One of my favorite memories while growing up was listening to my dad and uncles recall some of the goings-on from back in their day. My mom and aunts would close their eyes and cringe with fear in anticipation of what might be told next.
“You shouldn’t be telling those stories with young ones around,” I heard often from the ladies. But the stories were basically harmless and the laughter they induced will forever be imprinted in my mind. Besides, I doubt the uncles even heard the warnings. They had an audience present and never missed a beat.
My Uncle Wally (Wallace Hoyer of Beaverdale)* recalled a particularly good story quite a few times while I was in his company. This incident involved a farmer from the Dunlo area, who, like all farmers at that time, was going through some hard times. After all, it was post-depression time in Central PA.
During the harvest season, he would offer a meager stipend and a meal to the adolescents of the area if they helped dig potatoes. Uncle Wally and his buddy, Tony Mastalski, were eager to make some money and spend it soon after.
The hours were long, the work was dirty, the sun was hot, and money (they quickly learned) was scarce.
After working a legitimate 13-hour day that “felt more like 16 hours,” the two washed up and sat down with the family for a late supper. The food was super, and both of the young teens ate their fill and waited in eager anticipation of their pay so they could go home and get to bed. It was Saturday, and they planned on using the money to go to a Sunday movie the next day after Mass.
When the farmer reached deep into his pocket, the two held their breath, waiting for the reward that was about to be handed to them.
But! Only one quarter came out of that pocket. “Here boys, you’ll have to split this between you,” their employer said sheepishly.
The two boys just looked at each other in amazement. Tony got up, said “thank you,” and started out of the kitchen. Uncle Wally sat there, never moving a muscle.
When the farmer’s wife asked him if he was okay, he replied, “You’re going to have to feed me again… I’d like some more food.”
He stuffed himself that day, and re-told that story a hundred times. Each time, it got a little better, a little louder, and the laughter resounded a little longer. And each additional time, I loved hearing it more and more.
At about this same time, there was another potato farmer in Wilmore. He too, hired help during the harvest season to dig potatoes. Two of my uncles on my dad’s side, Mike and Frank Potchak, were eager to test their stamina and to make some cash.
Unfortunately the resources were just as limited in that part of the county too. After a whole week (six days in the field), they received a buck twenty-five for their labor. They didn’t have to split it, but were equally as disappointed as the Beaverdale employees.
So, the next Monday while working, the two came up with an ingenious plan. Every so often they’d toss a picked potato over the edge of the bank that bordered the field. Helping themselves to an unused sack, they would return at night to pick up those tossed spuds and bag them. Then the two would sell them in town to the few residents that didn’t have gardens of their own.
It was only a matter of time till people started to put two and two together. The farmer was notified and the scheme was halted abruptly.
But by that time, as my uncles would proudly proclaim, “the harvest season was over anyway.”
I don’t know exactly how much resourcefulness and ingenuity was passed down to me genetically from my uncles, but I assume there was a substantial amount. Today, my wife and kids wouldn’t be surprised at all to hear that I might have done some similar shenanigans in my younger years.
What I DO know is that I will always treasure those stories, and will miss forever those uncles that have passed away. And if there were a hereditary connection to their personalities, I would proudly admit it, and thank them for it.
*My uncles have all passed away. I feel blessed that I have their memories and their laughter safely tucked away in my mind and in my heart.