I was approaching my seventh birthday while growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., with my older brother Joseph (or Buddy) along with of course Mom and Dad. We were the typical family and relatively happy with our modest home, lifestyles, surroundings and neighbors. Dad worked on the docks as a longshoreman and Mom (as I see her today) was a model housewife that cooked, cleaned, sewed, knitted and otherwise kept us kids in good repair—and also in line.
When on Sunday, December 7, 1941, at a little passed 2pm, Dad’s best friend Jimmy Gorman came rushing into the house, all excited as I have ever seen him before, and shouted to my father. “Ozzie [Dad’s name was Oswald] turn on the radio, quick!” The urgency was that the Japanese had that morning bombed Pearl Harbor, and we and the world were suddenly struck with fear, uncertainty with the seriousness of it all. The radio reported very vague conditions sent our imaginations wheeling. To make things worse, Germany, four days later on December 11, 1941, declared war on the United States. For the next two weeks or so, I could read the faces of Mom and Dad, their concerns of all that was transpiring. Our world was suddenly tossed upside down, and our quiet routine lives were now faced with indecision, doubt, and ever-increasing concerns.
The next few months saw our government enact never-before heard demands, regulations, and all kinds of restrictions too numerous to mention. Everything became rationed and coupon books were issued (nothing could be bought without them) and distributed with buying power in accordance with the size of one’s family. Products like gasoline, meat, sugar, butter, clothing, shoes, tires, chocolate, anything and everything that was in abundance just a little while ago, was now in short supply. So much so that it wasn’t long after the rationing began that the black market came on the scene everywhere. The urgency of doing without products that were in abundance a short time ago all became a major issue overnight in supporting the war effort.
As the months slowly rolled by, the government constantly urged everyone to conserve on anything and everything. This is when the Victory Garden was introduced. Here in Brooklyn—at least in our surrounding area—the homes were all two and three stories high with large fenced back yards perfect for growing all sorts of produce. At the time, many of our neighbors were newly arrived immigrants from their respective countries, different ethnicities and many of them knowledgeable about farming. This was a sharp contrast to my Father who was raised a city boy. They advised us how to clear the soil in our back yard, and once cleared how to add lime and other natural chemicals to sweeten the earth. Then, they showed us how to turn the soil over (tilling, I guess you call it). We planted everything we could think of, but our favorite was the beefsteak tomatoes. The seeds to start with, we learned, had to be planted in rectangular boxes three inches high, fifteen inches wide, and eighteen inches long which Dad made himself (with supervision, of course). Then the seeds were planted in each box to prescribed planting dimensions that placed them one inch deep into the soil and spaced three inches apart as instructed by our knowledgeable neighbors.
For the next six weeks we were constantly monitoring the boxes for signs of growth. Then one day, there they were: almost in unison, the sprouts began peeking above the soil as they struggled for life, soaking up their first sun bath. Of course, not all the seeds came up; some were duds, but we were told that was to be expected, and I’m happy to report that the ratio of bad to good plants was negligible. It was another painstaking six weeks or so before the plants became tall enough and strong enough for transplant. We then lovingly dug up each seedling, handled it like a new born infant and placed it ever so carefully into its next stage that will achieve full maturity. Even at my young age of seven, I felt the importance of what we were doing, and I could feel and see the pride swell up inside me and my family as we took to the task.
Time rolled on. When the individual plants grew into large leafy bushes, it became obvious why our neighbor instructed us to plant them a good five feet from each other, front and back. We monitored the plants every day first to count the white-flower buds which will eventually become tomatoes. They all promised by appearance (if that is any indication) to produce their intended purpose. Not too long after, a month or so maybe, the plants fulfilled their promise with an abundance of tomatoes on each branch on every plant. Once again, armed with the advice of our neighborly mentors, they told us that it was necessary to tie up each branch on each bush, supported by wooden stakes that are driven into the ground. You see, due to the weight if each individual tomato (close to a pound), gravity would soon levy the ripening tomatoes to the ground, where in this state they would soon begin to rot. Every day saw my family in the yard puttering around our Victory Garden with new elevated pride and anticipation for the day when we would harvest and sample the efforts we together put forth. In addition to the tomatoes, we planted carrots, radishes, corn, eggplant, and a wide variety of herbs and spices.
We were told by our Italian neighbors that it would take about 20 pounds of fresh tomatoes to make a pot of Italian sauce for the size of our family. We were accustomed to canned tomatoes, which never let us down as far a flavor was concerned, but they said we were in for a real treat when the sauce was made with fresh tomatoes. Finally, maturity came: the day we would be allowed to sample the tomatoes as promised by the head of the household. We each closed in on the one we had adopted since its infancy as our favorite. We then all assumed a true family circle for this event, and once in position, waited for Dad to give the signal to grab our prize. Dad shouted, “On your mark, get set, go!” We quickly plucked our favorite from the life supporting branch—opened our mouths as wide as possible, and bit into the crimson treasures, and then as if orchestrated by the supreme tomato in the Garden of Eden, the juice squirted out from both sides of our mouths. I saw Dad bend over at the waist super-fast to avoid getting the juice on his clothes, and, after all the slurping, sucking and savoring subdued, he could see the smiles of satisfaction registered on our faces. All our efforts were amply rewarded.
After collecting our treasures, we shared our harvest with all of our neighbors, and they in turn reciprocated their harvest with us. I can’t stress enough about the eagerness of everyone during this time of short supply; everyone went out of their way to share whatever they possessed. This modus operandi went on among us with just about everything. The four years that followed until the war’s end in 1945 was a ritual we all enjoyed and looked forward to every spring. I often think of those times, which no doubt for many was the worst of times, but in rare instances for some, it was the best of times.