Thursday, April 23, 2009


I worked with Arthur Bassett at Ski Hi farm from the time I was a junior in high school till after I was married; twelve years. Art asked if I was Bayard Gee’s son, and gave me a job.

What I loved was the smell of apples, the old-farm feel of the place; the sense of history as expressed in tools and implements of bygone years. I was fascinated by the little hidden stashes of mysterious surplus goods Art had squirreled away in the many farm buildings which had arisen over the seventy-five year period of time the farm had developed. He had everything from dynamite to surplus Cold War tins of emergency water and food. I doubt he ever threw away a tool in his life. He had an old Model B Ford stored away in a garage, fully restored by his son-in-law Jerome Thiessen. There was a wonderful, mysterious two-story shed uphill from the sales house that held a wealth of tools. He had entire drawers devoted to screwdrivers alone, or old box-end wrenches; stacks of shovels, rakes, scythes, hoes, and poleaxes. At some point in time he’d purchased piles of old telephone poles, complete with glass insulators which were taken off and sold as collector’s items in the store. Below the packing shed was an implement shed containing the farm’s motley collection of tractors and heavy farm equipment. There was an old Ferguson tractor, a Massey, newer Fords and a Case backhoe, and the famous painted-red Army surplus jeep, Art’s major means of transportation around the farm and a favorite of mine.

Ski Hi is situated near the top of one of Baraboo’s range of bluffs, facing north. The farm buildings overlook the orchards, a long valley off to the northwest, and the ribbon of Highway 12 to the west. In the Fall, when the oaks, hickorys, maples, birches, and poplars have turned, people flock from all over the area and from Illinois to gaze at the colorful vista, and to buy apples-- cider, pie, caramel-apples-on-a-stick; bags and boxes of apples. This is the land and the life Arthur was born into. The spectacular view from the top of the bluff had long lost its newness for him, no doubt, if it had ever indeed been new. But I know he loved this place he knew so well. He would say, “a change is a vacation”--that old farmer’s adage--and instead of heading off to explore new lands he would stay home and watch his land change through the seasons.

Art wasn’t only an apple farmer, though that’s how he was known. Deep in his heart, I suspect he wanted to be known just as a farmer, with all of the skills and appurtenances of any other successful farmer. He raised beef and had hay and cornfields, with a fancy modern-day corn grinder that Raymond, the hired hand, would drive up to the upper barn where the cattle were kept. Ray would grind a load of corn and pump it into the feed silo there. Many a hot, summer day was spent making hay. As the youngster I was always given the job of moving the hay high in the barn loft, receiving the bales from the elevator and tossing them to the back of the mow to stack. In this job, I was helped by old Bob Newman, retired butcher, and sometimes ‘community Santa Claus’. He would unload the bales from Raymond’s wagon and send them up the elevator to me. While Ray would drive back out to get more loads of hay, Bob would now and then climb up and help me stack the hay. I remember the heat in the haymow. As the space got smaller the temperature rose. One particular day had to be above one hundred degrees. There would often be a short break, after stacking the hay but before the next load arrived. I can remember old Newman dripping with sweat, and finally saying with a sigh, “I may just have to take off my long underwear!”
I looked at him in amazement. "You have longjohns on, do you Bob?”
“I always have longjohns on! I’m a ‘butcher’!” Bob retorted. After forty years of working in a freezer for a living, Bob had never gotten out of the habit, even on the hottest Summer day, of wearing long underwear. I begged him to get out of them! He rumbled and grumbled about it, but on that beastly hot day he finally did.

In order to understand Art Bassett it is necessary to understand the people around him. Raymond the hired hand had been with Art since shortly after WWII; was single and lived with his mother until her death. To Raymond fell most of the responsibility of handling any heavy equipment on the farm (such as the backhoe). He drove truckloads of apples to various markets. Otherwise he fell into well-accustomed roles that had developed between him and Arthur over the years. On Saturday morning when cider was made in the old two-story cider house down below the sorting house, Art always assumed the upstairs job of sorting and feeding the apples into the grinder. Raymond along with Jerome had the downstairs job of loading up the cider press with grindings, and running the press. When log-sawing day arrived, we would gather to saw the old apple tree logs into firewood. Ray would assume his position on the takeup side of the absurdly large and ummuffled and guardless outdoor circular saw, with Art and the rest of us on the other side of the blade, feeding logs into it, cutting down to size the long piles of accumulated apple wood. When we spent days out in the orchard grinding brush (into yet another loud and un-muffled machine), it was Raymond who climbed on the tractor to move the equipment farther along the long rows of apple trees.

