim. See how the fireflies caress the air.” Then he asked me: “Jim? Do you know the fresco by Michelangelo in the Vatican, showing Adam extending his finger out hoping to reach the extended finger of God?” “Yes” “Jim, my finger is out and – I’M STILL WAITING!!!!
I took a cab to a rundown brownstone that I called ahead to – another Catholic Worker homeless shelter when that was all the city had, run by a young guy who routinely smashed any liquor or beer bottle he found on any man. It was thirty-full, standing room only – everyone wordlessly watching 60 minutes on tv about the poisoned Tylenol in Chicago. Lights out. I and everyone carpeted the floor. Next to me was a sozzled, frazzled Swedish man in an undone tuxedo, sad and robbed.
I left with the sun, clutching my bag.
In early January I drove to Shepherdstown for the first time. with Peter and Rick, a master with wood who with Dodhi had lived on her sail boat in the Bahamas and spear-fished. Up the steep winding entrance, we came to Locust Hill, a 1790 house with a porch swing, a dairy barn in the back still with scattered straw and milking stalls and big German barn.
While looking over the place, John Lowe, the owner with a closing date approaching, came storming in the front door and thundered: “What are you doing in MY house!” Peter roared: “What are YOU doing in MY house!”
So I stayed behind to watch things in the empty house with peeling wall paper and creaky, with a big sheep dog – Docile – me on a mattress, adjusting the dial on a boom box for NPR, feeding wood into a Jotl stove at my feet, no plumbing or running water that didn’t taste of gasoline.
It was always dead silent, but one evening – deliberate, measured sounds of shoes pacing the floor upstairs. I was scared.
Early in February I was in Shepherdstown two miles away. It started to snow hard and kept snowing. The road home was a two-track path that kept disappearing. Breathing hard in a blizzard, I got to and stood at the bottom of the very steep lane rapidly filling with thigh-deep snow and more. I frantically battled through it.
The next day there was thirty inches of snow land that even had broken like waves and flooded our porch.
The romantic heart never forgets.