June 20, 2008

The Peddler’s Son (Sketch #9)

Category: News — Ira @ 6:56 pm

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Pedlar’s coming down the street,
Housewives beat a swift retreat.
Don’t you answer to the bell;
Heedless what she has to sell.
Just discreetly go inside.
We must hang a board, I fear:
PEDLARS NOT PERMITTED HERE.

—Robert Service, “Pedlar”
__________________________

I see them now, increasingly abundant, stacked in neat little rows on tables on the small roadside stands dotting the back roads of Lancaster County. Strawberries. By the pint and by the quart. Large, luscious, deep rich red. Delicious and juicy.

Someone had to pick them, much earlier, as the sun was rising. Probably the children, now out of school for the summer. Each day, newly ripe red berries plucked from row after row of plants on the straw-covered earth.

On our farm in Aylmer, we raised what seemed like acres and acres of strawberries each year. In reality, though, it was probably usually an acre or less. Squat green plants with large leaves. Everbearing. Which meant they bore strawberries through the eternity of summer until the frost killed the plants.

The first ones arrived in early June. A handful, then increasing each day. We picked them eagerly and carried them in to Mom, who mashed them in a bowl, added and mixed in some white sugar, and whoola, a most delicious concoction. Mom always baked little flat round lumps of shortcake, which, smothered with the strawberries and fresh thick cream, was a fit feast for a king.

After about a week or so, the whole patch exploded with the bright red berries. And the newness wore off quickly. On picking day, we were in the patch soon after sunrise, when all the world was wet with dew. On our hands and knees, we crawled along the rows, filling quart after quart. The little green quart containers were then packed into white cardboard crates and stacked at the end of the patch.

Usually by late morning, or noon at the latest, we were done. And then it would be decided who would get to load the crates into our old topbuggy and head to town to sell the strawberries. By peddling them, house to house.

It was usually one of my older sisters and one of my older brothers. We were all eager to go. I remember when it was decided for the first time that I would be the one.

It was a hot, sunny day. We had been picking strawberries all morning. Red ripe berries; we were sick to death of them. We plugged along, and by mid-morning, we were still hard at it. Dad came around to check on our progress. That was when I heard the first whisper. Ira would go to town with Rachel to peddle the strawberries.

I was probably ten or eleven years old. Going to town for any reason was a huge deal. And now I was chosen to go sell. Peddle, house to house. This was a clear, definite step toward manhood. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

And it wasn’t like I hadn’t sold things before. My father sold cherries and peaches in season from a vendor’s stand at the local sales barn. He also sold shrubs and nursery stock, and we boys at a young age served the customers who came to buy. We could converse well in English and were mostly polite, saying “please” and “thank you” at appropriate moments. So it’s not like I was an untrained, uncouth little savage.

I knew I could peddle.
_______________

My father was the consummate salesman and peddler. In his lifetime, he sold every-thing from purebred Landrace hogs to nursery stock to grape seedlings to fruits of all kinds. He launched and marketed Family Life, selling thousands of subscriptions. He walked the streets selling produce door to door long before I was ever born. If one business failed, it didn’t faze him. He was soon off on another idea, throwing all his energy into his latest schemes.

One long ago summer day he was in Aylmer, peddling cherries door to door. He stop-ped at Dick Smith’s little produce store and sold several cases to Dick. As he was about to leave, a customer pulled up and waved him down. Dad sold her a box of cherries. This rash act enraged Dick Smith, who saw only that Dad was stealing his customer. He rushed out of his store and in an explosion of swearing, roughly ordered Dad off the premises.

Years later, Dad told me this story. In all the years following, he claimed, Dick Smith could not look him in the eye. Because deep down he felt guilty, Dad opined piously, and for all those years. I had a different take. I figured Dick was probably still mad after all those years. I would have been, too, had an Amishman or anyone else pulled off a stunt like that in front of my store.
_______________

We finished the patch; it was close to noon. My brothers loaded the buggy while Rachel and I went to the house to change into cleaner “going away” clothes. I covered my bare feet with a pair of socks and shoes.

By now, the trusty old driving horse was hitched to the buggy. The back was laden to the brim with crates of strawberries. And off we creaked, down the gravel road, seven miles to the town of Aylmer.

Dad had cobbled together a rickety white wooden sign with the word STRAWBERRIES emblazoned on it in bold black letters. The sign was mounted across the top of the buggy. To alert the public what we were selling.

We trundled through the community, heading west. It took close to an hour to reach town. We entered the outskirts and headed to the residential section, the horse’s hooves clip-clopping on the pavement. A small backwater town, but to my wondering eyes, the elaborate cosmopolitan vistas of a great shining city.

Rachel was in her teens. We were actually two children, proudly taking on the grave responsibility of selling produce for the support of the family and the farm.

It was so long ago. And yet I remember vividly the clear blue skies, the sun beating down and the unfamiliar paved streets lined with white clapboard houses. Stepping out of the buggy onto the hot asphalt. Tying up the horse to a nearby telephone pole.

It was time to begin. Rachel and I each took a full white cardboard crate from the back of the buggy. She went to one side of the street, I to the other. I approached the first house. Knocked on the door.

The woman who answered that first tentative knock may or may not have purchased a quart of strawberries. I can’t remember. Or the next house. I do remember that after an hour or two, I had sold many quarts of strawberries. One at this house, two at that, and half a dozen there. The houses and the blocks faded into each other, stretched out in a long endless horizon of frowning facades.