Bob Newman was just a happy handyman, six and a half feet tall, broad and full of jokes. At various times during his tenure on the farm there was serious doubt in Art’s mind whether he was worth the trouble. I think Bob would have worked for free, and in fact vaguely remember some claim of his to that very fact! He got up in the morning and had a place to go with jobs to do and a role to play. He was among friends, and it delighted and pleased him immensely. He was in awe of Art, and would brook no criticism of the great appleman. Everyone on the farm loved Bob too--even Art, in spite of the occasional grumble about some perceived incompetence. By the time I was on the scene, it was too late for either of them to change. Bob was coming out every morning in the fall, like it or not. It didn’t matter that he knew next to nothing about apples, even after fifteen years of working there.

Olga Marie Bassett, Arthur’s wife, was a short, pert, pretty woman who looked more like her mother-who lived to be well past one hundred years of age--every day. She was the sweet side of Arthur, and sweetened him up from his years of working for his father, who was of a very bad-tempered sort. That’s what Olga used to say: “Art’s father was just an old grump! When Art and I got married, we decided we just weren’t going to be like that!” I’m sure Art would have agreed with her, but wanting to change and changing are ever two different things. Olga gave Art the means of changing, in her smile and crackling laugh, her bubbly jokes and good humor. I think he orbited around that sun. When I first started working with Art, he terrified me and I could easily see the crotchety old farmer his father had been come out in him from time to time, as when I got the bushel count wrong or dumped too many green apples into the mix as we whiled away the hours sorting and packing in the low, long, dark old packing shed. He had a growl, and a sharp look, and an even sharper word when he was in the wrong kind of mood. His name for me the first years I worked there was simply “Boy”. “Hey boy! Wake up back there! You think I’m paying you to daydream? !” The old, grumpy, sharp ways of working with the help were alive if somewhat buried in Art. I think Olga taught him to be more content, and to try harder not to be as tetchy as his father had been.

The love of Raymond’s life--though he never would have admitted it-- was Art’s daughter Betty, who worked with her mother selling apples each day in the sales room and now manages the apple operation herself. In little reminiscences out in the orchard, as he and I worked away an afternoon pruning trees in late November, or shoveled manure up in the cow barn, Ray would let slip his feelings about things. Raymond was shorter than Bob Newman, just under six feet, but powerfully built, the prototypical hired hand. Mostly silent and hard working, nursing his private ambitions and grudges, well set in his ways and in the choices he’d made, Raymond would sometimes tell me of his regrets, the chances he’d missed, the things he might have done differently had he a chance. I used to tell friends that Raymond had five stories, and only five. As we worked together out in the orchard, I heard them all annually. I appreciated the coarse intimacy of those times, and was always pretty sure that had Raymond been given the chance, his choices in life would have been the same anyway. One of the regrets he expressed was Betty’s marriage to Jerome Thiessen, whom Raymond considered well below her. Jerome, at the time I worked on the farm, had married into the role of part-time farm mechanic, a role he was most competent in but often complained to me about. I looked around his well-stocked auto shop, and seeing his beautiful tools wondered if he under appreciated his position. He was a great mechanic. Even Raymond would come to him for advice. When they had to work together, as on Saturday mornings when the cider was made, they got along great. But when the topic of “the marriage” came up Raymond could get a bit resentful. He had been here as the little girl Betty had grown up, the apple of Arthur’s eye and probably of his as well. He naturally resented it when the boys started coming around to court the pretty, well-shaped and intelligent teenager. The tenderness and protectiveness would have been entirely the feelings of an adoptive uncle. Betty no doubt was mostly unaware of it.

Betty for her part was part Art and part Olga: pretty and lively like her mother but sharp as a tack, like the old man. As the current manager of the business, the combination has served her well. Back then, she was growing into the various roles that presented themselves. I remember her best as being always full of energy, always in a hurry even while standing still, dancing from foot to foot (like her mother, come to think of it!) and telling tales of this customer or that, observing gaily the many strange people who would walk through the doors. Born and raised on the farm, the farm was as much in her blood as in her parents’, and she’s still there.

