BERKSON: With A Slice Of The Shovel

LIFE SKETCHES

With A Slice Of The Shovel

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His article have appears in New York magazine, the New York kDaily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

Recently, a friend brought some spruce saplings up to the farm for planting.

Luckily, my son was up for the weekend to lend a hand with the digging. We placed some near the house and then headed for the woods, which are thin on evergreens.

No sooner did I open a hole for the first seedling than I was back to the spring of 1966, in the forest near Rothenberg, Germany, where it looks a lot like the countryside around Richfield Springs. We were medics attached to the Seventh Army and out on maneuvers.

I pitched my pup tent with a guy named Hailey from Niagara Falls. He had already been in Germany for a year and could speak a bit of the language.

It was sunny and warm and after testing our unit’s drinking water I sat in front of our tent, reading Hemingway’s “The Old Man And The Sea”:

“Santiago was sitting in his boat with his palms raw and bleeding from the big fish that had raced the line through them at a cutting speed. He was thinking about the great DiMaggio and how he continued to play ball in spite of a painful spur on his heel.”

Then a cuckoo bird let out a call and I was back in the woods. I had thought the ridiculous sound only came from clocks made in the Black Forest – but here was a live bird in a nearby tree.

There was a dirt road at the edge of the woods and across the road in a field a farmer was plowing with horses. Occasionally the breeze blew his voice in my direction and I could hear that he used different words for giddy-up and whoa.

It must have been around lunchtime because in the distance a woman approached across the furrows with a lunch basket for her man. They greeted each other happily and I could hear their harmony of laughter. Even at the brash age of 22 I saw the beauty in the scene.

Hailey came by and asked me if I wanted to do some reconnaissance, which meant we’d be looking for a beer hall in a nearby village at the end of the dirt road. We would later sneak off to it after Sarge turned in that night.

Now, as we made our way through the woods we came upon some German farmers who were planting trees and we exchanged some pleasant conversation by way of Hailey’s knowledge of Deutsche.

I was already aware that after more than a decade of occupation, American soldiers weren’t exactly welcome guests in Germany. On this maneuver, which included armored tanks and huge trucks with trailers, the Army would have to pay $50 for every sapling we destroyed.

At one point, one of the farmers who was holding a shovel said, “Amerikanisch soldaten arbeit nicht,” which Hailey translated into, “American soldiers don’t work.”

Eager to show the man that he was wrong, I grabbed a shovel and a tree and started digging. Hailey captured the scene with his camera.

Now in my woods, I savor this moment of working alongside my wife and son. She captures the scene with her camera. These trees will be here long after I’m gone.

With the passage of time I’ve grown to be nearly as old as the fisherman Santiago – and hopefully, fruit of the farmers’ efforts will have fared better than the Old Man’s ravaged fish.

By now, those trees planted back in Germany must be 40 feet tall.


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