“Make sure they’re not too soft, boy. I don’t want tomato juice all over the backseat of my Buick.” My first lesson in choosing tomatoes, around 1972. I think about those words from my grandfather every summer as tomatoes, green beans and other fresh vegetables become so plentiful.
Granddaddy had spent fifty years working on the railroad, first in Louisville, Mississippi, then in Jackson, Tennessee. He started before the Gulf, Mobile & Northern merged with the Mobile & Ohio to become the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio. He retired when the GM&O merged with the Illinois Central. By the end of his career, he was Master Mechanic at the Iselin Shop in Jackson and in charge of the GM&O mechanical operations in five states. While he said he retired because he didn’t like the idea of a GM&O-IC partnership, his age and health also played a part in his decision.
I will always be grateful that he moved to Pascagoula, Mississippi to live out his last years with my family. He had an apartment with a little front porch in our backyard. Come summertime, my mother would give Granddaddy and me the assignment to fetch fresh
vegetables for her to cook for supper. I had just learned to drive and he and I would pile into his 1967 Buick LeSabre, of which he was so proud, and hit the road in search of goodies for the table. My parents figured that I could get practice driving without too much danger since that car was about as big and strong as a GM&O RS-3 diesel locomotive.
Our favorite spot was a vegetable stand near Tillman’s Corner, just across the Alabama line. We’d get on Old Highway 90 and and point the snout of that big Buick toward the east and light out with all eight cylinders rumbling under the hood. I was driving on the “4-lane,” by then but Granddaddy and I preferred the scenery on the old coast highway to Interstate 10, the quicker route. We would pass yards with chickens in them and old service stations still operating with pumps that had the little ball at the top that vibrated and looked like a bubble as gasoline flowed through the hose. Eventually, we’d stop at the vegetable stand.
I got quite the extracurricular education on how to pick the best looking tomatoes, butter beans and black-eyed peas. “Be sure to get a few sorta green tomatoes, so they’ll ripen as the week goes on,” Granddaddy would say. “You don’t want ‘em to get ripe all at once.”
My coursework continued once we got back home and spent the next day or so shelling beans and black-eyed peas on his porch. As our fingers turned a little blue with the stains from pea shells, we talked about life. He told me stories like the one about the old engineer whose daughter and son-in-law had presented him with a cigarette lighter engraved with his initials on one side and a steam locomotive on the other. The proud engineer showed the lighter to everyone in the railroad shop before his next run. The next day, Granddaddy saw him lighting up with a wooden match. “Where’s your fancy lighter?” Granddad asked. “Well, I was so used to tossing dead matches out the window of the cab,” the engineer said, “I accidentally tossed my new lighter out as we went over a trestle.”
Or the one about the diner in Cairo, Illinois where a railroad man named Yankee Johnson advised Granddaddy to, “Tap that apple pie on the top with your fork before you eat it.” When Granddaddy asked why, Yankee, who stuttered, replied, “If a r-r-roach d-d-don’t run out of the p-p-pie, that means he’s still in there!”
When I told Granddaddy that some buddies and I had started a band, he said, “Who’s the leader of this awk’stra?” He seemed impressed that I would be the bandleader and then told me about the time my grandmother had made him take her to see “that Russian Sympathy” in concert. His personal musical preference leaned more toward Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs than classical “sympathy” concerts.
So now when I head for the farmers market in search of tomatoes, I make sure to pick a few ripe ones and a few green ones. And I’ve never ended up with tomato juice on the backseat before I got home.
Text and photos copyright 2013 by Les Kerr. Visit www.leskerr.com