If my brother Jeff loved anything as much as he loved airplanes, which I doubt, it was tomatoes. He used to swipe them from the Burts when he went over to cut their grass, and he'd eat them right there, fresh off the vine. It's a good thing old man Burt didn't catch him, that's all I can say.
Jeff was on my mind as Dad and I worked in the garden on Saturday morning, that morning that should have been the beginning of a normal weekend. Our tomato plants were already a foot high, and it was only late April.
I tugged on the bill of my baseball cap and scanned the garden. "All clear," I said.
"Secret weapons!" said Dad.
We leaned over the plants, pulled something from our overall pockets and worked our way down the row.
"This is war!" I said.
Dad answered, "Fire away!"
I wrinkled my nose at the smell of the leaves, musty, like wet dust. The yellow blossoms smelled awful, too, but I didn't care. I was tasting the sweetness of the tomatoes to come and smelling the success of beating old man Burt again.
A movement caught my attention. I snatched the cap from my head and covered my hand with it. "Enemy approaching!" I said.
"Secure ammunition!" Dad said, shoving something into a pocket.
Behind us Tom Burt's voice bellowed. "How's that garden, Alan Marks?"
We shot up.
"Fine, Tom Burt." For some reason, the two men always called each other by their full names.
"Well, I hope you remember everything I taught you." The retired farmer was still shouting as he lumbered down a garden row, his huge frame casting a shadow over the tomatoes. Old Wolf, his German shepherd, tagged after him, tail wagging.
Burt reached down and pressed a stem between a fat thumb and finger. "You should pinch," he said to Dad. As usual, he said nothing to me. He pulled a piece off a tomato plant and dropped it to the ground.
"Hey!" I yelled. "What are you doing?"
Dad answered. "Pinching. You know. Removing some of the leaf and blossom clusters, see?" He pulled one off and held it out to me.
"But why?" I touched the cluster. It still seemed wrong to throw away parts of the plants we had worked so hard to raise.
"To get better tomatoes instead of just more plant." Dad nodded toward Burt. "He taught us that one year. Made a big difference."
"But I thought--" I began, then stopped. I had caught Dad's wink.
"I shouldn't have taught you so much, Alan Marks," Mr. Burt said as he stood up. "Darned if your tomatoes weren't almost as good as mine."
"Almost?" My outburst was rude, but Tom Burt scarcely knew I was there.
"Well, the women did the deciding," he said, not to me, but to Dad. "Women don't much understand farming."
I seethed but held my tongue. I knew Dad enjoyed going at it with the old man. My mother would say, "You two! The war is at the front. You aren't supposed to be fighting here at home."
"Who's fighting?" the men would say, and clap each other on the back.
As they bantered on, I scratched Old Wolf's neck. ". . . make a farmer out of that little gal yet," I heard Tom Burt say. Well, I guess he did know I was there. I pulled my cap over my face and stuck out my tongue. I hated being called "that little gal." I was going on twelve, and the last thing I'd ever be was a farmer. But I did like my time in the garden with Dad. I wanted to get back to it.
I moved my fingers inside my pocket, wishing the man would leave. He had taught us about tomatoes, true. Except for one thing. One secret we had learned not from Tom Burt but, in a way, from his wife, a woman as small and gentle as her husband was big and rough.
The men's voices droned on in quiet conversation, their teasing over for now.
"How's Mrs. Burt?"
"Fine. Heard from the boy?" The only time Tom Burt's tone softened was when he asked about my brother, Jeff, almost as though he missed him, too.
"Not in a while." Dad folded his arms and looked at the ground.
"We'll get this war over soon," Burt said.
It was a conversation I heard wherever I went with my father. When was "soon"? I wondered.
Tom Burt left, Old Wolf leaping out ahead of him, and we went back to our tomatoes. As our hands danced quietly among the leaves, I found myself counting the blossoms. Then the numbers became days. How many days do wars last? I wondered. How many gardens, how many more years before Jeff would be here again?
At last we reached the end of the row. I rolled up my cap and stuck it in my hip pocket as we walked up the back steps. Stillness had come over Dad. It was not about the tomatoes, I knew.
There had been no letter from Jeff in a long time.
The war had come as a surprise to some, but not to Jeff and my father. Long before our country got into it, the two of them had followed the overseas news. They leaned in toward the radio, elbows on knees, for the evening news with Lowell Thomas, then talked it over at supper. Both Nazi Germany and Japan had fired on U.S. ships at sea, trying to destroy the food we sent to England and China.
Our government had said that if Americans planted more home gardens, the crops from large farms could go to help our allies overseas. Mother hoped that would keep our boys out of the war--boys like Jeff and his friends. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had approved a peacetime military draft, and Jeff was almost old enough to go.
So we planted our first garden ever in the spring of 1941, months before Japan plunked us into the war we didn't want. Naturally old Tom Burt was standing over us, giving advice.
The tomatoes were Jeff's idea. He sowed the seeds, small as coarse grains of sand, in boxes made from scrap wood and set them under the workroom window. The sun shone through the limbs of the mulberry tree, leaving the glass cold but warming the seeds.
When the tomato seeds sprouted into plants, Jeff and Dad set them out in the garden. Jeff told the old man looking over their shoulders, "Just wait till these get ripe, Mr. Burt. They'll be even better than yours!"
That made old Burt snort. "We'll just see about that."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Victory Garden by Lee Kochenderfer. Copyright © 2002 by Lee Kochenderfer. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.