My Father's Garden

On a cool, crisp Sunday in October of 1962, just days after the first tanks and trucks full of soldiers rolled through Orlando headed for Key West, my parents loaded my sister and me in Daddy’s ’53 Ford, so there would be no mistaking us as moneyed, and drove out Highway 50 West to visit the half dozen bomb and fallout shelter sales shacks that appeared almost overnight during the Cuban missile crisis.  So sure were they that we would go to war with Russia, that construction began the following week on what would become the focal point of our backyard.

Daddy was enamored of a cave-like underground model, but my mother, who was writing the check, chose from among the above-ground samples, deciding, I suppose, that if the nuclear hit was not direct, a fallout shelter was all we would really need.   

I remember the construction clearly because the hole the workmen dug for the foundation near the base of our backyard’s only palm tree was deep enough to fill with water every night. Until the floor was poured, that was the closest we ever came to having a swimming pool.  There were paired cinderblock walls—interior and exterior—with a three-foot space between them, which they filled with sand.  After the interior ceiling was poured—three feet below the top of the walls—this was filled to the brim with the dirt.  Within a month, weeds took hold. 

On the inside, four cots were bolted to the wall but could be raised or lowered as needs dictated.  There was a small sink, a hand pump for water and a silly, little hand-operated air pump.  The shelves at one end were soon lined with water jugs and canned food.  I have no memory of a toilet or a cook-stove.  Even before Khrushchev backed down and removed the missiles, I think the shelter became a recognizable mistake.  The effort to complete the preparations lost momentum and petered out, replaced, instead, by the need to conceal it.  My father painted this eye-sore the same beige color as our house which was also cinderblock.  Momma had him paint the steel door turquoise, her favorite color, and she had the yardman plant an ixora hedge along the side that people could glimpse from the road.   

As the cold war years trickled by, my parents took to quietly sparring over the ultimate possession of the shelter.   In the narrow space near the foot of the cots, Momma had bookshelves built and filled them with a growing collection of Readers' Digest Condensed Books.  My father installed an air-conditioner above the steel door to cut down on the mold and dampness in the summer.  

Daddy, a lifelong hunter and fisherman, who suffered in Florida's heat, purchased bullet-making equipment and spent endless weekend hours shut inside the shelter with the air-conditioner running.  Momma, who controlled the finances in our family after Daddy's cypress-knee lamp-making business failed, chained the bunks against the wall and began to stack boxes of old bank statements and tax records on the cement floor.  

Soon Daddy's boxes of new bullets, jars of gunpowder, wad cutters, and empty shell casings crowded out the rusting cans of food and swollen, rock-hard boxes of powdered milk.

My mother lowered the two bottom bunks and began to fill them with boxes of old clothes and shoes that should have gone to Goodwill.  Piles of magazines accumulated: National Geographic, Life, Look, andSaturday Evening Post.

Daddy bolted a long two by four to the wall opposite the bunks, and nailed jars full of bullet-making paraphernalia by their lids to the board.  

Momma lowered and began to fill the top bunks.

Then one day Daddy came home with a trunk full of fertilizer, seed packets, onion starts, and assorted garden tools.  He leaned a ladder against the east side of the shelter, climbed up, pulled all the weeds and planted a garden.  He bought an extra long garden hose and rotating sprinkler head.  He placed a beach chair in the haphazard shade of the crown of the palm tree with a left-over cinderblock for a drink-stand.  In the afternoons after work at the job he'd found selling business forms, he’d fix his first pitcher of martinis, stick a tumbler in his back pocket, and climb the ladder to weed.  When it got too dark to tell the difference, he’d disconnect the hose from the sprinkler, sit there among the radishes, dimly outlined in the buggy glow of the backyard light, moving just his arm from side to side, as he watered his garden. 

Daddy’s pre-dinner cocktail hour habitually lasted until very late at night.  When he came in from maintaining his garden, he’d sit alone on the back porch and watch his favorite shows.  I would watch television in my mother’s room, where periodically she’d crank open her jalousie-window, left from the period before the porch was added, and peer down at Daddy, checking his degree of drunkenness, I suppose.  “You should eat, Noel,” she’d say. “Pretty quick now,” he’d answer.   

It became his habit, as his garden matured, to harvest a little something to accompany whatever Momma had left warming on the stove.  My mother's bedroom had a door that opened onto the backyard. When she heard Daddy making this final, sloppy-drunk trip to the top of the shelter, she would open her door and stand behind the screen with a flashlight trained on him as he climbed the ladder with his spade. When he made his selection, he'd come boldly to the edge and hold his prize up in Momma's light.

I hated my father’s drinking then, but have often wondered since, if Daddy wasn't driven up there by my mother's bank statements only to find that his garden was his success. He could stand, bathed in my mother’s angry light but surrounded by his tomatoes, hot peppers, green onions, cucumbers and carrots. When he felt his stomach rumble with hunger, he could bend and select a few things to take at least that pain away.