Age 7: Cal Plants A Garden

By Cal Evans

Growing up I loved to read. Starting as early as the first grade, I would read any book I could get my hands on. I would sit for hours lost in worlds crafted by others visiting friends like Homer Price, Stuart Little and Willie Wonka. It seemed that the only books that held no interest for me were my text books. Most days, their only purpose was to hide the book I was currently engrossed. Of the many tomes whose depths I plumbed, one stands out above the rest in its impact on my life. It stands as my ebenezer marking a spot in my life. For it was the first book I ever read that moved me to action.

The book was of course, the infamous Eric Plants a Garden. If you’ve not done so already, I recommend you rush out to your local used bookstore and ferret through the rotting stacks until you’ve satisfied yourself that it’s out of print, there are not secondary copies available, and that the publisher has burned the manuscript of this nefarious tome. So powerful were the spells woven by the author describing the joys of planting and tending a small vegetable garden that upon emerging from it’s last page, I jumped to my feet, ran into the den and proudly announced to Mom, Dad, my sister, and the entire cast of “The Love Boat” that I was going to plant a garden! My family, now jaded to my antics, ignored me until the commercial at which time, my father responded – as all fathers do to the quixotic quests of their spawn – “No”.

It was not said in anger; it was not said with malice. These emotions would have required even a small amount of thought. This was a primordial response to a tone of voice that a father can pick up on when coming from his child. It is a tone of voice reserved for only the most absurd of requests. I’m fairly sure that Dad did not even hear my comments but simply responded by instinct.

But I was on a mission. I had been energized as only the written word could do. My soul was on fire and there was only one way to quench it. I knew in my heart that I must plant a garden. I knew it was the only way my spirit would be again at rest. And so I retreated for the moment, willing to concede the battle for the sake of winning the war. Off to my room I flew to plan. Drawing on wisdom beyond my years, and the back of a church bulletin, I put together a master plan for my garden. It is solely coincidence that my drawing was a crude copy of one of the illustrations in the book. The next day I put my plan into action. Beneath our house lay a small enclosed area. Conveniently disguised as a crawl-space, it was, in reality my fortress of solitude. I darted into it and dug through my treasure trove that all little boys have.

“Eureka!” I cried as I pulled a knotted ball of string from the pile.

Scurrying back out the entrance I stood and surveyed the yard.

“Now where would be a good place to start?” I was thinking aloud.

I knew I would have to start out small. No more than half the yard this year. Next year I could expand to the entire back yard. By that time my co-op would be thriving and I could begin leasing land from my neighbors. I momentarily lost myself in my grand plan. I could see my entire neighborhood in my mind. Once huge field dotted by houses and small driveways. Every square inch of earth plowed in straight neat rows. There I stood sunglasses on and a strand of hay jutting out between my smiling lips as I watched the neighborhood kids toiling by hand to tend my crops. I had created an entirely new economic class, ‘Elementary school Share-croppers.’ Slowly coming back to reality, I began. I carefully un-knotted my string and began laying out my boundaries. My hero, Eric, used stakes to mark off his garden. He also had a father willing to help him and a supportive family. I had to play the cards dealt me. Looking around, I found some twigs to use as stakes and tied my string to them. Only after I had imprisoned five or six of these helpless twigs did I realize that I needed to put the sticks into the ground first and then tie the string to them. Un-daunted by details, I started over. The ground turned out to be a formidable adversary. Try as I might, it thwarted my every attempt to drive a stick into it. The harder I pressed, the more sticks I broke until eventually, I was sitting alone, with my string and a pile of toothpicks. Armed with the eternal optimism of youth, I persevered.

Back into my fortress of solitude I strode. Reaching deep into my father’s toolbox (when little boys get older, their treasure trove gets a shine metal box to keep it safe!), I pulled from it’s depths a handful of nails and his hammer. The ground had withstood my first attempts but let’s see how it stood up to sticks of steel! Newly armed and revitalized, I entered the fray once again.

This time the ground gave way silently. It knew it was beat and did not put up a fight. (Little did I know that it was taking the battle under ground.) Many days later, it would resurface to fight with guerilla tactics. Turning my own weapons against me it would lodge the nails in the tire of a family car, thrust them up just as Dad was passing the mower over them or attack an innocent bystander in the foot.)