I walked into Art’s life when he was fully in his prime. He certainly was over sixty when I started work at the farm, and what he knew was apples. A few years after starting there I overheard Olga say, in the midst of a glorious October bearing a harvest of large and perfect apples, “This is the year Art’s been living for!” I don’t think he liked leaving the farm. Word in town was he had no friends, which spoke of the mean streak of the town as much as of Art. But part of it was that his heart and mind and soul were tied to his vocation as the husband of this land which he had inherited and in which he'd grown up. Part of it was that his friends were his wife and daughter and hired men; those who came year after year to pick his apples; those who came year after year to buy them. He had no time for the artificial friendships born of leisure. The people he cared about had taken part with him in his lifetime endeavor of apple raising. In that sense he was pure Wisconsin farmer.

In June 1971, I graduated from high school. I was able to beg a day off before going to work full-time for Art Bassett. Of course, that was given grudgingly. There was work to be done! Why waste your time? Art never understood leisure very well, I think. That first year he invited me to lunch with him in his home, so every noonday we’d trudge up the hill to the blue house, where we’d eat on the back porch, slurping soup, eating sandwiches, Colby cheese and of course apples, listening to the farm report on the radio. I’d get my courage up every now and then to ask a question about the farm, but mostly we ate in silence, with Olga flitting in and out serving us lunch. Whenever I did get him to talk, she listened eagerly, easily laughing and adding little tidbits of information. We’d talk weather, or the history of the farm, or apples. Any conversation about politics or sports was going to be a short one. Art’s attitude on politics was the typical one for farmers: politicians needed to get real jobs. He’d tell one of his favorite jokes about a politician running for reelection; up on his soapbox, going on and on about all he’d accomplished for the people. A drunk staggered to his feet and asked, “Is it true you’ve done all that?” When the politician answered yes, the drunk replied, “Well then, you’ve done enough! Let somebody else run things for a change!” Art would tell his jokes with a chortle, a sort of crescendo which built almost to a giggle at the punch line. Half of his jokes I never quite understood, but his giggling, delighted way of telling them made me laugh anyway.

The next year, the year I got the name “Bruce” in place of the honorific “Boy”, Art told me to pack a lunch and eat down with Bob and Ray. I had in some sense arrived; I was no longer a guest. I think we both felt a little relieved at the new arrangement; if I was going to stick around longer, I should take my place as a regular hired hand. So I lunched at noon with Bob and Ray, and listened to their talk of the hippies in their hippy vans, and what they’d do to one if they ever caught one. Those were the polarized days of the Vietnam War, when two generations stood apart and deeply distrusted each other. They also talked of goose hunting and deer hunting, and Bob would tell stories from his days as a butcher in Baraboo; of the many people they both knew there. Lots of gossip. ‘Small town Wisconsin talk’. I mostly listened, and wondered what I was going to do with my life.

Work in the summer involved gathering and grinding the prunings from the apple trees--days upon days of this--as well as other back-breaking and steamy labor in preparation for the harvest. The Baraboo hills teem with white tail deer, and tall deer fence needed to be made and maintained. Art had recently planted a new orchard down the road on Highway 12, and it needed the same deer fencing the old orchard had. That meant digging holes for the telephone-pole-sized timber used to hold up the fencing, and the manual part of the job fell, it seemed, mostly to me. Raymond would come along on the tractor with the post-hole digger attachment, and get as far along as he could; the rest was up to me. That meant digging through limestone and quartzite, which with hand tools is very slow going. I remember an afternoon adventure with Art during which he attempted to blast the holes deeper using dynamite. It seemed he was licensed to use the stuff. I had a suspicion he’d gotten it as army surplus as he had so many other things. The dynamite wasn’t always reliable. I'd prepare a hole for the explosive, set the charge, and then walk quickly away as Art, who always walked like an old sailor on shore leave, would slowly amble a distance from the hole. We'd be fifty yards away, waiting for an explosion that didn’t come. Art would begin mumbling under his breath. Ten minutes would go by. Art would murmur some more: “The damned stuff going to work? Surplus junk!” He'd start walking back toward the hole, get halfway there when BLAM! Sure enough, the damned junk worked. Small stones would rain down around us, and Art would look as sheepish as I’d ever seen him. “Well, Boy! Let’s see what kind of a hole we got!”