It must have been a sight to see, and I would surely chuckle at it now. A young Amish girl and an excited little straw-hatted boy walking door to door carrying crates of strawberries. The townspeople were mostly nice and mostly patient, and many were delighted to buy fresh farm-raised produce at their doorsteps for fifty cents a quart. Some, however, were rude and abrupt, curtly stating they were not interested.

We walked and we knocked and we sold and we walked and restocked our crates and knocked some more and sold and sold. Once in awhile one of us walked back and moved the horse and buggy forward a few blocks and retied the horse to yet one more telephone pole.

And the great stacks of full crates gradually diminished as we trudged doggedly from street to street and house to house and door to door, selling our wares. By late after-noon we could see the end. And then we were done. Exhausted and drooping, we untied the horse and headed downtown to the stores. Now for the reward.

We walked into Clarke’s Restaurant on Main Street and sat at a booth. Clarke’s is one of the earliest restaurants in my memory. Long and narrow. Booths lined the walls, and each booth had a little glass case with song selections for the juke box. For a quarter, you could pick a few songs to play. The song that was all the rage back then, the song my brothers sang at home after their own trips to town, was Sammy Davis Jr.’s “The Candy Man Can.”

Rachel allowed me to order a hamburger, French fries and a milk shake. A huge treat, boughten “English” food at a restaurant. After my plate arrived, I sprinkled what I thought was salt onto my fries. I grasped and gulped a great handful, and spit them out. Tasted strange. Rachel realized what I’d done and burst out laughing. I had dumped sugar, not salt, on my fries. I scraped it off the best I could and ate them anyway. Too big a treat to waste, even if sugared.

After some shopping, we returned home triumphant. Successful in our mission. And that was the first of many such experiences for me. To Aylmer and to Tillsonburg, a small town east of us (and where I was born). I became quite proficient in chatting up my prospective customers. At calculating and returning correct change on the spot. Overall, quite a successful little peddler.

I think back now sometimes to those experiences through the bridge of years, and reflect that they were good. And I wonder if it still happens, if Amish children still walk the streets of small towns door to door, peddling produce. In Aylmer or anywhere else. I suppose it does and they do.

Today, while I have not inherited my father’s entrepreneurial spirit, I do possess his gift of selling. I enjoy it at my job. I am decently good at what I do.

I did inherit one other important thing from him. And while I blossomed late, I have always known that one day I too would follow the true calling of my heart. As he has followed that same calling from his youth.

He approaches the end of a long productive career. I have just entered the door. I’m finding my bearings. Learning the discipline of self-imposed deadlines. And exploring the parameters of my narrative.

There is so much to say and write.

I hope I will do him proud.

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(5 Comments) »

  1. Your Dad could sell candy bars to diabetics. Maybe you can too.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — June 20, 2008 @ 7:27 pm

  2. Ah, this one brings back the memories. I recall that a number of old ladies were delighted to find a listening ear and freely shared their joys and sorrows as long as I listened, but those were kinder, gentler times. I would never dream of sending my daugters out like that, but they do help on the roof if it is not too steep, etc.

    I am pleased that you are using your writing talent, and hope that as long as the world stands, that will be passed on. It is kind of like a secret, you don’t know who possesses it, so may we all tread with love and kindness. And nourish such talents. It is a gift, a gift that should not be taken for granted.

    Comment by Rachel — June 21, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

  3. Ira,

    What writing talent!! I’ve had a really good laugh reading several of your articles. I don’t know if you remember me. I’m the second of Gerald Hochstet-ler’s boys. I think I was a year older than your brother Nate. We were in the same grade in school. He and I were good friends. At least I thought we were. I think several times our friendship was a little rocky because my Dad (he was one of the preachers) used to talk to your Dad about getting his youth in order…. Meaning you guys… chuckle…

    I would love to have Nathan’s email if I could. I haven’t had contact with him for many long years.

    If you’re ever in Holmes County Ohio, stop in. I live in the southern part of the Amish Community.

    Gerald, Jr.

    Comment by Gerald Hochstetler, Jr. — June 21, 2008 @ 10:02 pm

  4. I printed this post to read it aloud to an almost-blind elderly man in the Upper Valleys who is an acquaintance of your father. He became very emotional, as he and his Dat used to peddle produce in summer and meat in winter in downtown Lancaster. Then they took some of the proceeds and had lunch at a counter on the central square. This happened before 1934, yet he remembered it vividly, including the names of the customers. I’m going to read more of your posts to him, as he really enjoys the cascades of memories they evoke.

    Comment by Katie H. — June 26, 2009 @ 11:55 am

  5. What a precious story. My older boy would love doing this! His motto is, “Buy low, sell high.” He sells things to his brother, friends, and anyone else that looks promising. He takes free outdated books from the library with every intention of selling them. One day I found a paperback romance in his room while trying to sort through the piles of…boy stuff. What the heck, I thought. Then I saw the library sticker. Oh brother, that kid! Now I’m working on him giving to his brother instead of selling to him.
    I’m pretty good at selling things-Christmas wreaths, custom decorated cakes, flower arrangements, artsy-craftsy stuff. I’m thinking of starting up a business over Christmas wrappping packages. Most of the people I know hate wrapping, but I love it. Gives me the opportunity to be creative.
    Seems to me that Dick Smith should be ashamed of himself. I’m sure your dad was right in saying the man felt guilty for his outburst. Shame on him! All for a couple of bucks. Was it worth it?
    I sure wish I had little Amish children knocking on my door to sell me produce. What a treat so see their sweet little faces. I’d probably buy way too much so they could be done selling early. Oh, well.

    Comment by Francine — July 22, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

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