When I was done, I had marked off an area roughly the size of two station-wagons. It was not exactly a square, it more closely resembled a meandering line that closed in on itself just before I ran out of string. I stole a minute to take in the grand picture. Standing there, wind blowing in my young hair, hands planted firmly on my hips, I was a model of American ingenuity. Surely, when historians wrote of my generation we would be lauded and praised as the greatest of all generations. They would recognize us as the generation that realized the dream of urban farming, The ‘Evansization’ of the middle class neighborhood. I could feel the greatness swelling up inside me. (Either that or I really had to go pee bad.) Back from my bio-break, I surveyed my work so far. I knew the next step had to be easier. All I had to do now was till the soil and I could start planting. In my book, Eric had done this with a small garden trowel. Sensing that I needed a man’s tool for this job, I headed inside.

“Dad, where is our Shovel?” I had his attention now. Had I asked for something simple like my GI Joe, he would have done the standard mumble-ignore. But no, I had asked for an implement of destruction; a tool that can only be used to tear up. As if shot with an electric jolt, he looked up, eyes narrowing and asked a foolish question.


“For my garden,” I replied in all seriousness. “I’ve marked it off but now I need to till the soil.”

I could see his concern now turning to dread.

“I thought I told you ‘No’ on the garden.”

“You said ‘no, I won’t help you’, not ‘no, you can’t do it.’ So I’m doing it myself.” The logic of a child is a beauty to behold. Dad started to reply and then stopped. Resigning himself to the futility of this conversation before it got good and started, Dad folded the paper and said. “Let’s go see what you’ve done.”

Off we went into the back yard. There, in all of its glory, was the memorial to my battle with the ground, right in the middle of the back yard. Dad shook his head slowly as a smile broke out across his face. My plan was working. I knew now I had some help.

“Why don’t we move it over to one side of the yard? That way we can…” I could see his thoughts as he trailed off. He was seeing it. If the garden was in the middle of the yard, he didn’t have to mow as much. I almost had him on this one before he finished. “…still do things like play ball.” “Ok.” I concede this point. As long as I got a space, I didn’t care where it was. He pulled up the string and nails and instructed me to gather up the other nails lying around.
I guess I should explain at this point that one side of our yard ended in a retaining wall and six foot drop into Phase 2 (our neighbor’s yard). Having spent most of my formative years in the foothills of the Smokies, I assumed everyone’s neighborhood was so hilly that retainer walls had to be built to keep your yard from slipping into your neighbor’s house. Right next to the wall was where Dad chose for the garden.

He laid out the string in a rectangle roughly half the size of my original plot but with nice neat lines. And then, and only then, did he retrieve the shovel. By this time, my attention was beginning to wan. By this point in the book, Eric had tilled the soil, planted the seeds and was lovingly watering it. I wanted to skip to the part where I got to play with the hose. But Dad would have none of that, at least not yet. Dad planted the tip of the spade in the ground and then hoisted his bulking frame up and stood down hard on the edges of the shovel. Mother Earth fought back. The tip of the spade went into the ground about one half of an inch before stopping firmly, leaving Dad teetering back and forth before hopping off and grunting. Inspecting the damage he had done and not being happy with it, he tried again with similar results.

I quickly lost interest in the humor of watching my Dad ride a shovel like a broken pogo-stick and wandered off. Every now and then I would look over to see him down on his hands and knees trying to pry a large rock out of the ground or picking himself up after the shovel had slipped from beneath him as if the ground itself had swatted it. I wandered inside where Mom fixed me a sandwich; a glass of fruit flavored drink and asked me where my father was.

After lunch and a short nap, I wandered back outside to play with some friends of mine only to be surprised that my father was still out there trying to turn the soil. By this time, Dad had come to the realization that in our yard, there was a thin veneer of dirt covering a layer of fossilized and petrified dirt. This rock-hard strata was resisting his every effort to delve beneath its surface. Dad was now sweating profusely and beside him sat an empty glass that had contained his fuel of choice, iced tea. Looking up, and seeing me headed out of the door, he mistook it for me returning to help. “I think we are going to have to rent a tiller.” He said through the sweat and grunting. “It doesn’t look like this is going to work with a shovel.” “It did in the book.” I said, extolling the wisdom of my tome. The look on his face darkened as I realized that he was not interested in what worked in the book.

