I am a proud Four Year Man alumnus of Farm Field 96. Some guys pass on a fourth year in the fields, figuring once they graduate from high school it's time to move on to bigger and better things, but several came back to work that final year for The Stinger and I was one of them. (Fifth year men were promoted to the college ranks of permanent field bosses, barn workers, and truck drivers).
The Stinger and The Captain were more likely to cut a fourth year man a break or give him a plush assignment because of his time served, but it was a privilege not to be abused. The Stinger confided to a couple of us working special detail that there was a small chance we could be done by noon one particular Saturday.
"But don't say anything, god damn it, because it's not definite."
Two hours later, the entire crew was aware that it was a half day and Stew Thomas, the moron fourth year man who couldn't keep his mouth shut, spent the rest of the summer doing nothing but picking.
Lucky LaMountain and I were allowed to fill in as field bosses from time to time, which meant taking a position in the fields and watching the approaching pickers and haulers for any abuse or inappropriate behavior. It's amazing how easily a field boss can blend in with the green forest of tobacco that filled the fields. Bent poles served as great hiding places and often times a guy would be right on top of a field boss and not even see him. I'd only drop the hammer if guys treated me with disrespect, especially if some smart ass rook decided to give me a hard time.
One time I was acting as field boss, sitting against a bent pole waiting for something to happen.
"Hey Nash, how's it going?" It was The Stinger, scaring the shit out of me by sneaking up from behind.
"Everything's fine, Stosh," I nervously replied, fearing he was going to yell at me for being worthless and lazy sitting on my ass.
"Who should we fuck with today?" He asked.
"Huh?" I didn't know if it was a loaded or trick question.
"Watch this." He motioned for me follow and we tiptoed across a few rows of plants.
"Jesus H. Fucking Christ, Schwartz!" The Stinger bellowed. "How many fucking times have I told you not to pack those god damn baskets!? I'm going to pack your god damn ass with my boot tip if I see you doing that again! Now get the fuck out of here!"
An embarrassed and humiliated Schwartz slinked from the row with his hauling basket dragging behind him like it was full of lead.
"That otta keep him honest for a few hours," The Stinger remarked with a wink. "See you around, Nash." He disappeared into the fields like he was an Army commando on a secret mission.
Four year men who earned The Stinger's trust were treated with respect and dignity. We were privy to inside information and given the benefit of the doubt as long as we didn't betray our responsibilities or the code of honor we were expected to follow. Cap and The Stinger understood that we were no longer high school boys, but young men about to go out into the world and they let us use Farm Field 96 as a testing ground as we prepared ourselves for our next chapter.
We got to drive The Stinger's pick up truck. We got to load the trucks. We got to pull weight as field bosses. Even when we were doing the regular picking or hauling job, we weren't hassled as much as the other guys.
My greatest moment as a four year man was the day The Stinger told me to drive one of the loaded trucks to the barn.
"I just fired that candy ass rat bastard Dillon on the spot for insubordination, Nash," he said. "He's in my fucking pick up for the long shameful ride to The Yard. Take his truck to Shed 27 and tell Curly Jacobs he'll need a new fucking driver, god damn it."
The Captain grinned and gave me a salute as I climbed into the cab of the disgraced Dillon's truck. I got to drive the twenty year old Chevy heap out of the fields like I was a winning racer taking a victory lap. The guys coming out of their rows looked at me with awe as I drove by, baptized as a real man doing an adult job on Farm Field 96.
My excitement turned to nervousness once I was out on Farm Road. What if I had an accident? Went off the road? Hit some kid on a bicycle? Clipped a car in the other lane making a turn? I don't think I got the crate out of third gear as I rumbled down Farm Road barely doing 25 m.p.h.
Driver Shawn Courtney did a double take as he passed me going the other way with his empty truck and I grinned at him, trying to look like it was no big deal. I had made it to the big leagues, even if it was only for one trip.
I pulled the truck up to the barn door as if I was Ted Turner bringing home the winning ship for the America's Cup.
"What did Stosh do to me this time?" frowned Curly Jacobs when he saw me climbing out of the cab.
