Karl Marx Doesn’t Know Everything
The photo Henry took of me on my birthday pretty much tells you where I was. I was standing in a field, leaning against an old skiff that used to be called Margaret but which had the name Bomber, 1942 overpainted on it. Behind me and Bomber, potato fields stretched to the mottled sky over the North Fork of Long Island, where the sea was all around. It's a pity that when you look at the picture, you can't get the smell of a salt water farm.
I wasn't exactly dressed for the setting, but then it was Sunday. I was proud of the photo because I looked debonair in the style of the movie heroines of that time, in a beige trench coat, open at the neck just to the cleavage point, belt not buckled but tied around a tiny waist, and my hair was shoulder-length, very dark, my lips very red, my thin but well-shaped legs looking good in pumps, so that you'd think I was far older than fourteen.
You wouldn't have thought from the photo that tomorrow when the sun came up, I'd be out there wrenching the potatoes from the soil and dumping them in burlap bags which I'd lift and drag to the main pile—one hundred pound bags weighing ten pounds less than I did.
Mornings, when Aunt Sophie—the owner of the old cabin colony the government rented from her to house us—handed me my lunch bag, she would often say something like, "They ain't tea sandwiches, honey." I suppose that genteelness was written all over me, even though she didn't know it was really genteel poverty. Maybe it was my good grammar, or it might have been that I washed my hair every evening when I came in from the fields.
I thought of telling her that when the velvety summer nights enveloped the desolate circle of cabins on the long, straight, dusty one-lane highway, I often lay on my cot and read Karl Marx. The girls who slept in the five other cots in my cabin were out on the lawn, if you could call it a lawn, and it was quiet. If she knew I read Karl Marx, I thought, she'd know that I was greatly in sympathy with the proletariat: her. But somehow I didn't mention it.
I had pointed out to Henry that the-Germans-and-Japanese-versus-us wasn't the only power struggle going on. There were also the haves and have-nots. He stood leaning against the navy jeep looking at me funny. He was eighteen, a boy I would never have met if I hadn't come to the farm camp. He didn't read much, but he would look at me admiringly, not trying to be cool, and he told everyone that he thought I was smart and pretty. We both knew that we had little in common, and each of us was here for a short time, I for the summer, he to be shipped out who-knows-when, and that we were part of a larger scene that was going on all over the world—brief, chance meetings between strangers in a time of grief and danger.
The evening my roommate's boyfriend brought Henry over to the farm camp, he told me how he'd signed up right after Roosevelt's voice came over the radio on that cloudy winter day, and I told him how I was an air raid warden back in my home town across Long Island Sound, assigned to make sure that no ray of light escaped through curtained windows, light that would define the shoreline for the German bombers that might come in from the Atlantic, skipping over the Island and the Sound and gloatingly achieving the mainland, us, Westchester County and beyond, so that we felt like the protector of the entire country stretching west of us.
"So then, this past May, when they announced in school that there was no one left to work in the fields," I went on, "I mean all the men between seventeen and forty-five being taken, I figured this was more important than just being a warden." I paused. He was looking at me in a searching way, like he knew there was more to it.
"Besides," I added, "I wanted to get away from my mother."
"She bad?" he asked.
"Oh, no," I said, seized with the hopelessness of explaining my relationship with my mother. "She's good. Too good, I guess. Like I'm her whole life."
"Yeah," he said. "See what you mean. Listen, next Sunday's your birthday, so the girls are going to make Sunday dinner into a sort of party for you. So I'll see you then. I'll bring my camera. I want a picture of you for when I ship out."
"And one of you," I said.
Monday morning was tough after a nice Sunday, considering that we worked ten hours a day, from six-thirty to four-thirty for forty cents an hour, twenty-four dollars a week, and we paid Sophie ten dollars for the cot and meals and got to keep fourteen dollars a week, more money of my own than I'd ever seen. I thought I'd put it away toward the college my mother said I'd never be able to attend.
That Monday, when the flattop truck dropped us off at the fields, I was summoned into the farmhouse by Mr. King, the potato king, we called him, who'd shortened his name from Krasniewski like a lot of the other farmers whose parents had come from Poland and bought up the fields here.
We sat down at the kitchen table, and Mr. King said I was a good worker and I could work on the picker instead of by hand.
I thanked him kindly. Of the thirty-four girls who'd signed up, eighteen had gotten on the Long Island Railroad and gone home, but I'd stuck it out, and now I was being promoted. Like the other fifteen girls who'd stayed, I was proud to be tough, able to endure the long days in the field, picking as fast as the Jamaican men the government had flown and boated in to keep the farms going.
So on Tuesday, as I waited at the side of the road clutching my bag with the baked bean sandwich, I got on a different flattop truck, the one that went to the pickers. This truck travelled faster to the farther fields, and you had to lie flat and hold on to the edge harder because the centrifugal force could easily send you and your brown bag flying off.
The picker seemed like heaven. You just stand there on a kind of running board and swiftly pick the stones out and let the potatoes go through. I was the only imported girl; the others were local workers. When I looked down at the hands of the other seven workers, I saw that only six of the fourteen hands had five fingers on them.
On Wednesday, I wore work gloves but the gloves started to get caught in the picker blades and I pulled my hand out just in time and let the glove go in.
"No gloves, dear," the old lady next to me said. "Just be fast."