“Go tell Mom we are going out and bring me my car keys.” He puffed. I obediently turned and wandered off.

Some time later he burst into the house hollering my name. “Are you coming?” he exasperatingly bellowed making it very difficult for me to watch Gilligan on TV.

“Coming where?” I said looking up in innocent bewilderment.

“We have to go rent a tiller for your garden!” he was teetering on the border of aggravation, right in exasperation zone. In one motion he scooped me up with one arm and with his keys in the other hand headed out the door.

Soon we returned with a small, motorized tiller in the back of the Almost Wagon. In the war against the ground, we had brought in the heavy artillery. Firing it up, Dad proudly tore through the strata of stone and into the sweet dark clay beneath. He was on a roll as he tore through the small patch of ground in less than 10 minutes and then, just to prove once and for all, who won the war, he tilled it all again. He finished the entire project in less than 15 minutes. So great was the adrenalin high that he was on that I believe that if Mom had not been watching, he would have tilled the rest of the yard. I could tell from the maniacal grin on his face that here was a man who had plumbed the depths of hell itself and lived to tell the tale. It was done, the garden had been tilled ground had been broken. Dad and I stood overlooking our field, two men who had conquered the elements, wrangled the soil, tamed Mother Earth. Our euphoria was as thick as the testosterone in the air. Today, we were men. Covered in the dust from our labor, tired to the bone but we were men.

Side by side we stood gazing out over our field. Dad’s arm around my shoulder as we watched the sun set…until Mom asked “What are you going to plant?”


Age 20: The Origins of Lil ‘J

By Cal Evans

Dad grew up in a garage. My grandfather owned a gas station in the town he grew up in and he worked there for his formative years. This gave my father 2 things 1) A love for cars, engines and tinkering and 2) an endless line of stories of how hard his childhood was to regale us with should we ever bemoan our position in life. For as long as I can remember, Dad loved working on cars. Sometimes, I’m sure it was just that we needed the car fixed and couldn’t afford to pay someone to do it. Other times, I know it was just because he wanted to tinker. From our Datsun ‘AlmostWagon’ (a term that is now forever in the Evans Family Lexicon) to the ‘Tan Van’ and all in between, Dad left his mark on every vehicle we owned.

But my favorite vehicle of all was one called “Lil ‘J”. What purported to be a refurbished 1920-something T-Bucket, was actually a candy-apple red fiberglass body on a custom built and re-worked frame. Sporting an obscenely large engine, chrome pipes and a convertible top, it was a sight to behold and a coffin on wheels. (I suspect the only original part on it was the radiator cap.) But for a time, it was Dad’s pride and joy. This story is not about her but this story is because of her.

At some point in his life Dad deiced that he needed a hobby that was not related to work. He decided to return to his childhood love of cars and build a hot rod. So the great search began. He searched papers and magazines far and wide for a suitable base vehicle. Soon, an ad caught his eye. He called, negotiated the sale and it was done. Only one problem, the vehicle was in Atlanta, GA and we were in Mobile, AL. And so it was that I found myself on a road-trip. Pressing me and my brother into service, the Evans Pit Crew was off to Atlanta for a rollicking time and boy’s weekend. At least that was how it was billed to us. The truth was a little grimmer.

The journey to Atlanta was:

  • 5 hours journeying to a hotel room so I can make a 5 hour journey back.
  • 5 hours locked in a car with a man who did not speak BASIC and my brother who -would talk just to hear his voice.
  • 5 hours of staring at the front seat headrest from my perch in the backseat wondering how I got talked into this.
  • 5 HOURS of answering questions so inane that it was not until my son learned to talk that I heard them again.

Oh yea, this was a trip to remember. But somehow, I credit the grace of God; I survived and breathed a sigh of relief as we pulled into the hotel.

Dad chose well, we stayed at a very nice hotel near the airport. The kind where everything was indoors and the ice machines didn’t smell funny. At least I suspect it was a nice hotel, at 10 at night everything is closed. No hot-tub or pool or even a sundry shop to wander through. Nope, after 5 hours of ‘male bonding,’ the only thing to do was hit the hay…and this is where things get interesting.