The sorting shed was a long, low building with a large door at the back, which allowed a tractor and apple trailer to be driven in and parked. Standing parallel to the trailer was the sorting machine, twenty-five feet long. Bushel crates of apples could be off-loaded and dumped by hand onto a conveyor table at one end. From there they would travel up a series of rollers which would turn the apples, exposing any flaws—bird pecks or scabs--and from there into a chute at the end of which Art always stood to pack them into bushel baskets. Art always told me the most important job belonged to the dumper, as he controlled not just the flow of apples but also the variety of color. Before starting to pack, Art would wander back and study the assortment of apples on the trailer, pointing out to the dumper how he wanted them mixed as to color. Naturally, it didn’t do to day dream, yet the job was entirely conducive to just that: a mesmerizing exercise, which invited long journeys of the imagination far from the world of apple packing. Many times I was brought up short by an angry word or gesture from Art, who wondered just what sort of fool he had working back there! This was a job, particularly after the harvest of late October and November; that I did day after day, week after week. It was excellent training in perseverance.

One graduated from dumping apples to sorting apples to packing apples. The sorter stood on a large crate over the sorting rollers, surrounded by partially filled apple crates, grabbing as many as possible of those apples which were undersized, too green, or too scabby or bird-pecked for the apple chute; and depositing them in the appropriate crate. It was to Art the sorter would look for direction when an apple of borderline condition would come rolling along. The sorter would hold the apple up with a questioning glance at Art, and Art would pronounce his judgment upon it. This too was a job that invited long lapses of awareness, even sleepiness. However, one was several steps closer to the eagle eye of Arthur, who ruled over his ‘apple sorting’ machine as a stern king rules a province. And one of the unsung advantages of being sorter was that one was within earshot of Art when he launched into some memorable tale or other.

The “chute” style of apple packing ended my second year of full-time work, when a shiny new, reverse-conveyor-belt packing table arrived—you can see it still to this day at Ski Hi. This received the apples from the rollers, but then moved them back and forth in front of the packers so that they were better mixed. With the old system, the chute was the point where the apples stopped, only to be removed as the speed of the packers allowed. It was a sort of race, getting apples into the baskets before being overwhelmed by the next batch that had been dumped. The new system allowed for a sleepier, stupider dumper, as the conveyor table could hold more than three times as many apples as the old chute.

Art knew he needed to modernize, but nonetheless looked at the apparatus with suspicion. We had some trouble assembling the unit so that it dovetailed with the old sorting table. Art grumbled and cussed; proclaiming the new table had probably been designed “by some horse’s ass with a college degree!” The rest of us chuckled and nodded our heads. Yet this was going to make Art’s work life change for the better. Little did we know how the entire sorting and packing apparatus would evolve.

We soon settled into a new work life with the new table, and soon enough it became obvious that Art was delighted with it. No more sudden and frequent stopping of the whole operation because of a glut of apples at the packing end. Now Art could fuss to his heart’s content over the appearance of each filled bushel of apples. And when the phone rang he could answer it briefly without closing down the whole operation.

Apple packing for Art at that time was a fine art, if you will. Later his son would (behind his back of course) roll his eyes and caricature the time and finesse Art used in getting each bushel to look “just right”. Raymond or I would stand opposite Art and help him fill each bushel, grabbing with both hands four or six apples at a time and placing them gingerly in the bottom of the container. We still used real bushel baskets at that time, the evolution into cardboard boxes an innovation which had not yet gained a foothold in Art’s mind. As the apples reached the top of the container, Art would take over by himself, and the helper would be expected to be busy getting the next basket ready (newspaper shoved into the basket as a liner; a stack of prepared baskets standing at hand). Art would then carefully select the right combination of apples to represent the contents of the bushel: none too big or red, just the right mix. He would then go through a complex ritual of turning and adjusting the apples, sometimes removing one and selecting another of a different size, with the end in his mind of the perfect, eye-pleasing bushel of apples. When, he was satisfied the apples would be conveyed to a cart by his assistant, or a lid would be slipped into place so that the bushels could be stacked. The whole operation was as much craft as it was system. More than once, while Art was distracted with a phone call, I would try my hand at it, confident that I could get it right. But each time, when Art returned to the table, he would redo my work. Now and then he’d point out some subtle aspect of his art, showing me why one apple worked in a certain spot rather than the one I’d chosen. Even Raymond after all those years couldn’t finish to Art’s satisfaction. It took Art’s trained eye to do it properly. Anyway, that's how the boss saw it.