When the flattop dropped me off after work that evening, a kind of sadness was in me. I think it was a mixture of Karl Marx and the fingers. I stopped to see Benjamin in the chicken house; he was the scrawniest of all the chickens. The other chickens didn't seem to pay him much notice, and his pinched little face made me want to protect him. He stood apathetically against the wire fence, but I usually threw him some seed and when he saw me he jumped around and cackled. I had figured out that Sophie was selling all the fat chickens to the army. After a lifetime of vacancies, she was cleaning up on the war effort. I figured that Benjamin's scrawniness had saved his life.
I went back to the cabin and sat on my cot. I had an unfamiliar feeling. Restlessness. My body did not ache as it had when I was picking by hand. I took my copy of Das Kapital, stretched out on the cot and started reading where I'd left off. When the dinner bell gonged, I had trouble closing the book.
In short, Karl was saying that if you all stuck together and told your employer what you wanted, he'd have to give it to you because if he didn't, you could all refuse to do the work.
So when a meeting of the girls was called in the dining room and they elected me president of the group, I thought of us as a kind of union. Actually, I hadn't found a best friend or any close friends among the girls; in some way, I was different from them, maybe because I always had my nose in a book. I talked mostly to Henry and Benjamin and the Jamaican men I'd worked with in the fields when I was picking by hand. But it made me happy that they liked me enough to elect me president. We decided that my first job would be to negotiate with Sophie to try to get some other kinds of sandwiches besides baked beans and mashed potatoes. Every day, we got whichever had been served for dinner the night before.
Of course, when I politely asked Sophie if we could have tuna fish or chicken salad some days, she said we all had to give up some things for the boys in the service, and those things were hard to come by but she'd think about it and I said we'd all think about it, too.
Sunday, my birthday, was a day of sun and clouds, and the vast sky was constantly changing over the fields. Dinner was at one, when everyone was back from church, which, to Sophie's disgust, I never went to.
Henry drove up early. Before dinner, we went out to the skiff I'd named Bomber and he took the picture of me and I took one of him. I felt kind of glowing, being the president and looking good and being fourteen and having an eighteen year old boyfriend. I was going to take Henry to see Benjamin on the way back from the skiff to the dining room, but he said I shouldn't be late to my own party.
There were mashed potatoes (we knew what kind of sandwiches we'd get for lunch tomorrow) and two chickens and the girls had chipped in on a store-bought cake.
When I thought about it later, I was glad we'd taken the picture before dinner while I still felt happy, considering what happened next. Henry passed me the chicken platter. There was one regular chicken on it and one unbelievably scrawny one. I pushed away my suspicions for a minute, and then I burst out, "Aunt Sophie, what chicken is this?"
She shrugged. Her huge breasts flopped up and down under her kitchen apron.
"Never name anything you might have to eat," she said.
I pushed my chair back and ran out to the chicken house, but of course the familiar, scrawny little figure no longer stood against the wire fence. Henry followed me out and put his arms around me and I started to cry.
"She killed him for my birthday party," I said. "It's like I killed him."
After awhile, he said, "Come on back inside."
The chicken was almost gone by then, and the girls cleared away the platter hastily. I ate some cake. They gave me a sun hat as a present. I gave Sophie a dirty look and said, "You shouldn't have done it," and ran out so I wouldn't have to watch her shrug it off.
The next week, things got even worse.
On Tuesday, Mr. King called me into the kitchen of his farmhouse and said, "The girls tell me you're president."
I nodded proudly. He told me that another boatload of Jamaican men had arrived at the camp down the road. Now he had more workers than he needed and he'd figured that he'd have to lay off five of the girls. He'd made a list of five who were smaller or slower.
"You're a good worker and you needn't worry," he said.
"I'm president," I said, "so it's not just me that counts. We work as well as those men. We work hard."
"You all do a good job," he said kindly, "but that's just the way farm work is. Supply and demand. These men have been cutting sugar cane all their lives. They're very fast and very strong. And they need the jobs. They have families back home in Jamaica."
I knew that was true, so I felt ashamed fighting for the girls, but I knew they didn't want to go home four weeks into an eight week summer.
"We were told we had a job for the whole summer," I insisted. "You promised."
"I'm sorry." He sounded final.
And then I thought of Karl Marx.
I stood up. It gave me courage to look down at him.
"I'm sorry, too," I said, "but we're a union. If you fire one of us, you fire all of us."
His head jerked a bit in surprise. Then he got very calm.
"In that case," he said, "you're all fired."
I managed to get the situation saved. Using my own money for the long-distance call, I talked to the lady who'd recruited us at the school, and she got the five girls jobs on other farms. The rest of us worked out the summer.
In addition to this photo of me, I still have the picture of Henry somewhere in my photo box. He shipped out a few weeks later. He kissed me goodbye, my first real kiss. I got a letter from the Pacific, which I answered, but I never got an answer from him. I was pretty sure he'd gotten killed. Henry was dead, and Benjamin was eaten, and we were all fired even though we didn't stay that way but only because I'd compromised my most cherished principles.
But at least I knew what it was to work in the fields ten hours a day on a baked bean sandwich and one jug of water for twenty-five people, and I still had ten fingers, and Aunt Sophie had added mashed parsnip sandwiches to the menu although it was a doubtful improvement, and I was a woman of the world who'd been properly kissed, and although I had tried political activism and failed, I had at least learned that Karl Marx doesn't know everything. And after that it didn't hurt as much if my mother treated me like a baby because I wasn't any more. So Karl didn't know everything and I didn't either, but I knew a lot more than before.
The author aged 14 at a Long Island potato farm