It was around 1943 - 1944: I was 12 going on 13. I lived at 61 West 100th street, between Columbus and Manhattan Avenues. You knew there was a war going on, almost every window had a star in a frame signifying that a serviceman belonged to that family. Sometimes you heard air sirens in the midst of all the fun the kids on the street were having. The street had stickball games every Sunday and was host to the everyday games like lingalario and tug of war. On the corner you had Jenny's Candy Store where there was a juke box inside. Sometimes when you passed there you heard songs like "Till Then" by the Ames Brothers.
Every block had a banner. The banner could be three stories high and a street wide across usually showing a famous person who made a large contribution to the war effort. Each block was very proud of their banner. The people who lived on 99th street between Columbus and Central Park West were all black. The black people never came on 100th street and the whites never went through 99th street. Once I sneaked and approached 99th street and there was this huge banner of Joe Louis. I said to myself, "boy this banner is much more exciting than ours." There were many concerts and street celebrations supporting the armed forces at the time. A celebration was scheduled for 100th street on my block where I lived. I lived on the 6th story in my building. I could see the men down on the street, setting up for the performances.
As I looked down from my fire escape, I saw many people on the block. The crowd was getting bigger and bigger until you couldn't see a space anywhere. They were coming to see the performance. All the black people from 99th street came and for the first time the people on 99th street and the people on 100th street were together. I couldn't believe my ears when they announced Hazel Scott was about to sing "Cow Cow Boogie." Well, you should have heard that crowd! We all sang along with her, stomped our feet, jumped with glee, dancing, laughing and having a great time.
And to think it could have been our last day together, but despite it all, it was our moment and we played it to the hilt. This memory will stay with me forever.
- in response to Catherine's story:
Emilie's Apple Picking Story
Reading the first story in this column made me think about World War II and something I did then that I had never done
before. I picked apples.
During the early forties I was living in Manhattan and studying at the Art Student's League. Every year or so I would
return to Massachusetts to visit my family and paint outdoors. One August I took along a friend and we had been there only
a few days when my mother said,
"There's an ad in the papers for applepickers. Men are scarce; why don't you two sign up?"
So we did.
Most of the young men in that area were either in the army or working in the Springfield munitions factories, so the four of us who answered the ad were two sisters, my friend, and I. The orchard was several miles away but the owner sent a truck to pick us up and drop us off.
The driver of the truck was the hired man. He managed the picking and a better boss I've never had. He loved the apple trees and he loved to work. He told us that the owner had inherited the older part of the orchard from his father; here the trees were tall and needed ladders. The apples were comparatively small. The newer part had been planted by him twenty-one years before, when his son was born, and was bearing fruit for the first time -- big, beautiful #1 McIntoshes. Around the edges of these fields he was doing experiments; like crossing types to make a new eating apple or seeing if he could raise a type that wasn't usually grown in New England. One of the latter clearly showed his loving care -- it was trimmed beautifully and had a bountiful crop of light green apples with really pink cheeks. I can still see it on the hillside -- like something out of fairyland.
Every day began with the hired man's challenge,
"So how many will it be today? Can we do two bags more than yesterday?"
Since the two sisters liked eating Delicious apples, that's what they picked. My friend and I liked McIntoshes and greenings and we were allowed to pick one of the young trees. We all had to learn to pick by grasping the apple in one hand, and turning the hand around 90 degrees so that the fruit snapped loose without losing its stem. Without a stem an apple can begin to rot after it's been in storage for a while.
At noon we sat on a grassy spot somewhere and ate our bag bunches and watched the orchard cat sitting on a stump, looking around for mice. (Mice damage young trees by chewing away the bark at the base of their trunks.) Sometimes if he could talk to me alone, the hired man would ask me to explain about women. He was courting someone and didn't always understand her moods. I guess he trusted me because I could carry my own 12 foot ladder.
Often in the evening when we were going home the big orange autumn moon would be rising and everything would be smelling
good. But one night our euphoria was suddenly broken when the truck swerved violently from our lane to the other side
of the street, banging us all together against its metal sides and each other. When we untangled ourselves one of the
"Hey, man, what are you doing?"
And the hired man yelled back,
"I just can't stand to hit a cat"
By early November all the apples were picked that were being sold retail or sent to the storage warehouse. "Now," said our boss, "It's cider and pig apples off the ground." And with those words he brought us to our knees. Eight or nine hours a day of standing, bending, and reaching did us in. We fell asleep before we could fall into bed, we fell asleep during supper, we fell asleep before supper.
And my mother just laughed. She grew up on a farm in Canada and knew how we felt. She also knew that what we would remember from this job was not the grueling groundwork but the joy of being on a ladder in a tall tree of beautiful apples on a blue and gold day in October.