Curly assigned one of his lieutenants to take over as driver and made me stay in the barns to help out, but I didn't care – I had made my maiden voyage and I was an honorary driver, the ultimate pay off for any fourth year man.
The summer season began to wane and it was like being part of a baseball team that was 20 games out – I was playing out the string waiting for my Navy career to begin in October. It was getting harder to take some of the Field Farm 96 stuff seriously knowing I was about to step into a whole new reality, but I wanted to set a good example so I did what I was told without complaint.
The high school kids' season ended the Friday of Labor Day weekend. I said so long to Cap, thanking him for his guidance and tutelage during the past four years. I was staying on until I shipped out and my extra time on the farm allowed me to see how the rest of the process worked. Waldo Fairweather, Lucky LaMountain and Mutt Kramer hadn't figured out what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives yet and they also signed on for the extra tour.
With The Captain back in school and his bus back at the garage, I drove the others to The Yard in my beat up ten year old Chevy Impala that had a date with the junk yard once I headed for boot camp. We joined up with the migrant workers and some of the other older guys who continued on the farm. We helped take down the nets and watched as the remaining crop was mulched under by tractors.
We also worked in the barns which felt depressingly empty without the high school girls. By now, the hanging tobacco was dried and ready to be packed for shipment. The lats were removed from the rafters and the brown leaves were crinkly to the touch. We cut the lat strings and placed the leaves into coffin sized wooden boxes that were loaded onto pallets for shipment.
Farm Field 96 was strangely devoid of personality and excitement with the high school kids gone. It was a surreal existence and an anticlimactic boring routine. The Stinger was surprisingly mellow and unemotional, rarely expressing anger or rancor. He had little to say to us with the exception of the occasional insult or criticism.
"Nash, you hemorrhoid, you look like you're falling asleep. Sober up for Christ sakes."
But his heart wasn't in it and The Stinger reminded me of a drugged mountain lion, stripped of his battle senses.
The work was bland and uninteresting and I was marking time waiting for my ship out date to arrive. I realized that mentally and emotionally I was already gone from this place of my youth. I was looking ahead, anticipating what the Navy would bring for me.
I honored my Farm Field 96 commitment right up to the Friday before my Monday departure. I collected my pay check and said farewell to the guys. Mark Currier gave me a generous send off by adding my name to the "Wall of Fame" in The Yard's Barn: 'Eddie Nash, U.S. Navy' he scratched next to several famous 96 workers whose name had made the wall of honor.
I drove out of Farm Field 96's Yard for the final time and never looked back. The strip mall now sits where the office shack once stood.
My boot camp company commander Prindle was just as good looking as Captain Jimmy O'Hara, but he was a sadistic and egotistical psychotic who made The Stinger look like a butterfly. I wasn't quite as terrorized by the abusive mental case as some of my fellow recruits because I had been groomed by The Stinger's antics and didn't take Prindle's hysteria quite so seriously.
I spent a week mess cooking during boot camp and later, as a young apprentice at my first command, I was assigned to the First Lieutenant (Cleaning Detail) for three months, including a two week stint cleaning toilets in a huge hanger at Roosevelt Roads Puerto Rico Navy base, but I had been a four year man on Farm Field 96 and didn't find the work as degrading as some of my complaining shipmates.
"Sailor Talk" is a common polite phrase for the vulgar and obscene language navy men often use, but I doubt I heard anything during my Naval career that I hadn't already heard in the fields of Stosh's Farm Field 96.
I worked for some outstanding Naval officers during my 23 year career and I also worked for some real nut jobs that never should have been put in positions of leadership. Later, as a civilian, I worked for three or four different bosses with various levels of competence and character.
My Farm Field 96 bosses (The Stinger and Cap O'Hara) would compete well against some of the quality leaders I had later in life and that's a pretty good testament to the influence they had on me as a youngster. My best Navy leaders were men of integrity, discipline, credibility, character and trust and I'd say that The Stinger, Cap, Curley and J.D. also had those attributes.
Jesus H. Christ, god damn it to hell, you son of a bitch bastards. Thank you.