Work would stop for breaks, for lunch, or for certain carefully defined (in Art’s mind) interruptions. These included the arrival of certain old customers who had done business with Art usually on a wholesale basis for many years. Interruptions included phone calls; visits from certain angry women customers--who would only agree to talk to Art and to no one else-- or from suppliers who had accumulated the right amount of grace in Art’s eyes to justify stopping an entire operation of four workers.

The old customers were divided into two groups: those who Art genuinely liked, and those who Art tolerated. When those in the latter group arrived, Art would dispense with his business with them as efficiently and politely as he could, and then would invariably turn back to work with a wisecrack to me at the customer’s expense. “Horse’s Ass” was his all-time favorite pejorative term. I’d been called it dozens of times. A customer like this was one who came regularly, but under terms that usually had been cajoled out of Art years before, and which he couldn’t see his way to change. A man and his wife had been coming for years to pick up windfall apples. They would pick on their hands and knees all day, to Art’s wry amusement, and drive away with the pickup overloaded like a Mexican bus, high and teetery with crates of slightly dented apples. Art couldn’t see selling a windfall. “What if a snake pissed on it, eh?” (That was, as an aside, his definition of an environmentalist: someone who’d eat a snake-pissed apple!).

One year the wife arrived but without the husband. Art dutifully shut down the packing machine, turned to her and asked, “Where’s John?”
“He died!” the poor woman managed to get out before succumbing to a shower of tears. Art quickly scooped her up in his arms, shushing and reassuring her, making those sympathetic noises people make in such situations. After talking with her, getting her all set up and watching her walk away, he turned and ambled back to the packing table. “Jesus H. Christ!” he laughed, “I’m glad that’s over!” He went on to reminisce about what a horse’s ass the couple had been, picking windfalls all those years and selling them at their stand. The picking of windfalls was definitely below Art. He was uncomfortable with the whole arrangement. What struck me that day, however, was how Art was clearly laughing at the man’s death. I was deeply shocked, even as I laughed along with him. It took a long time to understand that it was really death itself Art was laughing at. “Just come and get me. Try it.” This was the closest I ever got to see the theologian in Art. He laughed at death because it was the only way he could see to respond.

Those customers whom he genuinely liked were treated to the incomparable charm of a properly motivated Art Bassett. Their visits usually lasted longer than usual, advancing into an actual work break. They often involved Olga or Betty or Raymond--usually Bob if he was there--and a rich combination of gossip, slander, and embellished tales of years gone by. One of Art’s favorite people was Al Klotz or just “Klotz” as he was referred to (I didn’t know his first name for years). Klotz was the star apple picker in the orchard when he could get away from his job at a local lumberyard, and was as proud and protective of Arthur as a friend could be. Work always stopped when Klotz came around.

The second group of people Art would stop the packing operation for was certain suppliers. I can remember someone from the farm implement store calling him, and because they had done a lot of business in the past, Art spent a lot of time on the phone with him. More than once I heard him say, “No, no.”, “Not this year.”, No we’ve got enough on the swindle sheet for this year.” Art was always polite and businesslike.

The third group, a much smaller group but one which any businessperson should be familiar with, was the “Old Hen”, as Art called any woman of any age who badgered him. Usually it was a rich woman from town, often one who couldn’t make up her mind what sort of apple to buy and had worn to a fray the patience of Olga and Betty and the other women who worked the apple store out front. Eventually, they would be referred back to Art in the packing--house and they always received polite consideration and deference. Once their business was done, however, Art would turn away, shake his head, swagger up to the packing table, and burst out: “Bruce, don’t you marry a woman like that!” More than once, he followed that with the advice, “Marry a woman like your mother. She’s sweet as sugar. If she got caught in the rain, she’d melt!” Somehow he’d had a chance to meet Phyllis Gee, and had come away impressed.

