A boy learns about real men—and gardening.
Call Me Harry
Dad overheard me calling our next door neighbor “Harry.”
“Never call an adult by their first name!” Dad scolded me in front of Mr. Wright, “It’s disrespectful.”
I was six or seven years old and agreed with Dad. Yet Mr. Wright had insisted that I, his little gardening buddy, should call him “Harry,” like a friend. After my dad left, he asked that I call him Harry just when my dad wasn’t around. “It’ll be our secret, Tawn,” he said in his warm down-east New England accent.
More often than not, his name came out of my mouth as “Mr. Harry.”
Dad was a white collar man, well-versed in propriety. A Yale educated architect, he rode the train into the city and worked in a skyscraper in a corner office with a great view. On weekends, Dad did mostly the same sort of things that Mr. Wright did. He’d clean gutters, rake leaves, fix things around the house, and fiddle with our ’59 Rambler station wagon, which he’d bought simply because it had the smallest tail fins of any car available that year. (Dad didn’t care for tail fins.) For fun, Dad would listen to classical music on his HiFi tube receiver, play chess, or draw dream houses in his study.
Both he and Mr. Wright were members of the “Greatest Generation,” World War II veterans, but they didn’t think of themselves that way at all. Now family men in their mid-30s, Dad had fought Hitler and National Socialism in Europe in his early twenties and he’d been in the Battle of the Bulge. Mr. Wright, a blue collar machinist, had been a machinist in the Navy and fought Imperial Japan in the Pacific. From there the differences between the two men, both good fathers, became more pronounced. Mr. Wright drank beer. Dad never did. Mr. Wright had mysterious tattoos that were earned, he said, in battles during the Pacific war. Dad eschewed tattoos and rarely swore. Mr. Wright sometimes swore, well, like a sailor.
But the gruff, flinty New England machinist did something more. Something Dad had no interest in. Mr. Wright grew gardens. He husbanded bursting green vegetable gardens and riotous flower gardens all around his home. In this he took a young lad under his wing and introduced me to the wonder and positivity of growing things.
He taught me how to weed.
“Pull from the base, Tawm, and only when the soil is wet, so you’ll get it all.” And then in his dry, down-East accent: “No, not that! That’s a daisy!” He also built his own greenhouse. Watching him work with the concrete and then the framing and glass, I was captivated by the thought of one man building a real structure by himself.
Mr. Wright had three daughters. Carol, the youngest, was a young teen and, to me, all grown up. I was waist high to her and she enjoyed my gullibility with some regularity. At Halloween, Carol made a dummy out of old clothes and soaked it with the hose. As I walked in deep darkness down the perfect ambush of Mr. Wright’s narrow garden path, barely able to see out of the eye slits of my Halloween mask, the sodden dummy swung out, wrapping flaccid clammy arms around my face and shoulders, nearly knocking me down! Before I could gather my wits to run, I’d done a little croaking dance to the god of adrenaline, then I took off like a shot! Behind me I heard the mocking laughter of hidden teens.
Gail, the middle girl, I never really knew. She always seemed to be out on some activity. But Pam, the Wright’s eldest, I just loved. Pam favored corduroy jumpers and turtlenecks and played the folk guitar. Pam would reach down and hug me whenever we met. Mrs. Wright, being a school teacher, once had Pam come and play guitar for our third grade class. She sat in front of the classroom in her jumper and bobbed hair and sang ballads in a clear, sweet voice.
Pam had something wrong with her heart, I was told, a prolapsed or a deviated something. Fixable today, in those days it could not be helped, and so one day Pam died. I was bewildered, deeply sad, and quite rattled by this. I hadn’t realized that people sometimes died, as in I’d never see them again, ever. How Mr. Wright felt, I never saw. He kept it to himself. Turning inward, he seemed overly quiet and far away at times, but still almost always happy to see the little neighbor boy who took an interest in him and his otherwise solitary garden work.
Mr. Wright gave me a larger view of the world of men. Real men cared for their families and were dependable workers, sure. But sometimes real men would have a beer. Not all wore a coat and tie. Some men wore dungarees, just like I did! Real men, I noticed, sometimes would not shave on the weekends. They could be gruff and testy and slow to smile. Some such men had strange tattoos, and they weren’t circus people! These were tattoos that they’d “earned,” and I learned not to ask “too many questions, by gaw”! Real men, I saw, were tight-lipped and stoical at the death of their beloved child. And I learned that real men grow gardens. Vegetables, to be sure. Victory Garden holdovers maybe, but also flowers. Real men could grow marigolds, tulips, crocuses, and a rose bush or two so that now and again, for no particular reason they could bring their wife a subtle, sweet-scented bouquet of beauty from the side yard.
Some real men, never very good at talking, let their garden do their talking for them. And this Mr. Wright’s garden did through the years with more depth, affection and sincerity than any words could muster.
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Tom Preble is an essayist for many publications, including the The Denver Post, Sierra Club, Ag Journal, and many magazines and papers. Tom’s work has been nationally syndicated.