There were two problems that kept me from sleeping, my father and my brother. I feel the need to reiterate the fact that I love them both deeply, but sleeping with them is like…Remember the old Samsonite commercials where the gorilla beat on the suitcase and slung it around? Well, it would have been easier to sleep inside that suitcase than in that hotel room.

My childhood memories are sprinkled with scenes of walking into the den only to find that Dad was sprawled out on the couch, seemingly asleep while the TV blared either the news or a current sporting event. It was very early in my childhood when I learned that the sound of a channel changing was enough to awaken the beast on the couch where it would loudly proclaim that it was watching that and would I please change it back. At some point in my early teens I learned that it was a very bad idea to push the issue by asking ‘If you were watching it, what was on?’ It was best to let sleeping dragons lie and to find another TV.

So it was that night. Dad turned on a two year old re-broadcast of the Lumberjack Nationals and promptly dozed off. There I was, in bed with my brother lying wide awake listening to the drone of a live chainsaw. Awake, in the dark, with the glow of the TV playing over my blanketed body, my ears being assaulted worse than Manual Norreiga’s ever were. I settled in for the long night.

Then I felt a stirring in the bed next to me. My brother, 17-18 at the time, was rolling over. Surly he wasn’t sleeping, not in this environment. I glanced over to see a peaceful serenity covering his face. It took all my effort to resist the urge to punch him in the nose. No sooner than I had looked over than he stirred again. It may have been a serene sleep but it was a restless one as well. There it was again, and again! Soon his body was in almost constant motion. It was a slow but graceful sight, my brother, in the throws of sleep, doing aerobics to the grinding chainsaw drone of my father’s snoring. I was in hell.

Slowly the night droned on. I must have dozed off for a while because the next thing I remember, the Lumberjack National’s were over and the sports channel was now covering rocket car races. Screaming thunder of jets steered by men who had lost their love for life, all in silence as the calliope in the next bed played on its broken pipes. Suddenly my bed shook. I felt the wind cold against my pajama clad body as the covers were whipped from them. I looked over to see my brother executing a mid-air maneuver whereby he managed to twist his body around to face me while simultaneously stripping the sheets and blankets from me. He spun like he was stuck on an invisible rotisserie, and then landed with a thud that bounced me up and almost out of the bed.

As if on queue, dad ratcheted up the volume from ‘rock concert’ to ‘inside a jet engine’. The noise was deafening and would have been all-consuming had it not been for the fact that I was sleeping with a man who was training for the ‘Olympic Sleeping Team’. Ashley landed, the tightly wound bed covers softening his landing and he lay still for a moment, before it started again. Like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, Ashley’s legs began to struggle against the constraining covers. As I watched, they fought their way out into the roaring night. I tentatively reached over to try and help them escape and possibly recover some of the covers for myself. To no avail, no sooner had they escaped than Ashley seemed to have sub-consciously become alert to the fact they had escaped. He flipped once again, executing a mid-air maneuver found only in the high-dive competition. Under different circumstances, this would have been a beauty to behold. But in my current, sleep deprived, road-tripped numbed state, I was not amazed.

And so the evening wore on. At some point, I started awarding points for Ashley’s maneuvers. He was as adept at on-the-bed maneuvers as he was graceful in the air. All scored by the staccato beat of Dad, the human white-noise generator. Ashley thwarted my every attempt to recover my portion of the covers. Twisting and turning, I eventually tired of fencing with him for the covers, gave up and settled for a sheet that he had failed to notice. And so I spent the rest of the night curled into a fetal position, bloodshot eyes starring blankly at the flickering images on the screen. A peaceful and serene visage of snow skiing, juxtaposed onto a soundtrack of 1 thousand nails being drug across a blackboard; me, my father and the world’s only Olympic sleeper passed the night.

Morning found us unchanged. I must have dozed off at some point because I don’t recall the sun breaking through the window to call us all back into the day. The first thing I remember is deafening silence. My first though was of alarm, I knew that my eardrums had finally burst. I was actually thankful at this point because it still meant silence. Then slowly, I began to hear other sounds. My hearing was returning. Once again I could hear the inane patter of early morning sportscasters recapping the sporting scores of yesterday. (Never once did they recap the Lumberjack Nationals so I have no idea who won them, or even if you CAN win them.) No, my eardrums had not burst Dad was slowly lumbering to wakefulness.

He sat up, glanced over at me, smiled and said, “Sleep good?”