It is hard to describe the richness of those workdays, as Arthur gradually trained me up to anticipate what was needed and to do it. Always the boredom of a routine job must be entered into and endured, and there was plenty of that. The hours could dawdle with astonishing slowness. There were other days when we were all in a fine groove, Arthur feeling unusually optimistic and the rest of us inspired by it. Standing by his side, we’d work through the rhythm of packing dozens of bushels of Macintosh, Macoun, Cortland, or Delicious apples, or any of the dozens of other varieties grown on the farm, and Art would slide into an old tale of his younger years working on the farm. He would tell of hauling apples up out of the orchard with horse and wagon; of the time Chicago gangsters showed up and rented some of the cottages the family had for lease to tourists. He told me that the Model B Ford had been purchased from the local Ford dealer, located on the Baraboo River. This Ford dealer apparently sold not only Fords, but was also one of the local distributors of Prohibition whiskey. Seems the used Ford truck Art’s father had just purchased had unusually heavy-duty springs, and had belonged only recently to one of the booze-running gangs. The oversized springs were to mask the heavy load of legally disallowed liquid refreshment the truck often smuggled. A few days after purchasing the truck, the sheriff-- Art alleged that he belonged to one of the gangs-- thoughtfully made the trip out to the Bassett farm. He wanted to gently warn them that they might not want to drive the truck publicly for a few days till he could get word out that it had been sold. He didn’t want the innocent Bassett farmers to get shot!

Many of Art’s reminiscences were centered in the Great Depression, and he would tell of the farm selling apple seconds, for two bits a bushel. Farmers with their families in old cars would wheeze up the hill to buy a bushel, not willing to get out of their cars until they had been assured that the price was truly as quoted. Art seemed amazed at this even to that day, admitting that even though the Depression years had been hard, his family had been somewhat sheltered from it compared to many others. He’d shake his head, and fall silent.

In later years I became an apple picker, after the farm had switched from individual bushel crates to picking into large eighteen-bushel bins. Art was the one who taught me to pick. He’d say, “Your hands need to work together just like a team of horses. Fella over there near North Freedom used to teach his pickers, ‘Don’t let one hand know what the other is doing’. Horse’s ass! Worst thing you can tell a picker.” I was a bit too shy at the time to mention that “working together like a team of horses” was a phrase outside of my experience. But I soon enough caught on, and learned to love the efficient, physical act of cleaning a heavily laden tree of apples. On a beautiful blue-sky day in late September in the Baraboo Hills, there isn’t much that tops it for pure enjoyment of labor.

Art liked to know his pickers well, and did know well the ones who returned year after year. He knew when Genevieve, whom the boys called the “town whore”, was wearing gloves and pinching the apples. Genevieve was buxom and brazen, an aging woman with a high-pitched voice who had picked apples for Art for years, along with her estranged husband, whom the boys called the “town drunk”. It was said-- at least by Bob Newman--that they still lived--together but separately--in the same house, each unwilling to move out: “Afraid the other’ll sell it on ‘em”. They had to be kept apart in the orchard. Genevieve was another of those who was a questionable asset, a la Bob Newman, but Art always accepted her back for another season. There were days he'd be in the packing house, inspecting the latest load of apples from the orchard,, ready to be sorted. I'd hear him snarl, "Genevieve's wearing gloves again!!" He’d drive out into the orchard early the next morning to give Genevieve one of his careful lectures on not pinching the apples, and to stop wearing gloves. Genevieve--fat, sweet, high-voiced Genevieve-- up on a ladder, in a tree, partly hidden by branches and leaves, would listen to Art’s lecture, and go on wearing gloves.

Once Art hired a young picker, a man a few years younger than me, who clearly fell into that class of people the boys called “hippies”. He wore long hair and a beard and funny clothing. This fellow definitely fit the hippy stereotype: vegetarian; camping up in the woods and even, it was rumored, sneaking a girl into his tent at night. He didn’t own a car, but one day word came up from the orchard that he’d gone out and bought six or seven large watermelons which he had carefully laid out under a Tolman Sweet tree in the middle of the orchard for his daily meals. One of the workers pulled Art’s leg, telling him that he needed to go out and see the enormous green apples laying under the Sweet tree along the gravel road--”biggest Tolman’s you’re ever gonna see!” Sure enough, late in the day Art climbed into the red jeep and drove out to have a look at the watermelons. The packing crew the next day had a great laugh at Art’s expense—his curiosity overcoming his profound suspicion that he was having his leg pulled.

As years went by I’d take time off from my job in Madison to drive up to help with the apple harvest. By this time Art knew me well enough he’d just send me off to do my picking by myself. At the end of each day we would spend a few minutes together, chatting about the harvest and the crop of pickers he had that year, enjoying the view and eating apples. At one time he’d wanted me to learn horticulture, and take a more permanent job with the orchard. I remember one day he made the offer as we were packing apples together. I immediately turned him down. I mumbled something about wanting to be a teacher. He said what was sort of a question “You don’t know what you want to teach...?” I didn’t reply, and that was the end of it. There were many small reasons I had for turning Art down; none of them would have made much sense to an old farmer who was wise in the ways of farming but ignorant of the wanderlust in a young man. There was a long silence between us that day. I don’t think we ever spoke of it again. But as time went on we became friends. I often thought of him as a father.

The last month of his life, I paid him a visit before leaving town after spending Thanksgiving in Baraboo. We sat in the front living room of his blue house overlooking the orchard, staring out together at the long gravel road, which runs the middle of the old orchard. He’d seen a dentist recently; somehow a nerve in his mouth had been hit; he said he kept seeing stars and was dizzy. As was always the case, Art wasn’t able I think to speak of his feelings or his fears with me. We sat there, two guys maybe trying to say something to each other and failing. We knew the fondness we had for each other, just didn’t know what to do with it apart from work. A few months later I learned of his death. Many regrets and sadness came with the news, but I’ve held onto many of the memories of the rich life I had working at Ski Hi apple farm with Arthur.

Bruce Gee
November/December 2001


Scott said...

Great orchard, great story.

That sort of labor had to be a forge. I hope there is an alternative which we can pass to future generations, but I don't see it. 8, 10 hours of physical labor where the brain occupies itself with all manner of distraction. Can a kid today manage 20 minutes of that?

Anonymous said... is for sale at auction tomorrow night 4/28/09 6:30 pm EST.

This is a premium generic domain, that, once sold, will no longer be available.

Anonymous said...

B.B. Gee: Most all of your writing, as well as the Orchard Memoir, suggest you give up your day job and put pen to paper...or whatever implement you'll employ to be a published author. Clear to see the positive influence on at least one of your progeny.
A. Noneofthat[other]mouse

Anonymous said...


I responded to this a few days back - but it must not have stook.

As you know - I was one of your many friends you dragged out to work in Art's apple orchard. I only slogged in the Fall, when the days were crisp like the apples we picked.

I remember getting paid by the whatever those humongous apple crates were called. I remember dumping my first bucket of Macs in those canyon crates, then hearing those apples roll and rattle in the vast void. After many up and downs and countless bucket loads - progress became visible. Those crates were what - 4' X 4" by 3' high - - - and we were paid $8 to fill it. Then Bob would come with the tractor and it would be gone in a few seconds.

I also remember Art's legendary stoop. I knew right then and there the orchard life was not for me.

Bruce - you were a picking legend. But when the Golden Delicious were ready - Art entrusted me to pluck those tender beauties. The other pickers brought them back all bruised.

Then the fateful day my back went out - You were there as was Bill Sheehan (?) You had to carry me to the chiropractor. I was back picking in a couple of weeks.

Larry S.

Bruce Gee said...

I'm vaguely remembering that fateful day, Larry! Of course, you'd remember it more poignantly than me. I still get out once a year to pick a few bushels, enough for the family. Betty lets me wander down by myself and grab whatever I find.

Thanks for your input. I'd forgotten Sheehan had picked with us. I do remember a day in August when Mossman and I spent picking Wealthy's--the most uninspiring apple you can pick (they don't even grow them any more at Ski Hi). We ended up throwing apples at each other from two trees, and Art was less than impressed with our progress. It may have been that gave him the idea that paying by the bushel wasn't such a radical idea.

Lunch next week? Email me.

Ethan said...

Bruce, I fully intend to read this novel you've posted. Based on the first few paragraphs, it looks excellent. Will bookmark for post-finals.